While people who pursue sexual or romantic relationships with both women and
men have existed in all eras and cultures, the contemporary self-identified
bisexual movement in the United States dates from the early 1970s.
The first openly bi activists were sexual liberation advocates of the
1960s, including Margo Rila, head of the San Francisco chapter of the Sexual
Freedom League, and Maggi Rubenstein, who worked with Daughters of Bilitis
co-founder Phyllis Lyon’s National Sex Forum, an early sex education
Although many people who had sex with both women and men were active in
the early gay liberation movement, fewer identified publicly as bisexual. In
1966 out bisexual Stephen Donaldson (then known as Robert Martin) co-founded
Columbia University’s Student Homophile League, the first campus gay
group. He also helped draft the Quaker Committee of Friends on Bisexuality’s
"Ithaca Statement on Bisexuality" (published in The Advocate in
1972), perhaps the earliest public expression of a new bi consciousness.
"Gay" was originally interpreted as encompassing anyone who had
same-sex relationships, exclusively or not. But tensions grew as the gay—and
later the gay and lesbian—movement adopted a more identity-based politics.
Perceived as being "on the fence," bisexuals were pressured to
choose sides and embrace a gay or lesbian identity—or else were told that
they didn’t exist. "For all the credibility I get, I might as well be
calling myself a centaur or a mermaid," wrote Louise Knox in a 1974
Among the first bisexual groups were New York City’s National Bisexual
Liberation Group (begun in 1972), New York’s Bi Forum (founded in 1975),
the San Francisco Bisexual Center (opened in 1976), and Chicago’s BiWays
(formed in 1978). These co-gender groups, which typically included more men
than women, tended to focus on social activities and support rather than
But by the early 1980s, political and cultural shifts brought a new
generation of bisexual feminists to the fore. Some bi women felt
increasingly alienated from lesbian-feminist communities as separatism took
hold in the late 1970s and the limits of acceptable lesbian sexual practices
Among these bi feminists was Lani Ka’ahumanu, a former housewife who in
the 1970s had left her marriage, moved to San Francisco, and become a public
lesbian activist. After falling in love with a man in 1980, she came out as
bisexual, much to the chagrin of her lesbian community. In 1983 Ka’ahumanu
helped found BiPol, one of the first of a new wave of explicitly feminist bi
groups. That same year a group of feminist bi women (several of whom were
"hasbians") founded the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network—the
oldest bi group still active today.
The bisexual movement came into its own in the late 1980s. In 1987 two
Boston women, Lucy Friedland and Liz Nania, distributed a flyer asking,
"Are We Ready for a National Bisexual Network Yet?" Bi activists
from around the country began organizing, and 75 people participated in a bi
contingent in the 1987 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights—the
first nationwide gathering of bisexuals. In June 1990 the first national
bisexual conference took place in San Francisco, drawing more than 450
attendees. That meeting saw the birth of the North American Multicultural
Bisexual Network, later renamed BiNet USA.
During these years bisexuality was a contentious issue within the gay and
lesbian community, as exemplified by the 1991 OutWeek cover story, "The
Bisexual Revolution: Deluded Closet Cases or Vanguards of the
Movement?" Many bi organizers devoted their energy to convincing
lesbian and gay organizations to add "bisexual" to their names,
while others encouraged bisexuals to create bi-specific groups or focus on a
broader sex and gender liberation agenda.
But changes were afoot that would lead to greater acceptance of
bisexuality. The early 1990s saw the birth of a mixed-gender queer activist
movement that emphasized diversity. The same decade also witnessed the
popularization of queer theory, which stressed the fluid and socially
constructed nature of sexuality and gender. After months of organizing, bi
activists succeeded in achieving inclusion in the April 1993 March on
Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. By the turn
of the 21st century, hundreds of gay and lesbian groups had changed their
names or mission statements to include bisexual and transgender people.
Yet shifting notions of sexuality and gender have not appreciably
strengthened the bi movement, which remains small and relatively invisible.
Beyond seeking inclusion within the gay and lesbian movement, bisexual
activists found few bi-specific goals to unite them. Today, many view the
very concept of bisexuality as too binary, embracing the view expressed by
Louise Knox three decades ago: "Bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual, the
terms are, even now, beginning to seem as irrelevant, as archaic, as caste
marks. Who needs them?"
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely
on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached in care of Letters
from CAMP Rehoboth or at