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Today is Celebrate Bisexuality Day, first conceived by three American bisexual activists in 1999, and still important and relevant in 2014. While there are certainly more high-profile out gay and lesbian people than there were when I came out in the 1990s -- 14-year-old me would be over the moon to learn that THEY FINALLY MADE AN X-MEN MOVIE, let alone that Anna Paquin is bi -- I’m still assumed by virtually everyone I meet, as a woman married to a man, to be straight, while a bisexual male friend with a male partner is invariably labeled gay by new acquaintances.
I’ve argued elsewhere that bi and pan people are harmed by a lack of community and the accompanying expectation that we should or could “choose a side.” It’s hard for us to find each other; among straight people, we often blend in whether we want to or not, and among lesbian and gay people, the lack of acceptance can be particularly jarring.
The entire premise of “gay and lesbian history” is not that we can really identify past figures by contemporary labels, but that we can recognize a facet of human experience shared across historical periods, reaffirming the humanity and contributions of contemporary gay and lesbian people. Such a project is incredibly important to groups whose very legitimacy is questioned.
Ironically, many historical figures often labeled as gay or lesbian might be better described by contemporary labels like “bisexual” or “pansexual,” given what we know about their behavior and relationships. This list is by no means comprehensive and should not be taken to assign identity labels retrospectively, but hopefully it provides a sense of history, humanity, and pride for those of us whose sexual or romantic orientation is not focused on a single gender. (The gender composition of the list, I should note, roughly mirrors what we know about contemporary sexual identity: ~1/3 of queer men identify as non-monosexual while ~2/3 of queer women so identify.)
Probably the most famous “historical lesbian” of all time, very little evidence about the historical Sappho actually exists. The fragments of her poetic work that survive, however, address both men and women as objects of the poet’s desire. Victorian scholars mangled translations to obscure her attractions to women; later, 20th century lesbians ignored her erotic attention to men in the search for a specifically lesbian history. Neither accurately represented the (small) whole of what we know about Sappho.
2) Anne Bonny
The 18th century pirate, a favorite of mine since reading Jane Yolen’s "Ballad of the Pirate Queens" as a child, had relationships with men and women. Sometimes labeled “lesbian,” she left one husband whom her family had vigorously disapproved of for another, pirate captain John “Calico Jack” Rackham, and seems to have also become involved with another pirate, Mary Read (assuming that Read identified as a woman; historical gender identity is often hard to pin down).
When Rackham’s ship was captured, Bonny and Read escaped hanging for piracy by “pleading the belly,” i.e. pregnancy (though Read died in prison). Recently, Bonny (the Bisexual Pirate Queen) has become quite the darling of Bi Tumblr.
3) John Maynard Keynes
I like to say that there are “no bad bisexuals,” by which I mean that some non-monosexual people fit certain stereotypes, such as promiscuity or non-monogamy, and that’s okay. There are certainly bisexuals who do bad things, however. Keynes, best known for his eponymous economic theory, was also a strong proponent of eugenics until his death in 1946. His early relationships appear to have been solely with men (he documented them extensively in diaries, as well as his later attractions to women, so there’s no question that his heart was in it). At age 38, he began an affair with Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova; he was also involved with psychologist Sebastian Sprott at the time. The relationship with Lopokova eventually became exclusive and they married in 1925.
4) Josephine Baker
Born in St. Louis Missouri, the Black dancer/singer/actress became a French citizen in 1937, played a pivotal role in the French Resistance during World War II, and contributed to the American Civil Rights Movement (she also refused to perform for segregated audiences). Baker was married four times to men, but her son and biographer, Jean-Claude Baker, wrote that she had numerous affairs with women, including the French writer Colette, and that “she was what today you would call bisexual.” It has also been asserted that she had an affair with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, commonly accepted to have been bisexual.
5) Margaret Wise Brown
Best known for "Goodnight, Moon," Brown also authored family favorite "The Runaway Bunny" (I hold out hope that this Halloween may yield photos of me and Kid A as Mama Bunny and Runaway Bunny, so let me know if you know where to find vertically striped blue and white children’s pajamas). Having had numerous relationships with men, at age 30 Brown became involved with Blanche Oelrichs, a poet/playwright and John Barrymore’s ex-wife. The two lived together from 1943 until Oelrichs’ death in 1950. Brown was engaged to James Stillman ‘Pebble’ Rockefeller Jr. when she died of an embolism in 1952.
6) Stephen Donaldson
If you’ve studied queer history, you’re probably familiar with Columbia University’s Student Homophile League. The SHL was the first US university “gay rights” group, chartered in 1967 by Donaldson with the help of straight allies who were willing to go on record to provide the necessary quorum for official recognition by the university. In 1972, following his expulsion from military service for “homosexuality” and his determination that the gay rights movement was hostile to him as a self-identified bisexual, Donaldson began organizing with other bisexuals specifically. In 1973, he survived horrific sexual assaults while jailed for participation in Quaker anti-war protests; he later became a prominent advocate for imprisoned rape survivors. He died of AIDS in 1996.
7) Sylvia Rivera
A Latina trans woman who took part in the 1969 Stonewall riots, Rivera spent her life fighting for gender, racial, and economic justice. She was active with both the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, and co-founded Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with her friend Marsha P. Johnson (whose suspicious death in 1992 was officially ruled a “suicide”). As a trans woman of color who experienced homelessness and substance abuse throughout her life, Rivera found herself repeatedly shut out by mainstream gay activists and transphobic lesbian feminists. She never stopped fighting, criticizing mainstream organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and ministering to the most vulnerable LGBTQ people through the queer-affirming Metropolitan Community Church’s food pantry. Rivera died in 2002 from complications of liver cancer.
8) Freddie Mercury
Another icon of the gay and lesbian movement, claims that Mercury was “openly gay” lack support. His famous flamboyance often seems to be equated with homosexuality, conflating gender and sexual orientation. The man himself never definitively identified as either gay or bisexual, but he did have established relationships with men and women. Upon his death, he left his home and the bulk of his estate to Mary Austin, a friend and former partner, rather than his then-partner Jim Hutton. Celebrate Bisexuality Day was placed in September, according to founder Wendy Curry, in honor of Mercury’s birthday (September 5).
9) JoCasta Zamarripa
A Wisconsin state representative from Milwaukee, Zamarripa became the first Latina in the Wisconsin Legislature in 2010. She had previously worked as a community outreach coordinator with Planned Parenthood. In 2012, Zamarripa came out publicly via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, stating that coming out as bisexual (rather than gay or lesbian) is particularly difficult because “it’s tough for people to wrap their minds around that, but it is a reality and a truth,” and that she wanted to provide a role model for young people who might be struggling with their own orientations and identities. Like many queer women of a certain age, she cites Ellen’s coming out episode as a pivotal moment; like me, I suspect she felt keenly the lack of a specifically bisexual coming out story.
10) Franchell “Frenchie” Davis
A Black singer and Broadway performer removed from the second season of American Idol in 2003 due to past topless photos (notably, a White contestant with a similar situation in a later season was allowed to continue) Davis also appeared on The Voice in 2011. When she came out publicly in 2012, she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she’d been dating a woman for the previous year: “I wasn’t out before the relationship, but I wasn’t in...I dated men and women, though lesbians weren’t feeling the bisexual thing. Now I’m in love with a woman I think I can be with forever.”
Unfortunately, it’s clear from the experiences of Davis and others on this list that even the “LGBTQ community” is often not accepting of bisexual and other non-monosexual people. Bisexual women in particular are often stigmatized as somehow “tainted” by our actual or potential relationships with men, leading some community members to coin the term “sapphobia” to describe the intersection of biphobia and misogyny.