SXL 115D/ENG 101D: LGB Perspectives, Bisexuality 


SXL 115/ENG 101


PERSPECTIVES IN LESBIAN, GAY, AND BISEXUAL STUDIES

Social Construction Of 'Gay', 'Straight', 'Bi':
The Classic (1994) Discussion Over the E-Mail List "Qstudy-L"


Continuing the classic discussion (January 1998): http://www.duke.edu/web/SXL/bisexuality2.html

Return to the Syllabus


Date: Sat, 30 Jul 1994 23:15:31 -0600
From: John Beynon

Subject: Re: Social constructionism and the sodomite

Rubin and Stearns have explained the social constructionist stance beautifully, and I don't want to put this discussion to sleep quite yet. Recently I was reading selections from The Decameron and ran across some passages that indicate that the sodomite was a *sort* of person in Florentine, Renaissance Italy. In the first story of the first day (1.1), Ser Ciapelletto shuns women for "depraved" pleasures. In 5.10, Pietro di Vinciolo is a "degenerate" with certain peculiar "proclivities." His wife finds him unlike other men because he finds "women so repugnant." When he joins his wife and her young male lover for a menage a trois at the end of the tale, his wife notes "how delighted he [her husband] seemed to be holding such a good-looking boy by the hand."

In both cases, Boccaccio seems intent on describing a kind of person--an identity familiar to his audience, it seems--rather than a sort of behavior. Could we say that, in this work if not in Boccaccio's environs, there appears to exist a kind of person called the Sodomite? In other words, could an identity peculiar to 14th cent Florence have emerged from what was once a mere sinful behavior? And what relationship would this sodomite have to current sexual identities?

John.Beynon@m.cc.utah.edu
University of Utah


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Date: Sun, 31 Jul 1994 11:05:15 CDT
From: Chad C Heap

Subject: Social Constructionism--20th Century

Two recent points have been made in this net-debate which seem worthy of enlargement. First, Beynon's point that the "sodomite" existed as a type or identity in Renaissance Italy: This, it appears to me, is exactly the point of Foucault, Weeks, et al.--that it was the *sodomite* who existed as an earlier type of "sexual deviant," not the "homosexual." Though it may not be spelled out in terms of "sexuality" or "sexual identity," there is certainly room for this interpretation within a social constructionist position.

Secondly, D. Allen's point is well taken that these various historically specific "sexual" identities usually have gendered components and that their gendered construction often sets them apart from other similar identities loosely grouped around what we would now call homo*sex*ual acts. Yet here I make a distinction from Allen in insisting that the berdache, etc. cannot be simply relegated to a category of "gender identity"--for if gender, sexuality and sex can truly be separated at all, they are always very complexly and often dependently interwoven. But the gendered element of sexual identity is very important to keep in mind not only in the "pre-homosexual" period, but also in the twentieth century.

George Chauncey's recent work in _Gay New York_ (as well as his earlier article on WWI Newport, RI) strongly suggests that gender remained an important facet in the construction of U.S. working-class sexuality well into this century. His research shows that the "homosexual," as we think we know it today, was not an automatically universal creation of nineteenth-century medico-legal discourse. In fact, working-class men who played only the "active" or "masculine" role in homosexual acts with more "effeminate," "passive" men-- known at the time as "fairies"--appear to have maintained an identity as "normal" men. Provided these men occupied the "proper" gender position, their sexual activities did not alter either their self- or public perception in any way that made them distinguishable from working-class men who played an "active" role in sex with women. Given this evidence, the dating of the creation of the "homosexual," or at least its "universality," must be subjected to further scrutiny.

In my opinion, there remains a question of whether there exists any one universal homosexual identity even in our present era. Aside, perhaps, from the clone and the androgynous lesbian phases, it seems to me that lesbian/gay/queer/transgendered identities are often marked by gender and power differentials. What is one to make not only of butch/femme constructions, but of man/boy, top/bottom, "straight-acting"/"gay-acting" and/or queer, etc. (just to begin to skim the surface) identity constructions? Surely the extraordinary variance of contemporary sexual identities centered around similar homosexual acts only reinforces the strength of the social constructionist position. The "homosexual" construction, it seems to me, serves primarily as a way for the dominant society to group a variety of "sexual deviants" together--and correspondingly, for lesbian/gay/queer activists to unite (or fragment) politically (perhaps in this era some people have separate "sexual" and "politically sexual" identities?). Yes, I see similarities between myself and Boswell's more ancient fellows engaged in similar sexual acts, but we are not the same people nor do we identify identically--any more than any ancient Greek or Middle Ages Christian has the same identity as a modern Greek or Christian, respectively.

It is important, vital even, to recognize that similar (though by no means identical) sexual identity constructions have existed throughout time, documenting both sameness and *difference* and looking for the ways in which both can be used to our present-day political advantage. Yet I fear that the urge to document transhistorical homosexual identities is but a symptom of our tendency to overlook identity differences amongst lesbians and gay men today--race, class, physical (dis)ability, S/M and transgender among others (not least of which is the disparity of educational level/status/opportunity).

Chad Heap
University of Chicago
chadheap@midway.uchicago.edu


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Date: Sun, 31 Jul 1994 11:32:37 EST
From: Tim Pursell

Subject: Re: Social constructionism and the sodomite

Maybe I'm jumping into this discussion a little bit late in the game, but my understanding of one of the reasons why a modern gay/lesbian/bisexual identity is seen as different from the past is its self-aware description. Aside from how society may "construct" the identity of the sodomite, the sodomite has also become aware of him/herself as something different. That's the way I try to conceive the whole mess.

I agree with the original person who mentioned the Decameron. There are a lot of texts that definitely imply cultural awareness of a sodomitic persona -- take a peek at Guido Ruggiero's work on Venice for some material suggesting a very early homosexual subculture.

Tim Pursell

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Date: Sun, 31 Jul 1994 09:14:52 -0600
From: stuart mcdonald

Subject: Re: Social constructionism and the sodomite

Not familiar with the many cited texts in this discussion, I will try to hazard an opinion based on my own experience. Let's take the easiest case of the exclusively homosexual person-- someone defined not by behavior, but by those to whom he/she is and has always been exclusively attracted. Is it the claim of some on this list that the existence of such persons is limited to specific societies and times? Or is it a claim that although such persons have always existed in all societies, there are at least some societies which did not assign any particular characteristics/behaviors (stereotypes?) to such persons--or perhaps any label(s)-- and therefore there were no societal consequences (positive or negative) flowing from being exclusively homosexual, even when someone recognized and acknowledged (even if only to themselves) this exclusive attraction?

There is a pernicious bias demonstrated by people of all sexual orientations: because they cannot conceive of anyone having sexual attractions other than their own, they are unwilling to recognize the "reality" of another's different sexual orientation. Among gay men, I've heard many claim that every straight man is really gay--or at least bisexual. Among heterosexual and bisexual women, as well as among bisexual men and wishful thinking would-be ex-gay men, I've experienced numerous occasions when they refused to accept that I am exclusively homosexual--even though it is and has always been true.

My feeling is that the true bias in these discussions is the same that drives heterosexual and bisexual women to come on to me even when they "know" about my homosexual orientation. And yes, I do question the motives of those on this list who question the "real" existence of exclusive homosexuals as a human phenomenon--existing in all times and societies. This biased egocentric position, no doubt often fueled by a misplaced anger that there are actually some people out there who are sexually attractive but who would never have any sexual interest in us, must be addressed aggressively before any objective answers will be found in this area.


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Date: Sun, 31 Jul 1994 13:00:46 -0400
From: Forrest Stevens

Subject: Re: Social constructionism and the sodomite

It seems to me that this discussion hasn't acknowledged that questions of identity are meaningless outside of particular institutions (and those institutions' constituent interpersonal relationships) that give "identity" meaning. "Homosexuality," while often articulated across and along axes of gender, is also inflected by other ogranizing categories. di Vinciolo and his wife get off on the "good-looking boy"/"young man" in 5.10 of the Decameron: the anxiety of age and erotics in American/British culture perhaps masks the importance of the age difference. The wife enjoys the boy just as the husband; she doesn't wholely escape the pleasure and "terror" (Boccaccio's word for her fear of getting caught) of pederasty, if not the sodomitical. (Which is just to say that terror is an organizing force of sexuality, too. A wonderful example of the pleasures of identity emanating from terror is David Shannon's piece "Out in the City." Shannon's description of the different effects of age of consent laws between Canada and the U.S. illustrates this dynamic wonderfully.)

The "identity" familiar to Boccaccio's audience perhaps would be the "libertine." That's an identity marked by class, age, gender, and "depravity."

I am, though, sceptical of the compulsion to categorize by "identity" elements. Categories go far to muddle an analysis of the interesting dynamics between and among characters -- and ourselves, I would imagine.

Tyler


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Date: Sun, 31 Jul 1994 12:24:00 -0700
From: Will Roscoe

Subject: On Soc-Con

I've been enjoying this discussion because it does seem that that more sophisticated perspectives are emerging based on much deeper engagement with historical and culture source materials. The above statement from the beginning of David Greenberg's excellent, scholarly posting on the question of sodomite identity and the range of meanings of sodomite in European history, is one that my historian side (the other side is an anthropologist) must object to, however. It's too simple. Most certainly the sodomite and the homosexual are distinct constructions, but they also overlap historically, in conceptual ways and in terms of personnel, for a significant period of time. They are not discrete. The homosexual was possible because the sodomite came before him. I'm currently completing an article where I hope to show that the berdache (as Europeans understood that institution) was also an important point of reference for the construction of the homosexual, in that all the authors who have been credited with producing the texts that construct that construction were aware of the ethnographic and contact literature on North American gender diversity, and that this was an important point of reference. Of course, what was constructed between 1860 and the end of the century was not "the homosexual" but the "Urning," a third sexed (not gendered) being. The point about the hegemony of homosexuality not really reaching grassroots queer life until the mid-20th century, made by an earlier respondent, is well taken, and must be addressed by those who insist that the coining of the word "homosexualita"t" by a very obscure Hungarian in 1869 represented an epistemological break with all previous forms of Western homosexuality.


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Date: Sun, 31 Jul 1994 16:05:07 -0400
From: John Hollister

Subject: Re: Social Constructionism--20th Century

I think another aspect of this problem is that there is an evangelical element to the present constructions of 'gay', 'lesbian', 'bisexual' and 'queer': they arise out of movements to transform the field of homosexuality and so imply that all those who meet certain criteria (in terms of 'sexual valence', as EKS aptly put it) *ought* to adopt and conform to these identities.

They don't completely describe the present (Chauncey's description of pre-WWII New York's sexual landscape fits contemporary upstate NY/PA rural life very nicely) but since some presumptuousness is built into the words themselves, they aren't any less accurate when used in reference to the European Middle Ages.

John Hollister
bb05246@bingsuns.cc.binghamton.edu


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Date: Tue, 2 Aug 1994 12:43:54 -0400
From: "Eve K. Sedgwick"

Subject: Re: pre-history of social creationism

Along with Berger & Luckman, R.D. Laing, etc. -- I remember (not as a scholar, but as an enquiring late-teen-ager) the incredible sense of intellectual leverage on issues of identity construction/pathologization offered by Thomas Szasz in, e.g., _The Myth of Mental Illness_. Anyone else have the jolt of this particular encounter?

(I too am getting a lot out of this e-thread, by the way: it is clarifying, among other things, the way a magisterial figure and increasingly totemic name, like Foucault, can retroactively and unintendedly occlude the quite various strands of work that actually taught many of his readers (if not himself) how to perform the particular kind of cognitive "moves" needed to make use of his perceptions. It seems like a really interesting dynamic to ponder.)


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Date: Tue, 2 Aug 1994 14:14:00 CDT
From: JAMES STEAKLEY

Subject: Pre-History of Social Creationism

The lift that Eve got from Szasz I recall getting from Foucault's _Madness and Civilization_ when I was a grad student at Cornell in 1970. Even before learning that Foucault was gay, I read the text as an extended analogy to gayness. Another important text at that time was Marcuse's _Eros and Civilization_, which argued for the constructedness of sexuality from a Marxist and utopian angle -- a good antidote to Foucault's gloom. When I joined the _Body Politic_ collective in Toronto in 1973, we ran articles on Szasz and Marcuse, but not (yet) on Foucault. Looking through gay periodicals from that time would, I imagine, open up a few more sources that influenced us prior to _History of Sexuality_.

I also recollect from that era that we were all very much into the Kuhnian notion of scientific paradigm shifts and applied it liberally to the gay question with the notion of a historical shift from "sin to sickness" models, both of which we naturally repudiated.

Finally, it's always seemed to me that one of key features of the notion that the homosexual emerged as a "species" around 1860 (or 1890, or whatever) is that this is exactly when homosexuals themselves (Ulrichs and Benkert/Kertbeny) began to propagate both the notion that homosexuals were a "minority" that ought to claim its civil rights and indeed the very term "homosexual" (which a lot of folks still think was foisted upon us by the medical establishment but which on the contrary was coined by a "gay liberationist" or at least "homosexual emancipationist"). Foucault overemphasized the impact of medical theorizing and under- emphasized the extent to which gays themselves contributed to developing the species concept. Of course, only a handful of gays accepted that notion at the time.

Best,

Jim Steakley


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Date: Thu, 4 Aug 1994 11:05:44 -0400
From: franke

Subject: Re: Social Roles vs. Identity

Having read and reflected upon the very interesting discussion about social roles and identity, I was motivated to take a new look at Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues. So much of her story is about how Stone Butch identity is the product of out-law status and treatment -- status and treatment that changed from the '50's to the '60's to the '70's to the '80's and moved her social position, within the lesbian community, from center to margin. Her stone was hardened as a response to the ongoings violent assaults she suffered at the hands of the law.

How different is the stone butch from the sodomite, really? So much of butch identity is carved out of the daily experience of terror, and of the treatment of gender outlaws. To the extent that the law regulates, punishes, terrorizes and rewards certain forms of gender performance, it is difficult to see the difference in the law's role in creating the butch-as- outlaw/butch identity and the sodomite-as-outlaw/homosexual identity.

In discussing the differences between social roles and identity, it seems quite important to me to understand how the law -- religious or state sanctioned law -- sets up and then enforces cultural boundaries of proper gender performance. It is only within these bounded spheres that particular social roles and identities gain meaning.

Katherine Franke
franke@is.nyu.edu


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Date: Sun, 31 Jul 1994 14:30:55 -0400
From: DGREENBERG@ACFCLUSTER.NYU.EDU

Steve Murray is right in argueing that the sodomite was an identity, but it was an identity that cannot be identified with "homosexual." One could be a sodomite for engaging in a variety of forbidden sexual practices, including bestiality, heterosexual in the wrong orifice, and homosexual contacts. Those who engaged in such illicit activities were also suspect of being nefarious characters in general. Cases are known in which married couples were burned at the stake for consensual sodomy with one another. On the other hand, I know of no instances in which women were considered sodomites for sexual activitiy with one another. Now let me qualify that statement about sodomy. The broad sweep of sodomy was true in church and legal texts, but in other sources we see evidence of narrower usages. In the lai of Lanval the term is used more narrowly. That is also true of Jacques de Vitry's writings about Paris in the early 13th century. When he writes of female prostitutes-streetwalkers denouncing men who did not purchase their services as sodomites, the streetwalkers were clearly not claiming they were having anal intercourse with their wives and girl-friends. They were accusing them of not being interested in women because their interests were exclusively male. What makes the episode in the Decameron of particular interest is the assumption that attraction tomales and too females was mutually exclusive. The episode derives from a long section of Apuleis THE GOLDEN ASS, but in that Latin work, this assumption is not made. There, when the husband finds the youth in bed with his wife, he decides to take advantage of the situation and enjoy the youth himself. Though the predominant assumption in the Middle Ages and in classical antiquity was that men were generally capable of erotic attraction to both male youths and to females, there is a less common assumption i in other writings of exclusiveness. There are some Hellenistic poems in THE GREEK ANTHOLOGY, for example, in which male writers indicate that they have nointerest at all in women. Some social constructionist writings could, perhaps, be faulted, for insufficiently recognizing that in a complex civilization there are likely to be a multiplicity of perspectives on many questions, including those involving sex. Incidentally, a good counter-argument to the notion that there was no notionof sexuality as a concept or as a characteristic of a person before the modern era can be found in some of the writings of Peter Brown, such as his book, THE BODY AND SOCIETY, or his essay in the volume edited by David Halperin et. al., BEFORE SEXUALITY. The concept, however, did not agree with ours in all particulars. -

David Greenberg


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Date: Sat, 6 Aug 1994 10:20:30 -0600
From: stuart mcdonald

Subject: Societal dichotomy causes homosexuality?

For those of you who argue that the homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy in this society causes exclusive heterosexuality or homosexuality:

Are you arguing that without this dichotomy, all people would end up bisexual? Leaving aside those who change their self-labels over their lifetimes (and all the factors that might lead someone to change their self-label, given how misleading and even dishonest such self- labeling can be), focusing only on those of us who have always been exclusively attracted to only one sex, what are your suggestions for saving this society from this dichotomy--and saving these aberrant homosexuals/heterosexuals from their unnecessary (and perhaps harmful) exclusiveness? What do you believe would be the nature of this bisexual utopia? -------- Date: Sat, 6 Aug 1994 14:01:49 -0400
From: Forrest Stevens

Subject: Re: Societal dichotomy causes homosexuality?

As far as I know, no one has ever argued that "exclusiveness" is a bad thing -- only compulsion. And we're talking institutional, compulsive heterosexuality here. There is no homosexual counterpart.

-tyler


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Date: Sat, 6 Aug 1994 23:35:12 EDT
From: Andy McIntire

Subject: Societal dichotomy causes homosexuality? Reply

Well, I for one understand the homo/hetero dichotomy, as usually referenced, to mean that the terms are defined in relation to each other. A dichotomy, after all, must have at least two points of reference. As for it causing exclusivity of desire, I don't see that as the case, although for gays it often means taking paths that place us outside of the heterosexual world to some extent at least.

But the thing that struck me about the above passage is an assumption that I read between the lines. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems as though you assume that bisexuality is the true state of most people, with the dichotomy being an artificial social construct. I have problems with the former, if not the latter. It frequently seems as though people in each sexual domain see themselves as superior to those of other sexual domains. In the case of heterosexual society, this is obvious. With many queers (of various stripes), I often get the sense that they believe themselves to be purer -- or something -- than the heterosexuals oppressing them. Now with bisexuality called utopian? (Not for me, thanks.)

I think it far simpler to recognize that "normal" is a statistical abstraction that is almost useless except for messing people up. Everything, EVERYTHING in nature occurs with statistical variance (if for no other reason than the uncertainty principle). Why should anyone assume that sexuality in people is any different?

Put another way, I've seen several new parents struggle mightily with "normal" development in their babies. They stress out when Jr. walks later than "normal" or talks later than "normal" or teethes sooner than "normal" or whatever. And it's all pointless because (statistically speaking) exactly nobody is exactly "normal." [As an aside, Michael Zuckerman's "Dr. Spock: The Confidence Man" is one of the few examples of history that makes me laugh outloud till my sides hurt.]

I wonder about the extent to which the rise of professional inquiry into the various human traits begun in the 19th cent. produced the concept of "normal" as "average" rather than as "vaguely defined range of possibilities," (as seems to fit the social const. paradigm). And I wonder how this nascent conception of human normality produced the homo/hetero dichotomy; that is, knowledge that heterosexuality is average, thus normal, thus defining what is abnormal, thus defining homosexuality. And I wonder how we can break out of the habit of thinking of people as objects who are supposed to fit or not to fit our own conceptions of what is normal.

-------Andy McIntire---------------------AAMcIn0@ukcc.uky.edu-----


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Date: Sun, 7 Aug 1994 10:24:00 EDT
From: Jennifer Ting

Subject: Re: Societal dichotomy causes homosexuality?

I think I would rather argue something like this: in contemporary Western culture, which organizes sexuality in terms of a homo/hetero binary, it's very difficult for individuals to think sexuality without reference to one (or both) of these two terms. If the homo/hetero binary was not so fundemental to Western thinking about sexuality (and so easily allied to other major binaries: feminine/masculine, unnatural/natural, etc.), then perhaps "object choice" would not be the primary concern for organizing and interpretting sexuality. Jennifer Ting Department of American Civilization Brown University


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Date: Tue, 9 Aug 1994 12:10:54 -0400
From: Ray Schnitzler

Subject: Re: Societal dichotomy causes homosexuality?

Jennifer gets close to what I see as an essential point in this debate.

It seems to me that sexual dichotomy causes gender dichotomy causes monosexuality (of which heterosexuality and homosexuality are examples).

Most societies start by surgically and/or socially coercing all people to be morphologically either male or female. Forced dichotomy number 1.

Most societies then coerce all people into socially either man or woman, in accordance with their morphology. Forced dichotomy number 2.

Most societies then coerce all people into directing their erotic desires toward one-and-only- one type of person, specifically a type defined by (usually) social gender (rather than morphology or career or hair color, though I've elided the very present element of racism and classism in this).

Compulsive heterosexuality is the refinement of this by requiring that the desire be focused on the 'opposite' gender. The much rarer, but still existent compulsive homosexuality suggests that even (many of the) people that can relax the 'opposite'ness still cling to the compulsive monosexuality piece.

There certainly are some parts of the queer-theoretic/queer-activist communities that are challenging the earlier assumptions. This gets into how 'queer' is not (or is, depending on whom you ask) equivalent to 'gay and lesbian', and this the part *I* find interesting.

Ray


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Date: Thu, 11 Aug 1994 14:40:45 -0700
From: Keelung Hong

Subject: Re: Societal dichotomy causes homosexuality?

I picked up some data earlier this week supporting Ray Schnitzler's experience. In a random sample of three San Francisco neighborhoods with substantial African- and Latin-American populations, Diane Binson (UCSF) reported that 47.4% of men who had had sex with both men and women sometime during the preceding 10 years identified as gay/homosexual (26.8% as bisexual,m 25.8% as straight/heterosexual). 34.1% of women who had had sex with both men and women classified themselves as lesbian (24% bisexual, 41.9% heterosexual)


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Date: Sat, 13 Aug 1994 19:05:18 -0500
From: Michael Patrick Burton

Subject: Re: Bisexual Chauvinism?

I am a bisexual male, equally attracted to males and females. I however am Gay. How is this? Bisexual is a term to describe my sexual orientation - Gay is a designation for my lifestyle choice. You are either in the straight community or the gay community. Of course, many gays look at people who are either homosexual or bisexual living in the straight community as BEING IN THE CLOSET, and not ready to deal with themselves, being self-hating. Now, I truely believe it is possible to be bisexual, or homosexual, and comfortably live in the straight culture, just as it is possible for a heterosexual person to live in the the gay community. Of course, we are very hateful generally of heterosexuals in the gay community or bisexuals/homosexuals who are in the straight community. So, before we consider bisexual chauvinism, we should take a look at our OWN.

Now, I am completly comfortable with my sexuality. When I am messing around with a man, that is a homosexual act (seeing as I am a man as well), when I am messing around with a woman, that is a heterosexual act. THe only thing which constitutes a bisexual act is if there are bote a male and female present (something which I am not against...)

Taking a few cases of people who you have interacted with and using those opinions to describe an entire group is sexism/racisism (depending of course who you are talking about).. Again I ask myself - how can we ask the Religious/Conserative right to understand us and accept our diversity when we have no respect for it ourselves?

Michael Patrick Burton


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Date: Sun, 14 Aug 1994 08:44:20 -0600
From: stuart mcdonald

Subject: Re: Terminology/bisexuality

It is simply false to claim that the word "gay", as understood by most people, refers to the gay community. It is equally false to claim that the word "straight", as understood by most people, refers to the straight community.

In common parlance, "gay"=exclusively homosexual in orientation; "straight"=exclusively heterosexual in orientation. When homosexuals or bisexuals call themselves "straight", knowing that others will be misled by this label, they are engaging in a lie and fraud. And when heterosexuals or bisexuals call themselves "gay", they are also engaging in a lie and fraud. Such phrases as "straight homosexuals", "gay heterosexuals", "straight bisexuals", and "gay bisexuals" are never used--and would be considered as self-contradictory (and therefore meaningless) by most hearers.

Some argument can be made that current terminology often places gays as a subset of the larger group of exclusive homosexuals--defined perhaps by a willingness to identify with other exclusive homosexuals; but this subgroup can hardly be called a "community", though such self-identification probably does create a strong incentive to create a "community" of like-minded homosexuals. But even in this usage, "gay" does not equal "gay community". Nor does it allow for "gay heterosexuals" or "gay bisexuals".


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Date: Wed, 17 Aug 1994 15:49:34 -0400
From: "Eve K. Sedgwick"

Subject: Bi

Could we ask, about a concept like bisexuality that is gaining new currency, NOT so much "What does it *really* mean?" or "Who owns it and are they good or bad?", but "What does it *do*? --what does it make happen? --what (in the ways it is being or *could be* used) does it make easier or harder for people of various kinds to accomplish and think?"

A couple thoughts I've had on this--

1) WHAT DOES BISEXUALITY, AS A POLITICAL CONCEPT, DO WELL?
_Within_ an existing discourse about sexuality that is already structured almost exclusively around the issue of gender-of-object-choice (and this is a description both of heteronormative and of many gay/lesbian understandings of sexuality), "bisexuality" marks out and attempts to safeguard a space for the many people who are not fixed or exclusive in gender-of-object-choice. That group may include both those for whom gender-of-object- choice IS a very important factor in their sexuality, but is not confined to one gender; AND those for whom other factors are more important than gender-of-object-choice. The latter group is included by virtue of the fact that, in a society where gender has such high salience, _any_ attraction, as long as it involves another person, can be categorized (as if "naturally" or "scientifically") according to gender-of-object-choice--even if that dimension may not be a defining one for the people experiencing the sexuality.

2) WHAT *DOESN'T* BISEXUALITY, AS A POLITICAL CONCEPT, DO WELL?
Although (or because) it makes such a strong claim for recognition and space _within_ the prevailing discourse that categorizes sexuality exclusively according to gender-of-object- choice, "bisexuality" as a political concept is NOT, it seems to me (at least as it has been used recently) a strong place from which to launch a meaningful challenge to that aspect of the prevailing discourse. In fact, there are ways in which the political concept of "bisexuality" seems to offer a *consolidation and completion* of an understanding of sexuality as something that can be described adquately, for everybody, in terms of gender-of-object- choice. --As though, once you've added "goes for both same *and* opposite sex" to "goes for same sex" and "goes for opposite sex," you have now covered the entire ground and collected the whole set.
(I should add that in a discursive context that WASN'T so radically structured already around gender-of-object-choice, the concept of bisexuality could work very differently: instead of seeming to add the finishing touch to a totalizing vision of human sexuality/gender, it could function as one sexually dissident self-description among many others, some of which would and some of which would not feature gender-of-object-choice. Chubbies and chasers, tops and bottoms and femmes and butches of various gender identifications if any, bears and smoothies, masturbators and fantasists, ****-queens and ****-hags and ****-divas of many sorts, word people and music people and picture people and number people, penetration people and cutaneous-contact people, sober folk and delirium-seeking folk, people who "do" identity and people who "do" identification, muscle people and inner children, people for whom public space is sexy and people for whom private space is, couples-oriented people and singletons or group-oriented people, and... and... and... )


My impression is that the latter kind of challenge--a challenge to the DECISIVENESS of gender-of-object-choice as a way of understanding sexuality--is well under way, and that the rubric most often associated with it is "queer," not "bisexual."


So, "What's the relation of bisexual to gay/lesbian?" would be one important question, but "What's the relation of bisexual to queer?" would be a different one, also important. And bisexuality, as a political concept, could function to break boundaries in the first context and yet to preserve them in the second.


In practice,of course it's very common for people and groups to have to fight *within* the prevailing paradigms AND *against* them at the same time-- so that even if this analysis has some cogency, it still doesn't offer a bottom-line conclusion about bisexuality as a political concept; the leverage it offers might usefully be thought of in tactical as well as strategic terms.


Zat make sense?

To the 1998 continuation of this discussion

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