The Blog

Closets and Criticisms of LGBT Research (Part 2)

If we count people who are in the closet or "discordant," then sure, that boosts our numbers, but to what end? Why do we need to know how many of us there are? Is the implication that if there are more of us, then we are more deserving of rights?
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This is a continuation of my last piece, looking at the research of Dr. Gary Gates of the Williams Institute at UCLA. Gates, a gay man and demographer, reports that 50 percent of people who identify as either gay, lesbian or bisexual identify as bi. That means that the other 50 percent of the LGB-identified population is gay or lesbian. He also reports that 3.5 percent of the adult population in the U.S. identifies as LGB. That constitutes roughly 8 million people.

Some people think that his estimation of the bi population is too high and his estimation of the overall LGB population too low. One of Gates' critics, gay public speaker Brian McNaught, states, "Gay and lesbian people are homosexual even if they don't self-identify." By extension, then, we'd have to say that bisexual people are bisexual even if they don't self-identify as such. And saying that would mean that the gay and lesbian population would change drastically -- as would the bisexual population. That's because if by "bisexual" we mean people who are behaviorally bi, then because half the gay- and lesbian-identified population has had sexual experiences with partners of a different sex, millions of people who currently call themselves gay or lesbian would no longer be able to do so. And that means that millions of heterosexuals, gays and lesbians would now be called "bisexual" (and, of course, millions of bisexual people would be amazed to see so many new friends at Bi Brunch).

I don't know how Larry Kramer and Brian McNaught feel about that, but that doesn't sit right with me. My understanding is that the whole point of the LGBT movement is to ascertain the freedom that comes with self-actualization. If I can call you bi, and you can call someone else gay, and that person can call someone else straight, and none of the people being referred to see themselves as such, then what the hell are we all doing to each other? Ultimately, it all boils down to this: How many of us does there need to be? If we count people who are in the closet (if we can even agree on a definition of the closet) or "discordant," then sure, that boosts our numbers, but to what end? Why do we need to know how many of us there are? Why do we need to dilute our hard-fought-for identities in order to include those who share our experiential history but, for whatever reason, not our identity language?

Is the implication that if there are more of us, then we are more deserving of rights? That is a majoritarian-centric viewpoint that smacks of supremacist leanings. And it's built on the potentially phallocentric and definitely false concept that size matters. Size doesn't matter, people. Even though our numbers may be small, we are no less deserving of things like health care and protection from discrimination. As Gates puts it, "Today, the size of the LGBT community is less important than understanding the daily lives and struggles of this still-stigmatized population and informing crucial policy debates with facts rather than stereotype and anecdote."

Finally, even if we start calling heterosexual people who "do bisexual stuff" bisexual (and hopefully we wouldn't do that just for political gain but in order to genuinely reach out to those we fear might be closeted and suffering in the closet), we need to ask ourselves whether the LGBT movement/nonprofit system is ready for such a huge influx of bisexual people. I don't think we're doing such a great job of integrating bisexuals into the movement as it is right now, and that's just speaking about those who willingly identify as bisexual!

As I mentioned above, basing definitions on behavior would mean moving half the gay- and lesbian-identified folks out of the "bisexual closet," too. I have a feeling that they know even better than those bi-stuff-doing heterosexuals just how unwelcoming the scene can be for bisexual people. Gay and lesbian organizations have a lot of work to do to be fully inclusive of bisexual people. I've written about that here and won't repeat myself.

But bisexual folks, I'm not letting you off the hook, either. If you want your local LGBT community center's board of directors to have proportional representation of bisexuals (that would mean that of the LGB people on the board, 50 percent would be bi), then you need to get up and run for the board. If you want your national "gay and lesbian" advocacy organization to include bisexuals, then you need to demand inclusion, through petitions, demonstrations, etc. And if your local gay bowling league or church or softball team wants a donation from your bi checkbook, then you need to either write "include bisexuals in your name and events" on the memo line or send them a letter explaining why they won't get money from you until they include you.

What I'm saying is that I have a sneaking suspicion that if we as a community step up to the plate and get serious about bi inclusion, we'll see some of those closet doors start to open. And I say this because the overwhelming evidence shows that the people in those closets who identify using monosexual terms are doing bisexual things. Even if they come out and go from calling themselves straight to calling themselves gay, the coming-out process will be ameliorated by knowing that bisexuality is OK, too, and that there is room in the community for those with bisexual histories as well as bisexual identities. Imagine what our numbers will look like then. The Associated Press will have to stop ignoring us and figure out what bisexuality is, Kramer and McNaught will be appeased, and Gates will need fresh batteries for his calculators!