Researchers at UC Santa Barbara have found that, while often experiencing more discrimination than other sexual orientation minority groups, people who identify as bisexual are rarely considered to have been victims of such discrimination when compared to a ‘competitor’ of a perceived higher social status. 

The research team, led by Elizabeth Quinn-Jensen, a fourth-year PhD candidate in UCSB’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, published a paper earlier this month looking at whether bisexual people experience discrimination, and, if so, how often they are perceived as having been discriminated against, depending on their relative social status.

Elizabeth Quinn-Jensen is the lead author of the study. She is a fourth year PhD candidate in the UCSB Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Despite a minimal amount of existing research on discrimination against bisexual people, it has been estimated that more Americans identify as bisexual than gay or lesbian, with almost 12% of Generation Z Americans identifying as bisexual. Acknowledging this gap in the literature, Quinn-Jensen and her team were interested in attempting to shed light on discrimination against this group. 

“This research really stemmed from, first of all, my own personal experience as a bisexual woman, but kind of this question that I had noticed was popping up frequently which is ‘can or do bisexual people even experience discrimination,’” Quinn-Jensen said, “which I thought was an interesting question, because we know from literature and research in this area that bisexual people experience a lot of discrimination by both heterosexual people and gay and lesbian people.”

After reviewing two decades’ worth of lawsuits pertaining to workplace discrimination, Quinn-Jensen found that, of an already very small number of suits filed by people identifying as bisexual, only one was successful in ruling in favor of the bisexual plaintiff. “So, that got me thinking about how or why might bisexual people be less likely to be seen as targets of discrimination,” she said.

This study explores the Prototype Model of Attributions to Discrimination, which is essentially a framework that describes how people use “prototypes,” based on physical characteristics, social and cultural roles, etc., in order to determine who is most likely to either be a perpetrator or victim of discrimination, harassment, or violent crimes.

Quinn-Jensen and her colleagues, Dr. Zoe Liberman and Dr. Brenda Major of UCSB and Dr. Sara Burke of Syracuse University, saw that the likelihood of whether bisexual people are seen as victims of discrimination tends to be correlated with their relative social status and who they are being compared to. “[Bisexual people are] thought to be a sexual minority, so they’re probably more likely to experience discrimination than heterosexual people,” Quinn-Jensen said, “but they’re often believed to have ‘heterosexual privilege,’ especially within hetero-passing relationships, and thus are maybe less likely to be seen as targets of discrimination than gay and lesbian people.”

In order to test this experimentally, the researchers set up three main studies, in which participants — all identifying as heterosexual, to minimize bias — were asked to read different scenarios related to workplace discrimination. The paper describes how bisexual people often report being fired from their jobs or given unfair performance evaluations by supervisors due to their sexual orientation. A 2022 UC Los Angeles study found that bisexual people are overall less likely (than their gay/lesbian colleagues) to be “out” to their supervisors at work, but those who are experienced high levels of discrimination. In addition, Quinn-Jensen’s paper highlights that bisexual people are more likely to report an annual income of less than $30,000, compared to lesbians, gay men or U.S. adults generally, as well as more likely to be living beneath the poverty line.

According to Quinn-Jensen, the first study was designed to gauge peoples’ initial “evaluations” of a bisexual target. Participants were randomly assigned to one of six possible groups, where they read a scene in which a “target,” who worked at a law firm, applied for but was subsequently denied a funding opportunity after their male boss overheard a conversation regarding their sexual orientation. Participants were then asked to rate the extent to which they believed the target had possibly been a victim of discrimination based on various factors, including sexual orientation. 

Consistent with the researchers’ hypothesis, participants’ rated both the gay/lesbian target and the bisexual target as similarly more likely to have faced sexual orientation discrimination. “We theorize that because [the participants] only read about one person of one sexual orientation, and they weren’t doing these comparisons,” Quinn-Jensen said. “If you just read about a bisexual person experiencing discrimination, the default is that they’re probably being compared to a heterosexual person, and so you’re like ‘well of course, they’re more likely [to experience discrimination.]’” 

The second study, on the other hand, introduced a clearly established “competitor,” who won out over the target for the funding opportunity. Specifically, this study compared bisexual women and lesbian women to see if there is a difference in peoples’ perceptions of both groups as victims of discrimination. Quinn-Jensen and her colleagues found that, once again consistent with their hypothesis, participants answered that a lesbian woman who lost to a bisexual woman was more likely to have experienced discrimination than a bisexual woman who lost to a lesbian woman. 

The third and final study divided participants into groups in which they were presented with scenarios describing either lesbian or bisexual women losing a job opportunity to either a heterosexual or sexual minority competitor. The results of this study showed that participants were similarly likely to say that the lesbian woman had been discriminated against, whether she lost to a bisexual or to a heterosexual competitor. However, participants were more likely to say that the bisexual woman’s loss was attributed to discrimination based on sexual orientation when the competitor was heterosexual. 

The researchers then repeated this third study with male targets, and found that participants were more likely to perceive gay and bisexual men as equally “low-status,” and thus similarly likely to experience discrimination when the competitor was heterosexual. 

Quinn-Jensen believes that these results have to do with how people often invalidate bisexuality, by reducing, for example, bisexual women to being heterosexual or bisexual men to being gay. “It could be the case that people are ascribing bisexual and gay men to this similar level of status and likelihood of being discriminated against,” she said. They also thought that it could simply be due to men being granted less flexibility in their sexual orientation, leading to perceptions that they are similar in status to gay men, or even that because there are more “out” bisexual women than men, bisexual women are seen as a sort of prototypical bisexual.

The researchers also found that, after asking participants who they thought bisexual men and women were likely to date in the future, the overwhelming result was that both groups were predicted to be in a relationship with a man. “It could just be that people were like, ‘well a bisexual man is more likely to be in a relationship with a man, and so is more likely to experience stigmatization [than a bisexual woman]’” Quinn-Jensen said.

Quinn-Jensen’s previous research on discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ+ community, including a 2021 paper she co-authored on how “affective disgust” plays a role in predicting how gay male homicide victims are perceived, also influenced this paper on discrimination against bisexual people. At the time of researching and writing the 2021 paper, Quinn-Jensen had been reading a lot about different LGBTQ+ groups’ success rates in various types of legal cases. “That is actually how I came across that case review looking at the number of successful bisexual discrimination lawsuits,” she said.

Despite focusing on theory-driven research, Quinn-Jensen is very interested in how the theory extends to the real world. “I’m really interested, in particular, in discrimination against the queer and LGBTQ+ communitythat is one of the overarching areas of research that I’m very passionate about, as being a member of that community,” Quinn-Jensen said. “But I also really like to study what the real-world implications are of this discrimination.”

Indeed, as the paper discusses, the implications of discrimination conscious or not against bisexual people often reach into the legal system. In all three studies, participants were asked to comment on the legitimacy of hypothetical lawsuits brought forth by heterosexual, lesbian and bisexual targets. The majority of participants both favored lesbian plaintiffs’ suits over those of bisexual plaintiffs, as well as viewed the suit of a sexual minority as more legitimate when they lost to a heterosexual defendant, rather than a defendant of the other sexual minority (i.e. bisexual or gay/lesbian.)

The research team acknowledges remaining questions that need to be answered, such as whether the sexual identity of the perpetrator (in this case, the boss) may have an effect on the outcome (who received the funding opportunity.) In addition, the researchers recognized the potential for more studies with a more diverse group of participants with regard to sexual identity, as well as looking at contexts other than the workplace.

Nevertheless, the researchers emphasize the importance of this study in closing gaps in research regarding bisexual people, and particularly any discrimination they face, as well as in “open[ing] the door” to further research on intermediate identities and discrimination, such as that against biracial people. “This work is really important because I think there are a lot of beliefs that bisexual people aren’t stigmatized or that they aren’t experiencing discrimination because they are thought to hold this heterosexual privilege, whereas the literature shows that they are often, in fact they may be more stigmatized or at least more negatively evaluated than even gay and lesbian people,” Quinn-Jensen said. 

She stressed the need for a shift in mentality, and encouraged reflection about how our socio-cultural biases may be impacting our opinions and actions. “We need to be careful about how we’re thinking of [questions] like ‘can a bisexual person be a target of discrimination,’ and ‘are the prototypes we have about who is more or less likely to be a victim potentially influencing these decisions.’”

If you are interested in learning more about Quinn-Jensen and her colleagues’ research, visit this blog post. 


A version of this article appeared on pg. 7 of the Feb. 22, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.


CORRECTION [2/22/24, 7:27 p.m.]: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that only one case was successful in ruling against the bisexual plaintiff, that bisexual people may be more likely to be seen as victims of discrimination, and that the third study was then done with male participants. This article has been corrected to reflect that only one case was successful in ruling in favor of the bisexual plaintiff, that bisexual people are in fact less likely to be seen as victims of discrimination, and that the third study was then done with male targets. Additionally, the article has been changed to include a link to the 2022 UCLA study mentioned.