“We’ve all been conditioned to hear the word ‘bisexual’ in Black men, and automatically think, ‘Oh, they’re going to cheat and give me HIV’ or that they are secretly gay,” says JR Yussuf, 30-year-old author (The Other F Word: Forgiveness) and online advocate for bisexual men (#BisexualMenSpeak).
For many bisexual Black men, a falsified reputation precedes them, and most mainstream images of Black male sexuality do very little to help. In his essay “How Black Mirror’s ‘Striking Vipers’ Episode Failed Bisexual Men & Trans Women,” Yussuf takes on the popular Netflix series’ depiction of two Black men, Danny and Karl, who engage in a secret and forbidden sexual relationship. Masked by their characters in a video game, the two men––one of whom is married to a woman, the other, dates women––live out their fantasies in simulated bodies via virtual reality from a video game. By the episode’s final scene however, little discourse was had between Danny and Karl about sexuality or identity. This lack of clarity, for Yussuf, contributes to the distortion that Black bisexual men are “liars, cheaters and sexually insatiable.”
Stereotypes aside, studies on Black male bisexuality tell a different story. While a whopping 52% of the LGBT community identifies as bisexual, the less-than-desirable traits associated with male bisexuality in the Black community leave many men in a state of nondisclosure. A 2018 study on the factors contributing to STI/HIV contraction in bisexual Black men found that internalized heterosexism (not wanting to appear “gay”) was “consistently linked” to STI/HIV self-reporting and diagnosis. Another 2018 study, “Psychosocial Health Disparities Among Black Bisexual Men in the U.S.: Effects of Sexuality Nondisclosure and Gay Community Support,” found that 56.7% of black men who have sex with both men and women don’t receive support from the gay community because they are not open about their sexuality. This of course, led to a decline in their psychosocial health. But the latter study does note: “We note that, particularly among Black bisexual men, sexuality nondisclosure should not be viewed in and of itself as inherently problematic, as in many instances disclosure could in fact subject men to reduced social support in other areas of their lives and could also contribute to further violence victimization, including intimate partner violence.”
In essence, because of the stigmas surrounding Black male bisexuality, many Black bisexual men are living covertly––or on the “down-low”–– without the support of one other, to lessen the likelihood of being abandoned by their immediate communities. And it’s negatively affecting their health.
“Let’s not act like this ‘down-low’ thing is something that just came about and is so underhanded,” says Aaron, 36, a Black bisexual man. “Motherf***ers don’t go down-low unless they need to be that to survive or something. Or they’ve been made to feel like they have to do that to survive. Let’s not act like brothers could be all out in the open, and that they’d be embraced and loved. That’s a bold-faced lie.”
The “down-low,” a term that has long been a marker of disgrace, is more accurately a shame response to trauma. Dating all the way back to slavery in the Americas, many male slaves were the victims of sodomy by male slave owners. This presented a historical ideological restructuring of male-on-male sexual relationships (homosexuality was a practice in ancient Egypt long before slavery). Moreover, the introduction of Christianity and other Western belief systems have also been detrimental to sexuality messaging. “You’re dealing with growing up in some churches where women couldn’t even wear pants,” Aaron recalls of his religious upbringing. “Or some places where people couldn’t even wear makeup. You couldn’t show your legs, you couldn’t show this, that or the other. So heaven forbid you end up finding yourself in a sexual situation with someone else. Then you’re going straight to hell.” This is the experience of many Black youths, including 31-year-old Kelvin Hunter, a Black bisexual man who grew up under the religious laws of Catholicism. “When you take a person from their homeland, rip them of their culture, their language, their spirituality, their religion and such, and then you put them in a new country and you force these societal ideals upon them, you take a piece of them away,” he notes.
While the Black church serves as a refuge for many Black men despite their sexual orientation, issues of safety remain a concern for bisexual Black men in their everyday lives. Aaron describes not being able to go to his local barbershop comfortably. Hunter, a devout black nerd (“blerd”), remembers a time when video game cosplay became potentially dangerous on a Metro train in Washington, D.C. The crossroads between sexual orientation and masculine presentation present real threats to Black men.
“Growing up, I definitely learned very quickly that if I want to be safer, then I just have to dress more masculine,” Yussuf recalls. “If I dress like this, people won’t bother me. If I walk a little different, if I take a little bit of the excitement out of my walk, and keep my hands straight, people won’t bother me, But if I just allowed myself to just be, to just wear whatever the f**k I want, I’m in danger, I’m a target, people are going to bother me.”
Definitions of masculinity remain archaic and limiting, and many Black women are guilty of applying these ideals to romantic and sexual relationships.
“Especially dealing with women, if you’re going to be a very bouncy, giddy guy, if they’re looking for a mate, in the black culture or just women in general, they’re taught to go after a ‘strong’ male that’s going to be a provider and such,” Hunter says. “And if you don’t exhibit those traits in your personality, then they’re not necessarily going to find you attractive. You’ll be friend-zoned.”
In the most extreme cases of Black women perpetuating harmful models of heterosexism, conflicting commentary can be offered to conversations surrounding Black male sexuality. In a viral Twitter video, three Black women are seen discussing Black men who find pleasure in anal stimulation. According to one woman: “If you don’t moan from me riding you, but you moan from my finger in your ass, a guy can have you, I do not want you! If I can penetrate your ass, I do not want you if you are a straight man. If I know you are bisexual and I choose to deal with you, that’s completely different.” In the same breath, Black male sexual exploration is discouraged, while disclosure of sexual orientation is encouraged. Moreover, science (the prostate = the male “G-spot”) is neglected in favor of heterosexist ideals.
Heteronormative relationship concepts also threaten to diminish the experiences of bisexual Black men.
“It’s frustrating because a lot of times, it feels as though regardless of which gender you date, a lot of times people will project their insecurities onto you,” Yussuf says. “So they might feel like ‘Oh, I’m not enough,’ or ‘Oh, I don’t have a penis so I couldn’t satisfy you,’ or ‘Oh, I don’t have a womb. We couldn’t really be a legitimate family.’ And that’s not cool, to project how you’re feeling or your insecurities onto someone else.”
The black-and-white approach to the Black man’s role in sexual and romantic relationships is the result of dehumanization, at least according to where Aaron is standing. “Black men have never been seen as humans. We’ve been seen as tools of some sense. We are tools to either: make sure your business works right, make sure that we can provide for children, make sure that we can lead a revolution, make sure we can take the bullet, make sure we can be eloquent, make sure we can be ratchet, make sure we can entertain. These are the ways Black men are looked at being. Not one time have you looked at a Black man and said, ‘What’s happening, human?’ ‘How are you, human?’”
The stress of constantly toeing the lines of heterosexism and hypermasculinity, naturally, poses a threat to the mental health of bisexual Black men. A 2013 American Psychological Association study on the relationship between bisexuality concealment and mental health found that “greater concealment correlated with more symptoms of depression and anxiety and lower positive emotions.”
“You don’t feel as connected to people in your life when you don’t feel like you can share every part of your experience, so a lot of us feel really alone and like we have to hold everything in and hold things back,” Yussuf says. Similar sentiments were also noted by Aaron: “It fucks with your self-esteem, it fucks with your emotional health. It pushes people into dangerous places, and it creates dangerous, unhealthy habits. If you’re frightened to open up to people and be who you truthfully are, it pushes you to the shadows.”
The picture painted for Black bisexual men so far, is a bleak one but still not totally hopeless. Men like Chance the Rapper's younger brother, Taylor Bennett is an out and proud bisexual Black man. In fact, he became a father earlier this year, prompting him to further explain his preferences to questioning fans. Singer Kehlani also had her first baby with a bisexual Black man who was her friend and guitarist before he fathered her child. Fans repeatedly questioned their relationship, prompting Javie Young White to respond on Twitter, writing, "i’ve never been a sperm donor nor do i identify as gay nor have i ever been *the gay best friend* lol. i am a father to my beautiful daughter and I like what I like. if you gon be aimless & nosey least have yo facts straight."
Most Gen Z members consider that sexuality is on a spectrum and seem less concerned with category focused definitions than their millennial or Gen X counterparts. Though it is evident by the responses from these men, who are somewhat in the spotlight, and their exasperation with public scrutiny that there is a large degree of misunderstanding in general.
But for Aaron, that’s society’s problem to fix, not his own. “Asking a bi person how to end the discrimination is like asking a black person how to end discrimination,” he says. “The Black person was not responsible for creating it, and neither was the bi person.” Additionally, the timeline he sees for lasting change, doesn’t include his own lifetime. “Oftentimes when we’re fighting for freedom and fighting for justice, we want to be young enough to enjoy that justice. And oftentimes, we’re not.”
As a younger, more open generation defies the constructs of gender and sexual identity, the future is proverbially in their hands. So what words of affirmation would these older Black bisexual men have for successors who come out to them?
“There’s going to be a lot of people who are going to be opposed to that. And the most important thing for you, is to be sure of yourself. So if this is how you feel and this is your truth, then I support you,” Hunter says.
“I would keep it very normal and just say, ‘Thank you so much for telling me that,’” Yussuf says. “And I hear you, and I see you.”
*Some names have been omitted or changed.