A Trip Back in Time: How People Talked About Bisexuality 20 Years Ago

By Caiti Galwey

Content warning: brief mention of suicide 

This article is not meant to be comprehensive in its analysis by any means. I wish to provide a quick introduction to bisexual history and an overview of its place in contemporary society.

Happy Celebrate Bisexuality Day!

A swift history of bisexuality

The word bisexual was first used to describe attraction to males and females in 1892. However, limited representation in the media meant that the term bisexual wasn’t mentioned in widely accessible mediums until the late 60s. The taboo lingered, but that didn’t stop a dialogue from starting. In a September 1976 interview with Playboy, David Bowie openly discussed his bisexuality. While the bisexual movement enjoyed some momentous ‘firsts’ during the ’80s, the ’90s was an era of progressive literature, initiatives, and advocacy.

Photo by Alex Kingsley from Pexels

The Bisexual Pride flag was designed by Michael Page and unveiled on December 5th 1998. In 1999, the first Celebrate Bisexuality Day was organised, and it is now observed every September 23rd. In 2001, the American Psychological Association’s “Guidelines on psychotherapy with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients” stated “homosexuality and bisexuality are not a mental illness.” If this isn’t tangible progress, I don’t know what is.

Bisexuality in the 21st century

Despite the fact that bisexuals comprise slightly more than half of the LGB population,1 modern bisexuality is a complex notion, and it often bears negative connotations. Gross misrepresentations of bisexuals as overly and uncontrollably sexual within mainstream media have also contributed to a warped perception of bisexuality as ‘undecided’ and ‘invalid.’ Bisexual women, in particular, are subject to both hypervisibility and erasure. 

From Sia to Fergie, Jason Mraz, Ezra Miller, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, Missy Higgens, and Billie Joe Armstrong; this is a non-exhaustive list of well-known celebrities who are openly bisexual. While this is great for visibility, bisexual erasure remains prevalent in the media’s representation of such icons. Madonna, for example, is often “written-up” to be a straight woman who engages with lesbians for “shock-value.” Similarly, Freddie Mercury, possibly one of the most famously bisexual humans in known history, is often wrongly depicted as gay in mainstream media.

It is worth noting that the above examples seek to demonstrate the reception of celebrities and their respective sexuality, and do not attempt to indicate how the wider community receives ordinary bisexual people. Nonetheless, the concept of a person being attracted to another person regardless of their gender is still profoundly controversial to many people. It tends to challenge people’s fundamental assumptions regarding sexuality, gender, and relationships, and the “bialogue” that follows can be uncomfortable for some.

It is also worth noting that the tendency to ignore, remove, falsify, or re-explain sexuality is not an issue constrained to the mystical realm of bisexuality.

The “bialogue” continues

The entire point of advocacy for sexual rights is inclusivity. Not exclusion. Sexuality is fluid and ever-changing. You can do your own research on the rampant biphobia that has existed in gay and feminist spaces. As recently as 2005, a New York Times article was published titled Straight, Gay or Lying?. Blatant biphobia is still very real.

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash 

A similar issue is the derogatory allegation that bisexuals are ‘attention-seekers’ or are people who purport to be seen as bisexual ‘chic.’ The term bisexual ‘chic’ describes the ‘faddish’ role bisexuality has allegedly played in various sexual reformations, first in the 1920s (the birth of drag balls), then the 1970s (free love, baby), and again in the early to mid-2000s (I kissed a girl, anyone?).

Such allegations contribute to the commonality of dysphoria and imposter syndrome often experienced by bisexual people. Bisexual women and men contribute to higher rates of suicide compared to homosexual and heterosexual men and women. In Canada and Australia, they also endure lower success rates for refugee applications. However, compared to the pace of change 20 years ago, I’d say we are collectively making swift and definite progress in the LGBTQIA+ rights space. Last year, the LGBTQIA+ community relished in some significant wins to prove that 2020 was not all bad. This is something to be optimistic about, and I hope the thought brings some joy to this week. Moving forward, we must keep the dialogue going. We must also keep it open and inclusive to all.

  1. Rodriguez, J. M. (2021). Queer politics, bisexual erasure: Sexuality at the nexus of race, gender, and statistics.

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