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by Lani Ka'ahumanu
Tarot Card: The Tower by Julie Waters
Bisexuals were, and are, among those first and most severely affected by HIV/AIDS. But more than 15 years into what is now identified as a pandemic,there is still no comprehensive HIV education or prevention effort targeting bisexual people and fluid sexual behavior. Bisexuals are scapegoated as carriers of HIV, and then not educated because they and the behavior "don't exist."
Bisexuality is the capacity for emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction to more than one gender/sex. A bisexual identity and sexual behavior with more than one gender/sex exist outside the accepted identity categories of heterosexual and homosexual. (I will use gender/sex throughout this article with the understanding that every biological sex can present as any gender. Sexuality, biological sex, and gender are fluid. Thus far, the language is inadequate to express our new understandings on these issues. Therefore, quotes are used where language is problematic (e.g.,"opposite," "same")). As with all sexual identities, bisexuals may or may not be sexually active, may or may not have been sexual with more than one person, or may never have been sexual at all. Some bisexuals may be monogamous, some may have concurrent partners, others may relate to different genders/sexes at different times.
Lesbian, gay, and heterosexual people are invested and find safety in being the "other" to each other,and unite in the fact that they are only attracted to either the "same" or the "opposite" sex, mutually "otherizing" those outside this monosexual framework. This sets up another "us" vs. "them" dynamic which effectively marginalizes bisexual people as "other." Since bisexuals cannot be defined by their partner or potential partner, they are rendered invisible. This invisibility (biphobia) is one of the most challenging aspects of a bisexual identity.
This "otherizing" of bisexuals is the root of biphobia. HIV/AIDS educators,researchers, health professionals, and the health care system itself cultivate this biphobic "norm" which does not reflect reality; vital information about people's lives is missed, conveniently overlooked, or flat-out ignored.
Thus far, the strategy of HIV education and prevention efforts has had an identity-based, monosexual focus. For the most part, bisexual men get their "gay" safer sex information from the agencies serving gay men, but are told to go elsewhere for information on vaginal fluids, menstrual blood, etc. This not only perpetuates the deadly assumption that gay-identified men do not have sex with women, but does not hold these men responsible for the health of the women with whom they are being sexual. In the last several years,some agencies have added "and bisexual" to the title of the agency and/or services offered; however, the message has not expanded beyond "use a condom every time."
The strategies for lesbian HIV prevention and education have been identity-focused too, even though studies have shown self-identified lesbians have sex with men. In fact, some self-identified heterosexual women also have sex with women. The extent of lesbian denial with regards to lesbians and HIV is pervasive.
Many of those self-identified lesbians and heterosexual men who have sex with men not only remain silenced and closeted by fear, but they are not given complete, non-judgmental sex-positive information about safer sex with women and men. Some women "use" their lesbian identity to shield them and other self-identified lesbians from HIV risk no matter what their behaviors might be. "Lesbians are the lowest risk," they think; "Lesbians don't get HIV/AIDS."
Lesbian denial is reinforced when bisexually-identified women and sexual behavior with men are excluded or downplayed in HIV prevention and education efforts targeting lesbians. Heterosexually-identified men also use their identity to shield themselves, "HIV/AIDS is a gay disease"; "HIV/AIDS has nothing to do with me." Denial and distancing are reinforced when the only safer sex message is "use a condom." Until biphobia and the scapegoating of bisexual men and women is confronted head-on, no HIV prevention or education strategy is going to be successful.
Prevention messages that are not inclusive of sexual behavior with more than one sex/gender, because of the fear that the overall safer sex message might be disregarded by lesbians, gay men, or heterosexuals, encourages denial and the dangerous us/them distancing. Yes lesbians, gay men, and heterosexuals must remain visible and targeted for education, but not at the expense of bisexual men and women, and those with fluid sexual behavior.
The monosexual, identity-based HIV prevention and education strategies, combined with excessive misogyny, have been negligent and irresponsible, to say the least. Effective HIV/AIDS prevention demands that fluid behavior be taken seriously, regardless of self-identity; bisexuality also must be recognized as a separate and vital identity and orientation.
If those of us working in the HIV/AIDS prevention and education field are serious about health and well-being, then the direction we must take is clear. The monosexual underpinnings of all prevention strategies to date must be examined and challenged. Bisexual people signal a fundamental change in the way society is organized. There is no separation. Each and every one of us is part of a fluid social, sexual, and gender dynamic.
To the extent that anyone collaborates in perpetuating the idea that homosexuality is an opposite extreme of heterosexuality, and not part of a diverse range of human sexuality, they perpetuate the fatal assumptions and denial. Creative, effective, and efficient HIV prevention and education strategies would be possible, if a basic shift in our perceptions took place.
The narrow monosexual, monocultural, moralistic identity-based politics that have been the guiding force in HIV prevention efforts have to be radically transformed if we are serious about our survival.
Think about how you ask for information. Have you exchanged bodily fluids with anyone? No assumptions. No attitude. All information to all people.
Lani Ka'ahumanu is an HIV/safer sex educator/activist/consultant who with her team of LATEX WARRIORS & SAFER SEX SLUTS present audience and venue appropriate sketch comedy productions and workshops. I/we travel. For booking info: email@example.com or visit my mini-site on the Bisexual Resource Center's website under Speakers http://norn.org/pub/other-orgs/brc/biversity
A version of this ("Biphobia Kills") was published in The National Lesbian/Bisexual HIV Prevention Network Manual, 1995. To order manual contact: Lyon-Martin Women's Health Services 1748 Market Street, Ste. 201, San Francisco CA 94102, 415/565-7671 or 252-7490fax (cost:$10)
I want to thank Loraine Hutchins, Cianna Stewart, Rita Shimmin, Gerard Palmieri and Dannielle Raymond for the conversations and their thinking.
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