Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bisexual history

So what is bisexual history then and why – apart from the fact that it is LGBT history month (see my last post) – am I blogging about it?

Well, the quick answer to that is that bi people are essentially “hidden from history” as Sheila Rowbotham wrote in the 1970s about women in the past. And I would dearly love to see it, them and us out in the open.

I am doing my microbit. As well as writing about how men who had sex with men before WW2 often seemed to act, or feel about their experiences, somewhat differently than they do now, and how some young women in the 1920s seemed to be having relationships with each other, I wrote a few blog posts about a year ago about bisexuality in the 70s, 80s and 90s – what I remember, in a nutshell. Bizarrely that is now history too. You can see them all in the history link to the right of the page.

But what about before that?

The gay liberation movements of the 1970s set about finding, recording and reclaiming the lives of gay people across the ages – we are talking pretty much exclusively north America and Europe here. They found people across all time – mainly men, mainly rich, but not all - who had same sex relationships.

It used to be, and probably still is, argued that it is simply inappropriate to label people gay, lesbian or bisexual when those terms were not used at the time, and people would not have considered themselves in that way. Sexuality before the end of the 19th century was perceived in terms of the act, not the identity, and whether or not you married was what was important. So partly as a result of that – and also for political reasons – pretty much anyone gay historians could find who had other than other-sex relationships was treated as gay for reclamation purposes.

It’s certainly true that many or most people earlier than say the 1970s (and even now almost everywhere in the world) who would like to have same-sex relationships were compelled to at least appear to be having straight ones.

Nevertheless, it is also true that many people have been claimed as gay/lesbian (three being Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde and indeed Sappho – pictured above, although how can anyone really be sure it is her?) who seemed to have authentic romantic or sexual attachments with men and women. So while it might have been a good idea to claim them as lesbian or gay in the 1970s, now I think it’s time to take a more nuanced view of their sexual complexities.

Other than that there are, of course, reports of men who put it about with all and sundry… the 17th century poet and satirist the Earl of Rochester, for instance, pictured left. A fictionalised version of his life featured in the film The Libertine. Very little of his sex with men was apparently included.

As usual in matters historical, written records are overwhelmingly about men, specifically rich and/or aristocratic men, so we know much more about what they said, did and wrote. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing at all written about women, just that it is harder to tease out. Anne Lister, for instance, a wealthy 19th century Yorkshirewoman, lived as a lesbian and had many affairs with women before marrying the wealthy heiress Ann Walker. But what about her other girlfriends? Mightn’t some of them have loved men as well as her?

One shining example of bisexual history is Eva Cantarella’s book, Bisexuality in the Ancient World - an academic look at ancient Greece and Rome, the (mainly) male bisexuality that went on there, and the constraints – of which there were many – that applied. I do have this book but as it is currently in storage, I can’t enlighten you any further.

So have there been any other history books from a specifically bi perspective? I can’t find any, but if anyone knows of one I’d be mighty glad to read it.

In the meantime, there are some bi-themed history features here.


Wolfshowl said...

Well, I don't know about bi history books, but my English Prof definitely made a point of informing us that Lord Byron was bisexual. There seems to be a lot of evidence of his relationships with women and men, including poetry about love of each sex.

Araliya said...

I don't have any books to recommend, but I did want to say hello and tell you that I love your blog and what you're doing with it. There are far more sites that fetishise bisexuality and polyamory (not that some of them aren't good) than talk about it in this kind of level-headed, practical, accessible way. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

So good topic really i like any post talking about Ancient Greece but i want to say thing to u Ancient Greece not that only ... you can see in Ancient Greece Ancient Greece for Kids and more , you shall search in Google and Wikipedia about that .... thanks a gain ,,,

Estraven said...

This whole idea of Foucault's that bisexuality and homosexuality did not exist before a certain time because there were no words for it is something he made up in his head, and is just plain wrong. There were always words, words like Femminielli. hijira. Khanith, Kathoey, Köçek, Māhū. Muxe, Takatāpui. and Two-spirit people. Erasing bisexual history this way does us a particular disservice, because the evidence shows that most people in most cultures in ancient times were bisexual, until the Abrahamic religions (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) stepped in and repressed all that as part of their efforts to control the world in Medieval times.

There are many books you can read about this. You already read "Bisexuality in the Ancient World" by Eva Cantarella which describes the bisexual life of ancient Greece and Rome. Next I would suggest "The Spirit and the Flesh," by Walter Williams, which describes how the Native Americans were bisexual and transgendered until the missionaries got here and suppressed all that. Next "Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies In African Homosexualities" by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe (some of these books were written seen through a gay lens, as it were), "Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan" by Gary Leupp, " Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature." Eds. Will Roscoe, Stephen Murray, and "Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China" by Bret Hinsch. I tried to find a book covering the bisexual Mayans, but could not find one in English, although there probably is one in Spanish. However, the most excellent "Homosexuality & Civilization" by Louis Crompton, covers this in pages 314 to 320.

You can also rad about the bisexual Mayans in Wikepedia. Again, contrary to Foucault's lies, they have been called Muxe for thousands of years:

Estraven said...

It just makes me angry that once again a privileged white man did not even bother to research the history or culture of indigenous people, but in his arrogance decided that what he made up in his head mattered more, But for that matter, modern historians are finding that he does not seem to have researched his own culture very well either:

Sue George said...

Many thanks for these comments, Estraven. Since I wrote this piece six years ago, I have heard of some of one or two of these books but not most of them. Hopefully some of them are available for me to read in UK libraries.