When I was working towards my undergraduate degree at Syracuse University, I minored in LGBTQ studies. To get the minor you had to take the introductory QSX courses and a certain amount of cross-listed QSX courses. In the first introductory course (about 5 or 6 years ago), I wrote my final paper on bi-phobia and the The New York Area Bisexual Network. I am posting this paper below in honor of bisexual awareness week. Bisexuality is a legitimate sexuality, as is pansexuality, asexuality, homosexuality, and heterosexuality and any shade I may have missed, but this week is about bisexuality.
So for all my bisexual people out there – keep doing what you’re doing.
Fighting for Equality
The New York Area Bisexual Network
(Please note this paper is 5-6 years old)
The politically correct way to refer to homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals as a group is as the LGBT community- Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered community (sometimes called GLBT). However, when the LGBT community is invoked people generally conjure up in their minds half of the acronym the- L and G (lesbians and gays). This occurs because lesbians and gays are more “accepted” by society; not, because they are considered a legitimate and natural sexuality, but because they reinforce the monosexual standard upon which heterosexual people affirm their existence. Heterosexuals define themselves against gays and lesbians by their differences. This allows them to justify heterosexuality and create a space (albeit a negative one) for gays and lesbians. From this space lesbians and gays are able to construct a discourse, spread knowledge, and gain power.
The latter half of the acronym, B and T (bisexuals and transgendered people) are too transgressive to have their own place in their community, much less in society. Bi-phobia, trans-phobia, and the ability to destroy societal binaries are deterrents for transgendered people and bisexuals in both the LGBT community and in larger society. Due to the lack of acceptance, bisexuals and transgendered people have broken away from the LGBT movement to form their own organizations. One such group is the New York Area Bisexual Network (NYABN) which lobbies for equal rights on behalf of bisexuals.
Viewing Bisexuality from the Outside
Bisexuals argue people who have enjoyed physical, emotional, and romantic relationships with both men and women have always existed; just as the lesbian and gay community argue lesbians and gays have been present through time. Where the two differ is bisexuals have consistently been erased or excluded from activism, psychology, and a lot of the theorizing in social sciences while homosexuals have not because they are the ones writing it. As Moshe Shokeid says in his article,
“…the marginality and the resentment experienced by bisexuals, ranging from their dismissal by “queer theorists” and other academics, to their rejection in daily life, including being accused of spreading AIDS. Bisexuals see themselves as twice-rejected, once by heterosexuals and again by homosexuals” (64).
In sum, bisexuality is denied as a valid sexuality and is highly stigmatized by both sides of the socially constructed sexual binary. They are too ‘deviant’ to be accepted by heterosexuals, and too closely aligned with heterosexuality to be accepted fully into the LGBT community. From this rejection, arises bi-phobia.
Strictly speaking, bi-phobia is “the irrational fear of bisexuality in oneself or others and the distrust and discrimination practiced against us [bisexuals] because of this fear” (Hutchins 6). Unlike homophobia, bi-phobia is not widely acknowledged outside of the bisexual community. Bi-phobia is personified by the many studies done to prove the non-existence of bi-phobia or to invalidate it, and by heterosexuals and homosexuals who view bisexuality as ‘just a phase,’ and bisexuals as ‘just confused.’ Bi-phobia exists in part because society thrives on binaries and dichotomies because they allow for one side to be idolized and epitomized, while the other is deviant and abnormal. Bi-phobia therefore arises from the dissonance bisexuals create by not fitting into the sexual binary society has fostered. The monosexual world sustained by society maintains a hierarchical dichotomy between homosexuality and heterosexuality with heterosexuality as the empowered half, deemed ‘natural,’ and ‘good.’ Bisexuals, as a group which identifies with both and neither sides at the same time, is a catastrophe for both sides because through their existence they undermine and question much of what both sides uphold as truth.
Having established that bisexuals upset society by not conforming to rigid dichotomies and throwing into question what is “truth” one must question why this is significant. It is significant because “Truth” is power. What side holds “Truth” is in the “right” and wields power over the “untruthful” or the “wrong.” To maintain the power and the “Truth” heterosexuals “conflate bisexuality with nonmonogamy” and view “bisexual men as untrustworthy conduits of the HIV virus” (Ochs 1996). The misguided belief that a person cannot be bisexual unless engaged in a relationship with a member from each sex leads to the stereotype that all bisexuals are promiscuous. Monogamy is touted as a moral cornerstone for a ‘healthy’ heterosexual relationship (Truth) the assumption that bisexuals cannot be monogamous adds to their “otherness.” Promiscuity has traditionally been linked to HIV/AIDS which means bisexuals are harbingers of HIV/AIDS.
Interestingly, despite the adverse feelings the heterosexual community has towards bisexuals, female bisexuality is widely accepted in society, while male bisexuality is seen as non-existent. The explanation for this lies in the gender hierarchy which places men and male sexuality as dominant to women and female sexuality. Therefore, when women have sex with other women it is viewed as an invalid act because there is no ‘real’ phallic interaction occurring. Even if a dildo is utilized it remains invalid because a dildo is a substitute, not an equal to a penis. In this light sex between two women can only be conceived of as pleasure for men and, therefore, legitimated because it reinforces male supremacy. Society views women’s bodies as men’s property. As a result the mere notion of women being able to achieve pleasure without male consent or presence is almost inconceivable to society. Male bisexuality is abhorrent, society proclaims. Men who have sex with other men have to be gay. For them to be able to cross between male and female partners threatens the hierarchy.
The other side of the binary (gays and lesbians) harbors bi-phobic feelings because not only do bisexuals break down the binary, they also fall on the wrong side of “Truth.” Lesbians and gay individuals can also claim “Truth” because they too uphold the idea that sexuality is innate and cannot be changed. “Homosexuals prefer to believe in and claim essentialism as the root for their same sex preference….accepting the legitimacy of bisexual’s claims about the fluidity of the sexual orientation undermines the very basis of…an assumption of the immutability of homosexual attraction” (Shokeid 64). Also, like heterosexuals, some lesbians blame bisexuals for bringing the HIV/AIDS virus into their community (Ochs 1996). Because of this and other reasons, lesbians are more critical of bisexuals. Bi-phobia exists in the lesbian and gay sector because of the suspicion that bisexuals have a greater ability to ‘pass’ as heterosexual and will choose that life over a queer or LGBT one in order to suffer less oppression.
In lieu of such prejudice bisexuals feel unable to identify who they really are. Instead, bisexual people tailor their sexuality to match the situation they are in so as not to cause additional discomfort both to themselves and others. It is difficult for bisexuals to reveal their sexuality without having to qualify it with an explanation. When in a relationship bisexuals are made to match the rigid social dichotomy (heterosexual or homosexual) and are unable to assert their true sexuality. It is very difficult to assert a bisexual identity. As Robyn Ochs explains, many bisexuals feel they must qualify their bisexuality with extra terms, such as: bi-dyke and bisexual lesbian.
Excluded from both sides of the binary, bisexuals struggle to be acknowledged in the media, psychology, social sciences, and activist movements. Bisexual activism increased in the 1980s and has “sought to include bisexuality as a valid part of sexual minority communities” and strived for the “inclusion of bisexuals and bisexuality in the history of gay and lesbian activism” (Gammon 163). Not only are bisexuals striving to be included in the mainstream gay and lesbian activist organizations, they have founded their own organizations in order to have a space in which bisexuals can never be excluded. One such notable organization is the New York Area Bisexual Network (NYABN).
New York Area Bisexual Network
The history of the New York Area Bisexual Network begins with the LGBT movement born from the aftermath of the Stonewall Rebellion in June of 1969. Although NYABN would not be created until ten years later, within three years The National Bisexual Liberation Group, was started. Steadily after this more groups, organizations, and literature were started and published. “BiNet USA became the first and largest national bisexual organization in the country” (Gammon 163). This is the mother group under which NYABN was formed. BiNet still supports its daughter. NYABN began in 1987. As posted on its website NYABN:
“…serves as a central communications network for Bisexual & Bi-Friendly Groups and Resources in the Tri-state area; provides links to Regional, National, and International Groups and Events; runs the Bi Community’s centralized phone-line & PO Box; helps new groups form; hosts events of interest to the entire community and coordinates arrangements for the Bi Contingent(s) at NYC’s annual LGBT PrideFest and Parade each June” (“A Brief Trip Thru Bisexual NYC’s History”).
As a bisexual network NYABN works tirelessly to keep bisexuals connected, and make them feel as though they are part of a community. They sponsor, host, and promote various events to aid bisexuals in their struggles to gain legitimacy in such a polarized society. NYABN accomplishes this by making itself widely available for bisexuals, disseminating information to counter bi-phobic thinking, participating in LGBT movements, and providing support. In their own words on their website:
“In addition to its website, MySpace page & associated Blogs…keeps up with listings for the Tri-State Region…providing links to Regional, National and International Groups and Events…. coordinates the NYC Bisexual-Information Phone-Line, keeps up the NYC Bisexual Community PO Box, hosts various groups, meetings and events of interest to the entire bisexual community, helps new groups form and coordinates arrangements for the Bisexual Contingent(s) at NYC’s annual LGBT PrideFest and Parade each June.”
For bisexuals who feel alienated in both ‘mainstream’ sexualities such a wide base of support allows for a sense of community and helps combat feelings of anger, not belonging, denial, and depression. Merely forcing bisexual existence into the open is a form of activism because it brings dissatisfied bisexuals together. In coming together they realize they are not alone and their struggles are not unique. From this discovery comes discourse, from which, as Foucault asserted, comes power and with power coherent action can be taken.
NYABN is highly connected to other bisexual networks. The entire community is interconnected. It is nearly impossible to go to one network’s website and not find a link to NYABN’s website or BiNet’s website, or links to articles and other support systems. They rely on each other due to their invisibility within the LGBT community. NYABN is still working to obtain their 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 status (which would label them as non-profit, exempt from federal taxes, and many other benefits) so BiNet allows them to operate under their status until they obtain it. In other words, when speaking of one bisexual activist group it is nearly impossible to separate it from the others because they are so closely interrelated.
Although there is no obvious exclusion of any one group from the NYABN website there is the distinct feeling of persecution or a deliberately expanded community. Words which stand out are ‘bisexual,’ ‘pansexual,’ ‘fluid,’ and ‘queer.’ Not to be missed the ‘B’ in LGBT is highlighted. With this it is implied that all who respect or identify with bisexuality or fluid sexuality are welcome to the network. There are no qualifying aspects to the page demanding the participants be male or female, white or colored, or any other segregating identities. In the silence created by this overarching inclusion though an inherent identity of a white, female, middle class emerges. Why a female gender is implied over a male gender is the majority of articles are written by women. Perhaps in an attempt to not have a racially homogenous community NYABN chooses not to blatantly discuss race. This silence regarding ethnicity and race, opposite what was intended, encourages the assumption of a white majority. A middle class identity is reinforced because NYABN’s main resources appear to be online. To access them one must first have a computer and then an internet connection. This presumes a certain economic standing.
The homepage, besides giving the viewer insights to the people connected with the network, promotes activism by showing pictures of past rallies, advertising upcoming meetings, and displaying bisexual media. From this it is shown that NYABN is very active in various marches and is determined to promote positive bisexual visibility. One way in which they did this was their letter writing campaign.
One of the New York Area Bisexual Network’s biggest activist thrusts is its tireless pursuit of an anti-defamation campaign. Through this campaign NYABN targets and challenges anti-bisexual and bi-phobic literature. Within two years of NYABN being founded they had their first letter writing campaign against Cosmopolitan magazine. Cosmopolitan published an article about bisexual men being spreaders of AIDS. The letter writing campaign was very successful – Cosmopolitan has not printed any other defamatory articles regarding bisexuals since. Another campaign occurred in 2005 in response to an article published in the New York Times by Benedict Carey entitled “Gay, Straight or Lying?” which concluded that bisexuality in males does not exist.
NYABN collaborated with many other bisexual groups in order to raise awareness about the flaws in the article printed in the New York Times and to expose the defects in the research the article reported on. The response to the article was immediate and swift with media reporting on the article the day after it was published. Other newspapers from Chicago, to Washington D.C., to L.A., to San Francisco, critiqued the article. By October the controversy had died down, but the message was clear- bisexuals were not going to let themselves be denigrated. Since 2005 groups such as NYABN have created their own ‘watchdog’ groups to monitor media and respond when offensive articles are printed or posted online.
On NYABN’s website under ‘Actions’ there are two links one which states ‘Do U Xist?’ which leads to a page discussing some of their past campaigns including the 2005 campaign against the “Gay, Straight or Lying?” article. Another campaign listed on the page is a 2005 e-mail protest to Dr. Ruth (a sex therapist and author of Sex for Dummies) who said that bisexuality did not exist. The second link ‘Current Alerts’ brings the browser to ‘Bialogue = Bisexual/Pansexual + Dialogue’ a livejournal which promotes bisexual action and provides information on activist movements. Conferences, marches, summits, and current websites are listed which discuss bisexuality and the fights in which they are engaged. This livejournal account is not just for bisexual protests, general LGBT movements are listed as well because even though bisexuals are often excluded from the “LG” Community they still see themselves as part of them.
Even though bisexuals have created their own community and activist groups they still seek affirmation and acceptance within the LGBT community. While they fight for equality within a community of marginalized sexualities they continue to work with them to fight the inequalities they face against society as a whole. Though bisexuals are frustrated and some speak of completely breaking off from the LGBT community they battle not to be able to stand alone, for they have already proven their independence, but to be given a part in a diverse community. Bisexuality is a valid sexuality and will eventually prevail in being accepted and given its proper space in the LGBT community, and when it is it will be a major step toward sexual equality.
Gammon, Mark A. and Kirsten L. Isgro. “Troubling the Canon.” Journal of Homosexuality 52.1 (2007): 159-184. Print.
Hutchins, Loraine, and Lani Kaahumanu eds. Bi Any Other Name. Boston, PA: Alyson Publications, Inc, 1991. Print.
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “The Problems with “Straight, Gay or Lying?” http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/NYTBisexualityFactSheet.pdf
The New York Area Bisexual Network. The New York Area Bisexual Network, n.d. Web. 20 November 2009.
Ochs, Robyn. “Biphobia: It Goes More than Two Ways.” Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority. Ed Beth A. Firestein. Sage, 1996. 217-239. Print.
Shokeid, Moshe. “You Don’t Eat Indian and Chinese Food at the Same Meal: The Bisexual Quandary.” Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2001): 63-90. Print.