Bisexuality, Bisexuals, and Bisexual Movements

Brett Beemyn. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 

Individuals who are sexually attracted to both women and men frequent the annals of history, but the use of the term “bisexuality” to describe this phenomenon began only in the early 1900s. Previously, the field of sexology had typically categorized such individuals as “psychosexual hermaphrodites,” believing that a “bisexual” not only desired both males and females, but was both male and female. The new meaning of “bisexuality” reflected the influence of Sigmund Freud, who argued that everyone possessed an innate bisexual disposition that would diverge into either heterosexuality or homosexuality by early childhood. Although Freud’s conceptualization helped naturalize bisexuality in popular discourse, he assumed that a normal course of development would lead to a heterosexual object-choice.

The landmark research of Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues in the late 1940s and early 1950s added further weight to the “naturalness” of bisexuality. Finding that 28 percent of women and 46 percent of men had responded erotically to or were sexually active with both women and men, Kinsey’s studies awakened the U.S. public to the prevalence of sexual variation and proved to many bisexuals that they were not alone. Although researchers have since challenged his methodology and data, Kinsey’s conception of human sexual behavior as existing on a continuum from heterosexuality to homosexuality, rather than fitting within a hetero/homosexual dichotomy, has had a lasting influence on how sexuality is perceived.

Early Bisexual Communities

At the time of Kinsey’s research, most bisexuals did not visibly differentiate themselves from either heterosexuals or from lesbians and gay men. Recognizing the risks for anyone known to be involved in same-sex sexual relationships, some bisexuals, like some lesbians and gay men, passed as heterosexual; they kept their interest in people of the same sex hidden while emphasizing their attraction to people of another sex, often through marriage. Given their bisexuality, however, these were more than marriages of convenience, and in some cases, the spouses knew of their partners’ attraction to members of the same sex. Other bisexuals joined lesbians and gay men in creating same-sex social networks and group institutions such as bars, private parties, and cruising locations in cities across the United States during the early and mid-twentieth century. By establishing spaces where they could find emotional support, make friends, and meet potential partners, lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals forged cultures that enabled them to develop a positive self-identity and a sense of community membership.

Whereas predominantly bisexual communities have rarely received much attention, bisexuality was a critical element in two influential circles of writers and artists that developed in the early twentieth century. London’s Bloomsbury group, which defined English modernism and postimpressionism from the 1900s through the 1920s, consisted primarily of bisexuals, including writers Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, painters Duncan Grant and Dora Carrington, and economist John Maynard Keynes. In the United States, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s ushered in a renewed sense of race consciousness and led to a boom in the production of black literary and artistic works, many created by bisexuals. For singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and writers Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Angelina Weld Grimké, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and possibly Langston Hughes, being attracted to both women and men frequently had as much of an impact on their lives as being African American.

Bisexuality and the Homophile Movement

Bisexuals played a central role in founding early homophile political groups, although many were not vocal about their bisexuality, either because they did not feel the need to assert a separate bisexual identity or because they feared being rejected after finally finding a place where they could belong. The first known male homophile organization in the United States, Chicago’s Society for Human Rights, denied membership to bisexuals when it was chartered in 1924, as it was believed that they would be less committed to the cause. As a consequence, the vice president of the group, who was married, had to keep his bisexuality a secret from other members.

Bisexual women and men subsequently took part in the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and other homophile organizations founded in the 1950s and 1960s. The first LGBT college group, Columbia University’s Student Homophile League, was established by Stephen Donaldson (né Robert Martin), an openly bisexual student, in 1966 and recognized by the university the following year. With his support, other campuses soon created similar groups, laying the groundwork for the development of the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But despite their involvement in the homophile movement, bisexuals were not always accepted even though many of the people who sought the assistance of homophile organizations were ostensibly bisexual. Throughout the 1960s, bisexuality was rarely mentioned in homophile publications such as the Ladder and the Mattachine Review or discussed in group meetings; bisexuals became an absent presence, except when their visibility made denial impossible. For example, other homophile activists thought “it was a scandal” when Donaldson and Martha Shelley, a principal organizer of the New York City Daughters of Bilitis and later a founder of the Gay Liberation Front, began a long-running affair.”[B]ut at the same time, because the two of us were so blatant and out there in public being pro gay,” Shelley remembers, “they certainly couldn’t afford to throw us out” (Donaldson, p. 33).

Bisexuality and the LGBT and Sexual Liberation Movements

In contrast, bisexuality was often accepted and, at times, celebrated in the LGBT and sexual liberation movements of the early 1970s. Both radical LGBT groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and organizations that consisted mainly of heterosexually identified “swingers” such as the Sexual Freedom League encouraged sexual fluidity and experimentation, believing that people should be free to love regardless of gender. “For gay liberation there was no ‘normal’ or ‘perverse’ sexuality, only a world of sexual possibilities. … Once everyone was free to express her orhis latent sexualities, boundaries between the homosexual and the heterosexual should fade into irrelevance and false partitions in the flow of desire give way to personal fulfillment” (Adam, p. 78).

But this utopian vision of sexual freedom did little to provide a space for bisexuality in the present, and even gay liberationists who were bisexual often felt compelled to come out as gay in order to challenge compulsory heterosexuality and avoid charges that they were trying “to escape the greater stigma of homosexuality” (Angelides, p. 128). According to Carl Wittman’s “A Gay Manifesto,” one of the movement’s most widely circulated statements of principles, “[t]he reason so few of us are bisexual is because society made such a big stink about homosexuality that we got forced into seeing ourselves as either straight or non-straight….We’ll be gay until everyone has forgotten that it’s an issue. Then we’ll begin to be complete” (p. 381).

The Emergence of Early Bisexual Groups

By the early 1970s, many bisexuals were tired of waiting to be whole people. Influenced by gay liberation politics, the civil rights movement feminist movements, and more liberal social attitudes toward sex, they began to come out publicly and establish their own organizations. The National Bisexual Liberation Group and Bi Forum were formed in New York City in the early 1970s and the San Francisco Bisexual Center opened its doors in 1976. Early bisexual groups also developed in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C.

Contributing to the increased visibility of bisexuals were a spate of articles in popular magazines in the mid-1970s that proclaimed bisexuality as a fashionable new sexual trend that “everybody does now.” With titles such as “Bisexual Life-Style Appears to Be Spreading and Not Necessarily Among ‘Swingers’“ (New York Times), “The New Bisexuals” (Time), “Bisexual Chic: Anything Goes” (Newsweek), and “Bisexuality: The Newest Sex-Style” (Cosmopolitan), these stories focused on the growing number of bi-identified celebrities including David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Kate Millett, and Joan Baez, and the gender-bending club scene in major U.S. cities. The articles ignored the rise of bisexual political activism, but in discussing the psychological, social, and cultural dimensions of bisexuality, this unprecedented national press coverage undoubtedly led some readers to recognize that they too were bisexual. Some of the first popular books on bisexuality were also published at this time, including Bernhardt J. Hurwood’s The Bisexuals (1974), Julius Fast and Hal Wells’s Bisexual Living (1975), Janet Bode’s View from Another Closet: Exploring Bisexuality in Women (1976), and Fred (Fritz) Klein’s The Bisexual Option: A Concept of One-Hundred Percent Intimacy (1978).

The 1980s

Many of the early bisexual groups were run by and for married men, and all had disbanded by the mid–1980s, as AIDS began to affect bisexual men. Many bisexual male leaders became involved in AIDS activism, while a new generation of bisexual men largely stayed away from the movement as the mainstream media began to blame bisexual men for the spread of HIV to the heterosexual population through infecting their unsuspecting female partners. Magazines marketed to young, heterosexual women led the way in popularizing the stereotype of the deceitful, diseased bisexual man, with stories such as “The Risky Business of Bisexual Love” (Cosmopolitan) and “The Secret Life of Bisexual Husbands” (Redbook), but newspapers and television talk shows also helped turn bisexual men into what a Newsweek article described as “the ultimate pariahs” (Rodríguez Rust, 2000).

As bisexual men were leaving the movement and the first wave of bisexual organizations was folding, bisexual women were starting to found their own groups to support each other and to counter the hostility they increasingly received from many lesbian communities. Most had been active themselves in lesbian groups until lesbian separatism and a dichotomous view of sexuality became more entrenched in the late 1970s. Rather than being a woman-loving woman, a “lesbian” often began to be defined as a woman who did not have sex with men, forcing lesbians who sometimes had relationships with men to hide their sexual attraction, a situation that reminded them of the isolation and silencing they had experienced before coming out as lesbians. In subsequently identifying as bisexuals, they reclaimed pride in their sexuality and began to organize politically—methods that they had learned, ironically, from their involvement in the lesbian-feminist movement.

Although the women who emerged as leaders during the second wave of bisexual organizing rejected an exclusive lesbian politic, they remained committed to feminism, women’s culture, and women-only spaces. As a result, feminist principles were central to the bisexual women’s groups formed in the 1980s: the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network (1983), the Chicago Action Bi-Women(1983), and the Seattle Bisexual Women’s Network(1986). These organizations not only provided support and social opportunities, but also engaged in political activism and, in the case of the Boston and Seattle groups, published newsletters that reached bisexual women across the country.

The 1980s also saw the formation of mixed-gender bisexual political groups in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston and the creation of the first regional bisexual organization, the East Coast Bisexual Network. The San Francisco group, the Bay Area Bisexual Network, produced the first national bisexual magazine, Anything That Moves: Beyond the Myths of Bisexuality, from 1991 through 2000. The East Coast Bisexual Network, which has since changed its name to the Bisexual Resource Center, serves as a national clearinghouse for bisexual material and publishes the Bisexual Resource Guide, an international listing of bisexual and bi-inclusive groups.

Toward a National Bisexual Movement

A national bisexual movement began to take shape when a call for a bisexual contingent for the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights brought together seventy-five activists from around the country and laid the groundwork for the establishment of the North American Bisexual Network. The movement took further shape at the first national bisexual conference, held in San Francisco in 1990. The following year, the group’s name was changed to BiNet U.S.A.

During the 1990s, BiNet fought biphobia in the popular press and increased the visibility of bisexuals, with members appearing on television talk shows and being quoted in mainstream and lesbian and gay newspapers and magazines. The organization also educated national lesbian and gay groups about the importance of using bi inclusive language and recognizing the involvement of bisexuals in what was more appropriately called the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights movement. One major victory was convincing lesbian and gay organizers to include bisexuals by name in the 1993 March on Washington and subsequently to have an openly bisexual speaker as part of the rally afterward. This was the first time that bisexuals had been acknowledged in a national political action (although lesbian and gay leaders would agree to add only the word “bi” to the march title, fearing that the word “bisexual” would overly sexualize the event). Another important success was the inclusion by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force of bisexuals and transgender people in its mission statement and work. In 1997 it elected a self-identified bisexual to its board of directors—the first out bisexual to serve on the board of a national LGBT group.

The bisexual movement has also made significant progress on the local level. In the 1990s, the number of bisexual organizations in the United States grew tremendously, from several dozen groups established primarily on the coasts to more than three hundred located in every region of the country. As a result, bisexuals have created supportive communities throughout the United States, not just in major cities or at traditionally liberal universities. At the same time, the names and charters of many local lesbian and gay organizations, newspapers, and conferences have been changed to include bisexuals, as more bi-identified individuals have come out and, mirroring the national political scene, sought to have their involvement recognized. Many groups formed in the 1990s simply referred to themselves as “queer” in order to be inclusive of bisexuals and transgender people and often to challenge heteronormativity.

The 1990s and Beyond

During this period, bisexuals began to make greater inroads into academia and literature. The first course on bisexuality was taught at the University of California at Berkeley in 1990, followed by courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University. These classes were accompanied by a boom in the number of books by and about bisexuality, especially anthologies of personal narratives and texts focusing on the experiences of bisexual women. Among the most influential works were Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu’s Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out (1991), Elizabeth Reba Weise’s Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism (1992), the Bisexual Anthology Collective’s Plural Desires: Writing Bisexual Women’s Realities (1995), Naomi Tucker’s Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries, and Visions (1995), and Paula C. Rust’s Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics: Sex, Loyalty, and Revolution (1995).

Bisexuality also received renewed attention in the mainstream press in the 1990s when bisexuality was characterized as a “new sexual identity” that would forever change how people view sexuality. “Unlike the 1970s, when popular magazines described bisexuality as a trendy sexual behavior that heterosexuals—and sometimes lesbians and gay men—were enjoying in increasing numbers, or the 1980s, when they described bisexuals as threats to the health of the nation, in the 1990s bisexuality was portrayed as a revolution not in sexual behavior but in the conceptualization of sexuality” (Rodríguez Rust, p. 545). As with the bisexual media moment of the early 1970s, the rediscovery of bisexuality partly reflected the visibility of a new generation of bisexual musicians and actors, including Ani Difranco, Jill Sobule, Michael Stipe, Sophie B. Hawkins, Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello, and Sandra Bernhard.

Because of the sustained prominence of bisexuals and bisexual groups and the inclusion of bisexuals in many formerly “lesbian and gay” campus and community organizations over the past decade, people growing up in the early twenty-first century generally have a much greater awareness of bisexuality than did previous generations. As a result, more youth today openly identify as bisexual when they first begin to acknowledge their sexuality, and do not feel compelled to come out as lesbian or gay or to emphasize heterosexual relationships, as did many of their predecessors.