Thoughts: Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, by Shiri Eisner

This was recommended to me by a friend, possibly on CSD (though I could easily be remembering wrong). I was a little bit intimidated and a little bit excited, as I hadn’t given myself over to reading much LGBT theory for a long time, since I slunk out of the Shakesville blog, with the exception of some of Julia Serano‘s excellent work. And besides  these great blog posts, I’d never read anything really exploring bisexuality. (It turns out that Serano’s post links a post by Shiri Eisner, actually, which is an excerpt from the book I’m talking about here.) If you too haven’t read much dedicated to bisexuality, then this is a pretty good place to start.

Eisner is aware that she’s in relatively untrodden territory here, and as a result a significant proportion of her target audience may not be very familiar with reading this sort of dense social theory. The book therefore contains a good amount of potted definitions and explanations of jargon and terminology, all clear and succinct. It’s a really good 101-style book (101 being the accepted term in such circles for an introductory resource, based on the American university module naming system as far as I can tell), which manages to take a big, messy, blurry subject and condense it down into a manageable size.

The writing also deserves praise for being so effortlessly inclusive. At a time when people complain about and make fun of the perceived way we have to tiptoe around this and that and put disclaimers everywhere, Eisner dives into a topic which by its very nature resists simple statements of fact and easy description, and just gets on with it. She makes it look easy, and navigates sensitive, nuanced spaces with absolute confidence.

The book comes from a personal place, by Eisner’s own admission, and has entailed the compilation of years’ worth of resources and activism, but the scope is much wider than Eisner’s own experience. Bi: Notes for a Bi Revolution is full of resources for bisexual people to use to explore their identities and begin to situate themselves in the LGBT movement and a wider historical context, as well as begin to look to the future (but more on that later). There are chapters on the different experiences and situations of bisexual men and women, dissecting the particular stereotypes and myths surrounding each. She analyses what relatively little research there is on bisexuality and how it was conducted and reported, and she discusses the big myths too – everyone is bisexual, no one is bisexual, bisexuality is synonymous with promiscuity…

What really got her brownie points from me was her addressing of the bisexual/pansexual debate detailed in the links above, which has been a bugbear of mine for a while. I won’t go into too much detail, as the posts I’ve linked contain much wiser thoughts than mine, but for anyone put off by the length, suffice it to say that the debate revolves around some people thinking that identifying as “bisexual” specifically means erasing anyone who doesn’t identify as male or female. It sounds uncomfortably accusatory when people say it, and it’s something I’ve only heard either monosexual people say, or people who identify as pansexual etc. I’ve never ever heard a bisexual person say they chose the label to reinforce the gender binary. But what do I know.

Anyway, Eisner’s treatment of this is sensible and no-nonsense, as can be read above, and later she expands upon it to accept whatever labels bisexual people might choose to use for themselves that come under the umbrella, including some we might find absurd or laughable (and I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, and Eisner did instil in me a need to be a little bit kinder to people for things that don’t harm me). It’s a book full of meaty substance, the kind you can sink your teeth into and chew over for a long time.

I didn’t agree with everything she said, but that didn’t really take away from my enjoyment of the work as a whole. She’s a lot more radical than me, certainly, but her work is so measured and she’s such an obvious authority on what she’s talking about, with plenty of experience to draw from, that I can’t help but respect her.

Something else she engages in that I found fascinating was her experiences as an Israeli bisexual activist, both with regards to Palestine and her position in an Israeli social hierarchy as a Mizrahi Jew. It was interesting in general to see an account of LGBT life that wasn’t rooted in the US/Europe, and her position outside that sort of “western bloc” gives her a cool, more neutral view of it. I was also interested to read of her difficulties with making a certain event accessible and inclusive across racial lines, and her resolve to try even harder next time. Her energy is infectious. Sort of related, she uses the terms “minority world” and “majority world” to describe the difference between culturally western/white regions and “the rest of the world”, which I’d not heard before. I thought it fit the context well, and will add that to my list of “ways of divvying up the world”.

There were really only two things that got in the way of my enjoyment of the book. One was Eisner’s use of the acronym GGGG, which was not explained until very late in the book rather than at the first usage like other technical terms. And though I have dipped my toe in this kind of theory before and was familiar even with the words which were explained or put in the glossary, I hadn’t heard of this one. It turns out that it stands for “Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay” (as opposed to LGBT) and it refers to Eisner’s belief that gay men are often the biggest beneficiaries of the LGBT movement and that it works primarily for their ends. I see what she’s getting at, and I know the personal is political, but I can’t help feeling like sometimes the personal can come across a bit unprofessional. I don’t think this was the place to use such a term. It’s decisive and almost childishly provocative, which is a real shame considering the quality of the rest of the book.

The other thing was Eisner’s discussion of the institution of marriage. This is partly a clash between our radical politics levels, but her tone was quite exaggerated and hyperbolic, a dangerous line to walk in as common a lived experience as marriage. I mean, I’m married and assume I’m in a position to know roughly how oppressed I am by the institution. At the very least, I’d have expected her to clarify her scope if she was referring to a particular cultural subset of marriages, as the rest of her writing is so precise. She also makes a couple of factually untrue claims about etymology (wrong in English anyway, and again, I’d have expected her to clarify her intentions if she meant another language).

Finally, this wasn’t unexpected if I’m honest, but in contrast to her expert dissection of the past and present states of bisexuality and her laser-guided demolition of fallacious arguments and claims made about bisexuality and bisexual people, her future revolution is sketched out in very vague terms. I didn’t expect much of a concrete vision, as these kinds of books rarely offer them, but it was a bit like one of those job adverts with a description of an ideal candidate – well-meaning, but not-much-meaning. Still, as I wasn’t expecting it, this wasn’t so much of a disappointment.

For its few flaws, this was a really interesting book and changed the angle of my view of quite a lot of things surrounding bisexuality. Whether I agree wholeheartedly with the author or not, I hope this is the beginning of a long dialogue.

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