Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Bi Body Politic: How are bisexuals seen in the world of politics?

The Bi Body Politic
by William Burleson

This political season, the GLBT community is being courted like never before. For example, the first-ever televised presidential debate focusing on “gay rights issues,” sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and broadcast on Logo, was held last August. All the major Democratic candidates at the time attended, debating whether civil unions went far enough, or if we need same-sex marriage.

We’ve come a long way, baby—that is, as long as the “we” being talking about is “gay” rights.

What about the bisexual community? Are all parts of the GLBT community equal partners in the fight for “gay rights”?

The transgender community understands what it means not to be an equal partner in this equation. Indeed, its treatment in the debate on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) single-handedly may have resurrected the expression “thrown under the bus.” Many gay right activists argue that if we are to expect this historic legislation guaranteeing equal rights in the workplace to pass, we’ll need to compromise. Guess who is getting “compromised.”

How, then, are bisexuals seen in the world of politics?

“They aren’t,” Diana, from Missoula, Montana, says. “I am 44 years old, and I have never once heard the word ‘bisexual’ used in political discussion on any scale above my local GLBT community group.”

For bisexuals, it is rare to be the focus of the discussion, positive or negative.

“I almost never read about the opposition singling out—even for a sentence in a long diatribe—bisexual people as evil-doers,” Joe Reilly, a bisexual activist from Spokane, Washington, states. “Even when their compatriots, like Ted Haggard and Larry Craig, were exposed as hypocrites, the thrust of media coverage focused on a ‘gay,’ label, and practically ignored the possibility of bisexuality.”

Why are bisexuals seemingly so far off the political radar screen?

One reason is that this invisibility goes beyond politics: Bisexuals rarely are on anyone’s radar screen in any context.

In “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure” (Stanford Law Review, 2000), Kenji Yoshino found, “In the period from January 1, 1990, to November 30, 1999, the Los Angeles Times had 2790 documents mentioning ‘homosexuality’ and 121 documents mentioning ‘bisexuality.’” He encountered similar ratios in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

This “erasure” of bisexuality is no accident, Yoshino suggests. He argues that a black-and-white view of sexuality is one thing many in the gay and straight communities agree on. He notes that one “interest shared by both straights and gays is an interest in knowing one’s place in the social order.” In other words, it makes life a lot easier if we would stick to “your team” and “my team,” and clearly know who’s on which.

Both the straight and gay communities have their own interests also, Yoshino observes. For example, it would be great for straight folk if they simply could prove their straightness by their performance in bed with someone of the opposite sex. Bisexuals screw this argument up. Meanwhile, bisexuality can be problematic for many gay and lesbian people, too.

Robyn Ochs, of Boston, author, longtime bisexual activist, and spouse of Peg—they were married on the first day of legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts—explains, “So much of the gay rights movement is built on the idea that sexual orientation is an innate, immutable characteristic, and that ‘we gay people are unable to help ourselves,’ and should, therefore, be given civil rights. For both homo and hetero folks, the idea of bisexuality can be deeply disturbing, because it may conjure up the specter of choice.”

All this means that no politician is going to be courting the bisexual community anytime soon.

As Diana shares, “I am legally married to a man, and also have a girlfriend as part of our open relationship. This doesn’t make me popular with any political cause. I am poster child for no one.”

While bisexuals often are forgotten, and perhaps sometimes actively ignored, left to ask is: What are the bisexual community’s issues? Are they the same as “gay rights,” or are they something different?

Lou Hoffman, who has been active in the bisexual community in Minneapolis for more than 20 years, emphasizes, “I want bi politicians to be out and proud, not hiding in airport bathrooms. I want GLBT politicians I can be proud of.”

It’s something all parts of the GLBT community probably can agree on.

In fact, it’s hard to discern issues unique to the bisexual community. That’s probably no accident: Many would argue shared political goals are one thing uniting the GLBT community.

According to HRC, “Workplace equality. Parenting rights. Health care funding. Relationship recognition. Safety from bias-motivated violence. These are among the many issues that affect the lives of GLBT people in the United States.”

Such issues not only affect us, but also unite us. GLBT people also are united by being political targets for many on the right.

As Ochs points out, “To our enemies, a little bit of lavender goes a long way, and most people who are opposed to gay rights don’t make a distinction between a lesbian, a gay man, a bisexual person, or a transgender person.”

These are the places where we are all one GLBT community. However, it appears that one area of GLBT politics is of special interest to the bisexual community: acknowledgement as full partners in the fight.

Hoffman remarks, “Same-gender marriage, nonmonogamy, safer sex—all are shared with other groups. Our big issue, I think, is that we want acceptance and inclusion, in more than just name.”


William Burleson is the author of Bi America: Myths, Truths, and Struggles of an Invisible Community (Haworth Press, 2005). Visit www.williamburleson.org.

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