When Dr. Lisa Diamond gave a keynote speech at the recent BECAUSE conference, I just had to sit up and listen. As whipsmart as she is unapologetically outspoken, this University of Utah psychology professor has her finger on the pulse of human sexuality research -- and the attention of homophobic and biphobic conservatives who try to twist her findings to further their own agenda. She's the last person who's going to take that lying down.
Dr. Diamond isn't just the author of the groundbreaking book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire. She's also a lesbian, a self-identified ally to the bi community, and a social scientist who declares that bisexuals "represent the vast majority of individuals with same-sex attractions" and are the norm in the LGB (lesbian, gay, bi) population!
In this two-part interview I got a chance to learn more about Dr. Diamond's research, her precedent-setting commitment to the truth about bisexual lives and lesbian desires, and how she stands up to bigots at the federal level. Here is part one:
In your keynote speech at BECAUSE, you mentioned that many of the bisexual women and women with fluid sexual identities and behaviors in your longitudinal study (for the book Sexual Fluidity) said things like, "You shouldn't include me; my story is too unusual; I'll skew your data," even though their experiences are actually more common than those of lesbian-identified women who have a very fixed/static sexual history. How did you respond to these women when they said things like that?
I found it really heartbreaking when women would say that, because it demonstrated just how influential our "wacked" scientific models of sexuality really were. Our false, overly deterministic, incorrect understandings of "normal" same-sex sexuality were contributing to these women's distress. That really sensitized me to the fact that, as a scientist, I had an obligation to disseminate my findings to the broader queer community, so that women like this would no longer feel so "different."
In your speech at BECAUSE, I heard you identify as an ally to the bisexual community. Tell me what inspired you to become a bi ally.
You know it's honestly never something that I consciously thought about or ever made a decision about; for me it's just a natural outgrowth of two different things.
First, my long-standing involvement in the queer community, stretching back to my college days, and my awareness of how many people have been chronically underrepresented and marginalized in that community (most notably ethnic minorities, bisexuals, and trans individuals).
But second, and perhaps more importantly, has been my own research on sexual identity and orientation over the past 15 years. I have become increasingly amazed and outraged at the degree to which bisexuals (and I am using that term broadly here to include individuals who identify as bisexual as well as individuals who might not identify as bisexual, but who experience sexual attractions to both men and women) have been utterly ignored by social scientists, despite the fact that they represent the vast majority of individuals with same-sex attractions.
I still don't quite understand why other scientists aren't as disturbed by this as I am.
I guess it's a testament to the pernicious and pervasive influence of biphobia in our culture. So my experiences as a scientist have made me more aware of, and concerned about, the marginalization of bisexuality more generally. And over the years, as I have taught various courses on sexuality and spoken about sexuality at conferences and various settings, I have spoken to so many women and men who confess to me that they feel different and weird and abnormal because of their bisexual attractions. These are individuals who feel just as marginalized by the queer community as they do by the straight community, and that literally breaks my heart.
I feel that psychologists have a duty to get the message out there, to these individuals and to the teachers and therapists and educators who might encounter them, that bisexual patterns of attraction are absolutely normal and, in fact, common!
In your many years of research on women's sexuality, what has come as the biggest surprise?
I suppose it would have to be the transformative impact of specific relationships. Early on, when I first started my research, some of the women that I interviewed would say things like, "Oh, I never knew that I was really attracted to women until I became close friends with one particular woman, and I fell in love with her..." In my naïveté, I sort of discounted these stories as evidence of repression (which was pretty common at that time).
As the years went by and I would re-interview these women, and as I would talk to lesbian-identified women who would say things like, "Wow, I was never really attracted to men, but now I sort of feel sexually attracted to my best male friend!" I began to realize that there was something really profound going on within these relationships, and that deep emotional attachments had the power to really change one's entire way of experiencing desire.
It took me a while to really come to grips with this, scientifically; I kept rereading the interview transcripts, trying to interpret them within the conventional models of sexuality that were available at that time, and it just didn't work. I remember that there was a particular day... actually, I was on an airplane with a stack of transcripts, struggling to make sense of them, and I just put down my pen and said, "OK, I need to throw out everything I think I 'know' and just start again, and reread everything, from the beginning. And really listen this time."
The hard truth is that life is a lot more complicated than scientific models present it as being.
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To be continued...