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Re-Valuing the Bi Identity:

Not Just Another Clueless Cosmo Column

by Kevin McCulloch

Early in April, as the Fifth International Conference on Bisexuality was winding down, a few conference-addled attendees crowded into a small room at Harvard University to hear from one last panel. The three-day conference, which attracted more than 900 people, had featured plenty of organizing and debate. But this time the question on the table was key, the kind of First Principle that, if asked and answered, creates a framework for everything that follows: Should the bisexual movement be part of the gay and lesbian movement, or should it be a separate movement unto itself?

Good question. The conference -- possibly the largest-ever gathering of bisexuals -- was itself the latest evidence that there actually is a bisexual movement, and a vibrant one at that. Workshops on S/M, parenting, spirituality, filmmaking, multiculturalism, and transgender concerns reflected the diversity in attendance. With such a tangible community, the panelists' question was clearly justified. Either the bisexual identity is well-served through an allegiance with gay and lesbian groups, they argued, or it is not.

I value honesty and communication more than sexual orientation.

By approaching the question this way, the panelists missed the real question: Why should we assume that the identity which is the basis of the gay and lesbian movement should be the basis of ours as well? It is an approach that bisexuals can easily imitate. We often assert our identity ("We're here, too, and we have the hots for both men and women"). We insist that our identity is firm ("It's no phase!"). Sometimes we even insist that we have no choice ("We've got the hots for men and women, damn it! We just can't help it").

In defaulting to these arguments, however, we ignore the full potential of our fluid sexuality. Bisexuality opens up possibilities for love and sex that won't fit easily into an unconsidered lifestyle. If attraction isn't about dicks and titties but about what happens on a case-by-case basis, then it's up to us to take the confused jumble of affections, predilections and hubba-hubbas that make up our sexual sensibilities, and do with them what we will. It's not that we can't claim that our identity is firm and fast, or (God forbid) beyond our control. But why should we?

What attracts me most to the bisexual community is not sexual identity, but my respect for the honesty and openness I find there. More than anywhere else, I encounter people who understand the value of knowing yourself well, realizing why you choose what you do, and of making those choices openly. The bisexuals who impress me most are not pioneers of sexual identity but communication, whether the topic is safer sex, non-monogamy, or the flux and sense of adventure that accompanies their changing lives.

I value honesty and communication more than sexual orientation. As a movement, we will do ourselves a favor if we speak from our values instead of cowering under the label "bisexual". Agreeing on values is difficult, but I believe that we do share them. I'd guess that a short list would include a commitment to clarity and honesty in our sexual relations; openness to the mystery of sexual attraction; respect for the self-awareness that comes from safe and comfortable exploration; concern that children be wanted, loved, and supported; and a recognition that we do not always know what is right or wrong for a given person in a given situation, but that together we can clarify the real issues and work to understand them.

Any group of people committed to the above would have to seriously consider all the barriers -- not just homophobia -- that prevent people of all sexual orientations from making healthy choices. We would have to discuss planned parenthood and social support for women and children living in poverty. We would have to question corporate responsibility, labor rights and quality of life for part-time and contract workers who are trying to make responsible choices about families. We would have to recognize that one size does not fit all families, and take seriously the need to support a broad range of choices, including same-sex and opposite-sex pairings, monogamy and non-monogamy.

In other words, we would gain a common purpose more meaningful than the inclusion of "bisexual" on the pride banner. We would also avoid the risk of identity-blinded mistakes, such as lobbying for gays in the military without ever questioning the value of the military or its place in society.

There is no doubt that continued work around our bisexual identity will help those who use the label feel recognized and valued. But a serious effort to clarify our vision of sexual honesty and responsibility could be our contribution to the larger discussion, not just among ourselves but for everybody. The divorce rate, the proliferation of self-help books, and clueless advice columns in Cosmopolitan are all evidence of the sheer number of people who may never walk on the wild side of gender or sexuality but are in desperate need of a little "know thyself" common sense. We have it, and we should speak from it.

Kevin McCulloch is Reviews Editor for Anything That Moves.

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