Look Both Ways : Bisexual Politics

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  • Format: Trade Book
  • Copyright: 2007-02-20
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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For the acclaimed author and activist Jennifer Baumgardner, bisexuality has always been more than the "sexual non-preference of the '90s." InLook Both Ways, Baumgardner takes a close look at the growing visibility of gay and bisexual characters, performers, and issues on the national cultural stage. Despite the prevalence of bisexuality among Generation X and Y women, she finds that it continues to be marginalized by both gay and straight cultures, and dismissed either as a phase or a cop-out. With intimacy and humor, Baumgardner discusses her own experience as a bisexual, and the struggle she's undergone to reconcile the privilege she's garnered as a woman who is perceived as straight and the empowerment and satisfaction she's derived from her relationships with women. Part memoir, part pop-culture study,Look Both Waysconnects the prominent dots of a bisexual community (Alix Kates Shulman, Ani DiFranco, Rebecca Walker, and, of course, Anne Heche) that Baumgardner argues have bridged feminist aims with those of the gay rights movement.Look Both Waysis a compelling and current study in bisexual lives lived secretly and openly, and an exploration of the lessons learned by writers, artists, and activists who have refused the either/or paradigm defended by both gay and straight communities.

Author Biography

Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of Manifesta and Grassroots, frequently writes and lectures on feminism, activism, and popular culture for  magazines and on college campuses around the country.

Table of Contents

First lookp. 11
What is bisexuality?p. 37
The woman-identified woman : bisexuality and the second wavep. 69
Bisexuality now : the Ani phenomenonp. 97
Gay expectationsp. 127
But is it sex?p. 147
Men : can't live with themp. 167
Sexual tension : bisexual women and lesbiansp. 187
On being entitled : bisexual politicsp. 207
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.


 If you’re walking down the street in London, you’ll find helpful words stenciled on the street at most crosswalks: look right, reminds one, where the traffic whizzes by on the left side of the street. look left, instructs the next, as cars zoom past on the right. Sometimes you stand on a curb poised to take a step, look down, and the street tells you look both ways.In 1993, I stood poised at an unfamiliar intersection of attraction, sex, and love—and I looked both ways. My world was New York City, and it looked like this:Dinkins was mayor. No one walked down the street or sat at a café or drove their car while yakking on a cell phone. There were no Starbucks. I bought fifty-cent coffee from vendors stationed in aluminum carts. I  hadn’t heard of the Internet or the Web, and when I did, I took to using that early-nineties überterm, the Infobahn (a German spin on information superhighway—fortunately, both terms fell out of use). Dot-coms had yet to be invented, much less to inflate and then implode. E-mail was something that a few VAX geeks at my college used, but it had nothing to do with real life. Ellen was not out, and “outing” (the gay community’s version of a suicide bombing) loomed as potential annihilation, terrorizing closeted homosexuals. Grunge was but a year or two old; Riot Grrls were writing each other love letters and starting bands. Kate Moss was causing a sensation with her waif look. PC meaning “politically correct” was as popular a term as PC meaning “personal computer.” A rakish and idealistic Bill Clinton had just become president number forty-two, seemingly a victory for the politically correct, myself included. Doomed, intelligent Hillary was still being presented as a partner, not a First Lady, and the Clintons still believed that the nation would see that as a good thing. Bill’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” idealism had retracted enough to squeeze out gays from the military. George Stephanopoulos was considered hot.On January 10 of that year, at age twenty-two and half a year out of the safety of a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, I boarded a train in Fargo at 2:30 a.m. and, thirty-five hours and two Milan Kundera books later, arrived in Manhattan to start an internship at Ms. magazine. I carried just two suitcases and a Coach briefcase I would never use. What I didn’t have was a paying job, a place to live, or friends—other than Michael Gardner, that is, a slightly older pal from my hometown who was fabulous, gay, and a dresser for the long-running Broadway phenomenon known as Cats. He had said I could stay with him and his boyfriend for a week until I found a room of my own. Michael had been instrumental in my deciding to move to New York; I had almost moved to Chicago. “Honey, Chicago?” Michael had said. “You need to be in New York. Why do NoDoz when there’s crack available?”In my mind, I had arrived simply by making New York City—Manhattan—my new address. You don’t have to be from a small landlocked town with six months of winter to know that New York is one of those places—where mystique and myth and overpopulation and opportunity mix to create the frantic cocktail known as freedom. Growing up in Fargo, I had always feared that I was missing out on the party. My hopes for myself in the Midwest were grandiose, but they were often at odds with my earnest feminist proclivities. I wanted to be a fashion model, at least for catalogues; I would meet Bernadette Peters and become her understudy, or perhaps her personal assistant. Merely being in a place where the high rollers of those ambitions lived and worked and debauched and grocery shopped made me feel this close to a contract, a gig, a job, the glamorous life. A journal entry from January 19, 1993, 1:30 a.m., reads:List of things to do while in the Big Apple1. Letterman2. Click and Elite3. MOMA, Met, Whitney4. Les Miserables5. Audition for Cats6. Check out Sassy, Rolling Stone, Details, and Premiere7. Buy shoes on 8th AvenueI have yet to “do” Les Miz or Letterman, but I did subject myself to the humiliation of drop-in day at Elite and other modeling agencies. I even suited up for a Cats cattle call. I visited museums, too, and learned that the shoe stores are on Eighth Street, not Eighth Avenue. That list, full of misunderstood directions and out-of-hand rejection, might have been all I came to know of New York had I not had the grounding experience of entering the world of Ms., which demanded new skills from me (faxing, clearing paper jams) and provided a social milieu not so different from a 1970s consciousness-raising group.Yes, I was an unpaid intern at the one big feminist mag-azine. Ms., where the letters-to-the-editor section ran for pages and tended to drip with gratitude. Ms. of the “no ads, please, we’re feminist.” Ms. of the all-female staff and no dress code. Ms. of the (who knew?) male owner with vexing financial problems who also owned Sassy, the avant-garde teen magazine with great style and cool young editors such as Kim France and Christina Kelly. Gloria Steinem’s Ms.—that one. To a just-graduated, intense college feminist who spent her undergrad years planning antipornography forums, when not drinking the free beer at frat parties, Ms. was Mecca. We even did a pornography issue a few months into my tenure that had all the range of opinion I had mustered at my college porn forum—which is to say, from Andrea Dworkin to Andrea Dworkin. Being in the Ms. offices, even as an unpaid lackey, meant entering the serious, real work world. I would never have to say “Hospitaliano!” or any other Olive Garden/Chili’s/Red Lobster greeting again.Or, not exactly. Since I was an unpaid intern, to pay the bills, I got a job waitressing at a macho West Village writers’ haunt called the Lion’s Head, on Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. It was garden level and murky—even at noon—with a huge oak bar and the kind of air that is best described as visible. In 1993, the Lion’s Head was a New York institution, albeit a crumbling one, where old newspaper guys such as Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill drank, or maybe they were sober then but they still hung out in the bar, holding court beneath their framed book jackets adorning the walls. The bartenders were dyspeptic old guys with beards who wrote poetry, took themselves very seriously, and treated me like shit: “Whatayastupid? ‘Up’ and ‘neat’ are the same thing!!” Like shit, that is, until the next new girl was hired. Then, according to some tribal New York restaurant code, they loved me: “Sweetheart, make sure you get home safe—alright, Fargo? Where’s that dim-bulb new girl?”Grizzled white men poured drinks and dispensed dubious wisdom. Young white women in tight clothes delivered the food and the smiles and said “sorry” all the time. Short brown men cooked it all and cleaned it all up, and still managed to rise above the racial oppression of the United States to make kissing sounds at us waitresses whenever we were in the kitchen. The Lion’s Head was nothing like Ms., where an editor apologized to an intern for five minutes before sheepishly asking her to make a photocopy.I lived downtown from Ms. and east of the Lion’s Head, in the twenties, just shy of tony Gramercy Park and a few blocks from a playhouse where Oleanna, David Mamet’s drama of PC feminism run amok, was playing. My friend Karen had seen the play and reported that after the climactic scene in which the professor punches the witch-hunting female student who ruined his life, the audience became positively barbaric: “Kill the bitch!” one woman yelled. Grumpy bartenders and David Mamet, modeling agencies and walking down the street to a catcall serenade of “Mami” and “Give me a smile, sweetheart”—it all struck me as exciting and sexist. So satisfying to be furious about. So teeming with sexual politics. “Figures of male authority aroused in me a confusing medley of corked fury and hunger to please,” as Jon Krakauer writes in Into the Wild. I was furious. I was hungry.Four months into New York City, life changed. I was hired full-time by Ms. magazine to be the internship coordinator for a sum of four hundred dollars a week; I kept my restaurant job one night a week. By day, I faxed contracts and research to the likes of radical-feminist law professor Catharine MacKinnon, at work on a piece about rape camps in Bosnia. By night, I brought Kaliber nonalcoholic beers and steak au poivre to people like Lou Reed and fended off guys who’d show up to walk me home at the end of my shift at 3:00 a.m. My days and nights were like night and day—feminist enclave versus masculine den—so different, but each with its own extreme charms and allure.New York City was big enough to hold both worlds and many more. I marveled at the gargoyles on the architecture, at how every residential building looked like a giant advent calendar and I could peek into each window to observe a new diorama. I had found my way to Eighth Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) and bought a pair of Dr. Martens boots to wear waitressing and walking to and from the magazine. My love life was still a one-way street. I made out on a pool table with a long-haired guy from college named Tom. I slept with a WASP named Jim, who took me to my first black-tie affair. I pined after my doe-eyed ex-boyfriend, Brian, even though he was kind of a loser, pot-smoking pizza delivery boy. I passive-aggressively fended off Greg, the reporter who rammed his tongue down my throat every time he saw me. I sort of returned the affections of gorgeous, smart lawyer Charlie from college. I got attention from Hank and guys from the Lion’s Head who seemed gay but kept asking me out. There were plenty of men in my life, but no one I really connected with, no one that great.So that was 1993.Here’s what I saw when I looked the other way:Alongside images of Tom, Jim, Brian, and the gang, imagine that Ms. intern I mention on the first page of this book. She had black curls and poreless skin and the extravagant name of Anastasia Higginbotham. She worked at the Paramount Hotel as office manager of housekeeping, even though she was just twenty-one, fresh out of Vanderbilt University, and had no previous experience. If you know anything about the Paramount in the early 1990s, you know that it was and still is a chic yet cramped Ian Schrager hotel with interiors designed by Philippe Starke and frequented by rock stars and Johnny Depp types when they were in the city. One of Anastasia’s jobs was to rent porn for the guests, which we found totally repellant. (“Correction,” Anastasia used to say. “Thirty percent of my job is to rent porn.”) She, too, wore chunky black boots every day. They may have been in style in general or in style only at Ms.; either way, we regarded them as vital tools in our fight against the patriarchy. They were tough-looking, good for your feet, and easy to get around in. Critiquing high heels as something the patriarchy had invented to keep women helpless was a big part of my feminism then.I met Anastasia one Monday in the Ms. intern vestibule, surrounded by posters touting BETTY concerts and pro-choice rallies. Ms. may have been chic philosophically, but its offices were dingy. Stacks of manuscripts under every chipped brown Formica desk, cast-off chairs, and no natural light—a less-than-cushy setting I have come to think of as typically feminist. (I.e., if it’s comfortable, it’s not feminist—unless of course we’re talking about shoes.) Anastasia had just begun her internship (while I was away on a family trip), and I had been intending to introduce myself before tackling the slush pile, which was usually two feet high and filled with incest narratives.Anastasia was answering a phone call when I walked in. As she turned around, I felt a zzzt!—a pang of something electric and alive. She had silvery blue eyes and a slightly shaggy pixie cut with errant tendrils curling around her ears. Her teeth were noticeably adorable, and she smiled with her mouth open a little bit, as if she were about to bite into a blueberry. I remember that I didn’t go through my usual female checklist (“Her hair is cuter, but mine is blonder,” etc.). I just loved looking at her. It turned out she was very funny and drew comic strips with alternative Barbie scenarios (nine frames of female masochism with the tagline “And you thought her tits were scary!”). She was also extremely earnest—a word I never truly understood until I worked at Ms. Vanderbilt and her Catholic upbringing had driven Anastasia to cut off her long hair and invest in the boots. At school, she’d taken an off-campus witchcraft class disguised as a Women and Religion course, though its goddess-y name—“Cakes for the Queen of Heaven”—gave away its true nature.I hadn’t really had any conscious attraction to women up until that point in my life. I didn’t know then what I know now: that sexual and romantic same-sex relationships are very common among straight-identified women of my generation and younger, and that feminism (in the form of our raised expectations and our freedoms) probably has a lot to do with that. I didn’t yet know that my best friend in college was having an affair with her female roommate for three out of our four years. Or that my old voice teacher from Fargo was now living with a woman. Another pal hadn’t yet called off her engagement to a guy and moved in with a single mother/cabaret star. I couldn’t have foreseen that in 2000 my college roommate’s mother would get divorced and marry a woman in Hawaii. I didn’t have the vision to look back at all of my own moments and put two and two together. All those massages with the neighbor girl in high school; how bereft I felt when my friend from dance class (the ditzy blonde who slept over every night in 1985) had to go live with her dad for the summer.In my memory, my two “serious” boyfriends had dominated ninth through twelfth grade. First there was John, with whom I behaved like some crazy Joan Collins viper instead of admitting I didn’t know how to French kiss, much less how to have a good “relationship.” Then there was Tim, who was shorter than I and had a beautiful tenor voice. There was also sexy-but-cheating Brady, whom I couldn’t stay away from in college and is now a very trustworthy father of three in Madison, Wisconsin. In New York, there was plenty of attention from and fun with guys. No one I was writing home about, but people to kiss and get flirty with.But perhaps I was more invested in what women were all about than I remember. That same journal entry I quoted earlier, about the Cats audition, also includes this glimpse into my twenty-two-year-old 1993 psyche: “Ms. is fucking cool. The office is 75 percent lesbian. I am in the minority as a straight Midwestern girl.”I think it’s safe to say I was a little titillated by the Sapphic traffic at my new job. Ms. was at no time 75 percent lesbian—maybe 30 percent, tops. I don’t think I was in the minority being from the Midwest, actually, and, as it turned out, I was hardly the straight girl I envisioned myself to be. Ms. was my first contact with lesbians—and these had cool girlfriends and good jobs (i.e., lives I related to and pined after). Even the straight women on the staff didn’t spend a lot of time gossiping about men. It was the first time I truly saw women without men as being successes, not failures. I had mouthed this rhetoric before, but had always secretly felt a little vulnerable without some guy around to demonstrate that I was lovable. Women without men loomed large in my new world. Maybe that’s why I thought so many of them were lesbians.The whole Ms. staff loved Anastasia because she was competent, sexy, and delightful, and she brought in homemade snacks during tough closings. I wanted to cut to the front of the line of people getting her attention. And I did. By the time her three-month internship was over, she and I had spent so much time together that we were best friends—possessively so. The type who showers people with love and attention, she drew an extended series of cartoons about us called “Lengthy and Squiggly,” based on Lenny and Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley, poking fun at our height difference. She wrote me hundreds of letters and faxes and cards with goddess imagery on them. She also quoted The Simpsons the way some people quote the Bible, in order to prove any point, and I loved that she thought TV could be funny and philosophical, just as I did (“Alcohol is both the cause, and the solution, to all life’s problems.”—Homer Simpson). She always seemed to be playing with my long hair or refilling my water bottle or getting cookies for us to share after 4:00 p.m., when they were three for a dollar at the overpriced Italian restaurant across the street. We researched the porn issue together and cased the sex shops that used to line Times Square. We danced at a kiss-in for the Lesbian Avengers in Grand Central. We walked home arm in arm from work, laughing and singing Barbra Streisand’s hit “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” at the top of our lungs. (“It’s raining, it’s pouring, my love life is boring me to tears, after all these years.”)That June happened to be the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, the Lollapalooza of gay pride. A quarter century earlier, the West Village had erupted in riots when police tried to launch a night of routine humiliation for the drag queens, butch lesbians, and blue-collar gay men who frequented the Stonewall Inn. In 1994, though, women like me and my straight sister Andrea and anyone we were friends with thought nothing of strolling down Fifth Avenue for the dyke march, shoulder to shoulder with shirtless women sporting stickers slapped over their nipples reading we recruit.At work, we jokingly referred to Ms.’s hothouse envi-ronment as the Bisexual Internship Program, and many a straight intern left with a notch in her lipstick lesbian case. In this new world—a world full of women I was trying to impress and one in which homophobia was not on the menu—I found myself thinking I might be bisexual (why not?) even before Anastasia and I got together. After all, she had fallen in love with her best friend in college while working on a feminist newspaper called Muliebrity (its clunky name still makes me laugh), a 1592 word meaning both femininity and “mulish.” The fact that this girlie-girl (boots and bravado aside) had slept with a woman made me think I probably could, too.One night Anastasia and I found ourselves in a straight bar called Tom and Jerry’s, on Houston and Elizabeth Street, drunk and with me practically sitting on her lap. Our friend Julie Felner, one of the compelling Ms. lesbians, had just left us. It was 2:00 a.m. “Me and Bobby McGee” was on the jukebox and I was singing my best Janis Joplin into her ear—“freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”—when I kissed her.The entire noisy, grotesque, jabbering bar receded and all I could hear was her skin. Or maybe I was smelling it. I don’t know. It was very disorienting. I do recall that my hand went directly to her breasts, proving to me that women’s breasts are so hyper-eroticized that even people who have their own are fascinated by them. I could feel her downy mustache, which she bleaches, feathery against my upper lip.I felt a tap on my shoulder, and a woman said, “I don’t think this is the safest situation for you.” She gestured at the semicircle of guys around us making no effort to conceal that this was a show for them. The two of us stumbled out of there and made our way to our separate homes, laughing really hard at the spectacle we had made. I felt sort of goofy and in love. On Monday at Ms., though, I felt awkward and nervous to see her. She swept into the office holding a stack of photocopies, pointed her finger at me, and exclaimed, “You sang ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ in my ear!”“I know!” I shrieked, laughing so hard I crumpled in a heap on the industrial office carpet. I almost wet my pants with embarrassment and hysteria, but I was also relieved that we were still okay.The following Friday, Anastasia and I slept together for the first time.At first it was just a terrific, exciting love affair that I didn’t want to “label,” except in the most Feminism 101 terms, although I quickly embraced the fact that I was indeed bisexual. My friend Erin, another Ms.-er, and I started a bisexual zine in which she focused on Kathleen Hanna of the group Bikini Kill while I wrote bisexual theories. I wanted Anastasia and me to be best friends who were also sleeping together, but I wanted my straight identity, too. I wanted to date men, kiss men, hit on men, have sex with men. Men didn’t feel wrong; it’s just that Anastasia felt right, too. Our relationship felt like brave new territory—without rules by nature of being outside the heterosexual norm. And this freedom helped fuel a blossoming ideology that was forming in my brain in which bisexuality was the practice of feminism. I could take what I learned from what I felt was my more liberated relationship with Anastasia and apply it to relations with men. Presto! Instant egalitarianism.I admit, this ideology also helped me justify our relationship, because it also made me anxious at times to be with a woman. Sometimes, though, we were really together—like soul mates. I experienced things I’d never associated with relationships before. Things like baking Syrian bread together and dancing around the apartment to Madonna or borrowing each other’s clothes. Like writing letters with elaborate drawings and photocopying Marge Piercy poems for each other. Things like orgasms.Amid all this fulfillment, I also felt a sense of dissatisfaction that was unique, as if I were reading a scintillating novel with every other page missing. Being with her was different from being with a guy. We were so supportive of each other, but I didn’t really know how to admire her—if she looked really gorgeous one night, it was distracting to me rather than alluring. When a feeling of competitiveness—be it sexual or in terms of our writing—came into the picture, it felt as awful as it did with my friends, but much more destructive. I also felt unmoored in bed—even with the orgasms—because I couldn’t imagine what we looked like together or what I looked like to her. My sense of how hot and foxy a lover found me during sex had always been one of life’s great pleasures, and now I had trouble believing that this other girl would or could objectify me. (And for this book, I define objectify as “to take in and enjoy visually”—as in a piece of art or, I suppose, a piece of ass.)For the next two years, I dated Anastasia on and off. I vividly recall sitting on the floor at a Ms. editorial meeting and being able to sense when she had entered the room without turning my head to look. Our connection was very alive to me. At the office our relationship was without social or employment consequences, by virtue of Ms.’s pro-lesbian/pro-feminist stance. On the streets, however, sometimes it was safer for us to walk around holding hands like two giggly friends who both happened to be girls. This confused matters, though. Men still asked one or the other of us out because they believed our camouflage. I even of-ten believed the camouflage. I had to explain to people all the time who Anastasia was to me, and when I didn’t, she felt misunderstood or invisible. I also remember frequently thinking that I wanted us to break up—just not now. When we did break up, twice, I was always eager for us to get back together. I was horrifyingly jealous when she dated other people (always men) and suffused with bitterness when I didn’t get the doting attention I’d come to expect from her. Misogyny suddenly made more sense to me, because I occasionally wanted to make her feel small when I felt rejected. Sometimes I had nothing but contempt for her and her annoying, passive-aggressive, doormat ways. I loved her generous Italian mamma side but it could also be stifling.We broke up in 1996, suddenly, when she left me for a more confirmed lover of women named Marge—which, coincidentally, is an old slang term for lesbian.2 Marge was older, gayer, she played softball, and she left her girlfriend for Anastasia—so they had two wrecked homes upon which to build theirs. I was sure that they were having much better sex than I was capable of and I felt like a totally disappointing, Little League lesbian.Excerpted from Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics by Jennifer Baumgardner. Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Baumgardner. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Excerpted from Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics by Jennifer Baumgardner
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