Bisexual Identity Development, or, You’re Out Of Your Box

There are many identity development models for gay and lesbian people out there, and the Cass Identity Development Model is one of the most familiar – for example, the Cass Model is the only one I have ever run across in a classroom. For bisexual (and trans*) people, the Cass Model just doesn’t quite fit. (If you need a refresher on Cass, go here and get the full text, and if you just want some Mama Cass, go here and here. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to get back. If you’ve only encountered Cass in summary form, I strongly encourage you to go read the original, though.)

Everyone back? Good, I had just enough time for a Hot Pocket.

According to the original Cass Model, the first stage is confusion and hiding. So far, so good. That’s where, in a heteronormative society, we all start – noticing that we may be different, wondering what it means, and hiding it, often from ourselves as well as others.

The second stage is comparison. According to Cass, the strategies here include passing – being in the closet. Here’s a fundamental truth about the queer experience, something that I would say is a universal truth, at least in the societies we live in; we all start off in the closet. Because of the normative assumption that everyone is straight until proven otherwise, every person who identifies as queer has to at some time declare it in some way.

The part that raised my hackles, though, was when she goes on to describe and dismiss bisexuality as merely a transitional strategy, and not as a social one, but as a fancy way of lying to yourself.

This is what’s being taught in University courses on queer. This is the model that people studying homophobia and heterosexism, students of psychology and social justice, are being given as possibly their only academic resource. No wonder the stereotype of the confused and self-deceiving actually-gay-but-pretending-to-be-bi is so robust. No wonder therapists (straight and gay) and Allies like the well-meaning parents who told their queer son to “pick one” screw up bi-identified people so often!

In the third stage of this model, identity tolerance, you start to accept who you are. One of the keys to this, according to Cass, is “[seeking] out homosexuals and the homosexual subculture.” Obviously if you reach out to queer culture and get told negative and biphobic things, you’re either going to crawl back in the closet due to lack of support or just throw your hands in the air and repudiate all labels or, if you’re like me, get furious. And Loud.

(A note: throwing away all labels makes community support more difficult, rather than less. It’s like saying we live in a post-racial society so we just should all call ourselves humans. It doesn’t work there, and it doesn’t work here, because you’re not just excluding yourself, you are excluding everyone who is trying to find you so they can see they are not alone. People are not going to quit labeling you because you choose to eschew labels – you’re just giving up control of how you identify.)

Stage 4, acceptance, is characterized by increasing contact with the community and stage 5, Pride, is in large part rejection of heterosexuality. “P not only accepts a homosexual identity but prefers it to a heterosexual one.” Now this is all well and good for people who are monosexual. But according to this model, if you are bisexual, you are only moving to the next stage if you reject… part of yourself. What a bind to be put in. And again, this is what’s being taught. This is the model that bisexuals are being measured against.

This is why Pride festivals have one booth for bis off in a back corner – not even next to the porta-potties, because then people would have to walk by us, but out in the hinterlands. This is why people use “gay and lesbian” as a term for LGBT – because our acknowledging and embracing our “heterosexual” attractions as well as our same-gender feelings must be rejected in the very name of Pride.

Stage 6 is synthesis, where identity becomes less of a prime issue and just part of who you are. Community support, again, is essential to this stage.

This is not a satisfying model. Not only does it erase and devalue bisexuality in the individual (as well as trans*folk who identify as heterosexual – wait, what? People who are transcending or transitioning their gender can identify as straight? You bet your boots they can, and some do, which is another reason that rhetoric about “not seeing gender” can be invalidating for someone who is fighting an endless everyday battle to be seen as the gender they actually are rather than that assigned at birth) but it also leads to a community perception of bisexuality as The Hated Other. It entrenches biphobia in the name of self-acceptance, and in academia and everything that comes out of academia – professional training, research, you name it.

I am obviously not the first or only person to notice this – I linked to a look at it a few articles back, and Tom Brown discussed it at length in his 2002 article on bisexual identity development.

Brown looks at Weinberg’s no-order idea of “Suspect, Engage, Label”, which is a great jumping-off point. You Suspect you’re different, you Engage yourself and the outside world and the queer community, you Label as a way of finding others and affirming your identity, and you don’t necessarily do it in any particular fashion. Brown also looks at Weinberg’s 4-stage model, which ends with “Continued Uncertainty”, and highlights in particular the importance of community.

From the article, emphasis mine:

Insufficient social validation, including a lack of bisexual role models and communities, was hypothesized to contribute to this Continued Uncertainty. For others, this confusion may have resulted from the need to change to a lesbian or gay self-label in order to be accepted in homosexual communities. For women, a lack of social support for bisexuality may carry over into some feminist communities or negatively impact their feminist identity. [...] Members of both sexes cited being in a monogamous relationship as contributing to their Continued Uncertainty.”

The only interpretation of this that makes any sense to me is that this stage of Continued Uncertainty is something imposed, something external, that may become internalized. Biphobia from without becomes biphobia within. Brown also notes that Weinberg et al. question the ability of bisexuals to have robust identity development specifically due to “the dearth of bisexual resources outside of San Francisco” (to which I add, 14 years after this research, places like Boston, NY, MPLS… large urban centers that have things like the BRC and NYABN and BOP).

The urbanization of gay that started rolling after WW2, while it has benefited us as queers, has not really happened for or specifically benefited bisexuals in a comparable way. And no wonder! What’s the point of migrating to a “gay city” if you are going to face the same stereotyping and rejection that you can get just as easily in Podunk? Why not just keep your head down and install new drapes in your closet?

If the rejection of bisexuality by large elements in the GL community makes us look smaller by keeping us in the closet (and here I mean both the straight closet that we all start in and the gay closet where we give up and just identify as Anything But Bisexual), then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Where’s the community to come out to? Nowhere. So I won’t come out, then, I can manage my feelings of threat better by remaining isolated.” Then along comes the next person, who can’t find the bi community either…

Brown makes a big deal, quite rightly, about the need for community support. Over and over, studies are showing that mental health, personality integration, and overall happiness are strongly related to belonging to a community. Aristotle and Plato knew it 2000 years ago, we know it today – even the lone wolves have to have a community to support them. Brown’s model explicitly states that “A person in a nonsupportive community may have difficulty maintaining [hir] identity.”

Brown’s Model of Bisexual Identity Development is four stages (because let’s face it, as humans, we looove to frame development as stages) that mirror the first three of Weinberg’s and then expand on stability. Stage one is Confusion, because we all start there – it’s just that we don’t stay there. Stage two is Finding and Applying the Label. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons I am so concerned about label issues. It’s not Oppression Olympics, it’s not a peculiar fascination with semantics and terminology, it is an important piece in how we fully become who we are, and it frankly perturbs me to see mislabeling applied from monosexuals and non-monosexuals alike.) Stage three is Settling Into the Identity.

Quoting Brown again – “…it is important for the bisexual person to have a supportive social network or significant other available.” (This would be a good time for a shout-out to BiNet USA http://www.binetusa.org/ and the BRC http://www.biresource.net/bisexualgroups.shtml and the UK Bisexual Index http://www.bisexualindex.org.uk/index.php/BiInTheUK)

Brown calls the fourth stage Identity Maintenance. This is where we live in the community and become the resource for those who are seeking others like themselves – like ourselves.

One of the things the Identity Development Models all have in common is the need for community support. In the early days, there wasn’t any, and I salute the brave pioneers who bootstrapped themselves against all opposition, who provided support for the next wave and who the great activist organizations sprang from – even when they conflicted with the establishment, groups like ACTUP were grounded in and empowered by the organizations that saw support and sociality as their key missions rather than getting in people’s faces, and I do not want to see the horrible circumstances that made ACTUP a necessity repeated.

There are differences between the bootstrappers and the situation today, but there are similarities as well. We are all bootstrappers in a sense, lifting ourselves out of isolation, but it makes a difference when you get pushback from members of the queer community, like the person on HuffPo who recently called me a “pearl-clutcher” because I pointed out ze was not being supportive in a comment on an article about lack of support – I was metaphorically being told to shut up, sit down, and get back in the closet because obviously Trans*folk have more problems than I do.

Of course, that part didn’t come up until after we were told that gay people have worse problems than bi people because we don’t have to deal with homophobia – a particularly nasty bit of biphobia, because straight people that bully kids unto death or leave them to die after a beating don’t ask for labels, they just scream “kill the faggot”. People who bully, beat, and kill trans*folk don’t ask them to parse their exact sexuality and gender identity, they just Hate with a capitol H, and I am certain that there were trans*folk reading that comment who shook their heads and said, “Way to alienate the part of the queer community that stood up for us when the Lesbian and Gay Gender Police told us we didn’t belong in their cisgendered queer spaces.”

We have to support each other. One way to do this is to develop, use, and teach models of queer identity development that don’t leave out half the people Under The Rainbow.

About fliponymous

Bisexual activist, thinker, writer, husband and father, non-traditional Graduate student, member BiNet USA Board of Directors. When I grow up I want to be an Existential/Feminist Psychotherapist, a community college instructor, and expand my work for bisexual visibility and equality for everyone in the QUILTBAG. This is my personal blog and the views here do not represent the official position of BiNet USA.
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14 Responses to Bisexual Identity Development, or, You’re Out Of Your Box

  1. Estraven says:

    The best discussion of how the Cass Model has failed queers of color is found in a commentary on the wonderful comic book “Love and Rockets” by Los Bros Hernandez:

    http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v3_1/saxey/index.shtml?print

    “They argue, following Foucault’s influential analysis (in The History of Sexuality: Volume I), that sexual identity labels are not essential or cross-cultural. Rather, they are socially constructed and deeply embedded in specific cultures. Thus rather than simply representing a pre-existing sexual identity group, identity politics actually assists in the construction of that identity. Gay and lesbian identity politics have contributed to what is included in, and excluded from, gay and lesbian identity. Particularly problematic is the fact that such exclusions will often follow standard lines of race, class and ethnic privilege in the “parent” culture.

    26Women of colour who experience same-sex sexual desire have repeatedly described the implicit bias of identity politics and its narratives. Ami R. Mattison in “I Am A Story” states that, far from expressing the subtleties of her identities, the coming out story imposes a normative rubric which compromises her ability to describe her own experience. Editor Sharon Lim-Hing also describes the over-simplification that can arise from women of colour attempting to describe their experiences for white women in the formula established by coming out stories. Jolly, considering queer autobiographies from the US and China, has noted the “interesting convergence between western queer and non-western sexual dissidence. The former, jaded with liberal-right tokenism and identity politics, the latter generally suspicious of them from the start; each seeks contingent, collective, relational kinds of sexual representation that do not depend upon essential ideas of gay or other identity” (Jolly, 476). I feel a similar convergence can be found between queer theorists and minority ethnicity groups within western cultures.

    27The most practical upshot of this queer critical perspective is a greater awareness that the model offered by the coming out story for conceptualising same-sex desire is not universally suitable or possible. This awareness conflicts with the universalising presumptions often present in the texts themselves. Paul Monette’s autobiography is a white, middle-class man’s coming out story, but he also positions his story as exemplary. At first he claims authority only to tell his own tale – “I speak for no one else here” – but then adds: “Yet I’ve come to learn that all our stories add up to the same imprisonment’ (1). And he denies the same authority to tell their stories to those still “in:” “This I know: Those who are still in the closet will get the tale wrong, however I tell it. Get it wrong as a cardinal would, or a shit-eating bachelor Republican.” (4) (Robert McRuer discusses similar “universalising” strategies in A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White.) This expectation that where individuals share an identity, they will also share similar life experiences is a bedrock of identity politics; common experience is intended to bond a community and inform political campaigning. Identity political organisations have repeatedly experienced fragmentation and fierce infighting because this shared ground has not materialised. The range of life experiences even within small identity categories has proved too divergent to generate any unified politics. Monette’s claims to universality combine with a deep investment in coming out. He compares staying “in” to collaboration with the Nazi regime: “For that is the choice, it seems to me: collaborate or resist” (4).[2]
    28With such a negative weight on those who don’t come out, it becomes yet more problematic that the events which make up the coming out process are not equally open to all. For example, leaving the family and becoming part of the lesbian or gay community is a traditional conclusion to the coming out story. However, for Chicana women, the family often provides a sense of cultural continuity and support in a racist society; this is a less pressing need for most white Americans. This conclusion also supposes that the protagonist will feel comfortable, and most fully recognised, in the lesbian or gay community. In her introduction to Companeras, a collection of Latina lesbian oral histories, Mariana Romo-Carmona highlights both the heavy cultural significance of leaving home, and the anglocentricism of the white lesbian community:

    Our choice of lifestyle – to leave the family, to live with women or alone, is seen as adopting foreign ways… After the initial relief we experience in being among lesbians, we find that within the white community there is no way to express our identity as Latinas. (Ramos xxvi)
    Leaving the home town is similarly significant: as Mark Doty summarises in his memoir: “Young Gay Man Leaves Stultifying Midwest for the Urban World of Romance and Permission: a classic American story, and I won’t retell it here.” (50-1). Critic William Spurlin gives a similar summary, to critique it: “…a romanticized prototype of the queer child who saves money and gets on a train bound for New York or some other coastal city in search of a new life more compatible with his or her emerging sexual identity” (182). This kind of mobility requires money. Often, the protagonist of a coming out story will use their time at further education to escape both the family and the home town, and explore their sexual identity. This suggests a high level of education and again, a disposable income or family resources.

    29Maggie and Hopey’s lives show the impossibility of universalising these stages of coming out. Education doesn’t offer either character a privileged space in which to explore her sexual identity. Training as a mechanic is satisfying for Maggie, but she is continually reminded that this is inappropriate work for her as a woman, and has only patchy employment; work is not an escape route. Maggie lives in a neighbourhood populated by relatives and family friends and remains in contact with them, and both characters often live with her relatives (Maggie lives with her aunt at one stage, both characters with Maggie’s cousin Izzy at another). There is a risk that their sexual interaction and very real affection will simply not be recognised if the comic is judged according to a traditional coming out narrative path.

    30The coming out story is also a mixed blessing for those who have both same-sex and opposite-sex sexual desires. Bisexuality and bisexuals have often been excluded from lesbian communities and conceptual spaces, in order to construct a coherent lesbian identity (see Elizabeth Armstrong and Susan M Sturgis). This exclusion is replicated and justified in coming out stories. The standard plot often uses the absolute repudiation of opposite sex-desire as a climax of the coming out process – the protagonist will break up with their opposite-sex partner, swear off heterosexual dating, and cease their search for a “cure” that will allow them to feel opposite-sex desire. This is an understandable plot feature, as gay men and lesbians have for years had their sexual feelings misrepresented as a perverse supplement to heterosexuality or as a phase. For the gay or lesbian protagonist to state, “I desire only my own sex, and always will,” is an ambitious and necessary act.

    31But where does this leave those with sexual desires for men and women? In the coming out story, they are usually cast as self-deceiving or cowardly characters. In two of the most popular women’s coming out novels, a female character has sex with the female protagonist but then marries a man (Leota in Rubyfruit Jungle and Melanie in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit). The married women are subsequently depicted as racist and “sagging” (Brown 216) and “bovine,” “almost vegetable” (Winterson 124, 171). This demonisation helps to demonstrate the bravery and self-awareness of the gay or lesbian protagonist – again, a useful task in a homophobic culture. But this strategy means that the key cultural story we have for understanding same-sex sexual desire has made foundational to its plot the expulsion of opposite-sex sexual desire. It has excluded the possibility of a character with self-aware, ongoing desire for both sexes.

  2. Matthew says:

    I recently asked a gay friend “in undergrad did any of the gay students identify as bisexual temporarily” he said “not to his knowledge. My girlfriend and I went to an LGBU meeting at 19 announced our relationship and were promptly kicked out of the meeting. I was then ostracized excluded called a liar and coward and this has not ceased. Since then both her and I have had both same sex and opposite sex relationships. I have a community of other bisexual people but in the last few years had to deal with all the internalized biphobia and grieve. The most political thing bisexual people can do is create community and support each other. Currently I am in relationship with a bisexual woman and feel good that she can actually see who I am – it is the deepest form of love really – to fully acknowledge the one you love for all that they are.

    • fliponymous says:

      Matthew, this story is unfortunately not an uncommon one — and I am very happy that things are going better now.

      Community support is so important, and I get furious when I see it being withheld because people are miseducated about bisexuality.

      • Matthew says:

        In my thirties it was really the hardest I encountered so much negativity. But the article illuminates the subject regardless of the obvious Biphobic stance. Gays and Lesbians have had to create identity because a sense of self and ego formation is a strong interface with the world which creates self esteem. Bisexual people are constantly told that their sense of self is illegitimate. This can be called in psychological terms “gaslighting”. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. Bisexual people are continually gaslighted and told what they know is real for them is not possibly real. That who we loved we could not have loved. That how we experience the world is not real. The gas light effect can have serious consequences on a person’s mental health and self esteem. And Biphobic gaslighting needs to be called out for what it really is – a hate crime.

        • fliponymous says:

          Exactly. There’s no reason that we should be being bypassed and minimized in academia, when that it where the professional support staff are trained.

          edit: Can I borrow (ok flat-out steal) that phrase “Biphobic Gaslighting”? It’s perfect.

  3. judyt54 says:

    And if you haven’t seen the movie “Gaslight” with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, it gives a visual understanding to how the process works. It’s bloody chilling.

  4. I think I don’t understand what it is to be trans identifying as heterosexual. Just looking at the words, I would have assumed it meant pretty much what it means for cis-heterosexual: you’re attracted to the opposite gender than what you identify as. But I don’t know why people would think trans people couldn’t be that way, so maybe I’m wrong. (And also after reading the posts published after this one that I read before writing this, is ‘opposite gender’ the wrong thing to say? Like I said on the previously-commented-but-after-this-post: cis, homophobic upbringing. Brain melting. Softening, at least.)

    • fliponymous says:

      Language is tricky. The people who think a trans*person can’t be straight tend to be, at least to my gut as I don’t have empirical data to back it up, to be the kind of people who don’t think that trans*folk have valid gender identities, binary or otherwise — people who think “it” is a gender-neutral pronoun.

      I understand about brainmelt — I still get it every so often myself, there is always something new to learn.

      • Matthew says:

        I once went on a date with a Transman FTM who identified as straight. Yes he went on a date with a man and identified as straight and dated other men as a straight transman. BUT it also seemed more consistent than not. His whole Masculine character, interests, jobs he sought (aka construction work) etc. seemed more straight than most straight men. It is after all HIS identity. But he was sexually/romantically open to what life brought him. He is now in a romantic relationship with a straight woman.

        Really the whole point of “coming out” is so a person may live an authentic life. The whole point of any queer identity is as I stated: to develop a sense of self to interface a heteronormative and gendernormative world.

        Which brings us back to bisexual identity. It is an identity which consolidates a persons desires and life experiences. Consolidate : to join together into one whole : to unite.

        This is what it means to have a sense of self. I personally am not interested in banishing any aspect of who I am. But really in the end: Who gives a shit what you call yourself? Is it worth ridiculing another person? If a person says they are bisexual and only dates the same gender or only dates the opposite gender who really cares!

  5. Matthew says:

    I also wanted to add there was a study that said people who were ambidextrous were more likely to be bisexual. This is an affirmation for me personally because I can write forwards and backwards with both hands and at the same time. I can also draw realistically with both hands. My right hand is more developed than my left because I practiced with that more and it is the standard but I remember being able to do this when I was five years old and being encouraged to be right handed only. The point is this is much more than sexuality it is the way my brain is wired. With this wiring comes certain talents and innate abilities. Da Vinci, Oscar Wilde, Michelangelo are all thought to be bisexual in orientation by some (of course gay historians just erase them and say they were gay) and we know for sure that they were all ambidextrous in different ways.

  6. judyt54 says:

    Great comments, Matthew, and I really have to agree. What we personally identify with is our choice, and what we choose to do with it should be, too. “Authentic llife” sums it up beautifully; we have to be real to ourselves, and satisfy our own self definitions. I think, too, that once you have made your declaration of identity that should be an end of it. You have pasted your own label on your own backside, and no one has the right to judge degree or quantity or slant. Really, the only one who should care at all is you, and who you are partnering with at the time. And as long as you’re happy…

  7. Pingback: Happy New Year! or, Spare Me The “No Labels” Biphobia | Eponymous Fliponymous

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