I've been worrying about my sexual orientation lately, which is nothing new.
I have several different Kinsey ratings, and even more on the Klein scale.1 Any sex therapist would tell me in an instant that I'm bisexual, but I'm not sure what that means. A lot of bisexuals I know seem straight, others gay, and some you can't tell -- are they the real ones? It seems somehow important to have a sexual orientation, and when I meet people who question this I explain it in terms of having a community, a culture and outlook shared with others. Yes, I know Foucault2 says there was a time before the concept of sexual orientation was invented, and presumably no one had one then. But we have them now, identities based on the genders of those we love and desire, and they're useful, like knowing whether a new acquaintance is a Scorpio or a Democrat. Further, our sexual orientation serves to affirm us in our sexuality, something I certainly want to have affirmed.
Before I became sexual with women, I was worried about calling myself bisexual. Now I'm worried because it seems so imprecise. I deal with it by saying "lesbian-identified bisexual" (or, when I'm feeling perverse, "faggot-identified lesbian"), but then almost no one understands.
I want to be able to express the truths of my life, and my sexuality, in a language that does not obscure. The word choices available now restrict me. I am not tolerant of these restrictions, of a worldview that consigns dissidents to limbo. I want some place to belong, a name to be called.
At sixteen, I went to Germany as an exchange student, in flight from a precocious affair -- a man twice my age with a wife and kids to boot. So I left town to spend my days at a girls' school and my nights under curfew. By the time I left Germany I had fallen for a wild, cat-eyed young woman who looked like she never slept at home, a baby-dyke who tutored me in French, my boyfriend's sister, a woman I saw on the bus every day, and a schoolteacher from England who befriended me.
Back home, too, none of my schoolmates was safe from my gaze. I already knew about eroticizing difference -- that was what having crushes on boys was all about -- but nothing prepared me for the impact of this difference-in-sameness. Instinctively I knew the territory I had entered. I did not say a word to anyone about the tumult in my heart -- until a new teacher came to town, a gay man. He gave me the education of an old-style faggot, complete with stacks of Oscar Wilde and vintage male erotica. It was enough to confuse, but not deter me, in my nascent lesbianism, enough too to forever bond me to gay men. The erotica turned me on wildly, as did he, in a way other men never had; there was that sameness-in-difference again, in a wholly new way. I could almost forget his gender in the precious community of two we formed in that tiny town.
I went away to college and fell in love with a beautiful young woman. I told her I loved her; I was coming out. She was pleased to have the attention, as long as I continued to fuck men and didn't make sexual demands on her (that was no problem; I didn't know how to make sexual demands). She said she knew she would be very happy with me, if only I were a man. But the kisses she deigned to give me had a stronger effect than even Oscar Wilde: holding her, kissing her with more passion than I'd known was in me, yearning to make love to her (she never allowed it), my instincts told me I had every skill I needed to see her arch back and cry out. I knew I had lesbian blood.
So why did I continue to fuck men? For fun, for one thing -- for the near effortless heat of it. And it was always easier than contending with the immobilizing passion for women I hadn't yet learned to express or control.
I joined a bisexual women's group. The only woman I felt close to there was a lesbian. I took a gay studies class and got a little support for my bisexuality, and a lot of support for getting past it--"a phase" I was going through. It was the beginning of the end of the stars in my eyes, a furtherance of all the confusion. I helped start a group for gay teens and fell in love with a new roommate, whose relationship with me was a blip on an otherwise very heterosexual life-path; our sexual relationship was much, much briefer than our time together. More confusion: maybe I wasn't cut out to be a lesbian after all, in spite of the passion I felt.
For more than two years, when I had sex at all, it was with sweet young faggots, on the sly. When I talked about bisexuality, the boys laughed nervously. It hardly seemed worth pursuing in light of the everyday gay dramas facing us: teens thrown out of their homes, dumped by their older lovers, an occasional suicide attempt -- or occasional success. The stolen kisses were an expression of our community and our love for each other, even if we felt we had to downplay them... and they were at least as illicit as the fantasy kisses of girls' school, for I was internalizing a new set of mores, the rules of a world where girls don't kiss boys.
The confusion increased when I finally found a real lesbian to love. We made love wildly for some years; we both had other lovers, and I even brought out a woman or two.
And I still fucked men. Sporadically, to be sure--"Once every couple of years, just to remind myself what it's like"--and, amazingly, the more comfortable I became with being a dyke, the more fun I had having sex with men!
My lover was liberal. "You're not bisexual," she'd assure me, "you're just a lesbian who sometimes sleeps with men." The rest of our community, I knew, would not be so understanding -- I had a fetching crew cut, wore jeans and tank tops, and didn't shave; I was passing, but my secret escapades would get me in as much trouble in my lesbian world as I'd find if I could time-travel, lesbian blood hot, back to my old girls' school. I had to face it: I was just a pervert. I began to take a certain pleasure in it.
It is abundantly clear to the traditional dyke, as it was to medieval church fathers, that the seed of all insurrection lies in the femme. I bought my first brassiere in thirteen years. I grew my hair; I wore skirts; I put on lipstick. The white lace that I'd squirreled away for my lover's delectation when we did (of course!) schoolgirl scenes began appearing in public. I mixed it with leather. My lovers began to get nervous. I hoped to become so outré that no one would notice, or care, what I did.
First, of course, I had to get over the fact that I cared; that I was rebelling against the lesbian and gay community's rules, risking being thrown out of my heart's home, for being different. I'd been a gay community leader for some time, one of few publicly gay faces in my small city, and I was worried about being caught in bed with a faggot (or worse!). The only thing a queer can do in the face of fear of exposure, of course, is come out. Yet I moved toward that self-empowerment slowly, and with more fear than I'd ever felt leaving the dysfunctional heterosexual fold fraught with danger, games, and outmoded roles. The worst of it was -- I didn't know if I had a place to come out to.
I do know that I am not alone, and that's why I tell my story. We are not divided into straight and gay peoples. Visualize Kinsey's famous het-homo continuum. Bisexuality begins the minute we step off the Zero, heterosexual end. We don't hit unambiguous dry land again until we get to Six, at the other side of the ocean, where gold-star gays and lesbians dwell. Some of us, to be sure, swim right to it. For the rest of us, perhaps the journey, not the destination, is the thing.
I hate hearing "You just can't make up your mind." I make a decision each time I have sex. I choose to honor the purr in my cunt that says "Gimme." I choose the thrill of attraction and the promise of pleasure, the clit, the cock, the fire in the eyes.
My partner now is a gay man, and no, Mom, we're not just friends. A dyke and a faggot being lovers -- is that a gay relationship? But when people ask me if I'm bisexual I still jump -- ridiculously, like the "straight" men my partner picks up because they want to get fucked.
I've been thinking about this stuff constantly for fifteen years. Nobody makes it easy; I belong to and identify with a community whose values were forged in reaction to homophobic fire -- a community that, finally, could proclaim, "Gay is good," but that found bisexuality too difficult, too close to heterosexuality, too confusing to embrace. The bisexuals huddle nervously in the middle, like kids listening to their parents (the gays and the straights) fight. We protest -- we're basically all the same, sex is really just sex, doesn't much matter with whom -- a little utopian choir in a war zone.
But utopia is not at hand; the war goes on. Many bisexually identified people I meet now that I've moved to the big city have a limited understanding of homophobia, coming as they often do from a place of expanding on a heterosexual identity. I rarely feel at home with them. It is the bisexual people who have carved out a home within the gay world, who understand homophobia and have stood up to heterophobia, who seem to be my people.
To address biphobia we have to be able to analyze both homo- and heterophobia first. We have to realize that gay people have had to thrash and fight to escape a mold that didn't fit, and that many remain defensive about it, full of fear and anger.
We must also realize that to homophobic straights, queer is queer. They're right! Proximity to a cock doesn't undo what I know as a lesbian, doesn't make me one iota less subversive, doesn't even dilute my lesbian blood. Far from trying to tell anyone that the New Age is here right now and we're all just alike, I use my bisexual wits to cross boundaries, crack codes, and bring back a store of secret information that society would like to use to keep us all in thrall. We won't have a chance at overcoming the barriers we were born into -- female-male, gay-straight, class, color -- without this kind of knowledge.
It is the queer in me that empowers -- that lets me see those lines and burn to cross them; that lets me question the lies we all were told about who women are, who men are, how we may properly interact... what nice girls do and don't do. The queer in all of us clamors for pleasure and change, will not be tamed or regulated, wants a say in the creation of a new reality.
Gazing at my classmates in the girls' school, desire and objectification mingling with identity, was just the beginning of a way of looking at the world for which none of my culture's teachings left me truly prepared; the heterosexual requirement that the Other is the love object went out the window. The fluidity of roles in relationships with women raised another question: why not take this information, this way of being, into connections with men? Who made the rules that we shouldn't? Why should we, who have other experiences to draw on, play by those rules? Lesbian-feminist assumptions about who women are and how we may behave make sense to me, but I don't see myself engaging in heterosexual relationships even when my lover is a man. Conversely, I don't buy the mythology that men are just too different to relate to intimately, since that suggests a "men-and-women-are-opposites" dialectic that seems heterosexual to me. All our differences and similarities are vast and rich -- their interplay is the fabric of all relating. It's hard to invent rules out of such complexity; we improvise as we learn about each other.
I want to honor and share our emerging secrets. If a bisexual community can form with no need to define itself in relation to its "opposite," perhaps there I will have my coming-out place. Until then, home is not a place, but a process.
1. Both scales are used to rate sexual behavior and orientation along a range, from heterosexual to homosexual.
2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, New York: Random House, 1978.
This post is excerpted from the soon to be released 25th anniversary edition of "Bi Any Other Name: Bi People Speak Out" and is available here.
Carol Queen PhD [www.carolqueen.com] is staff sexologist and Company Historian at Good Vibrations, the women-founded sex shop, where she has worked since 1990, and co-founder of the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco. A noted writer and cultural sexologist whose work has been widely published, she's written or edited several books, notably The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone, Pomosexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture.