We’ve Always Been Here: Honoring Bisexual History, Imagining Bisexual Futures

Feature Image by Efrain Gonzalez, Bi Activist and Photographer

Pick any major battle in contemporary U.S. queer history, from Stonewall to marriage equality to non-discrimination efforts, and bisexual people were on the front lines of the struggle.

You might have to dig to find the stories, though. Historical texts often subsume bisexual activists into the G in LGBT or ignore their contributions altogether. Recognizing the historical work of bisexual activists and movements is key to our continued struggle and survival, bi leaders say. Bisexuals experience markedly high rates of closetedness — LGBT MAP reports that only 28 percent of bi people are out to the most important people in their lives, compared to more than 70 percent of gay men and lesbians. That’s in part because they don’t have faith their experience will be seen as legitimate. That erasure leads to dangerous medical outcomes, like high rates of depression, alcohol abuse and suicide ideation. There are many ways to actively address those health disparities, but part of the solution is making it easier for bisexual people to see the validity of their experience.

So today, Bi Visibility Day aka Celebrate Bisexuality Day, let’s talk about bisexual history and why it matters.

“Almost every major LGBT organization either had bisexuals involved with the beginning of the organization, or it has a history of biphobia,” said BiNet USA president Faith Cheltenham. “You could say that the history of LGBT movement is a history of biphobia in part because of political concerns.”

For example, Brenda Howard, called the Mother of Pride for her key role in organizing the march in New York City on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, was also a prominent bisexual activist who established some of the oldest bi-specific programs in the country.

Brenda Howard distributes materials with other bi activists at a Gay Pride event in New York in the 1980s. Photo by Efrain Gonzalez.

Brenda Howard distributes materials with other bi activists at a Gay Pride event in New York in the 1980s. Photo by Efrain Gonzalez.

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two trans activists of color who were key actors in the Stonewall riots and following decades of activism, were also bi. However, even as bisexuals led the way for a visible and active LGBT rights movement, it was hard for them to have their specific concerns or even identities addressed by what was labeled internally and externally as a Gay movement.

“In the 70s we fought very hard to break the labels out,” said black bi elder ABilly Jones-Hennin. “I was part of the movement in the 70s, and we started to say that it is important for the public to recognize that there are lesbians, bisexuals and transgender folks.”

However, even then he hesitated to call himself bisexual because he was afraid of being excluded from activist movements.

“In the early 90s I got more insistent about identifying myself as bisexual because I became aware that identifying as gay was a form of bisexual erasure,” Jones-Hennin said.

Photo by Efrain Gonzalez

Photo by Efrain Gonzalez

And of course, non-monosexual people have been part of societies throughout recorded history. They experienced varying levels of social acceptance, and in some societies were even given privileged status. Many historical texts don’t call those people bisexual but instead invisibilize their behavior into homo- or heterosexuality, says psychologist and bi history enthusiast Estraven.

“History books were written by straight people so it was erased, and today even when they’re written by gay people it’s erased,” Estraven said. “If you read with a bisexual eye, it’s so clear. We have all been here, including trans people, since the dawn of time, and there were always words for it. The misinformation needs to stop.”

Greek lyric poet Sappho, born around 615 B.C., is one of the most bisexuals of ancient history.

Greek lyric poet Sappho, born around 615 B.C., is one of the most well-known bisexuals of ancient history. via Shutterstock

Mainstream history may not begin celebrating bisexual stories any time soon, but there are a growing number of resources available for those invested in learning more. BiNet USA has a great timeline of the last 40 years and The Bisexual Resource Center has a wealth of great information. Digging online reveals awesome historical work, like Cheltenham’s blog on the history of bisexual activists and HIV/AIDS work. Books on bisexuality like Bi Any Other Name, bi-inclusive history books like The Right Side Of History (reviewed on Autostraddle here), and books by bisexual writers like June Jordan’s triumphant Some Of Us Did Not Die are great resources for information and affirmation.

Jordan writes: “To insist upon the equal validity of all of the components of social/sexual complexity. This seems to me a unifying, 1990s mandate for revolutionary Americans planning to make it into the twenty-first century on the basis of the heart, on the basis of an honest human body, consecrated to every struggle for justice, every struggle for equality, every struggle for freedom.”

It’s a message that validates the bisexual struggle, one that is of course ongoing. Just this week, dozens of bi activists met at the white house to present policy priorities like improved healthcare, immigration policy and support for students.

Longtime bisexual activists Lou Hoffman, ABilly Jones-Hennin, Lynnette MFadzen and Loraine Hutchins outside the White House. Photo courtesy Lynnette MFadzen.

Longtime bisexual activists Lou Hoffman, ABilly Jones-Hennin, Lynnette MFadzen and Loraine Hutchins outside the White House. Photo courtesy Lynnette MFadzen.

It’s important for bisexuals who can do so safely to be vocal about their experiences — that too is activism, said Jones-Hennin.

“If we don’t tell our own stories, others will try to tell them for us and not get them right,” he said. “We should be writing them down, videos, audios, art, telling our stories however we can.”

Sharing and truly listening to bisexual stories are necessary components of liberating a community that is often ostracized by both straight and gay worlds. Understanding the legacy of bisexual activism can be a critical tool to demanding respect and support to help bisexuals survive and thrive.

“Without bisexual history, there is no bisexual future,” Cheltenham said. “We keep reinventing the wheel, but there is actually a decent car already.”


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Audrey is a writer, a Texan and a sometimes-heretical Presbyterian. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They hope to adopt a dog some day. Follow Audrey on Twitter @audreywhitetx.

Audrey has written 131 articles for us.

21 Comments

  1. Great article!

    I especially appreciate your including bi trans activists in your honor roll. Too often trans bi people have their bi identities rendered invisible, or community in-fighting tries to pit the B & the T against each other in a pointless struggle so the last letter standing can get the LG seal of approval. But the reality is our communities are deeply entwined.

    I also have to plug Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals from Around the World and Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men–two anthologies that help make bi people visible.

    I love that line about reinventing the wheel when a decent car exists already. There’s so much bisexual history that people don’t know, and that ignorance keeps too many of us isolated. Thanks for being part of the celebration!

  2. Yes, good!I want to make everyone aware of the amazing activism going on at the Bi Women Support Network – they’re a tumblr-based, volunteer-run organisation that supports bi women (and nb folks) who have experienced sexual assault. Assault is an epidemic in our community and as far as I know these are the only people who are doing work specifically for bi survivors! They are amazing!

  3. Been trying to articulate how this makes me feel all day, but I can’t get it just right.
    I know and knew as kid multi-sexuality was a thing that happened in ancient history by using logic. Still the biphobic toxicity and bi-erasure of the 2nd Wave seeped its way into my young self, into my bones.

    It just would have done so much for me to have had this herstory at my perusal. It would have been such good in the bad place that was my pubescent.
    And I’m glad, so very glad that the young bi (trans and cis) kids of today could maybe find this, that we have somethings for them about us and how we’ve always been here and part of the fight.

  4. We were a force to be reckoned with in Ancient Greece. The plus side, the “mostly straight” identified “non-monosexual identity” (bisexual/pan) folks are warming up to the bisexual community although they aren’t the biggest fan of the rainbow flaggers. And only 10% of bisexual people are LGBT identified. A larger of us are bisexual focused and 74% of them are straight people. And they get lonely because I know them well. I don’t begrudge them. With the straight and bisexual bashing they hear from LGBT folks, including the rainbow washed bisexuals who don’t even really know about today, they are just not interested. I know I am not groveling to some insecure monosexual with their preachy arrogant attitude.

    • I just think that as bisexuals, we really need to own up to the fact that the reason straight people avoid bisexual as an identity is to avoid the association with LGBT. It isn’t really easy dealing with that culture.

  5. I’ll just put a word in for Bob Martin, Stephen Donaldson, Donny the Punk. He is one we always forget about. First GSA, leader of ECHO, a founder of GLF (until it got too gay only), first trial challeging being gay in the military, and founder of the stop prison rape movement.

  6. Thanks for this article! It’s pretty crazy that so many bi and trans people have been written out of history. I mean, Sappho? Are you kidding me?! She was the only queer woman I learned about in school, and I certainly had no clue that she was bisexual/non-monosexual. If I had any idea bisexual people existed in history, or in the world around me when I was in high school, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long to figure out that I’m bi…

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