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I Was A Teenage Bisexual: An open letter to Dan Savage.

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Hello Dan,

Hey, how’s it going? I’m a big fan of yours. Love the Lovecast. Love It Gets Better. I think what you do is pretty awesome. Which is why I’m very, very disappointed to have to do this.

Catching up on my podcasts this morning, I listened to Episode 257 of Savage Love, where you were asked by a listener to discuss recent research showing that bi men do, in fact, exist.

Your response in a nutshell was to spend several minutes ranting about how the discrepancies between research methods (in particular participant recruitment) between this study and Bailey’s 2005 study show that you were right to be skeptical of the identities of teenage bis, or bis without sufficiently gender-balanced relationship histories. And to talk about that scepticism. A lot. And how we should all be sceptical.

Dan, I need to explain how you are wrong.

I don’t want to say that you are wrong about some people changing their identification, or about some people being unsure of how to label themselves. Those are real things, and it’s important to acknowledge them. What I want to talk about is the difference between what is appropriate for researchers and appropriate for activists. I want to talk about how your own perspective prevents you from showing the same empathy for bi kids as you do other LGT kids.

Let’s talk about the difference between study design and outreach.

In the study you quoted, the researchers weren’t looking into the diversity of bi experiences, or differing narratives of sexuality, or how behaviour and inclination interact in different cultural circumstances. They simply wanted to see if there was such a thing as a genuinely bi man. It didn’t matter at all if they eliminated some genuinely bi men from the study. What mattered was that the guys they included were bi, so they set the bar extremely high. That’s fine. Good use of limited time and resources.

What makes good study design does not always make good outreach.

In research, our aim is to answer a particular question. In outreach our aim is to, well, reach out to people and make their lives better. It doesn’t matter a jot if half the people we’re talking to don’t turn out to be in our target group(s). If I talk to a bunch of, say, twenty people who identify as bi, and ten (or twelve, or fifteen) of them aren’t ‘really’ bi? It doesn’t matter. The others will have heard me.

Here’s the thing. When you talks about young bi people, one of the first things you say is that you don’t believe they’ll still be bi in ten years time. You identified as bi yourself, you see, and you’re gay now. And you’ve met tons of people with the same story. So you’re hesitant to take bi-identified people at their word until they’ve had a good long time to prove themselves.

The people you forget about here? Are the bi people. The real, honest-to-goodness bi kids who are, as much as everyone else, looking for some affirmation. In this case, of their very existence. Taking the perspective of the gay kid who uses bi identity as a safer place to explore their queerness erases that of the bi kid who, along with all the homophobia they have to deal with, has to contend with the assumption that they couldn’t be what they say they are.

Bi kids need our support as much as gay kids do. Bi kids need to know that we acknowledge them, that we affirm their identities and experiences, as much as gay kids do. Bi kids are as vulnerable as gay kids are. They are at risk in the same way that gay kids are. By denying them the safety of acceptance in a queer community, we only increase their isolation.

I was a teenage bisexual. Of my friends who identified as bi back then, some are gay. Some are straight. Some are bi. The same goes for my friends who identified as straight then, and even those who described themselves as gay.

I was a teenage bisexual who was lucky that the support I needed was there. Dan, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this? Please understand that your own ego and your own ideas about teenage bisexuals are getting in the way of being a support to the bi kids out there. The ones who need us to stand up for them, and speak out for them, and promise that our community will be there for them. Dan, if you won’t listen to me, then listen to this:

“Bi orientation is associated with worse mental health than heterosexual orientation… with the homosexual group falling between the two” (Korlen et al, 2002)

The emphasis is mine. Dan, I’ve heard with my own ears how heartbroken and angry-as-hell you are at what is done to gay kids every day. I need you to understand that whatever your own opinions, we need voices like you to support bi kids as much as their gay and lesbian peers. Bi kids need to hear that they exist. They need to hear that they are not alone.

I was a teenage bisexual, and now I’m a bi adult. I don’t mind if some of the people growing up with me identified as bi for a while. If my identity was a safe haven for them as they figured themselves out? I’m happy it was there for them. I’m happy they could stay here a while.

Dan, as activists and people who reach out to kids, our purpose isn’t to prove ourselves right. Our purpose isn’t rigorous study design and eliminating false positives. Our purpose is to be heard by the people who need to hear us. It’s to let them know that they’re not alone, and that there are others like them out there.

When one of the major difficulties a group faces is doubt over their very existence, then we need to stand up for that existence. We need to tell bi kids that their experiences are real. And when sometimes, a few years down the line, it turns out that we weren’t always right? We need to swallow our damn pride and do it all over again.

I hope you can listen to this.