Bisexuals and their Laptops: Bisexuality contextualized in a lost queer history

The AL&HL logo includes the following title. Bisexuals and their laptops: bisexuality contextualized in a lost queer history.

Welcome to AH&HL’s third annual guest-post series for Bisexual Awareness Week! The “Bisexuals and their Laptops” series aims to share a diverse set of bisexual stories, histories, and celebrations. This post is by bisexual trans writer, Logan Fenner (he/him). Read all identity posts.

Author’s Note: I have included a glossary of terms at the end of this piece for the accessibility of those who may not be as familiar with queer terminology.

Like many queer millennials, I was imperfectly radicalized into sex positivity and queerness by early 2010s Tumblr, which is to say that my first foray into learning about queerness wasn’t through engaging with historical texts or listening to an older gay family member or taking a gender studies class at my local community college. It was through peer interaction on a safe platform: conversations, memes and jokes, heart-to-hearts, info posts; all kinds of content from people who were around the same age, all trying to figure ourselves out together. Not having any outside input from people who were older and wiser had its pros and cons: we could make our own rules and dispense with ones that didn’t serve us, but every now and then someone would come up with something that blatantly excluded a particular identity or experience, and it was up to us individually to decide if we accepted or rejected those ideas.

Bisexuality was a common topic for these conversations. Bisexual erasure was (and continues to be) a problem in the outside world, and within this insular community there was concern that it might exclude trans people and reinforce a gender binary. In the late 2000s, pansexuality rose from those concerns, a polysexual identity that is specifically intended to encompass any and all gender identities, but as noted by scholar and activist Shiri Eisner in her book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, “the allegations of binarism have little to do with bisexuality’s actual attributes or bisexual people’s behavior in real life.” She suggests that the allegations are a political attempt to further divide queer community by putting walls between trans people and cis bisexuals. Without any elders to guide us, any knowledge of our heritage to educate us, this was deemed an appropriate path. Today, the differences between bisexual and pansexual are only valid on an individual level; anyone claiming to know the “real/true difference” is worthy of suspicion.

My experience being a bisexual trans person and being told that these labels were at odds with each other pushed me to learn more about our history. The rise of the fascist Right in the last eighty years, the AIDS crisis and subsequent malicious mismanagement that murdered swaths of people who would be our elders and teachers today, and white supremacy and good old American Puritanism have led to at least two generations of young queer people who are entirely disconnected from their heritage. Understanding the specifics of early modern queer history, the Gay Liberation movement, and the AIDS crisis requires far more research to find than the average person is willing to do.

Anything from before the 21st century (and even some since then) is subject to erasure and rewriting by both cishet ideas of what acceptable queers look like, and by cis gays and lesbians who are willing to sell out their community members with more esoteric identities in order to be more palatable to the heterosexual lens. It takes some perspective and a good eye to see past the places we have been patched over; the sorts of people whose legacies have survived are nearly all artists and writers who have created works easily digestible by cishets. Only within the past 15 years have the names of the Black trans women who fought at Stonewall in 1969 been made more broadly known.

Bisexuals were an important part of these historic moments. They had their own movement, the National Bisexual Liberation Group. A bisexual activist, Bill Beasely, organized the first Pride march in Los Angeles in 1972. The first successful gay rights ordinance put to a public vote was co-authored by bisexual psychologist Alan Rockway, who then helmed a boycott that led to the cancellation of Anita Bryant’s promotional contract with the Florida Citrus Commission. (This sounds trivial; it was a huge deal. In the summer and fall of 1977, you couldn’t get a teaspoon of orange juice anywhere in San Francisco. Bars nationwide poured it out and stopped buying it. Queer liberation singlehandedly dried up one of the state of Florida’s biggest exports, all because of its viciously anti-gay spokeswoman.) And when the AIDS crisis started, bisexual activists of all genders played pivotal supporting roles, including fighting to get women, trans people, and bisexual men recognized by public health departments in their reports on the crisis.

But their stories are lost, and a good amount of digging is required to find anything about them at all. Contemporary bisexuals have very few role models or examples of representation to look to. Historical bisexuality is erased left and right, leaving us bereft and unknown, a “modern” identity. We are not taught that people like Alexander the Great, Walt Whitman, and Oscar Wilde had bisexual traits, because as men their sexual relations with other men were so scandalous (Wilde was incarcerated for “homosexual activity”) that it overshadows their eager and willing relations with women; they are gay icons. And on the flip side, bisexual people like Cary Grant, James Dean, and Katharine Hepburn are seen as straight because the stringent censorship rules in Hollywood in the time of the Hays Code (and the tremendous suppression of anything deviant in postwar years) meant that evidence they were anything but perfectly heterosexual would mean the end of their careers – the stories of queer classic film stars can only be pieced together after the fact.

From a historical perspective, it is important to understand that ethics prohibits ascribing specific labels of sexuality or trans status to certain historical figures, because cultural understandings of gender and sexuality vary widely between eras and geographic location. The nuance that is often missed, however, is that while we cannot ethically declare a historical figure to be bisexual, we also cannot ethically declare them to be straight. Study, research, and educated speculation can only go so far; the historian cannot escape the ideals of their own point in history (hence, my use of “bisexual traits” in the preceding paragraph). In this way, “queer” is a helpful word for historians because it allows them to say, “this person’s preferences and behavior lie outside the standards of contemporary heterosexuality and/or gender expression.”

The first known use of “bisexual” as a sexual orientation was in 1892 in an English translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, and before that, it had been used since 1877 to indicate what we would call genderfluidity, or, less often, intersex. But a word appearing in writing doesn’t mean it was in common use, and it didn’t really catch on until queer movements began to flare in the mid-20th century.

The argument for exclusion is an old and oft-repeated one. It can be traced back to TERFs almost without exception – the core of TERF rhetoric is built on gatekeeping. The recent advent of the idea that “queer” is derogatory came from TERF ideology with the specific intent to exclude trans, nonbinary, and intersex people from non-heterosexual community, and later co-opted by cis gay people to further exclude bisexual, pansexual, and asexual people. Taking an umbrella term like queer that simply means “not allo-cishet,” the only word that covers everyone, and telling a community of young people that it’s a bad word is a very convenient way to cherrypick who is and isn’t allowed in the club. It’s tragic to watch, especially because a lot of young queer people, looking for guidance and answers, will fall for TERF dogwhistles and perpetuate them in their own circles.

The exclusion and subsequent erasure of specific identities from queer discourse and community alters the way we see our own history. “Queer is a slur” is just the latest in a long line of attempts to rewrite queer history to appear more white, more cisgender, more monosexual, more appealing to cishets. Holding and believing in it is an embarrassing admission of prejudice and willful ignorance. In the words of Ian of Innuendo Studio,

‘Queer is a slur’ is saying ‘I am offended by people who do not conform to traditional gender or sexual identities because they are not sexually available to me or validate my personal identity.’

By allowing TERFs free rein in our spaces, by not shutting them and their harmful ideas down immediately, we indirectly consent to our own disempowerment and removal from our history. As long as there are people who believe queerness is harmful, there will be derogatory terms for us. Even “straight” comes from the Biblical “on the straight and narrow path,” or good and moral, opposite to “bent,” which has been a common disparaging word for gay people in the UK since the 1950s. If we prevent each other from claiming words that have been used against us, we don’t have any words left. And yes, that includes “gay.”

All of this opposition and invisibility means that we should claim and celebrate every victory, learn our history, and keep practicing radical acceptance of ourselves and each other. My own journey became dramatically easier when I stopped trying to be a trans person the way I thought trans people were supposed to be, and started believing that because I am trans, whatever way I am is a way that trans people are. The more unapologetic we are, the more we lift up each other and other marginalized groups, the more likely we are to be able to enact real change.

Logan is a queer fantasy and flash fiction writer from the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys hand embroidery, stagecraft, and forest adventures. He is also a freelance copyeditor and sensitivity reader, and can usually be found backstage. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, and WordPress. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sending Logan a few bucks on PayPal.

Allosexual

Capable of experiencing sexual attraction, i.e. not asexual.

Asexual, or Ace

Person who is incapable of experiencing sexual attraction. This term encompasses the asexual spectrum, including demisexual and gray-ace, and does not make any assumptions about the sexual habits or behavior of people who identify with it.

Bisexual

Person who is sexually attracted to two or more genders. These genders do not have to be male and female.

Cisgender

Person who identifies 100% with the gender they were assigned at birth; or, not trans.

Gay

  1. Person who is exclusively attracted to people whose gender is the same as theirs; homosexual. 2. Umbrella term used to describe all people who are not heterosexual.

Heterosexual

Binary person who is exclusively sexually attracted to binary people whose gender is different from theirs.

Intersex

Person whose genitalia formed atypically in the womb. Sometimes it is noticeable at birth and doctors perform invasive and largely unnecessary corrective surgeries on newborns to make their genitals look more typical; other times it is entirely invisible and some intersex people are adults before they find out, if they ever do. The opposite of intersex is dyadic, people whose genitalia formed in a typical way.

Lesbian

Woman or femme-aligned person who is exclusively attracted to other women or femme-aligned people. See also sapphic.

Nonbinary

Umbrella term used to describe trans people who do not identify 100% with a binary gender. This term encompasses gender identities such as agender (no gender), two-spirit (specifically Indigenous), demi genders (demiboy or demigirl, identifying in part with a binary gender), and fluid or flux genders (genders that change in specific ways), etc. Important to note that “nonbinary” is not a monolithic third gender, and nonbinary people experience and express their gender in different ways.

Pansexual

Person who is capable of being sexually attracted to people of any gender.

Polysexual

Umbrella term used to describe people who are sexually attracted to two or more genders. Encompasses bisexual and pansexual, primarily. Opposite of monosexual, meaning attraction to a single gender, as in heterosexual and homosexual.

Queer

Umbrella term used to describe people who are not cisgender, people who are not heterosexual, and people who are not on the asexual spectrum.

TERF

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Subset of radical feminists, or radfems; person who believes gender is determined by birth assignment. Known for being violent to trans people, and to cis people who don’t perform their gender the way the TERF thinks they should.

Transgender

Person who does not identify 100% with the gender they were assigned at birth. Umbrella term used to describe both binary and nonbinary genders, though not every nonbinary person chooses to claim this term.

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