A history of bisexuality

Bi The Way: The bisexual guide to life, by Lois Shearing (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), reviewed Thomas York.

Bi culture is the culture of being hated and rejected by both the ‘normal’ heterosexual world and LGBT community yet still fighting for fighting for the rights and prosperity of all... - Anonymous (pp.216-217, Bi The Way).

Lois Shearing’s (they/them) first book, Bi The Way, is a masterfully crafted guide to all things bisexual. Shearing takes care to ensure that intersectionality, not privilege, prevails in telling our stories, history, mental health, and the issues we face. They intertwine fact, theory and history with real bi+ (an abbreviation that encompasses bisexual and other plurisexual individuals) life stories to make each point stronger and more relatable. This is one of the first of few bisexual history textbooks in the world.

Shearing defines bisexuality, then focuses on preferences, history, and bisexuality and the gender binary. Shearing affirms that there is no right way to be bisexual and that having a preference is perfectly acceptable. They stress that neither your relationship history nor your current partner defines your sexuality. A bisexual person who marries or dates someone is still bisexual, regardless of their partner’s sex/gender. Due to my history with men, people assume I am gay and lying to myself, which translates into intense internalised biphobia. To me, Shearing’s words are genuinely affirming and supportive.

This book taught me the history of my people that I never knew. This gap in my understanding is primarily due to bisexual erasure in academic settings, which Shearing demonstrates through comparing gay and bisexual literature in the British Library. Shearing notes that Brenda Howard, ‘the mother of pride’, was an out and proud bisexual woman. In 1969, Howard organised the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, a month after the Stonewall riots, and again the following year. The tradition has stuck, and we have what we today call Pride.

Shearing describes the variety of stereotypes and tropes of bisexual people. A widespread stereotype is that bisexuality is a temporary stopover on the way to being gay or straight. Shearing writes that this stereotype developed from the idea that bisexual identities are less valid than gay or straight identities and, as a result, less stable. This is encapsulated by the phrase ‘bi now, gay later’. 

Bisexual people are also stereotyped as carriers of sexually transmitted infections. Shearing documents that during the 1980s AIDS crisis, bi+ people were seen as a way that HIV/AIDS could travel between gay and straight communities. Bi+ people were scapegoated and blamed for the worsening crisis. It was assumed they spread it to the general public (straight people) through illicit affairs. Sadly, the HIV/AIDS crisis stalled the early bi movement because, as Shearing notes, so many bisexual people died from HIV/AIDS.

Psychologists and mental health professionals could benefit from understanding the bisexual culture, history, and discrimination described in this book. Often, bi+ individuals are not believed – they are asked to prove their bisexuality by disclosing their sex and/or dating history, while monosexual people are not. In my own experiences receiving psychotherapy, the therapist’s belief in my sexuality gave me space to disclose what had happened to me. I received a response without judgment and agenda but with compassion, empathy, and acceptance. This has been instrumental to my healing process. A better understanding of bi+ clients in all mental health practitioners could lead to a more culturally and historically informed therapeutic environment. 

- Reviewed by Thomas York, a psychology student at Bath Spa University

A personal update…

Since writing my article, ‘People erase my existence’:

I have been called a f*g, simply for wearing my university progress pride flag lanyard. 

A close friend recently told me that I should not get a bi flag tattoo because ‘my sexuality might change in the future’ – subtly calling my sexuality a phase. 

Aside from an ongoing adventure in person-centred psychotherapy, I consider myself to be (relatively) mentally strong. But imagine if those people had said those things to someone who wasn’t in my position and wasn’t as mentally well off. What would happen then?

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber