Morgan McLaughlin keeps her hair long. She doesn’t wear sporty clothes. She doesn’t conform to lesbian stereotypes, and when it comes to finding dates, she feels invisible.
“Because I pass as straight, because I don’t fit into stereotypes for what it means to be a queer woman, people assume I’m straight," said McLaughlin, a UNC sophomore who identifies as lesbian. “I don’t get dates because I look straight. People don’t approach me."
Despite stereotypes that suggest otherwise, sexuality exists as a spectrum. The seven-point Kinsey Scale was developed in 1948 after research showed individuals do not fit into exclusively heterosexual or homosexual categories — since then, other theories of sexuality have also found it to be a spectrum.
McLaughlin said she thinks it’s human nature to want others to fit into categorical boxes tied perfectly with ribbon.
She identifies as a six, or exclusively homosexual, on the Kinsey Scale, but she acknowledges there might be a 1 percent chance that a person who identifies as male comes along, and that’s who she marries.
“I’m not closing myself off to the idea. Everything’s fluid in life,” she said.
But UNC student Cody Vientos, who currently identifies as gay, said even spectrums like the Kinsey Scale aren’t necessarily inclusive of every experience. He has dated some women in high school, but he now dates men — though he doesn’t rule out falling for a woman in the future.
“There is no all-encompassing label that describes someone's sexual orientation,” Vientos said. “You might feel comfortable saying 99 percent of the time you’re attracted to men; however it’s just such a spectrum that you can’t be sectioned off.”
Bisexuality, when a person is attracted to both male and female sexes, is seen as one expression of gender identity’s fluidity. In a 2013 National Health Interview Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 0.7 percent of American adults surveyed identify as bisexual. Another identity, pansexuality, encompasses those who are attracted to all genders and gender identities.
Young bisexual people can face more obstacles than their gay and lesbian peers, according to a September 2014 report by the Human Rights Campaign. The report cited a 2012 survey of more than 10,00 LGBT youth, ages 13 to 17, and found 38 percent of them identified as bisexual.
An additional 7 percent identified themselves as pansexual.
Most of the bisexual people surveyed were female. Students across the LGBT spectrum reported lower levels of happiness and more instances of harassment than non-LGBT students.
“While all youth who identify as LGBT have distinct issues and concerns, it is clear that bisexual youth have needs that are unique, due to myths, stereotypes and stigma surrounding bisexuality,” the HRC report states. “Interestingly, many of these findings mirror the challenges facing transgender and other gender-expansive youth.”
Though a few years older than the survey’s respondents, some UNC students who identify as bisexual have experienced challenging identity issues, both within and outside of the LGBTQ community.
“If you say you’re bisexual, you’re stigmatized,” Vientos said. “It has this infamous reputation of being uncertain of what you want. You’re just not, ‘comfortable with yourself.’ It has an association with immaturity.”
“You’re seen as a coward that doesn’t want to admit to themselves or others, the truth about who they are.”
According to the Human Rights Commission report, bisexual young people tend to seek less support or mentorship of adults within LGBTQ communities because of a trend called “biphobia.”
Claris Pienaar, a UNC student who also identifies as bisexual, has felt the impact of other people’s doubts and disbelief.
She once had an argument with her mom's girlfriend, who said she didn't think she could be bisexual. What they concluded was that there's a spectrum of sexuality, Pienaar said.
As a lesbian, McLaughlin said she’s sometimes jealous of people who identify as bisexual, though she has heard a lot about bisexuality being misrepresented or misunderstood.
“As someone who’s gay, I’m a little jealous because (bisexuals) can go either way, and it works,” she said. “You have heterosexual privilege as a bisexual. You can pass as straight, and you can fit into the dominant group, but you’re also left out of the conversation as well.”
Sophomore Avalon Warner-Gonzales, an executive board member of the UNC Sexuality and Gender Alliance, said reliance within the LGBTQ community on binary appearances and the “gaydar” can make breaking stereotypes more difficult.
“We rely on (the gaydar) to find other people that are like us, and it’s always not the most accurate thing and we, more than anyone, understand that, but it’s hard to get away with it when we use it as a crutch,” she said.
The use of labels to talk about gender identity adds an even deeper complication — beyond overcoming stereotypes about physical appearance.
“If you’re not comfortable with a label, that’s totally legitimate,” Warner-Gonzales said. “There might not be a name, which is an understandable frustration, but I also feel like you shouldn’t delegitimate people who are comfortable.
“So it’s hard to maintain that balance between people that do really desperately want these labels versus people who feel very uncomfortable with that or feel very fluid with them."
Since coming to UNC, Vientos said he hasn’t met many people who identify as bisexual.
“By claiming to be bisexual, you’re at risk of being immediately thrown into that — you’re immature, you don’t know what you want, and you’re lying to yourself, when in reality, those feelings can be present.
“They’re forced to pick a side.”
Vientos said the lack of acceptance with bisexuality is promoted by the gender binary.
“The reason why the bisexual woman is a more socially accepted idea is because of assigned societal gender roles — females have been portrayed as more sexual and ambiguous,” he said.
Warner-Gonzales said she has previously identified as pansexual because it felt more appropriate at the time — gender identity is inherently fluid, reflective of where a person is in life.
“Right now in this moment, I’m like, 'I am bisexual,'” she said. “That is who I am. That is definitely my identity, but if later on in life, I feel like that’s not the right identity for me anymore, that doesn’t change how I was feeling right now."
LGBTQ on campus
Pienaar said she hasn’t gotten involved with LGBTQ groups on campus — she has heard the groups can be extreme. There are still some big picture issues at UNC, such as people misusing the words "gay" or using slurs like "faggot," that deserve more attention, she said.
"People need to be educated rather than change things behind the scenes," she said.
Brian Beaman, co-president of the UNC Sexuality and Gender Alliance, said the organization provides a space for sexual and gender minorities to talk about the issues they face.
“As a student organization, we do as much as we can based on what our membership wants and needs, and this involves working within and beyond the campus environment,” he said. “Everyone has unique experiences, and we, as a student organization, try to be encompassing of all identities in all of our discussions.”
Angel Collie, assistant director of UNC’s LGBTQ Center, said the treatment of bisexual people could vary based on whether they’re dating someone of the same or a different gender.
“I do think it can be difficult in terms of visibility,” Collie said, adding that he is only speaking from his own experiences. “Often ... acceptance in a community can be based on the relationship you're currently in — that can be isolating.”
UNC doesn’t offer any support groups solely for bisexual students. UNC’s Q Group, a queer student support and discussion group, is one option for LGBTQ students. The LGBTQ Center also offers bisexual students resources and a library.
Collie said attracting bisexual students to the LGBTQ Center entails letting them know their sexuality is accepted.
“We're not going to judge the orientation or relationship you may or may not be in,” Collie said. “Oftentimes some bisexual students will hide from heterosexual and homosexual communities believing they won’t accept them.”
Warner-Gonzales said beyond accepting people for their sexualities, there needs to be greater understanding of the intersectionality of people’s identities.
“You can’t just parse me up into white and then a woman and then a bisexual person. I am all of them all at one time and all of these things together create a unique experience,” she said. “You can’t add up all of the experiences together to make me. They have to occur at the same time.”
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