"What's So Funny About Bisexual Separatism?"

Speech presented June 25, 1994


You told me,
biphobia is a non-issue
we're really all bisexual
Everybody is really fundamentally bisexual

And what you seemed to mean by that was
don't talk about it anymore.)

Like maybe you figure somehow
cause you like rap
you're actually sort of
and that makes it okay
for you
white boy
to be
Honorarily Not White
Not Responsible
for doing anything actually useful

But back on everybody being bisexual
does that mean you?  I asked
What I said would indicate that it does, you said
in words of very small brick
I don't believe you, I said
What?  you grated
I'm sorry, but I don't believe you
I said

You just don't look happy enough.

I wrote that poem a bunch of years ago after a somewhat difficult conversation. I still don't like it when the notion of universal bisexuality is used to shut conversation down. That's probably because I like listening to people talking about this stuff. And I really don't like it when the notion of universal bisexuality is used to pressure or invalidate people for whom things don't work the way the speaker thinks they oughtta work, and sometimes that's how the notion gets used.

And y'know, I don't think I'd like it if "looking happy enough" were the entrance exam, either. I think I'm kind of allergic to enrollment requirements for liberation movements, if you know what I mean. But hey - I wrote the poem when I was pissed off, so I fought one definition of bisexual identity with another. But I'm not going to make a speech about dueling definitions.

There's a lot I'm not going to speechify about this morning, like the past thirty years of bisexual history in the Midwest, or why latex is my friend, or essentialist versus eclectic bisexuality, or the intricacies of my polyamorous romantic and sexual life.

Instead I'm going to tell you about my friend Victor, and about a comic strip written by a guy named Walt Kelly, and about how the Universe regularly kicks my butt with care and understanding. And I hope to teach you a useful punchline or two.

I used to do a comedy monologue called "Ms. Manner's Guide to Bi Dating." The line that always got a laugh, no matter what audience, was the one about becoming a bisexual separatist.

I asked my friend Victor about that. Victor is a very Midwestern guy. A local. So am I, but I'm not quite as local as Victor is. See, Victor is Native American. Dakota, Rosebud, I believe. And while my mom's people are from out in South Dakota near where Victor's folks' people are from, my mom's people only got there about three generations ago. His folks were there first. By a long shot. He's also Scottish. They got here earlier than the Danes and the Germans who eventually showed up and had kids that had kids that had me.

Victor's a bisexual man. Sometimes he refers to himself as "two-spirited," a term of his people. Well, some of his people, anyhow; I dunno what the Scots call us. We've been friends for more than a decade, and we talk about a lot of stuff like bisexual separatism and why that gets a laugh.

"Well, people wonder how we'd recognize each other, for one thing," he says. True. But there's something more.

I think there's something that makes the idea of forming alliances solely along sexual orientation lines difficult. I think it's that we're so darned complicated.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. Neither is Victor, who is not uncomplicated himself. I usually refer to him as the only Russian-speaking Native American bagpiper you're likely to meet in St. Paul, Minnesota. He likes to make jokes about his biracial bisexual identity, poking fun at categories and people who demand that we restrict ourselves to "one oppression to a customer".

We're so darned complicated. Untidy, too. We don't stay neatly in those categories.

Maybe that's why so many of us resist labels. It's the old maxim, "Question Authority." I guess, as a lifestyle, that's not a bad one. At least it might keep authority from sleepwalking over us.

And when, as sometimes happens, we find that we are authority, it might keep us honest. It might help us remember that when lines are drawn sharply, they often cut. And sometimes people bleed.

I used to think I knew a lot more about bisexuality, and about people and sexuality in general, than I think I know now. What I've learned since then is that the world is full of surprises, and that it's a good thing I'm not in charge, because I couldn't possibly invent such wild and complex human beings and options as seem to spring up naturally. Things got a lot easier once I stopped being in charge of the whole damned universe and began to let it teach me instead.

One of the things it taught me in the last ten years is something really useful. How many of you are on the 'Net? (hands) Well, there's a habit there, when you write and post something expressing your opinions and practices, of ending that message with the initials YMMV. Stands for "Your Mileage May Vary." Radical concept for some of us.

I learned about that once when I was asked to facilitate a meeting for a lesbian group on one of the many Twin Cities college campuses. They asked me because I had done some work at Take Back the Night and other venues where we encouraged women of many sexual identities and descriptions to talk across, around,in spite of and about these differences. This lesbian group wanted me to facilitate their first meeting of the school year. The topic was lesbians and biwomyn working together in the group. It was a hot topic.

See, the previous year was the one where one lesbian member of the group had threatened to assault a bisexual member because of her orientation and presence in the group. When the bi woman was standing at the top of a stairwell after the meeting, the angry lesbian threatened to "push her down the stairs and break all her bones."

And the women leading the group this year wanted this year to go a little differently.

But what I wanted to tell you about was about how mileage varies. We had gotten partway through the meeting, sharing viewpoints about wonderful stuff, bi and lesbian identification and race and culture and class issues, ways that choices of meeting time or location affected women who were Jewish, women who were under legal drinking age, all sorts of really important issues that every group talks about when it gets real, and all of a sudden I asked how it felt to be talking about these things, and talking about being women who love women.

One woman said, "Well, it's kind of strange to be here. I'm an international student from the Netherlands, and at home everybody who is gay is just gay, like that, right in the open, so at home there would never be a group like this."

And the next woman opened her mouth and said, "It's strange for me to be here too. I'm an international student also, from Portugal, and at home everybody is closeted, no one is out, everybody is so scared, so at home there would never be a group like this."

And I just sat there with my mental mouth hanging open saying to myself, "Yeah. Yeah. That's how it is, all right, each of us next door to each other with a completely alien yet familiar experience." And I wondered, not for the first time, how we'd ever learn to honor our differences.

And yet, there are good reasons to emphasize and organize around our similarities, to work against homophobia, to seek ways to understand ourselves and build things that improve and delight each other and those we love. When I came out as bisexual, I was 15 years old. I think it was the first time I had heard the word, and I just went, "Boingggg! Oh! Right. That's me," and went on being the same basically unhappy farm town teenager I was before, for the most part. But I remembered the word, and used it to describe myself. That was in 1975. And later, much later, I found other people who used the word too, who weren't afraid of the word.

My easy acceptance of the term was, in a way, a great stumbling block to me. I knew nobody out there in the world was going to understand what I meant or what I was. Heck, they never had before, so why should they start now? I knew that saying "bisexual" did not mean the conversation was over or that anything was settled. I just figured that, like Judy Grahn's poem about how each aspect from dyke to stone butch to femme was another way of being a woman, that how I was was another way of being bisexual. So I never fought the battles of the ones who refuse labels, and I learned later than some what strength there is to be found in that.

And there is strength in resisting labels. A guy I know named Steve Silberman, who goes by the name <digaman> on the WELL, where I mislay a great deal of my nonexistent spare time, said, "Labels make me itch, so I tear them out." It took me a while to see that sometimes, if you're not fiddling around with a label, there's nothing between you and direct experience and your own perceptions of that. Latex isn't the only barrier method. Sometimes a label is a glove for the mind, and I'm not sure we've thought about whether minds and bodies have different risk factors. Unlabelled experience can be strong stuff.

But I didn't mind the label when I came out. Nobody knew precisely what a bisexual was, anyhow, except for the idea that we were "capable of anything", which I kind of liked as a concept. One benefit of being a pariah with a label has always been the freedom, within the space of that label, to define one's own self and make more room inside the label. On the outside of that marginal space, of course, somebody with more social power makes definitions. But since most of them were at the time saying that bisexuals didn't exist and that we were dangerous, I figured it meant we were kind of like unicorns, which appealed to me because I spent all my spare moments buried in science fiction and fantasy books anyhow, so I just took my mythical horn down the road and parked myself under some wild rosebushes, eating clover and thinking about what I could do when I was a little more grown up and had more reach.

What I wound up doing was cofounding a group called Biwimmin Welcome, and a conference called BECAUSE, and talking on panels at science fiction conventions and women's events and damn near every place with a table and a microphone about the B word and what some of us might be seeing from our interesting vantage point.

That's where Walt Kelly comes in. Remember? I promised you Walt Kelly. Walt Kelly used to wri comic strip called Pogo. I used to read it when I was a little kid, years before I knew what "coming out" was, or that it mattered to some people to whom I pledged allegiance, innies, or outies, or both.

See, in all those years of activist work, of organizing, I had gotten into a bad habit. I had forgotten that sometimes something that is a good tool can also keep you stuck.

I had discovered the power of the tool called identity.

Identity is a fine and lovely and lifesaving thing, a lot of times, and I am delighted to hear another human being find his or her voice and speak their truth, and I'm delighted to see what changes we can make when we find others like us and work together.


"Others like us." There's the rub. I forgot that when we find comfort in "us" and "them", we are sometimes uncovering the unacknowledged chasm of differing experience and other times we're retreating from kinship with people not so different after all, or kin because of their difference, because of what they know about how to live their different lives that might directly apply to our lives. Sometimes what they know is the only thing that will save us or comfort us, and we sit divided from each other by the lines in the sand, dying of thirst next to a pitcher of water.

Whenever I get too high and mighty about bisexual ideology, or, worse, defining just who is and isn't a bisexual, who is Us and who is Them, Walt Kelly's character Pogo appears to me and repeats his famous line, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Now, I've seen people from the West Coast who think of West Coast folk as Us and East Coast folk as Them. And I've seen it played vice-versa. Being from the Midwest, I have at times muttered, "Bicoastal Imperialists," and damned the both of ya as Them. And when we denizens of the United States deign to look up out of our navels and notice that there is a rest of the world, Us and Them gets even more of a workout.

Shifting allegiances abound. Identification moves around. As Victor says, it's not one to a customer, either. I'm hard of hearing. Does that make me a Them to some of you? Or, if that makes us Us-es to each other, how completely does that "Us-ness" explain either of us? I've had a lot of trouble coming to terms with my hearing loss, becuase I looked at the Deaf folks on one side of the definition and the hearing folks on the other side, and me neither one nor the other, and I said, "Oh, no, not this again!"

Bisexual separatists. We're just so hard to spot in a crowd. Good thing, too, maybe. Maybe we'll forget to pledge allegiance and remember how to learn from each other, regardless of the flags.

Now I was going to tell you about how the Universe regularly kicks my butt with care and understanding, but first I have to tell you about a joke that some people in my town have been telling for a while on ourselves.

It started when my friend Joel told us a joke that he had heard Bill Cosby tell. It seems that Bill was good friends with Ray Charles, an incredible musician who was blind, and that one day Bill had gone over to Ray's house to visit. He knocked on the door, Ray yelled for him to come in, and Bill came in and yelled back, "Where are you, Ray?' And Ray said, "I'm over here, Bill. C'mon back. I'm just shaving." And Bill said, telling the joke later, "You know how sometimes your mouth starts up and your brain can't get there in time? I heard my mouth saying, `Why you shaving in the dark, Ray?'" And Ray just said mildly, "Bill, I been shaving in the dark all my life."

So a few days later my friend Joel is out with our friend Mike. Now Mike is diabetic, insulin dependent, and they happen to be going through a drugstore and Joel notices the syringes for sale there and starts making a joke. "What is this, we've got a blue light special for the junkie trade? Who would...uh..." and the penny drops. "Why you shaving in the dark, Ray?"

So a while later Mike comes over to visit Joel and happens to arrive there a few moments after I leave. This was back when I had less powerful hearing aids than I have now, but it probably wouldn't have mattered. Mike said to Joel, "Excuse me, but was Elise just here?" Joel said yeah, I had just left. Mike said, "That's funny. I thought that was her. I wonder what's wrong. I mean, I said hi, and she didn't even....oh. Why you shaving in the dark, Ray?"

So a few weeks ago I was visiting friends down in South Carolina, and one day we took a tour of a former plantation that was burned and looted by Union troops, and I was beginning to understand a few things about North and South and history, and I thought, "Wow. I never really realized that this place here was an occupied country. Victor's interested in military history. I wonder if he's ever thought about.....oh. Why you shaving in the dark, Ray?"

Kate Bornstein just made me ask that question again, because she helped the universe kick my butt with care and understanding. She did this inadvertantly, but I'm grateful all the same. She wrote a book called Gender Outlaw, and in it she says,

"Question: Is androgyny desirable or attainable?

"Androgyny assumes that there's male stuff on one side of a spectrum, and female stuff on another side of that spectrum. And somewhere in the middle of this straight line, there's an ideal blend of "male" and "female". However, by saying there's a "middle", androgyny really keeps the opposites in place. By saying that we have a "male side" and a "female side", we blind ourselves to all the beautiful shades of identity of which we are each capable. Androgyny could be seen as a trap of the bi-polar gender system, as it further establishes the idea of two-and-only-two genders."

Wow, I though. I hadn't though of it that way before. And then the Universe grabbed me gently by the scruff of the neck and made me read through it again with an important wording change:

"Question: Is bisexuality desirable or attainable?

"Bisexuality assumes that there's heterosexual stuff on one side of a spectrum, and homosexual stuff on another side of that spectrum. And somewhere in the middle of this straight line, there's an ideal blend of "heterosexual" and "homosexual". However, by saying there's a "middle", bisexuality really keeps the opposites in place. By saying that we have a "heterosexual side" and a "homosexual side", we blind ourselves to all the beautiful shades of sexuality of which we are each capable. Bisexuality could be seen as a trap of the bi-polar sexuality system, as it further establishes the idea of two-and-only-two sexual orientations."

Hmmm, says I thinking over how many times, even though I know that bisexuality is not half homo and half hetero, half k.d. lang and half Heather Locklear, I've slipped into language supporting dualistic thinking instead of going deeper and challenging the nature or the existence of the division itself. Sure, the division is real -- it's as real as any other social construct we decide is real. Whether that's a tool used to build or a weapon used to divide depends on what we're doing, and how we're defining, and treating, Us and Them at that moment.

All I can say when I catch myself doing it is "Why ya shaving in the dark, Ray?" And then I thank Kate, or Victor, or you, for helping the Universe on its therapeutic butt-kicking mission, and I get back to work.

I hope I have encouraged and unsettled you in equal measure, and trust that you'll return the favor when it's needed. I look forward to the work we'll be doing today and after today. Thank you for inviting me.

This speech is copyright 1994, Elise Matthesen. Making copies to share with friends is perfectly fine with me as long as this copyright notice and permission is also copied; making copies to sell is not okay with me. If you're an editor, you can reach me at 612-290-1246 or at lioness@well.com, and we can talk business. If you're an editor of a small organizational newsletter, please be aware that I am happy about being asked for permission to reprint, and really unhappy about reprints without permission. Call or mail me and we'll talk.

Elise Matthesen
Last modified: Thu Aug 4 00:18:47 1994