Bi Books

A sudden rush of bisexual publications over recent months – with many more to follow – might be stretching your financial resources. “Which ones should I buy ? ” we hear you ask. Have no fear, BCN takes you through the creme de la creme and the cream of the crap.

Bisexual Horizons: politics, histories, lives

Edited by Sharon Rose, Cris Stevens et al. London ( Lawrence and Wishart, 1995)
(here on amazon)

“The most comprehensive collection of materials to date on bisexual living and loving” claims the introduction to this book – a claim with which one could quibble, given that the American collection Bi Any Other name weighs in at just over 20 pages more, but Bisexual Horizons is cetainly the most impressive colllection of writings seen in the UK so far. Comparisons to Bi Any Other Name are inevitable: both books have as their aim the recognition of bisexuality as a valid sexual and political identity, consist of contributions by (predominantly) self-defined bisexuals, and are divided into categories under various headings (personal stories, politics, etc.). However, this volume has its own distinct identity and the overall tone is quite different from the sometimes cloying idealism which has often pervaded previous works on bisexuality. Individual life-stories are an important part of Bisexual Horizons, as in the Off Pink Collective’s earlier groundbreaking volume, Bisexual Lives, but here they are seen within a social and political context which emphasises the growth of a self-consciously political movement among bisexuals in the UK and elsewhere (the articles on the bi movement in Germany and Holland are a welcome confirmation that bisexual organising is not confined to Britain and the USA, an impression that might well be gained from other literature).

The collective has obviously taken great pains to ensure that contributions represent as many sections of the bisexual community as possible, and for the most part have succeeded without falling into the trap of tokenism. I found Louis Hamilton’s “Deaf Bisexuality” and Naomi Tucker’s “Pasing: pain or privilege?” especially thought-provoking, and Karen Arden’s “Dwelling in the House of Tomorrow” is one of the few pieces on bisexual parents I have seen anywhere. However, the allocation of articles to the four main categories seems arbitrary at times. Why is an article on SM in the section on HIV, Aids and safer sex ? Of course, SMers need to know about and practice safer sex, but so does everyone else, and this is hardly the main point of the article.

I certainly didn’t agree with every opinion expressed in Bisexual Horizons and I’m sure the editors would be heartened rather than dismayed by this. Any collection of this type is saddled with the burden of having to represent an entire community/movement/disparate group of people, both to itself and to the lesbian, gay, and straight readership. Sensibly, the editors have realised this, and allowed contributors to express themselves in their own words (in a few cases, allowing them just enough rope to tie themselves up in their own arguments), leaving readers to draw our own conclusions. It can only be a positive sign that a mainstream publisher has taken the risk of publishing such a book, and hopefully Bisexual Horizons will pave the way for more serious writing by, for and about bisexuals in this country.

Claire Parry

Vice Versa: bisexuality and the eroticism of everyday life

Marjore Garber, (Hamish Hamilton 1996)
(here on amazon)

If you saw The Chrystal Rose Show, you might think that this book advances the theory of a bisexual gene – but in fact Garber devotes an entire chapter to a comprehensive trashing of all attempts to find a genetic basis for human sexualities.We don’t, she points out, expect to find a gene for being attracted to brown eyes, or high heels, or shaved heads – why do we expect to find one for being attrtacted to a particular sex ?

Instead, Garber is at pains to stress the multiplicity of sexuality – how unexpected desires can find their way into any situation, making the idea of fixed “sexualities” or “sexual identities” suspect. In particular, she is interested in how same-sex desires should find their way into the lives of those who predominantly experience opposite sex desire. And, as the title says, vice versa.

This is a five hundred page tome that ploughs through a bisexual history of the western world: Stephen Spender, D.H.Lawrence, Frieda Kahlo, Virginia Woolf …. The list is virtually endless, and all your favourite bisexals turn up somewhere. Indeed, almost everyone turns up somewhere, which is Garber’s problem. She knows enough about politics to know that identities are self-chosen, and that you shouldn’t go around telling people that they are bisexual. But on the other hand, her devotion to Freud’s notion of an original bisexuality is so complete that she can’t help implying at every turn that everyone is bisexual, really. (Which is presumably why she has been so well received by the bi comunity in the USA, and is likely to get the same reception here). Much as she strenuously avoids saying it, it’s hard to tell what other conclusion she is reaching.

It’s hard to tell what conclusions she is reaching at all, in fact. Just as she starts to go into any argument in depth, she offers us an off-the-cuff speculation, and then swerves onto a new subject. “Could bisexuality be” she is fond of pondering “the end of categorisation as we know it?” I don’t know Marj, I wish to God you’d tell us.

And this is Garber’s next major failing: for her, there is only one way of thinking about sexuality, that of the West. The idea that other cultures have produced radically different ways of thinking about sexuality never seems to have occurred to her. Although she touches on the Harlem Renaissance, and James Baldwin, her focus is resolutely white and western. You might remember me laying into Breaking The Barriers to Desire a couple of months back for making sweeping generalisations about non-western countries, but what I wouldn’t give for a bit of facile cultural relativism. Oh to hear those words “but of course, at other times and in other places, bisexuality appears rather differently”.

In its favour, this range of sources makes it a book packed full of references and pointers, for those who want to follow them up. So if you’ve never read Henry James’ The Bostonians, or never seen Cabaret, you’ll find tidy synopses here, but woefully little analysis. You can then do some thinking for yourself – because rest assured, you won’t find any thinking about them in here.

Jo Eadie

Bisexuality and the challenge to lesbian politics:sex, loyalty, and revolution

Paula C Rust (New York University Press 1995)
(here on amazon)

At first glance this is not an appealing book – the naff cover art is the first thing you notice, followed by the opening sentence: “What does The Lesbian Community think about bisexuality?” (In fairness, Rust dismisses the myth of the monolithic Lesbian Community pretty swiftly.) If I had not previously read the interview with Rust in issue 37 of Bifrost, I would have approached the book with even more trepidation: maybe the thought of an entire volume devoted to what lesbians think of bisexual women just brings out my worst insecurities. The 50-odd pages of pie charts, diagrams and tables didn’t help my initial impressions either.

It is also somewhat outdated. The initial research on which the book is based was carried out in 1986, and it shows: the concept of political lesbianism and the characterization of men as the “oppressor class”, common in feminist thought in the 1970s and 1980s, can be clearly distinguished in the comments of many of Rust’s interviewees. This makes for an awkward shift in tone in the final chapter, in which Rust discusses the development of the bisexual movement in the late 80s and early 90s: the feminist movement and the lesbian and gay movement underwent huge changes during this period, but this is not reflected. Indeed, Rust seems to think that the bisexual movement has in some sense superseded the lesbian movement, seeing the bisexual movement as “the final revolution in the wheel of identity politics” and speculating that “if lesbiansm undermines the heteropatriarchy, bisexuality undermines not only the heteropatriarchy but the fundamental structure of Western thought”. Now correct me if I am wrong, but I have a suspicion that if that last sentence had come from a bisexual, it would have been interpreted as bisupremacist or, at best, hopelessly naive.

Thre are some interesting findings though. One of the most remarkable being that Rust’s sample of bisexual women held many of the same negative attitudes towards bisexuality as were held by many of the lesbians. This lack of self-esteem among bisexual women is depressing but in many ways unsurprising – these women were responding to a questionnnaire distributed through the lesbian feminist press, and may have felt compelled to present themseves as lesbian-identified in the political climate of the time. It would be interesting to see how the self-identity of bisexual women has changed over the past ten-years – maybe Rust should do a follow-up survey.

However, this book is, as Rust makes clear in her introduction, not aimed at bisexuals: it is aimed at, and ultimately about, lesbians: “The issue that excites us is not really bisexuality: the issue is lesbianism. The so-called bisexual debate is really a debate over who we are and what we stand for as lesbians.” This begs the question of where the bisexual reader of this book is expected to position herself: it does feel somewhat uncomfortable to be dismissed as the red herring of someone else’s movement before even getting to Chapter One. I was left wondering quite what the point of it all was and whether in the end we learn anything we didn’t already know about “what the Lesbian Community thinks of bisexuality” or whether, indeed, the Lesbian Community learned anything more than what one particular lesbian thinks about us

Claire Parry

Bisexual Politics: theories, queries, and visions

Edited by Naomi Tucker ( Harrington Park Press 1995)
(here on amazon)

The editors of this new US anthology tell us: “Each potential contributor to this anthology submitted a brief ‘definition’ of bisexual politics. It came as no surprise that those 70 people conceived of bisexual politics in 70 uniquely different ways”. Hooray for that good old bisexual diversity.

If only they had. What we in fact have is a thoroughly predictable repetition of everything about bisexual politics that we all already know. Lesbians and gay men don’t treat us very well. Society is organised to benefit heterosexuals. Bisexuals get stereotyped. Feminism is a good thing (but the book offers no original feminist analysis); racism is a bad thing (but the intersection of race and sexuality never gets explored in any depth). And binary thinking ? Well, you’ll all be pleased to hear that there’s someone on hand to tell us it’s still as much of a problem as it ever was. What I resent most, is the implication that somehow any of this might come as news to any bisexual who has had more than ten minutes to think about bisexual politcs, when the community is made up of many who have been doing so for more than ten years.

Setting out what they are, and aren’t, doing, the editors state: “this is not a research book. It is a collection of opinions.” Well, that might be just great if I had no opinions of my own, or no friends who had any opinions, or never went to events where I heard opinions.

But actually, I have more of all of those than I know what to do with – and I would rather appreciate a little more sustained thinking, and a little less friendly chat. A book then, for those who have no opinions on bisexual politics, and are looking for some.

On the back, Pat Califia tells us: “this is the next generation. Ignore it at your peril!” That Star Trek analogy just might say it all. Where the first wave could be legitimately described as challenging, because it was trying out areas that had never been addressed before, to find the next generation unable to do much more than repeat the cliches of the first, in the hope that they will still seem as fresh, is an embarassment to all concerned.

Jo Eadie