The bisexual closet
What is a bisexual? You may not like the question, but in gay studies a central question concerns the meaning of homosexual, gay, lesbian etc. Now, I want first to discuss the meaning of this concept bisexual with some historical and present-day examples, in the second place raise the question if there exists a bisexual closet and community, as there is indeed a gay and lesbian one, and conclude with some remarks on the perspective of sexual identities.
What is a bisexual?
The classical Greek men are a famous example of what some people would call bisexuals. Their love or eros was directed to boys in their late teens, and at the same time they could be married and have sexual relations with prostitutes. They were women loving pederasts, but can we say they were bisexuals?
The same question can be raised for the sodomite, and here I follow the interesting interpretation by Randolph Trumbach, given in a lecture in this building three years ago. In the Renaissance and up till 1700, the sodomite was most often a married man, who had love affairs with both prostitutes and boys. The boys were loved because of their feminine qualities. The sodomite himself was a real man, and nobody should question his masculinity. After 1700, the sodomite was still a married man, but both his love object and his gender identity were inverted. The sodomite was now an effeminate male who no longer loved boys, but real men: soldiers, sailors, butchers. Both types of sodomites could be considered bisexual, but for historical research, the changes which occurred around 1700, could not haven been detected and described by using this term bisexuality which is too vague for finding and understanding this change.
There seem to be many different forms of bisexuality, and we do not have to rely on history to see its forms. To give two contemporary examples. In San Francisco, in the beginning of the 80's, men and women started a group of cross gender gays and lesbians. These men and women wanted to belong to the gay community, and therefor they called themselves gay and lesbian, but their sexual desires were directed to the opposite sex. Their behavior was heterosexual, but their own self-definition was gay or lesbian. Although for Kinsey they should have constituted bisexuals, or even heterosexuals, they themselves objected to defining themselves thus. A last example from the same place and time: the lesbians from the famous Samois-group (among whom Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin) started to experiment with lesbian sadomasochism, and relied strongly on the gay male leather culture and its institutions for their sexual play. In this bar culture, they also discovered fist fucking, and practiced it on other gays and lesbians without regard for gender. Should we consider these fistfuckers bisexuals? I doubt they should apply this name to themselves.
Bisexuality is a difficult, not to say impossible concept. To be honest, all the examples I gave are from gay studies research, and are precisely used to indicate the problems of defining homosexuality! So not only bisexuality is a problematic concept, the same is true for homo-, trans- and heterosexuality.
Let us continue with the problems defining bisexuality. Most people now know about two sexual options, homo- and heterosexual. Some know, bisexuality is a combination of the two. Matters have become more complicated, because bisexuality had, and still has also another meaning, namely gender-blending or androgyny. In this sense, bisexuality was used for the first time in Dutch: having characteristics of both sexes. Shouldn't it be the best if both meanings became distinct and also conceptualized separately, thus with bisexuality for the two sexual options and with androgyny for gender blending. Some people love however the conceptual mixture of gender blending with blending two sexual options for theoretical or ideological reasons. Bisexuals dream of bridging the gap between genders and sexual communities. And in research, an important current has also mixed up sexual and gender roles, by explaining gender in terms of sexuality or the reverse. Psychoanalysis is an example. So, bisexuality and androgyny were merged. For my sake, we should not blend gender and sexuality, because both have their own dynamics, and although both are indeed often interrelated, they are connected in the most diverse ways. Bisexuality can be combined with masculinity as well as androgyny.
The bridging of genders and sexual options with bisexuality has not been very successful. Most straight men continue to despise all people who disregard their social norms and they consider bisexuals, gender blenders, gays and lesbians all as queer. And gays often suppose that bisexuals are closet queens who dare not to come out and who use their partners of the other sex as a social excuse. Neither gays nor straights have been very helpful to bisexuals, for different reasons, but with the same effect: a negation of bisexuality. Although most gay men and lesbian women and many straights have had sexual experiences with both sexes, and thus can be considered bisexual!
A bisexual closet?
From both sides, bisexuals have been forced into secrecy, or are invited to join the ranks with the gay or the straight community. But have the bisexuals a closet or a community as gays and lesbians have? Closet has with reference to homosexuality several meanings. It refers among many things to a social structure and to a spatial organization, a geographical place.
Concerning the social situation of gays and lesbians, the closet refers to hiding one's sexual preferences because of discrimination. A very important consequence is the social isolation for gay boys and lesbian girls. Rarely, children are made conscious about the diversity of sexual preferences by being informed or asked about those; the relevant question is about the presence of a boy- or girlfriend. For gays and lesbians the closet starts with a negation: the refusal to look for a partner of the opposite sex which implies a refusal of fundamental social institutions, such as marriage and procreation. Gays and lesbians have a difficult, but clear start, and they have to do it alone. Bisexuals face another situation: they can affirm the quest for a partner of the opposite sex and do not have to move beyond the mentioned fundamental institutions because of their bisexuality. But they do not fit in very well either. Even stronger than gays and lesbians they face the ideology of the couple, of monogamy in its serial and ever faithful forms. The gay and lesbian closet is something else than what bisexuals experience. Bisexuals are in between the gay closet and the unacknowledged assumption that everybody is straight, in between the secrecies of the gay community and a public life which is the open society of the straights.
The closet made it possible for gays and lesbians to organize themselves and to occupy parts of the public space, from cruising places and bars to social institutions as the emancipation movement. Their closet exists in the urban geography and can be found thanks to the existence of gay and lesbian guides, journals and information services. Most of these places and institutions do not exist for bisexuals: they have no closet, no place in urban geography, and I doubt they ever get one. Gays and lesbian have an harbour where they can anchor. This absence of a space of one's own makes the bisexual experience perhaps more complicated, but couldn't it also be much more inspiring?
Gays and lesbians could make from their closet their home thanks to the social differentiation of homosexuality from traditional sexual forms, as bisexuality is today becoming socially differentiated from both gay and straight. But in the way bisexuality is defined, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a community of bisexuals as there is a gay and lesbian community. Moreover, the gay community has become specialized and gives shelter to many different sexual options, from leather and s/m groups to sporting and cruising facilities. This specialization and differentiation goes on, like most social processes, but especially because gay, lesbian and homosexual are such inept terms to conceptualize the desires and pleasures of gays and lesbians. Their desire, as any desire, has always a more specific object than, for example for gay men, the male body. It concerns a certain body, young or old, black or white; perhaps a certain part of the body, the breasts, the genitals, a facial expression; and it concerns often a distinct interaction, as the anal practices of the fistfuckers. With continuing specialization and differentiation, the gay or lesbian identity will become less important, as with the lesbian sadomasochists who started to experiment with gay men, or with the cross gender gays and lesbians, who want straight sex inside the gay community. Be aware of this development of ongoing sexual specialization and differentiation. Sexual desires cannot be reduced to gay, bi or straight. Desires are much more complicated than that. Of course it is important to come out the closet as gay or lesbian or bisexual. But the next question is how to set up the social structures and to find the urban spaces to organize and experience one's specific social and sexual desires. Which new sexual practices and social/spatial forms do we succeed to develop, inside different social communities, against the grain of presumed sexual innocence and ideologies of natural sexuality? There is nothing innocent or natural in sexuality, it is a work of art that has to be produced. By bisexuals, for example.
Gay Studies, Sociological Institute, University of Amsterdam
For: Amsterdam, Free University, Bisexual Conference
October, 4th, 1991