Pop Theory: On Bisexuality

Within the umbrella “LGBT” community, it’s usually the Bs that get overlooked. I must admit, as a gold star lesbian, I don’t really understand the political agenda of bisexuals. I have plenty of friends, including one of my bestest friends (heyyyy T!), who identify as bi, but I honestly have yet to receive an articulate or persuasive definition of not the term but the political identity and agenda, especially the agenda in relation to the LGBT movement. I know this sounds ridiculous; it will sound even more ridiculous when I tell you that my mentor and boss for half a decade was Marjorie Garber, who penned the seminal tome Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (1995).

In this text Garber works toward an understanding of bisexuality as, essentially, sexuality, while at the same time dismantling notions of bisexuality as “sequential” and “situational”:

“According to some definitions, though obviously not those of self-identified bisexuals, a person who used to be straight and is now with a same-sex partner or partners is gay, and a person who used to be gay and is now with an opposite-sex partner or partners is straight. This ‘law of the excluded middle’ excludes bisexuality, which, in some people’s minds, must be concurrent or simultaneous in order to be real. ‘Sequential’ bisexuality is just wishy-washy hetero-or homosexuality, and ‘situational’ bisexuality (in same-sex schools, prisons, the armed services, or the locker room) is just fooling around or making do.”

Garber’s focus, as she is a literary scholar, is on the concept, the language, of bisexuality, rather than its politics. For me, I very much do understand bisexuality as sexuality—that humans, as animals, are innately sexual creatures who have the potential to cachet or attach to any entity. In my estimation, we consciously delimit the range of potential via our experiences (which we bill as our “preferences”) and unconsciously delimit it via factors like our environment.

In terms of politics, however, I get confused, and, admittedly, sometimes frustrated when I perceive individuals “cherry-picking” privileges. And I do think cherry-picking privileges is a very real possibility when it comes to sexuality, which is illegible, or not readable, on a person’s body. Because sexuality is not readable, people (like myself included) spout accusations along the lines of what Garber terms as “sequential” and “situational” bisexuality. I will flat-out admit that I get bound up in the notion of bisexuality as sequential, especially when the situation involves white men—the raging lesbian feminist in me gets, well, angry, when a white man, who, let’s say, is hetero-married and has babies appropriates a marginal political identity like bisexuality. I’m certainly not saying this anger is justified or, really, even necessary… Why do I care how people identify? I am mentioning this emotion because I want to bring into discussion the very real tensions between Ls and Bs—a discussion which I hope you readers contribute to below in conscious and respectful ways. I realize I seem like an ass for revealing this emotion, but it’s critical that we move past the barriers of political correctness in order to talk about uncomfortable things so that we can move forward together.

In order to free myself from my confused understanding of bisexuality and its political agenda, I talked with Faith Cheltenham, bi activist and newly-minted AfterEllen contributor, who offered me some clarity about issues regarding bisexuality and its politics.

MB: Hi Faith! Before we dive into politics and my tendency towards abstract thinking, I want to ask you to introduce yourself, your identity, your intersections, etc. Pour some intersectionality on me!
FC: Heya, I’m Faith Cheltenham, President of BiNet USA, a national advocacy non-profit organization for bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, labelless and other non-monosexual people in the U.S. I’m 32 and identify as Black with West Indian and American Indian ancestry. Raised Pentecostal, I rejected “ex-gay” training in favor of becoming a deeply spiritual pagan. I am recently married to a straight white cisgender guy named Matt and have an 11-month-old biracial son, Michael Storm Cheltenham Kanninen (requisite cute baby pics here). My professional life is as varied as my personal and as a web producer/social media expert I’ve worked for Scholastic, Macmillan, and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. I’ve counter-protested the Tea Party with Zombies for Health Care Reform, been the sole woman on the “Black Panel” at Comic Con and was recently profiled by the White House for my bisexual activism. With just my queerness, I once so disrupted the filming of an Emmy-winning reality show on race that producers felt compelled to dub out the word “lesbian” and replace it with “beautiful black creature.” In short, I get around.

MB: How would you relate your personal experience with bisexuality to the general notion of it? Or, perhaps I should rephrase this: if sexuality exists on a spectrum, how do you live or perceive your sexuality in relation to bisexuality?
FC: I consider myself politically bisexual and absolutely queer, and according to most online quizzes I’m a “perfect 3” on the Kinsey or Klein scales of sexual orientation. I’ve been primarily sexually attracted to women and emotionally attracted to men, but have found there’s an exception to any rule I’ve ever made for my heart. Since my lover is also attracted to women, the deep chemistry I share with him is further enhanced by an understanding of our mutual desires. Additionally, I tend to reject traditional gender norms associated with black women whether it’s my frequently un-styled hair, lack of nail polish or aversion to any type of heel. I’ve never met a church hat I really liked, or a church for that matter. I don’t fit any expectations, preferring instead to redefine them.

MB: So, can you define bisexuality for me? How does it differ from sexuality—as in the notion that all humans are sexual and can desire anything?
FC: The modern definition of bisexuality as popularized by noted author Robyn Ochs, “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted  romantically and/or sexually  to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” According to the Williams Institute surveys on sexuality, not all people are bisexual but half of the LGBT community certainly is. It’s important to note these numbers DO NOT include the many straight identified people who might be classified as bisexual by their behavior.

MB: I think one linguistic problem for me is the term itself; in a weird way it needs to rely on fixed terms of heterosexual and homosexual in order to exist, no?
FC: Great point, let’s just go ahead and do away with fixed terms as a whole shall we? Our lives are multifaceted, complex and richly unique so why shouldn’t our sexuality be as well? Krishnamurti said, “Man has built in himself images as a fence of security  religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these images dominates man’s thinking, his relationships and his daily life. These images are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man.” I would posit that “man,” “woman,” “gay,” straight,” “lesbian” and “bisexual” are just symbols of our society’s current inclination toward a “define and destroy” mentality that seeks to classify only so that it might better homogenize.

MB: Correlatively “bisexuality,” as it applies to an attraction to a range of genders, seems again to fix what hetero- and homo-sexuality looks like in terms of gender. I think what I mean is that the female sex encompasses a range of gender expressions (which we know as the butch- femme spectrum), but just because I like a range of female sexed genders doesn’t mean that I’m bi — am I making sense?! Please clarify!

FC: I often tell folks that being bi is as different from being gay as being straight is. That is to say, a bi person is not part gay or part straight, they’re all bi. Trying to understand bisexuality within the framework of straight or gay is just plain confusing, so you might find it easier to understand bisexuality in relation to you. As a lesbian you’re attracted to a range of female sexed genders and a gay man might say he’s attracted to a range of male sexed genders. A bisexual is more likely to be attracted to a range of all genders. It’s worth noting that misnomers are a-plenty when it comes to identifications, whether it’s “black” to mean skin tone instead of a color or “gay” to indicate same-sex attraction instead of merriment. Krishnamurti also said, “Truth is a pathless land” so why should sexuality labels end up more static than the folks they apply to?

MB: I want to now discuss bisexuality in terms of politics. I will shame-facedly admit that I don’t understand what bisexuals want (OMG—this could be the title of a new Mel Gibson flick!) What are the politics, or the political objectives, of the Bs within the LGBT movement? How, for instance, are the health care needs of bisexuals specifically different from the Ls and Gs?
FC: A core objective would be the elimination of heterosexism and homosexism; everyone should live in a world where no one’s orientation is assumed or stigmatized. Even while we’re being actively erased for perceived political gain, bisexual data is used by many gay and lesbian organizations to garner funding and support. The reason why bisexual data is lumped in with gay and lesbian is not because there are so few of us, but because there are so many. In comparison to lesbian and gay people, we have a higher lifetime prevalence of sexual victimization, higher rates of poverty, poorer health outcomes and higher risks for suicide. Despite all of this, 0% percent of the $100 million tracked by LGBTFunders.org during 2011 and 2012 was granted to bisexual organizations or projects. At the same time, no major LGBT organizations have bisexual projects, bi specific outreach, or bisexual board members.

Bisexuals need workplace harassment policies that include examples of anti-bi comments, bi specific resources developed for police and safety officers that highlight our increased risk of sexual violence, domestic partner benefits for different sex partners so we’re not channeled into “straight” relationships, federal tracking of the bi suicides wracking our country, and more bi specific data collection so advocates, allies and health professionals know how to better help save our lives.

MB: How would you differentiate the political needs and aims of bisexuals differently from other sexualities, specifically lesbians and gay men?
FC: I think that as gay has become more “norm,” bi has become more “queer.” This would help explain the increase in overt biphobia by gay and straight organizations, whether that be the decision from the Center for American Progress to re-label LGBT policy documents as “gay and transgender” or the disrespectful ambivalence toward the bisexual community consistently shown by GLAAD. In both gay and straight spaces, bisexuals face incredible stigma and frequent stereotyping. Right now many of our youth are being told that their identification re-enforces a “gender binary.” “Gay” or “lesbian” labels are definitions that rely on a gender binary, but bi youth are the ones being targeted for being transphobic. When I ask someone why they don’t call themselves bisexual, it’s rarely because of their own internal preferences. We’re being forced to identify as something else, ostensibly because our orientation is “offensive” to our oldest allies. The trans and bi women who rioted at Stonewall and were the “mothers” of Pride,” must scream in their graves at the notion we B and T be used against each other.

MB: What is monosexual privilege? How does the assertion of “cherry-picking” privilege point to a person’s monosexual privilege?
FC: Radical bi activist Shiri Eisner popularized “The Monosexual Privilege Checklist” and I’ll be sure to do a thorough interview with her once her new book is published this June. Something quite important to mention is Eisner’s main clarification:


Whew! So monosexual privilege isn’t something bisexuals should blame on gay and lesbians, but like sexism, racism, or classism we have a responsibility to recognize its existence. We must all do our part to chip away at any monolithic structures that aren’t free and just for everyone. Bi identified people aren’t heterosexual but if we are perceived as heterosexual, many of us will experience greater levels of minority stress. Indeed these higher levels of minority stress correlate with higher levels of depression and anxiety than gay and lesbians. “Golly, how hard that must be!” some lesbian and gay folks sarcastically tell me which makes me think they’re modeling back to me their own internal homophobia when dialoging about bisexuality. If I have “a choice to pack away my rainbow flags, erase my queerness and fit right in, why don’t I?” That line of thinking would suggest there’s nothing wonderful about being queer, and I disagree. LGBTQ people have the opportunity to help our whole world redefine what love really means and looks like. Bisexuals have our place in this narrative and it just might be to remind us all that the path to truth is individual, unique, and beautiful; with the potential to be anything we want.

MB: Any final points or thoughts that you want to address specifically to AfterEllen’s lesbian audience? Any points or thoughts to its broader LBT audience?
FC: Can’t wait to dialogue more with ya’ll in the future!