One Word: Bisexual Coming of Age in the Late 1970s-Early 1980s

Jun 26, 2021 | 2014 Summer - Intersection: Age

By Francesca Bongiorno Fortunato

We had one word: bisexual. In those days, some people still spelled it with a hyphen: bi-sexual. It was and was not cool to be bisexual in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was coming of age. It was cool because there were hot, out bisexual celebrities, like David Bowie and Debbie Harry. It was uncool because, if you were a bisexual woman, you could be pretty sure that almost all lesbians would hate you (and they’d know you were bisexual because you had dared to show your face in a women’s bar but you didn’t “look like a lesbian.” All lesbians were expected to look like butches back then.) So, if you wanted a girlfriend, you’d probably have to find another bisexual woman. Lesbians might secretly be attracted to you but they wouldn’t trust you and would be embarrassed to be seen in public with you, if you had long hair or wore a skirt…

But it was also cool to be bisexual during those years because AIDS had not yet been discovered, and people were very unafraid of sex. So it was, in a general way, a very good time to be young and starting one’s sexually active life. If you had a social circle like the one I found (Rocky Horror Picture Show fans in Greenwich Village) there were likely to be a lot of bisexual people in it because, even if bisexuality did have connotations of promiscuity (in the minds of the ignorant) promiscuity wasn’t considered a bad thing. In some ways, it was easier to be out at that time than it is now, because we have actually become a somewhat more sexually repressed society in the post-AIDS years.

In my group of friends, there were a lot of bisexuals. I had bisexual girlfriends and bisexual boyfriends (short-term serial monogamy, which was pretty common during my youth.) Being bisexual was so accepted in that crowd that one guy came up with a saying, which we would all repeat: “If you’re not bi, you’re biased.” Then there was the popular joke: “I’m trisexual; I’ll try anything once.” Experimentation was considered adventurous and cool; not stupid or shallow, as it tends to be thought of now.

Because I had more male than female partners over the years, I eventually found that I was usually perceived as straight. I made a point of outing myself to close friends because I didn’t want to lose my bisexual identity, but it was hard to maintain. I couldn’t (or didn’t think I could) out myself at work. So, I got married (three times – all of them to men who knew I was bisexual) and let myself look straight because staying out took too much energy and besides, if casual acquaintances knew I was bisexual they’d probably think I was looking for girlfriends…

Then I divorced my last husband and married a woman. Now I have to out myself in the other direction because I’m presumed lesbian. That’s true even though I still have long hair and wear skirts and makeup. One thing that’s changed since my young adulthood is that lesbians don’t have a strict uniform anymore. You can look like either Ellen or Portia (if you’re skinny and white.) Or…you can pretty much look like anything, and people will believe you’re a lesbian if you say that you are. But then they’ll also believe you’re a lesbian if you don’t say that you are, so long as you’re romantically involved with a woman.

My wife is supportive of my being out (as bisexual) in a way that my former husbands were not. None of the guys in my life ever told me to stay closeted (I wouldn’t have listened if they had), but it was clear that all three of them were somewhat embarrassed when I told mutual friends that I was bi; worried that I’d be perceived as non-monogamous. My wife, on the other hand, knows that I’m faithful to her and is secure enough in her own identity that she isn’t threatened by mine. So, it’s pretty easy to be out as queer these days, though I do have to keep outing myself as bisexual.

I perceive a lot of pressure from younger non-monosexuals to give up the label bisexual, and call myself pansexual, omnisexual or something else. Sorry, folks. I’m not going to do that. There was one word and it formed my sense of self. It’s what/ who I am. As bisexual at 51 as I was at 21. Still here, still queer and still in the conversation.

The Rev. Francesca Bongiorno Fortunato is a minister, writer/poet, performing artist and Extreme Cat Person. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her wife Lynn and their feline employers, Alice and Gracie.

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