How to Be Seen

There’s a Monty Python sketch that I remember watching with my grandfather when I was a child. It’s called “How Not to be Seen,” and in typical Python fashion it presents a ridiculous lesson in how to hide. The cost of failure is high. People who are accidentally seen, or who hide behind the obvious object, are blown up. 
For reasons that aren’t funny at all, this sketch came to mind recently when I read some data recently on suicidality among bisexual young people. The data came from a report by The Trevor Project and indicated that bisexual youth have higher rates of suicide and suicidal thoughts than do their lesbian, gay, or straight peers. Why is this? Bisexual youth are bullied more, assaulted more, and forced into sex at higher rates than their lesbian, gay, or straight peers.

Data are from The Trevor Project’s analysis of 2015–2017 Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey 

And then there are the conflicting pressures of stigma and invisibility.

Take the stigma still associated in many communities with being queer. Add to that the suspicion that gay and lesbian people sometimes have of bisexuals. Stir in the invisibility that bisexual people who are single or in straight-appearing relationships often experience. You get an anxiety-provoking, cortisol-elevating, and depressing combination of stigmatization and erasure. 

I* live in a progressive part of the United States so I experience less of the stigma but a great deal of the erasure. At 48 years old I can handle it. It was harder when I was younger. I remember a departmental curriculum committee meeting when I was in my early 30s. I had recently created a course called Sociology of Gender and someone in the meeting made a joke that only straight people should be able to teach it, thinking that they were protecting me from encroachment by queer faculty outside the department. I blurted out, “But then I couldn’t teach it,” and there followed a very awkward moment of silence before the meeting resumed. After all, I’d worked with these people for more than five years (all of which I was in a relationship with a man). How could they forget that I claimed a queer identity? I talked with the faculty member who made the joke after the meeting, and I remember shaking as I did it. He was a kind, thoughtful, compassionate person whose company in the department I really enjoyed, and I was still nervous about confronting him. And I was a woman in my 30s, with a tenured assistant professorship. How much harder for a teenager.

Around that same time there was major mainstream media coverage of a study that claimed that bisexuality in men didn’t exist. Never mind all those bisexual men who exist. They were dismissed as gay men in denial. The research was deeply flawed, you can imagine. (Six years later the same researchers published new work that conceded that at least some men were bisexual.)

Being out is an ongoing project, and it can be a stressful one. It’s no surprise that some young people adopt “visibly queer” appearances so that they don’t have to feel so invisible. But doing so is like choosing the middle bush in the Monty Python sketch: it makes you a target. So it’s not surprising that many others, despite being out to their friends and family, end up feeling invisible so much of the time. 

It may seem strange to many older folks that young people in this age of constant sharing through social media could feel invisible, but take a moment and remember how hard it might be to have to actively assert your identity every single day in order to be seen, while knowing that when you do you risk harassment, shunning, or violence at the hands of people you imagine should be allies. 

We need to do much better for young people in general, for queer youth specifically, and even more particularly for bisexual youth. We can start by not making assumptions of heterosexuality when we talk to young people. Don’t ask about boyfriends or girlfriends. Ask about interests or partners. Don’t assume consistency either. If a young person you know had a girlfriend before, don’t assume that their current or future partners will necessarily be female. And we can honor people’s spoken identities from day to day and year to year. 

If we reduce the stigma associated with queerness, we will make a more just world for all young people. If we see each one as they are and honor their identities and experiences, we will make them all safer. Everybody benefits when we look after the most vulnerable among us.

DO YOU NEED HELP? Are you a young person who is feeling suicidal or hopeless? You can get help right at your computer. The Trevor Project is there for you.


*I more frequently use the term pansexual or queer than bisexual to describe my sexuality because I don’t like to reaffirm the binary gender ideology that characterizes U.S. culture, and I am attracted to people who don’t identify with binary gender categories, just as I am attracted to cisgender men and women. But for the purpose of this post, where the focus is on bisexual youth in a system that is organized around the LGBT alphabet, Bs are my folks.

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