Bisexuality Politicised - A dangerous
This paper asks the question how can bisexuality be or become a danger to the dominant sexual script which I problematise as produced racism, sexism, homophobia, and monosexism. That this brand of heterosexuality occupies 99% of our cultural space in entertainment, education, history and public expression and is considered inevitable and unchallengable for 90% of peoples relationships is, I will argue, the victory of white patriarchal science.
I intend to show the nature of this victory and imagine what counter struggle and victories might emerge from the site of my bisexuality.
The Historical role of Biphopia- Policing the Treaty.
Underpinning this paper is the belief in that many if not all heterosexual identifying people can be bisexual and that the majority are to some extent not privately monosexual. The majority status of bisexuality does not make it normal nor ideal however I mention it because it is important to realise that the invisibility of bisexuality requires extraordinary effort to maintain and its repression occurs against all people not just a few natural bisexuals.
To understand the historical role that biphobia has played and the historical position of bisexuality it is necessary to recognise homosexuality as a creation of western patriarchal and homophobic medical science. Women have always loved women and men have always loved men but the classification of these experiences as a sexuality with little or no element of choice and a biological or individual psychological basis was given currency in the 19th century by a professional class that feared same sex desire. Their construction of homosexuality shaped and informs Western cultural understanding of sexuality not in the first place because of its meaningfulness to those whom it defines but because of its indispensableness to those who define themselves against it. (Segal, L. p145) for it was and is needed not only for the persecutory regulation of a nascent minority of distinctly homosexual men (and women) but also for the regulation of the male (and female) homosocial bonds that structure all culture - at any rate all public or heterosexual culture. (Eve Sedgewick in Segal, L. pp194-5) Early psychoanalytic texts were quite explicit that the project was to police all male and female relationships warning teachers and parents not to take too lightly friendships among girls which become passionate and society to be more concerned with the degree of heterosexuality or homosexuality in an individual than they are with the question of whether he has ever had an experience of either sort. The real danger from homosexuality was seen to lie not in actual sex association but in homosexual attitudes towards life such as the negative attitudes of thousands of women ... toward men, marriage and family life influenced by latent homosexuality for neurotic attitudes about love and marriage can prove contagious. (Caprio, F. pp 6 -11)
Generally, prior to this the western world had relied on Christianity to dictate the terms of sexuality. Whether sexual attraction was natural was no defence under a regime which tended to view natural sexual desires as needing control from a religious authority. The medical establishment faced the dilemma of replacing religious authorities without having any utilitarian basis for the repression of same sex desire.
The construction of homosexuality as a distinct condition was to define normality as exclusive heterosexuality. In fact heterosexuality was simply the condition of being human. Sexual behaviour became a product of a persons condition; the human condition producing normal heterosexual behaviour. There was now no need for a religious justification for preferencing the heterosexual over the homosexual because behaviour was not a matter of choice but a matter of whether or not you were ill; Well or sane people simply didnt want to have sex with people of their own gender.
This was presented as a more humane response to homosexuality than religious condemnation or incarceration. Psychiatrists often called themselves compassionate as they argued for an adoption of scientific curative responses to homosexuality. (Caprio, F, p.xi)
The majority gay and lesbian movement accepted the shifting of sexuality into an area for science and have embraced the notion of a biological basis or early psychological basis for sexuality. Their fight has largely been for homosexuality to be treated as incurable and it follows natural and equally valid alternative to heterosexuality, jettisoning any agenda to argue that is better. Only a minority have argued that homosexuality is a political choice and an option for everyone.
With both sides ceasing hostilities1, when homosexuality was delisted as a mental illness in 1973 (Altman,D.,p5), institutionalised heterosexuality and gays and lesbians overt interests have moved to coincide. Victories to normalise homosexuality also normalise heterosexuality's dominance by depoliticising sexuality in general. In 1993 when a homosexuality gene was discovered a genetic basis for the majority status of heterosexuality was created though not declared. Anyone who would argue that the commonality of heterosexuality might have something to do with social programming and institutional support can now be said to be messing with nature.
The proud bisexual threatens this peaceful coexistence of the heterosexual majority and homosexual minority. Recognition of our bisexuality requires a validation of our sexual relationships with people of our own gender based on choice rather than the agreed legitimate biological basis. Such choice may be personal or circumstantial but also political or moral. Normalising bisexuality with a biological cause wont defuse its threat though it could contain it if it relegates us to a fixed minority status. Society still has to reckon with why we choose to validate relationships with people of our own gender by identifying as bisexual. We reopen old debates that many who have found safety in a biological basis for their monosexual identity want to keep closed. (I will revisit this fear in the last section, Bisexuality and the Future when I discuss Bi supremacy.)
A bisexual identity simply has to be defined as confused or an exception to the rule. Individuals have to be pressured to fit themselves into one or the other category. In a secular society without moral taboos people cant be allowed to entertain the idea that their partners gender is political. Also, understandably gays and lesbians know those moral taboos still hold significant power so many still see their best option as policing the treaty based on the attribution of their sexuality to a biological or psychological cause.
Bisexuality and identification - Withdrawing our support for the status quo.
The bisexual identifying person is not predominantly someone who feels attraction equally to both genders or without any reference to gender2 and in terms of actual sexual or emotional experience the majority could be classified as predominantly homosexual or heterosexual.
Why then, dont you call yourself gay or straight? is the inevitable response to this confession. And confession it feels like because to indicate a leaning puts at risk the validity given to a bisexual identity within contemporary discourse. Sexual expression is usually presented as representative of something innate rather than a mediation between a person and their world. Consequently the woman who says she usually finds women easier to make emotional connections with is seen to be describing her innate difficulty emotionally connecting with men rather than her experience of men and their culture.
Asserting a bisexual identity in the face of this invalidation is about contextualising sexual responses rather than finding invisible internal reasons for them. A bisexual identity in the above circumstance keeps open the possibility that a preference for emotional relationships with women could change if men and male culture changed. Alternatively a preference for sex with men might be attributable to homophobia. (Weinberg, M.S., p221) The reasons for choices are not always positive ones but the possibility for counter argument exists.
Holding onto a bisexual identification based on potentiality, rejects the conservatism of describing reality by the status quo. However a bisexual identity is also partially an attempt to accurately relate personal history as well and this too has a radical power.
Most monosexual identifications represent people only by concealing some bisexuality. By identifying as bisexual a person accepts and celebrates those aspects of their life that are inconsistent with a monosexual identity. The power of metanarratives within modernism, including descriptions of sexuality, relies on such inconsistencies being deemed insignificant. Hence a public bisexual identity is a confrontation of generalist theories with lived experience. If people promote such a solidarity with their experiences and the people who compose them that is greater than any to a proposed theory then expounders of metanarratives (including myself) will lose power. Our authority to dictate from above will be replaced by a decentralised authority based on being up close to our own reality.
Bisexuality and other oppressions.
Sexuality forms alliances across genders, ethnicities, and classes so any bisexual movement which fails to take gender, race or class issues into account poses a real danger of obscuring differences and concealing oppression. (This is also true for a multiplicity of issues such as disability or mental illness). My discussion of bisexuality and other basis for oppression are not intended to present bisexual identification as the panacea of the worlds ills. Social change must be inspired by a diversity of experience and informed by a range of critiques.
Given the above it is presumptious for me as a half-wog male to seek to resolve ongoing debates about a bisexual political agenda among feminist women or debates among black women and men on how to connect bi pride with anti-racism. To do so would be to pretend that I can speak from only my bisexuality and abandon any white, male perspctive. As a long term unemployed person I believe I can speak on class issues from the inside to some extent but also still acknowledge the privelage of my university education.
This is not to say that I think that sexism is a womens issue or that the responsibility for opposing racism is solely non-whites. Nor am I comfortable being accountable to lesbian or straight feminists on the issue of bisexual profeminism or placing beyond reproach the homophobia of some black liberationist theorists like Eldrige Cleaver. What to speak on and when in regard to a radical bisexualitys impact on patriarchal, white supremist and class oppresion is best defined as problematic. As a simple way out I hope to show how I see a politicised bisexuality contributes to my pro-feminism, anti-racism and support for class struggles. It is my hope that this will have relevance for a wider audience.
Radical Bisexuality and Pro-feminism.
Judith Butler states that the heterosexualisation of desire requires and institutes the production of discrete and assymetrical oppositions between feminine and masculine identities. (Segal, L. p190) Monique Wittig goes further to argue that a womans place in heterosexuality is a class of oppression and that the lesbian escapes her class position.(Wittig, M, p.47) I agree that hetero-sexuality (literally a sexuality based on opposites) reproduces and supports womens oppression in other spheres by creating a binary gender system. Men need to realise that their love for women is problematic when it is that love of the feminine identity that belongs to this sytem. This is the attraction for the other and requires womens difference to be exaggerated and emphasised. These exaggerations shape women as not-men while we men shape ourselves and are shaped into embodiments of the ideal. The seeming irony of male heterosexuality where women are objects of love being consistent with misoginy where women are objects of hate makes perfect sense through the operation of oppositional heterosexuality precisely because the love requires women to be less than men.
A love that does not require partners to be different than ourselves is not possible within exclusive heterosexuality because it fails to provide the argument to repress same sex desire. It is necessary for heterosexual men to confront their homophobia which demands they repress or invalidate their same sex desire before they can love their female partners as their own kind and not another species.
An additional benifit to patriarchy of discrete gender identities that is liable to be lost when men reject oppositional heterosexuality is the regulation of male social interaction.The arguments to exclude gay men from the military reveal the mindset deemed necessary to produce a war machine;
We are asking men in combat to do an essentially irrational thing - put themselves in a position where they are likely to get killed ... One of the few ways to persuade men to do that is to appeal to their masculinity ... You cannot have an adrogynous military ... The idea that fighting is a masculine trait runs deep. As a cultural trait it predates any written history. It may even be a genitic trait ... Just think what it would mean to demasculinize combat. The effect on combat effectiveness might be catastrophic.
- Charles Moskos, Military Socioligist quoted in Colonel R.D.Ray, Military Necessity and Homosexuality (Gays:In or Out, p63)
It is regrettable that non-heterosexual men and many women are proving they too can make excellent soldiers.3 However the above quote exaggerates a fact that male buddy relationships are relied on by the military and that this requires a repression of same sex desire. This is because same sex desire is preferential - it is not a love of all men equally - but of a few and potentially for a time. The same-sex loyalty that is demanded by patriarchy including its military needs the stability of exclusive heterosexuality;
..the recognition of homosexuality is a threat to that peculiar combination of male camaraderie and hierachy on which most organisations depend; sexual desire is too anarchic, too disrespectful of established boundaries to be trusted. (Altman, D. p63)
Unravelling their heterosexuality is not the most important thing men must do to support feminism however it is a legitimate part of this support for it is the repressed recognition of this fact (that everyone can be homosexual) that does much to fuel homophobia, but equally acts so as to promote male bonding and certain crucial authority structures. (Altman D.,p XI)
Radical Bisexuality and Racism.
The construction of homosexuality as a natural difference from the heterosexual norm shares and competes for the same conceptual space as constructions of race as biological differences from the white norm. This is particularly true because the hetrosexual ideal is represented as white with the sexuality of non-whites traditionally seen as untamed, violent, promiscuous or otherwise deviant even if heterosexual. Non-whites are considered only ever partly heterosexual while white queers are considered not proper whites.
The competition for the limited conceptual space has led to historical difficulites in linking white supremacy with heterosexism (exacerbated by white queer activists own racial interests) and in fact has unwittingly linked Gay Power with white power. Homosexuality as a race has developed into a gay and lesbian ethnicity. For whites under racism where their whiteness is considered the norm and thus unnamed, this ethnicity is their only ethnicity, the lesbian/gay language their only language, and lesbian/gay history their only history, to the point that it is not seen as a difference within whiteness but a difference from whiteness. (Blasingame, p52) While we (white queers) are unconscious of our whiteness queer cultural politics consequently becomes a way of colonising non-white cultures with a new white culture, white leaders and white history in a particularly insidious way. While not as powerful as heterosexual institutions for people wanting to be publicly non-heterosexual we have considerable power; in the framing of beauty along racist lines, in the support of white non-heterosexual bourgeoius or political leaders and in the very conceptualisation of sexuality. As one example Brenda Marie Blasingame in Bisexuality and Feminism speaks of a history of sexuality in U.S. black communities which did not include placing people in particular boxes and accepted the practice of bisexuality. A part of moving into the white gay and lesbian movement for her was the requirement to come out as a specific sexuality and accept the marginalisation of bisexuals. For many people who are not white taking up a gay or lesbian and to a different extent bisexual identity requires an abandonment of their own ethnic politcal identity or view. (Blasingame, pp.51 - 53)
The common conceptual space of non-heterosexual and non-white however can and should however produce queer anti-racism provided white queers realise that this conception of their sexuality is wrong. There is a shared interest in anti-racism and anti-heterosexism in critiqing normalcy and naturalness. As only one example the construction of beauty posits that naturally Gentlemen prefer Blondes. Not only is this sexist for reducing women to a hair colour (and the Blonde is meant to be read as a woman) but it is heterosexist and clearly as racist as Gentlemen prefer whites when Blonde is only a white persons natural hair colour. When we politicise our sexuality we can open up not only the arguments against heterosexual dominance but the arguments against the sexual sterotypes of non-whites including the framing of Asian men as young girls represented in this regrettable quote from the 70s magazine Gay Power;
I dig beautiful oriental men. Asking me to shoot at them is the same thing as asking heterosexual soldiers to shoot at beautiful young girls that they would like to fuck. (Teal, D. p99)
Radical Bisexuality and Class.
It is worth noting that capitalism which I understand as the continual oppression of the poor that patriarchy is for women is no longer wedded to heterosexuality in Western affluent nations as it has been in the past. This is because Western nations are primarily consumer societies of fairly easily produced goods (easily because their production is either located in the Third World or in the Quattro Monde - the world of the Western underclass or because their production is automated). Western capitalism can therefore relax the restraint and repression which was necessary to both control factory floors and ensure a ready supply of human capital through reproduction. (Altman D, p90) Part of this is also due to unemployment and global capital mobility being sufficient to obtain cheap labour and another contributing factor has been Western women raising their education so they are more useful in employment than at home. Also marriage was the institution by which women were given the role of providing a whole range of services capitalism wouldnt such as aged care and child raising as well as supporting adult men. Now many of these services are provided by profitable private institutions so traditional marriages are actually in competition with capitalism. Of course the worlds poor cant afford these services and Thirld World countries remain supportive of compulsory heterosexuality (Altman, D, p90) but in the Western consumer-capitalism there is a an interest to increase consumption through the market of previous services fulfilled by womens unpaid labour.
In order to perpetuate consumption growth capitalism must also locate new disatisfactions like teenage angst, at an alarming rate while also offering at a price their answer. In this context gay, lesbian and even bisexual identities as well as transgenderism, S+M and fetish celebrations are eagerly embraced by many industries as the basis for new markets. Our anxiety for recognition, meaning, ceremony and a positive celebration of our sexuality are easily exploitable.
... one of the possible negative side-effects of the popularity of 'lesbian chic' was that it codes lesbianism as merely a kind of fashion statement, something that requires certain consumer goods to mark the individual as lesbian. (Newitz & Sandell)
Bisexuals have to be mindful that while we seek recognition, capitalism is looking for new markets and while these interests coincide this will only be true for those of us who can afford it and it will be on the backs of the worlds poor involved in the production of our new consumerables and bearing the greatest brunt of the waste from our new consumption. One positive way to resist becoming merely another market is by applying the awareness of the political nature of sexual desire to the desire for consumer goods and services. Both desires are constructed to serve particular interests and not fundamentally our own. Through working to ensure that all of our desire works for liberation we will resist commodification as we achieve recognition.
Bisexuality and the Future
To outline what I see as the goal of Radical Bisexuality I will illustrate two scenarios depicting false victories and one which I believe genuinely opens up the greatest possibility for liberation.
Scenario 1. Recognition of bisexuality as a third alternative
way that people unchangably are. To some extent as I have said
earlier this cant overcome the capacity of bisexuals to fit in
as straight and thus cant conceal the choice to embrace the
homosexuality within the heterosexual that they represent. However
there are arguments that could be presented that bisexuals have to
express their same sex desire or become depressed (go
mad). These arguments could form the basis of depoliticising
and medicalising bisexuality as has been done with homosexuality.
This may make bisexual lives easier to defend and add to the options for young people but relegates bisexuals to the same minority status as is currently given to gays and lesbians. Most people who admit to loving their own gender in straight society would face the same oppression bisexuals now face as heterosexual experimenters and recruitment of the majority would be difficult as they would remain true heterosexuals as unable to change as true bisexuals or gays and lesbians.
Further it could also trade the oppression that is invisibility for bisexuals with the oppression that is hyper-visibility for straight men and women, and increasingly gays and lesbians. Having recognised sexualitys repression but not its production we will be easily exploitable by capitalism and our liberation may mean as being as marketed to and ritutalised as heterosexuality.
Scenario 2. Bisexuality is considered the only natural sexuality which equates it with the only right sexuality. Heterosexuality would be patholigised along with homosexuality as both are considered to have unnatural blocks to loving one or the other gender. This is Bisexual Supremacy which I acknowledge as a justification for gays and lesbians to distrust bisexuals. While it is unlikely to be widely accepted it is possible that it could dominate queer spaces as a pocket of resistance to heterosexual dominance in the same way as celebrations of gay and lesbian purity have. It is certainly more likely to be targetted at lesbians and gays than straights and while this is the fault of heterosexisms power, not my own, it must be refuted.
This is not to say that politicising sexuality will not require some gay men in particular to reassess their rhetoric. Mysoginistic comments which denegrate womens bodies deserve political criticism and cant be assured the right to be accepted. However the wider charge of institutionalising the sexual oppression of women and supporting male social bonding cant be levelled at male homosexuality and certainly not at lesbianism.
Indeed at certain points in the struggle against institutionalised oppression different sexual identifications and choices will be appropriate. Because bisexuality is as deliberate a sexuality choice as any other and not a submission to some biological imperative (and even if it were I reject the claim that naturalness equals rightness) we cant claim an non-contextual ideal status. Its political usefulness is only that of any tactic relative both to the circumstances and to the person, meaning that for some and at some times other sexual choices and identifications are more appropriate.
Bisexual supremacy also prioritises the effort to be bisexual over other efforts to unravel heterosexist, patriarchal and racist programming. I have already stressed the need for a variety of critiques of power to inform social change which Bisexual supremacy ignores. In particular men in relationships with women need to realise that doing their share of the housework is far more meaningful than maintaining or developing their capacity to love other men.
Scenario 3. The Dream.
Realising our sexualities are scripted will hopefully prompt redrafts along feminist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist lines. No-one should be the sole author of this project even with their own sexuality as we all need to listen to the perspectives our privelages rob us off. Certainly a part of this will be a dialogue between political lesbians, bisexuals and straight women which already has a history and whose future I dont want to conclude. Consequently my dream is vague.
What I dont see in this future is the fetishisation of wealth, whiteness or gendered difference.
Women in relationships with men will recieve support and encouragement as full humans. Advertisers will be incapable of capturing our consumption with snake oil as we demand economic production satisfy new needs that we create, for justice and community. Pleasure including sexual pleasure will mean enjoying our values not forgetting them.
Bisexuality like other sexualities will have to argue its political legitimacy but not its existance. Sexual identifications such as Confused may replace bisexual for many if it is recognises more of their personal truth and political terms like Anti-racist may be key elements of sexual identification.
Radical bisexuality wont end all struggles but the raw energy of sexuality will be accountable to and in the employ of the great project of improving the world .
Altman, Dennis, The Homosexualisation of America, The Americanization of the Homosexual, St. Martins Press, New York, 1982
Sedgewick, E.K., "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay", pp. 69 - 81, Fear of a Queer Planet : Queer Politics and Social Theory, Warner,M. (Editor), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993
Segal, Lynne, Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure, University of California Press, U.S.A., 1994.
Foucalt, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1:An Introduction, Allen Lane, London, 1978
Newitz, A. and J. Sandell,Bisexuality And How To Use It: Toward a Coalitional Identity Politics, Bad Subjects, Issue # 16, October 1994
Caprio, F.S. M.D. Female Homosexuality:A Psychodynamic study of Lesbianism, The Citadel Press, New York, 1954
Weinberg,M.S., C.J. Williams, D.W.Pryor, Dual Attraction: Understanding Bisexuality, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, 1994
Blasingame, B.M., The Roots of Biphobia: Internalised Racism and Internalised Heterosexism in Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism, Edited by E.R. Wise, Seal Press, U.S.A., 1992
Colonel R.D.Ray, Military Necessity and Homosexuality , reprinted in Gays:In or Out: The U.S. Military & Homosexuals - A Source book, Brasseys, March 1993.
Teal D., The Gay Militants, Stein and Day Publishers, New York, 1971.
Wittig, M., The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Beacon Press. Boston, 1992
In regard to this essay I especially need to thank my partner, Katie Kirwin, for her love and support, her intellectual challenges and her inspiration. In the production of this work in particular and in the acceptance of myself that this work required she has been my greatest support. In the development of my appreciation of feminism she has been my most constructive critic.
Gina Settle deserves special mention for maintaining my faith in queer politics and alliances in it's darkest hours while allowing me my rage.
I thank Bob Pease for his appreciation of the difficulty in writing this as well as his clear testimony in support of profeminism.
Lastly I wish to acknowledge that I owe a debt to the debates and scholarship of political lesbians in particular but also the broad queer movement which is inadequately recognised in the bibliography above.
1 Any faith that the medical establishment have changed their agenda may be misplaced. Eva Sedgewick in How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay suggests we have seen merely a shift to focusing on pre-adolescents rather than adults. She explains the introduction of Gender Identity Disorder in Childhood in the first Diagnostic Statistics Manual (the psychologists bible) to not include homosexuality as a disorder (DSM-III) to indicate that the project to prescribe heterosexuality hasnt ended. (Sedgewick,E, 1993)
2 This may present itself as a history of finding more people from one gender attractive or generally finding people of one gender easier to enjoy sex or emotional intimacy with but these differences are usually obscured within the question Which gender are you more attracted to? (Weinberg, M.S., pp39-48
3 The performance of traditional masculine roles have been made accessable to non-hetrosexual men (and women) as the price of equality with real men. Pursuit of civil rights within the depoliticised framework for sexuality that this essay criticises, tends to take up such offers or even demand them.