By Robyn Ochs and Liz Highleyman
This essay, co-authored by Robyn Ochs and Liz Highleyman, appeared in Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Bonnie Zimmerman, pp. 112-114. (Garland, 2000). It provides a brief history of the US bisexual movement from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Though there have been in the past various communities and individuals who were known to have lived a bisexual lifestyle (for example the Bloomsbury artists community, the Harlem Renaissance community, and Frida Kahlo [1907-1954] and her circle), the 1970s marked the beginning of the modern bisexual movement. The bi movement of the 1990s consists of social, support and political groups throughout the United States and other parts of the world.
The Early Years
The earliest bisexual organizations in the United States grew out of the sexual liberation movement or “sexual revolution,” which was, in turn, fueled by the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, and the legalization of, and increased access to, birth control. A number of bisexuals were active in the formation of various chapters of the Sexual Freedom League. The National Bisexual Liberation Group was founded in 1972 in New York City. The Bi Forum, also in New York City, began in 1975. The Bisexual Center in San Francisco, California, formed in 1976, and Bi Ways in Chicago, Illinois, began in 1978.
These years spanned the era of “bisexual chic,” in which popular media publicized the bisexuality of rock stars and artists. The earliest bisexual groups were primarily social in focus, although some included a political element as well. The 1970s also saw the publications of several books about bisexuality. Janet Bode’s View From Another Closet (1976) was perhaps the first, followed [among others] by Charlotte Wolf’s Bisexuality: A Study (1977), and Fritz Klein’s The Bisexual Option: A Concept of One Hundred Percent Intimacy (1978).
The Second Wave
Many bisexuals were active within the gay liberation, and later the lesbian and gay, movement. However, several factors, including an increased focus on identity politics and hostility and rejection by some lesbians and gay men, led some bisexuals to create separate bisexual organizations.
The “second wave” of bisexual organizing, beginning in the early 1980s, was largely women led, and was strongly influenced by feminism. Many of the women involved in bisexual organizing in the 1980s had been, and were still, active in the gay, lesbian feminist, and women’s movements. Feminist bisexual women’s organizations were formed in Boston, Massachusetts (1983); Chicago (1984); New York City (1983); and Seattle, Washington (1986). While in the 1970s most groups were of mixed gender, in the 1980s a number of women-only bi groups and a smaller number of bisexual men’s groups formed.
The bisexual groups of the 1980s focused on providing support and social opportunities, and a number became increasingly involved in political organizing as well, especially in the wake of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. The number of bi groups continued to grow throughout the 1980s in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The mid-1980s saw the first bisexual groups devoted to political activism (San Francisco’s BiPol, and Boston’s Bisexual Committee Engaging in Politics [BiCEP], and the first regional bisexual networks (the East Coast Bisexual Network and the Bay Area Bisexual Network).
While some bisexuals focused on the creation of organizations for and by bisexual people, others were organizing within lesbian and gay communities. A major focus of the bi movement in the 1980s was to seek inclusion and recognition for bisexuals within lesbian and gay groups. Some formerly “lesbian and gay” organizations changed their titles or their statements of purpose to include bisexual people, while others chose not to. This was especially evident on college campuses, as many campus groups, which had in the 1970s had changed their names to add “lesbian,” did the same in the 1980s with “bisexual” (and increasingly in the 1990s, with”transgender”). In some areas of the country, inter-community relationships, particularly between some lesbians and bisexual women, remained tense; in other areas, bisexuals were more readily welcomed.
Bis Organize More Widely
In June 1990, San Francisco’s BiPol organized the first national conference on bisexuality, with a focus on consolidating a nationwide bi organization, then known as the North American Multicultural Bisexual Network. In 1991, at a meeting in Seattle, the organization was renamed BiNet (Bisexual Network of the USA). The second U.S. national conference took place in 1993 in conjunction with the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, the first national march to mention bisexuals by name.
The first U.S. regional conference on bisexuality was held in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1984. By the early 1990s, there were regional conferences taking place annually in the Northwest, the Southwest, Southern California, the Midwest, and the Northeast. The first International Conference on Bisexuality was held in Amsterdam in 1991. Other international conferences have been held in London (1992), New York City (1994), and Berlin (1996), and Boston (1998).
Bisexuality in Literature and Academia
The 1990s saw an increase in the participation of college students in the bi movement and greater bisexual visibility in literature and academia. There was another wave of books about bisexuality, this time including anthologies that focused on personal experiences, such as the influential Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out (1990).
The record-setting year was 1995, which saw the publication of numerous studies and anthologies by both mainstream and alternative presses, including the Bisexual Resource Guide (Bisexual Resource Center). The first national bisexual magazine, Anything that Moves: Beyond the Myths of Bisexuality, had begun publication in 1991. Computer newsgroups, electronic mailing lists and chat lines helped connect bisexuals across geographic lines. The first college course focusing on bisexuality was taught at the University of California at Berkeley in 1990, followed by a course the next year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and several more in subsequent years at Tufts University.
Not unlike lesbian and gay organizations, bisexual organizations have developed in a number of different directions. Some bisexual people focus on organizing for, and with, other bisexual people. Others focus on working within “lesbian and gay,””lesbian, gay and bisexual,””lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender,” or “queer” organizations to educate heterosexuals, fight homophobia, advocate for civil rights legislation, and build community. Still others are interested in creating a broad sex and gender liberation movement that is not as focused on identity politics. And like many lesbians and gay men, many bisexual people are not involved in any organizations or movements at all, choosing instead to focus their energies on their individual lives.
Bisexual Anthology Collective, ed. Plural Desires: Writing Bisexual Women’s Realities. Toronto: Sister Visiohn, 1995.
Hutchins, Loraine and Lani Ka’ahumanu, eds. Bi Any Other Name: Bisexuals Speak Out. Boston: Alyson, 1990.
Off Pink Collective, Bisexual Lives. London: Off Pink Publishing, 1988.
Rose, Sharon, et al., eds. Bisexual Horizons: Politics, Histories, Lives. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1996.
Tucker, Naomi, ed. Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries, & Visions. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 1995.