'I want bisexuality to be a strong, political and positive identity'
Kate Fearnley, 25
I've never been straight …. I wasn't born bisexual or lesbian either, but as soon as my sexuality began to manifest itself it was clearly not heterosexual.
I remember the games I used to play with my best friend when we were both ten; taking all our clothes off and daring each other to do things which excited us. Once we kidnapped a boy in our class and made him join in, but he didn't seem to get much out of it and apart from the novelty of his anatomy he was quite dull, so we never invited him back. Then my girlfriend moved away to Devon and my sexlife ceased apart from fantasies and masturbation …. which were a major occupation. When I got to my new school I instantly fell in love with my biology teacher, and soon after that with my new best friend as well. Everyone had crushes, of course – but I don't think they all fantasised sex as I did. I had an hour's journey to and from school, which gave me at least two hours a day of romantic and erotic daydreams.
At about 13 everyone started to get obsessed with boys, apart from me. It was a girls' school, so I didn't meet many boys – though all the others seemed to – and I didn't particularly want to. I just enjoyed the large quantity of lesbian innuendo that flew around the classroom, and the feeling that ran through my body when my knee 'accidentally' touched my friend's as we sat on the desks at break. When the subject came up in conversation with a small group of friends, I said I was bisexual, and so did some of them. It felt rather risqué and daring, and gave me a certain cachet. Not as daring as being a lesbian, which was what I felt I was, but much more trendy and less likely to get me written off.
Then, when I was 16, the girl I was in love with left the school – my feelings for her still unrequited. I went into the sixth form feeling isolated and depressed; but within a few months I'd been seduced by a girl in my year whom I'd hardly noticed before. Our relationship could hardly be called idyllic, confused as it was by her relationship (of two years' standing) with another girl in our year whom I found more attractive …. but it was often fun – sneaking into her bed when I stayed the night and setting the alarm for 5.30 am, going out of bounds in the lunch hour to buy Gay News, and going on the Gay Pride March together. Now I knew I was a lesbian.
I didn't tell anyone else while I was at school, apart from the other four lesbians I somehow knew about in my year. I think I just enjoyed being part of such an exclusive little clique…
And then I went to university and made a definite decision to come out. This I did in week one by standing up at teatime in the refectory and announcing to the tableful of new friends 'I must go – GaySoc starts in ten minutes!', and disappearing before I could see their reaction and they could see my red face. When I got to GaySoc everyone was delighted to see me because they were all gay men and felt terribly guilty about there not being any women involved … so they made me treasurer, and I became Edinburgh's Token Lesbian.
Which made it all the more embarrassing when I suddenly and quite inadvertently met a MAN – and wanted to SLEEP with him. I tried pretending I only wanted to sleep with him, but I couldn't fool myself for long, despite the memory of a distinctly unsuccessful and unenjoyable 'holiday relationship' with a man I'd once experimented with. So I started what was to turn into a mostly successful three-year relationship with him.
The reactions of my gay friends were most enlightening but very unpleasant. Very few of them could cope with the idea that someone could actually be attracted to people of BOTH sexes. Suddenly I discovered all the unpleasant ideas about bisexuals that exist in the lesbian and gay community. There was I, a seasoned lesbian activist, having done a lot of work in the lesbian and gay movement, suddenly being told that bisexuality is 'just a phase' that people go through on their way to being 'completely' lesbian or gay. I was told that bisexuality is a cop-out, used by people who want to sleep with people of their own sex but don't want to come out, let alone do anything to make it easier for other people. Bisexuals were freeloaders, cashing in on the gains fought for by lesbians and gay men. We were, variously, trendies (really straight), fence-sitters, utopians who claim that EVERYONE is really bisexual and thereby endanger the identities lesbians and gay men have worked so hard to establish, hedonists universally available for sex, pseudo-feminists who are guilty of giving our energy to men, unpolitical and non-existent. From straight society's point of view we were either 'perverts' just like the rest of non-heterosexual society, or, to straight men, a bit of a turn-on, slightly exotic women who were still available to them.
Faced with this barrage I began to have doubts myself. Was I REALLY bisexual? Had I just been under the influence of a single-sex institution when I had my lesbian relationships? Or (on alternate days!) was I just knuckling under to the expectations of straight society by living with a man in an almost marriage-like relationship? I coped with the dilemmas mainly by submersing myself in the relationship. I rarely saw my old gay friends because they were so obviously ill-at-ease with me. Quite WHY the immediate assumption had been that I'd 'gone straight', swung right over to the opposite pole of sexuality, I couldn't understand, but it had.
And then the relationship broke up, painfully, and I was left adrift with none of my old friends and few new ones. After a six-month period of unhappy celibacy and isolation I met some new people, principally a straight (though not militantly so) woman, and two gay men. I still defined myself as bisexual privately, but became involved in lesbian and gay politics again and was too cowardly to tell people. It's pretty disgusting that the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement, of all people, should have become so dogmatic as to build another closet for people to hide in, but we have. What changed things for me and for quite a few of the lesbians and gay men I know, was that I began a sexual relationship with a gay man.This was probably Stephen Holdsworth – Kate wrote an obituary for him in the Guardian. Strangely, no-one saw HIM as having gone straight or as a threat to the movement, perhaps because the people we now knew preferred to think about things rather than reject ideas out of hand. We began to think and read about the nature of sexuality and the way that it's socially constructed. There's no way of telling what's the 'natural' way for humans to be, since whatever we are has been affected by the society we live in. Heterosexual and homosexual acts have presumably been around since time immemorial since the physical possibilities of bodies are unlikely to have changed, but the categories of identities of heterosexual and homosexual were only invented relatively recently. Unfortunately, the way they've been constructed as 'normal' and 'not-normal' means that it's been in the interests of lesbians and gay men to construct as strong and positive identities as possible, in order to withstand our oppression by all those people out there who think they are the only image of 'normality'. And it's seemed easiest to do that by polarising sexuality, making a straightforward divide – you're one one side or the other but you can't be in the middle, because that confuses the issue. Of course, this false duality doesn't correspond with the experience of a lot of people, but until recently it seemed to me that since the most important fight is still to change straight society that's what I'd concentrate on, even if it meant being less than open about part of myself.
A few things have happened to change and update that view. After a long period of thinking that I was probably the only politically active bisexual in Britain (though how I expected to spot the others since I was still publicly only a lesbian, I don't know!), I helped organise a Lesbian and Gay Socialist Conference, at which I insisted there should be a workshop on bisexuality. The workshop was ,intended by about ten people, all but one of whom identified as bisexual. We discussed all the dilemmas of being a bisexual active in the Lesbian and Gay Movement, the feeling that to declare 'I am bisexual' to the world at large didn't feel like a strong enough statement, the way that while we're working towards lesbian and gay liberation, we don't know if it's necessarily going to liberate us. Then at the plenary session we brought some of the discussion to the rest of the conference, and I swung from euphoria at having finally met people like me, to anger because almost all those present glazed over at the very mention of bisexuality as if it wasn't relevant to them, or became openly hostile, with all the usual anti-bisexual .arguments. One gay man I'd know for years refused to believe that I could be bisexual, because 'they're all political cop-outs'!
Then I moved to London and got involved in the London Lesbian and Gay Centre. Another manifestation of the 'more right-on than thou' syndrome struck, and bisexual groups were banned from meeting there, for reasons which varied according to who you spoke to and when. There were most of the usual ones plus the idea that lesbians who use the Centre should know they're not being lusted after by a man …. which I can see, except that there was no Proposal to ban individual bisexuals ('We feel that it's a phase that many people go through on their way to being lesbian or gay' – a management committee member) …. All this anger crystallised my determination to be militantly bisexual, and to make absolutely SURE that when we finally manage to achieve liberation, it won't be limited to certain ACCEPTABLE types of lesbians and gay men – who never confuse the issue by sleeping with members of the opposite sex, who never indulge in sado-masochism, who always make sure their partners are over the age of consent and who would never CONSIDER crossdressing.
Things are changing, though. A lot of people besides bisexuals are uneasy about the idea of replacing the current sexual orthodoxy with a new one equally rigidly defined. The Politics of Bisexuality conferencesNow known as BiCon, the first three all had "politics" in the name. Kate was a main organiser of the third, the first one outside London, and at least three others. in Britain, other bisexual conferences in the USA and Germany, the Sexual Fringe Group in London, and lots of non-prescriptive feminist writers in books such as Politics of Desire and Pleasure and Danger (see bibliography) all combine to make me feel a new direction in sexual liberation. Perhaps we'll eventually achieve a society where it isn't necessary to assert one's difference from 'normality' by adopting a label which while purporting to describe, actually controls and defines us. Until then, I want bisexuality to be a strong, political and positive identity – and it's getting there.