Bisexuals: Taking Both Sides

There are certain advantages to going unseen. You can slip in and out of rival camps without a trace. You can study the disharmony between them, collecting precious perspectives from each. You can, perhaps one day, even learn to hold the paradox of both within yourself.

If you are bisexual, you are such a moving target. You are too slippery to be bound to fierce alliances. You don’t make the Either/Or choice that inherently leads to opposition. You are a chameleon who takes on the colour and climate of all sides, every shade as real as the last, on your changing skin.

But what if all you’ve ever wanted was to be visible, to be one solid, neutral blend of both? What if you wish you could lend a shaking fist to the injustice of segregation, but the ‘side’ you’re on doesn’t even exist? What if it’s the fence itself you’d like to tear down, but everyone keeps accusing you of sitting on it? What if the very people whose oppression you identify with, turn and exact the same discrimination on you, and your shapeshifting kind?

The bisexual movement is still very much in its infancy. Having only been born in the 1970’s, it still struggles to be acknowledged, have its issues made visible. It was only in 1990 that the first US national conference on bisexuality was held, and, an organization that does outreach and lobbying along with gay/lesbian groups, was formed.

As with many oppressions before it, biphobia is gravely underestimated. In 1997, M.J. Eliason, a professor of Nursing and Psychology at the University of Iowa, did a survey1 of 229 heterosexual students. Of those surveyed, 40% found bisexuality less acceptable than homosexuality, with bisexual men being the least accepted (61% unacceptable).

But what is perhaps more troubling than the implications of this study, is the degree to which the crisis of bisexual invisibility is reinforced within the LGBT community.

Though we don’t like to admit it, a hierarchy of oppressions exists within the queer world, and bisexuality barely clings to its lower rungs. It is often felt that because bi’s can ‘pass’, vicariously benefiting from heterosexual privilege, the priority should remain with the more visible "lesbian and/or gay" issues. But as longtime queer activist and noted writer Suzanne Pharr points out, “Each [form of oppression], is terrible and destructive. To eliminate one oppression successfully, a movement has to include work to eliminate them all or success will always be limited and incomplete.2

It isn’t surprising to us that a chasm exists between gay and straight communities, since their aims are so divergent, but for the queer collective to clash within itself, when the issues of discrimination are so common, we might have come to expect more.

In the 1950’s, Alfred Kinsey taught us that sexual orientation should be seen as a continuum, that we all, to whatever degree, fall somewhere along the hetero/homo stratification. But this information, as corroborative as it is, isn’t nearly powerful enough to reform a deeply encultured “Us and Them” mentality.

The fear of ambiguity is always the same, no matter the locus. We are a world culture infatuated with the binary model. We erect and uphold opposition in politics, religion, race, gender and perhaps most insidiously, in language itself. We teach that whatever category we are inside, it is superior to the other outside of us.

Our entire socioeconomic system of power relies on factionary thinking. The great menace, according to this schema, lies in ambiguity. Ambiguity, or the lack of side-taking, is deeply unsettling because it answers the Either/Or question, with a strange, unchoosing Yes.

The bisexual person represents a threat to that social certainty. He or she contains both the self and the other, housing the two sides in one body, bringing the very issue of sexual borders into question.

One of the great untold stories of World War II is from 1943, in German-occupied Denmark, when the Danish people were told that all 7,500 Danish Jews were about to be rounded up and deported to German concentration camps.

The legend says that when the Germans ordered the Jews to identify themselves by wearing armbands with yellow stars, King Christian X of Denmark donned one himself. As he made his daily horseback ride through the streets of Copenhagen, he explained to citizens that he wore the Star of David to demonstrate that all Danes are equal. Following his example, all non-Jewish Danes began wearing the armband as well, thus preventing the Germans from singling out the Jewish citizens and turning the order effectively on its ear.

There’s something tremendous to be learned from King Christian’s story. By wearing the armband, he declared himself and his country indivisible. He embodied the solution to the problem Martin Luther King Jr. raised when he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

According to psychologist Gordon W. Allport, “... man has a propensity to prejudice. This propensity lies in his normal and natural tendency to form generalizations, concepts, and categories, whose content represents an oversimplification of his world of experience.3

In other words, not only are we compelled to categorize all things, but we do their complexity further injustice by labeling them. Ultimately, we name things to reassure our insatiable need for definition. (This habit is exemplified in the queer community, with its fattening dictionary of delineation.) But the very act of naming something is a choice that inherently leads to the exclusion of some other, often more exigent, alternative.

The implications of choice are brilliantly explored by an author named Malcolm Gladwell, who penned the wildly successful, The Tipping Point, and Blink. He examines the nature of choosing, and how frequently our choices originate in unconscious bias. So, not only is the convention of choosing questionable, but what informs that choice is equally dubious.

Gladwell cites a compelling psychological study in which a group of students are given a choice between two art pieces; a poster depicting cuddly kittens, and an Impressionist painting. The first half of the group is simply told to choose, while the second half is told they’ll have to explain their choice afterwards.

The first group almost invariably chooses the more complex Impressionist piece, while the second group favours the aesthetically one-dimensional kittens.

It is not, upon closer study, because kittens are better liked, but because the test subjects feel intimidated by the prospect of having to explain their choice. Despite their desire to own the more complex piece, they unconsciously choose the one that is less challenging to the collective norm.

As one gay man, a 38-year old participant of the “Unlearning Biphobia” workshop facilitated by Robin Ochs in the Fall of 1993, explains his choice4;

Coming out as gay was the hardest and most painful thing I have ever done in my life. Now I’m finally at a place where I have a solid identity, a community, a place to call home. Bisexuals make me uncomfortable because their existence raises for me the possibility that I might be bisexual myself. And coming to terms with my identity was so hard for me the first time around, I cringe at the thought of having to go through such a long, hard, painful process a second time.

For most bisexuals, coming out of the closet with one fell swoop is an impossible luxury. You do it once, shut the door behind you and that’s that. Such is not the case when you’re bi; it is more like an infinite hallway of swinging doors that hit you in the ass as you go through every one. Coming out must be repeated at every step, in every new environment, to every friend and of course, to each new lover.

Every time a bisexual “changes sides”, he or she not only faces potential rejection by the new community, but will also have to navigate the sense of reproach, betrayal and confusion of the one that’s left behind. If that weren’t challenging enough, there are always the persistent feelings of fraudulence most bisexuals experience upon ‘switching’. Just as the outside world questions their loyalty, so too is this doubt parroted on the inside. Being bisexual, not unlike the word itself, is to be a fast expert of the crossroads.

As Ruth Gibian, clinical therapist and author, states, “'Bi’ is two, implying a split, two parts and no whole.5

Here, in our language, begins the problem of invisibility. For how can something with no whole exist in a climate that worships certainty? In another example, the word ‘middling’ has been similarly bastardized. Though its roots are in the intermediary soil between extremes, its contemporary definition is synonymous with mediocrity.

Perhaps it would be helpful if we began to look at bisexuality less like a fissure between gay and straight and more as a conduit through which both can flow. If we can learn something from the human rights movement, it is that biracial individuals embody the combined history of both sides. Their very existence erases the line of racial demarcation. If we learn to carry the experience of both, maybe the fence will evolve into a bridge between us.

Like the heroic King Christian, whose gesture was, in its axis, a protest against delineation, maybe if we all stand up, then none of us will stand out.