Bisexual people report high rates of prejudice and discrimination. They are evaluated negatively—even more negatively than gay and lesbian people.  Their identity is invalidated by others.  They report being fired from jobs due to their sexual orientation. Yet, an examination of discrimination lawsuits brought by self-identified bisexual plaintiffs found only eleven filed cases in the U.S., and only one was ruled in favor of the plaintiff.

Why are bisexual people's lawsuits so often unsuccessful? Are people, including judges and juries, less likely to view bisexual people as targets of discrimination compared to other sexual minority groups? This is the question that Brenda Major, Zoe Liberman, Sara Burke, and I set out to answer.

Are Bisexual People Less Likely to Be Seen as Targets of Discrimination?

In three studies involving 1,765 U.S. heterosexual adults, we tested whether a bisexual person was less likely to be seen as a target of discrimination when a comparison group suggested that the bisexual person had relatively higher status.

In one study, participants read about either a bisexual, gay/lesbian, or heterosexual law firm employee who was passed over for a law school funding opportunity after the boss heard them disclose their sexual orientation. We didn't say who did get the funding. Both sexual minority employees were seen as targets of more discrimination than the heterosexual employee. The gay/lesbian and bisexual employees were seen as equally discriminated against.

In two additional studies, we made a comparison person salient and explicit. Participants read about either a bisexual or gay/lesbian employee who was passed over for funding in favor of a heterosexual co-worker or a co-worker of the other sexual minority group (e.g., a bisexual employee lost to a gay/lesbian co-worker or vice versa).

We found that a bisexual woman was less likely to be seen as a target of discrimination when she lost to a lesbian than a heterosexual woman; a lesbian woman was equally likely to be seen as a target if she lost to a heterosexual or bisexual woman. Interestingly, bisexual and gay men were seen as equally likely to be targets of discrimination.

Our findings suggest that when bisexual women are compared to lesbian women (but not heterosexual women) they are not seen as "gay enough" to be victims of discrimination based on their sexual orientation, perhaps because they are perceived as higher status. Both anecdotal and empirical data show that bisexual people, while sexual minorities, are seen as having "heterosexual privilege."

Discrimination Attributions are Gendered

Although the comparison group affected perceived discrimination for bisexual women, it did not for bisexual men. But why? My colleagues and I have a few theories. First, people tend to view bisexuality as a less "real" social identity, as noted in a recent Character & Context post. As a result, bisexual women are frequently perceived as straight while bisexual men are perceived as gay. This could explain why bisexual and gay men were equally likely to be seen as targets of discrimination.

Even if people believe that bisexuality is a real identity, they may still believe that bisexual men have more relationships with other men (instead of women). Indeed, at the end of our survey we asked participants to predict the gender of the bisexual target's future partner. The majority of participants thought that both the bisexual woman and bisexual man would be in a future relationship with a man.

This research offers a plausible explanation for why bisexual women's lawsuits may be less successful in the U.S.: if judges and juries compare bisexual women and their experiences to those of lesbian women, the bisexual women may be deemed not "gay enough" or "too privileged" to have experienced discrimination.  As a result, their lawsuits may be judged as less valid.

For Further Reading

Quinn-Jensen, E., Major, B., Burke, S.E., & Liberman, Z. (2024). Was that discrimination?: Perceptions of bisexual people's relative status impacts attributions of discrimination. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. Doi: 10.1177/13684302231219676.

Burke, S. E., Perry, S. P., Dovidio, J. F., & LaFrance, M. (2023). Distinctive negative reactions to intermediate social groups. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 53(7), 600-630.

Matsick, J. L., & Rubin, J. D. (2018). Bisexual prejudice among lesbian and gay people: Examining the roles of gender and perceived sexual orientation. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 5(2), 143.

Elizabeth Quinn-Jensen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research explores perceptions of people based on their various social identities.