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The silent B in LGBT: Bisexual people in the workplace

LGBT History Month shines light on how we still need to correct harmful stereotypes about bisexual people so they can feel comfortable at work

A few years ago a report from Stonewall, Bisexual People in the Workplace, found that bisexual people were often described by their colleagues as 'uncertain', 'indecisive' and even 'unstable'.

I have three questions: has this perception changed? If not, why do such harmful stereotypes persist? And, significantly, what can be done to shift these attitudes?

1. Bisexuals at work: Still silent and stigmatised?

Research and anecdotal evidence on the way we portray bisexual people is not very encouraging. Negative, discriminatory attitudes and portrayals of bisexual people are commonplace, and come from within the lesbian and gay community too.

How often do you hear bisexual people described as 'swinging both ways', being 'greedy', unable to 'make up their mind', or going through a 'phase' on the way to coming out as 'fully' gay? And what about the frequent assumption that if a bisexual person is with someone of the opposite sex they must now be straight?

Worryingly, a number of studies, as detailed in BiUK and the Open University’s Bisexuality Report: Bisexual inclusion in LGBT equality and diversity, show that 'of all the common sexual identity groups bisexual people most frequently have mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidality'.

2. Why do harmful stereotypes about bisexual people persist?

There seems to be a self-perpetuating cycle: the lack of awareness of bisexuality and the little positive debate it generates means that fewer bisexual people are likely to be out to colleagues than gay men and lesbians (Gay in Britain, Stonewall).

For bisexual staff coming out is not a one-off occurrence. People may often assume their bisexual colleagues are heterosexual or homosexual depending on their current partner. The added pressure of deciding whether to challenge this assumption, or to 'pass' as straight, gay or lesbian each time the topic comes up can be incredibly daunting. Consequently some will choose not to disclose their identity, meaning bisexuality remains largely invisible in the workplace.

3. What can be done to shift attitudes?

If individuals don’t speak up then awareness and understanding will be limited, which means no-one speaks up. Clearly it is time to break this cycle.

Many of us are drawn to simple solutions. We are all too frequently focused on meeting other people’s expectations, and in finding labels that avoid confusion both for ourselves and others.

Fear of being rejected is something the majority of us will experience at some point in our lives, in some form or another. For much of the LGBT+ community this can be a constant. And with most of our lives spent working, not being able to bring our whole selves to work benefits no-one.

It will ultimately always be up to the individual to decide whether to come out, when and to whom. But employers have a significant role in creating an environment where everyone feels empowered to be themselves without fear or judgement.

Ensuring we steer clear of bi-erasure includes not only tackling biphobia but the culture as a whole. Here are some actions to consider:

Examine the make-up of your workforce: Do you have any bi representation?

Provide training and raise awareness of issues experienced by bisexual people.

Set up an LGBT+ employee network. Encourage participation from bisexual employees.

Make your language clear in all communications and policies so that they are inclusive of bisexual staff.

The Acas guide on sexual orientation discrimination offers useful insights for employers too, including key areas where discrimination can happen in the workplace.

Like many things this is easier said than done; changes across all areas of life are needed and we still have a long road ahead. But if every employer promoted and supported all LGBT+ rights we would be that bit closer to equality, and perhaps soon enough the ‘B’ in LGBT would have a voice of its own.

Simone Cheng is a policy adviser at Acas