Guest Blogger

Bisexuality: Who's Using Whom?

Filed By Guest Blogger | March 16, 2009 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: bi, bisexual women, bisexuality, Ellyn Ruthstrom, LGBT community

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Ellyn Ruthstrom is the President of the Bisexual Resource Center and the Calendar Editor of Bi Women Boston.

ellyn in color.jpgOne of the things I really value about the bi community is the way we provide a wonderful safe space for many lesbian and gay people in which to come out. What?! Don't you mean the other way around? No, I've observed over many years that the bi community has been (and will continue to be) a fabulous warming-up stage for some people who later realize they are lesbian or gay or for those who know they are lesbian or gay but need to slowly acclimate to the queer scene. I consider it a valuable service to the greater LGBT community that we are happy to oblige.

I have seen this time and time again in various coming out and support groups where a person (usually a woman because I've personally been involved with more bi women's groups) starts her coming out process by sitting in on a bi group in order to feel more comfortable discussing her same-sex attraction. She's worked up enough courage to find the group and very often wants to observe and listen for awhile before sharing her own story.

This woman could be married or involved with a man and never had a relationship with another woman, or she's had relationships with women but has never been able to come out about it, or she's had relationships with both men and women and unsure of what she feels about them. Often the woman is dealing with a great deal of internalized homophobia--most of us can relate to that--and is looking for a place to say things she has never been able to say aloud to anyone else in her life.

These are some of the folks for whom bisexuality may be an identity phase that they will eventually shed (and which encourages that dreaded myth that all bisexuality is merely a phase) and decide to identify instead as lesbian or gay. Which brings me to one of the other great things I like about bi community. We don't care how you identify or even if you don't want to have a label at all. If you feel good about who you are and whom you are involved with then so do we. At least that has been my experience in my community.

Unfortunately, I've heard some rather negative stories from bisexual people about trying to come out as bi in gay and lesbian space and not being treated quite so supportively. In fact, I've heard instances where some members try to get the person to change the way they identify or not to discuss any relationships they have or had with other-sex partners. This is one reason why providing safe bi-identified space is so important in LGBT communities and why I encourage LGBT spaces to assess how bi-friendly their programs may or may not be.

I like to believe that the relationship between the bisexual and lesbian/gay community has been improving over the last twenty years, but some incidences stay with you when you've been hurt or disrespected. I was part of a bi women's support group a few years ago that initiated a combined meeting with a lesbian support group and when we arrived for the meeting a significant part of the lesbian group got up and left, refusing to have a dialogue with us at all. You can imagine how the bi women felt as we sat down for that discussion.

I've heard it said that bi people "use" the lesbian and gay community. That we sneak in and experiment with being queer or at least with having sex with lesbian and gay people, and then we run back to our "straight" lives. From my own observations in bi support groups, I know that lesbian and gay individuals have "used" bi space to help them through the often excruciating experience of breaking down internalized homophobia, recognizing their true selves, and allowing others to see them for who they really are. And I don't have a problem with that at all. Come in, have a seat, use us for whatever you need. We're in this together.

Support and coming out groups have been an important foundation for so many people's emergence into their queer identities. As a community bound by our overlapping struggles, histories, and paths to liberation, we do ourselves an injustice if we don't try to ease the common path for one another.


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The thing is... most women DO experience same-sex attractions at one point or another. I think it's only natural. But that doesn't mean you should act upon those feelings. It's just like how my married neighbor (a man) is very sexy! I'm very attracted to him, but he is married, so it would be wrong for me to act upon my feelings of lust for him.

Are all gay/bi people atheiest? Or just don't believe in the bible or something? I dont understand how some gay people can say they are Christian, when the bible clearly states that homosexuality is a perversion?

I'm NOT an "anti-gay" person. I love/respect all of God's children. I just don't understand it, and don't know where else to ask my questions.

Roxanne,

I'd be happy to answer any of your questions. You can reach me at editor@bilerico.com I'd also be happy to ask Father Tony to take up your question as his next column.

Ellyn,

Another great guest post. I'm loving the bi content. You'd better be careful or we'll wrangle you into being a full-blown contributor!

Glad to respond, Bil. Stay tuned, Roxanne.

DanaRSullivan | March 16, 2009 12:16 PM

Roxanne, I'm not the author of the post, but I can give my two cents if you want it. (My email address is also linked to this comment if you wanted to get in touch for other questions, since it's a little off topic for this blog post.) In a nutshell, many (perhaps most) people don't think that same-sex relationships are wrong, so there's no internal conflict of that sort.

There are gay/bi people of every religion, and some with no religion of course. The question of what the Bible really says about same-sex love is hashed out in hundreds of places online already, so I won't repeat it, but there's certainly not just one view on it.

Ellyn
I am sure your experience and observation is correct, in that bi gives space for people to come out, sort of in the middle. Some go on to be full blown lesbians and gay men, but as you know, there are those of us who are emotionally attracted to both men and women. In so far as religion, we would be way ahead in consciousness and world peace if Christian dieties were androgynous and sexually active, rather than "father" male with out a wife (Yahweh and Jesus) , or "virgin" female (Mother Mary).

Ellyn,
I don't know if you have had a chance to observe this, but bisexuality space is also a welcoming and accepting place for trans people. It was for me. Not only did it give me a chance to acclimate myself into queer spaces, but I learned the foundation for the activism work I have done in my life. One of the men I met while involved with BiNet AZ was someone I consider one of my mentors.

When trans people are still trying to find themselves as far as their gender is concerned, being around bisexual people helps them in the earlier stages of their transition. Many move on to consider themselves gay or lesbian, as did I, but a lot of trans people feel comfortable staying with their bisexual friends. It's tough to determine your sexual orientation when you still haven't learned to live comfortably in your new gender. I have found that bisexual people are less judgmental when it come to people discovering their true sexual orientation. You're accepted as who you are, and nothing more or less.

Monica, I'm so glad you said that. I agree with you that the bi communities I've been a part of have been very welcoming to trans people. Again, I think it is about wanting people to feel comfortable with themselves, no matter what that means to the individual.

great article! thanks!

Everyday Transperson | March 16, 2009 9:10 PM

Excellent article !!! Thanks so much for bringing the topic of inclusion to the forefront and also for sharing your experiences. I enjoyed reading this, thank you.........

This is an interesting perspective. I never thought of it that way!

My first romantic interest could have definitely lent support to the "Bi today, gay later" stereotype, because that's just what he did. But because some gay men and lesbians "use" bisexuality that way, we should be more grateful that you all are around, not less!

Paige Listerud | March 17, 2009 11:59 AM

Thank you, Ellyn, for another well thought-out article.

I have had my thinking on identity significantly expanded by "Becoming Visible: Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan," ed. Beth A Firestein.

According to their sexual identity survey, of those who currently do not identify as bisexual, 91.5% of women and 75.3% of men had identified as bi in the past. Half of all bi-identified men and women also choose alternative labels, like queer, pansexual, ambisexual, etc. One quarter of bi-identified respondents also choose lesbian and gay labels.

Perhaps I haven't gotten far enough in the book--no stats yet of how many currently bi-identified folks have once identified as lesbian or gay, another phenomenon the bi community is familiar with but the gay and lesbian communities seem little aware of. I wouldn't be surprised at much smaller numbers, but I would still like to know.

Roxanne, ". . . most women DO experience same-sex attractions at one point or another. It's only natural. But that doesn't mean that you should act upon those feelings." Are you talking about yourself, here, Roxanne? Your "male" married neighbor?

Okay, I'll back off. All I'll say is that when you fall in love, not just lust (God bless lust, by the way), then you not only want the person, you want to be with them, share with them, and do things for them, even at a sacrifice to yourself. All I can say is, good on you if they feel the same way for you, 'cause that's a rare thing and not to be passed up. Sex will only make it deeper and stronger. "For love is as strong as death," etc.

Paige,
Let us know if the book covers trans people. Thanks.

Paige Listerud | March 20, 2009 2:06 PM

Monica,
The same book has three chapters (that I have not gotten to yet) that address gender identity and some transgender issues:
"Transgender Identities and Bisexual Expression: Implications for Counselors"
"Gender Expression in Bisexual Women: Therapeutic Issues and Considerations"
"Counseling Heterosexual Spouses of Bisexual or Transgender Partners"

In terms of bi folk coming out in lesbian-gay space (especially with men), some gay men will tease men who identify as bi and say they are "in denial" or "just insecure" about being or coming out as gay. And this can be done in a way that puts pressure on folks or even feels negative. Oh, we're the same way about race, too. For example, President Obama had a white-skinned mother (her family, was in part descended from folks who came to the USA from Ireland) and a black-skinned father from Kenya. Obama is mixed race but is described as being merely "black" (sometimes by the Fox news crowd and others on the right who want to emphasize the president's "otherness" from white, WASPY, "mainstream" Americans and to make coded and oblique reference to vile, ugly racist stereotypes about black men). You certainly don't hear the president in the media being described --repeatedly-- as an Irish-American? But that is just as accurate as saying Obama is an African-American. Sexuality, like race, is not always so easily put into discrete and locked categories. I respect and celebrate diversity. I recognize the need for people with similar identities (especially people facing oppression, discrimination, and violence) to gather, support one another, form communities, develop and celebrate cultural-tribal identity. And folks bound together in communities can agitate and work for social change (power in numbers). And I don't want the world to become mono-cultural, conformist, or, God forbid, boring. I don't want to see communities lose their identities or their power to effect change. I do want the world to move into a post-exclusionary time where it is safe to be a unique individual (and not feel pressured to label one's self in tight, clubby categories where you might not be a perfect fit). If asked, I just usually tell folks I am gay which is sort of a lazy cop-out and not quite honest. Yes, I am in a committed, monogamous relationship with a man right now. But I have had sexual experiences with men and women and trans folk (who were intersex). Tell me, what gender is a person with male and female physical characteristics (for example, a person who has only made part of the surgical journey transitioning from male to female)? I dated a cop with penile hypospadias (which is understood to be a mild intersex condition). Was this policeman with hypospadias totally male or female? I love him and we are still friends. I liked his mixture of masculine and feminine. Is there a third gender? I just know that I was drawn to and intensely attracted to this other human being who was a combination of traits. I still can't and don't want to box him up and label him. His intersex characteristics made him even more intriguing and attractive to me (but our culture pathologizes folks outside of what is called "normal"). I actually feel most comfortable with designating myself as "queer" (which is a broader identity and re-appropriates a word that has been used in a pejorative manner). I have light-colored skin, blue eyes, brown hair. For purposes of identity on my U.S. Army paperwork, I am "white." Who knows for sure? What is "white"? I don't know much about one side of my family before 1920. Aren't notions of racial purity really sort of silly and outmoded? And I would be thrilled, ecstatic, to find out that I am biologically related to President Obama as opposed to finding out I am George W. Bush's distant cousin. And I don't want to be put in a racial or any other category which can separate me from other humans with, for example, different skin tones in an exclusive way. When I encounter a government form asking my race now, I write the word "human." I discussed racial and sexual identity with a friend (a guy who is mostly into women). We were laughing at the sad irony of how foes of the president label him solely as "black" (which can play on the prejudices of people who dislike or are hostile to people of color -- remember the bigoted commentary at some of the Sarah Palin rallies?). And some of the people who are to hostile same-sex attracted folks would call me a "just another fag" even though my sexuality is more complex and fluid. Can we have communities and a society where everyone is welcome, where diversity is really celebrated, and where the unique gifts of every human being are celebrated without anyone feeling "used" or pushed into a category or label that might not quite fit. We need to have gay and lesbian and bi and queer (etc.) space for reasons and purposes of safety, culture, social progression. But all of these spaces need to be, primarily, human and inclusive spaces where are all embraced and no one feels used, rejected, boxed in, or exploited. Race, gender, sexuality -- all difficult and complicated topics to write about. When I write, I think out loud. I surely don't claim to be right or have all of the answers. I hope, in my process of writing and thinking out loud, I haven't offended anyone. This is a rich discussion. Peace, Mark

as far as coming out as bi to gay men and lesbians, i knew i was hesistant because of the horror stories i've heard. overall, i didnt have to bad of experiences. at least not as bad as i thought and not as bad as the experiences i had coming out to my family.

Thank you for bring this topic up tho. There should be a space for bisexuals to grew and come out in the gay & lesbian communities.

You rock!

I am totally using this next time I'm faced with that sad argument about how bi people are "using queerspace to dabble".

And another vote for pointing out that bi-queer folks are accepting of people of every gender identity and orientation. I've seen it first hand, and it seems to me that this is what we should all be aiming at.

This is still a classic column. I know my own Bisexual Support group has functioned this way. We have had plenty of people who label themselves gay or straight come the the group, and we try to figure out what their needs are, and get them hooked up with programs at the LGBT Center that my group meets at, or other LGBT support places in the cummunity. For a LOT of people, coming to my group has been the first time they came to the LGBT Center. I am so proud of my group - not once has anyone ever said "If you are gay (or straight), why are you here?"

The same is true for people on various places on the trans continuum - everyone is welcomed.