On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar owned by organized crime and frequented by queer people. To the cops’ surprise, people fought back, throwing projectiles and shade. The ensuing riots made the news, pushing LGBT activism into general consciousness, where it could coexist, rightly, with civil rights, women’s liberation, and peace movements.
Despite being obsessed with Bernadette Peters, the Divine Miss M, and wearing motorcycle hats as a child, I was ignorant about queer culture and history until I moved to New York City in 1993. I was a 22-year-old from Fargo, with a BA in English and some big overalls from the Gap.
I moved to Manhattan to take an unpaid internship at Ms., my favorite magazine. At Ms., the entire staff was female, and what with that and the listening to Ani DiFranco CDs on repeat and my overalls, it was only a matter of time before I began identifying as bi.
Bisexuality can sneak up on you. If you’ve had previous heterosexual experiences only, you can plausibly not know you’re bi until you find yourself making out with your best friend, or maybe not until you have your heart broken by the same.
If you’ve always thought you were a lesbian, meeting a man that really gets you and turns you on can be a surprise, and a bad one, like herpes. This wobbliness, fluidity, and not fitting into available definitions is, I gather, why straight and gay people alike feel like they can bitch about bisexuals. During my early tenure in bisexuality, I was often told that I was actually a lesbian or was really straight, depending on who I was dating. Mine was not a unique experience.
Bisexual people make up the largest group—50 percent—of the LGBTQ+ community, but we remain the “invisible majority” according to the research nonprofit Movement Advancement Project. We are also a big part of the non-queer world, as Kinsey’s famous studies in the 1930s found that 35 percent of his female respondents had some bisexual experience.
We are the silent B: We get a letter, but the headlines are focused on LG and T rights, B is sandwiched in between like the awkward middle child. We are also the silenced majority because bisexual people tend to be rather closeted within both heterosexual and homosexual communities, in part because being bi is often invalidated, and in part because proclaiming “Hi, I’m bi!” in social situations can feel like you’re answering a question nobody asked.
To top it off, we are the self-silencing majority, because not having to come out often means omitting our history and identity with our kids, parents, and friends. I’ve met many women who had serious girlfriends with whom they lived for years, but have never identified themselves as anything other than straight to their children.
It causes a problem when you’re trying to explain to your adolescent son why it doesn’t sit right for you when he uses “gay” as a synonym for uncool.
Back in 1993, while at Ms. magazine by day, I got a night job waitressing at the Lion’s Head (RIP) on Christopher Street in the West Village. The overalls weren’t such a hit there—it was a macho haunt of the old school—but the restaurant was next door to the Stonewall Inn, famous for the 1969 riots, and across from gay dance club The Monster. A queer world thrummed around me.
A few years later, I began researching a book about bisexuality and feminism, focusing on how these movements provided philosophical ballast as well as opportunity for women to fall for each other—women like me. I learned that many of the most significant figures of the second wave of feminism were bisexual—Kate Millett, June Jordan, Alice Walker, and Susan Sontag, to name a few.
There was evidence that this particular point of view was crucial to purging internalized misogyny, dismantling the games of men and women that we all learn, and taking on male supremacy.
These bisexual feminists described an experience of queerness that flew in the face of “born this way” tropes, asserting that they surveyed the available options and chose to be with women, despite societal conditioning. “I would guess that 98 percent of [women’s liberation activists) were bi,” Naomi Weisstein told me when I interviewed her for my book. It was after 1970 that many of them began having relationships with women, Weisstein added, “but the relationships with men continued in a whole lot of cases.”
Even under those revolutionary circumstances, though, the term bisexual never took off. Women of the Second Wave might speak of being a “woman-identified woman” or “loving womyn,” but bisexual people were “both a part of and apart from” heterosexual and homosexual communities, in the words of Lani Ka’ahumanu.
That meant that you could access heterosexual privilege, which was problematic. Ka’ahumanu, along with Loraine Hutchins, went on to edit the groundbreaking anthology Bi Any Other Name, published in 1991, whose title codified both the central dilemma of the bisexual identity and our fondness for puns. (My book is called “Look Both Ways.”)
Bisexual is one of those words that people love to hate, as if it’s the constellation of letters that is threatening and not what’s behind the word that counts.
More recently, people challenge the term bi based on its prefix, which it shares with words like “binary,” a term which, like “problematic,” you really don’t want near you these days. Recently, while speaking at a college in Kentucky, one of the (charming, smart, queer) students asked me why I used the term bisexual to describe myself.
I said some version of Robyn Ochs' (google her) widely accepted definition: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
The student wondered whether I would prefer the term “pan,” since bi meant that I “wouldn’t date trans people” and “bi means one and one more but not all.” Oy, I thought (my interior monologue is Yiddish), here we go again. Being bisexual means always having someone tell you who you really are. It’s so tiresome. In that sense, bisexual reminds me of “feminist,” which (until recently) people were always trying to rebrand with catchy words like “equalist” and “humanist.”
Here’s what I think: the bi in bisexual means two, but not necessarily two genders. Bi was coined to identify a spectrum between and beyond the divergent poles of sexuality that were identified in the 19th century, but bisexuality itself is only visible if you look at a whole life.
Being bi has the potential to wrest us from the script of binaries. It could be the very definition of non-binary—or, to put in more blunt terms, bisexual people can be nailed, but they can’t be nailed down.
So, fellow bisexual people, we must not be silent about our history. Embrace the term—or at least tell the truth about who you are and what you’ve experienced, even if you aren’t into labels.
Who knows, maybe Janelle Monáe (who describes herself as pansexual), Kristen Stewart, Cara Delevingne, Amber Heard, and Bella Thorne (etc., etc.) coming out can help “bisexual” have its Beyoncé moment, when its stereotypes are overwhelmed by an association with glamour. Bi AF T-shirts, anyone?