IU researcher reflects on the first White House Bisexual Community Policy Briefing

Guest blog courtesy of Brian Dodge, associate professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington and associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion.

Sept. 21, 2015, became an unexpectedly meaningful day in my life both as a public health researcher, educator and advocate and as a bisexual man. It marked the first ever White House Bisexual Community Policy Briefing, an event for which nearly 100 scientific, governmental, community and other experts gathered in the hallowed halls at the heart of our federal government to discuss issues of importance in the lives of bisexual men, women and others.

Brian Dodge at White House

Brian Dodge, center, poses with bisexual and trans advocate Dr. Scout, left, and bisexual author and advocate Robyn Ochs, right.

Bisexual individuals are a particularly at-risk and understudied public health population, often reporting the highest rates of adverse physical, mental and other health concerns relative to both heterosexual and gay/lesbian individuals — so in many ways, allocating a day to recognize the unique challenges faced by the bisexual community was long overdue. Aside from the obvious logistical and political aspects of developing and implementing such an event, we certainly had our work cut out for us with reviewing, revising and putting forth policy briefs and recommendations on issues as diverse as data collection, education, employment and economics, immigration, mental health and suicide prevention, physical health, violence and HIV prevention, treatment and care (or, in other words, sexual health). It was in the latter area, based on my own scientific and advocacy efforts, which I attempted to contribute … that is, when I was not lost in thought with marveling at how we had come this far.

It had been over a decade since I had committed my own research career to focusing broadly on sexual health among bisexual individuals, a misunderstood and often invisible segment of the nominally inclusive “LGBT community.” From the start of my research training, I encountered an ironic and unsettling resistance to the idea of exploring bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation, particularly among men. In 2003, we were already well on our way to understanding the significance and complexity of self-identity, the negative impact of isolation and “minority stress” on marginalized individuals, the seemingly protective role of community among gay men and even among other groups of “men who have sex with men.” We knew that sexual behavior and sexual identity were not necessarily always, or even often, “congruent” with one another. We were well aware that individuals engage in a wide range of sexual behaviors with a wide range of partners throughout the lifespan.

Brian Dodge at White House

Attendees of the first White House Bisexual Community Policy Briefing.

In the HIV research world, there were some who would go so far as to say, “Men with male and female sexual partners are the driving force of the HIV epidemic from ‘homosexual’ communities to ‘heterosexual’ communities” But, astonishingly, in the same breath, these same people would say “but bisexual men do not exist.” After questioning this, I was told I was “too personally connected to these issues” to see them objectively. Above all, I was told, “one cannot be both a scientist and an activist.” Was it just me — or did this simply not make sense? I felt I was certainly not the only one who might have thought so.

I often reflected back to my days as a doctoral student at IU-Bloomington, where I had the unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of others who sought a deeper understanding of sexual behavior and, in the process, had found that human sexuality is anything but “black and white.” One of the most fascinating, and apparently still largely misunderstood, findings to emerge from Alfred Kinsey and his team’s pioneering research on sexual behavior in the human male was that, in addition to exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual individuals, substantial numbers of men reported sexual attractions and experiences involving men and women along a continuum. One of my favorite quotes from “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” sort of summed it all up; not simply just in terms of bisexuality but for human sexuality, in general.

“Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of human taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.”

Brian Dodge at White House

Dodge poses with members of the Bisexual Research Collaborative on Health outside the White House.

Even in 1948 this was not earthshattering news, and Kinsey soon expanded on similar findings among women in his female study, published five years later. Decades earlier, other behavioral and social scientists had already found that bisexuality was a common and natural (if not inherent) form of sexual expression. So why did it feel like hitting a brick wall, nearly 50 years later, when trying to launch a sincere and objective research trajectory focused on bisexuality and health?

Thankfully, with the wisdom of forebears like Kinsey and the patience and guidance of mentors, I was ultimately able to overcome early discouragement and garner the support that I needed to launch a research career focused on bisexual health, with funded grant proposals from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies, a slew of scientific papers and presentations and edited special issues, and the establishment of educational and training opportunities for the next generation of bisexual health researchers who will fill my shoes long after my brief time has passed. Unfortunately, though, it felt like a long and often lonely road along the way.

I guess this is what made the White House Bisexual Community Policy Briefing even that much more awe-inspiring for me. I no longer felt like the only one. It is my sincere hope that future generations of public health students, scholars and practitioners who want to focus their work on improving health and wellbeing among bisexual men and women will have the opportunity to take part in events like this in an ongoing basis. I am eternally grateful to our president and administration for all that they have done for our community, the visibility and validation they have provided, and the doors that they have opened for taking action and creating change.

Information on IU’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion’s Bisexual Health @ IU Seminar Series is available online. “Creating Healthy Environments for Bisexual Women: A Research Trajectory,” by Wendy Bostwick and sponsored by the center and Bloomington Sex Salon, takes place at 8 p.m., tonight at The Bishop.

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