I Went Looking for Bisexual History, and Found Online Connection and Community

The first time I googled “bisexual history,” one of the top hits was an article called “Are you worried your partner might have a bisexual history?” I was just starting to actively look for a sense of heritage, to prove to myself that people like me had existed for a long time. I didn’t fully understand why I needed to, but I knew it felt important. Instead I found a reminder of the biphobia and uncertainty that already defined much of my experience as a bisexual person.

I had started to look for bisexual history because I’d lost a feeling of community in my own life. I felt like there wasn’t a place for me in my local LGBTQ places until I understood my own identity solidly enough that no one could question it. My bisexuality is as real and permanent as my right hand, but far less tangible, and I was desperate to explore questions like what it means to be a bisexual person in a different gender-relationship, and what it would mean to be bisexual and non-binary. I didn’t have any frame of reference for these feelings; I didn’t know if I was the first person who’d ever felt like this and I didn’t think there was any way to know if anyone else had felt like this too.

It began for me with Brenda Howard, the bisexual activist responsible for organizing the original March to commemorate the anniversary of Stonewall and for holding events around Pride Day, which became what we now know as Pride. I saw her name for the first time in a Wikipedia article about the history of Pride — I was surprised to see her called “the mother of Pride” and as a bisexual person in a different-gender relationship. I’d thought bisexual people had only ever been a passive part of the LGBTQ movement, following behind the lesbian and gay activists. Discovering otherwise gave me the confidence to believe that there must have been other bisexual people present in LGBTQ community history — perhaps leading the way, or even just existing. I started to ask what it meant that a bisexual person was part of such a key moment in LGBTQ history: where else had bisexual people been in activist movements? Was my nagging feeling that maybe there was no such thing as bisexual history because we didn’t exist — or because I hadn’t seen anyone acknowledge that we did?

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September 23rd is Celebrate Bisexuality Day (also known as Bisexuality+ Day, Bisexual Pride Day, and Bi Visibility Day). . . . It was first observed in 1999 at the International Lesbian and Gay Association Conference in Johannesburg South Africa. It was created by three bisexual rights activists: Wendy Curry, Michael Page, and Gigi Raven Wilbur. The date was chosen as a reference to Freddie Mercury whose birthday is in September. In 2014 BiNet USA declared the seven days surrounding Celebrate Bisexuality Day to be Bi+ Awareness Week. . . . In 2013 on Celebrate Bisexuality Day, the White House held a meeting with 30 bisexual advocates and government officials to discuss issues and concerns faced by the bisexual community. This was the first bi-specific event ever hosted by any White House. . . . ‘Ever since the Stonewall rebellion, the gay and lesbian community has grown in strength and visibility. The bisexual community also has grown in strength but in many ways we are still invisible. I too have been conditioned by society to automatically label a couple walking hand in hand as either straight or gay, depending upon the perceived gender of each person’ – Gigi Raven Wilbur . . . Image 1: Boston Bisexual Women’s Network, Boston Pride, early 1990s Image 2: Boston Bisexual Women’s Network, Boston Pride, 1989 . . . #bihistory #bisexualhistory #queerhistory #queer #lgbt #lgbtq #lgbthistory #lgbtqhistory #pansexual #bivisibility #bisexualvisibility #celebratebisexualityday #biawarenessweek #bi #archive #queerarchivea #bisexualarchives #biarchives #lgbtarchives #lgbtqarchives #gayarchives #lesbianarchives

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So, I set up the Instagram account @bihistory to celebrate and explore the people throughout history who contributed to the bisexual community, who experienced attraction to and had relationships with people of the same gender as well as people of different genders. Social media already offers LGBTQ people a dynamic and accessible way to interact with our history; there’s a reason there are already many instagram accounts that share archival images and records of LGBTQ people. Of course, many of the archive images of protests and Pride Marches are of white, American people; these are largely the histories that are most documented. The most marginalised are usually the people whose records are destroyed by colonial forces or oppressive governments, or are otherwise ignored in favour of (what are considered) more traditional record formats. This is a key issue considering that statistically, people of color are more likely than white people to identify as bisexual.

I’m wary of applying the terms we use today to the people from the past, because the modern Western terms we use to discuss sexuality and gender often don’t account for how other cultures and societies define and defined these terms for themselves. But acknowledging this complexity shouldn’t stop us highlighting and sharing the stories of people who experienced the world in a way that modern LGBTQ people understand. Bisexual history in particular is complicated to write about because many lesbian, gay, and gender non-conforming people had relationships that passed as “straight” for a variety of reasons. Some people attracted exclusively to the same gender entered different-sex relationships to protect themselves, others did it because of compulsory heterosexuality, and others because they were genuinely attracted to multiple genders. History doesn’t necessarily give us the necessary context to distinguish between these experiences.

Nonetheless, there are affirming bisexual icons and bisexual experiences to be found throughout history, in almost every era. An eternal favorite is Julie D’Aubigny, who lived in the 1600s; she was French, an excellent swordsman and a successful opera singer. She had relationships with men and women, burned down a nunnery and became a fugitive after beating several noblemen in a duel — because she kissed a woman at a society ball. The drama of her life is underpinned by her partners, men and women, and her refusal to be any less than who she was. Her rebelliousness and daring make her seem like a fictional character from an adventure story, but she was real, and her life is one part of the great tapestry that makes up our community’s history. I was also surprised to discover in my research that lesbian icon Sappho wrote love poetry for men as well as women. Obviously I’m no Greek scholar so my perception of that is informed by the translations I’ve read, and that doesn’t diminish her importance as part of lesbian history, but it resonated with me in a way I didn’t expect to see a woman with experiences similar to my own, writing words about how she felt, that I can read for myself over 2,000 years later.

A lot of the questions I ask myself as a bisexual living in Scotland in 2018 aren’t that different from those of bisexual women in different countries and different times — although pre-1950s they probably didn’t spend as much time worrying about how to cuff their jeans, and admittedly I’ve never set fire to a nunnery like Julie D’Aubigny (no comment on my swordfighting history). I did however, did find a real sense of connection reading about Anise, a Japanese magazine for lesbian and bisexual women published between 1996 and 1997. Although I could only read articles about the content rather than the magazine itself as it’s not available in translation online anywhere, the questions these lesbian and bisexual women were asking themselves felt familiar to me and my experiences within the community. The letters page included letters from married women who were involved with other women looking for advice, lesbian and bisexual women who had feelings for straight friends, questions about the butch/femme (tachi/neko) identities, and other key issues.

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This week is #bivisibilityweek (as designated by the @humanrightscampaign), culminating in #bivisibilityday on Sunday. . . Studies have repeatedly found that #bisexual people experience health disparities when compared to gay men, lesbians and heterosexual people. The Human Rights Campaign report ‘Health Disparities Among Bisexual People’ found that bisexual people as a group face elevated risks of cancer, heart disease, STIs and poor mental health, as well as substance abuse, depression, self-harm and suicide attempts. The HRC report also found that transgender people and people of colour compromise large portions of the bisexual community, which means these groups are even more vulnerable because of the intersections of biphobia, racism and transphobia. . . . A study published in Prevention Science found that the higher risk for bisexual people to experience anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts is exacerbated because bisexual people feel as if they don’t belong in any one community. This isolation limits their access to support and resources. There are fewer groups and resources dedicated to bisexual people (source: 40th annual #LGBT Funders Report), and bisexual people experience discrimination from both heterosexual and lesbian and gay communities. . . . “100% BISEXUAL, 100% QUEER,” BiPol’s Jan Hansen, Pride Parade, San Diego, California, 1998. Photo c/o Lambda Archives of San Diego, via @sandiegopride #bisexualhistory #bihistory #bipride #pride #lgbt #lgbtq #lgbthistory #queerhistory #lesbianhistory #gayhistory #hrc #biawarenessweek #bivisibilityweek #bivisibilityday #biweek18

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Similar (and different) topics arise when reading through online transcripts of articles from Anything That Moves, the magazine for and by bisexual people, published by the San Francisco Bay Area Bisexual Network from 1990-2002 and the original source of The 1990 Bisexual Manifesto. The title “Anything That Moves: Beyond the Myths of Bisexuality” was intended as a conscious reaction against this stereotype of bisexual people. Most of the issues were theme-based and tried to represent the diverse range of voices and experiences within the bisexual community, and contributors didn’t have to declare their identity or label to be involved. The idea that even almost 30 years ago, there were spaces that allowed queer people to discuss their identity and experiences without having to definitively label their identities encouraged me to have higher expectations of the LGBT spaces and media in my own life. An article from a 90s edition of the magazine (available to read online) on the intersection of the bisexual community and the transgender community includes a particular quote that felt deeply relevant to my own understanding of my identity:

“I see the radical aspects of bisexuality as including a rejection of the traditional extremes of masculinity and femininity: the domineering, aggressive, macho man focused on power and material success and emotionally dependent on women, and the passive, appearance-obsessed woman. I don’t want relationships with such stereotyped identities, or in such a framework, no matter what their professed sexuality is. I would hope that the bi community could provide a space for alternatives for mainstream gender models and a diversity of attraction to be supported.” (Kevin Lano, Anything That Moves)

I’m starting to recognise faces in the digitised film photographs I see on my screen like they’re friends of friends appearing on my newsfeed. Veneita Porter was an executive director of BiNet USA; Porter had previously worked with the Prostitute’s Union of Massachusetts and COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) to advocate for women, transgender people, and injection drug users with AIDS. Porter went on to become the director of the New York State Office of AIDS Discrimination where she helped design the first educational projects and trainings for state workers, hearing judges and legal staff. The portrait of Porter I used in my post on @bihistory was taken by photographer Robert Giard. I found when I came to cite the source that Yale University tags her only as a lesbian activist.

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“Bisexuality means that I am free and as likely to want and to love a woman as I am likely to want and to love a man, and what about that isn’t what freedom implies? If you are free, you are not predictable and you are not controllable. To my mind that is the keenly positive politicising significance of bisexual affirmation…to insist upon the equal validity of all the components of social/sexual complexity “ . . . June Jordan was a Carribean-American poet, writer, teacher and activist. Her writing discuses race, gender, immigration and representation. In 2005 a posthumous collection of her work competed and won in the category of Lesbian poetry at the Lambda Literary Awards, even though Jordan herself identified as bisexual. BiNet USA led the community in a campaign which resulted in the addition of a Bisexual category. She was also an active member of the civil rights movement and wrote extensively about the Black Power movement. . . . Image 1: a poster advertising a New York City reading in 1970 by June Jordan sponsored by the Academy of American Poets from poetry.org #junejordan #bisexualhistory #bihistory #lgbt #lgbtq #lgbthistory #queer #queerhistory #bisexual #history #poet

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I’ve read many definitions of bisexuality, from Robyn Ochs’ to Rita Mae Brown’s, but in all my reading it’s bisexual author June Jordan’s words that feel closest to my own definition:

“Bisexuality means that I am free and as likely to want and to love a woman as I am likely to want and to love a man, and what about that isn’t what freedom implies? If you are free, you are not predictable and you are not controllable. To my mind that is the keenly positive politicising significance of bisexual affirmation…to insist upon the equal validity of all the components of social/sexual complexity.”

Reading my predecessors explain that bisexuality could mean freedom changed how I had been perceiving myself — I started to see the joy in my identity. It became something I celebrated, and I was seeing more and more examples of this joy in my research. This wasn’t a new or modern idea either — I saw that along with the hardships and marginalisation, bisexual people have been living full lives and falling in love as long as anyone else.

Bisexual history is more than just looking to the past; there are bisexual people making history right now. Bi activists like Tiffany Kagure Mugo, the writer, speaker, activist who co-founded of HOLA Africa, an online Pan African queer womanist community; Julia Serano, writer, biologist, and activist for bisexual and transgender people; and Dr Meg John Barker, author and activist-academic are just a few examples of bisexual people working right now to uplift other bisexual people and the wider LGBTQ community.

Despite the range of differences between these people past and present, they all fall under bisexual+ umbrella; they form part of the history and heritage of our community. Some just lived their lives, which itself was a radical act; others were and are activists advocating for the bisexual community. Each of their histories has helped me realize I have a right to a feeling of heritage and community, and celebrate the lives and achievements of brave, world-changing, ordinary people. When we celebrate bisexual history we’re honoring people and events that helped shape our lives now, yet are often ignored or erased.

In creating the @bihistory account, I was scared that other members of the LGBTQ community would think I was trying to take something away from them and their heritage, and I did sometimes feel like an interloper and a thief. But I was adrift and desperately needed something to hold onto. Now, it’s been nine months since my first post, and in that time the response has been so affirming; I’ve not had a single comment or tweet saying that what I’m doing is anything less than great. Instead, I’ve had messages from people who feel connected to the LGBTQ community for the first time because of the images and research I share, and questions from people wanting to know more — as if I must be some kind of expert, instead of just the most enthusiastic amateur. I’ve learned that not only does a thriving, wonderful, global bisexual community exist, but that this is nothing new. It’s not divisive or reductive to any other part of the LGBTQ community to celebrate bisexual history, it only enriches our understanding of our community’s interwoven histories. This process has helped me to feel confident in my own identity, it’s given me a richer understanding of myself and a sense of pride to be my own small part of this legacy. I can’t wait to see what new thing I find out tomorrow.

“you may forget but let me tell you this: someone in some future time will think of us” – Sappho (translation by Anne Carson)

Mel is a writer and archivist living in Glasgow. She runs the Instagram account @bihistory, makes zines with fear of making art press and works for Glasgow Zine Library. You can find more of her writing on her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Mel has written 1 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. This is amazing, thank you! Sometimes when I’m depressed I read the Wikipedia page of famous bisexuals throughout history to cheer myself up, so finding a visual, queer-led, independent project like yours makes me so happy.

  2. Thanks Mel for this post and this ig page! The erasure struggle is real, but we are here, we’ve always been.

    As Pride comes near (we celebrate in November), it’s especially affirming to read the involvement of bisexual activists throughout history.

  3. This was a great article and I learned a lot and am excited to learn more! It’s so important to uplift all members of the lgbt community.

    I agree that it doesn’t make sense to apply labels to historical figures, but I just wanted to say that I’ve studied Sappho significantly, and she actually never wrote love poems about men. It’s a common misconception because early (and current) translators changed the pronouns in her poems to conform to heteronormativity. It wasn’t even only translators in recent history; even from when she was first uplifted as a talented lyric poet in surrounding areas in the centuries after her death, people changed her poetry or pretended it wasn’t romantic/sexual to try to erase her attraction to women.

    Cw for cissexism/transphobia and genital mention: A comic poet wrote about her having a husband, but his name translates roughly to “Dick Allcock from Man Island,” which is pretty clearly a joke.

  4. Mel this is a wonderful article please keep up the great work, oh and thank you for remembering my Brenda in it.

    HUGS from Jamaica Queens NYC USA

    -Larry Nelson-
    Brenda Howard’s “Husband”

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