A version of the following article was originally posted on the Expert Opinion section of the Association for Black Sexologists and Clinicians website.
The close of Black History Month. The start of Bisexual Health Awareness Month (BHAM) (and Women’s History Month). The space between blackness and bisexuality ceremoniously folds onto itself. This time of year, intersectionality wedges Black bisexual people into that shrinking gap—at least for the second time in as many years since BHAM was created.
But everyday racialized experiences of bisexual erasure, marginalization and biphobia breach any supposed discord between those two realities—blackness and bisexuality. As many Black gay and lesbian people attempt to become indistinguishable from European-American gay and lesbian people and other Black gay and lesbian people work at appearing to be just like Black heterosexual people—many of whom are feverishly attempting to assimilate into middle-class, European-American, heterosexual culture, to be Black and bisexual continues to have the politicizing significance that June Jordan ascribed to bisexual affirmation—to be free, unpredictable and uncontrollable in insisting upon complexity and its validity (Jordan, 2002, p.136).
Biphobia is, in part, the result of hostility to certain kinds of complexities. The complexity of bisexuality disturbs and disrupts simplistic thinking and superficial approaches to life. Farajajé (2014) noted, “In cultures that prioritize either/or thinking, either/or monolithic/oppositional definitions of sexualities/genders, in an either/or world, anything that occupies a liminal, an intersectional, or an interstitial location is seen as a threat” (p. 147).
Many heterosexual people may not realize how rampant biphobia is among gays and lesbians. Biphobia is a regrettable but logical outcome of the Gay Liberation Movement. Like many liberatory struggles, many radicals and progressive reformers initiated what became known as the Gay Liberation Movement. And just like others, at some point, the Gay Liberation Movement was co-opted by assimilationist, conformist and opportunist agendas. Those forces veered away from the queer politics of difference and transgression—reveling and flaunting sexual and gender complexities—to embrace normativity and homogeneity.
The agents of this agenda argued for homosexuality as a circumstance of birth rather than argue that all sexuality is chosen, informed by social context and embedded in culture i.e. sexual subjectivity (Rofes, 2002), which would have challenged the a priori nature of bourgeois heterosexuality in contemporary Western societies. They spent considerable more time and resources advocating for unrestricted military service and the right to marry someone of the same assigned sex compared to what they spent working to ending workplace discrimination, street violence, homelessness and poverty—issues that disproportionately affect Black bisexual and transgender people.
Because of the hegemony of imperialist, white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, the adoption of homonormativity has extended beyond the domain of European/European-American gay spaces and encroached upon spaces in Africa and her Diaspora.
Mainstream European/European-American ideas about sexuality and gender have ravaged Black communities in Africa and her Diaspora. Black gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people are now hypervisible in our communities in ways that we were not pre-Gay Liberation Movement—making us more vulnerable to violence and discrimination. Within oppressed communities over-policed and surveillance-heavy, rage is often turned inward on its most vulnerable members.
Transgender women of color have suffered murders at alarming rates. In the last several years, the rates have reached epidemic dimensions. In a recent Human Rights Campaign report, only 1 in 10 bisexual youth (21% of whom were Black) reported feeling that they definitely fit in within their communities (Andre, Brown, Kahn, & Sherouse, 2014).
Due to their Eurocentrism and monosexism, gay and lesbian researchers of sexuality in Africa have frequently contributed to bisexual erasure by misrepresenting bisexual practices as homosexuality. Continental Africans, unfamiliar with Western homosexuality, have, at times, unintentionally contributed to the misrepresentations as they have tried to fit African sexual cultures–rooted in African value systems–into Western languages–rooted in Western value systems–for the purposes of intercultural exchange (Williams, 2010). The irony is that, in many ways, bisexuality is more consistent with traditional African values related to family and community than Western forms of homosexuality. In many traditional African societies, adults feel responsible for producing children. The reasons for this responsibility have been complex and interconnected.
For societies that have held a belief in reincarnation, ancestors tend to reincarnate within their bloodline. Twentieth century Western homosexuality—with its presumption of exclusive same-sex sexual practice, unnecessarily limits the number of children produced within a family and, hence, the opportunities ancestors have to return within their bloodline. For societies in which members of the same family have cultivated, maintained and transmitted specialized Indigenous knowledge, children have not just been extensions of the bloodline but future bearers of important bodies of millennia-old knowledge valued by the community.
African cultures are generally communalist in orientation, which is in stark contrast to the individualist orientation of post-industrial European societies, particularly the United States, that gave birth to the modern Gay Liberation Movement. The Gay Liberation Movement’s focus on individual rights, freedoms and liberties—with little discussion of individuals’ responsibility to community beyond HIV prevention—is axiologically inconsistent with an African-centered worldview in which members of the community have both rights respect by the community and responsibilities to their community, e.g., ubuntu (interdependence).
Sexuality, in Africa and the Diaspora, has allowed Black people to taste the various kinds of sweetness in life—pleasure and procreation. One does not have to choose between meeting one’s responsibilities to family and community and pursuing personal development and fulfillment in any aspect of life, including sexual. The interdependent nature of African communities creates the context for personal achievement in the context of community health and sustainability.
We can build nurturing and supportive systems for Black people of all sexualities and genders within our communities. But to do so, we will have to move beyond the low expectations of the tolerance paradigm and social media campaigns that offer simplistic approaches to systemic realities. Such efforts are more indicative of the woundedness and sexual and gender trauma we seek to address. I agree with Thomas (2003)’s assertion:
Sexual transformation outside of militant anti-colonial resistance is only bourgeois colonial assimilation in disguise…. Like sexism and homophobia in general, the culturally specific and historically contingent sexual formations of empire have to be interrogated as opposed to internalized: recognizing [heterosexism] as a powerful instrument of [white supremacy] is no less vital than particularizing the 19th century European conception of homosexuality in the same fashion (p.100).
The project of building a world that can hold all Black people without regard to their sexuality or gender demands a more rigorous approach—the ongoing work of liberatory struggle for the decolonization of our bodies, desires, families and communities. It calls us to honor and value the liberatory potential in our historical and indigenous understandings of sexuality and gender. It requires us to divest ourselves from dominating sexual and gender paradigms. It asks us to take often referenced African concepts such as ubuntu and nguzo saba (the seven principles of the African-American holiday Kwanzaa) and deploy them to reconciling our feelings about the messiness of sexuality—particularly bisexuality.
The details of such work will necessarily be as clandestine as any successful revolutionary movement. Intimacy and proximity will be the hallmarks. Those who take on the challenge of this covert work will rightly get their hands dirtied by the messiness. Their efforts will mark them and transform the people they encounter. But freedom will not be free.
Andre, A., Brown, J., Delpercio, A., Kahn, E., Nicoll, A., & Sherouse, B. (2014). Supporting and caring for our bisexual youth. D.C.: The Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
Farajajé, I. A. (2014). Fictions of purity. In R. Ochs & H. S. Williams (Eds.), Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men (pp. 146-151). Boston: Bisexual Resource Center.
Jordan, J. (2002). Some of us did not die: new and selected essays of June Jordan. New York: Basic Books.
Rofes, E. (2002). Desires as defiance: Gay male sexual subjectivities and resistance to sexual health promotion. Health Education Journal, 61, 125-137.
Thomas, G. (2003). Notes on sexuality after COINTELPRO: Beyond the neo-colonial Western millennium. In C. B. Davies, M. Gadsby, C. Peterson, & H. Williams (Eds.), Decolonizing the Academy: African Diasporic Studies (pp. 93-103). Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Williams, H. (2010). Bodeme in Harlem: An African Diasporic autoethnography. Journal of Bisexuality, 10 (1/2), 64-78.