A History of Bisexuality by Steven Angelides
Part 1. Between gay/lesbian genealogy and queer deconstruction.
The introduction to A History of Bisexuality begins with some epigraphs disputing and challenging the notion of bisexuality. Out of the four, I find Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s quote the most interesting. It says, ‘I’m not sure that because there are people who identify as bisexual there is a bisexual identity.’ This appears provocative at least, and offensive at most. I’m unsure yet if I find it offensive. But I wonder if she asks this question because of her lack of belief in any solid identity?
I haven’t really come across many stereotypes of bisexual, mainly because I haven’t spoken to that many people about me being attracted to men and women. But Angelides lists some of the dominant attitudes towards it: ‘infantilism or immaturity, a transitional phase, a self-delusion or state of confusion, a personal and political cop-out, a panacea [a remedy for all difficulties], a superficial fashion trend, a marketing tool, even a lie and a catachresis (1). These are seemingly common oppositions and difficulties faced by those who identify as bisexual. People may not have said these things to me, but I have definitely thought some of these things about myself: delusion, confusion, a phase, lack of maturity in knowing what I want. More than facing difficulties in an overt way, I feel as though I had internalised the disbelief that bisexuality existed, because for so long I had been paralyzed by a fear of being attracted to men, and done nothing about it so that I could ‘remain’ attracted to women. I felt that if I acted upon it, it would mean I was gay. I had thought that it was one or the other, ‘men’ or ‘women’ – and only relatively recently have I come to terms with the reality that your attraction to one does not erase or invalidate your attraction to the other, (‘one’ and ‘the other’ being part of the problem, I anticipate, to which Angelides will respond later on in the book).
Next, Angelides proposes that bisexuality has been a ‘blind spot’ in the research of sexual preferences, detailing more ontological rather than social challenges, such as unnatural, the antithesis of truth, a nonexistent state, without history and outside of history (2). Thus, bisexuality is presented as another marginalised identity. Again, from my experience, I’d have to say that I had a blind spot to bisexuality myself. And I think this is a good way of thinking about it. I didn’t know anyone who was bisexual, (apart from one guy at college when I was 17), the society I lived in [the north east of england] wasn’t, to my knowledge, super open to same-sex attraction, i.e. I don’t remember anyone being openly gay at my school, and, on top of it all, I grew up in a christian environment, where being a man attracted to men wasn’t accepted. Perhaps this last reason is the most pressing. It’s hard to say.
Angelides then moves on to explore Marjorie Garber’s Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life to present the first more affirmatory opinion on bisexuality, which says that all sexuality is bisexual, as it ‘puts in to question the very concept of sexual identity in the first place’ (3). This is because Garber sees sexuality as fluid, opposed to the idea of the stable poles of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’: the ‘nature of sexuality…is fluid not fixed, a narrative that changes over time rather than a fixed identity, however complex. The erotic discovery of bisexuality is the fact that it reveals sexuality to be a process of growth, transformation, and surprise, not a stable and knowable state of being’ (3). Here, fluidity is opposed to stability, and affirmed as the basis of human sexuality. So, everyone is bisexual? Or everyone’s sexuality emerges out of bisexuality (sounds Freudian, no?). Garber also sees bisexuality as inherently deconstructive, challenging the binaries of straight and gay.
But Angelides isn’t wholly convinced by this, and says leaving that the deconstructive project here is frustrating (4). Thankfully, Angelides is more Derridean in this regard, [in fact, he calls his project a queer deconstructive history]. The reason Garber’s approach to bisexuality falls short is that it simply reverses the terms, i.e. bisexuality is marginalised in opposition to hetero/homo-sexuality, and in Garber’s approach, bisexuality becomes the dominant, overarching term, which then comes to structure all sexuality. Angelides notes how this is only one half of a deconstructive move:
‘Garber effectively inverts the terms of scientia sexualis: the untruth becomes the sole truth. Such a move of reversal is, of course, not without its uses. Like the first part of any deconstructive movement, it is essential to effect a strategic reversal of any binary opposition in question. It is equally important simultaneously to displace the negative term of this opposition from its position of dependency on the positive and to situate the former as the latter’s very condition of possibility’ (3).
Rather than making bisexuality the new truth, or nature, Angelides wants to avoid creating a new ontological or truth claim, and thus, critiques Garber for redeploying ‘heternormative logic and thus [remaining] squarely within the terms of hetero/homosexual opposition she seeks to deconstruct’ (4). In simple terms, the problem with this is that deciding all that sexuality is bisexual merely reinforces a dominant term, which dictates other sexualities, just at hetero/homosexuality (mono-sexuality) has done to those attracted to either just men or women.
In opposition to the thesis ‘sexuality=bisexuality’, he moves over, quite quickly, what he names ‘the impotence model’ of bisexuality (a rather masculine critique). This argument says that instead of deconstructing the binaries of men and women, it actually reinforces them. One academic says ‘I especially dislike the term bisexual…for it inescapably encodes binarism’ (4), another says we are to resist constructing bisexuality as another sexual identity. And here we meet another large obstacle that bisexuals face, the question of the binary reinforcement, and the suggestion to ‘just identify queer’. But, Angelides says he isn’t happy with either of the approaches above:
I have never been comfortable with the ‘impotence’ model of bisexuality and its desire/identity of those attracted to both men and women. Nor am I satisfied with the opposing and rather utopic, position that bisexuality is somehow inherently subversive (5).
I like this attitude. It seems thoughtful, slow and open, rather than quickly making some decisions and dogmas about what bisexuality is. In fact, Angelides writes that, in response to Sedgwick, his desire is not to ask ‘What does [bisexuality] really mean…but what does it do?’ (10). I’ll come back to this. But this seems important. Identifying as queer isn’t a problem for me, but I’m wondering if also identifying as bisexual does something, helps somehow? Or is valid in it’s own right, sans queer? For Angelides, rather than wanting to fix and define, his desire is to ask what the term bisexual does for us in thinking about sexuality. This is neither too precious over the term, nor discards it tout court because it ‘encodes binarism’. In fact, Angelides refuses to engage with that debate: ‘framing the analysis of bisexuality in binary terms represents a false antithesis…I would like to refuse its dichotomous framing and subject it to critical examination by turning to this epistemological history’ (5). In the same way that gay and lesbian histories, as well as the history of heterosexuality have been explored, historicised, and researched, Angelides’s study sets out to look at the historical construction of bisexuality, à la Foucault it would seem. How bisexuality as a concept or identity has become to be ‘unthought, made invisible, trivial, insubstantial, irrelevant’ is the starting point for this study. And the way that this has been thought, or not thought, throughout history and knowledge-making is the place that Angelides will begin.
And now we come to the relationship between gay/lesbian history and queer theory, and the problem of identity. Angelides mentions a distance, or lack of relation between gay/lesbian historians and queer theorists, and that bisexual histories have been curiously rare within both social constructivist histories, and the deconstructive field of queer theory. He suggests that ‘particular figurations of bisexuality are, importantly, symptomatic of the relationship of gay and lesbian history to queer theory’ (8). While supporting and praising the work of both groups of scholars, Angelides suggests that both parties have, while seeking to deconstruct essentialist notions of identity, ‘their efforts to denaturalize and deconstruct the hetero/homosexual structure and its concomitant notions of identity have not gone far enough’ (9).
So, something about bisexual identity is able to refuse identity is a fuller way? Better so than queer theorists? Interesting.
The rub here seems to be an ‘implicit and unproductive distinction between social constructionism and deconstruction’ – a distinction that I wouldn’t be too quick to get rid of. They are not the same practices/processes. [and interestingly enough, in a book that calls itself a queer deconstructive history, Derrida is only mentioned two or three times. we can get into a discussion of how ‘faithful’ a deconstructive project has to be to Derrida in order to be both queer and deconstructive, but, it does strike me as strange]. However, a follow up point around these groups does seem helpful, which is the focus on ‘history’ by S.Cs and ‘theory’ by Q.Ds. Again, the critique is not of this scholarship, which has been and is useful, but rather on the lack of critical engagement with the epistemological processes informing such histories, and thus he sees identity to have been retained, reified. Hence, queer deconstructive theory’s derivation from these histories also unwittingly maintains the structure of identity it says it deconstructs [more of this in chapter 7 he says – but I’d like to skip straight to it].
So, Angelides’ project is to create a genealogy of bisexuality in the same way that the emergence of gay/lesbian identities have been studied. He does not want to define bisexuality, reclaim the bisexuals from history, or ‘begin with the generic category of sexuality any more than I want to begin with the hetero/homo opposition’ (10). He intends to look instead at the role bisexuality has played in defining hetero/homosexual identities, rather than the other way around. And, as much as looking at what biseuxality ‘does’ for a discussion on sexuality, Angelides will look at what is has done and how it has functioned.
This includes identifying when and where bisexuality emerged as a political identity, and challenging the separation of a current or recent identification from its epistemological history. For example, in reference to Amanda Udis-Kessler’s opinion that bisexual identity owes most to the lesbian feminism of the 70s, Angelides writes that this forgets the epistemological history of bisexuality and that ‘this history has in large part conditioned and constrained the historically specific emergence of bisexuality as a political identity’ (12). Thus, again we get a strong sense of how knowledge-making of society’s construction of sexuality will inform later emergences of political sexual identities, here bisexuality. Thus, ‘refusing the search for origins and truth in favour of an analysis of the very production of (sexual) truth (13). Questions asked include ‘What did and does bisexuality do in and for discourse of sexuality? What purpose has it served as a category of thought? How can we use bisexuality to rethink the history, theory, and politics of sexuality? This, by all counts, sounds excellent’ (13) – all the while desiring to theorize history and historicize theory, regarding identity as a ‘discursive event’, refusing to employ the dyad of hetero/homosexuality ‘prima facie as an axiomatic departure point’ (15)
The chapter ends [before a brief run down of the following chapters] with what appears as the central argument of the book; this is that constructions of hetero/homosexuality necessarily entails… a figuration of bisexuality’ (16) and that this queer deconstructive history of such epistemological constructions is perhaps headed towards ‘dispossessing ‘sexuality’ of any positive ontological content’ (16).
This all sounds excellent to me!