Bi+ Visibility, the AIDS Crisis, & the Demonisation of Bisexual Men
The AIDS crisis of the 80s was a harrowing time. HIV ripped through the LGBTQIA+ community and countless lives were lost to AIDS related illnesses. This is an important part of queer history and it’s vital that the stories from this time are documented, are shown, are made visible, so we can understand the impact HIV had on the LGBTQIA+ community. There are numerous TV shows, especially in recent years, that bring these stories to light. From Pose, which focuses on the Black queer community in New York City, to It's A Sin, which shows the impact of HIV here in the UK.
However, there are some communities whose stories are often left untold, such as the bisexual community. In the 80s the New York Times published an article titled "AIDS Specter for Women: The Bisexual Man". In this, they outline the threat bisexual men pose to unsuspecting straight women. They state that bisexual men are responsible for bringing a disease, that has largely only affected gay men and the LGBTQIA+ community, to the straight community, infecting them and even their new-born babies.
This gave birth to a new concept, the bisexual bridge theory: that bisexual men bridge the gap between the ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ worlds causing the disease to spread. This was only one of several articles published during this time, as both Newsweek and Cosmopolitan published similar articles. This is despite the fact that, as noted in the article from NY Times, very few HIV cases could be attributed to a women having sex with a bisexual man, with drug use and sex between straight people also playing a role in the spread of HIV.
But the facts didn’t matter. Bisexual men were villainised, painted as a vector for disease and blamed for the spread of HIV. This part of the AIDS crisis, and the impact it had on bisexual men, is rarely talked about in mainstream media. I cannot recall a single TV show or film that talks about the impact the AIDS crisis had on bisexual men.
The book, Dual Attraction, interviewed various bisexual men between 1983 and 1988, observing how their lives changed during the AIDS crisis. It was noted that there was a reduction in the number of sexual partners people had and an increase in monogamy. A number of bisexual men also changed how they stated their identity, essentially submerging themselves into either the gay or straight community. Essentially, the AIDS crisis caused more bisexual men to hide their identity for fear of how society perceives them.
And these articles are still appearing today. As recently as 2014 an article from the NY Post blamed bisexual men as the reason for new HIV cases amongst women. Yet again, this ignores the possibility of transmission between straight people and paints bisexual men as the villain.
Regardless of whether bisexual men are the cause, whether they are responsible for transmission between gay men and straight women, scapegoating them as the problem does nothing to fix this issue. All this achieves is it stigmatises bisexual men, making them afraid of coming out, getting tested and disclosing their status.
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The situation for those living with HIV has greatly improved since the 80s, with treatment that is incredibly effective at reducing the viral loads to levels that are undetectable. And there is research that shows that when HIV reaches levels that are undetectable, you are unable to pass on the virus. So undetectable = untransmittable. We also now have PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pill that you can take that can protect you from contracting HIV.
But is the information and messaging around HIV reaching bisexual men? According to research from Dodge and Feinstein, it isn’t. They saw that bisexual men are less likely to receive information on HIV/STI prevention, less likely to get tested, get tested less often and less likely to be on PrEP. Men who have sex with men and women (MSMW), regardless of how they identify, were also seen to be less likely to be aware of their HIV status, less likely to be virally suppressed, more likely to experience later HIV diagnosis and more likely to receive an AIDS diagnosis.
We are creating a vicious cycle. Due to the general biphobia and bi-erasure that exists in society and the way bisexual men are stigmatised, bisexual men are less likely to come out. Stonewall statistics show that 46% of bisexual men aren’t out to anyone in their family and only 14% are out to everyone. This is compared to gay men, where only 10% aren’t out to anyone and 59% are out to everyone. There are also men who may have sex with people of multiple different genders, but still identify as straight. Whilst identity is individualistic and people are free to identify however they please, it is not beyond the realms to say that biphobia and bi-erasure likely play a part in this. Other men may identify as bisexual, but may hide it from their loved ones. This could be due to internalised biphobia and an inability to feel valid in their identity, or a fear of how they may be perceived or seen.
The fact that bisexual men are less likely to come out likely plays a part in why they do not attend their local LGBTQIA+ community, with Stonewall showing that 50% of bisexual men do not attend their local community. Biphobia and bi-erasure within the community also likely plays a part here, with 18% of bisexual men saying they’ve experienced discrimination within their community. This is compared to 4% of gay men.
Since bisexual men aren’t present in LGBTQIA+ spaces, and since messaging around HIV is often targeted at LGBTQIA+ spaces, the information around HIV isn’t reaching bisexual men. This means they aren’t getting the help and support they need, such as getting tested regularly, accessing PrEP and virally suppressing HIV. This generates further stigma as they are demonised for spreading the disease and the cycle continues.
And this issue is often not captured in research, as the research is often conducted within the LGBTQIA+ community. Which means that the struggles that bisexual men experience are often not captured and therefore nothing is ever done to fix them, and again the cycle continues.
Bisexual men and their sexual health tends to only be discussed in relation to the impact it has on straight women. This is not good enough. We need to start acknowledging the glaring issues that bisexual men face. We need to look at the barriers that exist for bisexual men and we need to address them. We need to ensure that bisexual men have access to the information, the resources and the care that they need to prevent them from getting HIV. And we need to help those who contract HIV by catching it early and getting them onto effective treatment.
We need to put bisexual men and their health needs first.
Read more about this topic and others faced by m-spec men in Vaneet's upcoming book “Bisexual Men Exist”, available from your favourite bookshop here.
This article was written by Vaneet Mehta. Vaneet (He/Him) is an Indian bisexual man born and raised in Southall, West London. He is a software engineer, writer and public speaker and the founder of #BisexualMenExist, which went viral in 2020. He has appeared on numerous panels and delivered talks to various companies. He has written for Men's Health, Stonewall, GMFA, Metro UK, OutLife and Unicorn Magazine and his work has been published in The Bi-ble: New Testimonials, The Ampersand Project and The Sex Agenda. His first book, Bisexual Men Exist, is launching January 2023.