Bi History Making

Why bother with bi history?  That was the question discussed by a roomful of bi folk at August’s University of Worcester BiCon.

A facilitated workshop on ‘Bi History Making’ drew a diverse group of delegates, including seasoned bi activists and some participants with academic history backgrounds. Despite the challenging time slot (10 a.m. on the Sunday morning, only a few shorts hours after the previous night’s festivities for some), discussion was impressively coherent.

We focussed on two topics: bisexual history itself, and bi history representation within LGBT History Month.

Firstly, we grappled with the questions “What is bi history?” and “Is bi history important?”

The issue of definitions came up pretty quickly. What exactly is bisexuality in a historical context? Does it refer to sexual identity, behaviour or desire (and who gets to decide)? Are we talking about individual stories or collective events? Can we only use the word ‘bisexual’ to describe post-gay-liberation events and people? What about bisexually behaved historical figures who lived before the word ‘bisexual’ had even been invented? Should public figures who declare themselves to be bisexual at times when this is ‘trendy’ (regrettably brief as such times are) still be considered bi if their sexual behaviour subsequently changes? How do we adjudicate arguments over historical figures’ bi credentials?

A second topic prompting energetic debate was bisexual invisibility within lesbian and gay historical discourse. Bisexuals have regularly been ‘written out’ of contemporary queer history – for example, in accounts of late twentieth century queer events, personalities and politics. We discussed the reasons for this, and its consequences. Are biphobic lesbian and gay historians actively choosing to omit bisexual people and events from the history books? Does such invisibility happen inadvertently, for example when terms such as ‘gay’, originally intended (in the early 1970s) to include bisexuals, are reinterpreted over time to mean ‘homosexual’?

The disappearance of bisexual history from queer history representation means that many potential bi role models are erased. We need these role models, especially when we’re young and/or coming out as bi.  Research shows that queer folks’ health behaviours are significantly affected by their sense of sexual identity, or lack thereof.  Bi people face many negative stereotypes, destructive attitudes and intimidating behaviour in their lives, especially if they choose to openly identify as bi.  We need strong, inspiring bi role models to help us withstand the institutionalised biphobia that confronts us daily.

Might bi history be important to non-bisexuals? What could it mean to know that a prominent artist or writer was bisexual – could their work be usefully critiqued from this perspective? Would analysis of political and cultural movements be deeper and more informative if the specific involvement and influence of bisexual people, politics and perspectives was explored? We also acknowledged that any history of bisexuality needs to address the influence of major cultural, social and political forces on bi people, and on the bi movement in general.

Talking about bi history led us to discussion about history in general. How is historical evidence generated? Who archives the bi publications, BiCon programmes, websites and significant cultural ephemera of the UK bi movement? Who’s recording oral history from older bi folk? What are the ethics of such research? Who would control bi history archives and make decisions on their use? (How is the bi content of existing queer archives protected and used?) Items of bi historical significance have already been lost – how do we prevent this from happening in the future? The need for historical research skills was acknowledged – if the bi community is to start generating and interpreting historical material, we need the results of our efforts to be as rigorous and useful as possible.

So (after all that!) – LGBT History Month – what’s in it for bisexuals? Is it yet another example of empty bi tokenism? Or could it be an effective platform for bi people to communicate and analyse bisexual history, for ourselves, for the broader L, G & T communities, and for society at large?

The workshop participants all agreed that, of course, LGBT History Month should include representation of specific bisexual history. We also acknowledged the need for bi people to ‘do their bit’ in contributing to the on-going success of this important queer event. We discussed possible formal approaches to developing bi history representation. These would build on the achievements of previous bi history initiatives, and could develop our ideas at a broader level and also within the specific context of LGBT History Month.

Our next challenge is to refine our ideas and start to make things happen. The first steps have been taken. Online resources on bi history have already been set up, and bi folk have contributed to past LGBT History Month events (and even run them!) We hope that the ‘Bi History Making’ workshop will represent part of an ongoing development of bi history awareness within the bisexual community, which will grow into further, specifically bisexual history events and initiatives we can be proud of.

Bi invisibility? Let’s make it ancient history (except of course they were doing it then too!).

Lisa Colledge

A shorter version of this article appears in the online LGBT History Month Bulletin.  If you’re interested in making bi history visible, e-mail [email protected] to join our mailing list.