Thinking about bisexuality

My class was thinking through the borderland nature of bisexuality recently. We read a number of personal essays/poems from Robyn Ochs‘s collection Getting Bi (a new edition of which will include even more global representation). We were lucky enough to have Robyn Ochs with us.

One thing that makes bisexuality comparable to mixed-race identity (which we explored through Nella Larsen‘s fabulous novel Quicksand) is its relative invisibility.

Let me explain. In the U.S., the binary racial system has historically meant that you are either black or white. Larsen’s novel gives us a protagonist (Helga Crane) in the 1920s who struggles to find a place where she can acknowledge both her heritages: Danish on one side; African American on the other. Unfortunately, she finds no place like that. Whereever she moves, one aspect of her identity is made salient, is provoked, is seen. So the novel ends as she sinks into motherhood, more mired by the biological body and the meanings that dominant society gives it (colored bodies are only “black”; female bodies are only wives and mothers). As my students have noticed, much literature around borderlands literature ends badly, depressingly, wrenchingly, reinforcing the difficulty of remaining healthily in in-between spaces and identities.

Bisexuality is similarly invisible. Robyn Ochs emphasized this for the students, explaining how once she married her (female) partner, some of the reactions she got were on the lines of “oh, you finally came out all the way” or “you became lesbian!” Likewise, if she had fallen in love with a guy, then her straightness would have been “confirmed.” To complicate this a bit more, while there is a wide spectrum of sexualities, most of us define ourselves by the most visible of our choices. In other words, a woman who has had physical relationships with men and has had numerous fantasies about women is encouraged to privilege the physical in describing herself. Fantasies are not seen as constitutive of sexual identity.

My students, of a different generation than I, than Robyn Ochs, saw the term “queer” as one that–as the Wiki describes it–“simultaneously builds up and tears down boundaries of identity.” It is a term that parallels Anzaldúa’s borderlands in that it counters normative gender and sexual identities. Robyn Ochs countered that it might obscure more interstitial identities like bisexuality. I admit, I’m undecided. Queer seems like a pretty powerful term, but until sexual politics do not always already expect a teleological end to our sexualities (i.e., you are en route to your straightness, or en route to your queerness when you are bisexual) it seems premature.

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