Workplace Guides: Bisexual People in the Workplace

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Key Issues for Bisexual Staff

This section explores key issues experienced by bisexual staff. Participants discussed their experiences, perceptions and expectations about the impact that their sexual orientation might have on them at work. They suggested that these issues should be taken into consideration when an organisation is developing policies around bisexual inclusion.

Bisexual staff face the following issues:

A lack of awareness

Over the past 10 years, workplaces across the country have made significant progress implementing robust policies and initiatives to make lesbian and gay members of staff feel included and supported. This has led to an increased awareness by heterosexual colleagues of gay and lesbian issues at work and what it means to be gay at work.

A lack of understanding and knowledge of bisexuality, however, has often resulted in bisexual people remaining largely invisible. Participants thought that most of their colleagues assumed that if someone is not heterosexual they must be gay and that if someone is not gay they must be heterosexual.

"I think the lesbian and gay community has made tremendous strides of progress over the last several years. Of course there’s a long way to go, but I would say that the bisexual community is many years behind where the lesbian and gay community is." Nathan, private sector

"Bisexuality is something that you can still poke fun at, partly because people don’t think it’s as serious as homosexuality." Sian, public sector

"I think there is a lot of ignorance around being bisexual and when you talk about it, people think you’re talking about your sexual practice rather than your orientation." Morgan, public sector

Participants felt that low levels of awareness about bisexuality put bisexual people under pressure from their colleagues. Bisexual staff are, they felt, subjected to assumptions that they may find demeaning or inappropriate.

"There tend to be questions about every aspect of bisexuality, so you just get bored with the constant questions, because people now know what gay is, but questions, questions, questions." Marcos, public sector

"I attended a recent social event and one of the men came up and said, ‘what’s it like to be a lesbian?’ I said ‘I don’t know, go and ask one’." Keira, public sector

Participants felt therefore that the lack of awareness in the workplace around bisexuality made them feel marginalised and stigmatised.
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Coming out and being out

Participants had a range of experiences when it came to coming out. First, many felt that inaccurate stereotypes about bisexual people discouraged them from coming out to their colleagues. Second, others felt that their ability to perform well at work was affected by negative reactions from their colleagues upon coming out as bisexual.

"It’s so hard for bisexual people to either not be out and try to hide our lives from the world, or instead to be out and constantly be questioned and asked to justify and to tell our stories and be told that we’re wrong and we can’t be the way we are. It’s stressful no matter what you do. You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place." Niamh, private sector

"I’m not sure if I’m out to my line manager. I’ve tried to be out to her, and I don’t think she understands. I don’t think she’s quite got it, but she doesn’t want to ask because she doesn’t want to step over any personal boundaries. She knows I’m involved in the LGB network, and from that she can probably deduce that I’m LGB. She knows I have a husband, so that kind of rules out the L, my gender kind of rules out G, so what’s left?" Niamh, private sector

"There are people on my team who, whilst they haven’t expressed any homophobic views, they’ve expressed some views that I would consider slightly  narrow-minded. So I don’t feel comfortable dropping it in. But it is difficult because it’s part of my life and part of the relationships I have and part of the things I choose to do. So by choosing to conceal it I do find that when someone says ‘oh how was your weekend?’ there are whole chunks that I can’t share with them. Which is my choice but it does make it feel like I’m sort of putting a barrier between getting to know my colleagues a bit better." Sian, public sector

"As a bi woman in a same-sex relationship, I have the same issues with homophobia as I did when I identified as a lesbian – possibly more that I did as a single lesbian – and now I have to deal with these kind of attitudes to bisexuality as well. It’s not helpful, it’s not progressive, and it certainly contributes to my closetedness at work." Natalie, private sector

Participants agreed that upon coming out, personal questions, disbelief and arguments were commonplace.

"From lesbian and gay colleagues I’ve been told ‘you’re indecisive’ or ‘you are really gay and you just aren’t brave enough to be gay’ or ‘you’re really straight and you’re just a little bit curious’. I find that quite offensive because I know who I find attractive in the same way that anybody else does and I don’t want to be told that’s not correct." Morgan, public sector

"When I felt comfortable identifying as a lesbian I felt very much that was my stance and I could just go in and say that and be really confident about it. But now that I’ve changed the way I see myself, I’ve no longer got that confidence. I don’t know if that’s because it’s a relatively new identity or if it’s because it wouldn’t be as well received. I mean people do tend to be a lot more flippant about bisexuality. More throwaway comments like ‘oh you’re greedy’, ‘you can’t choose’, ‘oh it’s just a phase’ which you don’t seem to get as much if you’re gay." Sian, public sector

There was an agreement that in certain situations it was simply easier to either tell people or let them assume you are either gay or straight.

"When I explain myself to people I say I’m gay, because it’s easier. It’s not so much that people seem to be more biased against bisexual people, it’s just to avoid all the ignorant questions that you get. People get very confused… you’re greedy or, aren’t you really gay and you’re just afraid to tell us? Which is ridiculous since I’m quite happy to be openly gay if that was the case." Antoine, public sector

"It’s probably easier to come out with the comment of being gay because bisexual gets too many questions." Marcos, public sector

There was also the perception that bisexual men and women in senior positions are more likely to hide their sexual orientation because of the damage it may do to their careers.

"Some of our executive management are openly out and are lesbian or gay. No bisexuals at the top yet… Lots of people do hide behind the lesbian and the gay label, some even straight as well, with very, very private lives." James, public sector

The participants revealed many reasons why bisexual men and women may face difficulties when coming out to their colleagues. Importantly, the research highlighted that faced with these challenges, some participants chose to hide their sexual orientation at work instead while others let their colleagues assume they were gay, lesbian or straight.
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Experiences of discrimination

Bisexual men and women, like any other minority group, may be subject to discrimination. Overall, participants said that prejudice and stereotypes of bisexuality extended into the workplace and colleagues often portrayed them as untrustworthy, indecisive or troublemakers at work.

"People are thinking you’re tricky and complicated and hard to pin down – that you will always be trying to evade getting things set in an organised way; that you will always be a little bit off to one side or another." Ewan, public sector

"I think there is an assumption that you are not sure what you are or want and that you need help. I was told to consider counselling and therapy and was told by my supervisor that I ‘obviously had issues with my mother’. I did not see this happening to my colleagues who identified as lesbian, gay or heterosexual." Irina, public sector

Other participants argued that these attitudes stem from the fact that bisexual people cannot be pigeon-holed or put into a category – which makes people unsure of them.

"It’s very threatening for people – this undecidability. There’s that hole we don’t fit into – one box or another." Chloe, public sector

The stereotypes that surround bisexuality result in bisexual employees being labelled by colleagues as being uncertain, indecisive and even unstable by colleagues.

Despite the perception of shared experiences between minority groups, participants felt that some gay men and lesbians, and some staff from faith backgrounds, were still likely to discriminate against bisexual employees.

"Some people of faith who accept gay and lesbian colleagues, disapprove of bisexuals, perceiving them to have a choice to express ‘their straight side’ and suppress ‘their gay side’." Lucia, public sector

"If I was to take a guy to a straight function I think it would be perfectly acceptable but if I took a girlfriend to a gay function I’d get laughed out of the room." Marcos, public sector

Whereas many staff can turn to their staff networks for advice on how to counteract discrimination, many participants felt that lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) staff groups could do more to support bisexual staff.

"Even in this forum people are making assumptions and as you are a woman they assume you’re a lesbian. So support is very thin on the ground and even gay men and lesbians discriminate – with some force on occasion in my experience." Irina, public sector

Prejudicial attitudes and discrimination strongly affect the experiences of bisexual men and women at work. Many – fearing discrimination – do not come out at work. For those who do, many feel that being bisexual damages their relationships with colleagues and their career.
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Lack of employer support

Some participants said they felt invisible in the workplace and want employers to develop policies and strategies to combat anti-bisexual attitudes and behaviour and better support bisexual employees. For example, whereas many organisations endeavour to start and maintain LGB network groups for LGB staff, participants told us that more work is needed by employers on bisexual forums.

"There doesn’t seem to be a forum where people can feel safe to talk about their lives or self. I find the bisexual people I do know never talk about their lives at home or relationships as openly as a gay or straight person would." Mark, public sector 

"There’s basically no support for bisexuals at all. The gays and the lesbians socialise separately in the support network as far as I know. That’s something that they are trying to address at the moment but I’ve not heard any mention of bisexuality at all." Rhys, public sector

"One of the biggest challenges is finding if there are other bisexuals out there. I think that’s probably one of the challenges within our organisation… it seems to me that the gays and lesbians relate with each other really well. I don’t have a lot of practical experience in meeting other professionals who are bisexuals and understanding how well we can relate to one another… it would be nice to have a specific bisexual party or bisexual night or social gathering  or something like that – something that would encourage people who identify as bisexual to come out." Nathan, private sector

There was also an agreement that equality and diversity initiatives aimed at sexual orientation could do more to support bisexual employees.

"The Equality and Diversity Department feel their work is all about employees with same-sex partners, and can’t understand that sexuality can be fluid, even when your identity seems fixed. They can assume life is simple if you have an opposite-sex partner, and that bisexuality is only a transient identity." Thomas, public sector

"Bisexuality is almost invisible in any training or discussions, all the time. It always has been. There’s not much information unless a staff support network has a bi rep. There’s generally nothing. Nothing in the newsletter that’s relevant, on events or anything else." Antoine, public sector

The participants also expressed disappointment about the lack of visible bisexual role models.

"If I were able to see someone in management and they were out as bisexual, I’d think that was amazing and that would make me more comfortable when someone made some remark about my sexuality. I could be like well actually this is what the situation is." Sian, public sector

Last, participants told us that not being aware of other bisexual employees in the workplace caused them to worry that they may be particularly singled out when disclosing their sexual orientation in monitoring exercises.

"The distrust is not just of the system… it’s the history of those types of monitoring forms, it’s about what people who’ve really been marginalised maybe have come to feel over the years. Like in what ways, who’s counting and why? I’m happy to send this information off into some place where I can be relatively assured that it’s anonymous. But who really knows and do I want to take the chance? Given my experiences in this organisation would I feel secure?" Chloe, public sector

There was agreement from the participants that organisations need to do more to engage and support bisexual employees. Events which raise awareness around bisexuality and allow bisexual employees to network with each other and promote visibility were cited as examples of what organisations could do better.
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