The U.S. bisexual+ movement: a #BiWeek history lesson


Image credit: @lgbt_history

The bisexual+ movement has a long, complex, and often hidden history. As a whole, the history of LGBTQ people is rarely taught comprehensively in schools, addressed in the media, or easily accessible within popular culture. For bisexual+ individuals, it's worse. The ubiquity of bisexual+ erasure seeps into history too; prominent bisexual+ individuals of the past are rarely remembered as bisexual+ (recalled as gay or lesbian instead) and the contributions of bisexuals+ to the broader LGBTQ movement are overlooked. Retelling a history that is inclusive of bisexual+ people is an important way to affirm the validity and importance of the bisexual+ experience. Therefore, this #BiWeek we're looking back at the history of the contemporary U.S. bisexual+ movement.

The word "bisexual" was first used to refer to a sexual attraction to both men and women by Charles Gilbert Chaddock in an 1892 translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis. However, bisexuality was rarely openly discussed until the second half of the twentieth century due to the pervasive cultural stigma surrounding being gay.

Like the rest of the queer civil rights movement, bisexual political activism began to flourish in the 1960s. For example, bisexual activist Stephen Donaldson (also known as Donny the Punk) founded the first university-sanctioned gay student group, the Student Homophile League, at Columbia University. In 1963, a series of spontaneous and violent riots in response to the June 28th police raid of the Stonewall Inn took place—commonly known as the Stonewall riots. The patrons of the bar, bisexuals included, followed Stonewall leaders such as Sylvia Rivera, Martha P. Johnson, and Miss Major to the streets in order to fight for LGBTQ rights. Stonewall is considered by many LGBTQ historians to be the watershed moment of the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States.

In response to Stonewall, bisexual activist Brenda Howard organized the Christopher Street Liberation Day March a month after the riots. A year later, Howard coordinated another march to commemorate the year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, thus beginning the longstanding tradition of pride parades each year. Because of this, she is often known as the "Mother of Pride." Today, the "Brenda Howard Memorial Award" is given by PFLAG Queens to celebrate advocates making a difference for the bisexual+ community. Brenda went on to found the New York Area Bisexual Network to coordinate resources for regional bi+ individuals. NYABN is still active.

Brenda Howard
Brenda Howard. Image credit: Efrain Gonzalez

Bisexual advocacy continued to rise in the 1970s. In 1972, the National Bisexual Liberation Group was founded in New York and issued the first bisexual newsletter, The Bisexual Expression, to its members. The longest surviving bisexual community center, the San Francisco Bisexual Center, opened its doors in 1975. In response to the first successful gay rights ordinance (co-authored by bisexual Alan Rockway), Anita Bryan launched a national anti-LGBTQ campaign. In response, The San Francisco Bisexual Center helped coordinate a press conference with lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon and pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock in 1977.


Alan Rockaway (left). Image credit: LGBT Health Link

While the bisexual community had been previously dominated by bisexual men, bisexual women began to organize spaces for themselves in the 1980s. For instance, the Boston Bisexual Women's Network was founded in 1983. Still active today, The Boston Bisexual Women's Network publishes the quarterly newsletter Bi Women, the oldest continually published bi women newsletter in the world.

The first bisexual political organization, BiPOL, was established in San Francisco in 1983. BiPOL, founded on feminist principles, became a major player in the bisexual movement. BiPOL sponsored the first Bisexual Rights Rally, which took place outside of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. BiPol advocate Dr. David Lourea successfully persuaded the San Francisco Department of Public Health to recognize bisexual men in their AIDS statistics, significantly increasing the discussion and resources dedicated to treatment and prevention of AIDS for bisexual men.

 

For #BiWeek, we are highlighting the stories and work of bi+ trailblazers like Lani Ka'ahumanu "As part of a BiPOL visibility action I registered with the DNC in 1984, and had a press conference in front of the convention center to announce I was running for Vice President of the USA. “Tippicanoe and Kaahumanu Too!” We held the first Bisexual Rights Rally on the city provided protest stage. Mondale ended up choosing Geraldine Ferraro. I founded the first feminist bisexual activist group BiPOL with six other bisexuals. We were visible, outspoken and encouraged bisexuals within the lesbian and gay community to come out. Many lesbian and gay people including community leaders came out to me privately as bisexual but never had my back. As a bisexual elder I am sad to say my and the older generation have not changed."

A post shared by @glaad on

As the 1980s continued and AIDS continued to devastate the LGBTQ community, AIDS activism and service became the main focus of the LGBTQ movement towards the end of the decade. The AIDS epidemic was especially significant for bisexuals because they were often unfairly blamed for spreading AIDS to their partners. Newsweek's 1987 issue portrayed bisexual men as "the ultimate pariahs" of the AIDS epidemic.


A Newsweek magazine cover about the AIDS epidemic. Image credit: Newsweek

The 1990s were marked by efforts to include bisexuals as a represented group within the gay and lesbian community. As a result of BiPOL's nationwide lobbying efforts, bisexuals were successfully included on the platform of the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. More than 1,000 people marched with the bisexual contingent, signifying a growing recognition of the bisexual community. Furthermore, the first large scale research study on bisexuality was conducted in 1993 by Ron Fox.

The concept of bisexual pride spread in the late 1990s. The Bisexual Pride flag was designed by Michael Page and unveiled in 1998. The inaugural Celebrate Bisexual Day, now sometimes referred to as Bi Visibility Day, was created by Wendy Curry, Michael Page, and Gigi Raven Wilbur in 1999 and continues to be celebrated every September 23rd.


The Bisexual Pride flag. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

For #BiWeek, we are highlighting the stories and work of bi+ trailblazers like Gigi Wilbur. “In the early 1990’s I went to my first bisexual conference in San Diego. For the first time, the isolation was broken. I realized that there must be bisexuals all over the world living in isolation, never meeting other bisexuals due to the invisibility of bisexuals. I thought, “What if there was a day to celebrate bisexuality”. “Would it be enough to break the isolation?” I realized, at the least, it would serve as the first step. I approached Wendy about starting #CBD (#CelebrateBisexualityDay) and she recommended getting Michael on board. That first CBD included celebrations all over the world. I think a lot of people were tired of bi erasure and bi phobia and wanted a celebration to send out the message that we exist. It wasn’t just what each of us did, but rather the synergy of the three of us working together. Now it has transformed to Bisexual Awareness week. I feel the connections and realize we are making a difference for bisexuals all over the world. Bisexual Awareness Week is a catalyst which breaks isolation and makes us visible. Each year, the feelings are amplified and I feel like I am truly home with my family of choice.”

A post shared by @glaad on

Today, more and more people are opening up about being part of the bisexual+ community. Bisexual+ people make up more than half of the LGBTQ community. Research also finds that a growing percentage of Americans experience attraction to or have beeing involved with individuals of more than one gender, even if they don’t identify as bisexual.

Present-day bisexual+ advocates define bisexuality to embrace all genders, including non-binary people. In the words of leading bi advocate 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."

People are also using additional or alternative words to describe their identities under the bisexual+ umbrella, such as pansexual, fluid, and queer. People continue to come out as bisexual+ every day, bisexual+ leaders are at the forefront of the broader LGBTQ movement, and the visibility of the bisexual+ community has never been greater.

Looking forward, the future of the bisexual+ community is bright.

Learn more about bisexual+ history at BiNet USA. For more information about #BiWeek 2017, click here.

Issues: