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Today is Tuesday, November 08, 2005


When Love is an Each-Way Bet

After a long and difficult journey the bisexual community is finally gaining some recognition

by Anthony Dennis

A party for bisexuals at the
Civic Hotel in Sydney.
Photo: Steve Lunam
Kirsten McLean was somewhat puzzled when one of her female university students despairingly labelled herself a "UFO". Until, that is, the student explained that her version of the acronym stood for "unidentified f---ing object".

It was only then McLean, a lecturer in sociology at Melbourne's Monash University, knew perfectly what the student meant. The student, a bisexual, was expressing her frustration at what she perceived as society's inability to accept bisexuality as a legitimate form of sexual preference and expression.

McLean has been researching what, to some, remains the confronting subject of bisexuality for a number of years.

Her research into what she describes as the "in-between sexuality" has found that bisexuals, many of whom are deprived of the support a large, organised community can offer, tend to lead isolated and closeted lives - in contrast to the many thousands of gays and lesbians who today enjoy a greater degree of acceptance within and outside their communities.

"I know that people don't think that bisexuality is a real identity and if you don't have a real identity how can you commit to a relationship," McLean says. "Bisexuality is a confusing issue for society and it's a hard one to get your head around. I don't agree that bisexuality is the last taboo either, because society will always find something else, though I do believe bisexuals need to start activating as a community."

Such activism may be occurring. There is evidence that Australia's "out" bisexuals are creating a new front in the battle for sexual equality.

This year may prove to be a defining one for Australian bisexuals, even though they regard the community's understanding and tolerance of their chosen sexuality as being at least 20 years behind that now afforded to gays and lesbians.

The Bi Pride Australia organisation has been campaigning for the rights of bisexuals for four years. This year's Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will be the first to officially sanction a bisexual event - a dance party staged at the weekend for as many as 1000 people - providing a growing base for a network for Sydney male and female bisexuals and their gay and straight friends.

Later this year, following Saturday night's parade, New Mardi Gras organisers - coming after the bankruptcy of the original organisation - will create a new constitution. It's likely to result in bisexuals and bisexual groups finally qualifying for full membership of the organisation.

Until now, bisexuals have been on the uncertain fringes of Mardi Gras, protesting that some of the worst discrimination and ostracism against them have emerged, not just from heterosexuals, but from the gay and lesbian community itself. Bisexuals reckon that gays are just as susceptible to the belief that sexuality is black or white, that it must be one or the other.

Tonight a Mardi Gras forum called "Neglected Communities" will be held at State Parliament under the auspices of the Anti-Discrimination Board. It will examine the communities that "dwell in the shadows" of the legislation, says Chris Puplick, president of the board.

Those communities include bisexuals as well as people in the categories of transgender, transsexual and intersex (formerly known as hermaphrodite). Importantly, unlike every other Australian state and territory, no separate reference to bisexuality exists under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act.

Any complaints of discrimination against bisexuals must be dealt with under the legislation's homosexual component. Tonight Glenn Vassallo, the co-president of Bi Pride Australia, will deliver a paper at the conference on the NSW legislation's inadequacy.

He argues that bisexuals consider their sexuality distinct from either heterosexuality or homosexuality and that it should be treated as a separate entity by the law. "[The legislation] has a lot to do with how society sees sexuality," Vassallo says.

"A lot of Western society sees sexuality as a dichotomy: either gay or straight. Coming out as a bisexual can be difficult. People say, 'why can't you choose that you're either gay or straight?' They say you're just being greedy and having your cake and eating it."

He says that a recent Australian mental health survey, Path Through Life, indicated that bisexuals experience discrimination because of their bisexuality and not just because of their presumed homosexuality.

"The results showed that bisexuals generally have less family support, less support from friends and finish education earlier than either homosexuals or heterosexuals," says Vassallo.

Certainly, society's attitudes towards bisexuality are confusing and contradictory. The glamorisation of female bisexuality has become a virtual saleable commodity in Western societies exploited by Hollywood films such as Mulholland Drive and by popular magazines.

For instance, the March issue of Cleo , the mainstream women's magazine, contains a racy "sealed section" on female bisexuality and lesbianism with headlines such as "Girl-on-girl sex-fessions" and "giving-it-a-go" advice.

Bisexuals complain such treatment of bisexuality by the media simply emphasises a perception that bisexuality is concerned with hedonistic experimentation, obsession and opportunism, rather than a committed and credible sexual preference. They point out that no equivalent straight men's magazine would be likely to ever publish such material about male bisexuality.

While female bisexuality sells, male bisexuality remains largely a subject for unease and a perceived health threat through the potential transmission of sexual diseases, such as HIV, into the wider heterosexual community.

Many bisexuals, especially men, do not identify as bisexual, even though their sexual behaviour is otherwise indicative of bisexuality. They remain unaware of the presence of an incipient bisexual community where crucial safe-sex messages can be accessed, with sexual health education being an important reason for bisexuals to organise themselves more effectively as a community.

Vassallo agrees that male bisexuality is still regarded as "abhorrent behaviour" by many, and that some people worry that male bisexuals act as "vectors" between the homosexual and heterosexual communities. However, he believes that it's not a person's sexual preference that creates the risk to health but general unsafe sex practices.

Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, a senior lecturer in social diversity, health and education at Deakin University, has been working on a study with Sara Lubowitz, a Sydney-based HIV researcher, on the profoundly complex nature of Australian women's relationships with bisexual male partners.

Pallotta-Chiarolli says that male bisexuals are stereotypically seen as "AIDS carriers" or "really gay". She says that the women interviewed in the study encompassed a gamut of experiences, ranging from women who found out that their partners were bisexual during their relationships and those who knew from the beginning.

Some of the women in the study are bisexual while others are "angry, grieving and disgusted". Then there are women who, intriguingly, would never choose to be in a relationship with a heterosexual man after having experienced the "superior" nature of relationships with a bisexual male partner.

Pallotta-Chiarolli says that the research into bisexuality, which has tended to be limited, indicates young bisexual people are more prone to mental health problems due to the sense of "not belonging". Pressure can come from the friends and family of bisexuals to decide that they're either gay or straight, based on the perception that they are "really queer" and not genuinely bisexual.

"A lot of people who are open bisexuals will experience discrimination," says Pallotta-Chiarolli. "As soon as they tell someone that they're bisexual the problems begin. If you tell people you're gay or lesbian it's different but if you say you're bisexual the response tends to be, 'make up your mind and choose one or the other."'

Vassallo says he was forced to come out as a bisexual when workmates discovered he was frequenting the gay scene while in a relationship with a woman. He lost support from colleagues after announcing his bisexuality even though the woman he was seeing at the time was also bisexual and aware of his sexual orientation.

To exacerbate matters, he didn't feel that he could take solace within the gay community because he believed that attitudes towards bisexuality among gays were as rigid as those among heterosexuals.

He considers gays and lesbians to be no more accepting than the heterosexual community of bisexuals, although relations with the gay community have improved.

These days Vassallo describes himself as "polyamorous" - in a relationship in which three or more people are involved. He is involved with two women and a man, all of whom are aware of the other partners' involvement. He says there are many people in society, heterosexuals included, in "polyamorous" relationships but, unlike most "open" bisexual equivalents, they're usually founded on dishonesty and deception.

Yet such a lifestyle choice, and the negotiations required to make it achievable, can be confounding to others and undermine the ability of society to appreciate the complexities of bisexuality.

But a definite leap towards understanding for the bisexual community has been made this year, with the "broader, open and inclusive" New Mardi Gras organisation recognising bisexuals.

Michael Woodhouse, a co-chairman of New Mardi Gras, said bisexuals had previously been refused admission to dance parties ostensibly due to complaints from lesbians worried about being "hassled" by heterosexual men. And there was also the desire that the Mardi Gras remain within "community hands".

Woodhouse says New Mardi Gras will propose that there no longer be a "specification of sexuality" in the reformulated constitution for the organisation.

Puplick says he will be advising Mardi Gras on the discrimination and privacy elements of the new constitution, including that which pertains to bisexuals.

But, with what Vassallo sees as inadequate anti-discrimination legislation to protect bisexuals, the fight for bisexual rights has a long road ahead. Aside from the vagaries of the Anti-Discrimination Act, he says that in NSW a bisexual man is legally able to have sex with a 17-year-old female though not a 17-year-old male.

"Sydney may be the queer capital of the Southern Hemisphere," says Vassallo, "but it isn't yet a place where bisexual human rights are being upheld."

A voyage of discovery to the land of biversity

Jill Hanrahan and Michael Wynter lived as a couple for two years. Nowadays they're the best of friends. Wynter is an "out" bisexual while Hanrahan is in a committed straight relationship. She admits to being "bi-curious", even though she says she can't imagine ever having a proper relationship with another woman.

Hanrahan says her relationship with Wynter ended when he decided that he wanted to "explore his bisexuality". Yet, far from disapproving of his decision, Hanrahan encouraged him. "We've travelled in different directions but I'd consider him my best friend," she says. "I've thought that it was important to support him as a friend. Michael's ideal partner is a woman who is also bisexual, who wants to explore his bisexuality."

To support her friend, Hanrahan has appeared scantily clad in a series of photos for a website promoting a bisexual dance party called "Biversity" that Wynter organised at the weekend at a hotel in the city.

Wynter, who was married for 12 years, says he's had one relationship with a man but it lacked the nurturing nature of one with a woman. His interest in men is mainly "sexual".

The dance parties he organises are beginning to build a network that may one day rival the gay and lesbian scene. "My impression is that there's a lot of bisexual people in Sydney," he says, "but that it's a bit underground. The challenge for the bisexual community is that there's little understanding. There's a greater stigma than being gay and there's a feeling within the gay community itself that we're sitting on the fence."

His success with his "Biversity" parties has encouraged him to consider establishing a national bisexual network, which would provide much-needed counselling to bisexuals. But Wynter believes that recognition for people of his sexual preference will prove that you really can have your cake and eat it. And you might even be able to retain your friends and former partners, too.

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