Deana Williams shares how the harmony of her Black and bisexual identities led to her research improving the health of bisexual+ and biracial elders.
By Deana Williams
If I could describe my first experiences being Black and queer/bisexual, one word comes to mind: harmony. While I had yet to explicitly learn the terms queer or bisexual, I did experience attraction without someone’s gender ever crossing my mind. When I recall these memories, I can’t help but smile. I had yet to be questioned, mistreated, misunderstood, or misrepresented. I felt no fear, no frustration. On labeling herself as bisexual, Bi History archivist Mel Reeve eloquently says, “To name this part of myself I first had to learn I was something other than what I was expected to be.” Over time, this “otherness” of my identity became apparent to me.
For some people, finding a sexual identity label that “fits” is a moment of relief and joy. When I finally had access to the term bisexual as a teenager, there was no such celebration. Let me be clear – I was not ashamed of myself, but I did feel the shame society placed on me. I knew no other bisexual people of color, and I certainly did not know anyone who was Black and bisexual. I already felt paradoxically hyper-visible and invisible when navigating my Blackness in predominantly white spaces. Publicly adding on a queer label felt exhausting at best, and jeopardizing at worst.
Two points also became clear: I was often expected to choose my Blackness over my queerness, and my queerness was frequently erased. During undergrad, I vividly remember a family member expressing their disappointment when I enrolled in a Queer Studies course instead of a Black feminist theory course, and I’ll never forget a former male partner telling me “you’re not even bisexual, you haven’t dated any women since I’ve known you, so you may as well stop saying that.”
Enough already! Being a Black bisexual woman is not a performance. I can’t and won’t tease these identities apart to make myself more appealing for public consumption. I refuse to be pressured to prove myself exclusively loyal to my Blackness, or outwardly “queer enough.” I define myself, and within this resistance, I finally found something to celebrate.
While the bi-erasure and biphobia I faced (and still face) is very real, so is the Black queer joy I have been able to cultivate. I stand for my joy as a form of healing, and it is this joy that deeply informs my advocacy and my research. I’ve always been involved in queer social movements, however, as an academic, I knew I could also make an impact through my research. It was in this moment of realization that I knew I wanted to use my work to address the needs of queer people of color.
As a sexuality researcher at the Indiana University Center for Sexual Health Promotion, I focus on exploring the health and wellbeing of biracial/multiracial and bisexual+ adults. My motivation to do this work stems from the dramatic lack of representation for biracial/multiracial and bisexual+ adults within sexual minority and race/ethnic minority research. My passion lies in creating spaces for LGBTQ+ communities of color to reclaim their voices and share stories or experiences that may have previously been ignored or silenced.
In 2019, I conducted a study that examined the identity-related health experiences of a gender-diverse group of biracial/multiracial and bisexual+ adults. While this work helped expand knowledge of the health needs of this community, most participants were under 50. We know that biracial/multiracial people have unique health needs and experiences in comparison to people who belong to one racial/ethnic category.
We are slowly beginning to understand the life sequences and health disparities faced by bisexual adults who are 50 and over, yet biracial/multiracial people remain virtually invisible within this research. There remains a critical need for insight into the social, mental, and physical concerns, challenges, and successes of biracial/multiracial and bisexual+ adults who are 50+. So, in 2021, I began conducting this research to begin addressing these gaps.
If there is one thing I have learned from my identity experiences and my participants, it’s the importance of visibility. If we are to commit to equity, it is imperative that we examine and bring visibility to the specific needs of bisexual communities of color. We also must put forth sustainable efforts, resources, and funding to support and address these needs. If you are 50+, more than one race/ethnicity, and bisexual+, I invite you to share your unique story. Your voice and your experiences matter. Your representation matters. Participating in this research will help advance understandings of your health and wellbeing and improve the availability of supportive resources for biracial/multiracial and bisexual+ communities.
This intentional commitment to equity will make the world a safer, more validating place for bisexual+ people of color, and hopefully, younger generations of bisexual+ people of color can find queer joy much sooner than I was able.
In the meantime, I’d like to share some of the invaluable advice from biracial/multiracial and bisexual+ adults that’s stuck with me from my research. When asked what message they would give to younger generations of biracial/multiracial and bisexual+ communities, Kimura, who is 57, Asian, and white told me, “It’s really important not to compromise on who you are, and that includes not to compromise if who you are is quieter and less out –that’s also okay. Know who you are and celebrate that.”
Lani, who is 77, Asian, Native Hawaiian, and white, highlighted the importance of honoring the fullness of one’s identities mentioning, “I used to say I’m one-fourth this, I’m half this, I’m an eighth this, but no, I’m the whole pizza. Don’t chop me up! This is who I am fully, and I embrace it fully. So, embrace yourself. Love yourself. Claim all of your uniqueness. Trust that you know what you know, and don’t let people argue you out of it because you’re not alone.”
And that’s the truth. My research continues to prove to my younger self that we are never, and have never been, alone.
If you are interested in participating in the Bi/Multiracial/Multi-ethnic and Bisexual 50+ Health and Wellbeing study, please click here to fill out a brief online screening questionnaire. Participation in this study will involve a 90-minute Zoom audio interview, and participants will receive a $50 Amazon gift card for their time. If you have any questions regarding this project, please feel free to email the study team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deana Williams, MPH, is a doctoral candidate at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington. She is a sexual and reproductive health researcher at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion and an associate instructor for sexuality education.