What People Get Wrong About the History of Bisexuality

COllective amnesia causes us to feel like there have been no bi-people in the past. That is, until we see that bi people have been there all along, they’ve just been mislabeled or left out of the narrative. Bisexuality refers to the attraction of multiple genders sexually and/or romantically. There are many other terms that can be included within bisexuality, like omnisexual or pansexual. Although the preference of the term is the most important factor, it is sometimes driven by historical misconceptions that the bi in bisexual perpetuates a gender binary. This excludes nonbinary and trans people.

One reason why we might “forget” bisexuals is because those who are attracted to people of multiple genders rarely call themselves bi. There have been many reasons historically for bisexuality, such as wanting to be free from discrimination or stigma. Many people have held toxic beliefs about bisexuals. They are often portrayed as unfaithful and promiscuous, or in a state of confusion.

Bisexuality could lead to you being kicked out your local queer community. Bisexuality brings nuance which is easier to ignore than accept. When queer individuals were struggling for their rights and basic legal protections, gay rights groups often rejected bisexuals. In the 1970s, for example, the Gay Liberation Front (a gay-rights organization) treated bisexuals as straight and associated them with regressive political views and pushed them out.

History has never stopped historians from trying to identify queer individuals in their history. We can also find books about their histories, even though people shunned terms such as gay and lesbian. Still, it was only when I went back to university for a master’s in queer history that I realized that the absence of bisexuality in most versions of LGBTQ+ history wasn’t because there were no bi people in the past. Instead, this lack of knowledge stems from an overcompensation to compulsory heterosexuality. This has forced most Americans with gay desires to lead heterosexual relationships and sex.

One way academics dealt with the question of queer lives is to presume that anyone who felt the same-sex urges or had sex in the past was gay or lesbian. This is partly why the term bisexual is often entirely absent from historians’ writings. We are deliberately misclassifying people who have been attracted to different genders and erasing their bi history. By removing bisexual people’s past from view, we hide the fact that bisexuality is an integral part of our human experience.

These are important bihistorian figures you need to know.

What bisexuality researchers need to know

Havelock Ellis, 1859-1939 was among the first to legalize bisexual research. Ellis was born in Britain and published his book in 1927. Sex InversionHe presents many cases of bisexual individuals. There are some stereotypes that are negative, and some positive. For example, he wrote that bi women made “great religious and moral leaders.” It is these kinds of positive statements that led to the first edition of his book being ruled “obscene” in an English court because he dared to write about queer lives without condemning them. The book was published after he tried several times.

Alfred Kinsey (1994-1956) is perhaps the most well-known sex researcher. A biologist from Indiana University, Kinsey introduced nuance in the discussion about sexuality. With the Kinsey Scale, we can categorize sexuality into a number from 0-6. This ranges anywhere between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual. In his famous mid-20th century studies, he shocked the world when he found that a huge number of people (he often stated “a quarter to half”) had homosexual And heterosexual desires. He also openly criticized other researchers who assumed that people could only be either gay or straight, and spoke of the “endless intergradations” that captured the reality of people’s sexualities.

American sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey (1994 – 1956) collaborates with his staff as he prepares the final manuscript of his book “Sexual Behavior In The Human Female,” 1953.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Following in Kinsey’s footsteps, Fritz Klein (1932-2006) was a sex researcher and psychiatrist who published the book, Bisexual OptionIt was 1978. Bisexual, he founded a group of bisexual men in 1978 to support them. This practice evolved into affirmative therapy which helped many others better understand their sexuality. Klein’s Sexual Orientation Grid expands on the Kinsey Scale. Klein established the Klein Sexual Orientation Chart. Journal of BisexualityBoth the American Institute of Bisexuality (AIB) and the American Institute of Bisexuality (AIM), continue to support bi research. These institutions have provided a space for research on and writing about bisexuality.

Queer activists, including bi activists

Brenda Howard (1946-2005) was one example of a multitude of activists who have tirelessly fought for the rights to queer and bisexual people. Howard is sometimes referred to as the “mother of pride” because after the Stonewall uprising, she played a major role in organizing the first marches of LGBT+ people, which laid the foundations for global Pride marches.

Another activist who worked in some of the same groups as Howard, and continues their work today, is Lani Ka’ahumanu (born in 1943). Ka’ahumanu has been a leader of the bisexual rights movement in the U.S. since 1980. Ka’ahumanu founded several groups specifically for bisexuals, which is especially important considering the history of bisexual and gay communities. Ka’ahumanu created safe political spaces where bi people didn’t need to justify their sexuality or their inclusion. She co-founded BiPOL in 1983 as one of the nation’s first bisexual political actions groups. Later, she was the coordinator for the San Francisco Bay Area Bisexual Network. Ka’ahumanu is also a major reason why the B is included in LGBT, because of her campaigning in the leadup to the 1993 March on Washington.

Robyn Olchs (Activist) is another person who fights for bi visibility today. TimesCharles Blow is a columnist who advocates for bi visibility, including within the Black community. Kyrsten Sinema was elected as the first bisexual member of Congress in 2012.

Robyn Olchs gets to ride in a sidecar on a motorcycle from Peg Preble, at the Boston Pride Parade held June 8th 2013.

John Tlumacki—The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Most people assume that bisexuality has never existed. My expectation is that bisexual identity will grow as more people accept it. Then, there’ll be an increase in knowledge and a surge of bisexual stories from history.

People who are bisexual will eventually be able remember some of their past by uncovering untold stories, as well as retelling those tales of lesbians and gays.

Julia Shaw, a University College London criminal psychologist, is part of Queer Politics at Princeton University, which promotes LGBT+ equality, democracy and civil rights. Her involvement in bisexual research is active and she is also the founder of International Bisexual Research Group. Shaw’s latest book, Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality, is set to be released on June 28.

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