20th Century Bi

In February, I went to a seminar at Conway Hall in London as part of LGBT History Month. It was about the history of bisexuality in the 20th century (clue’s in the name).

What follows is, as ever, in no sense a representative account of what was said, just some of the things that interested me.

First off, Sue George talked about bisexuality before the 1960s, nicely overviewing the familiar terrain of androgyny, the impact of the Well of Loneliness, the bohemian freedoms for a few in the 20s and 30s and in the Second World War, followed by the social clamp down of the late 40s and 50s. One thing she said that I hadn’t thought about before was that the fashions of the 20s were actually remarkable androgynous, at least from the waist up. Did the fallout from the Well of Loneliness contribute to the more gender-marked fashions of the 1930s?

She also suggested that in the 1930s and beyond there was less discursive space for women to be bisexual (or ‘ambisextrous’ as one contemporary apparently, possibly jokingly, termed it), since a woman who had sex with women became seen as a lesbian.

I also liked a quote from Tallulah Bankhead:
“My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.”

The next speaker was Christian Klesse on the connections between bisexuality and polyamory. This talk was, to my mind, the odd-one-out of the seminar, being both much more academic and less historical than the others, but it was still interesting. I was most interested in some of the things his interviewees had said about poly. One apparently said something along the lines of ‘poly is about love, non-monogamy is about sex’. I understand the rhetorical point they were presumably making, but I don’t think I use the terms like that – I think of non-monogamy as the umbrella term and poly as a particular type of non-monogamy, alongside practices like swinging and open relationships. (My own favourite definition is still a friend’s: ‘adultery by committee’.)

He also cited someone talking about the invention of the word ‘polyamory’ (in the early 1990s) and saying that although it mixes greek and latin, the alternative ‘polyphilia’ sounded like paedophilia (it just makes me imagine a fetish for decorator’s filler). Christian pointed out the way this suggests that, even from its inception, being poly was a defensive position, highly attuned to the wider context of sexual politics.

The next speaker was supposed to be Lindsay River but unfortunately she was ill, so Sue George stood in, speaking about bi in the 1970s, mainly autobiographically, which I always like.

She talked about the way that for her David Bowie connected bisexuality with creativity, androgyny and glam rock. She said that in the early and mid 70s polymorphous perversion was cool, but by the late 70s sexual politics had become much more polarised into lesbian, gay and straight. She said that when she first went to university in 1978 it was unremarkable and fine in her friendship circles to be bi, but that by the time she left in 1981 it was pretty much impossible to have a girlfriend without being a lesbian. That reminded me of my own experiences of sexual politics at university in the late 80s and early 90s.

The final speaker was Ian Watters who gave what I’m sure he won’t mind me describing as a bitchy, partial and highly amusing account of the history of bi involvement in London Pride. He also had photographs, which I’d have loved to have been able to see better, for the fun of people-spotting.

Then there was a general discussion session, where some of the familiar topics were hashed out again. Do people need organised bi communities anymore, if sexuality has become so fluid and variable and permissive, and you can meet people and get information on the internet? Is it only middle-aged dinosaurs and politicos (I count myself as both) who still do identity politics?

Sue George said that she had noticed a change from people saying ‘I have (or want to have) poly relationships’ to making an identity statement ‘I am poly (even if currently single)’. So poly becoming something that pertains to the person rather than to a particular relationship.

Then the seminar finished and most people went to a pub with a fabulous Victorian interior (the Princess Louise) which made me feel like a character in a Sarah Waters novel.

Many thanks to Lisa Colledge and Sue George for organising the seminar.

Rebecca Jones