There have been major advances in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (“LGBT+”) rights over recent years with, for example, leaps forward in marriage equality and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India. But more progress needs to be made. How can employers support their bisexual staff and create diverse and welcoming workplaces?
While a lot has been done to support the “L” and “G” in “LGBT+”, the “B” (and the “T”) are still too often overlooked and treated as "silent". According to research by the Office for National Statistics (“ONS”), around 0.8% of the UK population is bisexual (1.2% say that they are either lesbian or gay).This means there are about 500,000-600,000 bisexual people in the country.
Although there is no universally accepted definition, bisexuality can broadly be described as a sexual and/or romantic orientation towards more than one gender/sex. The term bisexual is often used as an umbrella term encompassing all forms of orientation towards more than one gender (for example, pansexual or biromantic).
Sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA), which protects individuals from direct and indirect sexual orientation discrimination, harassment related to sexual orientation and victimisation. Section 12 of the EqA defines “sexual orientation” as a person’s sexual orientation towards persons of:
- the same sex;
- the opposite sex; or
- either sex
This means bisexual men and women are protected, as well as people of all other sexual and/or romantic orientations. This is explained further in the ACAS guidance on sexual orientation discrimination.
The EqA also protects individuals from discrimination because a perceived sexual orientation, even where that perception is inaccurate. So, for instance, treating a bisexual colleague unfairly because she is believed to be lesbian would fall within the remit of the EqA.
Biphobia and bisexual discrimination
Bisexual people face their own particular issues, some of them distinct from other sections of the LGBT+ community. While times are changing, bisexuality is still poorly understood by many (including some within the LGBT+ community itself).
More specifically, there is a range of damaging myths surrounding bisexuality. Bisexual people are not “greedy” and are not “going through a phase”. If a bisexual person marries someone of another gender, it does not mean that they have “picked a side” or that they were “kidding themselves” previously. Bisexual people are not any more or less scared of commitment than anyone else and, as the ONS statistics referred to above show, are not as rare as unicorns.
All such stereotypical beliefs are examples of biphobia. If repeated in the workplace, any of these comments might be enough to substantiate a sexual orientation discrimination claim. Compensation for a successful discrimination claim in the Employment Tribunal is uncapped, so the stakes for employers are high.
The issue of bi-invisibility is one the bisexual community has faced for years. Also known as “bi-erasure”, it is a specific kind of biphobia that occurs when people ignore, discredit or re-explain either someone’s own bisexuality or bisexuality in general. An example could be referring to someone as “straight now” or “gay now”, because of the gender of their current partner.
The bisexuality of celebrities often tends to be glossed over. Freddie Mercury is often referred to as a gay man, yet he had many relationships with both men and women and identified himself as being bisexual. And although David Bowie was married to a woman for many years, that did not make him any less bi.
Bi-erasure is hurtful and harmful, diminishing self-esteem and making people feel ostracised. According to research by the Equality Network, around 70% of bisexual people can feel excluded by both the straight community and the LGBT+ community. It may also explain recent statistics published by Stonewall, which revealed that 38% of bisexual people are not out to anyone at work (compared to 18% of LGB people overall).
What should employers be thinking about?
The impact of not being out in the workplace is well-documented. If employees have to hide who they are or do not feel accepted, they will be less happy, not so productive and more likely to leave. As a result, there is a cost for employers in terms of employee engagement and talent retention.
Employers should ensure that the particular issues faced by the bisexual community are properly covered by the equality and diversity training they provide for staff. This should draw attention to the dangers of making assumptions about someone’s sexuality based on the gender of their partner.
Someone in a same-sex relationship might not be gay, and someone in a mixed-sex relationship might not be straight. Bisexual people often experience the need to come out twice (or more) - once when they have a partner of the same sex, and again if they then go on to have a partner of a different sex.
Employers should think about how they could be perceived by job applicants - is your workplace openly and demonstrably bi-friendly? For example, what articles or resources come up in a Google search of [company name] + bisexual? Do you have bisexual role models who are visible on the internet and social media?
Finally, employers should consider properly recognising Bi-visibility Day (also known as Celebrate Bisexuality Day) - a globally recognised day on 23 September each year to acknowledge and support the bisexual community. With bisexual people being the least likely to be out in the workplace, this provides an opportunity for employers to make their bi staff feel appreciated and represented. More broadly, Bi-visibility Day is a means of demonstrating that your workplace is a bi-friendly one, thereby boosting your employment brand.