Bisexual Identity in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

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Writers have always sought to portray all aspects of life, including the myriad varieties of human sexuality. Traditional proscriptions against homosexuality have relegated depictions of non-heterosexual relationships to the periphery, or have cast them as evil, unhealthy, or dangerous to society.

It is nevertheless known that many men in ancient Greece had wives and male lovers, as vividly portrayed in the historical novels of Mary Renault. William Shakespeare’s sonnets allude to the poet’s attraction for the Dark Lady and for the beloved male friend. The work of nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman is filled with a generally inclusive eroticism. The novels of Virginia Woolf reflect her own bisexuality. The bisexual marriage of Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover, and Harold Nicolson is chronicled by their son, Nigel Nicholson, in Portrait of a Marriage (1973).


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After the advent of the Gay Pride movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, lesbians and gay men became more common in literature. Bisexuals remain relatively scarce in literature. In many cases, bisexuality is regarded, in literature as in life, as a transitional phase in the life of an essentially monosexual (exclusively homo- or heterosexual) character. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), a celebrated novel of homosexual angst, offers a protagonist with male and female lovers who is clearly journeying toward homosexuality. Such works as Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1972), Albert Innaurato’s Gemini (1977), and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1990) include characters passing through a bisexual stage. In Paul Monette’s 1992 memoir Becoming a Man, he describes, after coming out as a gay man, a period of sexual activity with both genders; he delights in this capricious phase, but the underlying homosexual preference is never at issue.

Bisexuality is often presented amid clouds of confusion. Such works as Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951) and Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1953) offer versions of this confusion. In these works, characters are attracted to both genders but are limited by societal assumptions or personal idiosyncrasy. A striking example of confusion is in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1988), in which cultural assumptions bring an unsuspecting heterosexual man into a long-term sexual affair with a male transvestite.


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Rather than be confused, some characters are unconcerned with labeling their sexuality. The sexual liberality of the late twentieth century led to many forms of sexual exploration, and a de facto bisexuality has been part of a larger identity of openness and freedom. Ernest Hemingway’s unfinished The Garden of Eden (1986) follows a newlywed couple who welcome another woman into their relationship. In Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936), a woman takes a series of male and female lovers amidst the decadence of American expatriate life in Paris. Canadian dramatist Brad Fraser, in Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love (1991), offers a group of variously self-identified characters searching for love and identity in a fluid sexual landscape. In Can Can (1991), a one-act play by Romulus Linney, a young housewife takes a female lover. In these works, questions of sexuality and fidelity never enter the equation; the gay-or-straight dichotomy and the bisexual label become irrelevant.

Particular situations foster other forms of bisexual exploration. John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1967) and, more affirmatively, John Cheever’s Falconer (1977) depict situational bisexuality among incarcerated males. In a different vein, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fantastical Yiddish tales occasionally include spiritually motivated sexual exploration: In “Teibele and Her Demon,” the heroine invites her best friend to bed in order to please her demon lover.

Affirmative Bisexual Identity

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Exploration may translate into an affirmative bisexual identity. In the genre of science fiction, writers have created worlds in which bisexuality is the cultural norm. Ursula K. Le Guin, in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and Robert A. Heinlein, in Friday (1982), depict openly bisexual characters. In Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Marge Piercy offers a future in which women, freed from childbearing, explore lesbian relationships while maintaining their connections with men. Leaving behind contemporary societal baggage, writers imagine bisexuality to be a normative identity.

Positive depictions of bisexuals are, however, rare. In Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1979), the bisexual man is a threat to the gay identity of his lover. In Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (1980), he is the image of sleaze and marital deceit. Beyond Therapy, Christopher Durang’s 1982 satire, includes a vapid bisexual in a world of equally quirky monosexuals. Thus, bisexuals are portrayed most often either as menaces to straight and gay societies or as careless clowns in the circus of sexual liberty.

As awareness of human sexuality expands, however, and as gay culture embraces bisexuals and transgendered persons, affirmative portrayals emerge. A classic work is James Baldwin’s Another Country (1960), in which an array of ethnically diverse characters seek love and sexual fulfillment. Baldwin, himself primarily homosexual, infused the work with respect, compassion, and complexity. Baldwin’s seeming heir is E. Lynn Harris, whose first three novels— Invisible Life (1994), Just as I Am (1994), and And This Too Shall Pass (1996)—explore bisexuality in an African American milieu, including positively self-identified bisexuals and supportive gays and straights. Marge Piercy’s Summer People (1989) offers an affirmative portrait of a married couple and their shared female lover. Like the experience of other oppressed or unconventional groups, the emergence of bisexuals in literature validates the life choices of all who sense that they belong somewhere between exclusive homosexuality and exclusive heterosexuality.


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Suggested Readings

DeCecco, John P., and Michael G. Shively, eds. Bisexual and Homosexual Identities. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1994.

Garber, Marjorie. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Geller, Thomas, ed. Bisexuality: A Reader and Sourcebook. Ojai, Calif.: Times Change, 1990.

Hutchins, Loraine, and Lani Kaahumanu, eds. Bi Any Other Name. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1991.

Klein, Fritz. The Bisexual Option. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1978.