Bisexual Forum Targets Invisibility and Bigotry
Bi’s the Largest, Least Understood Group in So-Called “LGBT Community”
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Top, L to R: Dr. Regina Reinhardt, Parker Jaynes, Genevieve Teal
Bottom, L to R: Zander Kage, Hillary Padgham, David Doane
LISTEN TO THIS EVENT!
Radio edit with intro and outro by Mark Gabrish Conlan: http://zengersmag.posterous.com/bisexual-forum-may-12-2011
Complete, unedited meeting: https://rapidshare.com/files/3202379964/Bisexual_Forum___the_Center__5_12_11.mp3
The Bisexual Forum of San Diego has existed since 1982, when Dr. Regina Reinhardt and the late Dr. Fritz Klein founded it, but neither its longevity or its status as a sponsored program of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center has guaranteed it understanding or status. After a participant in a meeting at the Center made a slighting comment about Bisexuals, the Forum’s co-chairs, Jennifer Restle and Daniel Watman, asked for permission to do a public workshop at the Center to dispel many of the common myths about bisexuality and allow Bisexuals to present their experiences directly. It took months to negotiate the details, but the workshop finally took place May 12 with Dr. Reinhardt, Restle and five other speakers addressing about 70 people in a small but well-filled room at the Center.
Restle started dispelling myths about bisexuality almost from the moment she opened her mouth, when she cited a recent report from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and said that, of the four groups referenced by the acronym “LGBT” — Lesbians, Gay men, Bisexuals and Transgender people — Bisexuals are actually the largest. The report, available online at http://calcasa.org/education/14520/
, quotes a survey in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine that indicated that 3.1 percent of Americans identify themselves as Bisexuals, versus 2.5 who identify as Gay or Lesbian. Though more men in the survey identified as Gay (4.2 percent) than Bi (2.6 percent), women were far more likely to identify as Bi (3.6 percent) than Lesbian (0.9 percent). Among adolescents in the survey, 4.9 percent identified as Bi versus only 1.0 percent as Gay or Lesbian, and women were far more likely than men to identify themselves as Bisexual (8.4 percent of women, 1.5 percent of men) or to acknowledge a sexual orientation that included same-gender partners (8.6 percent of women, 3.3 percent of men).
Other points Restle cited from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission report were that Bisexuals have a greater risk of health-related issues, including sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s), than either heterosexuals or homosexuals; that Bisexual women in relationships with non-Bisexual partners are at more risk of domestic violence than any other women; and that Bisexuals are at greater risk of suicide than either heterosexuals or homosexuals. What’s more, the report also said that — contrary to the stereotype many Gays and Lesbians have that bisexuality is merely a way station to a firm Gay or Lesbian identity (referred to in the joke, “Bi now, Gay later”) — a study of sexual-minority (Lesbian, Bisexual or “unlabeled”) women over 10 years found that “more women adopted Bisexual/unlabeled identities than relinquished them.”
Many Bisexual people describe two coming-out experiences: they start out with the same expectation of heterosexuality as everyone else, then come to grips with their same-sex attractions and self-identify as Gay or Lesbian, and finally realize that they’re attracted to people of both their own and the opposite gender and they can only be honest with and about themselves if they acknowledge that. Genevieve Teal, a panelist at the May 12 workshop, told a typical story: “I came out at 19 and dated women [exclusively] for 16 years, but I had a subtle awareness that I was attracted to men as well. It was probably about 10 years ago that I began my shift in understanding my sexuality.”
According to Teal, what propelled her out of a Lesbian identity was meeting Transgender people and finding herself attracted to them. (She also joked that she got a crush on movie star Johnny Depp, who played the cross-dressing film director Ed Wood and has projected an androgynous image in many of his films.) “As I started to meet more Trans men, I realized I was attracted to them, and later to men in general,” Teal said. “I did not identify as ‘Bisexual.’ I took up the label ‘Queer’ and would stand up when other people around me made biphobic comments. In January 2007 I got out of a recent relationship. It was time for New Year’s and my resolution was to identify certain patterns in my life and change them.”
The main pattern she wanted to change was her dating women exclusively. “I realized maybe dating women had just become a habit,” she said. “I went to a New Year’s party and made the announcement. The men cheered and the women were concerned. Later a Lesbian friend of mine said I was ‘going through a phase,’ and one woman said, ‘What are you doing, going straight?’ Two years ago, I felt I was keeping myself in the closet if I let people believe I was just attracted to women, so I took on the term ‘Bi’ for myself. Recently I came across the term ‘fluid.’ To the woman who asked me if I was going straight, I said, ‘I’m going Genevieve.’ I’m being me, and I’m just me.”
“I certainly haven’t met another Bisexual like me,” said David Doane. “I’m 74 years old and I came out in 2005. I tried passing as straight for almost 50 years. I started having sex with boys in high school. I knew very well I was attracted to males and scared of girls. It wasn’t until graduate school that something happened to me that allowed me to ask a girl out. I was married in the mid-1960’s, and that was the time when the psychological wisdom was that if you had a good marriage, all your homosexual tendencies were ‘cured.’ I lived like a lot of guys, only a lot of the people I looked at were guys. After I was divorced, it took me another 10 years to look at myself and say, ‘I’m Bi.’ That was the most liberating thing in my life.”
Other people on the panel came from unusual backgrounds that led them to avoid both the social shame facing people who acknowledge same-gender attractions and the feeling they had to choose between a heterosexual and a Gay or Lesbian identity. “My best friend’s father was one of the first people who left his wife and came out, so I grew up not knowing any better,” said Hillary Padgham. “I didn’t know my sexuality at the time. I was young and developed late. I went to college, chose women’s studies as a major and had my first Lesbian relationship. However, after leaving that community I fell back into the straight-identified community and went back to dating men, because that’s what I knew and it wasn’t a challenge. I’m currently married — platonically — to a straight man, and I’ve got involved in the LGBT community but didn’t feel at home here. I’ve heard young women saying, ‘I hate Bisexuals. They always go back to men. I’m not altogether comfortable with the ‘Bisexual’ label. I like ‘pansexual’ and maybe I’ll embrace ‘fluid’ one day.”
One of the problems facing Bisexuals is the lack of comfortable language to describe alternatives to being straight, Gay or Lesbian. (Some writers use the term “monosexual” as the opposite to “Bisexual.”) The San Francisco report argued that many Bisexuals don’t like the fact that the term contains the word “sexual” (which was also one reason why most exclusively same-sex attracted people long ago abandoned the term “homosexual” in favor of “Gay” or “Lesbian”) and therefore it’s not a word they feel comfortable using, especially around children. Restle rattled off a list of alternatives to “Bisexual” some people in the Bi community use — “fluid, Queer, omnisexual, pansexual” — and added that some Bi’s don’t like to label their sexuality at all. Many Bisexuals make statements like, “I fall in love with a person, not a gender.” Restle also said that younger people in the community are less likely to want to label their sexuality at all. “We don’t have any language to cover Bisexual issues, but the good news is we don’t care,” Restle said.
Parker Jaynes, a “currently unemployed child-care provider” and the youngest member of the panel, had a background that, like Hillary’s, at once protected him against anti-Queer prejudices and led him to reject conventional labels for himself. He said his mother is also Bisexual, and “when I point her out to friends, I say, ‘See that man over there? That’s my mom!’” He said he “came into the world so un-repressed I didn’t know what the word ‘Gay’ meant until I was eight or nine, and I had no idea that ‘Gay’ was considered abnormal.” He also raised the Bisexual version of the tree-in-the-forest question — whether you can still call yourself Bisexual if you stay with one person throughout your life — and said yes, you still count as Bisexual if you’re attracted to both genders whether or not you act on that attraction.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘Bisexual community,’” Parker said. “You’re a different person in different environments. To me, it’s not about the physical attraction as such — you rub it, it works — but about the traits you love. I’ve been accused of being straight because I date more women than men. If I take a woman to a movie I’m probably paying for her ticket. In a Gay relationship there aren’t any social expectations. … I like being visible, but it’s a very different pigeonhole. When I came out as Bisexual in high school, the girls treated me as their Gay best friend.”
Zander Kage, female-to-male Transgender person as well as Bisexual, said, “I spent the first 39 years of my life as a female and I was involved in Lesbian relationships for 19 years. My first relationship was with a boy and I asked him out, Sadie Hawkins-style. But then I went down the wrong path, became a juvenile delinquent and was put into an all-girls’ center from 13 to 15. I was developing my sexuality in the company of girls, so I became involved with girls, and when I got out, I didn’t know how to be around boys. But it never left me that I was attracted to males. Then I got involved in the Lesbian separatist movement in L.A., and even being friendly to males was frowned upon.”
While he says he doesn’t “identify as a Lesbian anymore” — not too surprisingly, since he has a moustache and full beard, along with thinning scalp hair, and presents as a short, stocky man — Zander said he’s “still in a relationship with the woman I was with before I transitioned. We’re legally married, but people perceive us as ‘straight’ and me as a straight white man. I had a lot of empathy for men, but as I began the transition process I started noticing men. I wondered if I wanted to be like them or I was attracted to them.” He added that “the word ‘Bi’ is foreign to me and negates gender-Queerness,” and that Bisexual and Transgender people “have a lot in common” — including being the victims of prejudice from Gay and Lesbian people.
One of the sources of that prejudice, as Zander pointed out, is that the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people challenges the notion many Gays and Lesbians have that their sexual orientation was fixed at birth and nothing could change it. “When I was in the Lesbian community, I was a separatist feminist and any attraction to men was to be suppressed,” he said. “When I transitioned, I asked myself, ‘If I could change that about me, what else can I change?’ I know a lot of Trans people who question a lot about themselves. It can be confusing to other people — and to me — but what’s wrong with being confused? I’m just living it out.” Zander said one of his best friends in the Lesbian separatist community transitioned five years before he did, and is now a man who dates men. He also said his wife “was understanding, accepting and encouraging me to go out with men. I’m not doing that any longer, but I still can.”
“Most of my friends are Gay men and Lesbians,” said Padgham. “My friends tend to be in the same circle. I was at a bonfire with some cool Lesbians and donned my rainbow attire, and one woman said, ‘You want to be Gay so bad.’ I didn’t say anything, but in the past I would have said something like, ‘I’ll have intimate relationships with men and I’m not a ‘Lesbian,’ I’m not fighting the ‘cause.’ I just want to be me.”
“One of the myths about Bisexuals is that ‘they cannot be faithful,’” said Dr. Reinhardt, whose presentation focused mostly on her co-founding the Journal of Bisexuality with the late Dr. Klein and educating academics about Bisexual issues. “A lot of people have more than one partner,” she explained. “We can have meaningful relationships. We can be in love with one person.”
As far as the notion that people are “born that way” — that their sexual orientations and gender identities are fixed at birth and can’t change thereafter — Bailey, a Bisexual Forum member, said, “We’re not all born with blue eyes. It doesn’t make sense to me that we’re all born with this one thing.” Restle added that some children who hate the taste of broccoli grow up to be adults who love it.
Doane mentioned the so-called “Klein grid,” a scale created by the late Dr. Klein to help people measure where they fit on the continuum of possible sexual orientations. In the 1940’s, as part of his pioneering research on human sexuality, Dr. Alfred Kinsey developed a straight-line scale in which zero was completely heterosexual and six was completely homosexual, with points in between to indicate attractions to both same-gender and opposite-gender partners. Dr. Klein turned Kinsey’s flat line into a series of 21 boxes, available online at http://kleingridonline.com/
, which asks you to rate your attractions, behaviors, fantasies, emotional preferences, social preferences, lifestyle preferences and self-identification over time: in your past (up to a year ago), present (last 12 months) and ideal (what you would like).
“There is a lot of space there,” Doane said of the Klein grid. “A lot of people have more tendencies towards being Bisexual than actually are. The 2’s may play at being straight, and the 6’s may claim to be Gay not to rock the boat, but there are probably a lot more people who are in some sense ‘Bi’ than will admit it.”