Bisexuals (young and old) have been underrepresented in research, media and the arts. For the most part, we are merged into the discussions of gay and lesbian aging. Issues confronting older lesbians and gay men do overlap with the experiences of older people who are bisexual, but only partially. Our aging services and community providers have bisexuals accessing services even if they don’t realize it.
Bisexuals exist both as seniors and as caregivers of elderly parents: They also function as spouses, partners, parents, siblings, daughters and sons in their biological and logical families.
Of significant importance is that bisexuals are rarely seen, and there is little to no room for bisexuality within the older generation. When a bisexual falls in love, he or she sometimes begins to identify (publicly or privately) as lesbian, gay or hetero and thus becomes invisible as a bisexual aging person. For example, a woman with a male partner is presumed to be straight; if with a female partner, assumed to be lesbian; a woman or man alone, probably heterosexual. If she or he is in a “gay venue,” they are probably presumed to be gay, rather than bisexual. What behaviors would I, as an aging bisexual, have to engage in for other people to see me as bisexual? Should I walk into the room with a man and a woman on each arm? Should I have multiple partners? Maybe I could leave one partner for one of a different gender? (Interestingly, in this scenario people still might not read me as bisexual, but rather as having finally “finished” coming out or “gone straight.” Or, as in my case, “having gone to the other side.”)
Visibility is priceless. Older people are presumed to lose both sexual interest and sexual functioning as they age. They are often perceived as inappropriate, senile and “dirty” (i.e., “dirty old men”) when they express their sexuality. Differences in sexual orientation are ignored entirely, and bisexual, gay or lesbian seniors may be driven underground and silenced. The pervasive invisibility of bisexuality has given us few or no role models, let alone an identity for who we are.
The term bisexuality was not fully embraced until the gay-rights movement was well underway and bisexuals were coming out as part of the pride movement. Many seniors have never heard the word bisexual. Everyone now over 50 became an adult when the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as a mental illness. The APA never officially classified or declassified bisexuality.
Aging bisexuals often face a “double whammy”: society’s ageism and homophobia/biphobia — from both hetero and non-hetero individuals. Seniors who chose marriage and family during their younger years may be reconsidering their options and now identifying as bisexual. Others who have lived as lesbians or gay men may want to explore other-sex attractions that they never lost or have rediscovered. In our own queer community, many gays and lesbians have a reputation for cutting off women and men who “go to the other side.” Non-gay folks often reject bisexual seniors as “fence sitters” or for using heterosexual privilege and “passing” when convenient. In truth, to “pass” for straight and to have to deny your bisexuality is as painful as it is for gay, lesbian and transgender seniors to have to live in (or go back into) the closet.
Along with affirming our own bisexuality, our LGBT community can affirm us in the followings ways (adapted from the Bisexual Resource Center):
— Believe that I exist — bisexuality is a valid sexual orientation.
— Don’t try and talk me into redefining my identity into something more comfortable for you.
— Celebrate bisexual culture — we have a long, rich history and many daring voices who have expressed love beyond the monosexual confines.
— Ask me, if appropriate, about my other-sex relationships and my same-sex relationships — bisexuals live our lives in multiple ways. Some of us would like to talk about our relationships without feeling judged.
— Speak up when bisexual people are being excluded or defamed. Our silence speaks loudly.
Terri Clark, MPH, CHES, prevention services coordinator for ActionAIDS, is co-chair of the LGBT Elder Initiative. The LGBTEI is dedicated to supporting and sustaining the lives of LGBT older adults in the Delaware Valley. To comment on this article, suggest topics for future articles or for more information, visit www.lgbei.org
and watch for “Gettin’ On” each month in PGN.