The Bisexual Menace: Or, Will the Real Bisexual Please Stand Up?

Kristin G Esterberg. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

What is bisexuality? Is it an identity that a person holds, something one is? Is it a behavior, something one does? Is it stable, or does it shift and float and change? Is bisexuality distinct from heterosexuality and homosexuality? Is it a little bit of both, or neither? Does bisexuality disrupt the dichotomous way in which we are used to thinking about sexuality? (One is either straight or gay.) Does bisexuality have the potential to end sexual categories altogether? Or does it constitute a new, third category (straight or gay or bisexual)?

In the early part of the twenty-first century, bisexuality seems to be everywhere and nowhere. Popular magazines like Newsweek proclaim that bisexuality is ‘coming out’ in ‘pop culture, in cyberspace, and on campus’ (Leland, 1995: 44). Essence declares that bisexuality among Black women is ‘out of the closet’ and ‘more common than you think’ (Abner, 1992: 61). Even The Economist has gotten into the act, with a ‘Christmas special’ article on gays and bisexuality in Latin America (The Economist, 1999). Bisexuality seems highly visible, newly chic, and yet at the same time socially invisible. While to some social commentators the ‘bisexual menace’ might seem to be knocking at society’s door, bisexual invisibility—or what Kenji Yoshino terms bisexual erasure—is much more common (Yoshino, 2000).

Talk about bisexuality abounds (perhaps especially on daytime television—see Gamson, 1998). Bisexuality is the ‘natural’ state of sexuality—what everyone ‘naturally’ would be, before society has its way with you. And bisexuality does not exist. Bisexuals are ‘really’ straight or gay or something else—or would be, if society hadn’t had its way with them. In popular discourse, bisexuals are often seen as a menace. Called ‘vectors of disease,’ bisexuals are blamed for bringing AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases to ‘innocent’ wives and children and polluting the ‘purity’ of the lesbian community. Bisexual desire is seen as raging out of control, as bisexuals are portrayed as sexual swingers having multiple, simultaneous erotic relationships with ‘anything that moves’ (as the title of one bisexual journal ironically puts it). Bisexual sex is sometimes imagined as group sex, a tangle of sweaty, unidentified body parts (Garber, 1995). And bisexuals are seen as hopelessly confused: as fence sitters, unable to make up their minds about what they ‘really’ are.

At the same time, bisexuals are, at least in some quarters, lauded as postmodern, chic, and truly queer. In an historical moment that celebrates uncertainty and flux and delights in transgression, bisexuality fits the bill. Unlike more vanilla monosexuals—lesbians, gay men, straights—bisexuals alone have the ability to ‘mess with’ dualistic thinking about sexual identity. Because bisexuality does not fit neatly into the dominant categories—neither homosexual nor heterosexual, but both/and—bisexuality is sometimes seen as the sexual category to smash all sexual categories.

In both academic and popular discourse, bisexuality has been imagined in countless ways. Bisexuality has been variously defined as behavior, as identity, and as anti-identity. It has been seen as essential and, at the same time, as socially constructed. In the face of this slippery category, this chapter will look at some of the ways in which bisexuality has been conceived. The chapter will consider the difficulties involved in attempting to define bisexuality, the political debates raging about bisexuality, and some of the issues relating to bisexual invisibility.

A Series of Oppositions

In popular discourse, bisexuality has primarily been defined as a series of oppositions. In one formulation, bisexuals and transgenders are seen on one side, the ‘queer’ side, versus lesbians and gay men on the other (Humphrey, 1999). In this formulation, lesbians and gay men are seen as more conventional—monogamous, more like straights. Gamson (1998) argues, for example, that same-sex desire as practiced by lesbians and gays is portrayed as ‘morally acceptable’ on daytime TV talk shows. Bisexuality, on the other hand, is portrayed as promiscuous and hence morally suspect. Queers, thus, are counterposed with ‘nonqueers’ (Ault, 1996). Sometimes this queerness is lauded, as when queer activists seek to deconstruct social labels, seeing them as oppressive and regulatory. At other times and by other actors, this queerness is seen as perverse and perverted—not only by the right wing, but also among lesbians and gays (Gamson, 1995; Ault, 1996; Humphrey, 1999).

Another scenario, promoted at least at times by the mainstream lesbian and gay movement and by many in the bi movement, sees lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men as having interests in common. In this formulation, bisexuals are presumed to share a common base of oppression with lesbians and gay men. Bisexuals are lumped together with lesbians and gays (lesbigays), who must unite against straight oppression. Because all three desire—at least potentially, in the case of bisexuals—those of the same sex, and because this desire is stigmatized and legislated, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals’ common interests in ending heterosexist oppression are emphasized over potential sources of difference.

In yet another formulation, lesbians are counterposed with all of those who ‘love men’ (Jeffreys, 1999). From the vantage point of lesbian feminism, bisexuals are seen as trading on heterosexual privilege and selling out the lesbian movement (see also Rust, 1995). In a sex-obsessed world, lesbians alone (and primarily feminist lesbians) are seen as standing firm against patriarchy.

Finally, in an opposition that is more often put forward by bisexual people themselves than by others, monosexuals are counterposed to bisexuals (Rust, 1992; Yoshino, 2000; Ault, 1996). Monosexuals—lesbians, gays, and straights—are seen as rigid, overly focused on gender as a basis for relationship. As Paula Rust argued in 1992: ‘Heterosexuals and homosexuals treat biological sex as a necessary criterion; another person must be of a particular sex in order to be eligible as a romantic partner’ (p. 298). For bisexuals, however, biological sex is only one of a number of different criteria that might be important in selecting partners. Bisexuals are thus seen as more flexible, having a unique ability to cross gender boundaries.

Why are these oppositions important? First, they reflect deeply held assumptions about the dualistic nature of Western thought. As any number of identity theorists have noted, the notion of sexual identity is rooted in modern Western culture and thought. In modern Western thought, the individual, who is presumed to have something called a self, reigns supreme. Prior to the mid to late nineteenth century, individuals simply did not have something called a sexual identity. Some time around the latter part of the nineteenth century, the terms homosexual and heterosexual entered into common parlance in Europe and the United States, and by the end of the twentieth century became the predominant way in which sexual desire was organized. By the late twentieth century, a Western man who experienced desire for men could hardly resist being labeled homosexual. Sexual desire is presumed to translate into a particular identity, a type of being (Foucault, 1980).

We tend to see things in terms of binaries: male/female, hetero/homo, black/white, dominant/subordinate. Because of the binary structure of Western thought, we tend not to recognize intermediate categories like bisexuality or transgenderism. When we do, we tend to interpret them in terms of the dominant categories (Ault, 1996). Thus, bisexuality is often treated in conjunction with homosexuality or lesbianism and much less often considered in its own regard.

These oppositions also reflect people’s fears about bisexuality. For lesbians, gays, and straights, whose understandings of themselves are rooted in a clear separation of heterosexual from homosexual, bisexuality can raise powerful fears. Bisexuality—and nonconformist sexuality more generally—question the rigid hetero/homo distinction and, as Steven Seidman argues, ‘the coding of sexuality by gender preference’ (1993: 121). For straights, bisexuality can raise the specter of the dangerous pleasures of same-sex desire. For lesbians and gays, bisexuality raises the possibility of having to re-think one’s own sexuality, acceptance of which is often hard won. Especially for those who are immersed in a lesbian or gay community and politics, the loss of identity can be devastating (Clausen, 1999; Young, 1992).

These oppositions tell us, too, about shifting political alignments. Debates about the nature of bisexuality reflect political questions as much as empirical ones. They force lesbians and gays to re-visit the question of political strategy. Contemporary lesbian and gay organizing reflects an ‘ethnic’ model of identity (Epstein, 1987). According to this model, lesbians and gays are an identifiable, relatively ‘fixed’ percentage of the population and, like other ‘minority’ groups, in need of civil rights protection (Duggan, 1995). The task of the recent lesbian and gay movement has been to develop a lesbian and gay community along an ethnic community model, with relatively firm boundaries, and to press for those civil rights. If sexual identities are not rigid and fixed, then what are the implications for a political strategy based on coming out? By shattering an essentialist notion of sexuality, bisexuality fundamentally shakes up the ethnic model of being gay (Seidman, 1993: 121).

The debates about bisexuality also highlight that sexual categories are social constructions, and especially in the case of bisexuality, fuzzily constructed ones indeed. Defining bisexuality feels a little bit like pinning jello to a wall. The jello oozes down in dribs and drabs, leaving a sticky trail. The material itself fails to hold shape.

Traditional Social Scientific Thinking about Bisexuality

If popular discourse about bisexuality is steeped in Western dualisms, so is social scientific thinking about it. Bisexuality is often lumped together with lesbianism or homosexuality (see Fox, 2000, for a review), and bisexuality is often mechanistically reduced to behavior. Still, social scientists have thought about bisexuality in a number of different ways, some more productive than others.

One of the first to think about sexuality as a continuum was Alfred Kinsey (1948, 1953). Kinsey suggested in the late 1940s and early 1950s—a time in US history known more for its conformism than its sexual exploration—that bisexual behavior was far more widespread than previously understood. He argued that exclusive heterosexual attraction and behavior stood at one end of a continuum; exclusive homosexual attraction and behavior at the other. The vast majority of people are somewhere in the middle, with greater and lesser amounts of heterosexual and homosexual attraction mixed together. He expressed this continuum as a 7-point scale (with exclusive heterosexuality, ranked 0, at one end of the scale; equal attraction to men and women, 3, in the middle of the scale; and exclusive homosexuality, 6, at the other end of the scale). Using this scale, he argued that same-sex attraction and behavior were much more common than people had previously believed. In fact, something like 46 per cent of the men and 26-28 per cent of the women he studied had reported at least some erotic attraction or experience with a member of the same sex (Rust, 1995: 29).

Criticisms of the Kinsey scale have abounded. Some argue that bisexuality is not one dimension, as the Kinsey scale implies, but two. That is, bisexuality should not be seen as in the middle of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Instead, we should think of attraction toward women and men as consisting of two separate, unrelated dimensions. One might have a lot or a little of either, but one’s attraction toward men may be wholly unrelated to one’s attraction toward women (Stokes et al., 1998; Storms, 1980).

Others have argued that bisexuality is not two-dimensional but multidimensional. Weinberg, Williams and Pryor (1994) have argued that definitions of bisexuality must incorporate sexual feelings, sexual activities, and romantic feelings. Thus, they adapted Kinsey’s scale to incorporate these elements. In the most complex adaptation of the Kinsey scale, Klein developed a complicated 21-point scale measuring past, present, and ideal ratings of sexual attraction, sexual fantasies, lifestyle, sexual behavior, emotional preference, social preference, and identification of the self (Klein et al., 1985).

These models of bisexuality are useful in that they encourage us to reject dualistic thinking. As Marjorie Garber pessimistically notes, however, ‘we have made virtually no progress since [Kinsey’s] time in understanding bisexuality’s place in sexual and cultural life’ (Garber, 1995: 252). At the same time, however, with the exception of the unwieldy Klein grid, these models tend to conflate past and present. If a woman used to desire sexual relations with men, but now desires them with women, is she bisexual or lesbian? A little of each? Did she used to be heterosexual in the moment of experiencing that desire for men? In speaking of her ‘journey through sexual identity’ as she moved out of a lesbian identity, Jan Clausen asks, ‘how many months or years would it take to change me into that alien life form, a heterosexual woman?’ (1999: 227). These models also may not reflect how individuals themselves think of their sexuality. Is a self-proclaimed bi-dyke a Kinsey 5?

These alternative models notwithstanding, much traditional social science research uses a behavioral definition of bisexuality. A quick tour through almost any social science database or search service will reveal hundreds of articles about bisexuality and AIDS. This research, which became prominent in the late 1980s and 1990s as the AIDS epidemic spun seemingly out of control, focuses almost exclusively on a behavioral definition of bisexuality. In these articles, bisexuality is by and large nonproblematically seen as having sexual relations with both men and women. Primarily dealing with AIDS prevention, this research focuses predominantly on ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSMs) who may also have sex with women. This literature does not, by and large, concern itself with whether the men call themselves or think of themselves as bisexual. Rather, these articles are concerned with sexual behaviors that may put men and women at risk of acquiring HIV.

Typologies of Bisexuality

In a number of respects, most traditional social science definitions of bisexuality do not particularly clarify the matter. Sexuality, and perhaps especially bisexuality, seems much more complicated than the models allow. Is a lesbian who occasionally sleeps with men ‘really’ bisexual, even though she continues to think of herself as lesbian? Is a married man who occasionally fucks men bisexual, even if he thinks of himself as straight? What about a gay man and a lesbian who have sex with each other on occasion? Is theirs queer sex? Bisexual sex? Straight sex? And what is sex, anyway? What particular combinations of body parts and desires have to come together in order for something to be called sex? What do these folks have in common—anything? And what do they have in common with, say, men or women in prison who engage in same-sex relations inside, but only heterosexual relations outside? Bisexuality is, to say little else, diverse. Some have argued that there are, in fact, wholly different types of bisexuality. So, for example, Garber (1995) finds the following typology of bisexuality mentioned in the literature. (There are other typologies as well; see, for example, Stokes et al., 1998).

  • Latin bisexuality: a form of bisexuality found in Latin societies in which men may engage in sexual behavior with both men and women (see Murray, 1995). As long as the men play an ‘insertive’ role, they are not considered homosexual (or, indeed, bisexual). Men who play a ‘passive’ role are considered homosexual, again, even if they also engage in sexual behavior with women.
  • ‘Defense’ bisexuality: a form of bisexuality found in societies that stigmatize homosexual behavior. (This form implies that bisexual individuals would ‘really’ be gay in the absence of negative social attitudes.)
  • Secondary homosexuality (sometimes called ‘situational’ bisexuality). This form of bisexuality is said to occur when otherwise heterosexual people lack opportunities for a different-gendered partner (for example, in prisons or the military). Again, note that the implication is that the individuals are ‘really’ straight.
  • Married bisexuality: a form of bisexuality that exists when individuals who are (heterosexually) married take same-sex partners as lovers.
  • ‘True’ bisexuality: equal interest in male and female partners.
  • Experimental bisexuality: experimenting with bisexuality along the way to a more permanent gay or straight identity. Here, the implication is again that bisexuality is simply a phase—a common assumption still among many gay men and lesbians. Still, the stereotype has some elements of truth. In one longitudinal study of 216 bisexual men, about one third of the sample moved toward homosexuality over the course of a year (Stokes et al., 1997).
  • Technical bisexuality: relationships with partners who are transgendered or, in some cultures, members of a ‘third’ sex.
  • Ritual bisexuality: an example of this form would be that documented by Herdt (1982, 1997) in Papua, New Guinea, in which all adolescent males pass through a ritualized period of sexual relations with older males.

These typologies of bisexuality are interesting in that they encourage us to move, at least in small ways, beyond stereotyped images. Ironically, however, behavior-based conceptions of bisexuality such as these may also contribute to the erasure of bisexuality (Yoshino, 2000). Each of these bisexual ‘types’ is rooted in a behavioral definition of bisexuality. With the exception of ‘true’ bisexuality, these ways of typifying bisexuality assume that the individual is ‘really’ something else (or would be, given the opportunity). In some respects, these ways of thinking about bisexuality are like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (How many can dance? As many as they like, if one believes in angels; none, if one doesn’t.) Traditional social scientific ways of thinking all assume that one could somehow objectively (and, hence, accurately) label someone (a research subject) as bisexual, based on some algorithm of behavior and preferences. These attempts at definition essentialize bisexuality and largely sidestep the issue of self-conception. How do individuals themselves think about their sexuality? If one does not think of oneself as bisexual, is one?

We know that there is a vast gap between behavior (and desire) and identity. As Paula Rust’s (1992, 1995) research on lesbian and bisexual women clearly shows, very little separates contemporary Western lesbians and bisexual women in terms of sexual history and behavior. It is the meaning they make of their experiences that leads some women to think of themselves as bisexual and others as lesbian. Like the bisexuals in her sample, most of the lesbians had had erotic or romantic experiences with men—sometimes substantial experience. Yet the lesbians tended to discount their experiences with men in considering their sexual identities. What was most important to them was current behavior. Bisexual women, on the other hand, tended to focus on feelings of attraction. Using a strict behavioral definition of bisexuality, contemporary lesbianism is erased.

Traditional conceptions of bisexuality also see gender in dichotomous terms. That is, bisexuality is seen as attraction to or sexual behavior with both genders. There are assumed to be two, and only two genders, which correspond to biological sex: male and female. Yet as Kenji Yoshino (2000) provocatively argues, we leave intersexuality out of the picture in thinking about bisexuality. That is, we would not think of a man as being bisexual if he were attracted to both men and intersexed people, even though this would constitute attraction to two different biological sexes. (Tellingly, we don’t have a social label for such a man.) Nor would we think of a woman as bisexual if she were attracted to both butch and fem women: two genders, but one biological sex. We would think of her as lesbian. Thus, our thinking about bisexuality tends to reify dualistic and biologically based notions of sex and gender.

This is not, then, entirely satisfactory. Much recent thinking about gender has attempted to challenge its presumed biological basis. Research into the intersexed (Kessler and McKenna, 1985; Money, 1988) as well as recent works by transgendered activists shows far greater variability in biological sex, let alone gender expression, than is commonly assumed.

Race, Culture, Bisexuality

The emphasis on identity in modern Western culture raises particular questions in thinking about culture, race, and bisexuality. Different societies in different time periods clearly organize sexuality differently. When we look cross-culturally, we find ample evidence of what we might call bisexual behavior. So, for example, anthropologist Gilbert Herdt (1982, 1997) has extensively documented same-sex behaviors among the Sambia of Papua, New Guinea. In this society, all adolescent males experience a period of ritual same-sex expression with an older male. As adults, the males sexually initiate adolescent boys into adulthood, and most adult males also enter into sexual relationships with women. Are all Sambia men bisexual? Not according to the concepts of their culture. What does it mean to use such a term outside of its cultural context?

Similarly, a number of anthropologists and sociologists have documented what some have called a Latin model of homosexuality (or Latin bisexuality) (Carrier, 1992; Murray, 1996). In this model, already mentioned, males who engage in sexual activity with other males are not considered homosexual as long as they otherwise play culturally approved masculine roles. Men who play an active role in anal intercourse do not violate traditional masculine roles, and thus, those who do so are not considered gay. Those who play a passive role, however, are. On behavioral grounds, one might call those who play an active role bisexual, for they are often married or have relationships with women as well. But again, no word for bisexuality exists in this socially structured form of sexuality.

Some have suggested that, for a variety of reasons, African American and Latino men in the United States may be more likely to engage in bisexual behavior while still retaining a heterosexual identity (Peterson, 1992; Stokes et al., 1998). The reasons are various: racism within the predominantly white gay and lesbian community; a desire to retain connections to one’s family of origin and racial/ethnic community; and lower socio-economic status, which brings with it increasing opportunities to engage in same-sex behavior. Poor and marginalized men, for example, are more likely to engage in male prostitution or to be imprisoned. But these men may not think of themselves as homosexual or bisexual. Again, what does it mean to think of these men as bisexual when they, themselves would not?

Bisexual Identities

Strikingly, another literature focuses more on the question of bisexual identity than behavior (Dobinson, 1999; Esterberg, 1997; Rust, 1995; Whisman, 1996). That is, how do people come to see themselves as bisexual? What does bisexuality mean to the people who see themselves in that way? Instead of seeing bisexual identity as indelibly rooted in behavior, this work focuses on individuals’ understandings of themselves as bisexual.

Much of this literature questions the notion of identity itself—and challenges the notion that sexual identities are fixed, essential, or unchanging. In my earlier research (1997), for example, I examine the identity accounts, or stories, that bisexual women in a Northeast community use to understand their experiences. Rather than seeing identities as fixed or essential parts of the person, I argue that identity accounts arise within the particular communities and social settings in which women find themselves. As women make sense of their desires, attractions, and relationships, they come to see themselves in culturally available terms. As a bisexual movement developed through the 1980s and 1990s, women who experienced desire for both men and women could increasingly think of themselves as bisexual.

In the particular community I studied, I identified four dominant accounts of bisexual experience. Some of the women I interviewed saw themselves as ‘not quite heterosexual.’ Their bisexuality consisted of an openness to experiences with women, even though they had primarily had erotic and romantic relationships with men. Others saw themselves as openly, sometimes proudly bisexual. These women tended to be active in creating a politicized bisexual presence within the lesbian/gay community. A third account was expressed by women who came to bisexuality from the vantage point of lesbian feminism. These women had previously thought of themselves as lesbian; in coming to understand their desire for men, they came to think of themselves as bisexual. A final group of women rejected the impulse to label their identity at all, preferring to see their sexuality as fluid, in the moment. Labels—even seemingly expansive ones like bisexuality—felt restrictive.

Others have developed the concept of sexual fluidity (Fox, 2000; Golden, 1987; Esterberg, 1997), a notion that has even gained some social currency as queer politics and queer identities proliferate (see, for example, Gideonse, 1997). More recent studies of lesbian and bisexual women have suggested that sexual identities are far more changeable over the life course than dichotomous conceptions of sexuality suggest. Most previous models of homosexual identity have seen identity development as occurring in one direction only: from straight to lesbian or gay (Cass, 1979, 1983/1984; Troiden, 1988). Yet, as Carla Golden (1987, 1994) and others have argued, women may embrace very different sexual identities at different points in time, depending on their political commitments, their life cycle stage, and the social contexts in which they find themselves. (Tellingly, scholars who focus on sexual fluidity have been far less likely to consider men, leading some scholars to argue that women’s sexuality is more fluid than men’s. We might ask what this says about the researchers themselves and the social construction of men’s sexuality.)

Interestingly, considerably more attention has been paid to those who claim a bisexual identity en route to a lesbian/gay one. Relatively little attention has been paid to those who move from a gay or lesbian identity to a bisexual one—or to those who experience numerous, multiple shifts in identity (from straight to lesbian to bi to lesbian, for example). Yet it is clear that these changes exist for significant numbers of people, at least among bisexual women. In Rust’s sample of women who currently identified as bisexual, 84 per cent had seen themselves as lesbian at an earlier point in their lives; 64 per cent had switched between lesbian and bisexual identities two or more times (Rust, 1995).

Becoming Bisexual

How do people become bisexual? Interestingly, relatively little attention has been paid to this question (although see Stokes et al., 1997; Phillips and Over, 1995). Although researchers and social commentators have focused intensively on the question of how people ‘become’ gay, with frequent recourse to biological explanations, this question is much less frequently raised in the literature on bisexuality. Social researchers, for whatever reason, have been remarkably less driven to find a biological basis for bisexuality than they have for homosexuality. (There are a few, however, who look for such a link; see Van Wyk and Geist, 1995, who argue for a multi-factored explanation for bisexuality that includes, for women, early exposure to masculinizing hormones.) Why is this so? Perhaps it is because bisexuality brings up the messy notion of choice, raising the question of whether (and how) bisexuals make active choices about their sexuality.

Still, at least some researchers have thought about how people ‘become’ bisexual. Drawing on the stage models of identity acquisition used to describe homosexual identity development (Cass, 1979, 1983/ 1984; Troiden, 1988), Weinberg et al. (1994) argue that bisexual identity develops in a series of stages. In their study of San Francisco bisexuals involved in what they called the ‘sexual underground,’ Weinberg et al. identified four stages of bisexual identity development. The first stage involves a period of initial confusion, followed by a stage in which the individual both finds and accepts a bisexual identity. Settling into the identity is the third stage, followed by a fourth stage, continued uncertainty about the identity.

Bisexuality and Feminism

Some of the sharpest debates about bisexuality have occurred within lesbian communities, as lesbians have argued vigorously and acrimoniously about lesbians who have come to have sexual and romantic relationships with men (Ault, 1994; Rust, 1995). Feminist lesbians have tended to be hypercritical of bisexuality. In my own research, one former lesbian who became involved with a man received hate mail. Others are called by the unfortunate term ‘hasbian,’ a term Stacey Young notes defines a woman ‘only in terms of what she once was’ and implies that the former lesbian is a ‘has-been’ (Young, 1992: 77). These kinds of experiences are well documented in personal narratives by bisexuals (see, for example, Hutchins and Kaahumanu, 1991).

Why are the debates about bisexuality so fierce within lesbian communities? The answer lies, at least in part, in the influence that lesbian feminism has had on the development of lesbian community life. As a political theory, lesbian feminism highlighted the issue of choice and suggested that any woman could be a lesbian. From this followed the lesbian imperative: if one could be a lesbian, one should be. Interestingly, Paula Rust (1995) notes that many early lesbian feminists believed that all women were inherently bisexual. Lesbians were encouraged to choose relationships with women as a political statement. Lesbianism thus becomes a political choice.

Lesbian feminism sees lesbians as working against male domination because, by choosing women, lesbians are denying men services and working to build political, social, and economic relationships among women. They also hold out the possibility to heterosexual women that they, too, can become lesbian and move out from under men’s patriarchal domination. In this way, bisexuality is perceived as a threat to lesbian visibility, and bisexual women are seen as traitors, ones who have fallen away from the fold (Ault, 1994; Rust, 1995). Although lesbian feminism has been eclipsed by newer forms of lesbian social organization (Stein, 1993, 1997; Esterberg, 1997), this position on bisexuality is by no means old fashioned or merely a byproduct of the 1980s. See, for example, Jeffrey’s recent article (1999), in which she argues that bisexual women—because they could choose women but do not—are ‘conformists.’ In her view, bisexual women pose a threat to lesbian visibility and reinforce compulsory heterosexuality.

Monogamy and Choice

Debates around monogamy and choice have been fierce. Bisexuality highlights the notion that people can have a choice in their sexuality. Although heterosexuals, lesbians, and gays also have the capacity to exercise choice in acting on their desires, the question of choice retains greater significance for bisexuals. Even if individuals do not necessarily choose desire, a position many formerly lesbian bisexuals claim, they can certainly choose to act on it or not. The question of choice is, perhaps, especially resonant among the Christian right, who see the choice of sexual identity, which they extend to lesbians and gays as well, as a sinful one (Esterberg and Longhofer, 1998). But issues of choice are tricky among the left as well (Ault, 1996), and especially among lesbian feminists, as we have seen. In the face of the mainstream lesbian/gay movement, which maintains that sexual orientation is biologically based, immutable, and fixed, bisexuals raise the possibility that sexual orientation is not so fixed after all, a position that many in the lesbian and gay movement see as undercutting their political position.

Is the issue of choice so contentious and personally threatening among gay men as it is among lesbians? Perhaps not to the same degree. As Vera Whisman (1996) argues, gay men are less likely to rely on narratives of choice to account for their sexuality. In her study of 72 New York gay men and lesbians, she found relatively few men, compared with women, who believed that their sexual identity was a choice. Because they are more likely to draw on dominant accounts of sexuality—that they are born ‘that way’—gay men are perhaps less likely to feel threatened by bisexual choice. For if one believes that one is born lesbian or gay, the existence of bisexuals (who presumably have a choice) will not unsettle one’s own identity in the same way.

By its very nature, bisexuality also raises the issue of monogamy. Can bisexuals be monogamous, Lenore Norrgard (1991) asks? She answers: some are, but not all, and she goes on to defend nonmonogamy as a valid choice for bisexual people. In popular discourse, bisexuals are as a matter of course presumed to be nonmonogamous, in a way of thinking that folds bisexuality into behavior. Monogamous bisexuals (serially or not) are rendered invisible. ‘At any given time, one’s a lesbian if one’s involved with a woman and one’s straight if one’s in a relationship with a man,’ argued one of the interviewees in my study (Esterberg, 1997: 166). Another argued, ‘if a woman is bisexual, the inherent assumption is that she is expressing her sexuality with both women and men partners,’ something she called ‘emotionally irresponsible’ (ibid.).

Like the question of choice, the issue of monogamy, too, may resonate somewhat differently among gay men and lesbians, nonmonogamy having a much more accepted history among gay men. Numerous accounts of pre-AIDS gay men’s social life have emphasized the acceptance of non-monogamous, sometimes anonymous sex (Murray, 1996; Esterberg, 1996). As Martin Levine (1992) argues, the advent of AIDS signaled the end of a hypersexualized gay male culture. A ‘relational ethos’ began to characterize the organization of gay men’s erotic life. At the same time, the mainstream gay movement, with its newfound emphasis on ‘gay normalcy’ characterized, for example, by freedom to marry campaigns and a renewed emphasis on religion and spirituality, has signaled a move away from non-monogamous sex.

Kenji Yoshino (2000) argues that gays and straights alike have an interest in defining themselves in opposition to bisexuals through the institution of monogamy. First, as Yoshino notes, monogamy is a societal norm. And although straights, with their access to legal marriage, have perhaps greater investment in that norm than gays, still monogamy has, especially in recent years, become a norm among many lesbians and gays. Some gays, as Yoshino notes, distinctly wish to ‘retire’ societal stereotypes of gay promiscuity (see, for example, Kirk and Madsen, 1989).

Bisexuals threaten the norm of monogamy. Although, of course, there need be no necessary relationship between having the potential for relationships with both sexes and actually having them, this distinction is not often made. Yoshino further argues that bisexuality raises the issue of sexual jealousy among straights and gays alike. Even if a bisexual is involved in a monogamous relationship with a nonbisexual, holding a bisexual identity continually brings to the fore the lover’s potential inadequacy. Thus, he argues, straights and gays have a vested interest in the erasure of bisexuality.

BI Politics, BI Movements

The 1980s and 1990s saw a flowering of bisexual organizing in the United States, as bisexuals sought to counter their invisibility. This period saw, as Paula Rust (1995) details, the creation of a number of autonomous organizations, groups, networks, and newsletters. Several path-breaking anthologies were published (Hutchins and Kaahumanu, 1991; Weise, 1992), and bisexuals—many of them movement-affiliated—appeared on numerous day time talk shows (Gamson, 1998). Articles on bisexuality appeared in mainstream magazines and newspapers, leading some to proclaim a new bisexual chic.

One strategy bisexual activists have used extensively entails alignment with the lesbian/gay movement and an attempt to force lesbians and gays to include bisexuals in their organizing. This strategy has been, to a certain extent, successful, as many mainstream lesbian/gay activists have added the word ‘bisexual’ to their organizations and activities. Yet the inclusion of bisexuals under a lesbigay umbrella is by no means certain. (See, for example, Humphrey’s [1999] discussion of ‘queering’ the lesbian/ gay caucus of the UK public-sector trade union.) Paula Rust notes, ironically, that the lesbian/gay movement is, in some respects, responsible for the creation of a bisexual movement in the first place.

In a very real sense, the lesbian/gay movement created bisexuals as an oppressed group by creating a discourse in which lesbians/gays and heterosexuals, but not bisexuals, were defined into political existence. Thus, the lesbian/gay movement not only altered the political arena by creating a new political tradition; it also created the need for a bisexual movement. (Rust, 1995: 257)

Other bisexual activists have sought to organize under a queer umbrella. The rise of queer politics in the 1990s may be a more welcome home for those bisexuals who value the trangressive nature of their sexuality. As Lisa Duggan argues, this new ‘queer community,’ if it can be called that, ‘is unified only by a shared dissent from the dominant organization of sex and gender’ (1995: 165). If queer activists seek to challenge traditional dichotomies of gay/ straight, male/ female, then bisexual activists fit right in. Queer organizing also represents a more youthful ‘in-your-face’ style of activism, anathema to some within the more staid lesbian and gay movement. Yet the queer umbrella, while it may shelter a number of diverse groups and practices—lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgenders, sadomasochists, and others—also functions, as Ault (1996) argues, as a ‘cloaking device.’ In that sense, bisexuals may be as invisible within a queer movement as within a lesbian and gay one.

Bisexual organizing holds enormous challenges. Despite recent ‘discoveries’ of bisexuality, the issue of bisexual invisibility is paramount.1 In becoming visible, however, bisexuals run the risk of creating a fixed identity. Identities, as queer and postmodern theorists have argued, are inherently limiting and subject individuals to social regulation. Yet identities may also hint at liberation, as Steve Seidman argues, by holding out the promise of political agency (1993: 134). The attempt to organize around bisexual identity thus poses the danger of fixing boundaries and limiting possibilities at the same time as it creates possibilities for women and men to articulate their desires and create a public space for them.

Learning from some of lesbian feminism’s mistakes, bisexual organizers have sought to remain open about inclusion and the nature of bisexual identity. As a group that has been most subject to erasure, bisexual organizers are sensitive to the needs for individuals to define themselves. But can bisexual organizing ultimately avoid an ethnic model of social movement organizing? That remains to be seen.

Bye-Bye Binary? The Potential of Bisexualities

What’s not okay is to lie about the complex attractions that often culminate in simple labels. What’s unacceptable is to bully the border-crossers. What’s got to stop is the rigging of history to make the either/or look permanent and universal. (Clausen, 1999: xxviii)

What are the chances that sexual identities as we know them today will actually disappear? Will bisexuality usher in an era of unlabeled sexuality? Are we at the brink of just such a queer moment, in which the hetero/homo divide collapses into an unlabeled ambisexuality, in which gender plays no more role in sexual choices than eye color or the way someone walks or cuts their hair? The existence of those who prefer not to take an identity, who prefer to remain unlabeled, might hint at such a possibility.

Marjorie Garber seems relatively optimistic. She argues that ‘bisexuality itself, or bisexualities themselves, put into question the viability of a “politics of identity” at all.’ Practically speaking, she argues that the animosity between lesbians and gays, on the one hand, and bisexuals, on the other, ‘underscores the fact that these secure identities and divisions are already on the way out. To acknowledge this is not to accept defeat but to recognize success’ (Garber, 1995: 87). I remain less sanguine about the inevitability of this success. The tenacity with which heterosexuals hold onto heterosexual privilege and the deeply institutionalized nature of heterosexual life, on the one hand, combined with the deep investments that lesbians and gays have made in their sexual identities and movements, on the other, lead me to believe that the collapse of binary thinking is not imminently on the horizon. What may be on the horizon is a recognition that sexuality is far more complex than previously realized. At best, perhaps we can recognize that the categories we’ve come up with are not universal and, in Jan Clausen’s words, stop bullying the border crossers.