From Issue 2.4 - February 1996

Kinky Bisexuals: Ultimate Switches or Ultimate Outcasts?

By Liz Highleyman

Bisexuals occupy an interesting position within sexual minority communities. On one hand, bis are seen as the ultimate in kinky perversion: "they'll do it with anyone -- how hot!" On the other hand, they're seen as an embarrassment by those seeking mainstream acceptance: "they'll do it with anyone -- that's shameful!"

The past several years have seen a reclaiming of middle ground that was previously considered forbidden territory. Many in the leather/SM community have proudly adopted a switch identity. Transgendered people -- both MTF and FTM -- have garnered widespread attention. And bisexual people -- and the bi movement -- are much more visible and active. This may be coincidental, but more likely reflects that alternative sexuality communities have become more willing to acknowledge fluidity of identity and to venture beyond established categories.

It's Not Easy Being Bi

But this doesn't mean that being a paradigm-smasher is easy. As Pat Califia says in Leatherfolk, comparing the 'in limbo' position of bisexuals, transsexuals, and switches: "everybody knows they're there, but no one wants to own them or say they belong."

I'm far from the first to note with puzzlement the discrepancy between how many people play with both (or more than one, or all) genders and how many call themselves "bisexual." At the leather conference in New York during Stonewall 25, a workshop of bis in the leather/SM community discussed their frustration with gay- and straight-identified people who play with both genders, but denigrate those who honestly adopt a bi identity. Across town at the bisexual conference, a similar discussion was taking place among leatherpeople in the bi community.

In some parts of the leather community -- some online communities, groups that gather around science fiction conventions, some spirituality-based communities -- bisexual identity is the norm. This is also the case in some other alternative sexuality communities, especially among polyamorists. But more commonly, bisexuality is conspicuous by its absence; it's like the elephant in the room that everyone pretends not to notice.

Within the mixed queer leather scene, there is a strong trend toward genderfuck, playing in cross-gendered roles, scenes with a person in male role playing with a person in female role, and dykes playing with -- and fucking -- fags. All of this is accompanied by a vociferous denial that there is anything bisexual (or, heaven forbid, heterosexual!) going on. Likewise in the heterosexual scene, playing with the same gender may be seen as good kinky fun -- especially if you're a women -- but it has few ramification in terms of sexual identity.

Certainly it's hard to define whether a sexual act is homo-, hetero- or bisexual: what about two lesbians who like to watch gay male porn while having sex? or a woman who watches "lesbian" porn with her husband? or a man who likes his girlfriend to fuck him with a strap-on? or any couple in which one member is cross-dressed? But if the definitions are so slippery, why is everyone so sure they're not bi?

Bis in Leather History

Bis in Leather HistoryJust as bisexuality is swept under the rug, the bisexual heritage of the leather community is also rarely mentioned. In fact, the contemporary mixed queer leather scene was made possible by bisexuals. Steve McEachern, the creator of the Catacombs, was a bi man. He introduced his bisexual lover Cynthia Slater to the gay male fisting and SM scene. Slater then introduced her female lovers to this scene, and thus the stage was set for the new era of mixed gender and orientation play parties. People like Slater and David Lourea were not only bi in behavior, but out bi activists. Slater founded the Society of Janus (which while pansexual, has come to be widely regarded as predominantly hetero). Bi leatherfolk were also instrumental in the earliest AIDS prevention efforts, unsurprisingly, perhaps, since the bi and leather communities shared the stigma of being seen as "AIDS carriers."

Many types of SM play (bondage, flogging, cutting) do not necessarily depend on the sex or gender of either partner -- the root of the "a back is a back" theory of bisexual SM, which has been much maligned by those who perceive for a unique gender-based element in their play. Both bis and "monos" seem equally guilty of the "if it's that way for me, it must be that way for everybody" fallacy.

Fakir Musafar has praised the leather community as one where people who share an erotic identification are accepted regardless of sexual orientation. There are few spaces outside of leather/SM communities where people of various sexual identities interact in an erotic context. As people who identify as exclusively gay, lesbian, or heterosexual have begun to play in the same spaces, opportunities have arisen to interact erotically with people who would not normally have been thought of as potential partners.

Bi 101

Bisexuality is often viewed as the mid-range of a spectrum from homosexual to heterosexual. But bisexuals are not really "in between." Indeed, it may make as much sense to classify those who care a lot about gender together in one group and those who care little about gender in another. "Gender indifferent" bisexuals often annoy others by claiming to "love people, not genitals" -- implying that gays, lesbians, and hets care only about whether someone has a cock or a cunt.

A more accurate characterization is that many bis do not rule out potential partners on the basis of sex/gender though they may well do so for other reasons! Many don't like the term "bisexual" at all since it implies a binary understanding of sex/gender, as well as the idea that sex/gender is the most important aspect of our sexual attractions. After all, we don't say we're bisexual if we're attracted to both blonds and redheads -- or even, interestingly, to both butches and femmes.

Some people refuse to believe that bisexuality exists, claiming that they must really be curious hets, closeted gays, or "half gay and half straight." Some bisexuals seem to thrive in this atmosphere, moving within gay/lesbian or heterosexual communities and adapting themselves in a chameleon-like way to their current milieu. But others long to express their sexuality as a seamless whole rather than a collection of parts, and hate trying to keep track of which lovers and situations can be mentioned in which contexts. "Don't talk about that part of yourself here," we are admonished, "there are other places for that." But there are precious few places that welcome us as whole people.

Fortunately San Francisco has several pansexual parties and venues (e.g., LINKS, Queen of Heaven) that welcome bisexuals specifically -- or at least bi women. These groups typically do not welcome heterosexual or non-gay-identified bi men, which can put bi women with het or bi male lovers in a bind, especially if they are too queer for, or feel stifled by the rigid conventions of, the heterosexual SM milieu. There remain few places to explore and practice new, non-gender-role-based relationships between men and women.

Although bi women and leatherdykes have often been associated -- a common "male identified" enemy of cultural feminism in the sex wars of the 1980s -- inclusion of bi women in lesbian space is still a hot issue. Although most spaces accept bi women who are willing to pass as lesbian, the "bisexual wars" still flare up with some regularity. Gay men seem more willing to accept bi men -- if you suck cock, it doesn't seem to be a big deal if you eat pussy too. But the "swinger" type bisexual man -- typically older, straight-identified, perhaps using the bi label to gain access to bi women -- and the closeted bi man -- possibly married, not part of the gay community -- are widely reviled.

Other than homophobic bigotry or a (unfortunately understandable) hatred of all things heterosexual, are there other reasons for the widespread disavowal of the bisexual identity? Bisexuality challenges the accepted dualistic way of conceptualizing sexuality and gender, and many people value his conceptualization as a basis for their identity. There's also the puritanical notion that bisexuals are just having too damn much fun people shouldn't be able to 'have their cake and eat it too'!

Not long ago I couldn't understand how anyone could practice, enjoy, and even advocate sex with both (all) genders, yet still oppose bisexuality as a concept or an identity. It has since become increasingly clear that for many people, sexual identity has almost entirely to do with self-conception and community affinity, and almost nothing to do with sexual attraction or behavior. All of which has interesting implications for how our language of sexuality is evolving, how our political communities are organized, and how we might best struggle for liberation and civil rights.

It may well be that the future movement for sexual and gender liberation, for the freedom to be who we want to be and to love and fuck who and how we choose, will be based not on our current irreparably bipolar conceptions of sexuality and gender -- homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual; man woman and transgender -- but rather on communities of affinity -- kinky, perv, queer, sex radical -- that are inclusive rather than exclusive.

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Last updated: 10 February 1996