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Toward an understanding of behaviourally bisexual men: the influence of context and culture.

Key words: Bisexuality Sexual orientation Culture Men of colour

Acknowledgements: Support for our research with bisexual men has been provided through Cooperative Agreements Number U64/CCU506809, U64/CCU410874, and U62/CCU513631 with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The increase in public attention to issues of sexual orientation in the past decade has been dramatic. Governments, corporations, and other institutions are adopting policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and benefits for same-sex domestic partners are increasingly being granted. Public attention has focused on the right of gay and lesbian citizens to marry and, in the United States, on the advisability of allowing openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military.

The entertainment industry also is embracing homosexual themes and gay and lesbian characters. Contemporary movies, including some mainstream Hollywood products, have included gay and lesbian themes and characters, and, in some recent years, Broadway theatre goers must have wondered when an original show would open that did not feature homosexuality prominently. Even American network television, that most bland and conservative medium, has got into the act. A recent article in The Advocate (a magazine that targets gay men and lesbians) identified 22 recurring gay or lesbian characters in this season's network television programming (Frutkin, 1997). In addition, shows with no gay characters find scores of opportunities for jokes or innuendo regarding sexual orientation.

Underlying much of the public attention to homosexuality is the implicit assumption that sexual orientation is dichotomous: One is either homosexual or heterosexual, gay or straight. Having two neat, non-overlapping categories is comfortable for most people. As Freud (1937/1964) said, "A man's heterosexuality will not put up with any homosexuality, and vice versa" (p. 244). Bisexuality is rarely considered in public debates or media presentations, although recent books (e.g., Firestein, 1996a; Garber, 1995) and articles (Fox, 1995; Leland, 1995) targeting both academic and general audiences have focused on bisexuality.

To the degree that people continue to operate with an implicit theory of sexual orientation as dichotomous, bisexuality is invisible. Even a survey of mostly gay-identified male readers of The Advocate revealed that about one-third of the respondents did not "believe in bisexuality" (Lever, 1994). Expanding the binary model for sexual orientation to include a third category for bisexuals, as many authorities have advocated (Firestein, 1996b; Fox, 1996), is a step in the right direction, but a more radical overhaul of how we think about sexual orientation may be needed. We recommend a different model later in this section, one that does not require rigid categories.

If sexual orientation were neatly packaged into two or three discreet categories that were constant over time, defining them would be easy. It is not. There are many dimensions on which to focus when defining homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality, including sexual behaviour, romantic and erotic fantasy, emotional and affectional attractions, and sexual orientation self identity (cf. Coleman, 1987; Klein, 1993; Taywaditep & Stokes, 1998). These various dimensions do not always correspond in ways that make for easy categorization (Gagnon, 1989; Lever, Kanouse, Rogers, Carson, & Hertz, 1992; McKirnan, Stokes, Doll, & Burzette, 1995). For example, we have talked with a number of men who self-identify as heterosexual, but who report having and enjoying sex with both men and women (or in some cases, only with men).(1)

Most of our research on bisexuality has been conducted to further our understanding of sexual behaviours as they relate to the transmission of HIV. In the past eight years or so, our various research groups have talked at length to more than 1,500 men who have sex with men, most of them men who have sex with both men and women, and most of them men of colour. This focus on HIV/AIDS has influenced our research in two ways. First, because the prevalence of HIV among men who have sex with men is relatively high and because unprotected anal intercourse is the most efficient sexual means of transmitting HIV, our research has focused on men. Second, because HIV is transmitted through behaviours, we have employed definitions of bisexuality that are based on behaviour (e.g., "having had penetrative sex with a man and a woman in the past six months"). In other situations with other purposes, another definition might be more satisfactory. We will not attempt to define bisexuality as a general term, but we emphasize the importance of researchers' making clear how they define the term, and of clinicians' exploring clients' understanding and use of "bisexual".


Kinsey and his colleagues (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948) recognized that sexual orientation was described better by a continuum than by discrete categories. Their well known 7-point scale was anchored on either end by exclusive heterosexuality and exclusive homosexuality, with the middle five points' representing some degree of bisexuality. We prefer to think of bisexuality using a model suggested by Storms (1978, 1980), where attraction to men (AttM) and attraction to women (AttW) are treated as separate, relatively independent dimensions. Unlike the unidimensional model where bisexuality lies somewhere between heterosexuality and homosexuality, in this two-dimensional model there is not necessarily a trade-off between AttM and AttW; as one becomes more attracted to men (or women), one does not have to lose attraction to women (or men). So bisexuality occurs where AttM and AttW are both above some minimal level.

To oversimplify for the sake of illustration, assume that everyone has quantities of AttM and AttW that range from a low of zero to a high of five. A person with a zero on one dimension and a five on the other would be extremely interested in sex/romance with one gender, and not at all interested in sex/romance with the other. Such people would constitute relatively clear examples of homosexuals or heterosexuals. Other combinations of AttM and AttW are associated with increased potential for various aspects of bisexuality. We think of AttM and AttW as being determined by genetic, hormonal or other largely biological individual differences. How those attractions translate into behaviour, sexual orientation self identity, sexual fantasy, and even conscious awareness of attraction is determined by a variety of contextual, environmental, and sociocultural factors. How these more sociocultural factors influence behaviour and self identity is the topic of a later section of this paper.

An important implication of this model is that knowing that a man is attracted to women and has sex with women does not tell you much about his attraction to men or whether he has sex with men, and vice versa. The model, in combination with sociocultural influences, also helps explain the often noted lack of direct correspondence between attraction/desire, sexual behaviour, and self identity as heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual.


One other individual difference variable that is important in understanding and predicting sexual behaviour is sociosexuality, the degree to which one is willing to engage in and comfortable engaging in sex in the absence of commitment or emotional closeness (Simpson & Gangestad, 1991; the term comes from Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948). Those with a restricted sociosexual orientation want emotional closeness and some level of commitment prior to having sex. An unrestricted sociosexual orientation suggests more interest in and comfort with casual or anonymous sex, more sexual partners in a relatively short time period, and greater likelihood of having sex only once with a particular partner.

Simpson and Gangestad (1991) developed and validated a measure of sociosexuality that includes both attitudinal (e.g., "Sex without love is okay") and behavioural items (e.g., "With how many different partners have you had sex in the past year?"). Their measure was not correlated with sex drive, and only weakly associated with sexual satisfaction, anxiety, and guilt. Bailey, Gaulin, Agyei, and Gladue (1994) developed a measure of Interest in Uncommitted Sex that taps sociosexual orientation. Their measure includes only attitudes (e.g., "I could easily imagine myself enjoying one night of sex with someone I would never see again"). They avoided items that focused on behaviour, because such items confound opportunities for uncommitted sex with interest. Bailey et al. (1994) found that men were substantially higher than women in Interest in Uncommitted Sex (see also Buss & Schmitt, 1993, for other evidence supporting this finding and for an explanation in terms of evolutionary theory); they did not find differences between self-identified heterosexual and homosexual men or between heterosexual and homosexual women.


As mentioned earlier, in our research we have defined bisexual in behavioural terms. There is enormous diversity among men who meet a behavioural definition of bisexual. We offer here a somewhat simplistic typology to illustrate that diversity. We emphasize the need to recognize the fluidity of sexual behaviour and orientation; this typology is heuristic and not a system of rigid categories. Our four types, which overlap with typologies described by other researchers (Beeker, Rose, & Ames, 1990; Boulton & Coxon, 1991; Gagnon, 1977; Hartfield, Smith, & Perdue, 1990), include men in transition, experimenters, opportunity-driven men, and men with dual involvement (see also Stokes & Damon, 1995).


Some men who have sex with both men and women and who see themselves as bisexual will eventually self-identify as gay. About 40% of the mostly gay-identified men who responded to a survey in The Advocate (Lever, 1994) had at some point in their coming out process self-identified as bisexual. Given the stigma associated with homosexuality, adopting a bisexual identity and/or engaging in sex with women as well as with men may reduce the anxiety and sense of isolation many young men feel as they become aware of their attraction to other men. These "men in transition" are likely men whose AttM is high relative to their AttW, and whose AttW is below some threshold. Because homosexuality or bisexuality is relatively stigmatized, AttW is likely to be more influential than AttM in determining sexual behaviour and identity. If a man is above a certain level on AttW, he will probably have a female partner and is likely to think of himself (and be thought of by others) as heterosexual, even if his AttM is higher than his AttW.

Our previous longitudinal research with behaviourally bisexual men (Stokes, Damon, & McKirnan, 1997) supported this prediction. Over the course of one year, about one third of the sample moved toward the homosexual end of a bipolar scale of self-rated sexual orientation. This movement was predicted by variables related to sexual experiences with female partners (number of female sexual partners and age of first heterosexual experience), but not by variables related to sexual experiences with men (number of male sexual partners and age of first homosexual experience). In other wards, measures that reflected a relative lack of heterosexual experience, not indicators of homosexual experience, predicted who was "in transition".


Some men meet a behavioural definition of bisexuality because of isolated incidents of sexual behaviour. Men who identify as gay will sometimes have sex with women, usually women they know well. Men who see themselves as heterosexual may have engaged in sex with another man, often under the influence of alcohol or other substances. Some men who have open and accepting attitudes toward sexual diversity will experiment sexually in a conscious attempt to experience something different. These men are bisexual only in the rather narrow sense of having had sex with both a man and a woman.


We mentioned earlier Bailey et al.'s (1994) finding that men are on average more interested than women in sex without commitment or emotional attachment. If men are generally more interested in casual sex, then male partners would be easier to find; that is, there might be more opportunities to have sex with men. In fact, most cities have public places where men can have sexual encounters with other men. Therefore, men with a moderate level of AttM might have male sexual partners, even when their AttW is much higher than their AttM. Similarly, some men who are mainly attracted to women might have sex with other men for pay. The opportunity to make money or find housing might drive these men's sexual behaviour with men.

Men might also have sex with men when they lack the opportunity to find female sexual partners. Some men have sex with men only in situations where women are not available (e.g., on ships at sea, in prisons). Opportunity-driven men, like experimenters, would usually score toward the unrestricted end of a sociosexuality measure.


Dual involvement has two meanings: It refers to involvement at both emotional and sexual levels and to involvement with both men and women. Men in this group experience sexual attraction and emotional involvement with both men and women. Their AttM and AttW are both relatively high and multifaceted; they may or may not be interested in sex without commitment with men and/or women. Their sexual and romantic relationships with men and women may be concurrent or serial.


Herdt and Boxer (1995) argued that consideration of cultural and historical factors is essential to understanding bisexuality. The meanings of bisexual behaviour and bisexual social identity have changed throughout history (see Fox, 1996, and Gather, 1995, for more discussion on bisexuality in a historical context), and in contemporary society their meanings are a function of specific contexts and cultures. Attitudes toward sexuality in general, and same-sex sexual behaviour in particular, vary according to cultural and socioeconomic contexts. These attitudes, especially when combined with racial discrimination and lack of economic opportunity, may form a system of oppressive social forces that influence bisexual men's conceptualization of their sexuality and the salience of issues of sexual orientation relative to other concerns. In this section we consider some of those sociocultural factors. Although the factors we discuss are by no means exhaustive, we believe they illustrate the complexity of bisexuality and the necessity of considering bisexuality within a broader sociocultural framework. Throughout the following discussion, we draw on insights we have gained from participants in our research, most of whom have been African American men.


In thinking about bisexuality, one must consider two independent influences on sexual behaviour and self-perception: gender preferences in sexual partners and conceptions of masculine role norms. Masculine ideology -- the set of beliefs that an individual holds about what it means to be a man and how men should behave -- shapes how men understand their own sexuality and influences their sexual behaviour. As Pleck, Sonnenstein, and Ku (1993) suggested, masculine ideology reflects an individual's internalization of cultural expectations for men independent of the degree to which an individual man actually possesses masculine traits or is strongly male-identified.

In North American society, mainstream descriptive norms for masculinity include achievement orientation, dominance, self-confidence, and aggressiveness (Thompson & Pleck, 1986). Pleck et al. (1993) suggested that the characteristics of the male role in our society can be organized along dimensions of status, toughness, and anti-femininity. Similarly, Herek (1986) defined three components of the stereotype of traditional men: success and status, toughness and independence, and aggressiveness and dominance. Herek also emphasized that heterosexual masculinity is defined by what it is not: It is not feminine, compliant, submissive, dependent or gay.

Expectations that men should be dominant influence their sexual relationships. Research on gender roles has found that sex is of more importance to men than to women, and that men easily separate sex from intimacy (Bailey et al., 1994; Pleck et al., 1993). In Mosher and Sirkin's (1984) conception of a masculine or macho personality, key constructs include calloused attitudes toward sex and a belief that aggression and violence are manly. Men who hold more traditional masculine ideologies, compared to men with less traditional views, report more sexual partners and are more likely to view relationships with women as adversarial (Pleck et al., 1993). In general, then, men who have internalized mainstream masculine ideologies may place greater importance on sex, have multiple sexual partners, and maintain emotional distance from their partners.

At one level, we might assume that these conceptions of masculinity preclude men from engaging in sex with other men, and in some cultures that is probably true. On the other hand, adherence to a masculine ideology may be consistent with bisexual behaviour, as long as certain restrictions are in place. For example, one must not take a "feminine role" sexually, and the emphasis must be on physical pleasure to the exclusion of emotional intimacy. By being the insertive partner in sexual intercourse, men can engage in male-to-male sexual behaviour without raising concerns about their manhood. In fact, some men we have interviewed said that "taking another man" sexually is an especially satisfying way to show their power and dominance. Having sex with a man is acceptable, as long as the behaviour is "just sex", and not something more intimate and more threatening to the dominant role, like touching or kissing.(2)

The work with Latino men of Carrier and Magana (1992) and of Carballo-Dieguez (1995) showed the importance of the sexual role men take when having sex with other men. Men who take the insertive role are viewed as heterosexual and masculine, but men who take the receptive role are seen as homosexual and feminine. The latter are stigmatized, the former are not. The important cultural distinction is not the sex of one's sexual partner, but the role one takes in sexual intercourse. For these Latino men, bisexual behaviour in no way challenges their masculine, heterosexual identity. These assumptions about the relation of masculinity and same-sex sexual behaviour that are sometimes considered especially salient for Latino men also hold for many of the African American men we have interviewed. We consider further ethnic influences on masculinity and bisexual behaviour later in the section on racial and ethnic factors.


Homophobia, negative attitudes toward or fear of individuals who engage in same-sex behaviour, may have deleterious effects on people whose behaviours are not exclusively heterosexual. Men who engage in same-sex behaviour with other men may experience pervasive anxiety, shame, and guilt about their same-sex desires and encounters. Some men may have sex with women only to camouflage or counterbalance their homosexual feelings and activities (Peterson, 1992). Homophobia also may cause bisexual men to hide their behaviours from others. Stokes, McKirnan, Doll, and Burzette (1996) found that African American and white bisexual men who had high levels of internalized homophobia and who perceived that others around them were homophobic were less likely to disclose their bisexual behaviour to others. Homophobia, including internalized homophobia, may also limit the degree to which men self-identify as gay. Carballo-Dieguez and Donezal (1994) found that among Puerto Rican men who had sex with men, those who identified as bisexual or heterosexual were more homophobic than those who identified as gay. Stokes, Vanable, and McKirnan (1997) also reported that behaviourally bisexual men, compared to men who had only male sex partners, were more homophobic themselves and perceived others to be less accepting of their having sex with men.

Homophobia may also affect the type of male-to-male sexual contact that bisexual men pursue. If they have internalized society's homophobic beliefs, men who desire same-sex sexual contact may seek it only in anonymous, highly sexualized contexts, such as parks, cruise zones, adult bookstores, and bathhouses. Such furtive, anonymous encounters may increase some men's sense of shame and guilt. In addition, their sexual activities with men may be more likely to occur when they are using alcohol or other psychoactive substances, and this, in turn might increase the likelihood that they will engage in behaviours that could put them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Stokes and Peterson (1998) speculated about other ways that homophobia, through a negative impact on self-esteem, might lead to increased behaviours that put one at risk for HIV.


The difficulty of distinguishing the influences of socio-economic status (SES) and ethnicity has long plagued social scientists. Although in North American society ethnicity and SES are highly correlated, SES -- a combination of educational attainment, employment status, and economic well-being -- has a distinct influence on bisexuality.

Although people from middle and upper class backgrounds may experience greater freedom in sexual expression and may hold more accepting attitudes toward homosexual behaviour (Herek & Glunt, 1993; Marsiglio, 1993; Seltzer, 1992; West, 1977), men of lower socio-economic standing may have more opportunities for same-sex interaction. Men with fewer economic resources may have sex with men to attain money, drugs, housing or other material goods. In a large study of male hustlers in New York City (Miller, Klotz, & Eckholdt, 1998), almost three-quarters of the male prostitutes self-identified as heterosexual or bisexual and reported both male and female sexual partners. Relative to other men frequenting the same settings, male prostitutes reported lower levels of formal education. In a cluster analysis of behaviourally bisexual men, Taywaditep and Stokes (1998) found one cluster of men characterized by low levels of education and income, high levels of unemployment, and high prevalence of sex for pay. Other researchers (e.g., Elifson, Boles, & Sweat, 1993; Pleak & Meyer-Bahlburg, 1990) have found that high proportions of male prostitutes are behaviourally bisexual and do not identify as gay. For some men, lack of economic resources and opportunity may lead to bisexual behaviour that has little to do with their being sexually attracted to men.

Poverty may also be associated with gender segregated situations where the likelihood of male-to-male sexual behaviour is increased. Two examples of such situations are migrant labour camps and prisons. Many migrant labour camps are segregated by sex. Far away from family and friends, men in migrant labour camps often live in crowded, poorly maintained dormitories, and they may spend up to 16 hours each day at back-breaking labour. In labour camps, men may engage in sex with other male workers because women are not available. Similarly, men of lower SES are more likely to be in prison than men who have greater economic opportunity. Here, too, male-to-male sex may be largely or entirely attributable to the situation. Other all male settings more commonly experienced by men of lower SES include military life and gang membership.

Researchers have suggested lack of economic resources may be associated not only with bisexual behaviour, but also with self-identified sexual orientation. Carballo-Dieguez and Donezal (1994) found that among their sample of Puerto Rican men who have sex with men, those who identified as heterosexual and bisexual were of lower socioeconomic status than those who identified as gay. Rust (1996) argued that because the working classes are less likely to have been exposed to middle and upper class values regarding tolerance of diversity in general, and of differences in sexual orientation in particular, they may hold more negative views of homosexuality. Others have found that negative attitudes toward homosexuality decrease as education and other measure of socio-economic status increase (Herek & Glunt, 1993). On the other hand, working class men might be less likely to subscribe to conventional middle class values about sex and may be less concerned with what is appropriate or proper sexual behaviour (Rust, 1996). This combination of forces might lead to a situation where men from lower socio-economics classes are more likely than other men to engage in same-sex behaviour but less likely to see themselves as gay.


Because of the inherent difficulties of sampling a hidden population (Stokes, Taywaditep, Vanable, & McKirnan, 1996), estimating the prevalence of bisexuality among various racial and ethnic communities is not an easy task. Some evidence, however, suggests that bisexual behaviour is more common among African American and Latino men than among men in other racial and ethnic groups (Doll & Beeker, 1996; Stokes, Vanable, & McKirnan, 1996). Our most recent work has been with African American men, and we focus on them in this section.

If the prevalence of bisexual behaviour is relatively high among African American and Latino men, one reason might be the association between SES and ethnicity. The previous section suggests several reasons why men from lower SES groups might experience more sexual behaviour with other men. Although these factors may lead to more bisexual behaviour, they are not likely to lead to a self-identity other than heterosexual. Peterson (1992) noted that many African American men are behaviourally bisexual, but do not identify as bisexual. The reason, he felt, is quite simple: These behaviourally bisexual men do not experience homosexual feelings, emotions, and attachments for other men during their same-sex encounters. These are the opportunity-driven men in our typology, and the opportunities for same-sex activities may be greater for men with lower SES.

One other important reason for the higher prevalence of bisexuality among African American men involves sociocultural factors that relate to what we have called "men in transition". We view these as men whose attraction to men (AttM) is high, both absolutely and relative to their attraction to women (AttW). For a variety of reasons that we will mention in this section, we think African American men, relative to white men with similar levels of AttM and AttW, are likely to remain "in transition" and never establish a gay identity. The African American men are more likely to marry or to maintain close, romantic relationships with women, less likely to disclose their same-sex sexual behaviour to others, and more likely to maintain a self-identity as bisexual throughout their lifetime. The extent to which some men go to maintain a self-identity as bisexual is illustrated by a respondent who said his friends see themselves as bisexual, despite their being sexually attracted only to men, because they talk to women in clubs and sometimes get their phone numbers. "If you would say that they're gay, they'd be like `no, because I talk to girls.' But they're not having sex with girls."

Gender roles

The empirical literature on gender roles and notions of masculinity suggests that men of different SES and racial/ethnic backgrounds do not share a unified notion of what it means to be a man and what defines masculine behaviour. At its most simplistic level, racial group membership and SES may affect a man's ability to fulfil mainstream masculine ideals for achievement, so alternative constructions of manhood are developed to manage marginal social status. Social class and race/ethnicity may also provide men a set of cultural norms about masculinity that are different from European American cultural norms and expectations.

Researchers using a variety of empirical methods (Cazenave, 1984; Harris, 1994; Harris, Torres, & Allender, 1994; Hunter & Davis, 1992, 1994; Lewis, 1975) have suggested that gender role expectations for African Americans are different from those of the dominant European American culture. African American men and women are less likely to emphasize economic and status achievement as hallmarks of masculinity, and more likely to view expressive, nurturant, and communal behaviours as consistent with both masculinity and femininity. In general, African Americans are less likely than whites to link personal traits to gender, that is, to see characteristics as more appropriate to one gender than the other.

African American men, therefore, face the dilemma of having to manage European American expectations of masculine behaviour that differ from African American cultural expectations. If they follow African American values, they may not be seen as tough, hard, and dominating, all of which are part of mainstream expectations for masculinity. Moreover, racism limits their ability to succeed in terms of majority expectations for status and achievement. With their masculinity thus threatened on two fronts, the importance of behaving sexually "like a man" is increased, and sexual behaviour becomes an important arena for proving one's masculinity. Even if one is strongly attracted to men, maintaining some sort of sexual relationship with women is important.

Conceptions of sexuality

At the same time as African American men seek to manage racial oppression and competing cultural notions of manhood, they must also manage African American conceptions of sexuality. Some theorists have argued that African Americans are more liberal and accepting of sex than are other racial groups (Weinberg & Williams, 1988). Lewis (1975) maintained that within a culture in which the same attributes are valued in both genders and where sexuality is normalized, sexual self-expression becomes the primary means by which one establishes a gender role. For women, sexual self-expression emphasizes procreation. For men, procreation is also important, but so is establishing one's masculinity by being very active sexually. These various cultural forces, especially when combined with limited economic resources, lead African American men to establish their masculinity through sexual interactions. Having sex with women and being dominant in sexual encounters are desirable, regardless of one's sexual attractions and desires.

Emphasis on family

African American culture, relative to European American culture, emphasizes family and communality more than individual rights and desires (Jagers & Mock, 1993; Nobles, 1991). Rust (1996) has articulated the impact of this cultural difference for bisexual men and women. First, there is an increased obligation to marry and have children, regardless of one's same-sex attraction. There is also pressure to avoid self-identifying as gay or bisexual. "[T]o identify as bisexual, lesbian, or gay would be tantamount to rejecting not only one's gender role but also one's family and one's ethnicity" (Rust, 1996, p. 59). In addition, related to the emphasis on family is the idea that an individual's behaviour is a reflection on his or her family. Same-sex behaviour in this context brings shame to the entire family.

For men who are strongly attracted to women (i.e., those with high AttW), marrying and maintaining a heterosexual self-identity is not problematic. For men with high AttM and relatively low AttW, these pressures are stressful. Nonetheless, these men may avoid the "transition" to having sex only with men and to identifying as homosexual both to protect their families of origin, and to allow for having families of their own, assuming, of course, that they have at least some minimal AttW. For them, maintaining sexual relationships with women both provides cover for their same-sex behaviour and allows for procreation.

Culture of silence

Despite our perception that talking about heterosexual sex is perhaps more common in African American culture than in European American culture, the African American cultural norm is not to mention homosexuality explicitly. Rust (1996) noted that in cultures where family is emphasized "often, the parents tacitly know that their child is bisexual, lesbian or gay, and both parents and child act under an unspoken agreement that the daughter or son -- and often their same-sex partners -- will be accepted as long as the subject is not discussed explicitly" (p. 59). One might think this a manifestation of homophobia in the African American community, and in some sense it is, but relative to European American culture, the "phobia" seems to reflect a reluctance to mention homosexuality, rather than a reflection of especially negative attitudes toward homosexuality. This reluctance extends to not disclosing one's same-sex attraction and behaviour to others, including female sexual partners, a phenomenon we have found to be more prevalent among African American than white men (Stokes, McKirnan, et al., 1996).

The role of gay men in the African American church also illustrates this culture of silence around homosexuality. In private, almost everyone we have talked with who is knowledgeable about the African American church recognizes that gay men are heavily and probably disproportionately represented there (Zulu, 1996), and they are typically welcomed and loved. In public discourse at church, however, homosexuality is rarely mentioned except to condemn it. The tacit agreement is a variation of "don't ask, don't tell", and even men who are openly gay in other aspects of their lives are careful not to emphasize or even mention their sexual orientation in the church setting.

Double minority status

For African American men, the possible status as a gay or bisexual man must be viewed in the context of their status as an ethnic minority. For white gay and bisexual men, their status as a sexual minority is their only potential source of discrimination. Many have grown up with privilege and with faith in the political system. They believe they can mount political power to fight homophobia and heterosexism, thereby re-establishing their position of privilege and power.

As outsiders looking in, marginalized African American men may be less optimistic about their ability to muster political power. Their alienation from the political process is unlikely to change because they see themselves as bisexual or gay. The same forces that keep people of colour in general from "coming out" on Election Day also make coming out as bisexual or gay less attractive to African American men. Moreover, even if discrimination based on sexual orientation were to disappear magically, African Americans would still have to deal with racism directed at their very visible ethnic status.

As we have seen, family is an important source of support for African American men. Also, maintaining their ties with their ethnic community is highly desirable. Many of the African American men we have talked with feel that self-identifying as gay requires them to relinquish part of their identity as African American, and to do so publicly violates the culture of silence mentioned in the previous section. The two identities are sufficiently incompatible that fully embracing one requires downplaying the importance of the other.

Herdt and Boxer (1992) emphasized the importance of migration to gay ghettoes for the coming out process. For African Americans, migrating to a visible gay community means exposing oneself to potential racism and possibly losing their most important source of support, their extended family. Gay and bisexual African American men typically have no space comparable to mostly white gay neighbourhoods where they can develop and integrate their sexual and ethnic identities. Staying in the African American community, rather than the gay community, facilitates the development of their ethnic ties and identity, but may require subordinating their gay or bisexual identity; moving to areas with high concentrations of (white) gay and bisexual people fosters the opposite result. In the African American community, sexual orientation is relatively invisible, but in the gay community, ethnic identity is usually transparent. Moreover, having grown up in the African American community, bisexual men perceive support and have roots there. As a result, many African American men choose to live in their neighbourhoods of origin, downplaying their sexual orientation and finding their "gay community" where they can, often in underground bars and cruising areas.


One other relevant difference between African American and white men in contemporary society should be noted. As part of their socialization, many African American children learn to cope with a hostile, racist environment. In noting that Black Americans historically have needed strategies to deal with a hostile society, Peters (1985) quoted Richardson (1981): "It has been the responsibility and the task of black parents and the black community to prepare and condition black children for such a world" (p. 99). African American children learn that they are protected at home, but that they should be careful and suspicious outside of their communities of origin. This socialization predisposes African American men to do what is necessary to deal with and "get by" in a hostile environment. It also helps give men who are attracted to other men the coping skills necessary to deal with the hostility they may face as a result of their sexual orientation, and the ability to manage their self presentation depending on the context.


We conclude with some suggestions for how health care professionals, especially counsellors and psychotherapists, can be most helpful to bisexual men.

Do not focus on categories or worry about determining whether a client is gay, bisexual or heterosexual. Focus instead on the various aspects of his attraction to men and to women, including sexual behaviour, fantasy, and emotional or affectional intimacy. If the client uses categorical labels like "bisexual" or "gay", help him explore what they mean to him.

Where there is a need to know about sexual behaviour, and there may be in medical settings especially, ask about behaviour, not about labels or self-identification. A simple way to learn about behaviour is to start with a question like, "About how many different sexual partners have you had in the past year [or whatever time period is most relevant]?" and follow with, "Of those people, about how many were men and about how many were women?" These simple questions, asked in a nonjudgmental manner, are relatively comfortable to answer and imply that having male and female partners is not unusual.

Help the client explore his sociosexual orientation, his comfort with and interest in casual sex with both men and women. Being non-judgmental is important, of course, as is being comfortable with hearing about multiple sexual partners and anonymous sexual encounters.

Explore with the client the nature and influence of his ethnic community's values about sexuality and masculinity. What is his perception of the intersection of sexuality or sexual orientation identity and cultural or ethnic identities?

Where relevant, talk with the client about what it means to "come out", both to himself and to others. Discuss not just when and to whom, but whether and how. Recognize that coming out as gay or bisexual is not necessarily the desired end point for everyone, and that failure to come out or adopt a gay identity may not be a reflection of shame and internalized homophobia. Given some of the sociocultural factors we have mentioned -- the structure of gender roles, the emphasis on family and community as sources of support, the culture of silence around homosexuality, the need to manage multiple identities, the association of gay with white, the lack of faith in the political process, the ability to manage one's presentation depending on the context -- delaying, perhaps permanently, the transition to a gay self-identity or to sexual behaviour exclusively with men may be a rational, adaptive, and psychologically healthy choice, especially for men of colour.

Educate the client, where necessary, about behaviours that put him and his future sexual partners at risk for HIV and AIDS. Issues of disclosing one's same-sex sexual behaviour become especially important and potentially problematic when high risk sexual behaviours are involved.

Recognize that not all issues a client has are related to his bisexual feelings or behaviours (Matteson, 1996). Do not let your own curiosity or fascination with bisexual issues trump every other concern.

Know thyself, especially in terms of your own feelings about sex, casual sex, anonymous sex, sex between men, and so on. Read widely and get supervision from providers who are more experienced than you are. When your comfort level or expertise are exceeded, be willing to refer clients to other providers.

(1.) We've mentioned here only dimensions where partner's gender is primary. In its broadest sense, sexual orientation might include other aspects of partners one finds attractive. Some people are especially attracted to people with red hair, wealth, big muscles, quick minds, small feet, or a great sense of humor. For bisexual people, the gender of a potential partner is probably not so important or salient as it is for heterosexual or homosexual people.

(2.) Note the inversion, relative to dominant cultural conceptions, of which physical behaviours are the most intimate. Intercourse is acceptable, but sexual touching and kissing are not.


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Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Joseph Stokes, Department of Psychology (m/c 285), University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607-7137. Tel: 312-996-4462; email:
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Author:Stokes, Joseph P.; Miller, Robin L.; Mundhenk, Rhonda
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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