After Look Both Ways, my rah-rah book about having a love life with men and women, was published last year, I was pummeled by dating rejection from folks I had never met (and probably never would), as in these choice words responding to a review: “I offer a warning to anyone who finds himself or herself the object of Ms. Baumgardner’s attentions: She appears to be incapable of sustaining any relationship,” and “I don’t presume to know whether Baumgardner is bi or gay, but based on this review of her book I wouldn’t date her.” One person just came right out and said, “Steer clear of bisexuals.” The prevailing biphobia was almost charming in its retro-ness, prompting me to wonder, Is it 1980? I mean, really, do people, especially gay women, still think it’s OK to hate bisexuals?
“Yes,” said my ex Anastasia at the time. “Next question.”
I laughed, because I thought she was kidding—or at least commiserating about the “steer clear” advice, given that lesbians and bisexual women fall in love all of the time. But in fact, Anastasia was speaking as someone who also distrusts women who look both ways. “I’ve been with bisexual women in the past who don’t seem to be truly into girls, who needed to be drunk to have sex,” Anastasia explained. “And the constant rejection wore me down.”
Other women are suspicious of anyone who would identify herself that way. “I live in the South,” says Lisa Johnson, a professor at work on a book about being a psycho girlfriend, “where you will not get any dates with women if you say you are bi.” Johnson considers it a big-time red flag when a woman on Match.com describes herself as bisexual or bi-curious, similar to how I react when people list Gravity’s Rainbow as their favorite book or express interest in tantric sex. “I don’t want to spend time on people who have not developed a queer sensibility yet,” says Johnson, whose town of Spartanburg, S.C., is so conservative that gay people go to meetings of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays because they are so desperate for community.
Both Anastasia’s and Lisa’s comments strike me as hard on the sexually inexperienced bisexual person, who, while annoying, has to start somewhere. (I too did the old drunken-hookup-with-women thing back in the day. Which might be why Anastasia is so frustrated by bisexuals.) Their words also strike me as interesting since both have been involved with men at least as much as with women; Anastasia, for instance, lives with her boyfriend, with whom she has a child. Self-flagellation, anyone? “It’s true,” says Anastasia, “my main issue with inconstant bisexual women is I fear I am one.” Anastasia’s trajectory seems to feed into the belief proffered by some lesbians that since partnering with men still trumps doing so with women in terms of social approbation and even household income, why would you count on a woman who could have a man? Isn’t it just setting oneself up to feel like some straight guy’s sloppy seconds?
Well, first of all, most bisexual women are partnered with women, according to Amy André, an expert on bisexual women’s health. Second, such a justification for hating bisexuals relies on increasingly outdated notions of men being more able to “take care of” a woman financially. These days I doubt that many women—of any orientation—choose a mate based on earning power, and most people nowadays, regardless of gender, expect to take care of a partner as much as they are cared for. I grant that same-sex partnerships are often stigmatized while opposite-sex couplings are generally viewed as normative. However, it is one thing to acknowledge that it is difficult on a personal level to compete with the social approbation male-female couples still receive, and it’s quite another to actively contribute to the disparagement of an entire social group.
There’s evidence that bisexual women are suffering—in quantifiable terms that will be of interest to anyone who cares about human rights. André, who is herself bisexual and has a master’s degree in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University, reports that bi women experience more oppression and stigma than women of any other sexual orientation. She cowrote the book Bisexual Health—published in March 2007 by a coalition of organizations including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute—which analyzed more than 100 studies that, taken together, demonstrate “that bisexual people have worse physical and mental health than people of any other orientation,” says André. “There is a lot of evidence that bisexual women in relationships with monosexual partners have notably higher rates of domestic violence than women in any other demographic,” says André, who is in a relationship with a nonhostile, phobia-free monosexual woman. “If it were not a reflection of biphobia,” André concludes, “there’d be no statistical difference between the safety in relationships of bi women and women of other sexualities.”
I told André that I had never seen any statistics that indicated assaults were significantly higher for bisexual women, which gets at another key feature of bisexual life — lack of visibility. Though it contributes to the dubious privilege of passing as straight or lesbian, as the situation might warrant, lack of visibility, like low self-esteem, is rarely correlated with much good. Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources, André notes that bisexual people make up 50% of the queer population, yet, she says, “I meet people all of the time who say that I am the only bisexual person they know.” Not long ago, André keynoted an event, after which several people approached her to share stories. “One female doctor told me that she dated a lesbian who wouldn’t allow her to use the word bi to identify herself in front of lesbian friends,” recalls André. “I felt her story was not unique.”
The more I dug in, the more jarring stories I heard. Author and third-wave feminist Rebecca Walker, once the longtime partner of Meshell Ndegeocello, is now living with a man — the father of her young son. She says she sees animus in the “sometimes smug disregard” for male partners of bisexual women, including her own. She finds it odd, noting that “in his very openness to partner with a bisexual woman,” her guy “is at least theoretically supportive of the LGBT community and women’s sexual freedom.” At the annual conference of a national women’s organization, Walker’s partner was chased out of the men’s bathroom by a cabal of taunting women. “They said because both bathrooms had been turned into women’s rooms,” recalls Walker, “he could finally get a taste of how it felt to be in the oppressed minority.” Sexual harassment has come into play too. Walker cites a recent incident at a reading for her book Baby Love where a lesbian got in her space, rubbing her arm and insisting she walk her home. “It was clear [this woman] felt territorial,” says Walker, “as if I, a woman who had been in a long-term lesbian relationship, was ‘available’ and would continue to be until I was with another woman.”
Coeditors and friends Lani Ka‘ahumanu and Loraine Hutchins were bisexual when bisexual really wasn’t cool, to paraphrase Barbara Mandrell. Hutchins distinguishes the free-form and inconsistent biphobia one might find today from the much more intense historical tension, seeded in a feminist movement that was dedicated to raising up women and dashing patriarchy. “I can’t tell you how many feminist groups I was in where lesbians confronted me and said ‘We trust you less than heterosexual women,’ ” muses Hutchins, who is partnered with a woman, of the good old days. “They’d say, we know where they stand, and we don’t know where we stand with you.” Meanwhile, Ka‘ahumanu remembers extreme derision when she came out as bisexual in the ’80s (after having come out as lesbian in the ’70s). “The reaction was so intense. I was part of a feminist—read lesbian—theater troupe,” Ka‘ahumanu recalls. “People who had been my friends the day before wouldn’t talk to me.” Ka‘ahumanu tells me about one woman whose dog was a “known lesbian-crotch sniffer.” (The owner was quite proud of this—and who wouldn’t be?) At a march one day, her dog rebuffed Lani’s privates. The dog’s owner triumphantly announced, “We all know why, don’t we?”
The world was one big battle of the sexes, and if you were a little bit country and a little bit rock ’n’ roll (my preferred euphemism), you were cast as a dupe or a traitor. Hutchins says she resisted pressure from her sisters to entirely forgo men, saying, “I just don’t buy a feminist analysis that says my attraction to men is something I should suppress. That’s a very ‘ex-gay’ philosophy.” Besides, even if she did closet her attraction to men, while Hutchins might have appeased her separatist sisters, I doubt she’d get past the crotch-sniffing dogs.
“I think lesbians go to a scarcity mentality when they react badly to bisexuals,” says Ka‘ahumanu, who coedited the classic Bi Any Other Name with Hutchins. “They have fought so hard for this piece of territory, they have to hold on to it. It’s too scary to let others stand on it.” And some of the insecurity is legitimate, Hutchins argues, because lesbian identity and politics often get eclipsed —“first by gay men, and now by bisexual and trans issues.”
Ah, yes. Trans issues. They have always been linked to bisexual issues: both theoretically, as trans identity speaks to the unfixed nature of gender and bi identity speaks to the unfixed object of sexuality, and historically, with bisexual activists who fought for inclusion in the ’80s and ’90s insisting that trans people be part of the story too—at first meeting resistance and deal-with-the-devil offers from gay organizations to add the B to the acronym if the B’s would just stop worrying about those T’s. Times have changed.
“The gender issue has really altered the dynamic,” agrees Hutchins. “I remember this fulcrum in the mid ’90s. Bi women had created these roundtable sharing things where lesbians would admit their fears about bisexuals, which tended to be along the lines of ‘I can’t compete with a man; I’m afraid I can’t satisfy her.’ ” But when trans women and trans men entered the space, the focus wasn’t so much on the question Will a bisexual woman leave me for man? as on Will I become a man? “I teach at Towson University now, and there is not a fierce identification with either the words bisexual or lesbian,” says Hutchins. “People are queer or gender-queer.”
Damn right, says T Cooper, performer and author of Some of the Parts and Lipshitz Six, whom I’ve known for around a decade and whose father actually wrote the anthem “A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Rock n Roll.” I’ve always thought of Cooper as a lesbian—but I was wrong. “If forced—forced—I would use the term bi,” Cooper tells me. “I might have identified as a dyke, briefly, at age 22, but it was always a bit unfixed and, I mean, if there are places between man and woman, then the whole lesbian/bisexual/gay thing sort of starts to slip away….” Hutchins reminds me that some other well-known trans folk pushing the boundaries around gender, like Patrick Califia and Kate Bornstein, also identify as bi (with reservations about the implied binary).
In my book, Ani DiFranco—a woman so ahead of her time she doesn’t have a nanny for her infant daughter, she has a tranny—speaks to this shifting terrain. “I’m in my 30s, and quite honestly I feel like I am only beginning to awaken to my sexuality…and to see people—really see people,” she told me. “I don’t even know what the word is, but see their chi or their force, what is powering them around the earth. Some strike me as very feminine, some masculine. I had a lover once who was this beautiful woman and she was like a goddess; she just seemed to embody femininity—so gorgeous. And there are creatures out there that just seem so masculine and they just embody masculine energy…and they’re not always guys. And then there is all of this territory in between.”
Not to toot our horn, but bisexual people know about that territory in between. “Bisexuality is very understandable,” Amy André says when people claim to “just not get” being bi. “Monosexuals take gender into account in their attractions to others, and we don’t.” If that tidy description is true—and I think it is—we are part of the emerging consciousness around gender, low self-esteem aside. Change is always painful, and the bad news with this shift is that butch, femme, lesbian, and even bi are beginning to lose their power as labels, and with that, hard-won culture and communities are going to fade, at least a bit. The good news is that feminism’s enormous promise—that one about liberating the individual—is perhaps within our sights as never before. Why steer clear of that?