Bisexuality -- What’s in a Name?

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 17, 2008

Is there anything more inherently suspicious than bisexuality? When a hetero male concedes attraction to another guy, isn't his self-proclaimed "straight/curious" status just code for "gay, but not ready to admit it?" Or, could it actually be that we all have the same potential for experiencing the full spectrum of human sexuality?

Lots of research and a little common sense say that of all the above questions, only the latter gets an unqualified "yes." But who wants a fence-sitting bisexual on their team? Certainly not the nervous straights; or the sequestered lesbians; or the defensive gays. The transgendered probably don't mind -- but who can figure them out?

And why should we try to fathom the Bs, when we've got enough work to do just carving out a niche for the LGTs? Besides, every reasonable person knows that going for a pint of chocolate or vanilla is a lot easier than contemplating 31 flavors at Baskin-Robbins. It's no wonder, then, that bisexuality is often an invisible color on the rainbow pride flag - ironic, since nature apparently intended almost everybody to be at least a little bi.

It is a trend that's getting more and more media attention. Look at Tila Tequila, the VH1 instant celebrity who got her own reality show because she was bisexual. (The gimmick was that she had to choose between groups of straight men and lesbians, and ended up choosing a man.) Or take "Torchwood," the futuristic BBC-series (starring out actor John Barrowman) in which sexuality is fluid and everyone is bisexual. But that's fiction - what of real life?

Is Everybody Bi?

Labels: they’re simple, fun and convenient; but how many same sex experiences does it take to make a hetero a homo? Can an opposite sex experience turn a gay into a bi? Plenty of good science tells us there’s a big difference between sexual expression and sexual identity.

Brian Dodge, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University (which has an ongoing partnership with the nearby Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction) says "We come out of the womb unprogrammed. Kinsey was the first to back that up with behavioral data. There are very few dichotomies in life - particularly in terms of human behavior; so he was not surprised that he had large numbers of people admitting to having a same sex experience."

The Kinsey Scale (see graphic) asserts that "Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. . .nature rarely deals with discrete categories. . .The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects." The scale, which first appeared in 1948’s "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," uses a person’s sexual history to rate them on a scale of zero to six (zero being exclusively heterosexual, 6 being exclusively homosexual).

"If you look at the Kinsey Scale, which has been validated by a number or other sexuality studies, almost half of all men have some form of same sex experience in their lifetime that leads to orgasm." says Ron Jackson Suresha, editor of two works on bisexuality ("Bi Men Coming Out" and "Bi Guys: First Hand Fiction"). "Clearly, though, a lot of people don’t go around saying they’re bi."

Lisa Diamond, an Associate Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at the University of Utah, recently authored "Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love And Desire" (Harvard University press, 2008). Diamond emphasizes that "Bisexuality is not a fluke or aberration. It’s actually the prototype. The majority lean in one direction or the other and that’s part of what’s makes the issue so difficult to interpret - because then you have to make a decision; how much attraction to the same sex must you have to call yourself lesbian instead of bisexual?"

Diamond’s own study (which began in 1995) asked, on a day-to-day level, what percentage of attraction women felt towards other women. "Folks who described experiencing more than 75 percent of their attractions to the same sex will describe themselves as lesbian. If it is under 75, they tend to describe themselves as bisexual."

But how can you form an identity when the concept of bisexuality, by its very nature, replaces absolutes with infinite variety? "We don’t know what bisexuality looks like, so when we come across it, we don’t recognize it" says Suresha - a self-identified Kinsey Scale five who "always had a certain amount of attraction to women, though my preference is for men. I’ve been told over and over again that bisexuality is a myth, that people who say they’re bi are deluded or lying. So, for many years, I bought into that. This is a common experience with a lot of gay men who are told you have to be either gay or straight. The possibility of bisexuality seems so remote."

An Invisible Minority

Several decades and countless pride parades into the sexual revolution, gays and lesbians have achieved a level of cultural validation that, although far from ideal, renders the bisexual community virtually invisible by comparison. Dodge asserts that responsibility for the lack of acceptance of bisexuals lies firmly at our out, proud and queer doorstep.

"It’s ironic that a group of people who went through struggles for liberation, many of which were fought by bisexual people and subsumed under the label of gay, would backlash bisexuals for being who they are and not accepting them." Asked if strides made by gays and lesbians have led to a heightened level of awareness for bisexuals, Dodge counters: "It wouldn’t cross my mind that it’s more accepted. There’s very little support for men who self identify as bisexual. It’s not surprising that guys who are curious would be hesitant to identify as bi. Maybe with women, there’s more flexibility; but I certainly don’t see evidence of acceptance among men."

Suresha similarly bemoans the "misinformation and apprehension as to the extent of bisexuality. I think there is less ignorance, but still a huge lack of understanding about what bisexuality looks like."

The social and cultural invisibility of bisexuals also has legal ramifications. Lani Kaahumanu, co-editor of "Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out" and a longtime progressive social justice advocate, bemoans the very term "same sex marriage," which she says is "how legal folks talk about it. When you say ’gay or lesbian couple,’ that wipes out bisexuals. If two bisexual men or women want to get married, what’s that? That’s not a gay couple. If you have a bisexual and a gay man, that’s not a gay couple. Within the same sex marriage movement (and a lot of leaders blow it by saying gay and lesbian marriage because it’s easier), the fact is that two bisexual lesbians do not make a gay couple. They are a same sex couple. That’s just one way they’re invisible."

Dodge makes a persuasive case for the sentiment that the whole marriage rights issue marginalizes all LGBTs by the consequence of homogenization. For Dodge, same sex marriage is "about families and how we’re normal just like heterosexuals. It’s about desexualizing things. In an attempt to gain acceptance from the majority community, bisexuals and the transgendered don’t really fit into that." In our effort to fit in, what’s acceptable to the mainstream must become more "hetero normative; finding the right partner and settling down. It’s not about going out and having male and female partners or having boobs and a penis. Those things are being made to be freaky."

Adding to the challenge of being an indefinable "other" is the panic set off by nervous heterosexuals constantly put on the defensive - flattering themselves with the notion that predatory bis want them sexually. "When you come out as bisexual, there’s nervousness about sexuality. That means no one in this room is safe." says Kaahumanu. "That’s what they’re thinking. You say bisexual and it puts the sex right in their face."

What’s more, she observes that bisexuals are perpetually obligated to come out "because there’s that assumption; you’re defined by whom your current partner is. A lot of people wear out and let the assumption slide." Even considering the awkward small talk that inevitably happens at parties, Kaahumanu believes it’s much easier these days to be bisexual because "transgender people have challenged that either/or and nothing in between duality and shown the spectrum of gender in a spectacular way."

The coming out process is also complicated from sexual territorialism perpetuated by gays and straights who, Kaahumanu remarks, are "quick to say oh, we’re all queer if we’re other than heterosexual. We’re over there with the gay and lesbian folks. Then, coming out to gays and lesbians, they say oh, you’re really heterosexual. These are people who define themselves by what they’re not. I am gay, I am not that. When a bi comes along, that shakes things up."

Also, the insular nature of G&L communities often leads to the perception that the spoils of their efforts don’t provide enough to go around. Kaahumanu bemoans this "scarcity mentality within the community." - an unfortunate event, since she points out that many bisexuals continue to advocate for same sexers: "A lot of us do stand up and watch your backs and are out of the closet and speak up whether gay and lesbian people are around or not." To that end, Suresha calls on the community and its social justice champions to step up: "It’s absolutely necessary for organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Human Rights Campaign to start designating resources and staff to bisexual issues. At present, there’s squat."

(Pictured: Bisexuual television personality Tila Tequila)

Women, Men & Sexual Expression

It seems, from all indications, that contemplating, acting upon and subsequently declaring your bisexuality is easier for women than it is for men. There are many theories as to why, but the most popular one goes something like this: Straight men, the majority shareholders in the brisk business of homophobia, hate fags; whereas with lesbians, there’s always the tantalizing possibility that they’ll be able to watch them get it on. So, the stigma of being perceived as gay leads to a tremendous amount of self-censorship on the part of straight/curious men.

Homophobes may be quick to judge and label, but Diamond has a more rational perspective on sexual exploration: "Your sexual orientation does not provide the last word on the relationships and desires you may experience. You may fall in love for psychological and emotional and relationship reasons. Some will describe this as falling in love with the person and not the gender." While Diamond cites the ability of women to adapt and "develop totally new sexual attractions for a singular person attractions that run counter to everything else they’ve ever experienced," she can recall numerous experiences with men who "come up to me and say I can’t imagine not being aware of the person’s gender. And that’s part of the essence of the sex difference."

Research & Role Models

When is the last time you saw a poster, magazine, support group or pride banner encouraging support for bisexuals? While popular culture remains (relatively speaking) awash in all things gay, Dodge says "There’s no really clear bisexual role models, so guys are not comfortable coming out." Add to that a perpetually low amount of visibility: "So much bisexual history has been invisible" says Kaahumanu. "There’s a lot of people who are claimed as lesbian or gay because they’ve had same sex relationships. But if you look at their life, they also had loving relationship with the opposite sex. Walt Whitman is claimed as gay, but he wrote about loving men and women. Virginia Woolf was not a self-identified lesbian. Eleanor Roosevelt; if you read her biography, she was lovers with her female press secretary and her young male gardener."

Bisexuality’s brief romance with popular culture might have hit it apex when Oprah did her infamous episode on the Down Low phenomenon - expertly managing to send straight housewives into a tizzy by stigmatizing, demonizing and otherwise blaming closeted bisexual married men by sharing their most extreme and lurid tales. Dodge also cites America’s brief flirtation with metrosexuality: "Since the whole metrosexual thing hit the media, the pendulum is swinging again. I can’t recall the last time in media I heard about male bisexuality. We even have these game shows" (referring to Lifetime’s horrendous show "Gay, Straight or Taken?") where "there’s no in-between; there’s no bi option for any of those guys. The closest thing we’ve seen of acknowledgment by media was the ’DL’ depiction of them as nothing more than vectors of disease transmission from male to female partners. Everyone picked up on that frenzy."

Dodge, who candidly admits his need to get out of the lab and watch more TV before commenting further on the media’s treatment of bis, is at least expertly qualified to assert that "bisexuality is a taboo topic even within HIV and sexuality research."

Diamond concurs, lamenting that "Life is easier if you simplify things. I’ve had editors say it would be a lot cleaner of a study if you could just use the gay and straight information and cut out the bisexual people. But it would not be an accurate reflection of reality." Dodge, commenting on a paper which recently appeared in the American Journal of Public Healt, says: "The findings were that both-sex attracted people were more likely to be current smokers and start smoking earlier. In their conclusion, they talk about it as this being an issue among same-sex attracted youth - but their findings were for bisexual youth. It’s just another way of how bisexuality is made invisible and subsumed. It’s even problematic combining men and women."

But, as occasionally happens in these matters, Dodge finds a ray of hope when asked what the future holds for bisexuality: "Cornell University’s Ritch Savin-Williams put out a book the other year called "The New Gay Teenager," which showed how young people are more comfortable with open displays of non-heterosexuality and trying out different identity labels."

Even that optimistic premise was tempered by the author’s finding that "there is pressure from both sides for these kids to go one way or the other." Perhaps one day, when society has evolved, our territorial subgroups will join forces. Dodge: "At some point it, would be interesting to talk about a real sexual liberation in general - including all the hang-ups that heterosexuals have. That’s ideally what needs to take place. Maybe youth are going to take us to that point."

(Pictured: Torchwood: John Barrowman & James Marsters kiss on the second season premiere of BBC’s "Torchwood." On the show, sexuality is fluid and everyone is bisexual.)

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.