Clive Davis, the music industry legend known for discovering Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys, recently announced (at 80) that he is bisexual, sparking conversations in many circles about the legitimacy of bisexuality among men. Even as we see an increase in the acceptance of people who identify themselves in terms that don’t include “heterosexual” in entertainment and politics, this tolerance isn’t afforded to everyone. There’s still a huge negative stigma about bisexual men, particularly within the African-American community after the “down low” hysteria of the late 1990s. From HIV transmission fears to religious ostracizing to outright social rejection, Black bisexual men face unique challenges in affirming themselves.
In 2011, the New York Times reported on a study conducted by Northwestern University revisiting the sexual arousal patterns of bisexual men. Previous studies, found to have been flawed in how they were conducted, suggested that men only identified as bisexuals because of social norms and fear of identifying simply as homosexuals. The Northwestern study is the second to show that some men do, in fact, exhibit symptoms of physical arousal towards both men and women.
The Times article pointed out that “bisexual men may have varying levels of sexual, romantic and emotional attraction to partners of either sex.” It’s important to note that one’s sexual orientation doesn’t always dictate one’s sexual identity, preferences or behaviors. Sexuality is fluid, as noted in the famous Kinsey Studies of Human Sexuality, published in 1948 and 1953, and each person’s experiences related to his or her sexuality falls along a spectrum.
Discussions of sexuality, especially in Black communities, are nuanced and require further examination into what influences our acceptance of self, and the hows and whys of our disclosure choices. Our connection to religion, for example, heavily influences our ideas and behaviors related to our sexuality. Black men especially can find themselves struggling with reconciling notions of “masculinity” in a society that’s emasculated them for centuries.
When same sex attraction is often equated with weakness among Black men, it can prove difficult for a man to even acknowledge his desires, much less openly express and act upon them. For more insight and perspective, I spoke with three Black men who identify as bisexual.
When it comes to the outright denial of bisexuality in men, D.J.* doesn’t think people understand sexuality as a whole, and that most limit themselves to societal norms, choosing not to even try to understand sexuality beyond that with which they’re comfortable. Robert agrees, admitting discouragement when people would say that bisexual men didn't exist; he knew he was one. It wasn’t until he became comfortable with his attractions did he find strength to ignore the dismissals of who he was. Alex says he used to get defensive, but like D.J., realized that people simply lack the knowledge about sexuality to accept him as a bisexual man.
Dating proves interesting, to say the least. All three men say they prefer romance with women, but find that gay men are generally more accepting of their bisexuality. D.J. says that his attraction is 50/50, but simply finds it easier to date men because most women make it clear they would never date a bisexual man, that they don’t trust them and believe them to be promiscuous. Robert echoes the preference for women, but that it’s easier to date men because there’s more understanding among gay/bisexual men about the fluidity of attraction. D.J. says that there isn’t much difference in the dating, outside of the “how we met” aspect, though dating long-term has proven to be difficult.
Both D.J. and Alex felt it’s important that they feel comfortable telling partners about their bisexuality, but that takes time. Sometimes, women reveal their disdain about bisexual men early on, usually citing experiences about men lying about their sexuality. Gay men, D.J. says, tend to be more up front early on, though some express reservations about dating men who also date women.
Reconciling one’s bisexuality hasn’t always been easy, but each of the men stress the importance of accepting oneself first before worrying about how they’re embraced socially, religiously, or even professionally. D.J. is not “out,” in the sense that he doesn’t feel the need to wear his sexuality on his sleeve.
“Yes, I’m aware that my sexuality is part of who I am,” he says, “but I don’t want to be framed by it. I want people to know me as the guy who is a great friend, is there when needed, and who will lift you up at all times. Not as the guy who is all those things despite being bisexual. Professionally, it never comes up. My personal life, while not necessarily off limits at work, isn’t a factor there.”
“I realized my sexuality and color don’t define me as a man, father, and son,” Robert says. “I’m not ashamed of my sexuality and I don’t hide anything. I just don’t openly tell everyone unless asked.”
Alex lives in San Francisco, and admits that the environment is more accepting of people of all sexual orientations. “I’ll never get accustomed to people telling me that I’m lying to myself or that they just cannot believe that I’m bisexual,” he says, “but I’ve accepted that it’s for them to deal with, not me.”
Perhaps as we begin to see more progress in civil rights for the LGBT community, especially related to same sex marriage, we’ll see an increase in understanding and acceptance of bisexuality among men. Last year, President Barack Obama became the first president to openly support same sex marriage rights. It sparked controversy, but also started more conversations (especially within Black communities) about sexuality and acceptance. We’re not quite there yet, but while we might not agree with the ways in which others live their lives, we should respect their rights to be happy.
*All names changed.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.