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From Phyllida's Desk

Review of Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner

Bi: Notes for a Bisexual RevolutionBi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a terrific book, one that goes far beyond most of what has been published on bisexuality and bisexual activism--which is not to belittle the great work that has preceded it. It's a book that could not have been written until now, when the definition of bisexual is expanding to be more inclusive, and when the concept of bisexuality is moving beyond the limited idea of attraction to "both" sexes. Because this is nonfiction, and political, I will not be discussing the writing style, except to say I think Eisner did an excellent job of writing clearly and avoiding jargon. I am giving the book four stars, not five, because I think there is one substantive flaw in Eisner's approach, which I'll discuss at the end of my review.

Eisner has two main themes: first, that bisexual activism, and any possible "revolution," cannot be a separate political movement, but must recognize its connection with other oppressed groups, including women (and feminists), people of color, transgender people, and people with disabilities; second, that the focus of most traditional bisexual activism has been assimilationist, concentrating on two conservative ideas: marriage equality and military service.

Eisner starts with an inclusive definition of bisexuality, encouraging anyone who wants to identify as bisexual (while rightly maintaining that not everyone is bisexual, that such a claim insults everyone who does not identify as bisexual). Too often, people who have questioned their sexuality have felt that the narrow definitions of bisexuality didn't include them. And too often these narrow definitions were promulgated by people or groups whose agenda, explicit or not, was to deny the existence of bisexuality. By allowing people to identify as bisexual, regardless of whether they are "equally" attracted to "both" sexes, Eisner opens up the discussion to encompass the range of gender identities and sexual orientations that the category "bisexual" can and should include. She spends a lot of time, justifiably, on breaking down the binary view that sees only two sexes, male and female, and that sees gender as two exclusive points, instead of a continuum, much like the Kinsey scale for sexual orientation.

Eisner asks each reader to go through a checklist of privilege, noting whether we benefit from being male; white; cisgender (as opposed to transgender), meaning our gender identity matches our genitalia; or able bodied. The chapters that follow discuss bisexuality in relation to each of these categories, showing the similarities of oppression and misunderstanding from the majority monosexual (people who are attracted to only one gender--lesbian, gay, or heterosexual) and heteronormative culture.

Too often, Eisner argues, bisexual groups and individuals have made assimilationist arguments to gain acceptance, minimizing the real ways in which bisexuality differs from the "norm," just as disability, femaleness and being a "race" other than white differ from the default assumption that, unless specified, a person is white, male, heterosexual and able. For me, the most empowering idea of the book is that what are often perceived as negatives: not being monogamous (or being polyamorous); not being one thing or the other (androgyny, transgender); having a disability or being HIV positive, can and should be seen as positives in the sense of identity. For example, denying that a person is disabled does not make her able; it means that she is always inadequate, a failure, when her disability prevents her from living up to the standards of the nondisabled majority. In the same way, Eisner argues, bisexuality should move away from assuring the monosexual world that we are just like them (that we can be monogamous, that we identify only as male or female). A bisexual revolution, rather than pretending that bisexual people conform to the norms of the monosexual world, should acknowledge and celebrate the ways in which they are different, both from the monosexual culture, and within bisexuality, from each other.

And here is where the book's one flaw leaves it with an unanswerable dilemma. By including everybody who has felt attraction to more than one gender, whether acted on or not, into the big bisexual tent, Eisner is now dealing with a large group of people, many of whom, if not most, will be conservative in outlook. I don't mean Tea-Party wacko, just conservative as in traditional: people who want to form monogamous partnerships, settle down and raise a family; and people who want to serve in the military. These desires aren't bad or "wrong," but they do conflict with the more radical outlook of Eisner and those like her who see marriage and the military as instruments of oppression.

Unlike Eisner, I don't believe that identifying as bisexual automatically makes me (or anyone) antimilitary and anti-marriage. In the book club where we discussed one chapter every two weeks, my fellow discussants argued that Eisner was focusing on a particular kind of bisexuality, one that embraced these points of view along with the gender and sexual fluidity. Well, as has been said, you can't have it both ways. Either "bisexual" includes all of us, conservative and progressive, or we narrow it back down, not by how many partners we've had and of which sex, but by degree of radical politics.

Unless, of course, we can have it both ways. Rather than supply a blueprint, Eisner has written a provocative, sometimes infuriating, book that should make every reader question his or her (or their) beliefs. Not every reader will share all of Eisner's goals (and I believe that marriage will phase itself out long before we stop being turned on by people of every gender in uniform)--but here's hoping that these "notes" do start us on a path toward that Bisexual Revolution, whatever form it takes.

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