Verywell Loved: Enduring Stigma Keeps Things Complicated for Bisexual Men

drawing of a man pondering his bisexuality

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Verywell Loved is a series on the dating and relationship topics people are talking about, with personal stories and expert advice to help you better understand your own experiences. 

We’re constantly told, in almost every aspect of our lives, to put ourselves into boxes. Once we pick a lane or find a tribe, the solidity of our identity will supposedly make everything easier. Ambiguity begets complexity, and so we’re always striving to understand ourselves in relation to the approved blueprint of society. 

LGTBQ+ individuals have spent centuries as squares, constantly shoving themselves into round holes, and only in the past half-century or so have they been allowed to carve out square holes that align with their true selves. But the process of creating spaces that are comfortable for them is ongoing, and more difficult when your edges are less well-defined.

Bisexuality has always been deemed a bit of a unicorn in that not everyone believes that it’s real. Unicorns might not be, but bisexuals definitely are. There has been a shift in recent years toward collective acceptance of bisexuality as a true sexual orientation, instead of a transient phase of experimentation or a pit stop on the way to gay.

Queerness is a spectrum, and more and more people are becoming comfortable with letting go of the need to be either/or as we transition into an era of both/and. 

Unfortunately, as optimistic as popular progressive media narratives may be, the challenges for bisexuals persist in a quiet way that is often overlooked. And while there are endless layers to the hurdles both sexes face, the lasting stigma placed on bisexual men—the focus of this particular article—is under-investigated.

Bisexual Men Face Different Hurdles Than Women

Regardless of gender, bisexual individuals face stigma and erasure, but these challenges can manifest differently for men compared to women. When women come out as bi they are often dismissed and told it’s only a phase, or they immediately become fodder for the sexual fantasy of straight couples who want a threesome.

When men come out as bi, many people are quick to assume they are actually gay and just haven’t figured it out yet, and are somehow less masculine than they were before they shared the fact that they weren’t straight. It’s true that a ton of progress has been made—and acceptance is largely dependent on location—but sadly there’s still a sticking perception of bisexuals as indecisive, wishy-washy, and promiscuous.

And while women’s bisexuality is frequently dismissed or not taken seriously, there’s a reality that it’s much more accepted for a woman to come out as bisexual than it is for a man. This is largely due to the fact that women wanting to sleep with women—but also men!— doesn’t really impact social prescriptions of femininity (girl+girl+man=feminine). Whereas, for men, thanks to our highly insidious culture of toxic masculinity, sleeping with men greatly reduces their masculinity on the heteronormative scale (male+male+female=unmasculine).

“Heterosexual men seem to have a harder time accepting the gradients between hetero- and homosexual. It makes being taken seriously very difficult in all relations, friendly or potentially romantic or sexual. So you have to adapt and erase yourself as you go along so that you can navigate the world with more respect from others and have more likely chances of finding love,” says Nathan, 28.

Robin Hornstein, PhD

Bisexual men are dismissed as gay mostly due to the rigid ideas we have about sexual orientation. For a man to be able to be with cis or trans women or men, makes that cis man too unrecognizable and historically just a hidden gay man.

— Robin Hornstein, PhD

There is still so much doubt surrounding bisexuality in men that researchers felt the need to conduct a study as recently as 2020 to verify its existence.They concluded that men can indeed be attracted to both men and women based on a series of tests that involved assessments of arousal based on male and female genitalia—it’s shocking that science had to get involved to “prove” the existence of an identity that’s been around for thousands of years.

Even gay men are prone to doubt the validity of bisexual men’s identities. Yaro, 29, shared an instance in which he attended a queer gathering, and upon mentioning to a group of gay men that he was bisexual, they responded with “oh, so you’re gay” to which he replied “no…I’m definitely bi” and they proceeded to look at one another and chuckle with an air of dismissal he found startling. 

Dr. Robin Hornstein, PhD, explains that some of this erasure stems from the fact that for much of history, homosexual men had no other option but to be behaviorally "bisexual." That is, being in a traditional romantic relationship with a man was unheard of until recently, so most men who were sexually attracted to men still maintained heterosexual marriages with women.

"Bisexual men are dismissed as gay mostly due to the rigid ideas we have about sexual orientation. For a man to be able to be with cis or trans women or men, makes that cis man too unrecognizable and historically just a hidden gay man. If they are in a traditional relationship with a woman, the stories we hear are more that she is the cover for him being gay, not a partner who is aware and accepting of his bisexuality,” says Hornstein.

Why Bisexual Men Often Stay in the Closet

The process of finding your identity is a highly subjective and personal journey—one that tends to be even more complicated for bisexuals who often find themselves lingering in the wading pool of queerness.

Many people with even a slight attraction to their same-sex will readily choose to identify as bisexual, while others are left questioning if the two times they hooked up with a man makes them “bisexual enough." When these men finally do accept their bisexuality—regardless of where they fall on the spectrum—they are left grappling with whether or not coming out is worth it. 

“For a long time, the idea of being bi never really occurred to me, as I always looked at it more as exploring a curiosity. Whether it was fear of stigma, being perceived as gay, or fear of how potential women partners would respond, I’d never opened the door to the possibility of being bi even while my explorations were unambiguously not straight. And since I’ve always been heteroromantic and especially since I’ve been in a very long-term committed hetero relationship, I didn’t see the need to be out about past experiences or ever analyze those experiences too deeply,” says Sam, 37.

A 2018 study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior found that when men chose not to reveal that they were bi, it was usually due to fear of social repercussions rather than uncertainty about their sexual orientation.

The feelings these men reported included “anticipation of negative emotional reactions; anticipation of negative changes in relationships; belief that others held stigmatizing attitudes toward homosexuality; and prior experience with negative reactions to disclosure.”

When you’re gay, it can be incredibly difficult to come to terms with your sexuality, but because that is all that you are, there’s a certain pressure to eventually learn to embrace your identity and simply live your truth—how else could you survive?

But when you’re a bisexual man you don’t have to step out fully because you are still passably straight—you don’t necessarily need to sacrifice the heteronormative comforts of male straightness.

So, rather than risk an onslaught of judgment, it feels easier to stay in the closet or only tell a select few people that you do, in fact, also enjoy sex with men.

Nathan, 28

Heterosexual men seem to have a harder time accepting the gradients between hetero- and homosexual. It makes being taken seriously very difficult in all relations, friendly or potentially romantic or sexual.

— Nathan, 28

What’s more, for many bisexuals the level of attraction to men versus women isn’t an even split, which makes concerns around sharing their identity even more complex. “While I wish I lived in a world where I could easily say, ‘Hey, I love women, but I enjoy the physical company of some men, too,’ I realize that this position draws ire and suspicion from both heterosexuals and homosexuals," shares Nathan, 28.

And his pessimism is telling, "Ironically, it would end up limiting my potential partners to a near-zero as far as I can tell. Heterosexual (and bisexual!) women are disgusted by the idea almost universally, and all gay men just think you are in denial and resent you for it,” says Nathan.

Bisexual men have always existed, says Hornstein. "They often have hidden, even from spouses and friends, but they have always been. This coming out process is fraught, but it is healthy to live one's truth out loud and end up being truly known, instead of hiding behind standards that are not working for many people."

Heteronormativity and Toxic Masculinity

Despite it being 2022, the stories we're all told throughout our lives about what it is to be a man continue to prop up heteronormative narratives that don't reflect the true gradient of male experience.

We habitually assume all men are straight, and only assume they are gay if they are wildly flamboyant or present some element of gay caricature.

It rarely crosses our mind that a man could present as straight but also be sexually interested in men on some level. And when we learn of this it challenges our programming and we immediately assume something is amiss. This may not hold true in more outwardly progressive cities like New York or Los Angeles, but on a subconscious level there are many biases that remain.

Even some of the most socially liberal women will admit hesitancy to dating bisexual men due to the perceptions of homosexuality that are so harshly eroded into our cultural psyche. Thoughts like I know he says he is bisexual, but what if he is actually gay? are common, and judgment can leave men doubting themselves and their ability to be good partners. 

AJ, 32, shares, “I remember one time in college eating weed brownies with my fiancé at our house and getting super goofy and feeling amazing. I started talking about how when I got high I could admit that I was also attracted to men and how happy that made me feel to be able to live that with her.”

“I found out later that the idea of me being gay stressed her out so much that she immediately fell asleep. I tried to tell her it wasn’t just men and I still was attracted to her but apparently that wasn’t valid, so I just shut it away since I didn’t want to rock the boat or stress her out when she was pregnant. I think her mindset and reaction to me coming out to her really affected me because it amplified the idea that I couldn’t fulfill paternal duties while being bi.”

“Our society, in general, has very strong notions of people's lives and choices, especially sexually.  Men (cis and trans) are supposed to behave like 'men.' The words 'men' or 'man' imply certain behavioral, emotional, financial, sexual expectations, including some of the more toxic and fraught parts of 'manliness,'" says Hornstein.

Toxic masculinity shames men for being soft, vulnerable, and fluid. Men are traditionally supposed to be decisive and know exactly what they want—but bisexuality, by definition, runs counter to these prescriptions. Bisexual men are often living within uncomfortable grey areas.

What This Means For You

Having to conceal a core part of your identity can put someone through intense distress. If someone feels anxious, depressed, or even just uncomfortable because they cannot truly be themselves, there are long-term mental health risks involved.

No one should have to live with negative self-image or self-hatred because of a sexual orientation that doesn't fit the preconceptions of others.

Bisexuality and Mental Health

Everyone wants to fit in, and when we suddenly find ourselves on the outskirts of what society has deemed acceptable—whether that's being straight or gay—it causes a stress response and deep fear of abandonment or potential isolation.

More research is needed, but studies so far suggest that ongoing concealment of sexual identity can have a negative impact on mental health. A 2017 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sex Research learned that bisexuals on the whole had a higher likelihood of developing depression and anxiety than both heterosexuals and homosexuals.

The results were broadly attributed to “sexual orientation-based discrimination, bisexual invisibility/erasure, and lack of bisexual-affirmative support.” Bisexual men have historically witnessed the judgment and dismissal faced by those who share their identity, and it has compounded to a level of repression that is tough to manage independently.

Sam, 37

Does it hurt to keep this part of me hidden? Of course, but at least this way it only hurts me and not the person I love. In retrospect, I certainly wish I had been comfortable enough to be open from the beginning.

— Sam, 37

“Does it hurt to keep this part of me hidden? Of course, but at least this way it only hurts me and not the person I love. In retrospect, I certainly wish I had been comfortable enough to be open from the beginning. Because after years of being together, it feels like a bait and switch to drop this bombshell about myself. It's too easy for me to imagine that coming out would be misunderstood,” says Sam, 37.

Another study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, and the first of its kind, focused specifically on the mental toll staying in the closet has on bisexual men. Researchers learned that men who identified as “on the down low” or who engaged in sexual activity with men while leading mostly heterosexual lives were at higher risk for mental illness, but this was largely attributed to internalized feelings of homophobia.

Researchers believe that these men don’t necessarily need to reveal their identities to their wives or girlfriends to be mentally healthy, but they do require some level of mental health support to process the anxiety and anticipation of shame.

When it comes to finding the right type of professional mental health support, consider a therapist who is well versed in the types of challenges LGBTQ+ individuals face. This is not an emotional journey anyone should have to make entirely on their own.

Tips for Coming Out (If It Feels Right) 

The decision to reveal one’s sexual orientation has to be done on your own terms, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. As previously mentioned, coming out isn’t mandatory to mental health, but it can certainly ease the burden inherent in keeping a major part of your identity a secret.

If you’ve reached a point where you feel ready to share your bisexuality with a loved one, here are some tips from a licensed mental health practitioner.

Take Your Time and Be Emotionally Prepared

There’s no rush when it comes to coming out, and it’s okay to do it in phases. Dr. Hornstein explains that "sexuality is both internally felt and known and then expressed to others in action and words," so if you are coming to terms with who you are attracted to, it's okay to take your time. “Ask to be listened to, not to be told you are probably gay or probably straight" depending on who you're in a relationship with, says Hornstein.

Join online groups or communities with like-minded people where it’s safe to open up about your feelings. You could even practice coming out to your family and friends with a trusted therapist who can help you navigate potential reaction scenarios.

“Give yourself time to live in the feelings and to examine what you were raised as gospel about sex in your family and school or religious organization. You need to do nothing until you are ready and you need support to try out your thoughts and begin to explore your sexuality,” says Hornstein.

And when you do feel ready, it's important to be prepared for possible fallout. Talk to your therapist about navigating people's pushback, and strategize on how to stay calm in the face of potential conflict.

Reach out to your support systems, perhaps the people you confided in online or friends you were comfortable opening up to sooner. Write out a script to help organize your thoughts for when a conversation becomes too stressful.

Take the process slow and start by coming out to just one person, rather than telling a ton of people at once. These are just suggestions, at the end of the day only you know what's right for you.

Coming Out to a Partner

For a lot of people, this is the trickiest part, whether or not you have always known you are bisexual, says Hornstein. "Like any relationship change, revealing your truth can deepen your relationship or hurt it, as it is a breaking of the contract you set earlier in the relationship," she says.

Hornstein adds that a strong friendship is key, as your partner may already have suspicions or even their own truth they have been afraid to tell you.

"Sure, we can picture how this can go wrong, but hold faith that your relationship can withstand a new idea of who you are," Hornstein says. While she acknowledges that is scary, she suggests being honest and also "being very clear at what you think it means to the relationship on a day-to-day basis. Your partner will be scared, so let them know how you hope it plays out—that can be a comfort, even if it is not their dream of who you both would be.”

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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