Bisexual Literature - the 20th Century

Tapan Rabi

Published on February 13, 2007

Numerous works from the early twentieth century revolve around the notion of a 'true' identity, one that is either hetero- or homosexual. Although both E. M. Forster's Maurice (written 1914) and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) portray characters who appear bisexual, they are not allowed to occupy that 'in between' space without derision. Both novels attempt to portray the naturalness of homosexual desire (in obvious response to the discourses of medicine and psychology that argued the opposite), but they do so by casting the bisexual as untrue to himself or herself, unwilling to take the brave step of acknowledging a fundamental homosexual identity.

Thus Clive in Maurice and Mary in The Well of Loneliness are portrayed as cowards, doomed to unhappiness because of their equivocation. Individuals who historically would have been celebrated for their ability to respond to both sexes came to be considered the truly unnatural ones, out-of-place and inconvenient in a literary and social war between homosexuals and their heterosexual oppressors.

This is not to say that bisexuality disappeared completely in terms of writers' lived experiences. Virginia Woolf was clearly bisexual, as was the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). But even Woolf, who explores gender transgression in such radical ways in Orlando (1928) (whose hero/heroine changes biological sex), never celebrates bisexuality in her works as a unified identity.

At best, bisexuality is present in early twentieth-century, Anglo- American literature as a tortured, tense state, such as that indicated in many of D. H. Lawrence's novels, where emotional commitments to both sexes are possible only if expressions of physical intimacy between members of the same sex are severely limited.

Even more typical of the middle years of the century is the representation of bisexuality in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945); though possibly bisexual himself, Waugh portrays it as a phase through which, at best, one passes on the way to a firm identity (which in the case of Brideshead means a healthy heterosexuality and pathological homosexuality). The same idea is echoed later in James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956), where bisexuality is portrayed as a phase that, if not moved beyond, becomes unstable and leads to personal disaster.

But the rich complexity of human emotional response and the diversity of human desires cannot be so easily suppressed and dismissed. Gore Vidal, in his afterward to The City and the Pillar (1948), reclaims bisexuality as the most 'natural' human state.

So too did the French novelist Colette, who both in her life and literary works celebrated bisexual eroticism. In the "Claudine" novels and later works, Colette portrays the many quandaries faced by a woman attracted to members of both sexes, ones that Colette herself encountered in her marriages to men and affairs with other women. Colette's novels from the early part of the twentieth century anticipate the portrayals of relatively healthy bisexuality that would only become common many decades later, after the gay and lesbian rights movements had gained a sense of legitimacy and rigid rules for self-identification began to erode.

In the years since the 1969 Stonewall uprising and the publication of the Kinsey sex surveys (in which bisexual activity was found to be very common), many more positive and complex portrayals of bisexuality have appeared in print.

Ursula K. Le Guin's celebrated science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) remains a remarkable exploration of sexual diversity, describing an alien people who can change biological sex as reproductive cycles demand. They have the natural, innate potential to respond to each other with enormous sexual freedom.

Similarly utopian in its vision of future erotic liberation is Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), which portrays a human society in which bisexuality is the norm and where narrow gender roles and definitions of sexual orientation have been abandoned as unnecessary historical constructs.

Bisexuality also plays a key part in the protagonist's growth toward fulfillment in Alice Walker's celebrated novel The Color Purple (1982), where erotic bonding between women is shown not only to be compatible with heterosexual desires, but even necessary for women's political strength and security.

Lastly, important nonfictional discussions of bisexuality appear in the works of the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous and those of the American literary and cultural critic Kate Millett, both of whom decry the oppressiveness of binary constructions of identity.

Numerous works by male writers of the mid- to late-twentieth century are equally 'bi-positive'. Paul Bowles's short stories, set in North Africa, explore the relative freedom allowed for bisexual men by some modern Arab cultures, even as they dramatize the harsh and unrelenting sexism of the same societies.

A similar double-standard is explored in Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings (1983), which brings to life Egypt during the reign of the pharaohs and takes as one of its basic assumptions the bisexuality of its male characters.

Tom Spanbauer's The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon (1991) explores bisexuality in yet another non-Western culture, that of the Native Americans; this first-person narrative is told from the perspective of a berdache, a biologically male, though transgendered, individual whose sexual ambiguity meets with relentless hostility from conservative Christian settlers on the American frontier.

And finally, similar internal and external tensions confront bisexual characters in the works of David Leavitt and the poet Gavin Dillard, both of whom portray bisexuality as a natural state for some people, even as social and interrelational forces continue to urge, and sometimes force, individuals to choose between hetero- and homosexual identities.

But at the very least, the discourse on sexuality has rewidened since the mid-twentieth century so that validation for bisexuals is no longer impossible to locate in literature and social movements. Conceptualizations in the 1990s of a broad notion of a "queer" identity, one that embraces gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered individuals, and even transgressive heterosexuals, have been welcomed by many in the subsumed communities, even as others have resisted any revision in the narrower, binarized notions of identity that have proved to be politically efficacious in the past.

But simplistic designations of all human beings as fundamentally heterosexual or homosexual are clearly as oppressive toward some people as institutionalized homophobia has been toward gays and lesbians. Whether or not bisexuality is a natural state for all women and men, it is certainly so for some, as history and literature repeatedly bears out.

And in recognizing the unique interests of the bisexual community, as well as the numerous ways such interests intersect with those of the gay and lesbian communities, we can come to a better understanding of social history and the rich heritage of literary traditions and representations that counter heterosexism and challenge the narrow, tradition-bound, and oppressive categories through which society identifies and thereby judges people.

[I must congratulate Dr Lahiry from Bangladesh along with Dr Lani from the USA for winning bisexual activism award from Australian Bisexual Network. In relation to this we need to explore the spectrum of bisexuality. ~Tapan Rabi ]


Kathy Labriola, Counselor/Nurse


Many people are 100% gay or lesbian, and are drawn sexually and emotionally only to partners of the same sex. Others are completely heterosexual, bonding in sexual and intimate relationships only with people of another sex. But what about everybody else? A significant percentage of people do not fit neatly into either of these categories, because they experience sexual and emotional attractions and feelings for people of different genders at some point during their lives. For lack of a better term, they are called bisexuals, although many people prefer to call themselves "pansexual," "non- preferential," "sexually fluid," "ambisexual," or "omni-sexual."

The Kinsey scale of zero to six was developed by sex researchers to describe sexual orientation as a continuum. Heterosexual people are at zero on the scale, gay and Lesbian people are at six at the other end of the scale, and everyone in between, from one to five, is bisexual. People who fall at one or two on the scale have primarily heterosexual sexual and affectional relationships and desires, but have some attraction and experiences with same -sex partners as well. People at three on the scale are approximately equally attracted to both men and women. People at four and five on the Kinsey scale choose primarily same-sex partners, but are not completely gay or lesbian and have some heterosexual tendencies and relationships as well.


As you can see, there is no simple definition of bisexuality, and bisexual people are a very diverse group. There are several theories about different models of bisexual behavior. J. R. Little identifies at least 13 types of bisexuality, as defined by sexual desires and experiences. They are:

Alternating bisexuals: may have a relationship with a man, and then after that relationship ends, may choose a female partner for a subsequent relationship, and many go back to a male partner next. Circumstantial bisexuals: primarily heterosexual, but will choose same sex partners only in situations where they have no access to other-sex partners, such as when in jail, in the military, or in a gender-segregated school. Concurrent relationship bisexuals: have primary relationship with one gender only but have other casual or secondary relationships with people of another gender at the same time. Conditional bisexuals: either straight or gay/lesbian, but will switch to a relationship with another gender for financial or career gain or for a specific purpose, such as young straight males who become gay prostitutes or lesbians who get married to men in order to gain acceptance from family members or to have children. Emotional bisexuals: have intimate emotional relationships with both men and women, but only have sexual relationships with one gender. Integrated bisexuals: have more than one primary relationship at the same time, one with a man and one with a woman. Exploratory bisexuals: either straight or gay/lesbian, but have sex with another gender just to satisfy curiosity or "see what it's like." Hedonistic bisexuals: primarily straight or gay/lesbian but will sometimes have sex with another gender primarily for fun or purely sexual satisfaction. Recreational bisexuals: primarily heterosexual but engage in gay or lesbian sex only when under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Isolated bisexuals: 100% straight or gay/lesbian now but has had at one or more sexual experience with another gender in the past. Latent bisexuals: completely straight or gay lesbian in behavior but have strong desire for sex with another gender, but have never acted on it. Motivational bisexuals: straight women who have sex with other women only because a male partner insists on it to titillate him. Transitional bisexuals: temporarily identify as bisexual while in the process of moving from being straight to being gay or lesbian, or going from being gay or lesbian to being heterosexual. Many of these people might not call themselves bisexual, but because they are attracted to and have relationships with both men and women, they are in fact bisexual.

While literally millions of people are bisexual, most keep their sexual orientation secret, so bisexual people as a group are nearly invisible in society. Gay men and lesbian women have long recognized the need to join together, create community, and to organize politically. Long years of hard work have led to significant gains in political and human rights, as well as a visible and thriving gay and lesbian community. Bisexual people have been much slower to come out of the closet, create community, and form political and social networks to gain visibility and political clout. Many bisexual people have spent decades working in gay and lesbian organizations, and in recent years, bisexuals have become more accepted as part of the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender community. However, the rigid dichotomy between gay and straight has caused many bisexuals to feel alienated and rejected by gay men and lesbian women, and in recent years many independent bisexual political and social groups have sprung up.

Many bisexual people complain that they feel like outsiders in both the straight and gay/lesbian worlds, and that they can't fit in anywhere, feeling isolated and confused. Studies have shown that bisexual people suffer from social isolation even more than gay men or lesbians because they lack any community where they can find acceptance and role models. Many gay men feel that bisexual men are really gay, that they are just in denial about being Gay, and that they should "just get over it." Many straight men are homophobic and hate and fear both bisexual and gay men, often victimizing them with harassment and physical violence. Many straight women reject bisexual men out of misguided fears that they have AIDS, and admonish them to "stop sitting on the fence and make up their minds." Bisexual women are often distrusted by lesbians for "sleeping with the enemy," hanging onto heterosexual privileges through relationships with men, and betraying their allegiance to women and feminism. Straight women often reject bisexual women out of fear they will make sexual overtures and try to "convert" them to being bisexual.

Both the straight and gay/lesbian communities seem to have only two possible models of bisexuality, neither of which represents bisexual people accurately. The first is the "transitional model" of bisexuality, believing that all bisexuals are actually gay or lesbian but are just on the way to eventually coming out as gay. The other is the "pathological model", that bisexuals are neurotic or mentally unstable because they are in conflict trying to decide whether they are straight or gay/lesbian, and that they just can't make a decision. Both models see bisexuality as a temporary experience or a "phase" born out of confusion rather than an authentic sexual orientation equally as valid as heterosexuality or homosexuality. Some people see bisexuality as inherently subversive because it blurs the boundaries, confronting both heterosexuals and gay men and lesbian women with sexual ambiguity. As a result, bisexuality challenges concepts of sexuality, traditional relationship and family structures, monogamy, gender, and identity. Bisexuals cannot conform to the ethics of either the gay or straight world or they would not be bisexual. Instead they must re-invent personal ethics and values for themselves, and create responsible lifestyles and relationships that serve their needs even though they don't fit anyone else's rules.

Some researchers have note that being bisexual is in some ways similar to being bi-racial. Mixed-race persons generally don't feel comfortable or accepted by people of either ethnic group, feeling that they don't belong or fit in anywhere, as their existence challenges the very concept of race. Like bisexual people, they spend most of their lives moving between two communities that don't really understand or accept them. Like biracial people, bisexual people must struggle to invent their own identities to correspond to their own experience. Forming a bisexual identity helps bisexual people to structure, to make sense of , and to give meaning and definition to their reality.



For most bisexuals, there are at least four steps or stages to fully acknowledging and becoming comfortable with their identities as bisexuals. Confusion over sexual orientation. Most bisexual people start out feeling very confused about their attraction towards people of both sexes, questioning their own reality, and wondering "Is something wrong with me/"Some spend their entire lives in this stage, hiding their sexual orientation, feeling isolated and alone with the inner turmoil over their "dual attractions. Many go through life identifying as straight or gay/lesbian in order to be accepted and make sense of their sexual orientation. Because their own experience does not conform to either community, they feel intense external pressure to choose one and identify with it. Without any language to frame their own reality, and no visible role models or community available to them, bisexual people must have sufficient self-confidence and belief in their own identity in order to eventually transcend this stage.

Discovery of the bisexual label and choosing to identify as bisexual. Almost all bisexual people acknowledge that discovering the label "bisexual" was pivotal in understanding and accepting their sexual orientation. Most experience extreme relief when they hear the word "bisexual" for the first time, because they finally have a word that mirrors their experience and feelings. For some, the negative stereotypes of bisexuals as "promiscuous" "fence sitters," neurotic, or vectors of AIDS prevent them from identifying with the label or claiming it for themselves, but most agree that it comes closer than any other language to describing their lives. Instead of rejecting the label, many bisexuals invent their own definition and create bisexual lifestyles that fit their individual lives.

Settling into and maintaining a bisexual identity. For many bisexual people, this step is the most difficult. Intellectually, they feel good about being bisexual, but emotionally, they experience extreme conflict living in the real world as bisexual. Often scorned by family and friends and rejected by spouses or potential partners for being bisexual, they find that to develop and maintain a bisexual identity requires inner strength, self- reliance, confidence, and independence. Many overcome these obstacles by forming their own community, finding accepting friends and lovers, and staying out of the closet despite the consequences.

Transforming adversity. For most bisexuals, coming out and staying out of the closet is an on- going process which must be repeated with every new social situation, workplace, friend, and lover. Many see this process as the most important form of political action, creating visible role models and a cohesive bisexual community. Because most bisexuals have suffered through the first three stages alone and in silence, they want to make it easier for other bisexuals to recognize and embrace their sexual orientation without years of inner turmoil and loneliness. Many also get involved in bisexual political organizations as a way to increase bisexual visibility and promote bisexuality as a viable identity. Just as gay men and lesbians were only able to win some rights through fighting in both the social and political arenas, bisexuals will only win political and human rights through coming out of the closet and developing political clout. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU? Does any of this sound familiar? Are you struggling with ambivalence or confusion over your sexual orientation? Or are you ready to embrace a bisexual orientation? Are you seeking community to share your developing identity with others? If so, reach out for support now. Check out one of the many bisexual and questioning support groups listed on the back of this pamphlet, to find a safe place to express your feelings and meet others who are going through similar experiences. One to one counseling or therapy can also be helpful in sorting out feelings and gaining clarity and self-confidence. Be careful to seek out a non-judgmental therapist who is supportive of bisexuality and has expertise in bisexual issues. And joining bisexual social or political groups is also a great way to see visible role models and to allow your bisexual identity to evolve in a way that fits you. and last, but certainly not least, there are now many excellent books on bisexuality which may help you understand and fully embrace your sexual orientation.



Political and social organizations: Bay Area Bisexual Network (BABN) (415)-703-7977 Information, social groups and events, political action, sponsors "Fencesitter's Lounge" dance parties for bisexuals, publishes "Anything That Moves," the magazine for the card-carrying bisexual. Bi-Pol (415)-821-3534 Political action and advocacy organization Bi-Friendly (415)-703-7977, box 4 Social group which holds discussion/support groups in SF, East Bay, Marin, San Jose, Palo Alto, and Santa Cruz; sponsors social events, parties, and trips, and publishes monthly newsletter listing all bisexual events in the Bay Area. Support Groups/Discussion Groups for Bisexuals: East Bay: Pacific Center For Human Growth (Berkeley) (510)-548-8283 Rainbow Community Center (Pleasant Hill) (510)-927-8705 Bi-Friendly East Bay (Berkeley) (415)-703-7977, box 4 San Francisco: SF Women's Bi Group (415)-775-2620 3 x 3 Bi People of Color Caucus (415)-703-7977, ext. 3 Bi Men of Color Group (510)-540-0869 Bi Men's Rap Group (510)-658-0192 BLUR for bisexual and questioning youth age 23 and under 1-800-246- PRIDE Jewish Bi Caucus (415)-337-4566 European/Latin Bi Group (415)-668-9900 Counselors and Psychotherapists with expertise in bisexual issues: East Bay: Mary Bradford, PhD, MFCC (510)-843-5508 Kim Hraca, MFCC (510)-601-1859 Kathy Labriola, Counselor/Nurse (510)-841-5307 or 464-4652 Pacific Center for Human Growth (510)-548-8283 low-fee counseling Gaylesta (888)-869-4993 (toll-free) therapist referral network San Francisco: Maggie Rubenstein PhD (415)-584-0172 Ron Fox PhD (415)-751-6714 William Henken, PhD (415)-923-1150 Little, J.R. (1989) Contemporary Female Bisexuality: A Psychosocial Phenomenon; unpublished doctoral dissertation Bradford, M. (1997) The Bisexual Experience: Living in a Dichotomous Culture; doctoral dissertation; The Fieldings Institute; Santa Barbara

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Kathy Labriola provides low-fee counseling for individuals, couples, and groups. She has extensive experience assisting people with the challenges of non-traditional relationships, health problems and disabilities, HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation crises, political activism, and class struggle. She also facilitates discussion and support groups on open relationships, health and disabilities, and political activism and burnout.