Dear Prudence: Telling bi people to stay in the closet is bad advice

In this morning's Dear Prudence, Slate's weekly live chat with advice columnist Emily Yoffe, a bisexual woman was advised to keep her identity "private" as Dear Prudence equated the woman's identity to "plushophilia" (an erotic interest in stuffed animals), getting "turned on by being a dominatrix," and to "not [being] by nature monogamous."

The woman seeking advice, whose situation was dubbed presumably by the Slate editors, as "Irrelevant closet," even though no one's "closet" is "irrelevant," explained in the Dear Prudence chat that she is happily married to a man, with whom she is and will continue to be monogamous, and that she also recently came out as bisexual to her husband. Yoffe replied:

Let’s say you discovered a late breaking interest in plushophilia, or you now realized you were turned on by being a dominatrix. This would not be news you’d be required to announce at the next Thanksgiving gathering. The rapidity with which society has accepted, even embraced, gay sexual orientation is a glorious phenomenon. But you are confusing your personal sexual exploration with a social imperative. It would be one thing if you left your marriage because you were pursuing relationships with women. That would be worth talking about—if you wanted to—as a way of explaining the dissolution of your marriage. But you say you are planning to not only stay with your husband but remain monogamous. I agree with your husband that making a public announcement about something so private will not be illuminating but discomfiting.

The internet was not pleased.

To start, while there should be no shame in how one expresses one's desires such as those Yoffe names, to equate such expressions with bisexuality is to fetishize, and therefore attempt to belittle or invalidate, bisexuality as an identity. She continues to ignore bisexuality's validity as an identity when she refers to the woman's realization as "personal sexual exploration," despite the fact that the woman made it clear that she is not interested in "exploring" anything, but rather has begun the journey of being open about who she is with the people she loves. The bi community is often hyper-sexualized in the media, when the reality is that bi people, like all people express their sexualities in a myriad of ways. To quote GLAAD's Media Reference Guide, bisexual does not mean promiscuous.

Throughout the chat, titled "Private Bi," (don't even get me started on the headline…there's a difference between a pun and making fun of a community for the sake of "catchy" click bait), Yoffe fails to discuss bisexuality as the valid identity that it is. She refers to "gay sexual orientation," and says the reader's identity would only be "worth talking about" if she were in a relationship with a woman. But what Yoffe fails to realize is that the woman with whom she's speaking is bisexual no matter who she's romantically involved with. As stated by GLAAD's Media Reference Guide: Simply because a person is currently in a same-sex relationship, that does not negate his or her bisexual orientation. Similarly, if a person is in what appears to be a heterosexual relationship, that also does not negate his or her bisexual orientation. This is because bisexuality is an identity, and a person's identity is not defined by other people.

As Anna Paquin, who is openly bi, recently told Larry King, "if you were to break up with them or if they were to die, it doesn’t prevent your sexuality from existing. It doesn’t really work like that."

Following this initial exchange, another reader contributed, disagreeing with the Dear Prudence columnist. The contributor wrote:

A 2013 Pew Study found that around 70 percent of bisexual people are not out to their family and friends. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who think bisexual people just don’t exist until you read that statistic. Gay and lesbian acceptance has dramatically improved in the past decade especially, and it’s because gay and lesbian people, and their allies, are vocal about it. I’m not saying during the family reunion this woman should say “Can you pass the butter, grandpa? Oh, and by the way, I’m sexually attracted to women, but am still monogamously committed to Jared.” But, there will be many opportunities to let the people in her life know in the context of the fight for marriage equality and sexual orientation as a federally protected class. If a homophobic, or even ambivalent person, knows more LGBT people, the less likely they are to hold prejudice.

This reader kindly and succinctly brought the issues of identity erasure, and the importance of LGBT and bi visibility, to the chat's attention. Yet, even despite seeing her advice as less than helpful in the context of building social and political equality, Yoffe did not budge. Instead, Yoffe once again asserted that because the woman is monogamously married to a man, her bisexual identity somehow becomes unimportant.

It is disappointing that well-known and renowned advice column such as Dear Prudence is perpetuating the unhealthy invalidations that create social, emotional, and political hurdles for the bi community. People who are bisexual experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and tobacco use compared to gay, lesbian, and straight folks. Bi erasure like what Yoffe perpetuated this morning is thought to be strongly tied with these health disparities. Stereotypes that mock or invalidate bisexuality are also often invoked in times of interpersonal violence, which people who are bi face at an alarming rate. Indeed, sometimes invalidating a person's identity simply because they are not in a same-sex relationship can have life-threatening consequences.

The Advocate noted in a piece published earlier today that "Prudence's unfortunate response happened to be published on the one-year anniversary of Slate’s LGBTQ section, Outward, and the same day The Advocate published a new series looking to dispel common misconceptions about bisexuality, including the myth that bisexuality is irrelevant if the partners are in a committed, monagamous relationship."

GLAAD has reached out to several members of Slate's editorial team and Dear Prudence, but as of time of publishing, they have not responded.

GLAAD continues to work on bringing attention to the bi community and its relevant issues, including calling out the media on bi erasure and working closely with leading bi advocates and orgs in preparation for Bisexual Awareness Week, which is less than a month away. To learn more on best practices for covering the bisexual community, check out the bi-specific section in GLAAD's Media Reference Guide at glaad.org/reference/bisexual.

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