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Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Visions

Book Review by Pamela McMullin-Messier
Courtesy of One Institute Press-
The International Gay & Lesbian Review

Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Visions, edited by Naomi Tucker, Liz Highleyman and Rebecca Kaplan, Harrington Park Press, 358 pages
What is "bisexual politics" and why should we care?

Some say that the biggest battle that bisexual people have had to face is invisibility and the invalidation of our identity. As response, the bisexual movement organized around the principles of visibility and support. Moving beyond validation, the movement continued with defining a political agenda and participated in social change for the acceptance of bisexuality. This movement began in the '70s, but we are still faced today with stigmatization towards bisexuality and having our own politics.

As bisexuals, we need to define our own place in the world; our politics are forged from our identities. The essays in Bisexual Politics emphasize a politics of inclusion, breaking down division and classification. Common themes address sexual liberation, combating heterosexism and monosexism, and understanding the connections among all oppressions. Bisexual politics has evolved much in the past decade, with organizations becoming more visible and connecting with other movements. The challenge has been to be included with the lesbian and gay movement and to fight biphobia. How then can we define bisexual politics? This is not a simple question, nor are there simple answers.

In this anthology, each author has had their own definition of what 'bisexual politics' means to them, and this demonstrates how bisexual politics cannot be a homogeneous representation among a diverse group of people. This book offers a different way of looking at politics, from the history of the movement of strategies and activism, to the crossroads between communities, and finally the visions for the future of sexual and gender politics -- a liberation from outdated frameworks of thinking.

The section entitled Reflections: A Look in the Mirror reflects on the history and present state of bisexual organizing - our movement. This first part of Bisexual Politics is a critical self-examination and recognition of accomplishments and offers explanations for where we have come from and where we are now. There are milestones to be celebrated in bisexual visibility, in remembering and learning, as well as new strategies to be developed. This section is divided into two parts, the first documenting bisexual history and the second analyzing the movement of today.

In A Taste of History, the authors give us a selection of four pioneering bi activists. Amanda Udis-Kessler outlines how the roots of the bisexual movement can be traced to feminism, lesbian activism, the Black Civil Rights movement, and the sexual liberation movement. "We all have a valuable role to play in working toward an end of oppression on the basis of sex and sexuality." (30).

The personal chronicles of Stephen Donaldson and David Lourea (interviewed by Naomi Tucker before his death from AIDS) give us a glimpse into the development of bisexual communities in the 60s and 70s. Early activism began with public claiming of the bisexual label to promote acceptance and visibility. It extended to challenge sexual stereotypes and moved to fighting for space and recognition in the gay and lesbian community. There were several key national events that took place to propel visibility, including forming groups, conferences, and marches on Washington. Lani Ka'ahumanu participated in the 1993 March and was a speaker on the main stage. Ka'ahumanu was the last speaker and pointed out that it wasn't over until the bisexual speaks:"Remember we have every right to be in the world exactly as we are. Celebrate that simply and fiercely" (68). In summary of the lessons of history and where we need to go, David Lourea best put it as "The issue is joining together to fight for sexual freedom and sexual rights - human rights" (60). In The State of Our Movement, the authors discuss how we need to look at the institutions that we develop to make sure that they represent all of us. Liz Highleyman begins with a survey of bisexual organizing strategies and analyzed the movement.

Highleymen discussed three different scenarios: bi-focused movement, sexual and gender liberation movement, and moving beyond identity politics. "We could all benefit from a society that respects difference, encourages healthy consensual sexuality, promotes social equality, and celebrates diversity." (92). Laura Perez and Loraine Hutchins focus on mainstream bi organizing, and examine ways to make those groups and their leadership more reflective of the diversity of bisexuals. Perez points out how we need to confront oppression wherever and whenever. Besides the bi-focused agenda, activists have also been involved in broader struggles, which include homophobic legislation, AIDS, and reproductive rights. Sharon Gonsalves and Elias Farjaje-Jones press on the importance of HIV/AIDS education, prevention, and working to fight the phobias surrounding this issue in our community. Tamara Bower argues for the need of bisexual women to focus on feminist politics only, as they could better serve to act as bridging the gap between lesbian and heterosexual women. Indigo Som notes how politics are inherently personal in how we craft our self-identity and choose words to express who we are. We need a safe haven that honors the fluidity and flexibility of sexual identity without fear of losing our community. Bisexual politics goes beyond the movement of organization and activism; it is also about our own sexuality and the representations with those we love.

In the section entitled Connections: Can We Work Together? there was discussion on how bisexuals need to work both within and alongside other movements for liberation, and also to embrace the diversity of people in our movement. This section is divided in two parts and begins with essays that focus on sexual diversity. This section deals with the fact that it is an act of empowerment to reclaim and celebrate the "sex" in bisexual. This is not easy to deal with because of the stereotypes and misperceptions that surround our community, as we are perceived to be promiscuous, vectors of disease, and uninterested in politics (hence the rationale for Bisexual Politics). In "biSEXuality," the authors address several questions: How does bisexual identity affect one's sexual experiences? How do our sexual desires and choices inform/define our politics? Marginalized sexual desires may catalyze our exploration of new political ground. Carol Queen calls upon us to make the bisexual community a comfortable place for all kinds of "perverts." Being sexual with both men and women can create sexuality different from that of monosexuals, as Greta Christina explained. Cecilia Tan makes a similar point about the view from the middle, of bisexuals in playing with sexual experiences of "top" and "bottom" roles. Mark Pritchard presents another example, in the liberatory power of the erotic. Bisexuality challenges many of society's assumptions about the relationship between gender roles and sexual orientation. Gender identity is no predictor of sexual behavior.

Coalition work is a multi level process for bisexuals, since we must build alliances in several directions. In Coalition-Building and other Queer Stories, the authors expand on the themes in the prior section and make arguments for connections with other communities. This part focuses on questions of community boundaries -- inclusion and exclusion. Dajenya's essay focuses on the fact that we cannot separate ourselves into different categories of identity and then choose one as the sole basis of our community. She basically demands that we challenge all forms of oppression if we want to achieve liberation. Many of the essays in this section deal with questions of who belongs. Some writers share specific coalition building techniques: Robyn Ochs developed a framework of "bisexual etiquette" for those working with lesbians and gay men, which includes: respecting other people's identities/space, not to raise your own self-image at the expense of others, and not to weigh and measure oppressions. Kory Martin-Damon discusses how bisexuals can become more aware of transgender issues and calls for unity among bisexual and transgendered people. The common linkage is how we are all marginalized for violating gender roles and challenging the basing of sexual orientation on gender divisions.

Other contributors to this section examine how power relations are critical to understanding insider/outsider status. This is particularly relevant to the painful "bisexual debates" in the lesbian community, where this tension has been a source of anguish for those who identified as lesbian before coming out as bisexual. A positive lesbian-bi coalition is needed. Elizabeth Armstrong points out that the different responses lesbians and gay men have had to bisexuals are a product of the intersection of misogyny, heterosexism, and phallocentrism. Nishanga Bliss points out that lesbian/gay groups need to make efforts for name-inclusion of bisexuals. There has been quite a bit of passionate opposition, as Stacey Young points out. But this, ironically, has led to increased bisexual visibility. Another barrier to effective alliance building between our groups is that bisexuals somehow benefit from "heterosexual privilege." Orna Izakson and Brenda Blasingame deconstruct this "privilege" as relative and contextual - bisexuals are simultaneously marginalized and privileged. We have to use this "privilege" to fight heterosexism and other oppressions. In dealing with forming coalitions, it is not easy to figure out with whom the best alliances would be. However, the coalition we want is that of an alliance of everyone who has been excluded from power and to fight all oppression simultaneously. In the section entitled Directions: Our Visionary Voices there was discussion about the key aim of the book, which was to explore both how one's experiences and beliefs influence one's identity as a sexual person, and how one's experiences as a bisexual person can influence and inspire one's politics. There are common threads that connect these two issues in creating a theory of politics of bisexuality. There were earlier arguments for breaking down gender and sexual orientation, but this wasn't enough.

A great deal of early writings dealt with personal narratives, which is quite common when first venturing out in developing theories about what it means to be sexual, how it differentiates from heterosexuality and monosexuality, and how we need to be recognized and respected. This writing tends to reflect identity politics. Bisexual writings have evolved though from tales of personal experience into in-depth examinations of theoretical conceptions. Bisexuality compels us to move beyond accepted paradigms and to explore new ways of looking at the world. A common idea presented in the essays in this section is the emphasis on moving beyond distinct categories of identity and that we need to challenge the nature and existence of gender and sexual orientation. Rebecca Kaplan examines how a bisexual politics that critiques dualistic thinking can lead to a broader understanding of how other forms of bipolarity and categorization can limit us. We need to explore outside of this binary thinking in our society, as it obscures difference. Annie Murray discusses how bisexuality can help us challenge societal imperatives. Her article addresses the assumption that bisexuals are nonmonogamous and challenges us to reevaluate the institution of monogamy. Jill Nagle discusses how genderism (the insistence that there are only two sexes/genders) is the basis for sexism, heterosexism, and monosexism. Naomi Tucker points out that if the existence of bisexuality means that gender is not a determining factor of sexual preference, then we must fight against gender constructs. Sunfrog discusses how "gender blur" and the formulation of "queer" identity are important components of personal and societal liberation.

Another common theme in this section is that of identity politics. Some writers (Susann Trnka) see identity-based organizing as a needed tool to fight against society while others (Mykel Board) regards it as destructive and regressive to be defined solely by sexual orientation. Trnka points out that by beginning with ourselves and looking outward we can begin to build a strong and solid movement. Board instead points out how we should think of bisexuality as a way of thinking rather than an identity and to be more inclusive rather than a "minority within a minority." Another interesting theme discovered is how the theoretical writings come from a similar perspective: formerly lesbian-identified, feminist, bisexual women activists. But the anthology tries to move away from the debate between lesbian and bisexual identity towards a more encompassing viewpoint. Starhawk concludes this section with a declaration that pleasure is sacred and worth struggling for. She further argues for blending and blurring, appreciating all aspects of our being rather than limit ourselves to neat distinct categories of what it means to be sexual, bisexual included.

Appendices are also included, which outline a timeline of activism and documentation on how the radical right is infringing on our rights. Appendix A Timeline of Bisexual Activism outlines the growth of the bisexual activist movement, which started in the late 1960s with the Sexual Freedom League, which co-sponsored a bisexual meeting group. Other monumental events include: the formation of several groups (National Bisexual Liberation Group formed in 1972, Bi Forumin 1975, BiPOL in 1983, BiNet USA in 1987); the creation of the first and only national bisexual magazine, Anything That Moves: Beyond the Myths of Bisexuality in 1991; fighting for the inclusion of 'bisexual' in the March on Washington in 1993; and the International Conference Celebrating Bisexuality that took place in conjunction with the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 1994.

Appendix B Bisexuals and the Radical Right, discusses how the rights of bisexuals are under attack from the "radical right," in terms of initiatives that deny protection against discrimination for non-heterosexuals that have been introduced in various states across the country. Colorado included this in an amendment, as they believe that "many persons who engage in same sex relations attempt to...appear more 'normal' or legitimate by saying that they also engage in heterosexual relations. From a moral standpoint, of course homosexuality and bisexuality are indistinguishable...it is possible that if bisexuals are not specifically included, then homosexuals could claim that the amendment does not apply to them because they are bisexual and not simply homosexual."(340). This is a call to arms that we all need to stand together in the fight against heterosexism.

The editors began this book with a simple question: isn't it time that there was a book that addressed the politics of bisexuality? As with any movement, there is a time to put activism, theory, and differing perspectives onto paper for all to see. This anthology attempts to cover a lot of ground, but yet only scratches the surface of the myriad of opinions and perspectives there are on bisexuality. There are as many theories of bisexuality as there are bisexual people. The editor begins with acknowledging the shortcoming of the movement (and Bisexual Politics): the majority of players are white, middle-class women. The book also centers on American bisexuality. Our politics tend to be defined by our sexuality and the heterosexist, dichotomous world that we live in. The bisexual movement was born out of an inclusionary political mission to embrace all forms of consensual sexuality and relationships. It is important to note that the editor points to a need for further analysis of issues of class, multiculturalism, and HIV/AIDS, more rural outreach and youth organizing - but that you've got to start somewhere.

Although there are a multitude of voices, they all seem to resonate with one another in this anthology - we need to work together in building politics, identity, community, and alliances. They are all very passionate in their expressions and their messages will not be forgotten. Kate Millet described bisexuals as "the key, not merely to a new sexual culture. For if we are to break down sex role, sex stereotype and conditioning the answer does not, I think, lie in new constraints, new segregation. The bisexual is the leading wedge as well as synthesis. Like miscegenation, we're the center that unifies...a vanguard of sorts in the process of change." (41). The GLBT community needs to take this into consideration, as we all need to stick together to change the world that we all live in, and fight against all oppressions. Bisexual Politics is a good place to understand how far we have come as a movement, yet we also need to realize where we need to go from here in building alliances and embracing the diversity of our sisters and brothers.
1998 Review By: Pamela McMullin-Messier
Pamela McMullin-Messier is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Southern California. She is currently conducting research on the social construction of population and women's rights in non-governmental organizations, particularly on how the discourse has influenced and shaped debate on public policy issues.

Courtesy of One Institute Press-
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