Talking about bisexuality
Dr. Kathleen Clark recently sat down with college professor and identiversity colleague Tom Duffin, PhD, to talk about bisexuality. It was a lively conversation, with Dr. Duffin having a lot to offer! In addition to identifying as bisexual, Dr. Duffin has done scholarly research on the topic, and his experience as a college professor gives him insight into what’s happening among young people today in relation to gender and sexuality. Dr. Duffin currently teaches in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife of over 30 years, and they have 2 grown children.
Kathleen: Tom, thanks so much for talking with me. If it’s ok, I’d like to start with a question about your own identity. As a married person in a monogamous relationship, why is it important for you to identify as bisexual?
Tom: It’s about being authentic and not hiding who I am. I don’t want to be perceived as a straight person when I’m not. But it’s also about my commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. I’m a member of the LGBTQ+ community and being open about my identity is a way for me to help show my support and make my community fully visible.
When I was younger, I sometimes worried about how people would respond when I shared my identity; I essentially needed affirmation. But over the years I’ve gotten much more confident and matter of fact. One time recently I shared my bi identity with someone, and they said, “That’s ok, Tom, we love you anyway.” And I bristled—maybe not openly but inside—because I hadn’t told them anything bad about myself. I didn’t need to be told that it was ok.
It’s a challenge for me and a lot of bisexual people, though. I walk my dog a lot, often with my wife. I’m sure a lot of our neighbors just presume I’m heterosexual. It’s not like I’m going to wear a t-shirt every day that says, “I’m bisexual, by the way.” But maybe I should! And this kind of thing happens to bisexual people all the time. Because binary thinking is so strong, people assume that you’re gay or straight, based on the person you’re with at the time.
Kathleen: I’ve heard that phenomenon described as bisexual invisibility or erasure—the ways that society essentially erases the existence of bisexual people by insisting that everyone fits neatly into two little boxes—gay or straight.
Tom: That’s right. And it’s as strong a tendency in the LGBTQ+ community as anywhere else. There have been many times in my life where I’ve been in conversation with someone in the community, and they’ve said, “Oh, I don’t believe that people are bi.” I suspect they think you’re saying your bisexual because you’re afraid to come out as gay and trying to find some middle ground. And we all grew up in the same culture where the belief in the binary is incredibly pervasive—everyone’s in one box or the other, gay or straight. So, it’s not surprising that this kind of thinking affects people in the LGBTQ+ community as well. But there’s so much research and data going way back that show that bisexuality is real. So, I just say, “Believe it!”
Kathleen: What is the impact of bisexual erasure on you and other bisexual persons?
Tom: I remember an infamous New York Times headline from years ago. The headline was “Gay, Straight, or Lying?” That kind of says it all, and it’s really stuck in my mind all these years. Because the New York Times was basically saying that if you try to say you aren’t gay or straight, well, then, you’re just lying.
And even when the message isn’t that directly insulting, there can just be a lot of questions about who you are and that can get tiring. I know a lot of people who are privately bisexual. Maybe they’re a woman and they’re in a monogamous relationship with another woman, so they just go along as lesbian because it’s easier than having to have a 45-minute conversation just to explain their identity. In other words, bisexual identity opens up questions about your sex life; people may incorrectly assume that because I identify as bi, I am in an open relationship or something.
For my dissertation, I interviewed men who identify as straight but have sex with men “on the down low.” According to the article in the New York Times, they’re dishonest. But nothing could be further from the truth. These were men who felt like society basically gave them two choices—gay or straight—neither of which was a good fit. When I interviewed them, it felt like I had never encountered a more honest group of people--they jumped at the chance to communicate a more nuanced understanding of themselves. But they felt like society didn’t really give them the space to do that. So, they went with the less stigmatized choice between two options, or the choice that felt like the least bad fit.
Kathleen: Young people seem to be driving a lot of change as far as challenging old assumptions about gender and sexuality. What have you learned from the students you interact with in your classes? Do you see the binary beginning to lose some of its power?
Absolutely. I love having so many students who are nonbinary or who see gender and sexual identity as a spectrum. It really encourages me that the old binaries aren’t holding up the way they used to. And the speed of change frankly blows my mind, especially in relation to gender identity and expression. It’s helping to move things in ways that are going to benefit everyone, I think.
I especially remember the first time a student told me they identified as pansexual. I’ll admit that at the time, I felt a bit skeptical—Pansexual? What’s that? But then I learned that the definition of pansexual—it describes someone who is attracted to persons of all gender identities and expression—really fits me very well! And that’s just funny to think about—that maybe I did a little eye roll on the inside when I first heard the term, and then it turned out that it fits me very well.
So, I think that what’s happening is that our language is evolving, and more space is being created for people to understand and express themselves as they feel they really are, and that’s just so encouraging. And young people are definitely leading the way on that.
Kathleen: You say that the term pansexual fits you very well, but you prefer to identify as bisexual. Can you explain a bit about that?
So, the term pansexual is gaining more recognition among young people, but it really doesn’t have a lot of currency in society at large. Certainly not for my generation or circles I’m in. That’s why I continue to use the term bisexual to describe myself because that’s challenging enough. I only have so much energy to explain my identity, and I’d be having lengthy conversations about it every day if I used the term pansexual!
Kathleen: Speaking of conversations, thanks so much for talking with me today. It sounds like you get a lot of inspiration from your students. Do they give you hope for a more inclusive future?
Tom: You know, it’s important to celebrate how far we’ve come, and the changes I see in my student’s generation are exciting. It’s true that things have gotten better—I have two sons who are gay, and they don’t face the same challenges as my generation. But we still have a way to go. We know about the disparities in terms of things like depression, drug dependency and suicide risk. Those disparities are tied to stigma and discrimination that are still experienced by folks in the LGBTQ+ community, including persons who are bisexual or pansexual. So, it’s important not to be complacent. We must keep working to make things better.