Identities and Ideas: Strategies for Bisexuals

by Liz Highleyman


This article appeared in the anthology "Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries, and Visions," Naomi Ticker, Liz Highleyman, and Rebecca Kaplan, editors. Haworth Press, 1995.

The bisexual movement has grown and evolved greatly in the past decade and many bisexuals are beginning to re-think old assumptions. Now is a good time to examine where we've come from and where we're going as bisexuals -- as individuals, as communities and as a movement. Is there (and should there be) a specific politics, culture, or lifestyle that goes along with a given sexual orientation? Is sexual identity a sufficient basis for political solidarity or social cohesion? What are the most useful strategies for bi organizing and activism? Should bisexuals integrate into the gay and lesbian movement, work to build an independent bi-focused movement, or aspire to create a broad sexual and gender liberation movement? Is our goal to build a strong and coherent movement based on sexual identity, or to break down identity-based distinctions altogether?

The Politics of Identity and the Politics of Ideas

Today's gay and lesbian movement reflects the emphasis on identity politics which is common among contemporary progressive movements. Identity politics refers to political organizing based on membership in a group or class, usually defined on the basis of some immutable (or believed to be immutable) characteristic. Alliances tend to be based on similarity of oppression.

The flipside of identity politics might be called idea politics, that is, communities and activism based on shared beliefs, commitments, values and goals rather than on shared immutable characteristics or oppressions. A sexual and gender liberation movement based on ideas could encompass everyone who shares the goal of free choice in the areas of sexuality and gender expression, regardless of their personal sexual or gender identity.

Essentialist versus Social Constructionist Notions of Identity

An emphasis on immutable or inherent characteristics makes identity politics in some ways related to essentialism. In terms of sexual orientation, the essentialist view holds that there are universal (perhaps biological) characteristics common to all people of a given sexual orientation. Essentialists see sexual identity as constant across eras and cultures, for example equating Native American Berdaches and ancient Greek pederasts with modern day gay men and lesbians. The opposing view, known as social constructionism, holds that our concepts of sexual identity are shaped by the society we live in, and that people cannot accurately be classified using the concepts of another society, even if their behaviors appear similar. The difference between essentialism and constructionism is not one of ``nature versus nurture''. While it has probably always been the case that different people have had different attractions, constructionists believe that the meaning attached to those attractions is culturally specific. In a society in which the sexes were seen as equal, or in which a binary conception of sex and gender did not exist, people might not feel the need to classify themselves according to the sex/gender to which they are attracted (just as today someone may prefer people with blue eyes, yet not identify as a ``bluist'' nor feel they are part of a ``blue-sexual community'') [1]. If people with similar sexual attractions share characteristics, values, customs or lifestyles, it is because of similar experiences and the similar positions they occupy within the social hierarchy, not because of anything inherent to the nature of their sexual orientation.

The Pitfalls of Identity Politics

People who see the world in terms of identity politics often expect that all people with a given identity characteristic will share certain moral values, political beliefs and cultural tastes which are not shared by those who lack that characteristic. An example is the surprisingly common belief that everyone with same-sex attractions must be politically and socially progressive, while those with other-sex attractions are necessarily politically and morally conservative. Identity politics is grounded in oppression and marginalization. Members of non-marginalized groups generally do not organize explicitly around identity characteristics, nor do they expect to find common political ground on the basis of these characteristics. It would be absurd to expect Ronald Reagan and a poor black teenage mother to empathize with one another on the basis of their shared attraction to the other sex, yet many people do not find it odd to expect a wealthy conservative white gay businessman and a working-class leftist black lesbian to feel solidarity based on their shared attraction to the same sex. Proponents of identity politics may have difficulty seeing things from a non-identity-based perspective -- for example, they may define their enemy as ``straight white men'' rather than attitudes of homophobia, racism, sexism and intolerance. They may be unwilling to take into account differences in beliefs and behavior among members of an identity group. Identity-based movements have too often abandoned a broad social change agenda in favor of reforms that benefit members of a specific identity group (for example the recent focus on gay participation in the military). There is often little to hold identity-based communities together other than a common oppression. If an identity-based community is highly valued, there is a danger that its members may perpetuate their status as victims in order to avoid the loss of community that might accompany a reduction of oppression.

Identity politics is a response to an oppressive reality, and it is perhaps unlikely that most people will see beyond their need for it until society changes. It's no accident that liberal heterosexuals and bisexuals with only other-sex relationships seem so much more eager to do away with sexuality-based categorization than are gay men and lesbians and gay/lesbian-identified bisexuals: it's easy to say ``sexual orientation doesn't matter -- we're all just people'' when you're not regularly treated as inferior on account of your sexuality! Identity politics undoubtedly provides for many a useful basis for solidarity and a haven against a hostile world, but it can become detrimental when labels are seen as more important than people and when people are pressured to limit what they think, say, and do in order to fit into identity-based categories.

These comments about identity politics apply to the predominantly white, middle-class gay/lesbian and bisexual movements in the United States. Many people of other cultures and ethnicities conceive of their sexuality in different and often less identity-based ways. People may engage in behavior that is associated in the U.S. with being gay or bisexual without adopting a gay or bi identity. This doesn't mean that they are ``in the closet'' or refusing to adopt a gay or bi identity, but rather that these particular constructions of sexual identity are foreign to them. Because the gay/lesbian and bi movements are based on conceptions of sexual identity that are culturally specific, the participation of people of many ethnicities tends to be low. It remains to be seen to what extent conceptions of sexual identity can be broadened before they lose their meaning altogether and call into question the very idea of classifying people on the basis of sexual behavior or sexual identity.

The Composition of the Bisexual Movement

While there have been communities over the years that have consisted largely of bisexuals, and while bisexuals have long been active members of many different movements, a self-conscious, organized bisexual movement really began to develop in the 1970s. Some early bisexual groups tended to focus broadly on sexual liberation while others were more closely aligned with the gay and lesbian or feminist movements. The earliest groups began in large U.S. cities, and many groups started throughout the U.S., Europe and elsewhere in the 1980s. Widespread national and international networking and organizing began in the early 1990s.

I find it useful to think of the contemporary bisexual movement as comprising of people in several broad categories: 1) those that came to the bisexual movement through the gay liberation and lesbian-feminist movements, 2) those who came to a bi identity from a sexual liberation perspective, 3) those whose first conscious self-identification was bisexual, 4) those who primarily identify with various alternative political, sexual or other subcultures that contain a large proportion of bisexuals, and 5) those whose primary interest is gender issues and those who want to deconstruct or go beyond binary gender and sexual orientation categories. Although individuals within the movement are varied, and many will fall into none or more than one of these categories, such a breakdown may nonetheless help explain why the strategies and goals of bisexual communities and the movement as a whole are so varied.

The Gay/Lesbian Legacy

The organized bisexual movement is and always has been closely associated with the gay and lesbian movement. Ronald Fox's study of 900 self-identified bisexuals indicated that 35% currently or previously identified as gay or lesbian [2]. Many bisexual women have a history of involvement with lesbian feminist communities, and consider their bisexuality to be closely integrated with their feminist politics. Despite their alienation from some aspects of gay and lesbian communities, many bisexuals retain a strong sense of affiliation with gay and lesbian culture and identity.

The Legacies of the Sexual Liberation Perspective

Many bisexuals became aware of or began to create their bi identity during the ``sexual revolution'' of the 1960s-1970s. In this era of ``bisexual chic'' it was considered uptight to rule out relationships on the basis of sex/gender (although it was fine if one ``just happened'' to always end up with members of the other sex). Many of these people had previously identified as heterosexual, and same-sex relationships or sexual explorations were often much more accepted between women than between men. Fox's study showed that 45% of bisexuals in his sample had previously identified as heterosexual [2]. A common thread can be found connecting the sexual revolutionaries of the 1960s-1970s and since with earlier proponents of free love and sex radicalism reaching back to the late 1800s and early 1900s [3]. Though the early sex radicals did not identify as bisexual (the classification of ``the homosexual'' as a distinct type of person rather than a type of behavior in which anyone might potentially engage, was brand new), some were open to relationships with both sexes and they tended to question male-dominated sex acts, uncontrolled reproduction, traditional gender roles, the institution of marriage, and the possessive commodity nature of compulsory monogamy. Both the early sex radicals and the later sexual revolutionaries were often political radicals as well, with many being anarchists, socialists, libertarians, or utopianists.

Some people who are primarily attracted to the other sex may call themselves bisexual to express their support for sexual and gender liberation or as a rejection of heterosexual privilege; bisexuality is sometimes seen as a ``default'' identity for those who are not gay or lesbian, but who do not wish to label themselves as heterosexual either. Some people view bisexuality as part of their struggle against sexism. They may feel that it is as wrong to discriminate on the basis of sex/gender in erotic relationships as it is in other areas of life, and that sex/gender discrimination is as objectionable as racial discrimination. Some view sex/gender based preferences as a product of patriarchal conditioning that can be altered with conscious effort.

Bisexuality as a Primary Identity

Some bisexuals have never consciously identified as anything other than bisexual, having either identified as bisexual early in life or having previously had an unspecified or ``none of the above'' or ``heterosexual by default'' identity. Fox's study revealed that 10% of his respondents claimed bisexuality as their first sexual identity [2]. This is apparently becoming more common and seems especially prevalent among younger bisexuals who may become aware of the existence of bisexuality earlier in life due to the greater visibility of the bisexual label and bisexual communities.

Bisexuals in Alternative Subcultures

A sizable and increasing segment of the bisexual movement is made up of people who are part of various alternative subcultures that contain many bisexuals. Examples include pagan and alternative spirituality communities, progressive political milieus, various art, theatre and music scenes (such as some punks, ravers and neo-gothics), science fiction and fantasy fandom, and some computer network communities. It may be that for members of these subcultures, bisexuality, as a challenge to traditional notions of sexuality and gender, is part of a more general challenge to social and cultural norms. It is not uncommon to find people identifying as bisexual after becoming involved in these communities even if they had not previously shown any evidence of same-sex attraction. It's possible that some of these people come to identify as bisexual because it's a group norm, or because they feel a political or cultural affinity for bisexuality.

A number of ``leatherfolk'' (those affiliated with leather, s/m or fetish subcultures) have come to associate with bisexual communities because their preferred erotic activities are often not based on genital sex and they may enjoy playing (doing s/m activities) with members of more than one sex, which may not be acceptable in strictly homosexual or strictly heterosexual spaces. Polyamorists (those who favor sexual and/or romantic relationships with more than one person) have often gravitated toward bi communities, especially when their relationships include members of different sexes, again because they may not be accepted in either strictly homosexual or strictly heterosexual milieus (even if the individuals involved are in fact homosexual or heterosexual).

Bisexuality and Gender

Some people come into bisexual communities because they are concerned with issues of gender. Many bisexuals minimize the emphasis on sex and gender, and bisexual spaces may be more welcoming to people of non-traditional, indeterminate or uncertain gender identity than are strictly heterosexual or strictly homosexual spaces (which are often segregated by sex). Many transgendered people cannot be unambiguously classified in traditional sexual orientation terms because such terms presuppose a fixed binary notion of sex and gender. Even if they don't identify as bisexual (many feel that the very term is too binary!) they may feel more comfortable in a bi community in which attraction to all sexes and genders is accepted. Bi spaces tend to be among the few contexts in which people of varied sexual and gender identities can interact with one another socially, sexually and politically.

Organizing Strategies for Bisexuals

Given the broad diversity among bisexuals, what might be the best organizing strategies? Is there a common agenda that we can agree on?

Bisexual activists and the organized bi movement have tended to embrace four broad strategies. The first is to seek inclusion within the existing gay and lesbian movement; this strategy addresses the immediate need to fight homophobia and gain acceptance for same-sex relationships. The second is to build a strong independent bi-focused movement, emphasizing the unique concerns of bisexuals while working in alliance with gay men and lesbians and others when our issues coincide. The third is to create a broad sexual and gender liberation movement that will encompass the concerns of all sexual and gender minorities as equals. The fourth strategy works toward breaking down and moving beyond identity-based categories in favor of more fluid conceptualizations of sexuality and gender. These strategies overlap and are in no way mutually exclusive, but they may provide a useful framework within which to examine the evolution and future directions of the bi movement.

Inclusion Within the Gay and Lesbian Movement

From Gay to Queer: a Brief History

The modern gay movement is often said to have begun with the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in June 1969. Drag queens, hustlers, and at least one he-she dyke fought back after their hangout was raided yet again by the police. The post-Stonewall gay liberation movement had a broad agenda and an affinity for the leftist politics of the day (for example Marxism/Leninism/Maoism and opposition to the war in Vietnam). Gay liberationists saw a strong connection between sexuality and politics and believed that the experience of sexuality-based oppression would naturally lead to the desire to radically transform society. This movement embraced sexual minorities of all sorts and promoted free choice in the areas of sexuality and gender expression (though some expected that ``after the revolution'' everyone would be bisexual and androgynous).

As the social movements of the early 1970s fell apart or lost their radical edge in the 1980s, the gay liberation movement, now known as the gay and lesbian movement, followed suit. There was a growing emphasis on an identity politics model that likened gays to oppressed racial and ethnic minorities; sexual identity was increasingly seen as an immutable characteristic without sweeping social or political ramifications. The movement became more focused on civil rights and assimilation into mainstream society. Many people with same-sex attractions wanted well-paid professional jobs and had no interest in abolishing capitalism. Many wanted access to positions of power in the legislature or the military and had no interest in overthrowing the government. Many wanted long-term monogamous partnerships and children and had no interest in challenging traditional ideas about relationships and families.

In the late 1980s a new current of gay and lesbian activism sprang up in opposition to the assimilationist trend. Often calling themselves ``queer'' to emphasize their outsider status, this tendency burst onto the scene with the formation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987, Queer Nation in 1990, and the Lesbian Avengers in 1992. The queer movement had many similarities to the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement (for example, its more diverse composition, in-your-face attitude, and direct action tactics), but it was heavily invested in identity politics. Several queer groups have experienced deep tensions (sometimes to the breaking point) about whether to focus on specifically gay/lesbian or AIDS-related concerns or on a broader agenda for sexual liberation and social change.

Bisexuals within the Gay and Lesbian and Queer Movements

Bisexuals were generally included in the early gay liberation movement (one might even argue that bisexuality as an abstract concept was favored), but began to feel excluded as many gay men and lesbians came to adopt essentialist notions of identity and identity-based organizational strategies. Some gay men and lesbians saw bisexuals as partakers of heterosexual privilege; bis were regarded as unreliable or uncommitted allies at best, and traitors to the cause at worst. Bisexuals were resented for seemingly not having suffered as much for their sexual identity. In some circles bisexuals (along with drag queens, leatherfolk, and others) were seen as a threat to assimilation because they seemed to reinforce the stereotype that non-heterosexuals were amoral, confrontational and promiscuous. In the 1980s there was a furor within the lesbian-feminist community known as ``the sex wars'' (disagreements over issues such as pornography and s/m) which was often cast in terms of ``male-identification'' and ``consorting with the enemy,'' leaving many bisexual women feeling caught between warring factions. Previously, a woman could be a lesbian if she loved and was committed to women, but by this period lesbianism seemed to become more defined in terms of not loving or having sexual relationships with men.

The position of bisexuals within the queer movement is unclear. Various groups and individuals disagree about just who should be included under the queer umbrella. Some maintain that ``queer'' applies only to gay men and lesbians (and perhaps gay- and lesbian-identified bisexuals who are willing to keep quiet about their other-sex attractions). In fact there may be a growing tendency for some gay men and lesbians to use the term ``queer'' to minimize the visibility of those who aren't gay or lesbian -- by using ``queer'' they don't have to mention bisexuals, transgendered people and others by name. Others insist that queerness has a large ideological component -- it's as much about how you think and what you believe as it is about what you do in bed or who you do it with. Some see the queer movement as a sexual and gender liberation movement that includes all sexual and gender minorities and their supporters, rather than as a homosexual identity-based movement. Still others think of queerness as a cultural construct, which includes specific styles of dress, body piercings, genderfuck, and certain types of music. The evolution of the concept of ``queer'' has had a reciprocal effect on the concept of ``straight.'' If ``queer'' implies radical politics and sexual and social liberation, then ``straight'' implies conservative or reactionary politics, boring whitebread culture, and a resistance to sexual and social diversity. Thus it is possible to speak of such seemingly oxymoronic concepts as a ``straight homosexual'' or a ``queer heterosexual.''

The Pros and Cons of the LesBiGay Strategy

Bisexuals who came from the gay and especially the lesbian-feminist movements have done a great deal of the organizing, writing and speaking about bisexuality in recent years. They retain close ties to gay and lesbian culture, are well-versed in identity politics, and are eager to see bisexuals included in what has come to be called the LesBiGay movement (an increasing number are including transgendered people as well). They feel their oppression is based on their same-sex rather than their other-sex relationships, and they share the gay and lesbian movement's focus on eradicating homophobia and heterosexism. Many gay/lesbian-identified bisexuals are not seeking inclusion as outsiders, but have long been a part of the gay and lesbian movement (sometimes before they identified as bi, sometimes as closeted bis); to them, the failure of gay men and lesbians to include bisexuals feels like active exclusion or expulsion. Many bisexuals seek to take advantage of the size and infrastructure of the gay and lesbian movement which many bisexuals helped to build. Within the gay and lesbian movement, bisexual activism is often centered around getting the word ``bisexual'' included in group names and statements of purpose.

There is a question about which bisexuals can be encompassed within a LesBiGay strategy. Will it be all bisexuals or only those who have same-sex partners, fit into gay/lesbian culture, or consider themselves gay/lesbian-identified (the ``good bis'')? Many gay men and lesbians and some gay/lesbian-identified bisexuals consider non-gay-identified bisexuals or those in other-sex relationships (the ``bad bis'') to be less dedicated and less genuine -- they are seen as closet-cases or thrill-seekers, not as a distinct but equally authentic sexual minority. It is common for many gays, lesbians and even many bisexuals to regard bisexuals as sub-standard or ``failed'' gay men or lesbians. There is a well-founded concern among some bisexuals that LesBiGay groups may be inclusive in name, and tolerant of the ``good bis'', but unconcerned about bisexual invisibility or bi-specific issues. It is often proposed that bisexuals should deal with issues concerning same-sex relationships and express same-sex attractions within gay and lesbian environments, and deal with issues concerning other-sex relationships and express other-sex attractions within heterosexual environments. Yet many bisexuals do not see their sexuality as ``part gay and part straight'' and cannot neatly divide themselves this way. They do not want to always have to hide part of who they are according to context. True inclusion of bisexuals requires the acceptance and validation of both our same-sex and our other-sex attractions and relationships, for that is what bisexuality is.

Many adherents of identity politics believe that their demand for equal rights is stronger if their identity characteristic is inborn or unchangeable (as it is for racial or ethnic groups). The contemporary gay and lesbian movement is increasingly reliant on the claim that homosexuals are ``born that way''. Since gay people cannot help being the way they are, they should not be discriminated against. It's scientifically unclear whether there is a biological basis for variations in sexuality and gender identity, though some evidence indicates that there may be genetic, neuroanatomical, or hormonal correlates. Yet there's no evidence that societies in which a majority of people behave homosexually or bisexually are genetically different from our own, and many people are able to adopt different sexual behaviors and attractions in different circumstances (for example, single-sex schools or prisons) and stages of life , indicating that sexual orientation is to a large degree socially conditioned. Some bisexuals have hopped on the ``born that way'' bandwagon, but in general bis tend to be more amenable to the idea that there is flexibility and some degree of choice in the realm of sexuality. There is a serious strategic flaw in seeking equal rights because ``we're born that way'' -- it implies that those who choose to love the same sex or who voluntarily adopt queer culture deserve to be oppressed.

Many gay men and lesbians maintain a firm belief in the divisibility of the world into those with same-sex attractions (``us'') and those with other-sex attractions (``them''); they may believe that these groups are fundamentally different and that their interests are necessarily and perpetually in conflict. Gay men and lesbians often build solidarity by naming heterosexuality and heterosexuals as the ``enemy''. Some bisexuals readily accept the ``us'' versus ``them'' paradigm as long as they can convince the world that bisexuals -- or at least the ``good bis'' -- are part of the gay/lesbian ``us''. Yet the very existence of bisexuality can throw a wrench into this neat two-camp system. Bisexuality combines the defining features of both homosexuality (same-sex attraction) and heterosexuality (other-sex attraction), which makes it difficult to maintain that the two orientations are separate and distinct. Some gay men and lesbians feel that the acknowledgement of bisexuality makes their own homosexuality less visible or less valid. It is the threat that bisexuals pose to a dualistic view of sexuality and to identity-based foundations for organizing and community-building that cause many gay men and lesbians to be so profoundly opposed to bisexuality. This opposition has much less to do with how individual bisexuals behave in relationships or how much or how little dedication bisexuals devote to gay and lesbian causes. There has been to much time spent chastising bisexuals who behave in ``stereotypically bisexual'' ways, and too much denigration of bisexuals by bisexuals in an effort to gain gay and lesbian acceptance. Attempts by bisexuals to attend more meetings, stuff more envelopes, and donate more money to gay causes in an effort to ``earn'' the respect and recognition of the gay and lesbian community (a respect and recognition that gay men and lesbians are accorded automatically regardless of their degree of outness or activism) are ultimately futile as long as this clash of worldviews prevails.

It seems to me that trying to build a LesBiGay (or LesBiGayTrans [4]) movement is misguided. If we want our issues as bisexuals to be addressed, we should build an independent bisexual movement and work in coalition with others when our concerns coincide. Likewise for the gender community: gender issues are different than sexual orientation issues (though many people confuse them), and these concerns will not get the attention they deserve if they are tacked onto the end of the gay and lesbian agenda. If we want large numbers and inclusiveness, we should create a broad-based liberation movement that includes all sexual and gender minorities and their supporters as equals. A specifically LesBiGay movement seems to provide the disadvantages of both strategies (exclusion and invisibility) without the benefits of either.

Creating a Bi-Focused Movement

Because organized bisexual communities often exist on the margins of gay and lesbian communities, it is sometimes easy to forget that many bisexuals do not consider themselves part of the gay and lesbian community, or even particularly similar to or closely allied with gay men and lesbians. It may be just as appropriate to regard those for whom sex/gender is a deciding factor in selecting or ruling out partners (homosexuals and heterosexuals, sometimes collectively referred to as ``monosexuals'') as more similar to each other than either are to those bisexuals for whom sex/gender is of little or no importance or relevance to their relationship choices.

Whereas it was once all but universally assumed that bisexuals should naturally seek inclusion within the gay and lesbian movement, more and more bisexuals have decided to put their energies and resources into the creation of an independent bi-focused movement. Several factors have influenced this shift. More young people have come into the movement, many of whom have always identified as bisexual and never as gay or lesbian. The organized bi movement has increased its outreach beyond the gay and lesbian milieu. The mainstream gay and lesbian movement has grown to the point where it is now part of the establishment and is no longer on the cutting edge of sexual and gender liberation. At the same time, the bi movement has grown to the point where people believe that bisexuals are numerous enough and strong enough to accomplish things on our own and to maintain a unique bi identity while working in coalitions with others. Finally, many bisexuals have become frustrated and discouraged by the reluctance of gay men and lesbians to accept bisexuals as equal partners in a LesBiGay movement; they feel they have achieved only half-hearted tolerance rather than real acceptance. They have decided they'd prefer to be part of a strong empowering bisexual movement rather than second-class members of a LesBiGay movement.

Building an independent bi movement need not lead to divisiveness between bisexuals and gay men and lesbians. Making bisexuals stronger does not make gays and lesbians weaker, but rather increases our common strength when we work as allies against those who hate all queers. An alliance of empowered, focused communities can be more powerful than a least-common-denominator movement that overwhelms minority voices. Bisexuals and transgender people will only get respect from gay men and lesbians when we approach them as equals, not as subordinates pleading for a token mention or a glimmer of recognition.

Oppression of bisexual people is based in part on heterosexism and in part on monosexism, which is the belief that people can or should be attracted to only one sex/gender and that there is something wrong with those who cannot or will not choose. Whether bisexuals feel more oppressed by heterosexism or by monosexism depends on many factors, including how they identified before they called themselves bi, and the sex of their current partner(s). Bisexuals experience monosexism from both heterosexuals and from gay men and lesbians. Bisexuals can address heterosexism within a LesBiGay movement, but cannot address monosexism. Not only do gay men and lesbians have little reason to prioritize the struggle against monosexism, they often actively support and benefit from it; homosexuals are privileged by monosexism even as they are oppressed by heterosexism.

Being bisexual is not the same as being gay or lesbian despite some important similarities. We are not defined solely on the basis of our oppressions, but also on the basis of our aspirations. Invisibility is an important issue for bisexuals, as is the failure to recognize bisexuality as a unique sexual identity. Bis are generally perceived to be either gay/lesbian or heterosexual, often depending on the sex of their current partner(s). Many gay men and lesbians are inclined to divide their spaces, activities and political causes into male and female, and they are often not eager to do away with binary conceptions of sex and gender -- in fact their very identity may depend on them! This may not be acceptable to those bisexuals and transgendered people who either identify as ``none of the above'' or who seek spaces where people of varied genders and sexualities can interact.

Ideally, and independent bisexual movement would work in alliance with other groups on issues of mutual concern. Bisexuals share with gay men and lesbians the desire to fight homophobia and heterosexism and eliminate violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bisexuals in relationships with members of the other sex share some issues with progressive heterosexuals, such as the desire to create egalitarian, non-sexist intimate relationships between women and men, and the desire to alter society's outmoded concepts of other-sex relationships. Many bisexuals and progressive heterosexuals want to do away with heterosexual ``privileges'' based on economic and social hierarchies that they reject (for example a tax system which favors couples with stay-at-home wives but penalizes two-career marriages with similar incomes). Many bisexuals seek social equality for same-sex and other-sex relationships and for relationships that include more than two people (whether it be increased benefits for same-sex or multiple-person relationships, or getting public institutions and employers out of the business of granting privileges based on relationship status altogether). Bisexuals have played a pioneering role in the budding polyamory/polyfidelity movement. Many bisexuals share with some transgendered people the desire to de-emphasize binary gender categories and to deconstruct inflexible gender roles.

Creating a Sexual and Gender Liberation Movement

Another strategy favored by many bisexuals is the creation of a broad and inclusive sexual and gender liberation movement which welcomes sex and gender radicals of all sorts, including bisexuals (both the ``good bis'' and the ``bad bis''), transsexuals and transgendered people, genderfuckers, androgynes, leatherfolk, fetishists, body modifiers, boy lovers, sex workers, non-monogamists, polyamorists, their friends and lovers, and those of all sexualities who reject sexism, heterosexism, compulsory relationship models, restrictive sex/gender roles and sex-phobic morality. Such a movement would be based on a radical, choice-based, consensual, sex-positive, diversity-valuing ideology rather than on any specific characteristic-based identity. Some proponents of sexual and gender liberation have coined terms such as ``pansexual'' and ``omnisexual'' to describe their aspirations, but no term for this movement has so far achieved common usage.

Some have argued that a movement of this type should be built upon the foundations of the existing gay and lesbian movement, with demands that gay men and lesbians should expand their movement to include every group with an interest in issues of sex or gender. The early gay liberation movement had many of the characteristics of a broad sex and gender liberation movement, as did the ``sexual revolution'' of the same era, but both were too limited and fell short of achieving these goals. A number of people have looked to the newer queer movement as the broad and inclusive movement they seek, but it seems to have imploded under the weight of identity politics. Gay men and lesbians deserve their own space in which to focus on their unique issues. Many sexual and gender liberation proponents believe that it's both wrong and futile to demand inclusion in the gay and lesbian movement if a substantial segment of that movement does not want to expand in this way -- a community cannot be forced to accept people against its will. While many gay men and lesbians do indeed share the broad goals of sexual and gender liberation, others emphatically do not, being concerned only with issues that will directly benefit those with gay identities or monogamous same-sex relationships. Reciprocally, many proponents of sexual and gender liberation do not identify as gay or lesbian.

Because the gay and lesbian movement has often been at the forefront in discussions of sex and sexuality, many people seem to label all matters relating to sex and sexuality as ``gay'' issues. Similarly, issues related to reproduction and raising children are generally designated as ``straight'' concerns, though people of all sexualities have a legitimate interest in bringing up the next generation. Clearly most issues of sex, sexuality, gender and relationships rightfully concern people of all orientations. While people in some groups are typically hurt more than others by the constraints imposed by traditional roles and institutions, such constraints limit the full human potential of everyone. This is not, however, to argue that everyone should be bisexual, androgynous, polyamorous or whatever -- making choices based on personal preferences is very different from having them imposed by external forces. We can all demand universal reproductive freedom (both the right to have and the right not to have children), and can reject the concept of ``illegitimacy'' whereby children of non-traditional relationships have less social and legal standing. People of all sexualities have a reason to challenge our society's erotophobia and its belief that sex is sinful and the body is shameful. We can promote education about sexuality and show that there is a wide range of acceptable and worthwhile sexual and gender identities, manners of sexual expression, and models of healthy and loving relationships.

Moving Beyond Identity Politics

Bisexuals who base their attractions on individual characteristics other than sex/gender may feel that the sex/gender of ones desired partner(s) is a bizarre foundation upon which to build an identity, a community, or a movement. For some bisexuals, the real goal is to move beyond dichotomies such as gay/straight and male/female. They want to move beyond this compartmentalized way of thinking, not simply to add a third box labelled ``bisexual'' or to re-label one box as ``LesBiGay(Trans).'' This rejection of the dichotomy between sexualities and genders is the most radical potential of bisexuality.

Many bisexuals object in principle to the gay and lesbian movement's ``us'' versus ``them'' paradigm. How can it be true that people are inherently and fundamentally different depending on whether they are attracted to the same sex or the other sex when some people are attracted to both? Perhaps more than gay men, lesbians or heterosexuals, bisexuals tend to experience an evolution of their sexuality over time -- the idea that sexuality is inherent, fixed or unchangeable strikes many of us as false. Many bisexuals do not want to be forced to make a choice about which ``side'' they are on: they are unwilling to denounce heterosexuality per se, and are certainly disinclined to regard their heterosexual lovers as the ``enemy.'' Bisexuals do not appreciate implications by gay men, lesbians and gay/lesbian-identified bisexuals that their other-sex attractions and relationships are less valuable or valid than their same-sex attractions and relationships (for example the assumption that bisexuals choose other-sex partners to gain mainstream acceptance or social privilege, not because of genuine love or erotic desire). Many bisexuals are wary of politics based on identity; they may see identity politics as a flawed but temporarily useful transitional strategy, or as a fundamentally misguided means which is not consistent with the desired ends.

There is no need for bisexual people to come to a consensus on the best way to organize and build community. To achieve both useful short-term reforms and far-reaching long-term social change, we can benefit from all the various strategies: alliance with the gay and lesbian movement, an independent bi-focused movement, a broad sexual and gender liberation movement, and a push to de-emphasize identity politics and to re-define binary conceptions of sexuality and gender. Bisexual people have different values and different goals (ranging from increased acceptance of same-sex relationships to a change in the very way our society thinks about sexuality and gender), and thus will align with different commmunities and adopt different strategies.

Some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have sought to promote the notion that they are ``just like everyone else.'' At the same time, others have promoted the opposite idea, claiming that sexual and gender minorities are inherently and immutably different. Bisexuals, gay men, lesbians, transgendered people and other sexual minorities really are just like traditionally-gendered heterosexuals: our similarity is that we are so diverse. People of all sexualities and genders may be radical, liberal, middle-of-the-road, conservative or reactionary; partnered or single; parents or child-free; monogamous, polyamorous, or promiscuous; vanilla or kinky.

Instead of trying to make sexual and gender minorities more ``straight'' (as the establishment gay and lesbian movement has tended to do), perhaps we should aim to make the mainstream more queer. When all the different factors are taken into account, what is traditionally thought of as ``the norm'' is actually a minority. All of us who fall outside ``the norm'' in some way constitute a large and potentially powerful movement. We could all benefit from a society that respects difference, encourages healthy consensual sexuality, promotes social equality, and celebrates diversity.


[1] I use the term ``sex'' to refer to reproductive and genital anatomy (male and female), and ``gender'' to refer to internal identity (man and woman), outward expression and social role (masculine and feminine); these do not always coincide. Because these concepts overlap, I often use the term ``sex/gender.'' Sex/gender is a complex matrix, not a simple dichotomy. I use the term ``other sex'' because while there are differences on average between men and women as groups, there are many similarities as well and they are not opposites of one another. ``The other sex'' (like ``the opposite sex'') tends to imply that there are only two, but this seems impossible to avoid when discussing a system of sexuality and gender that is based on dichotomies.

[2] Ronald Fox, ``Coming Out Bisexual: Identity, Behavior and Sexual Orientation Self-Disclosure.'' Doctoral thesis, presented at the First International Bisexual Conference (Amsterdam, 5 October 1991) and the American Psychological Association annual convention (Toronto, 20-24 August 1993). To appear in The Journal of Homosexuality.

[3] On the early sex radicals see, for example, Martin H. Blatt, Free Love and Anarchism, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989; and Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays, Dover, New York, 1969.

[4] The community of transsexuals, transvestites and other transgendered people seems to prefer the term ``gender community.'' The term ``trans community'' and terms like ``LesBiGayTrans'' seem to be used almost exclusively by gay and bisexual people who want to include transgendered people. I prefer ``gender'' rather than ``trans'' because ``gender community'' can encompass all who fall outside traditional gender boundaries (including those who identify as neither or both genders), not only those who wish to cross over from one traditionally-defined gender category to the other.

© 1994, Liz Highleyman

Liz Highleyman --