Today, Oregon's now-former Secretary of State Kate Brown was sworn in as the first openly bisexual governor in United States history, taking the reins from John Kitzhaber after his abrupt resignation last week.
Brown's influence will likely extend beyond the blue state's political sphere. Research shows that role models—especially role models with whom children feel they share some characteristics, such as gender or sexual orientation—are critical. A small study in 2011 found that openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual figures in the media influence the identity of LGBT youth by increasing their sense of self-worth, serving as a source of comfort, and reducing some of the psychological stress that they might experience. Media role models were particularly influential as young LGBT individuals come to terms with their identity and come out to those around them. In fact, society as a whole has been trending toward tolerance as the number of gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals in the public eye—from characters on television shows and movies to real life celebrities—grows.
Bisexuality is often either ignored or considered just a transient phase in the journey toward a more stable gay or lesbian sexual orientation.
It's been widely reported that LGBT people who are open about their sexual orientation during their middle school and high school years wind up being better adjusted in their 20s. As Rachel Williams reported for the Guardian, polls show that the age at which people come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual has been dropping, thanks in part to accessible role models.
A lack of role models, on the other hand, can leave individuals feeling excluded from society, according to the 2011 study—and, for the most part, LGBT youth still lack political role models. The number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender politicians in America is abysmal—there were just seven openly LGBT members of the last Congress; only one of them was bisexual.
Though in population studies bisexuals outnumber gays and lesbians, in reality they face significant discrimination within the LGBT community. Bisexuality is often either ignored or considered just a transient phase in the journey toward a more stable gay or lesbian sexual orientation, according to a 2011 report from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. As for bisexual role models, the report states:
Bisexuals find themselves erased in history. Many famous people―such as Marlene Dietrich, June Jordan, Freddie Mercury, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Walt Whitman―have been labeled as lesbian or gay for their same-sex relationships, yet their long-term relationships with different-sex partners are ignored or their importance minimized. This disrespects the truth of their lives for the sake of a binary conception of sexual orientation. It also makes it more difficult for bisexuals just coming out to find role models.
Kate Brown has a unique opportunity then, to both serve as a political leader, and to bring visibility to an often overlooked portion of the LGBT community as well.