Undoubtedly, bisexuality has existed for thousands of years. However, it was not until the 1970’s that the bisexual movement came into the forefront of issues in the United States. Just as the cold war during the 1950’s was a prime environment for the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War era proved to be a significant opportunity for minorities in terms of sexual orientation to speak out. Indeed, gays and lesbians made drastic gains during this time period to advance the socially constructed perception of sexual freedom. Luckily, bisexuals were able to ‘piggy back’ off of this movement because of a perceived similar identity (Highleyman, 1). That is why the 1970’s saw the emergence of a wide variety of groups and social organizations committed to advancing the rights of bisexuals.
A series of events during the 1970’s proved pivotal in gaining national attention towards the issue. Firstly, the Ithaca Statement on Bisexuality (1972) outlined a specific plan of activism toward acceptance of bisexuals (Highleyman 1). The National Bisexual Liberation Group formed in 1972 in order to promote a higher sense of group solidarity. Interestingly, the 1970’s also reflected a movement of divergence away from the Lesbian and Gay community. Unfortunately, by the late 1970’s, “bisexual women had begun to experience alienation from lesbian communities as separatism and polarization around sexual orientation increased” (Miller 1). Because the Lesbian community accepted a feminist ideology in congruence with homosexuality, the core values and behavioral traits of bisexuals did not fully meet these criteria. Consequently, there developed a schism among the two groups that resulted in bisexuals having to develop their own identity and overall cause for demanding equality. In facing apprehension from a social minority that is perceived as being similar, this was a major setback for the bisexual community.
The 1980’s showed a much more organized effort by bisexuals to spread awareness and support social acceptance. In 1987 there was a march in Washington DC where bisexuals openly met together and spoke out about equality. Even more effective was a nationwide college movement where campus groups and association developed that focused solely on bisexuals (Highleyman 1). These efforts were very effective because not only did it target youths at an early age, but it also helped enforce a stronger environment of acceptance. Moving into the 1990’s and forward, there has been much scholarly literature as well as research studies into the behavior of bisexuals (Highleyman 2). This has been instrumental in gaining national attention. Finally, inclusion of racial minorities has been influential as well.
By far, the greatest distinction about the bisexual community has been that it does not take the characteristics of either homosexuals or heterosexuals. There is no clear boundary of being gay or straight because being bisexual requires a spectrum in which the individual falls in different thresholds based on their preferences (Angelides 188). This calls for further discourse regarding clear definitions of identity. Since bisexuality is not clearly polarized, the term queer has also been developed to fit the inclusion of bisexuals within the umbrella of sexual minorities (Angelides 174). This is both distinct and significant because the complexity of the issue of bisexuality prompts for academic discourse on such complex issues such as identity, gender, social acceptance, as well as tolerance.
Despite the advancements that bisexuals made in terms of social awareness, the critical issue of social identity is still a major problem. Since bisexuality is not a black and white sexual preference like home/hetero-sexuality, clearly defining bisexuals is a convoluted issue. While bisexuality was “conventionally thought of as sexual attraction and/or relationships with members of both sexes,” research suggests that it is not that simple to define (Lever et al. 143). The two major identifiers of sexual identity come from either behavioral traits or self-report methods. However, when faced with research studies, the evidence gathered and parsed can draw two very different conclusions (Lever et al. 142). The reason that this is such a critical issue is because identity is extremely important for not only group solidarity, but also support networks for the advancement of the minority group. If the lines are not clearly defined then it is difficult to collect members based on specific criteria. If potential members cannot clearly identify with a given group, then there is little incentive to be involved and help the cause.
The problem stems from the fact that bisexuals exhibit behaviors of both homosexuals and heterosexuals. In terms of sexual preference, bisexuals engage in relations with both sexes in different proportions. While the behavior and identity of homo/hetero-sexuals coincide with one another relatively clearly, the same is not true of bisexuals; instead, because bisexuals have the fidelity to choose which sex to have relations with, the degrees vary sharply (Lever et al. 151). If a given woman is married in a heterosexual relationship and engages in sexual intimacy with only the same sex yet self-reports to being bisexual, under which classification does she fall under? This anecdote epitomizes the crux of the issue. Just because a given person labels themselves as a bisexual does not mean that they explicitly engage in relations with both sexes. Indeed, Lever’s research remarked that the “definition of bisexuality that is based on [self-reported] bisexual identity would fail to capture most of the men who have bisexual experience after adolescence” (Lever et al. 162). Surely, the question of identity requires further discourse.
Another major challenge is the identification of bisexuals through visual cues. Through normal social interaction, either visual or verbal cues are usually strong indicators of one’s sexual orientation. However, “self-identified bisexuals are largely mistaken or misappropriated in the social, interactive context” (Miller 1). That is, bisexuals are often confused as being either homosexual or heterosexual. In using visibility politics to identify different sexual orientations, it is not an easy task “to conceptualize complex sexualities like bisexuality” (Miller 7). Indeed, often times there are strong visual cues that are missing. For instance, lesbian women often times personify very masculine traits to identify themselves within that community. That may not be the case with bisexual women who predominantly wish to retain their feminine qualities (Miller 5). The major challenge that this issue poses is that when bisexuals meet others, they often times are faced with the difficult choice to personify one sexual orientation or the other. For instance, among the subjects interviewed in Miller’s study, the social process of meeting others is difficult because “each is dependent on the other in the making of heteronormative conditions that ultimately force bisexuals to choose between a social heterosexual or social homosexual identity, with little option for a distinctly bisexual identity” (Miller 9). Again, while this relates to identity in some ways, it is highly dependent on visual cues. Unfortunately, these visual cues are not only difficult to master, but they also instigate a personification that may not be fully telling on the individual.
Along with issues of identity and physical cues, gender issues among specifically women are evident. The Lesbian community has been pretty vocal regarding their dissent for the classification of bisexuality as a sexual orientation. This stems exclusively from the perceived differences of experience among bisexual women and Lesbians. Paula Rust remarked that “many lesbian-identified women do not trust bisexual-identified women socially or politically because they believe that the bisexual experience differs from the lesbian experience, and that bisexuals do not share lesbians' interests” (Rust 368). Mainly, because many Lesbian women associate themselves with the feminist movement, they cannot associate their own experiences of oppression with bisexuals who still abide by an attitude of male dominance. Indeed, slanderous labels have been used by Lesbian women to describe bisexual women: sexual opportunists, fickle lovers, traitors, political cowards or fence sitters” (Rust 268). These issues have heavily undermined the shared identity of bisexuals and Lesbians. Although this schism has been documented, research does support a shared identity nonetheless.
The overall values, beliefs and behaviors of Lesbian women overlap heavily with bisexual women. Indeed, Rust’s study of behavioral habits of both minority groups suggested that there are only some differences (Rust 275). Attitudes regarding companionship, sexual habits, acceptance and identity were closely similar. Despite this quantitative study, Lesbians are still apprehensive in accepting the label of bisexual. Consequently, this has prompted researchers to explore other reasons for this discrepancy. To explain this, Rust argued that “the difference does not lie as much in personal experience as it does in the conceptual frameworks by which experience is interpreted” (Rust 381). That is, how the label of being bisexual and the associations of male companionship with it have been the core reason that divergence has existed. Since most Lesbian women associate with social values against patriarchy in a radical sense, this does not align with the label of being bisexual with sexual relations of both sexes. Moreover, bisexuals predominantly holding non-radical viewpoints is also a contributing factor.
The fact that bisexual women engage in sexual intimacy with men as well seems to be the main factor influencing such negative relations among the two minority groups. The Lesbian framework of thought typically means that women can be self-sufficient in terms of sexual needs without the need of men at all. However, bisexuals still rely on male compassion to fulfill the needs derived from the label of being bisexual. Indeed, this means that the Lesbian-feminist framework of thought is not fully idealized because there is still an element of submission towards male dominance (Daumer 98). This is relevant in terms of a gender related issue because men do not face this issue to this extreme. While both Gays and Lesbians tend to solely prefer sexual relations with only the same sex, it is mostly women that have strong sentiment against women doing this. Consequently, the overall experience of bisexual women is far more hostile than men. Women are more often faced with the potential of ostracism from support networks and collective groups of sexual minorities. Indeed, this suggests that women face a much more difficult time gaining social acceptance from others than men.
The lesbian inclusion of bisexual women also reflects the importance of language its implications. Being labeled either gay or lesbian is a relatively essentialist concept because there are clear boundaries for each group. This allows for relatively simple group identification and community development. However, because bisexuality offers a spectrum of behavioral traits and values, this label has been socially constructed and is thus open to discourse. Surely, bisexuals have the fidelity to cherry pick their own status: “the identity of the [bisexual] individual is not simply the result of societal forces acting upon the individual, since the individual also has power to establish, assert, or acquiesce to an identity” (Drechsler 271). This means that the flexibility of being bisexual offers an added benefit to have the freedom of choice. This choice, however, comes with its own set of issues. Offering such wide variations of interpretation for social identity is not helpful in contributing to group solidarity. Consequently, the use of appropriate language has been a serious topic of discussion.
The term ‘queer’ has been widely used to describe and include individuals that are otherwise left behind in social labeling. Coralee Drechsler argued that the term queer should be used as an umbrella statement for those that have been “strained by sex/gender in some way” (Drechsler 273). While this label may seem too general and broad in nature, it does accommodate and include the bisexual community with those that are considered sexual minorities. In using this term, the schism among bisexual women and lesbians is somewhat relieved because there is no forced inclusion where one group or the other has to clearly define themselves in a context based on behavioral traits. Moreover, it allows the inclusion of transgender individuals as well. Finally, the implications of this term seem to be an asset for the whole social movement of sexual minorities.
Indeed, after the obstacle of inclusion is tackled, a ‘queer’ label would prove instrumental in group solidarity and social rights movements. For example, social movements gain momentum when groups align their strategies and vision in mass numbers based on shared experience and such. Such was the case with the civil rights movement because most blacks identified themselves within one social identity. However, as bisexuals have been excluded from some homosexual communities, this took a drastic toll on group solidarity, and thus progress. Unfortunately, “people are reluctant to acknowledge their own privilege, as well as to share power and accept that they may contribute to the perpetuation of structural oppression” (Drechsler 274). This is precisely why the problem of language is so important in progress. Moreover, the term ‘queer’ could prove to be instrumental in attaining this group solidarity and involvement; once individuals overcome the reluctance of being generically characterized, the combined membership of individuals can bolster community involvement and contribute to the social movement with much greater force and authority (Drechsler 273). Consequently, the use of appropriate language is simultaneously an immense weakness and an opportunity. Once this language has been mastered and individuals outside of the community can understand the group as a whole, the voice becomes much stronger.
In addition to identity issues, sub-contexts of society like religion, age and race are also influential for individuals. For Latino youths, the bisexual experience offers its own set of issues and circumstances. In Carmen Yon-Leau’s 2010 article “I Don’t Like to Say That I’m Anything”: Sexuality Politics and Cultural Critique Among Sexual-Minority Latino Youth, the author took an in depth look at how bisexual teenagers within the Latino community are experiencing bisexuality. Her in depth interview and study of eleven boys and five girls with Latin-American backgrounds found that age and race does have an impact on the bisexual experience. While bisexuals have struggled to clearly define their label and role in society, Yon-Leau’s research found that these youths “explore sexual identity not as an essence to be discovered in a coming-out process but as a dynamic, interactive process in which the subjects construct their sexual identities in dialogue with existing cultural possibilities and within the context of their social relations” (Yon-Leau 105). That is, the subjects chose not to clearly define themselves because of the dynamic nature of adolescence. In addition, family relations had an impact in their consensus to avoid labels.
The question of definition is present again in terms of youths. While Yon-Leau took the assumption that bisexuality would be defined as engaging in homosexual activity while claiming to be heterosexual, half of the participants refused clearly label themselves within any context. Instead, “most of the interviewees approached their sexuality as an ongoing and interactional process characterized by questioning, self-reflection, and transformations” (Yon-Leau 105). According to Leau, this most likely stemmed from the youths wanting to avoid stable meanings and boundaries as they explored their sexuality. Moreover, most also experienced emotional resentment and rejection from close family members because “these youth sexual identity or orientation contravenes their families’ expectations about their children” (Yon-Leau 109). From a cultural standpoint, this is enforced by the notion that the institution of family holds more merit in Latin American communities. Consequently, avoiding clear labels and boundaries served as a protective layer from the scrutiny of both societies in general as well as close family members.
With regards to religion, scholars like Michael Carden have argued that the roots of biphobia stem from a Christian legacy of misinterpretation of canonical homophobic Bible references. In Bisexuality and Biblical Interpretation, Carden argued that while the direct rejection of gays within Genesis 19 took place in Sodom, the values and attitudes were carried over to Judges 19, where a bisexual interpretation was constructed. Surely, religion has been one of the main arguments against sexual minorities because of accusations like “sin against nature” and “crime of Sodom” (Carden 33). Angelides heavily noted that often times Christian Fundamentalist claims were critical roadblocks in the social acceptance of bisexuals (Angelides 29). This is why Carden sought to explain the misconstrued Biblical narratives that dictated this argument.
The main flaw, according to Carden, is the interpretation of Genesis 19 and Judges 19. Because the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah “has become culturally entrenched as a foundational myth for Christian homophobia...,” it is important to recognize that the interpretation has been carried over to a similar story within Judges (Carden 31). Despite the stories being similar, the story of Gibeah in Judges ends in the mob raping a woman and not the men present. However, since the story line was similar, the attitudes and intentions of the mob in Sodom has been carried over to Judges and inherently infused with the notion that the mob had homosexual intentions yet expressed heterosexual ones at the time. Despite not being explicitly labeled as a bisexual mob, Christian interpretation has nonetheless used it as an argument that bisexuality is not accepted by God. In essence, this reflects a deeper understanding of why bisexuals face stigma from the Christian community and how it is actually misinterpreted to begin with.
In conducting this research, I found that bisexuality is a much more complex issue than I had realized. On all fronts, there is confusion, schism, variation and ambiguity. Since there is no clear boundary of being bisexual, it is a roadblock for not only social acceptance but social activism and community involvement. It is not enough that society draws its own interpretations of the group, but other sexual minorities are hostile as well. It was also interesting to find out that being bisexual is a dynamic state in which an individual can place themselves on a spectrum and easily shift their degree of intimacy with either sex.
Moreover, it is clear that much more research and discourse is required. While conducting this research, the starting point of establishing clear language and identity, was not universally accepted. Scholars employed a wide variety of tactics to utilize generalizations but they rarely worked as an acceptable identifier for the whole group. This suggests that there is more research needed to be done on this behalf. Also, I noticed that a major concern is the question of determining sexuality based on either behavior or self-report. Because there was variability even among heterosexuals and homosexuals in terms of comparing their self-claim and behavior, an adequate analysis into clear boundaries should be explored there too. If we have to stop and rethink the data and scholarship we have on our understanding of a relatively clear comparison of heterosexuals and homosexuals, how can we possibly even begin to tackle the complexities of the bisexual identity?
Angelides, Steven. A History of Bisexuality . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.
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Drechsler, Coralee. "We are All Others: An Argument for Queer." Journal of Bisexuality 3.3/4 (2003): 265-275. Print.
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