High Risk, Few Resources: Bisexual Kids Lack Help When They Need It Most

Bisexual young people face intense bullying and harassment and report poorer mental health outcomes than gay, lesbian, or straight youth.

[Photo: A teenager sits and looks at her phone in school]
Bisexual youth face other disparities that compound poorer mental health outcomes. Shutterstock

In early March, 12-year-old Andy Leach of Mississippi died by suicide.

The causes of death by suicide are never fully known. But there is evidence that he had been struggling at school after telling his peers that he thought he might be bisexual. He experienced bullying and harassment there as a result.

And Andy wasn’t alone: Bisexual young people (who make up the largest proportion of LGB students) face intense bullying and harassment and report poorer mental health outcomes than gay, lesbian, or straight youth.

But when they need it most, they have few resources and services to turn to.

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December found that bisexual-identified youth are the most likely among sexual minority—meaning non-straight—youth to report suicide risk behaviors.

The paper analyzed data from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a federally authorized, state-administered survey of high school youth across the country. It examined three measures of suicide risk behavior: seriously considering, planning, and attempting suicide. Bisexual students reported the highest risk for each behavior. Especially concerning was the percentage of youth who reported attempting suicide in the past year. Over one-third of bisexual-identified female students reported attempting suicide, nearly 10 percentage points more than lesbian-identified students and four times higher than straight-identified female students. Bisexual-identified male students also reported risks higher than straight- and gay-identified male students.

Again, the causes behind these heightened risks are varied and individualized. But according to a 2011 study in the Educational Researcher, nearly half of bisexual youth reported being bullied, threatened, or harassed in the year prior through the internet or by text, compared to about 20 percent of straight youth, about 30 percent of lesbian and gay youth, and about 31 percent of questioning youth.

Such bullying doesn’t always come from peers. In March, a Republican state representative candidate in Maine called Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor Emma González a “skinhead lesbian” after learning that González has more Twitter followers than the NRA. In fact, González is bisexual, the president of her high school’s LGBTQ student organization, and now a national spokesperson for gun safety in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. (The candidate, Leslie Gibson, has since dropped out of the race.)

Bisexual youth face other disparities that compound poorer mental health outcomes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 30 percent of students who had “sexual contact with both sexes” and 23 percent of students who identified as bisexual had experienced dating violence, compared to 20 percent of students who had “only had sexual contact with the same sex” and 14 percent of students who had “only had sexual contact with the opposite sex.”

One-fifth of youth experiencing homelessness identify as bisexual. And one quarter of these bisexual youth experiencing homelessness indicated that they were homeless because of physical abuse by their parents.

Unsurprisingly, these disparities are worsened for youth at the intersections of bisexuality and other vulnerable identities, such as transgender and gender non-conforming bisexual youth, and bisexual youth of color. Data is harder to find on how intersecting identities impact bisexual youth, because sample sizes are frequently too small to further analyze, but there is evidence that bisexual transgender adults experience deep mental health disparities and report very high rates of sexual violence. Bisexual adults of color, meanwhile, report high rates of economic insecurity and specific physical health disparities.

Bisexual and pansexual youth—who frequently define pansexuality as having the potential to be attracted to someone regardless of gender—who are struggling with bullying, harassment, violence, homelessness, or other problems that impact their mental health have few places to turn.

When the LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign surveyed thousands of LGBTQ youth in 2012, they found that bisexual youth were less likely than their gay and lesbian peers to know if there was a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) in their school, or if there was an LGBTQ community center in their area. Few bisexual adults (similar studies have not been done for youth) feel comfortable accessing LGBTQ-specific services and programs. When Pew Research surveyed thousands of LGBTQ people in the United States on their lived experiences, it found that bisexual adults were much less likely to join an LGBTQ organization or attend an LGBTQ Pride event.

In 2016, according to an annual report by Funders for LGBTQ Issues, bisexual-specific programs and services received $300 in grant funding, down from almost $500,000 in 2015. While the $300 total was due to a lack of reporting by the largest granter of funds to bisexual communities, both sums equal less than 1 percent of the over $169 million in grant funding that targeted the broader LGBTQ community in 2016.

According to the same report, funding for LGBTQ youth in general totaled over $20 million in 2016. These organizations are well known: the Trevor Project, GLSEN, the GSA Network, Advocates for Youth, and others. There aren’t many organizations, however, that are aimed specifically at bisexual young people. And when one searches for resources for bisexual youth on the internet—as young people themselves might—the first page does populate online FAQs from Advocates for Youth and the Pride Resource Center, but it also brings up quizzes and advice columns that perpetuate myths about bisexuality.

Not on that first page: dedicated resources to help bisexual youth talk to their parents, their peers, and their teachers; research authenticating and verifying the experiences that bisexual young people are having in school; resources on the rights that bisexual students have in school; and most importantly, a place for bisexual youth to talk to each other and to bisexual adult role models who can share their stories and strategies.

Luckily, bisexual young people like Emma González are powerfully resilient, creating their own networks of support for themselves and each other. It remains clear, however, just how few dedicated resources there are for bisexual youth.