04/07/2014 07:59 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

A Kerfuffle Among Friends and Family in the House of Bi

Once upon a time, when the bi world was young (1987-1990 or so) and some of us were a bit younger, all the American bi activists seemed to know each other (and many still do) -- a band of bi brothers and sisters and others who had coincidentally come to the realization that the supposedly big LGBT tent we had loved and labored in for so long wasn't as big as we thought and didn't love us back -- and in fact wanted us out of the tent: The attitude was that we weren't gay enough (socially and politically) and we weren't genuine enough -- we were counterfeit, we were untrustworthy -- or, as the saying went: When the going got rough, the bi's turned straight. Not usually true, but a stereotype -- especially a malicious one -- is a hard thing to shake.

In fact, for we had held our tongues and tried not to make waves as we strived to show a united front while working behind the scenes to show the LG(BT) community that we were very much part of the flock...and, nothing. So we became a bit more assertive, and...nothing. So then we became more insistent, even occasionally strident and "uppity", and...nothing. So finally we realized we'd have to start our own organizations, write our own books (at college speaking presentations, I used to bring in the world's total collection of English-language book on bisexuality...carrying them all under just one arm), make our own movies, and make our own noise. Not separate, not even parallel, but distinctly specific.

Above all, we all did this together as a formative bi "community". Sure, there would be the occasional personality clashes, but for the most part we all kept our eyes on the prize: acceptance and inclusion of bi people within both the gay-lesbian and straight/mainstream worlds and with a seat at the table.

Fast forward to March 24, 2014 (or a few days before on the web): The New York Times Magazine runs a semi-epic story about the "scientific quest to prove bisexuality exists." Now, you know and I know that bisexuality exists, but as John Sylla and partner Mike Szymanski point out, there are a helluva lot of people who DON'T think it does (or, I'm tempted to say, DON'T THINK, period -- but I won't) and who therefore must be SHOWN that, yep, there really are bi people and we're not make-believe creatures like unicorns, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny. (...uh-oh, I think I just crushed a lot of people's fantasy lives...)

Now, the way John in particular and the organization he plus others essentially inherited (way oversimplification here) -- AIB, the American Institute of Bisexuality -- went about to prove that bi people exist (I'm way oversimplifying here as well) was to seek out the academic who had run a terribly flawed study several years previously that essentially found (or the NYT interpreted to say) that bi men DON'T exist, and to get that researcher (Michael Bailey) to rerun his tests but with a much broader and nuanced set of participants.

You can imagine how that outraged a number of bi activists: They felt it was as if John was inviting the fox into the henhouse to devour more chicks. The debate has been raging ever since: Did the story set back the bi movement or advance it? Does funding the "corrected" research help, hurt, or distract matters? Is the premise of the research even valid? Have the article and the research become wedges between friends? All of that is to be seen, and at least it has people openly talking about bisexuality now, vs. "erasing" it by ignoring it or lumping it statistically into "LG". Or, as oldtime Hollywood publicists and I believe Jack Warner of Warner Bros. fame liked to say, "I don't care what you say about me, as long as you spell my name right" -- i.e., all publicity is good publicity if it gets the name out there: correcting the misinformation can follow.

But all this sudden notoriety has uncovered an uncomfortable schism among the activist ranks. We ARE all friends, we DO all have the same goal of advancing the bi movement (live and let live, love whom you will proudly and openly without fear, be accepted for who you are and who you love), but we do sometimes differ on methodology.

So now we have friend vs.(?) friend in an uncomfortable, unfamiliar situation of confrontation or disagreement, with the blogosphere (now such a quaint "old" phrase, no?) exploding with opinions that have put us at odds with each other (although, regardless of where you stand, it did if nothing else inject a bit of humorous tension relief when Amy Andre titled her excellent counter-analysis with the headline "The Scientific Quest to Prove That The New York Times Exists").

Can this rift be bridged? Can we agree to disagree and still move forward together? Will there forevermore be a sense of unease? It's a new feeling: As with any social movement and collection of people, there are bound to be differences and personality clashes, but for the bi community, I sense this one is new for us: a fundamental disagreement over whether this particular research and the ensuing NYT article should have been promoted.

Admittedly we bi activists haven't set the societal agenda the way we should have, we haven't schmoozed enough editors, and I must give kudos to John and others for prompting the NYT to look at bisexuality anew -- though not necessarily in the way some might have hoped.

But let me step back just a moment to give a little more background, do a little fuller disclosure, and explain why I'm writing this post.

I have known for decades John, Mike, and many of the activists quoted or pictured in the article (I was pictured, too -- I'm the one who looked a little like the love child of Jabba the Hutt and Dr. Evil) and I did this as a favor in honor of our longtime friendship, with the understanding that the article would correct all the problems and some of the damage a previous NYT article had done several years before, even though I was -- and still am -- uncomfortable with the researcher's premise and methodologies. But I understood this would be about far more than the science, it would be a look at the bi community, bi culture, and so forth.

At the same time, I'm friends with or at least admirer of many whose auras light our way, and so I consider them family, too: We have been in the trenches, so to speak, and watched each other grow (or, in my case, grow older). So it hurts and saddens me that we find ourselves in a rather large public disagreement. Then again, when you consider that the "modern" U.S. bi movement is about 30 years old (and some would say even older than that), it's rather amazing that this is the first such public rift in all that time that I can think of (though there certainly have been differences of opinion and clashes during that time, just not so visibly, as far as I can recall).

For a long time there was an unwritten/unspoken understanding that we don't publicly attack "our own" -- we'd seen gay communities, organizations, and others self-destruct when pettiness and bitterness overtake movements and folks forget what's at stake, and one of the things I prize most about the founding of BiNet USA was that it was formed and built on a consensus model. But now we're at something of a crossroads -- belated growing pains now that more and more people openly identify as bi. Did AIB "consort with the enemy"? Did the NYTimes screw up yet another headline (the last one, also about Bailey, was infamous titled "Straight, Gay, or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited" -- even the writer of that article back then was shocked at the inaccuracy -- the research and article never said any such thing, but the Times has never outright apologized or changed the headline). Can we still all get along and work together, or has this started us down different paths?

I'm guessing yes, and that this recent development is actually a good sign that the bi movement is strong and healthy: that it can weather controversy, criticize each other, and still respect, even love, each other -- it wouldn't be the first time that people of opposing views and interests stay married and focus on their shared common interests, though there might be a need for compromise and consensus, or at least détente. But the next question is: Where do we go from here? Are there hurt feelings that will divide the community irrevocably? Is the rift fundamental or a mere, transitory distraction? Should "bisexual attraction" be researched in isolation or should "attraction" in general be researched? Or is such research ludicrous? (I do like the suggestions that maybe "heterosexuality" should be tested, on the conjecture/hypothesis that bisexuality is the true norm of human nature and heterosexuality is the "useful fiction," to flip around a question posed in a somewhat infamous Slate essay after the NYT Magazine article arrived.)

Still, at the risk of sounding like a movie trailer, the fact is that "in a world where" media agendas are still seemingly set by slavishly following the lead of the New York Times, which focused attention on the Bailey study rather than the bi community or what people mean when they call themselves "bi", we are now confronted -- some would say stuck -- with a narrative going forward that might dwell on the "science" of the "reality" of bisexuality rather than one's own awareness of one's own emotional, romantic, and/or physical/sexual attractions.

So, as the legal profession might say, the issue has been joined -- or, to throw in some more time-worn phrases, it's water under the bridge, the deed is done, the die is cast, and so on. The good news amid this community kerfuffle (I don't think it rises quite to the level of out-and-out "rancor") is that I think we will still all be friends, that this tested the community, and we will seek an accommodation so that we can all still work together for a long time to come.