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
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
Tucker, Naomi (ed). 1995. Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Visions