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Health Summit topic: Good Bi (research) [8 August, 2009]

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The annual LGBTI Health Summit was held at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, 720 S.  Michigan, August 14-18, and the five-day international event kicked off with an entire day devoted to the issues and needs of bisexuals.  According to the organizers, this is only the second event with a focus on bisexuality and health, the first being the Bi Health Summit at the 2003 North American Conference on Bisexuality in San Diego.

On August 14, a keynote session included a welcome and introduction to bisexual health issues by Julie Ebin, a member of the Bi Health Summit Coordinating Committee.  Ebin said that issues around bisexual health revolved the questions of “whether bi individuals take care of their own individual health, whether and how an individual’s sexuality impacts their own individual health, and whether and how an individual’s sexuality affects their access to resources.”

Ebin was followed by two speakers, Cheryl Dobinson and Stewart Landers.  Dobinson wrote Ten Things Bisexual People Should Discuss with Their Health Care Providerswith Dr.  Leah Steele for the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association in 2008.  Landers presented information about health disparities experienced by bisexuals in Massachusetts.  His report used data from the 2001-2007 Massachusetts Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System surveys.

As Ebin explained, bisexuals face very particular issues even in terms of how their sexual orientation is marginalized in society, and that kind of stigmatization has an impact on their health.  She said that culture, at large, sees bisexuals in terms of enduring stereotypes: exploitative (willing to switch between lesbian/gay and straight identities as convenient; duplicitous; and unwilling to commit to any one identity.  Bisexuals and their allies constantly work to dismantle these stereotypes by providing counter-narratives.  But, in the meantime, bisexuals face unique challenges, compounded by other factors.  As Ebin put it, “Bi health does not exist in a vacuum.  Issues like race, disability, financial resources and history of imprisonment can all relate to health disparities.”

A bisexual person, faced with a health concern like herpes might wonder, “Will my lesbian group of friends shut me out? Am I putting my boyfriend at risk because I have unprotected sex with my girlfriend?” Ebin said that such quandaries complicated bi health concerns.  Health providers need to consider such matters and ask, “Do Bis have more mental health concerns? How do these relate to biphobia, internal and external?” She said that bisexuals were less likely to seek health care because of experiences with previous treatment.  The goal of the summit, according to Ebin, was to increase the pool of Bi competent providers and to ensure that they could “detect potential causes [for poor bisexual health] ; tailor messaging; become health advocates and case providers and study what bi communities are doing well.”

Following Ebin, Dobinson provided research material that indicated that bisexuals are a significant part of the population and that ten health issues in particular were to be considered in relation to bi health.  In each case, bisexuals reported higher rates of prevalence than their lesbian/gay/heterosexual peers.  The issues included tobacco abuse, alcohol abuse, depression (25% of bisexual women reported depression) , anxiety (18% of bisexual women reported anxiety, as opposed to 6% of heterosexual women).  Dobinson also said that research indicated that “many bisexual men engage in relatively high rates of unprotected sex with male partners,” leading to a 2007 report that concluded that “Bi behaviour and identity were risk factors for HIV infection in men.”  Dobinson also said that bisexuals reported higher rates of experiencing violence physical and sexual abuse than heterosexuals and higher than or similar rates to gay men and lesbians.

Landers’ presentation confirmed Dobinson’s research findings.  Both agreed that there needs to be more research on bisexuals and that, as Dobinson put it, “more research is needed that collects and analyzes information on bisexuals separately from gay men and lesbians.”  Landers also said that, “Information on disparities can inform how public health resources are allocated to improve health, including identifying areas for intervention and the development of future research.”

Overall, the panellists and audience members agreed that increasing cultural competency on the part of health care providers is crucial.  Equally important is the funding of projects specifically targeted towards the needs of bisexuals. 

Originally published in Windy City Times, 8 August, 2009.

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