New politics, old tensions: the invisibility of bisexual identities in research

I was at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria from June 5-10, attending “Multimedia Design for Research Creation, Community Engagement, and Knowledge Mobilization,” taught by Aimée Morrison.

I love both the course and the set-up of the DHSI as a whole. I love the diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, disciplines and interests in my class. I love the professor, and the collaborative approach to learning. There’s a lot to love.

Refreshingly, there also seems to be an undercurrent of privilege-aware, feminist thought, at least in the course that I’m attending. We’ve talked about a variety of feminist issues, including the ethical treatment of marginalized research collaborators, and some of my classmates are vocal advocates for challenging the privileging of academic knowledge over other forms of knowledge. It’s been a very engaging, exciting week so far.

One reason that there is a different “feel” to this event, even though it is still clearly academic, is that none of us will receive credit for the work, the professors are volunteering their time, and the courses have a feeling of flattened hierarchy – as Aimée put it, “autodidactic communalism.” This is learning for the love of learning, sharing skills for the love of the skills and of the sharing, and professional development growing out of a passion for this new and developing interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Basically – DHSI: I would recommend it.

While there, I had an interesting conversation with one of my classmates, Elise Chenier, and it highlighted one of the struggles that the bisexual community faces in being recognized and legitimized. This struggle is found in the tendency of many academic scholars to assume or read homosexuality into historical accounts of non-heterosexual behaviour, either missing or glossing over the potential for bisexuality.

Elise has worked with A LOT: Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony, and is currently working on research regarding mixed-ethnicity marriages between Asian men and white women in the 1950s and 60s.

She described the genesis of this project as being found in a story that she heard during her research for A LOT. The story was of a woman who was living with a Chinese man, whose male partner and butch lover had an altercation. This made my bi activist ears perk up, since this seemed like a situation that might be described as bisexual. I wondered if other women were in similar situations and asked if there were any mentions of bisexual women and their stories in her work.

It turns out, there are not.

None of the women self-identified as bisexual, and I nodded and said that it can be dangerous or difficult for bisexual women to come out in lesbian communities, especially if those communities are critical to their social support networks. Elise felt that this was inserting contemporary politics into a historical moment where they were not an issue. Bisexuality was simply not recognized as an identity category in the same way that it is now: none of the women self-identified as bisexual, and that’s that.

In this instance I think that Elise has a point about reading contemporary politics into historical moments where they don’t apply, where the women being interviewed are describing experiences that happened before the gay rights movement, before we had a cultural understanding of heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality as they exist in the cultural consciousness now.

And yet, is it possible that none of the women self-identified as bisexual not only because they may not have had the language at the time, but also because they did not see space for a bisexual identity in the current research?

So often we assume that these “contemporary political issues” are still not relevant. The issue of bisexuality is regularly ignored or erased, subsumed into the more easily understood gay or lesbian movements. I’d like to push a little bit on the assumption that bisexuality doesn’t need to be actively pursued or acknowledged by scholars engaging with queer histories.

As Elise mentioned in our conversation, it is possible that assumptions underpinning the formation of questions might lead to possible bisexual identifications being overlooked, or not given space for acknowledgment. Questions that imply an expected answer, or interpretations that are coloured by assumptions or misconceptions happen easily, and often without any malicious intent. But they are still problematic, and they still make it incredibly difficult for bisexuals to see themselves situated in a history that seems entirely monosexual, where even queer histories are often written as gay and lesbian histories.

Bisexual activists like Brenda Howard have, from the very beginning, been instrumental in the Pride movement that now so often ignores or erases us. Despite these early activists – Howard was openly bisexual and also the founder of pride parades as we know them today – bisexuality has been and often still is viewed as “dangerous and contrary to gay liberation” (Rust[1]).

These beliefs can be tricky, sneaking into our interpretations of historical figures and making it hard to recognize bisexuality in instances where it may exist. Although I do not believe that we can ever tell a person who claims one identity (gay or straight, for instance) that they are bisexual because of their behaviours, which may be influenced by all kinds of factors, I do believe that we should not assign a label (gay or straight, for instance!) when a person’s behaviours may indicate a bisexual, pansexual or fluid orientation and when they have not claimed that label for themselves.

We should be careful not to coercively assign bisexual labels in our efforts for visibility, but we should make every effort to carve out space for bisexual readings of historical events and people. It should be possible to encounter a bisexual history, because it is absolutely true that this bisexual history exists. We just have to stop pushing everyone to one side or the other of the gay/straight binary.

This is one reason why the bisexual pride movement, which did not exist so visibly in previous decades, is so important. We have Faith Cheltenham now, for instance, taking up the work of early bisexual activists like Brenda Howard. There is a tension between bisexual women and some lesbians who view us, at best, as simply incomprehensible. This tension is not new, and it will not go away unless we continue to confront and explore the ways in which bisexual history and identity is overlooked and erased.

I am optimistic about this endeavour. Elise and I had a fantastic conversation about bisexual invisibility, identity politics, Jack Halberstam, trans* invisibility within the historical lesbian movement, internalized biphobia and research ethics. This kind of collaboration can only lead to better understanding and more visibility. At least, that’s my hope. When I look at rates of suicidality and mental health concerns among bisexual individuals (the topic of my next post), I know that something has to change. Maybe this is part of that change. Fingers crossed!

[1] Rust, Paula C. “Neutralizing the Political Threat of the Marginal Woman: Lesbians’ Beliefs about Bisexual Women.” The Journal of Sex Research , Vol. 30, No. 3 (Aug., 1993), pp. 214-228

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2 thoughts on “New politics, old tensions: the invisibility of bisexual identities in research

  1. I wondered when I was reading your post about trans* invisibility and whether the butch woman in the relationship with the Asian man in Elise’s example was transmasculine. Had they had the language available how would they have identified?

  2. […] wrote a bit about my DHSI experience over at Uni(di)versity (where you can catch me blogging much more regularly, since I have deadlines […]

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