Bisexuality: identities, behaviors, and politics

Bisexuality: identities, behaviors, and politics

Trikone April 1996 issue. Do not cite without author's permission
Keywords: Bisexuality, South Asia, Diaspora, India, Identity politics, Queer


Human sexuality is indisputably complex. Terms such as homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality abstract a spectrum of feelings and experiences as rich and varied as those encompassed by such labels as 'South Asian' and 'African.' In this essay I attempt to explore some of the diversity intrinsic to bisexuality, an identity that is increasingly gaining recognition in Western society. I mention issues faced by bisexuals in the form of biphobia from straight and gay communities and share some thoughts on the relevance of bisexuality to South Asian communities, their diaspora, and their respective gay-lesbian rights movements. My focus is mostly limited to male bisexuality as this is the theme with which I am most familiar.

Who is bisexual?

The textbook definition of bisexuality as the tendency to be attracted t o both men and women seems quite straightforward. That is, till you begin to ask - what about the married man who seeks out clandestine encounters with men in Delhi's Connaught Place once a week? The 'straight' college student whose long-standing friendship with a cherished 'yaar' has just turned exquisitely sexual? The sixteen year-old virgin whose libidinous fantasies revolve around Milind Soman and Monisha Koirala in equal measure? Does predominant behavior, occasional behavior, fantasy, past experience, who-does-what-to-whom determine one's sexuality? And does it even matter?

A simple framework to interpret the complexity of sexuality is provided by the oft-cited Kinsey scales [ref 1] developed in 1948. According to Kinsey, bisexuals belong somewhere along a continuum extending from exclusive heterosexuality (0) to exclusive homosexuality (6). A score of 3 would indicate equal attraction to men and women. Importantly, these scales are constructed separately for self-identification, attraction, fantasy and behavior. This means a person could self-identify as heterosexual (Kinsey 0) but fantasize about men and women (Kinsey 1-5). A recent survey that targeted openly gay men and their families in the US [ref 2] showed a remarkable concordance between ranking on these four scales. In contrast to this scenario, disparity among rankings is to be expected when societal expectations of heterosexuality place undue pressure on otherwise-inclined individuals. An improvement on this ranking system, the grid proposed by Fritz Klein in 1980, further categorizes a Kinsey-type scale by past, present and ideal situations. The term bisexual would apply to several elements on this grid. While data on the distribution of individuals among these elements are notoriously difficult to obtain, a 1994 report of research carried out at the Harvard School of Public Health found that nearly 21% of the men and 18% of the women studied admitted to same- sex sexual attraction/behavior at some time in their li ves [ref 3].

Michael Ross, in a 1991 study of bisexuality and HIV/AIDS [ref 4], proposes a categorization defined primarily by behavior. Examples are "Defense Bisexuality" in which heterosexual activities are a defense against the stigma of homosexuality, "Situational Bisexuality" involving incidental same-sex behavior as might be found in prisons, boarding schools and by married men, and "Latin Bisexuality" in which the insertive role in a same-sex union is nevertheless regarded as heterosexual.

Quite apart from such formal categorizations of bisexuality, individuals who possess bisexual identities or inclinations have their own notions of what it means to be bi. For many, it means that gender is unimportant in their choice of persons to be attracted to. This may signify an equal attraction to men and women, even though circumstances might dictate that relationships with members of one sex are more likely to occur. For some, there is a preferred sex. For a few, 'bisexual' is a safer way to declare their same-sex orientation than 'gay' or 'lesbian', especially during early stages of the coming-out process.

There are probably as many perceptions and taxonomies of bisexuality as there are individuals claiming this identity! Indeed, social critic and Harvard professor Marjorie Garber [ref 5] questions the legitimacy of subsuming such an enormous variety of sexualities within one category, that of bisexuality. She argues that peoples' erotic lives are often so complex and unpredictable that attempts to label them are necessarily restrictive and inadequate. In her view, the fluidity of bisexuality makes it a concept beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality rather than simply a category between the two extremes. Valid though this argument may be, I find bisexual identities can be meaningful in some contexts for reasons described below.

What's in an identity?

Identities are multidimensional, con textual and dynamic entities. For sexuality- minorities, they begin at the level of an individual's acknowledgment of his/ her desires and preferences , which may or may not involve assignment of a label such as 'gay' or 'bi'. I call this self- or auto- identification, and distinguish it from allo- identification, which involves making others aware of one's identity. Allo-identification is achieved via the coming out process. Other people recognize the individual by means of the label accompanying allo-identification, or ascribe a label based on their observations of the individual's behavior. Part of the motivation for allo-identification and labeling oneself is the need to find a community of individuals who share the same identity.

Labels are most useful when they succeed in bringing together an assortment of individuals who need the numerical and moral support of each other. They are counter-productive when they foster negative stereotypes that exacerbate discrimination from those 'outside', as well as divisiveness and parochialism from those 'inside'.

Individuals who allo-identify as bisexual possess a common set of concerns that validate their existence as a community. They share with the gay community the problem of homophobia and the struggle for cultural acceptance in a heterosexually constructed society. In addition, they have their own suite of problems stemming from misperceptions and biphobia on the part of both gay and straight communities.


Because it challenges the dichotomous view of 'gay' versus 'straight' orientation, the existence of bisexuality is problematic to the agendas of heterosexists and homosexists. It is often treated as a confounding factor and therefore ignored by biologists and psychologists interested in organic causes of homosexuality. And, notwithstanding the western 'bisexual chic' of the 1970's, bisexuality generally provokes reactions from gay and straight communities that range from perplexity to discomfort to outright hostility. Common stereotypes [ref 3] about bisexuals include those of the confused heterosexual or homosexual, the opportunistic and promiscuous individual who will hit on 'anything that moves', and the vector who introduces HIV/AIDS into the heterosexual or lesbian community. A bisexual man who chooses to enter into a relationship with a woman is seen by the gay community as doing so out of the desire for heterosexual privilege, while one who finds a same-sex partner is viewed by both gay and straight communities as having really been gay all along but afraid to admit it. Far from being one who has "twice the chance of a date on Saturday night" the allo-identifying bisexual male finds himself regarded with suspicion and even dislike by many gay men and straight women. The probability - however low - that a bisexual man will desert his spouse for an individual of the sex other than that of his spouse is considered somehow more threatening than the chance of a straight man leaving his wife for another woman, or a gay man leaving his partner for another man. Ironically, despite the phobia against bi men and their sexuality, female bisexual behavior is seen by many straight men as titillating so long as it is merely a precursor for male-female sex - the 'hot bi babe' is a cliched narrative in media that panders to male heterosexual fantasy.

Bisexuality in South Asian society

How does the foregoing discussion, based largely on sexuality defined in Western space, pertain to South Asian society? It would appear that a discussion of bisexual allo-identities in the contemporary South Asian context is at best premature and at worst, irrelevant. In a society where marriage and begetting progeny are exalted as sacred duties of every individual, even many of those who are exclusively inclined towards homosexuality end up getting married: some even do so of their own volition. To quote from a recent Trikone piece [ref 6] by Mahesh, "... it doesn't matter, once those (familial) duties are fulfilled, who or what you bugger. So long as it is done discreetly and you don't talk about it". Under such circumstances, bisexual allo-identification is unlikely to catch on outside of the rarefied confines of high society within which it might conceivably be trendy to do so. The point being, if you can be with someone of the opposite sex, why on earth would you call yourself bisexual? A few individuals of 'passive' homosexual inclinations choose to join the Hijra community where they do gain an allo-identity, albeit one of a third gender.

On the other hand, the topic of bisexual behavior is inseparable from any discourse on sexuality, marriage, women's issues, public-health concerns or the human rights movements of South Asia. I am inclined to think that behaviorally defined sexuality is much more fluid there than in the west. Opportunities for homo-erotic encounters abound in this society because socialization with members of the same sex is enacted [ref 7] and anticipated in its cultures to a much greater extent than in western ones. Being straight in South Asia is not anything like being straight in the US and other western cultures. Insertive behavior is perceived as non-homosexual and non-penetrative homosexual behavior as play: the Latin bisexual [ref 4] and the South Asian bisexual are not too different in this respect!

Married men who do men on the side may lie almost anywhere on the Kinsey scales of fantasy, behavior and attraction. They may be doting fathers and dutiful husbands who just cannot do without their occasional homosexual fix. They may resort to same-sex cohabitation out of boredom or their need for sexual variety or release, while continuing or having given up engaging in intimacy with their wives. They may be exclusively homosexual in attraction, trapped in an undesirable marriage that they entere d into because getting married was the thing to do. In rare cases, they may even allo-identify to their wives as regards their same-sex attractions and realizations thereof. The gender inequity in our society gives men greater mobility and opportunity for extra-marital adventures; and at the same time places wives of these men in positions of helplessness: what passes for acceptance may be mere tolerance born of resignation. Social reform and education on issues of sex and sexuality are vital.

Married gay and bisexual men will likely be a characteristic feature of the South Asian queer landscapes for many more years to come. They may even play prominent roles in the nascent movements for gay and lesbian rights in the homeland. Countless others will, of course, remain invisible, immersed in the 'samsaara saagara' (ocean of wordly existence) that constitutes family life in South Asia.

Bisexuality in the South Asian diaspora

Some of these observations about bisexual behavior in South Asia probably hold true for the diaspora as well. However, rigid sexuality roles common in western cities can restrict the scope for same-sex behavior to people situated within the mainstream gay culture or its South Asian-flavoured counterpart. Allo-identification with the gay culture is to be found, and is rendered visible via the numerous organizations, newsletters and conferences that have sprung up within the last decade. The South Asian settled abroad is often quite preoccupied with issues of identity, located as (s)he is at the bewildering intersection of many spaces referenced by race, culture, religion and sexuality.

As for bisexual allo-identification, Sandip Roy-Chowdhury's recent account [ref 8] suggests that a few individuals within the diasporic communities are coming out of their homosexual or heterosexual closets and proclaiming their bisexual identity. This number is vanishingly small, in proportion to those allo-identifying as straight or even as gay. Why is this so? The South Asian diasporic gay identity demands a vehement rejection of the normative heterosexual allo-identity of the homeland, one that is linked to images of unhappy marriages, deception, and emotional strife. This reaction further vitiates conventional (western) stereotypes of bisexuality to produce a uniquely South Asian incarnation of biphobia. Self-identified bisexuals who see themselves as part of the movement against oppression of sexuality-minorities would rather allo-identify as gay to escape this biphobia. In doing so, they are, in effect, emerging from one closet only to enter another.

What can south Asian diasporic gay and lesbian organizations do to be more accepting of bisexual people? Of the ten based in the US and Canada that are listed in the Trikone magazine, only four include the term 'bisexual' in descriptions of their target group. I look forward to the day when we have a more inclusive queer South Asian movement, as manifested in the agendas/manifestos of these organizations, in the attrition of biphobia and in the recognition that we're all in this struggle together.

Links between the diaspora and the homeland

Historically, substantial impetus for queer activism in India and other South Asian countries has come from organizations based in Europe and North America [ref 9]. Even though the objectives of organizing among the countries of South Asia, Europe, North America are similar, there are many differences among these regions in the way organizing takes place, as Urvashi Vaid [ref 10] points out. These differences are causally related to the way ideas of sexuality are constructed across the cultures, and to how they interact with other socio-cultural mores. Arvind Kumar [ref 11] observes that the existence of married gay and bisexual men is taken for granted in the movements of the homeland, while not likely to be so regarded by the diasporic gay and lesbian pop ulation. Such differences lead me to regard with caution attempts on the part of diasporic South Asians, however well-meaning, to get overly participatory in the movements in the homeland. Viewing these endogenous movements through glasses tinted by the Western experience, it is only too easy to be judgmental and critical, and to impose a world-view that is both foreign and inappropriate. Sure, we can catalyze these movements with support, information and other resources, but let the actual reaction come from within.


see printed version


[1] Kinsey, Alfred .C., W.B. Pomeroy and C.E. Martin. 1948. Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: WB Saunders

[2] Hamer, Dean and P. Copeland. 1994. The science of desire: the search for the gay gene and the biology of behavior. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[3] Anonymous. FAQ. List of Frequency Asked Questions on the Internet group faq/usenet/bisexual/faq/faq.html

[4] Ross, Michael, W. 1991. A Taxonomy of Global Behavior. in R. Tielman, M. Carballo and A. Hendriks eds. Bisexuality and HIV/AIDS: a global perspective. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.

[5] Garber, Marjorie. 1995. Vice Versa: bisexuality and the eroticism of everyday life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[6] Mahesh. 1996. Trikone Magazine Tenth Anniversary Issue. p. 51.

[7] Khan, Shivananda. 1996. Cultural constructions of male sexualities in India. in P. Aggleton (ed.) Bisexualities and AIDS. Australi a: Taylor and Francis.

[8] Roy-Chowdhury, Sandip. 1996. The best of both worlds? South Asian bisexuals speak out. India Currents. February issue. p. B26-27.

[9] Kala, Arvind. 199?. Invisible Minority: the unknown world of the Indian homosexual. New Delhi: Dynamic Books.

[10] Vaid, Urvashi. 1996. Building bridges: thoughts on Identity and South Asian G/L/B/T Organizing. Trikone Magazine Tenth Anniversary Issue, p. 64-65.

[11] Roy, Sandip. 1996. In the beginning: an interview with Trikone founder Arvind Kumar. Trikone Magazine Tenth Anniversary Issue, p. 8.

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