A Brief Bisexuality History

Hello all! Today I’m gonna say a few things about bisexuality!

The word “bisexual” originates from botany. An 1810 science book states that “Many flowers have both stamens and pistils, and are therefore considered bisexual or hermaphrodite.” Thus, the original meaning was having “male” and “female” parts in one organism. (Side note: A human who is born with anatomy outside the “norm” of male or female is today called “intersex”, as “hermaphrodite” is considered offensive.) The word “bisexual” was also occasionally used to mean “unisex/gender neutral”, as in this blurb about “bisexual pronouns” from 1901. 

So, how did it come to be a label for a sexual orientation? Well, in the early 1900s, a popular view of same-sex desire was “inversion theory”. This theory, put forth by straight male psychologists, proposed that gay men and lesbian women were sexual “inverts”: people who appeared physically male or female on the outside, but internally/mentally (or “psychically”) were of the “opposite” anatomical sex.

For people whose desires were not exclusively gay or exclusively straight, the theory said they had “psychical hermaphroditism”, so that their desire for women stemmed from their “male psyche” and their desire for men stemmed from their “female psyche”. Some psychologists even stated that bisexual desire indicated a person was “immature”, as in not fully developed. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in his 1894 book Psychopathia Sexualis, wrote several case studies of “Psychical Hermaphroditism”, including the case of “Mrs. M., aged 44”, who “exemplifies the fact that an inverted and a normal sexual instinct may be united in one person, be it man or woman. […] Her sexual feeling would be directed at one time to women, at another to men.” Another case detailed in this text is that of Mr. X, age 28: “With reference to his sexual inclinations, the patient is still uncertain whether he feels more inclination toward the opposite sex or toward his own sex.” These people whose sexual attractions were a “combination” of “normal” (straight) and “inverted” (gay) would later be deemed “bisexual”.

When gay rights movements began later in the 1900s, men who we would today call bisexual were active in gay men’s groups, and women who we would today call bisexual were active in lesbian groups. In many circles of society back then (e.g. within the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s) being exclusively attracted to the same gender was not a requirement to identify as gay/lesbian. Here, “gay” was used as an umbrella term for all non-straight and/or transgender people.

In other circles, if one was not exclusively gay or exclusively straight, they would be ostracized from both straight and gay communities. For example, Al Weininger, the vice president of the Society for Human Rights, the first known gay men’s organization in the United States (est. 1924), was bisexual and married. He had to keep this a secret, as the group denied membership to bisexuals, believing that they would be less committed to the cause.

A bisexual activist, Brenda Howard, is known as the “Mother of Pride” for her work in coordinating the first Pride March in 1970. Another bisexual, Bill Beasley, was the core organizer of the first Los Angeles Gay Pride March in 1972.

In the 60s and 70s, second-wave feminism led to people who expressed attraction to more than one gender being fully ousted from gay and lesbian communities. Many bisexuals were tired of hiding a part of themselves anyway. Thus, by the mid-70s to early 80s, bisexuals had formed their own communities or subgroups. Remnants of this separation (and the prior “fusion” of bisexuals into gay groups) still remain in the names of longstanding LGBT organizations such as:

  • PFLAG – “Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays” (est. 1973)
  • SAGE – “Senior Action in a Gay Environment” (est. 1979 – now re-acronymed as “Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders”
  • GLAAD – “Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation” (est. 1985)
  • LAGBAC – “Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago” (est 1987)
  • GLSEN – “Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network” (est. 1990)
  • COLAGE – “Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere” (est. 1990)

During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, bisexual men were vilified as a collective scapegoat for the spread of “the gay disease” to straight people. BiPOL, a bisexual political action group, was formed in 1983 to combat this negative stereotype and to advocate for bisexuals. In 1984, BiPOL sponsored the first bisexual rights rally, outside the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

On December 5 1998, the Bisexual Pride flag designed by Michael Page was unveiled, and in 1999, the first Celebrate Bisexuality Day (September 23) was organized by Michael Page, Gigi Raven Wilbur, and Wendy Curry.

As you can see, it has been a long long road from the misguided “Bisexuals are psychical hermaphrodites” to the correct “Bisexuals are people who have attraction to more than one gender”!

For decades now, bisexuals have been fighting stereotypes and misinformation, such as “Bisexuals are slutty/greedy/more likely to cheat on me”, or “Bisexuality is a phase/They’re gays in denial/They’re straights faking it for attention”, or “Bisexuality reinforces the gender binary/ Bisexuals are limited to two genders/Bisexuals won’t date trans or nonbinary people”. In fact, none of these are true.

I will close with a quote from the 1990 Bisexual Manifesto.

We are tired of being analyzed, defined and represented by people other than ourselves, or worse yet, not considered at all. We are frustrated by the imposed isolation and invisibility that comes from being told or expected to choose either a homosexual or heterosexual identity.

Bisexuality is a whole, fluid identity. Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature: that we have “two” sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders.

Do not mistake our fluidity for confusion, irresponsibility, or an inability to commit. Do not equate promiscuity, infidelity, or unsafe sexual behavior with bisexuality. Those are human traits that cross all sexual orientations. Nothing should be assumed about anyone’s sexuality, including your own.

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