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Drawing the Line:
Bisexual Women in the Lesbian Community
Drawing the Line:
Bisexual Women in the Lesbian Community
by Greta Christina
Over the last several years, the lesbian community has expanded its
boundaries and definitions dramatically. Remember how it used to be?
You weren't a "real" lesbian if you: used dildos, slept around, wore
heels and make-up, did S/M, dug Miami Vice, weren't in a long-term
relationship and didn't want to be, liked porn, fucked strangers, or
thought Mick Jagger was cool and Holly Near was a geek. Along with our
great increases in self-acceptance (and the somewhat meager increases in
acceptance by straight society) has come greater flexibility, a rejoicing
in diversity that wasn't around 15 years ago.
But lines continue to be drawn, and walls built on those lines. Suburban
lesbians with kids and dogs and pastel sweaters and station wagons are
considered highly suspicious, not really "committed to the community."
Any divergence from the political party line is often seen as treason at
best and latent heterosexuality at worst. Some of the old taboos are
still being battled over -- read the letters to On Our Backs that bitch
about how hetero it is to show women who like to get fucked. And even
though we're beginning to accept masculinity enough to deal with butches
and dildos, the line is still drawn firmly and solidly at bisexuality.
"They're not really one of us." Why is that?
The issue of identity, labels, definitions, is crucial to most
individuals and cultures, and perhaps even more crucial for
countercultures. Figuring out who we are is largely a process of
elimination: we often find out who we are by finding out what we aren't.
Many lesbians and gays first figure out their preference when they
realize that they're "not like everyone else." And the gay and lesbian
community is at least partly defined by exclusion -- we are the ones who
are not straight. There comes a point, though, when the label that frees
us from one box can propel us into another. If the line between two
worlds, stepped over with so much fear and anticipation, becomes a
prison, jealously guarded against all intrusion and contamination and
doubt, then its usefulness must be questioned.
So maybe a better question is, not why draw the line at bisexuality, but
why draw the line at all?
The very existence of bisexuality is, on some level, extremely
threatening to gay identity. To acknowledge bisexuality means to accept
blurring some definitions, questioning some labels. When you ask "What
is a bisexual?" and start exploring the wide range of possible answers,
it automatically begs the question,"What is a lesbian?"
Look at it. For me, being bi means I mostly like to fuck women, and I
also like to fuck men. For Joan, it means that she's attracted to both
men and women, regardless of who she is or isn't humping. For Sandra, it
means that she only gets serious about women, but is willing to fuck men
for fun as well. Marta, who's been monogamously married to a man for some
time, says she's bi because she's been involved with women in the past
and is still attracted to them. Rachel, on the other hand, is sexual
almost entirely with women, but occasionally likes to tie men up and
dominate them -- she also calls herself bi. The key factor can be who
you're attracted to, who you're willing to sleep with, who you're
actually screwing, who you fall in love with. And the key factor is
different for each woman. It's very hard to pin down.
But when you think about this, you realize that it's just as hard to pin down what it means to be a lesbian. Is a lesbian: a woman who only fucks
other women? That would include bi women who're monogamously involved with other women. A woman who doesn't fuck men? That would include celibate straight women. A woman who would never get seriously involved with men? Rules out lesbians who've been married in the past. A woman who never has sexual thoughts about men? That excludes dykes who are into heavy and complex gender play, who get off on gay men's porn, or who are maybe just curious. Do you have to be 100% directed at women and away from men in thought, feeling, word, and deed from birth to death to qualify as a "real" lesbian? That would rule out all but about two women
on the planet. I hope they can find each other.
Therefore, if you accept bisexuality as a real and valid sexual option,
defining lesbian identity becomes an exercise in ambiguity and
imprecision rather than clarity and coherence. Since the lesbian struggle
for identity is already a formidable one in a world that defines women as
asexual and homosexuals as evil, any additional complications may seem
intolerable. Bisexuality is therefore commonly cast out, dismissed as
either wicked or non-existent.
This may be where some of the myths about bisexuals, who we are and what we do, come from. To name just a few: All bisexuals like sex with
either gender equally. We're not willing to ever do without sex with
both genders, and are therefore promiscuous by nature and unable to be
monogamous. We're bisexual because we're so uncontrollably sex-crazed
that we don't care who we fuck. Being open to sex and/or love with men
makes us unable to be seriously committed to the lesbian community. When
the going gets tough, we can always conceal our gay side and hide out in
straight society. Like psychic vampires, we suck energy out of the
women's community and pour it into the world of men. We contaminate the
women's community with the energy we get from our contact with men.
We're really lesbians in our hearts, but are too cowardly to renounce the
straight world and come out as gay. We're really just kinky straight
women, fooling with girls for weird kicks until Mr. Right comes along.
We relate to men as heterosexuals and to women as lesbians; we're
confused, fence-sitting split personalities. We're in transition from
our false identity as straight to our true identity as lesbian.
I don't intend to go through these misconceptions one by one and explain
why they're mistaken. I would simply like to point out that they all
serve the same function: to marginalize the bisexual identity as either
illusory (transitional gay or kinky straight) or as a character flaw
(promiscuous, uncommitted, cowardly, confused). They put bisexuality in
a place where it isn't taken seriously, and thus doesn't threaten the
purity of lesbian identity.
The idea of purity is a pervasive one in the community, and, I believe,
an insidious one. The notion is that, because we're all queer, we must
be essentially the same at heart with no fundamental differences, no real
diversity or vagueness of definition. This conformist ideal makes our
politics and controversy particularly divisive and vicious. It may be
why we tend to polarize ourselves into extreme lifestyle choices. Think
of all the clean and sober dykes who only see other clean and sober
dykes, crystal healers who only date other crystal healers, leather dykes
who only socialize with other leather dykes. If we feel that there's
only one right way to be queer, then seeing someone who does it
differently forces us to either condemn them as a traitor or perceive of
ourselves as failures. Perhaps this is the source of a common complaint
against bisexuality: "my girlfriend left me for a man." It seems to be
an odd grievance at first: why should it be significantly different and
worse to be left for a man than to be left for another woman? The
personal rejection may not be much different. But if someone you care
for decides that she likes men as well, it calls into question the purity
of lesbian identity. Being left for another woman is an unpleasant
personal rejection, but being left for a man can feel like a rejection of
The idea of purity keeps the community identity strong and simple and
unchanging. The idea of maturity does the same for the individual, and
is a powerful defense against the spectre of loosely defined identity.
The notion is this: you have one basic core identity, embedded in a
morass of education and peer pressure and bad upbringing. Any changes
you go through in life are simply a process of uncovering that true
nature and bringing it to fruition. One's inner nature doesn't change,
it just goes through greater or lesser degrees of being realized. Things
you did and thought ten years ago you now chalk up to youthful
inexperience. This idea is especially powerful with respect to sexual
identity. We all "know," supposedly, that sexual identity is formed very
young and remains fixed from then on; and that coming out is a process of
discovering and accepting your essential gayness and revealing it to the
world. This is where the idea of bisexuality as a transitional state
seems to come from; although the idea that, for some people,
homosexuality is a transitional state in coming out as bi isn't looked at
very often. It's very disconcerting.
There's another idea, though, that's even more disconcerting. What if
the evolution of your sexual preference and behavior -- for example,
dating men, finding you're attracted to women, deciding you're bi and
dating both, falling in love with a woman, coming out as a dyke, sleeping
only with women, then occasionally screwing men, etc. etc. -- what if
these changes don't reflect a growing and lessening perception of your
true nature, but instead reflect an actual changing self? What if your
place on the sexual spectrum isn't one tiny fixed dot, but a large and
imprecise realm? What if finding out who you are isn't something you do
once and get it over with, but something you keep doing, rediscovering,
and revealing, for the rest of your life?
Why is it so easy to think of sexual identity as a matter of discovering
which of two or three distinct and unrelated enemy camps we belong to,
and so hard to think of it as a continuum, or as several continuums, that
we move back and forth over throughout our lives?
And, perhaps the most difficult question of all, why is it so important
to find a label that fits?
The need for conformity is great in an oppressed class. Identity is so
fragile when it's constantly bombarded with assaults on its validity, and
the need for clear definitions and secure limits can be powerful. In a
deviant subculture like the lesbian community, trying to build strength
and coherence in the face of bigotry and fear, ambiguity can seem like
instability, and divergence can seem like treason. And yet, for the gay
and lesbian community, the paradox is that our strength, our very
existence, is founded on sexual liberation, on acceptance of diversity
and the breaking of boundaries. How can we demand of the straight world,
"We will love whom we choose and in the way we choose, you must accept us as we are," and then turn around and tell others in our own community,
"The way you love is misguided and wrong; we will not accept you because
you are not exactly like us." Craziness.
Acknowledging bisexuality presents a real challenge to traditional ideas
of sexual identity. The lesbian community can create a rigid and
restrictive self-definition, defending ourselves suspiciously against
intruders (and periodically purging traitors from the ranks). Or we can
accept the fluidity of a sexual continuum, subjective self-definition,
and an imprecisely defined community, and allow anyone to call herself a
dyke if she feels it's right for her.
Copyright 1990 Greta Christina. Originially published in On Our Backs.
Note: This wasn't the first piece I had published (although it was one of
the first), but it was the first to make me realize that my writing could actually change stuff. At the time I wrote it, the lesbian community was smack in the middle of the bi wars, and I can't tell you how many dykes have told me that this essay completely changed their minds on the subject. When I think about this now, I get all puffed up with big ego pride... but at the time, it just scared me shitless.