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What is the history of the bisexual movement?

Liz Highleyman | July 30, 2003

While people who pursue sexual or romantic relationships with both women and men have existed in all eras and cultures, the contemporary self-identified bisexual movement in the United States dates from the early 1970s.

The first openly bi activists were sexual liberation advocates of the 1960s, including Margo Rila, head of the San Francisco chapter of the Sexual Freedom League, and Maggi Rubenstein, who worked with Daughters of Bilitis co-founder Phyllis Lyon's National Sex Forum, an early sex education organization.

Although many people who had sex with both women and men were active in the early gay liberation movement, fewer identified publicly as bisexual. In 1966 out bisexual Stephen Donaldson (then known as Robert Martin) co-founded Columbia University's Student Homophile League, the first campus gay group. He also helped draft the Quaker Committee of Friends on Bisexuality's "Ithaca Statement on Bisexuality" (published in The Advocate in 1972), perhaps the earliest public expression of a new bi consciousness.

"Gay" was originally interpreted as encompassing anyone who had same-sex relationships, exclusively or not. But tensions grew as the gay - and later the gay and lesbian - movement adopted a more identity-based politics. Perceived as being "on the fence," bisexuals were pressured to choose sides and embrace a gay or lesbian identity - or else were told that they didn't exist. "For all the credibility I get, I might as well be calling myself a centaur or a mermaid," wrote Louise Knox in a 1974 article.

Among the first bisexual groups were New York City's National Bisexual Liberation Group (begun in 1972), New York's Bi Forum (founded in 1975), the San Francisco Bisexual Center (opened in 1976), and Chicago's BiWays (formed in 1978). These co-gender groups, which typically included more men than women, tended to focus on social activities and support rather than politics.

But by the early 1980s, political and cultural shifts brought a new generation of bisexual feminists to the fore. Some bi women felt increasingly alienated from lesbian-feminist communities as separatism took hold in the late 1970s and the limits of acceptable lesbian sexual practices narrowed.

Among these bi feminists was Lani Ka'ahumanu, a former housewife who in the 1970s had left her marriage, moved to San Francisco, and become a public lesbian activist. After falling in love with a man in 1980, she came out as bisexual, much to the chagrin of her lesbian community. In 1983 Ka'ahumanu helped found BiPol, one of the first of a new wave of explicitly feminist bi groups. That same year a group of feminist bi women (several of whom were "hasbians") founded the Boston Bisexual Women's Network - the oldest bi group still active today.

The bisexual movement came into its own in the late 1980s. In 1987 two Boston women, Lucy Friedland and Liz Nania, distributed a flyer asking, "Are We Ready for a National Bisexual Network Yet?" Bi activists from around the country began organizing, and 75 people participated in a bi contingent in the 1987 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights - the first nationwide gathering of bisexuals. In June 1990 the first national bisexual conference took place in San Francisco, drawing more than 450 attendees. That meeting saw the birth of the North American Multicultural Bisexual Network, later renamed BiNet USA.

During these years bisexuality was a contentious issue within the gay and lesbian community, as exemplified by the 1991 OutWeek cover story, "The Bisexual Revolution: Deluded Closet Cases or Vanguards of the Movement?" Many bi organizers devoted their energy to convincing lesbian and gay organizations to add "bisexual" to their names, while others encouraged bisexuals to create bi-specific groups or focus on a broader sex and gender liberation agenda.

But changes were afoot that would lead to greater acceptance of bisexuality. The early 1990s saw the birth of a mixed-gender queer activist movement that emphasized diversity. The same decade also witnessed the popularization of queer theory, which stressed the fluid and socially constructed nature of sexuality and gender. After months of organizing, bi activists succeeded in achieving inclusion in the April 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. By the turn of the 21st century, hundreds of gay and lesbian groups had changed their names or mission statements to include bisexual and transgender people.

Yet shifting notions of sexuality and gender have not appreciably strengthened the bi movement, which remains small and relatively invisible. Beyond seeking inclusion within the gay and lesbian movement, bisexual activists found few bi-specific goals to unite them. Today, many view the very concept of bisexuality as too binary, embracing the view expressed by Louise Knox three decades ago: "Bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual, the terms are, even now, beginning to seem as irrelevant, as archaic, as caste marks. Who needs them?"

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

For further reading
  • Hutchins, Loraine and Lani Ka'ahumanu (eds). 1991. Bi Any Other Name (Alyson).
  • Tucker, Naomi (ed). 1995. Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Visions (Haworth).



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