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Bisexual History 101: What they won’t teach you in school

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May 10, 2023

Bisexual History 101: What they won’t teach you in school
  • Bisexuality is the romantic or sexual attraction to more than one gender, but bisexual advocates like Robyn Ochs intentionally left the definition as broad as possible. 

    Like any identity, bisexuality isn’t a monolith. Other identities like pansexual, fluid, or queer can fall under the bi umbrella.  In my experience, I’ve found the bi community to be one of the most welcoming, diverse groups of people you’ll find on this earth. There’s something special about an identity based on loving more than just one gender! 

    That being said, there are also lots of pervasive and destructive stereotypes about bisexuality — maybe because it’s too powerful. Some of these stereotypes categorize us as unfaithful, confused, or deceptive. 

    Biphobia and the way it intersects with transphobia, misogyny, racism, and other intersectional identities have tangible and sometimes violent effects on the lives of bi+ people. 

    I find it powerful to see the way this bigotry comes from the way that being bi makes the world more nuanced and beautiful. Heteronormativity, White Supremacy, and Transphobia all have a vested interest in maintaining systemic power, which requires pushing away this nuance that starts to show the cracks in the heteropatriarchal foundation.    

    For this reason, it may come as no surprise that the history of bisexuality is often forgotten, which is a shame because there have been people who have been romantically involved with multiple genders, since… forever. And there are countless other cultures with different concepts of gender and sexuality that have always made space for queerness. 

    Of course, one of the difficulties of studying LGBTQIA+ history is that people often didn’t self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual for fear of stigma and violence, or also because these terms were still emerging. Our culture often perceives a person with any same-sex attraction as gay or lesbian, even if they have relationships with multiple genders. 

    As historians have come to understand queerness in history, bisexuality deserves a central role in this conversation.

    Where did the word “bisexual” come from?

    The word bisexual had been used to describe pretty much everything, the wind in trees, the breeze in your hair. I mean, not really, but in the early 1900s, people were not using this word in the same way. 

    Irish physician Robert Bently Todd is credited with the first use of the term “bisexuality” in 1859, describing the possession of male and female physical traits, what we would consider intersex today. By the early 1900s, the term had evolved to describe gender expression, what we might call androgyny today. In 1915, toward the beginning of his career, Sigmund Freud claimed that all people were “innately bisexual,” but he was speaking about sexual attraction. 

    Bisexuality as the attraction to multiple genders emerged in the 1970s as a more common identity. In the 1980s and 1990s, bi+ advocates pushed to accept the term as an attraction to more than one gender, as opposed to the attraction to “both” genders to reject the gender binary and include trans people. 

    Today, bi+ as an umbrella term for different identities attracted to more than one gender encapsulates a myriad of identities. Of adults that identify as LGBTQ+ in the US, over half (54.6%) identify as bisexual, according to a Gallup poll from 2020. Bisexuality is always evolving and growing — and taking over the world. *Laughs maniacally in bisexual*

    A brief history of bisexuality

    Early 1900s 

    Sex research slowwwwwwwly started to legitimize the existence of bisexuality and same-sex attraction in the 20th century. (And at the same time there was a lot of bogus research maintaining heteronormativity, racism, etc.) 

    One of the most famous sex researchers was Alfred Kinsey, a biologist at Indiana University who saw sexuality on a spectrum. In the 1950s, his studies emphasized that a huge number of people had both same-sex and opposite-sex attractions. 

    1960s and 1970s

    As LGBTQ+ political activism gained traction in the United States, bisexual advocates led protests and organized community spaces alongside other queer people. In June 1969, a police raid of the Stonewall Inn sparked a protest movement for gay rights and galvanized the Gay Liberation Front. 

    Enter bisexual activist Brenda Howard. Known as “The Mother of Pride,” Howard organized a rally with the Gay Liberation Front one month after the uprising, and she planned the first-ever Gay Pride Week the next year. Howard was unapologetic about her sexuality, identifying as bi and also speaking openly about polyamory and kink. 

    Bisexuality, as we know it today, gained recognition in popular culture. In September 1976, David Bowie discussed his bisexuality publicly in an interview. As the gay rights movement took off, so did communities organized by and for bisexual people

    Source: The National Women’s History Museum 

    1980s and 1990s

    In the 1980s, activist Lani Ka’ahumanu founded a number of groups specifically for bisexual people, including the political action group BiPOL. As an advocate, she pushed against biphobia within the LGBTQ movement, making space for multiple-gender-loving people. 

    Ka’ahumanu was also involved in the Bay Area Bisexual Network, which published the famous and hilarious magazine, Anything That Moves. In 1990, the zine published a bisexual manifesto, explicitly saying that bisexuality should not exist in a binary. “Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duo-gamous in nature: that we have ‘two’ sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders.” 

    In Boston, another famous bisexual activist Robyn Ochs helped found the Bisexual Resource Center in 1985, and she has been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights today. 

    Ka’ahumanu and Howard were both instrumental in the inclusion of the B in LGBTQ. In the leadup to the 1993 March on Washington to demand President Ronald Regan take action in the AIDS crisis, they both advocated to include bisexuals in the name of the march, which became “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights.” Ka’ahumanu was the only bisexual to speak on the main stage at the march. 

    2000s to today 

    It might go without saying that a lot has changed very quickly for the LGBTQ community. More people identify as bi+ than ever before, and the plus is growing too with new ways to describe the diversity of sexual attraction. 

    In 2012, Krysten Sinema was the first openly bisexual person elected to Congress. Bisexual characters are on the big and small screen — though it is a drop in the bucket. Celebrities like Frank Ocean, Willow Smith, and Drew Barrymore speak openly about their romantic and sexual relationships with people of multiple genders. Every year, there’s a new list of amazing people who come out as bisexual. World domination! 

    You’re not alone: famous bisexuals in History

    People who are attracted to multiple genders have created so much for society — Star Wars! “Bohemian Rhapsody!” Keynesian economics! 

    As we’ve established, bisexual as a term didn’t gain popularity until the second half of the 20th century. Even though people of the past didn’t self-identify as bi, there is heaps of evidence that bisexuality has existed as long as we have. 

    Queering history can be a messy, controversial process, and there is a tendency to see historical figures with any same-sex relationship as gay or lesbian, thus erasing bisexual history. But we are talking about the great loves of the greats — loves of multiple genders that shouldn’t be diminished for the sake of the gender binary. 

    So you might know these names, but you might not know they had loving relationships with different genders.  

    Source: National Portrait Gallery 

    Virginia Woolf 

    Virginia Woolf is a queer icon close to my heart — a brilliant writer, an early advocate for women’s rights, and a bisexual who loved letter writing. While she was married to Leonard Woolf, she wrote extensively and intimately to Vita Sackville-West, who was openly bisexual. They flirted long-distance via post mail for 20 years. How’s that for bisexual history?

    “Dearest — let me have a line,” Virginia wrote on August 30, 1940, “You have given me such happiness.”

    Source: Wikimedia commons 

    John Maynard Keynes 

    Okay bisexuals, I know we didn’t pay attention in econ 101, but this is the guy who came up with Keynesian economics, which is slightly better than full-on capitalism. Anyway, Keynes was a kinky nerd, and he kept obsessive logs of everyone he was banging, including both men and women. He had mostly male lovers until falling in love and marrying ballerina Lydia Lopkova in 1925. 

    Source: NPR

    Josephine Baker 

    Josephine Baker was beautiful. She could sing. She was a French spy. She was an activist. If that doesn’t sound like a badass bisexual woman, I don’t know what does.  

    Baker grew up facing the relentless racism of the United States and left in the 1920s to achieve great success as a singer in Paris. During WWII, she served as a French spy, delivering messages in invisible ink on her music scores. 

    She was married to several men, but her most famous relationship was with Frida freaking Kahlo. That’s right. History has blessed us. 

    Source: Library of Congress

    Frida Kahlo 

    Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous painters in history, entirely self-taught, known for unforgettable self-portraits. She married fellow painter, Diego Rivera, and they had an infamously troubled marriage with affairs on both sides. Kahlo was openly bisexual, having affairs with men and women, including some of her husband’s mistresses and the one and only Josephine Baker. 

    Source: BBC

    Freddie Mercury

    While Freddie Mercury never labeled his sexuality, the lead singer of the rock band Queen openly dated both men and women. He was engaged to Mary Austin and wrote the song “Love of My Life” about her.  He also was in a relationship with his hairdresser Jim Hutton until Mercury died of pneumonia as a result of AIDS. 

    “Queen’s management spent decades trying to convince the world that Freddie was heterosexual while he was alive, but then conceded to his homosexuality after he had died,” Leslie-Ann Jones, who wrote two biographies on Freddie Mercury, told Them in 2018.  “They would not, however, allow for his bisexuality — even though they embraced and promoted Mary Austin as his one true love.” 



    In my humble opinion, bisexual history is so much better than the history they do teach you in school. Why was I learning about German Unification and the Mississippi Compromise when I could have been talking about everyone’s sex lives? 

    The stigma and violence LGBTQ people have faced in the past is a heavy story. At the same time, a part of this history is about love and the ways it inspires innovation, advocacy, and art.  As a bi+ community, sharing this history allows us to see ourselves in our icons, to hold a collective past.

    Learn more!

     Bi: The Hidden Culture, History and Science of Bisexuality by Julie Shaw 

    Bi Any Other Name – Bisexual People Speak Out, anthology edited by Lani Ka’humanu 

    Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World, anthology edited by Robyn Ochs 

    Bi: Notes for Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner

    Check out the archives of Anything that Moves

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    Catherine Henderson is a journalist based in Chicago. She has worked at a wide variety of newsrooms, including The Denver Post, Chalkbeat, Business Insider and In These Times, covering education, career development and culture. Catherine holds a master’s and bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling, exploring Chicago, reading LGBTQ lit, and analyzing internet trends.

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