On history and the meaning of bisexuality

Is it really progress that in 25 years, stereotypes about my sexuality have gone from “anything that moves” to “binary only?”

150 years ago when scientists were describing human sexuality, they were trying to distill complex cultures down to a handful of words. There were men loving men and women loving women. There were men and women who loved both. There was butch and femme. There were “normal” guys and feminine fairies. There were gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who “crossdressed” full-time and part-time. Anne Lister put on a suit and a masculine name to cruise the red light district. There were trans people who fully transitioned (to the extent that was possible) and married. Their spouses may or may not have been co-conspirators.

And all this was further complicated by colonialism and contact with cultures that don’t do gender and sexuality the same way, which scientists still don’t understand.

So scientists did what scientists do, they created a theory. Then they created words to describe that theory, out of loanwords from another language which made their theory seem less like making shit up. Then they overgeneralized without really questioning about what the people they described really wanted.

Naming sexuality was based on the 19th century conceit that naming something is equivalent to understanding it. That those names didn’t accurately describe the people or things involved is pretty typical for the 19th century. At least half of our post Victorian language to describe sexuality involves misnomers and euphemisms. Colonial place names range from the wildly optimistic to the wildly inaccurate. This practice taken up by 20th century city planners who named neighborhoods and streets after plants that didn’t exist on site.

English has been described as a language that mugs other languages for nouns in dark alleys. I think modern English is even more macabre. English assaults other languages, takes their coats and hats, and goes dancing. Usually we don’t notice this. Democrats favor a proportional system and Republicans claim to be populist. Mass hysteria doesn’t involve a giant uterus. We use the word depression to describe a clinical mental illness, an economic phenomenon, a geologic feature, and a weather system. Language is conventional, it is almost never logical.

But, let’s turn back to the 19th and early 20th century. “Homosexuality” included Lister’s cross-dressed cruising and drag, a concept that Mae West went to jail for putting on the stage. (The New York state legislature would ban explicit homosexuality from the stage until the 1970s.) “Heterosexuality,” included elements of gender-deviance as a kink. “Bisexuality” included elements of both heterosexuality and homosexuality, often treated as a transitory or deceptive homosexuality.

The point is that those words were coined to describe cultures and lifestyles that included a wide range of genders and gender expressions. The denotation of those words may be “attraction to the same sex” “attraction to both sexes.” But the connotation of those words always implied that we were swishy or butchy people who wore the wrong clothes, spoke in the wrong registers, and made “normal” people nervous.