In an era when same-sex marriage is legal in 35 states and even corporate heads are coming out, Paula Brewer says bisexuals are still questioned by their own LGBT community.
"Even they can't wrap their heads around it," she says. "We make everybody uncomfortable."
Brewer, of Observatory Hill, is helping to run the new eBIcenter out of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center Downtown as a place for bisexuals to connect and to find resources that, she says, have too rarely been focused on the B in LGBT.
eBIcenter sounds like, and is meant to symbolize, an "epicenter" for local bi people. It holds meetings on the first Sunday of every month, working as both a peer support group and a social group, with about a dozen people in attendance. It's a place to trade stories and resources, Brewer says, but its full mission of promoting understanding and acceptance of bisexuals is still being formulated.
The effort has gotten a lot of support from GLCC head Lyndsey Sickler, Brewer says, but too often "within our own community we're supposed to shut up and stay in the background. There are certain people who literally don't believe bisexuality exists."
Some, including members of the LGBT community, view bisexuality as a behavior, not a sexual identity — a phase instead of a lifelong preference, or some sort of gateway to less commitment and a greater temptation to cheat in relationships. Brewer admits that "for some people it is a transition," an experiment that fails to stick.
Not for Brewer, now in her mid-40s. She grew up in rural Butler County and wasn't even exposed to the idea of bisexuality until college. But, "just like every other person," she says, when she was younger she knew her own feelings.
"Bisexuals tend to come out much later in life. It's a little more complicated. A lot of people accuse us of being confused, in a derogatory way: ‘Either pick heterosexual or homosexual. You're sitting on the fence.' Because, in our society, if you're attracted to the same sex at all, you're gay."
She's been married to a man for 17 years, but that changes nothing, she says. "People will argue with bi people: ‘Hey, if you're a woman and married to a man, you're a heterosexual.' If I had never had sex, I would still be a bisexual. I think I know who I am."
She's even experienced jealousy from gays and lesbians who say, Look, you've got acceptance by society. There's practically a fetish for bisexual women in porn.
"It appears on the surface to be positive," Brewer says. "It's not positive." It's just another form of sexual objectification — "very hostile, very negative.
"If we were accepted by the community, we wouldn't be killing ourselves at the rate we are."
Indeed, statistics show that bisexuals have a higher rate of suicide attempts than their LGBT peers or straights, and that they experience poorer health and tougher lives in other areas.
The Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think tank focused on gender identity issues, estimates that there are nine million LGBT people in the U.S.; slightly more than half say they are bisexual. But according to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), bisexuals are also six times more likely than others in the LGBT community to be closeted.
The Pew Charitable Trust's survey of LGBT Americans found that more than 70 percent of gay men and lesbians are out to most of their loved ones and closest friends, while fewer than 30 percent of bisexuals report the same thing, including just 12 percent of bisexual men. And nearly half of bisexuals say they don't feel free enough to be out at work, as compared to 24 percent of gays and lesbians.
This hidden status has apparently led to a disproportionate amount of stress, worse health and higher rates of poverty among bisexuals. MAP found that bisexuals are four times more likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexuals — twice the rate of lesbians and gays. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, still ongoing, has thus far found that more than half of bisexual women, as opposed to a third of lesbians and a quarter of straight women, have experienced some physical violence in relationships. The same proportions have experienced what the CDC classifies as "severe physical violence," while twice as many bisexual women (20 percent) as straight women have been raped by a partner. The incidence of stalking is also double for bisexual women compared to straight women. These incidents are more than twice as likely to be hate crimes, as classified by law enforcement, than such incidents against other LGBT people.
Bisexuals have higher rates of everything from hypertension, smoking and alcohol abuse to women's cancer. Studies in other countries have even turned up a higher incidence — four times greater — of post-traumatic stress disorder in bisexual women as are in straight women.
In 2010, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, which aims to prompt financial support for gender causes and research, charted the amount of grant money given to specific groups in the LGBT community since 1970. They found that, of the total of more than $487 million, $34 million went specifically to help gay men, $30 million targeted lesbian issues and nearly $17 million aided transgender or gender-nonconforming people — but just over $84,000 went to bisexuals, representing only 19 grants out of 21,794.
While gay men and lesbians are increasingly accepted in the mainstream, Paula Brewer's partner in founding the eBIcenter is still concerned enough to ask that only her first name, Carla, be used in the media.
"This is the first organization I have been involved with specifically for bisexuals, though I have been involved in the LGBT community for several years," Carla says. Not only is there prejudice in society against her sexual identity, she adds, but there is "bi-erasure and bi-denial."
"Bi-erasure occurs when someone who is bisexual is listed as either heterosexual or homosexual, usually based on the gender of their current partner, but it can happen in other situations as well. Bi-denial is the talk of bisexuality being just a phase or not being real." She hopes eBIcenter will "become a resource in the greater Pittsburgh community for bisexuals and a community organization where everyone feels welcome. I think it is important to create a space and events where discussion, education and acceptance can happen."
Ellyn Ruthstrom, president of the national Bisexual Resource Center in Boston, says curing "bi-invisibility" is crucial. "It's really important for bisexual people to find support groups and to find a sense of community. A lot of time people feel isolated in their own experiences."
"I thought I was straight until I was about 20," she says. "That's not that uncommon. Sexuality really is something that is not as cut and dry as most people like to think."
It is a spectrum, she adds, and can be fluid: "The feelings you have when you're 13 might not be the feelings you have when you're 30, 40, 50. The people you meet might affect how you feel."
In 2013, she was one of the organizers of the first White House roundtable on bisexual issues. Organizing a local group, such as Pittsburgh's eBIcenter, should involve the entire GLCC, she advises, and eBIcenter members should in turn be involved in running broader LGBT activities.
"Don't just let the bi community take care of itself," she says.
When David Hines of Ambridge was growing up in conservative Somerset County, he remembers hearing "how sick or evil it was" to be gay. When his family moved to Florida in his 10th- and 11th-grade years, he discovered his attraction to boys.
"But I was still very seriously turned on by girls," he says. Then his family moved back to the Pittsburgh area before he had a chance to explore his identity.
At 25, he had his first relationship with a man.
"This is it," he realized. "I am bisexual. I am very comfortable with that."
Still, he says, it wasn't until he attended an eBIcenter meeting that he realized others' experiences were less positive. "I didn't really know how much of a blind eye is turned toward a bisexual orientation, particularly in the gay and lesbian community. After that, I decided to stick around and hear other people's stories."
"I guess I have a bit of a mission" now, he says. "Allowing people to be who they are, love who they want to love ... I'm going to help. It's nice to know that there is a support for it. I don't want to see anyone not accepted for who they truly are."
Concludes Paula Brewer: "The gay and lesbian community for a long time said not coming out, staying in the closet, is the equivalent of death. We encourage anyone who can safely come out to come out. It's a healthier way to live. But you have to have community before you can come out in a safe way."