At the Borders of Queer Nation
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What is bisexuality?
Although there is often doubt cast on the possibility that bisexuals actually exist, often on the grounds that it would be impossible to be attracted exactly evenly to both men and women,
In The Lesbian and Gay Press, the issue is not whether bisexuality does exist, but whether bisexuality should exist, what its political implications are, and whether it belongs in the Lesbian and Gay Movement.(Rust 1995:57)(emphasis in original)
Some groups, such as Bard's own BiGaLa1, treat the existence of bisexuality "accomodatively," rather than "transformatively;" that is, as Shane Phelan says, merely adding another item to the shopping list (Sampson 1993; Phelan 1994). Bisexuality is treated as if it were not problematic, but is just thrown into the mix as if it were an interchangable identity with lesbianism or gay-male-ness. This increases the numbers in the "queer" ranks, but to some extent erases bisexuality as a unique identity and set of experiences2.

However, other groups and individuals perceive a challenge that bisexuality presents to bounded sexual categories: like lesbians, who "engage in politics whenever they become visible as lesbians, as they challenge assumptions about heterosexuality," including the rigid gender boundaries, claiming a bisexual identity is also political because it challenges assumptions that often follow from gay identity: "That we all naturally possess a sexual identity and that this identity just naturally fits into one of two categories" (Orlando 1991:227) It is an identity based not on exclusion, but inclusion3. From the threat to boundaries posed by bisexuality, and the essentialist belief that people "really are" one thing or the other, certain stereotypes of bisexuals recur in lesbian and gay, and straight, images of bisexuals:

  • Bad Sexuals
    Bisexuals are deviant, promiscuous, oversexed, cannot be monogamous: bisexuals are associated with behaviors such as group sex, polyamory, and other "deviant" behaviors, often because potential attraction to both men and women is construed as a need to be with both, reducing bisexuality from potential and choice to necessity and psychological drive. Although some bisexuals have asserted that they prefer to have "both kinds""of relationships in their lives at once, this is not a trait all bisexuals have in common. It is partially in this variety of lifestyles among bisexuals that such characterizations occur: people can only know (or hear jokes about, or read about) a limited number of bisexuals (and thus, ways of being bisexual), and their opinions of bisexuality will probably be based on those.

    Such negative portrayals of bisexuality are asserted implicitly in comparison (contrast) with the group of the person who characterizes them.. So when described so by a straight person, bisexuals could be compared to straight people and found lacking, and would often be placed in the lesbian/gay category (as sexually the opposite of straight). Yet a lesbian with the same understanding of bisexual essence could use such descriptions to distance bisexuals while declaring lesbian/gay being not deviant in those ways. This is an example of reinforcing boundaries, as well as self-definition through exclusion.

  • Chameleon
    Bisexuals have heterosexual privilege, can "pass": Not only does this supposedly make life easier for bisexuals (not taking into account the fearful and inconvenient aspects of travelling betwen identities) and so spare them the pain and pride(and belonging) of surviving "homophobic fire," it also accuses them of social invisibility. Although homosexuality is often viewed as a largely invisible minority, visibility is an important political value:
    Privileging visibility has become a tactic of late twentieth-century identity politics in which participants often symbolize their demands for social justice by celebrating visible signifiers of difference that have historically targeted them for discrimination. {i.e. butch lesbian roles} (Walker 1993:868)
    Walker continues to speak about the common disregard in this context of the experiences of those who can "pass," such as femme lesbians {and bisexuals}, which are seen to be peripheral. I would argue, after Phelan, that like women and lesbians in the larger scheme, these particular "marginalized roles" are better understood to be within, though stifled, instead of peripheral and external. They are defined within the larger groups, in their terms, and not in a vacuum; it is through this association and common language that any political leverage can be gained: the idea of nesting oppressions could be useful here.

    In some cases, such as lesbian feminist writing, such identities which are not visible are not merely peripheral but potentially counter-revolutionary: in a context where "feminism is the theory and lesbianism is the practice," a potential ally (non-heterosexual woman) becomes a traitor if her sexuality is private, unseen, or ambiguous.

  • Hiding from the truth
    The bisexual has internalized homophobia, is in a phase, is confused, is experimenting, is in the closet, is "really" gay: as with racial discourse, "laws of hypo-descent apply," ie. that if you have a little black, or gay, in you, you might as well be all the way. (Phelan 1994:71) This leads to rejection and danger from heterosexual people: "We must realize that to homophobic straights, queer is queer." (Queen 1991:20) In lesbian and gay discourse, the bisexual is frequently portrayed as not true to her essence, or honest. Since identity is ideally an expression of an unchanging, inextricable part of a person, an identity based on behaviors that appear inconsistent from the perspective of generally understood categories (gender and sexuality) is incomprehensible. Not only is it incomprehensible, but it threatens the rigid categories that make for unity and effective political action. It is possible that some bisexuals experience their actions as inconsistent and confused, but it also happens sometimes that categories such as gender do not have the same insistence to bisexual people.

  1. This paper was written at Bard College, and their queer group at that time was BiGaLa : the Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Association.
  2. This is not an absolute equation: most, if not all, of these groups do recognize the significant difference between lesbian and gay political interests and experiences of living as a person with a marked sexual identity.
    ...lesbians do have a common cause with gay men, like it or not,... the hegemonic social and legal interpretation of lesbianism oppresses lesbians as "homosexuals," and thus provides a ground for common struggle. (Phelan 1994:150)
    The definition of the groups ascribed from outside, not their own self-definition, is enforced and becomes a point of unity. See the note 1 in Nationalitites for problems with the ascribed category of "homosexual."
  3. Re-reading this paper several years later, i notice the neat trick i pulled, saying that all identities are necessarily exclusive but then calling bisexuality inclusive. I am going to let it stand, however, because i think this underscores the way that this undefined quantity bisexuality problematizes existing sexual and gender categories in general, and poses a problem for bisexuals in trying to create their own identity or category.

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