Shiri Eisner challenges assumptions about what it means to be bisexual. The Tel Aviv, Israel-based writer is the author of Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, which was nominated for a Lamda Literary Award last year. Her message is timely as the world recognizes Celebrate Bisexuality Day on September 23. According to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles, half of the gay, lesbian, and bi population of the United States population identifies as bisexual. And a British poll this August showed that a whopping 42 percent of all English people between the ages of 18 to 24 consider themselves somewhere on the bisexual spectrum—they’re neither completely heterosexual nor completely homosexual. With each generation, it seems, people see their sexuality as less set in stone. Although they face higher rates of violence, depression, and unemployment than straight folks, bi people rarely have community services oriented specifically toward them. Eisner discusses such marginalization in detail in Bi.
Only a week after July’s devastating stabbings at Jerusalem Pride, the radical bisexual, genderqueer pioneer sat down for an in-depth conversation with Bitch about the changing nature of bisexual identity and the myths that still persist about bi people.
There have been quite a few online pieces on bisexuality lately, but you say their discussions are often too simplistic. What do you mean?
There are so many issues that we should be discussing, but we are not because we’re always talking about bisexual stereotypes and erasure. Like, various intersections between feminism and bisexuality and how bisexual women experience biphobia; the way that bisexuality interacts with race and gender identity; what bi people of color and bi trans people have to say. The terrible, terrible statistics about depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder, poverty, the poor health and various other topics really need to be emphasized.
Despite these oppressions, it seems like many people still consider bisexuality a privileged orientation.
I think there’s perception that bisexuality is inherently oppressive to any other group, regardless of intersectionality or actual power. It’s used to always delegitimize bisexuality when, in fact, bi people are not inherently privileged. I actually think it has something to do with misogyny, as well, because most people who identify as bisexual are women. Women are an easy target.
In your book, you reclaim a lot of stereotypes about bisexuals. For instance, you say that their so-called confusion about their sexual orientation can be a ‘destabilizing agent of social change’ that makes people doubt previously unquestioned identities and structures. How does reclaiming stereotypes, rather than refuting them, work for a radical bisexual movement?
One of the problems with the focus of bi dialogues on so-called myth-busting is it inherents the rules of normativity. If we’re saying, ‘No, we’re not confused; no, we’re not promiscuous; no, we’re not greedy,’ then we accept that it’s wrong to be confused, it’s wrong to be greedy, it’s wrong to be promiscuous. And I want to ask, why do we have to work by their rules? Society calls us all of these things because these things are fears. When we’re called confused, it’s an attempt to create a clear separation between heterosexuality and homosexuality, so there is a clear-cut distinction that doesn’t endanger straight people from going over to the “wrong” side of the equation. Or when we’re called promiscuous, it’s because society fears sexuality outside of heteronormativity, outside of monogamy, outside of marriage, outside of the norm.
That stereotype about promiscuity can lead to assumptions that bisexual women consent to people’s hypersexualization of them, right?
A lot of the time when women say they are bisexual, there’s an automatic perception that they’re a willing sex object. That we want to be objectified, that we exist to fulfill men’s sexual desires—specifically cisgender and heterosexual men. It feeds a lot on images of bisexual women in pornography. It’s kind of funny, with all of the bisexual erasure in culture, one of the only areas of culture where bisexual people actually have a presence is porn. The label ‘lesbian’ isn’t for the women participating; it’s for the men to be able to find what they’re looking for. It’s also because men want to believe that lesbians are actually bisexual, and all bisexual women are actually straight, and women who are attracted to women actually really need a man and don’t know it. It’s a lot about centering men as the real issue of women who are attracted to women. But it’s not about them. It’s about us.
You call the mainstream LGBTQ movement the GGGG movement, standing for Gay, Gay, Gay and Gay. Why?
Most LGBTQ movements are actually dominated by cisgender, white, gay men, and there are not enough resources directed toward other groups. Heteronormativity can be narrowed down to LGBTQ communities and imposed on other community members that we have to fit into mainstream society rules to gain acceptance. Lesbians, trans people, bi people [and] ace people don’t get enough resources, and a lot of other groups—bi and trans people of color, people in poverty, homeless youth.
Millions of dollars in the United States were invested the marriage movement while bi, trans and queer people were literally dying in the streets. [The mainstream LGBTQ movement’s] a structure that prioritizes the interests of those already privileged. We don’t need to change the way we are in order to fit society; we need to change society because the way that it’s built right now is harmful.
How can we start fixing society in the next few years?
We obviously don’t have those tens of millions of dollars to spend on promoting bisexuality and awareness of bi erasure and monosexism. So, we have to use what we have, and what we have are our communities. We can use each other to organize. There’s a lot of problematic dynamics going on inside [preexisting LGBTQ and bi] organizations that are very hard to change. When a lot of bi people join them and try to change them from inside to bring more inclusiveness and bring more resources where they’re needed, change is possible, but only to a degree.
There are certain ideas that are the basis for every organization. For example, one organization is founded with the purpose of promoting equality. Then it’s going to follow a derived dialogue because the purpose described from the beginning has an influence on the activity later on. And I’m thinking of equality as an example because I don’t want equality. Because equality presumes that the system is basically okay, and we just need to make amendments to make room for others. If we want to make something that is radically different, then we have to make it for ourselves.
You talk a lot about bisexuals being accused of reinforcing the gender binary. Why are terms like “pansexual” and “omnisexual” more acceptable in some queer communities?
There’s like an everlasting pariah status to bisexuality that I can’t exactly explain. This is partially why I like bisexuality: because it’s so difficult for so many people, and I think it says something about bisexuality because difficulty means challenge. For a long time, there has been this current in queer politics and theory ascribing subversive qualities to bisexual behavior, while depicting bisexual identity as problematic. So, words like ‘queer’ or ‘pansexual’ enable people to take bisexual behavior without bisexual identity, and suddenly the behavior becomes subversive and political and shiny, while the word remains in the shadows.
Some say because the word bisexual includes bi in it, bisexuals are only attracted to two genders. You refuted that in your book.
Recent surveys show that 25 percent of trans people identify as bisexual. So, it’s ironic that people who have the pretension of being an ally to trans people speak against bisexuality because it’s binary or transphobic. Bisexuality [as a word] wasn’t invented by bisexual communities; it was invented by the medical and psychological institution at the end of the 19th century. The only idea that they had about gender was the gender binary, and they defined various sexual orientations to pathologize them, not empower them. The bi community only reclaimed the term later, and we gave it a meaning of our own. Today, most bisexual organizations in the world define bisexuality as attraction to more than one gender or to genders different from and similar to our own.
There’s also the aspect of bi communities being generally more accepting of trans people than gay and lesbian communities. So, I don’t think this is about transphobia, which is not to say that there is no transphobia in bi communities. The way that the ‘bi is binary’ dialogue works is not by being aware to actual bisexual communities; it’s about redefining bisexuality to make it seem less valid.
A recent British study showed that younger generations are more likely to identify with being bisexual (Photo courtesy of YouGov)
You see bi and transgender communities as natural allies, but you’ve said in past interviews you struggled to fit into the queer or trans populace as a bi, genderqueer person.
Yeah. Actually, the bi community in Israel got started because we didn’t find a very secure place in the trans community. At the time the trans community was relatively new, and it had a lot of space for identities and really radical and intersectional dialogues, but bisexuality kept being treated as negative. I was generally presumed to be cisgender and heterosexual because I used to dress more femme then and I was dating a boy. There were quite a few of us in that community that felt that way, which is why we started doing bisexual activism.
What is the importance of people reclaiming their bisexuality?
First and foremost, we live in a society that tells us bisexuality is forbidden, both as a behavior and especially as an identity. There’s so many cultural resources going into telling people that identifying as bisexual is not valid or viable, that it’s impossible or that it’s oppressive or that identifying as bisexual makes you [confirm] all the stereotypes. In such a climate, there’s a huge right to identify as bisexual. Reclaiming bi identity is important, in particular, for people who are more radical and intersectional because one of the things that is important to do is to infuse bisexuality with all those meanings that we’ve been told were in contradiction with bisexuality. I keep encountering the argument that bisexual dialogues are not intersectional or [dismissed] in radical queer dialogues. It’s really messed up, the way that bisexuality is inherently excluded from those politics because I think bisexuality has a lot to contribute.
Bisexuality is often discussed as a single issue that is divorced from race, gender and gender identity.
A lot of movements do that. They take on only one topic, which in turn creates further exclusion of multiply marginalized people in that group. Like Audre Lorde said, “There’s no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t live single-issue lives.” Which is why single-issue bisexual dialogues, for example, leave behind bi women, bi people of color, disabled bi people, bi trans people [and] asexual bi people. When you create intersectional spaces, you really have to pay attention to identities, to power and hierarchies, being able and willing to listen to people who are intersectionally marginalized, and center those voices, rather than centering privileged people.
You note that to be bisexual means to be constantly passing. What are larger consequences of bisexuals passing as gay or straight?
It’s really impossible for bi people to [present as] bisexual because the dominant presumption is that everyone is monosexual, that everyone is attracted to only one gender. We can hold up a bisexual flag, and people would still argue that there’s no such thing as bisexuality.
Part of the problem is that bisexual passing is used to argue that bi people are actually privileged. We’re always given the same example, which is a bisexual woman in a relationship with a heterosexual, cis man. One of the things that raises my suspicion is why is this [argument] directed at women and why is it made specifically relating to men? Because there are so many ways for bi people to be in relationships, taking a pretty marginalized example. Because even if you’re a cisgender, bi woman or any person passing as a woman in any relationship with a person passing as a man, not everything in your life is in the context of that relationship. And even when it is, it’s not necessarily an uncomplicated experience of privilege.
Bi women, in particular, are in much higher risk of intimate violence and sexual violence inside relationships than either straight women or lesbians. And there are a lot of other complications. Cisgender, heterosexual men, in most cases, have been exposed to very little outside of heteronormativity, and they don’t know how to be our allies. So many bisexual women say when they came out to their cisgender, heterosexual partners, what they had to say was, “Oh, my God, that’s so hot. Maybe we should do a threesome,” which is pretty much the least appropriate response to anything ever. And this is just one particular instance of bisexual women dating men, which is not a defining example of bisexual lived experience. Our lives are way more complicated than that.
You’ve done a lot of interviews. Are there any questions you wish you got asked?
I usually don’t get asked about things specifically in Israel, which I do write about in the book in terms of Mizrahi [Arabic Jew] identity, Zionism, and pink-washing. I gave the example of one movie that depicts a Mizrahi whose [behaviorial] bisexuality is used to emphasize his self-homophobia. Mizrahiness is often perceived as synonymous with homophobia and LGBTQ-phobia. A lot of times [being bisexual and Mizrahi is] treated as a contradiction in identities, which is all sorts of racist.
The Israeli government pink-washes Israel using propaganda to present it as a liberal, so-called gay haven, while depicting Arabic and Muslim neighboring countries as inherently homophobic. I think using bisexuality would absolutely harm their purpose because it doesn’t fit with their image they want to create. There’s a postcolonial queer scholar named Jasbir Puar who calls this homonationalism, which is the way that governments embrace certain white, gay, cisgender communities to seem more tolerant, but with the price of incorporation. In Israel, it’s a lot about militarism. The gay community is eager to be incorporated into [government dogma] because it gives them more resources, and the government is benefited by that because it enables it to look better. But ultimately, this is incorporation into a harmful structure. I don’t think it’s the right way to go, killing people and supporting militarism and government and normativity. It’s something that is bound to fail, and to fail us because we contribute to the same structures that are responsible for oppressing us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.