It wasn’t that long ago that embattled Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was hailed as a triumph of bisexual representation. After she was sworn in in January 2019, Out celebrated the first openly bisexual senator as a “rebuke to Trumpism,” positioning the “sassy lawmaker” in opposition to homophobic then-Vice President Mike Pence.
It wasn’t that long ago that embattled Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was hailed as a triumph of bisexual representation.
But just a few years into her tenure, public opinion has soured on Sinema. Instead of a brash, bisexual icon willing and able to stand up to the far right, she’s now seen as an unreliable centrist, a self-absorbed Democratic turncoat more fixated on getting attention and lining her own pockets than uplifting her community. No longer a bi icon, she’s now held up as a cautionary tale about the limits of representation.
As a bisexual woman — and one who, like Sinema, is white and cisgender — I now cringe every time the senator makes the headlines. Whether it’s fashion columnists dissecting her showy personal style, cartoonists mocking her as a “manic pixie dream senator” or the seemingly endless analyses of her inscrutability, Sinema seems to embody many of the nasty assumptions about bi women I’ve worked my whole life to avoid.
Bi women are constantly told we’re untrustworthy, that our attraction to multiple genders means we’re more likely to cheat. We’re called greedy for finding more than one gender attractive, “confusing” for liking more than one gender and self-absorbed because apparently our brains are unable to think about much beyond our own sexual gratification. Within the LGBTQ community, bisexuals can be viewed as fair-weather members at best — likely to bail the second we stop having fun. Media outlets might not be talking about Sinema’s sex life, but her political reputation as greedy, unreliable and attention-seeking echoes many of the stereotypes my community has been dealing with for years.
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“Is she bad for the bisexuals?” I find myself wondering on a nearly daily basis. It feels uncharitable to put so much responsibility on one woman’s shoulders. Yet given that she’s arguably the most prominent bisexual woman in the nation, it feels fair to wish she’d put a little more effort into being a bit less of a stereotype.
At the same time, I find myself wondering why Sinema’s sexuality matters so much to me in the first place. What does “bisexual representation” actually mean in this instance?
Bisexuals have a unique perspective that should ideally be helpful when crafting legislation.
One obvious answer is that bisexuals have a unique perspective that should ideally be helpful when crafting legislation. There’s no question that bisexuals face our own particular challenges when it comes to topics like sexual health, mental health and abuse and assault.
At the height of the HIV epidemic, bi people, and especially bi men, were frequently treated as vectors of disease; yet bi-specific outreach and education was thin. Research has shown that bi people, particularly bi women, are at an elevated risk for depression, anxiety, substance use and suicide; yet mental health resources are rarely targeted specifically to the bi community. Bi women are also at an elevated risk of abuse and assault: 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that over 60 percent of bisexual women reported experience with rape, intimate partner violence or stalking, compared to over 43 percent of lesbians and 35 percent of straight women. Bisexual women are also extremely vulnerable to poverty: A 2019 report showed nearly 30 percent of the community living below the poverty line — a rate matched only by the percentage of transgender people of all sexual orientations living in poverty.
In theory, electing more bisexuals will lead to better legislation that more thoughtfully addresses bisexual-specific concerns, making sure bisexuals don’t fall through the cracks of public health, anti-violence and anti-poverty initiatives. But in practice, it’s clear that politicians from marginalized backgrounds don’t always act in the best interests of their community. Sinema herself is proof of that. Despite her own history with poverty, she’s worked to gut the social safety net provisions included in the Build Back Better Act.
According to Gallup poll results published in February, about 3 percent of Americans identify as bisexual — and yet in over 200 years, there have only been two openly bisexual members of Congress: Sinema and Katie Hill, who stepped down less than a year into her first term after her ex-husband allegedly leaked private photos revealing that the couple had been sexually involved with a female campaign staffer. With Hill out of office, Sinema is the only bisexual member of Congress out of the 535 possible voting members. (For comparison, there are currently seven gay men and three lesbians in Congress.)
This brings me back to my frustration with Sinema. Watching news outlets eat her alive, it’s hard not to feel like America’s getting a rather poor first impression of what bisexuals bring to the table as legislators. Will voters shy away from other bisexual candidates out of a fear that we’ll turn out to be just as fickle as Sinema? Probably not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some potential legislators found themselves less eager to publicly identify as bisexual in the wake of Sinema’s first Senate term.
On the other hand, perhaps the opposite will be true. Maybe Sinema will inspire a new wave of openly bisexual politicians, simply out of a desperation to prove that Kyrsten Sinema is not an accurate representation of all bisexuals. If that were to happen, it’d offer an ironic twist on Sinema’s story. She could very well be the best thing to ever happen to bisexuals in politics — if only because she inspires so many of us to stand up and reject the example she’s set for the country.