Going beyond the Politics of Bisexuality

By Burr, Chandler | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), October 14, 1997 | Go to article overview

Going beyond the Politics of Bisexuality


Burr, Chandler, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Time heals all wounds, and the battle over bisexuality, so fierce in the late 20th century, has faded during the past 30 years. "Bisexuality exists!" and "We're all really bisexual!" were battle cries of the past. We look back from 2027 and wonder what we were fighting over.

What we were fighting over was politics. The battle wasn't really about bisexuality at all. It was about the way we viewed human beings and human potential. Bisexuality was symbol, and it was principle. But the belief in bisexuality was also empirically testable, and that is where we began fighting with one another in earnest.

In the last decade of the last century, serious clinical and biological research into sexual orientation began for the first time in human history. Scientists, wondering if there were genes that created an instinctual attraction to one gender or the other or both, asked thousands and thousands of people about the way they experienced their sexual orientation. As biologists they weren't interested in how culture shapes this instinct, how society makes us view it, and how religion makes us interpret it. They were interested only in the instinct itself, that uncontrollable, unbidden flash of desire.

What they found was that sexual orientation, like another trait called human handedness, was essentially "bimodal." Both traits had instinctual, unchosen majority orientations (right-handedness and heterosexuality), and both had minority orientations (left-handedness and homosexuality). And both had much smaller orientations (ambidexterity and bisexuality). Virtually no men were bisexual; bisexuality was almost exclusively a phenomenon found in women, and in most of them it was instinctual, unchosen, as well. And the data was quite clear and consistent on this.

Now you, of course, from your perspective well into the 21st century, find this unremarkable. For you, the fact that most people are born straight; that a much, much smaller percentage are born gay; and that the smallest percentage of all are born bisexual (and almost all of those women) is just ... well, it's about as surprising as the distribution data of handedness. But it didn't used to be like that.

And the reason was, as I've said, politics. Politically, the Right and Left, now as then as 400 years ago and since the beginning of the modern age, have fought over the Question of Human Nature: Why are we human beings what we are? The two competing answers, the answers on which all policy prescriptions are based, are: Born or Made.

"Born," said the ultraconservative Victorian social Darwinists (citing Hobbes and Descartes), and so they told the lower classes to stay in their places because they were born to them, women to accept a secondary role that was natural, nonwhites that nature had made them the colonized. They saw an inherent, biological inequality among people.

"Made," said the ultraliberal Marxists (citing Locke and Rousseau), and so they held that if only we could change the society that made us--nationalize production, educate the masses, equalize environments--we could create equality among people. Since people were made, they would reflect their environment, and there was always a potential social equality among people.

This debate was very much alive in 1997. It surfaced every time someone on the Left proposed a social program (and higher taxes to pay for it) and someone on the Right opposed it. And so what did the research say--Born or Made? Into whose arsenal did it slip like a slim, potent little weapon?

It was a weapon in the armamentarium of the conservatives. A growing body of biological research said: Born. It said: The conservatives are right. …

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