When the Bisexual Speaks…We Listen

By Ellyn Ruthstrom

Celebrate Bisexuality Day (affectionately nicknamed CBD) pops up every year on September 23rd. This year, as I prepared for CBD and Bisexual Awareness Week, I started looking back over my own journey with bisexual activism and how those who came before me helped pave the way for me and for so many others.

I didn’t have early same-sex attraction, so I didn’t come out as bi until the age of 30. I was getting out of a marriage to a man and that space allowed me to figure out what my sexuality was. A huge turning point for me was finding a copy of Bi Any Other Name, an anthology of bi writing that was edited by Loraine Hutchins and Lani Ka’ahumanu. Reading that book finally gave me a word, an identity, and a community of others who could understand my own experience with multiple attractions.

I started my coming out process after moving to Northampton, Massachusetts, sometimes known as “Lesbianville.” I fell in love with my first girlfriend and she moved with me to Columbus, Ohio so that I could get a master’s in Women’s Studies at The Ohio State University. I got connected to a bi student group on campus that brought one of the editors of By Any Other Name, Lani Ka’ahumanu, to Columbus to speak. I found some other bi folks and I marched in the Columbus Pride March with them.

My first national LGBTQ action was in 1993 when I drove from Ohio to march with approximately a million others through the streets of Washington, DC. The official name was the March for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation (remember that concept?), but I bought a t-shirt that also had “Transgender” in the title and I remember explaining what transgender meant to the students in my class when I returned to Columbus.

The highlight of that day in DC was listening to Lani Ka’ahumanu speak as an out bi leader from the stage. Though some people had already packed up and left, many of us bi people who had traveled in with the promise of being recognized in the title of the march waited until the bitter end to listen to our representative, the last official speaker of the day.

“Aloha, my name is Lani Ka’ahumanu, and it ain’t over til the bisexual speaks.”

Even writing this now I feel a surge of pride and poignancy, reliving how important hearing her voice ring out across the Mall that day was to me. Only moments before taking to the stage, Lani had been asked to cut her own speech from five minutes down to two. Organizers had added people all day long to the roster, pushing back the time Lani went on to well over an hour after she was scheduled. She came to represent us and she spoke her truth, without edits.

“I am a token, and a symbol. Today there is no difference. I am the token out bisexual asked to speak, and I am a symbol of how powerful the bisexual pride movement is and how far we have come.”

I encourage you to read the entire speech and remember this was 1993. All of the things that Lani spoke about in her few minutes at the podium still ring very true. One of the most important aspects of her speech is how she continually drew connections between the bi and trans communities. This is the truth of our movements, that our struggles have always been intertwined and even when transgender was not in the official march name, the only out bisexual speaker made sure that the trans community was recognized and included.

“Like multiculturalism, mixed heritage and bi-racial relationships, both the bisexual and transgender movements expose and politicize the middle ground. Each show there is no separation, that each and everyone of us is part of a fluid social, sexual and gender dynamic…Recognition of bisexual orientation and transgender issues presents a challenge to assumptions not previously explored within the politics of gay liberation.”

Our understanding of fluidity and the intersections of our identities was a part of the history of our community’s movement from the beginning. Don’t let people using outdated definitions of bisexuality tell you differently! Lani spoke of the revolutionary quality of making this fluidity a part of the greater movement, saying “Our visibility is a sign of revolt.” And she challenged the “gayristocracy” to acknowledge the intersections of the oppressions and fight them all together.

She asked thorny questions of the greater national movement:

“What is the difficulty in seeing how my struggle as a mixed-race bisexual woman of color is intimately related to the bigger struggle for lesbian and gay rights, the rights of people of color, and the rights of all women?”

“Who gains when we ostracize whole parts of our family? Who gains from exclusionary politics? Certainly not us…Being treated as if I am less oppressed than thou is not only insulting, it feeds right in to the hands of the right wing fundamentalists who see all of us as queer.”

And she broke the taboo of describing something that bi leaders still experience to this day, those who only come out as bi to other bi people, but choose to pass as gay or lesbian for the acceptance within the movement.

“I want to challenge those lesbian and gay leaders who have come out to me privately over the years as bisexual to take the next step, come out now. What is the sexual liberation movement about if not about the freedom to love whom we choose?”

To love whom we choose: still so simply stated. Yet still not equitably adhered to. “Love is love” has become the mantra for the marriage equality movement, but that is based in the government-sanctioned institution of marriage. A far cry from what Lani was referring to as “the sexual liberation movement.”

As we celebrate Bisexual Awareness Week around the globe, I thank Lani and all the other elders who came before us for lighting a path of strength with an inclusive vision for our movement. Lani’s words that day on the Mall helped center me in my identity and empowered me to return to campus and come out to my students. Her closing words that day resound ever deeply for our community.

“Remember we have every right to be in the world exactly as we are. Celebrate that simply and fiercely.”

Ellyn Ruthstrom is the Executive Director of SpeakOUT Boston, the nation’s oldest LGBTQIA speakers bureau that serves Greater Boston and New England. Ellyn was the president of the Bisexual Resource Center for ten years and co-organizer of the first White House Bisexual Roundtable on Bisexual Issues in 2013.