— Karin Baker
THE MOST BASIC thing about bisexuality is that it unlinks what most cultures see as a fundamental connection: sex and gender. If you can understand that for some people sexual attraction is not tied to a specific gender, then you understand the most important thing about bisexuality.
At least in the United States, separating sexuality and gender is difficult. While public attention—negative and positive—has recently been focused on homosexuality, the idea that it is not the only alternative to heterosexuality is less often recognized. This is not surprising, given that here as in most western cultures, there is a tendency to organize concepts dualistically, to see only opposites.
Heterosexuality and homosexuality as related ideas are one example. Thus, even while homosexuality is not an acceptable alternative to heterosexuality for many people, it is clearly fixed in their minds as the other option. Few conceive that there could be a third option, or even a continuum of possibilities.
This or That
Bisexuals sometimes refer to society's tendency to dichotomize as an "either/or" approach. You must be attracted to either women or men, be either heterosexual or homosexual—what bisexuals sometimes lump together and call "monosexual." Similarly, in our society, no matter what your actual racial background, you are seen as either white, or a person of color.
In contrast, some of us see bisexuals as having an approach to sexuality that could be called "both/and." We are heterosexual and homosexual, both at the same time—which actually adds up to something completely different.
The woman whose parents are respectively white and African American is not racially or culturally half one and half the other. She is a blending of the two, in which neither aspect can be separated out. Similarly, bisexuals are not "part" queer, or "part" straight—we are what we are.
The Continuum of Sexuality
Maybe the idea that sexual attraction actually falls on a continuum, rather than clumping around homosexuality and heterosexuality, seems obvious. As a bisexual person, it is certainly obvious to me. However, I have come to realize that some are confounded by the idea.
This inability to imagine that someone could truly be attracted to more than one gender is probably the origin of myths such as "bisexuals don't really exist," and "bisexuals just haven't made up their minds yet." For some, sex means desire for women or men, but never both.
In a recent example, a bisexual friend of mine overheard a conversation between a lesbian and a gay man in which both commented on how confused bisexuals were. One of them said, "sooner or later bisexuals have to make up their minds!"
I wish I'd been there to ask them, why? Can you explain the basis for your reasoning? Why can't we have already made up our minds—to be bisexual?
It seems to be hard to escape the assumption that there are only two choices, and everyone must ultimately settle for one of them. I have never heard a logical argument, or any biological law that explains why this choice is so unavoidable.
I have an easier time with this when I think about how hard it is for me to grasp attraction to one gender only, whether gay/lesbian or straight attraction. Because sexuality and gender aren't linked for me, I'm surprised when I hear about people who are only attracted to women, or only attracted to men.
As a feminist I can understand why some women would choose not to be with men. I can also see that a person might want something in a sexual relationship that is more typically found with one gender or the other. But how could one gender always fall outside the boundaries of sexual possibility?
I believe that it happens, because people tell me that it's true for them. It's just extremely hard to imagine.
In fact, we bisexuals have a tendency (which I resist in myself) to think that all people are potentially bisexual. If they haven't acted on it yet, monosexuals must either be repressed, or they just haven't found the "right man"/"right woman" yet.
I suppose this is the bisexual equivalent of the monosexual perception that bisexuals are just going through a phase and haven't made up our minds yet.
Gender in Bisexual Attraction
Although gender is not a limiting factor for bisexuals, it does sometimes play a role in bisexual attraction.
Some bisexuals that I know are attracted to women and men for gender-specific reasons. For instance, they like women because they see them as: easy to talk to, or nurturing, or soft and curvy; and they like men because they find them: straightforward, or more assertive, or hard and muscular (or some such gendered reasons).
So in this case, gender is part of the formula, but not a limiting factor.
Other bisexuals I have spoken with are also attracted to women and men differently, but they turn the previous specifications upside down. These bis say they find they like butch women and effeminate men. In a way this comes down to appreciating people to the extent that they escape genderedness.
But there are also many bis, such as myself, for whom gender has no place in the list of things that attract them to a person. For instance, I like people who are good listeners, who understand me and have interests similar to mine, and I am attracted to people with a little padding here and there, who have fair skin and dark hair (although I'm pretty flexible when it comes to looks).
"Male" or "female" are not anywhere to be found in the list of qualities I find attractive.
Bisexuals in the United States often experience hostility from lesbians and gay men, as in the incident described above. Lesbians and gay men, like heterosexuals, are often uncomfortable with breaking out of a dualistic way of looking at things.
Bisexuals blur boundaries thought to be fixed in stone, and this is disturbing.
Actually, bisexuals may appear to pose a more direct threat for lesbians and gay men than this general social disturbance. Lesbians and gay men who are "out" in our society have almost always gone through a long process of leaving their family and heterosexual friends, as they leave the closet.
The community that rejected them is replaced by the one they join when they come out; the lesbian and gay community becomes their new family and friends, the place where they feel security and belonging.
Bisexuals who pop up in their new community blur its boundaries, making it feel less safe, less apart from the rejecting heterosexual community. Especially for those who believe that a bisexual has a fifty-fifty chance of finally choosing heterosexuality, a bisexual may well appear as the enemy within their midst.
Bisexuals often face misconceptions shared by lesbians, gay men, and heterosexual people. One of these is mentioned above: that bisexuals are confused people who havent made up their minds yet.
Undoubtedly some bisexuals are in a transitional phase between heterosexuality and homosexuality, but this is not necessarily so. And even when it is true, why should transition be seen as problematic?
Another common myth is that bisexuals are not committed to the struggle against queer oppression. Like many stereotypes, this may have some basis in reality. There are bisexuals who stay in the closet, who gravitate toward opposite gender relationships, marriage, and whatever else it takes to fit in.
Of course, many gay men and lesbians also never make it out of the closet. In fact, the lesbian and gay movement has always included bisexuals. Some have been openly bi, while others haven't felt it worth the struggle to be open in the face of disapproval from the community that is so important to them.
Today, some bisexuals, like some gay men and lesbians, are not interested in getting involved in political struggle, but many others are very active within the queer community.
Another misconception is the idea that to be bisexual you must be sleeping with both women and men, and along with this, probably cheating on your partner. This is like saying that you cannot call yourself a lesbian (or gay, or straight) if you are single and celibate.
I believe that you're bisexual (homosexual, heterosexual) if that's what you call yourself. Your orientation stays the same, you still feel attraction, whatever your current actions.
Now it's true, there are bisexuals who feel more fulfilled if they have relationships with a woman and a man. Some of these may have an agreement with their partner(s), and some not, but bisexuals are not the only sexual orientation where unorthodox relationships can be found, or where some cheat on their partners.
A lesbian once told me that bisexuals experience oppression only to the extent that we "are homosexual." She used this as an argument for leaving the name "bisexual" off titles of marches, community centers, newspapers, etc.
Who is included in group names has been a controversy for years (going back at least to the time when including the word "lesbian" was controversial because "gay" could supposedly count for both).
I don't agree that bisexuals face only homosexual oppression. It's true that when we are in same-sex relationships, one of the things we experience is heterosexism (and also, in our opposite sex relationships we do not as directly face the oppression gay men and lesbians face, although if we are openly bisexual we never completely escape heterosexism).
However, bisexuals confront forms of oppression that lesbians and gay men do not. Bisexual oppression includes compulsory monosexuality and the invisibility that is a result of monosexism. We are made invisible when people can't conceive of sexual attraction that isn't tied to one gender or the other, thereby denying our existence.
Even face to face, there is nothing about us that says we're bisexual—if we're with the same gender it's assumed we're lesbian/gay, and we must be straight if our partner is of the opposite gender.
Unless we happen to be holding hands and kissing a woman and a man simultaneously, an either/or way of seeing things means most people will automatically categorize us as either homosexual or heterosexual. This is monosexism at work.
In recent years some things have changed for bisexuals in the United States. We have started to find each other and form organizations and small communities. Conferences happen regularly in different parts of the country, and a national network exists.
Books about bisexuals multiply, as we tell our stories and develop theories about how we fit in. Much to the discomfort of some lesbians and gay men, we have been increasing the pressure to have our presence within the queer community acknowledged.
It seems inevitable that we will have an impact on how the people of this country view sexuality. Will this go further and affect the fundamental tendency toward dualistic categorizing, the either/or mindset?
Karin Baker is an actiist and member of Solidarity in Dan Diego.
ATC 99, July-August 2002