Confused, indecisive, promiscuous and traitorous – these are just a few of the stereotypes usually attached to bisexuals, says Israeli scholar and activist Shiri Eisner. In her latest book, “Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution,” she examines the social and gender power structures through these stereotypes.
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“The very existence of the stereotypes attests to what society sees as illegitimate,” says 31-year-old Eisner, whose book has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award (the most prestigious awards for LGBT writing in the United States). “For example, sexual independence – mainly among women, a threat to monogamy and a disruption to the boundary between heterosexuality and homosexuality,” she says. “While liberal bisexual politics – which attempts to gain acceptance and ato assimilate into society – usually tries to deny these stereotypes and to downplay the threat, radical bisexual politics – which attempts to create to social change and liberation from oppression – tries to use this threatening power to oppose structures such as patriarchy and heterosexism.”
Bisexuality is a political term, emphasizes Eisner, because it exists and operates within a hierarchical social structure, a system of power. The oppression of bisexuals is reflected in biphobia: a negative attitude toward them; monosexism: the assumption that teveryone is attracted – or should be attracted – to one gender only; and bisexual erasure: omission of bisexuality from where it is relevant.
“When society tries to deny the existence of a specific group or concept, I conclude that that group or that concept is perceived as threatening,” she says, regarding what she describes as erasure. “Bisexuality threatens the binary view of sexuality – the belief that there are only two separate and contradictory sexual orientations, homosexuality and heterosexuality, which also conceals another binary view: the assumption that there are only two genders, and that they are separate and contradictory.
“This binary is essential in order to maintain the oppression of people who are different in terms of sex and gender, and the privilege that heterosexuals enjoy at the expense of the other groups,” she believes. “Because once it’s impossible to make a clear differentiation between the two groups, it becomes impossible to separate those who ‘deserve’ privileges from those who ‘deserve’ oppression. In other words, there is an entire hierarchical structure here which is threatened by the very existence of bisexuality.”
Doesn’t the concept of bisexuality actually contain gender binarity?
“That argument is very common, and easy to believe, but in effect it’s one of the many arguments designed to delegitimize bisexuality. Although linguistically speaking ‘bi’ does denote 'two', we should also remember that the term was invented in the 19th century by the medical establishment, and that today most bisexual organizations in the world define bisexuality not as an attraction to ‘both sexes’ (as is usually assumed) but as an attraction to people of more than one gender, or an attraction to people of genders similar to and different from ours.
“In addition, this argument erases the existence of bisexuals who do not identify within the gender binary (genderqueers and other nonbinary genders) and presents their identity as self-contradictory. One thing that is suspicious about this argument, in my opinion, is that it is directed only at the bisexual community, and not to identities that are equally linguistically binary – such as “androgynous” (lit: ‘man woman’), “transgender”, or even heterosexuality and homosexuality. This argument belongs to a biphobic discourse that ties bisexuality to negative characteristics.”
Do you think these issues are interesting and relevant only to the LGBT community, or are they important to heterosexuals as well?
“Heterosexuals, as a privileged group, have a responsibility to educate themselves about marginalized groups and about the oppression they experience. Especially since they occupy oppressor status. In addition, they have an interest in learning about bisexuality and about additional sexual and gender options because they – more than any other group – are imprisoned in the heterosexist system, in which heterosexuality is the only legitimized choice. This system limits their options and their ability to imagine and have experiences outside of it. Therefore, in a certain sense heterosexuals have the most to gain from exposure to the subject of bisexuality.”
It seemed to me that in her book, Eisner enjoyed the relative gender neutrality of the English language, as opposed to Hebrew, where there is no choice but to jump from one gender to another in a language that is not friendly to gender fluidity. But she shatters this impression. “I actually feel that Hebrew is far stronger in gender fluidity, because – and not despite – of the gendering of the language. In English, the neutrality doesn’t challenge the norm.”
Eisner makes a particularly interesting connection between bisexual identity and Mizrahi identity (Jews originating in Middle Eastern or North African countries). “Usually in our culture, and in the community as well, LGBT identity in general – and bisexuality in particular – is seen as contradictory to Mizrahi identity, especially when you’re coming from a radical politics and approach,” she says.
“In the book, I examine several ways in which oppression against bisexuality and oppression against Mizrahi identity works in similar ways. Both groups experience erasure – the Mizrahis in Israel experience an erasure of history, culture, language and identity, which is similar to how bisexual people and bisexual itself are erased from history, culture, popularity, the media and in general.
“Another example,” she adds, “is that both bisexuality and Mizrahi identity are often attributed to a ‘primitive past.’ For example, in the theory of Freud and his successors, bisexuality is described as a very early stage of psychological development – both of the individual and society as a whole, while actually using the word ‘primitive’ (in its psychological sense). Similarly, Mizrahis are often described as ‘primitive.’”
Eisner says that bisexual politics in Israel is unique in its closeness to radical queer politics and the idea of intersectionality. “To a great extent, the bisexual community in Israel was ‘born’ out of the radical queer community, as well as the transgender community, which is why it places a very strong emphasis on multiple identities and opposition to many forms of oppression – not only of bisexuals, but also of transgender people, asexuals (despite and because of inner community conflicts around the subject), women (including trans women), Mizrahis, Russian speakers, animal rights and, of course, Palestine solidarity. In that sense, my book represents the dominant politics in the community in Israel.”