Friday, January 14, 2011

The epistemic contract of bisexual erasure. - Stanford Law Review - January 1, 2000 - Kenji Yoshino


Teaching a seminar on Sexual Orientation and the Law, I faced an old inconsistency so frontally that it became difficult to avoid giving it sustained attention. I began the course in what appears to be a common way,(1) by posing basic questions about sexual orientation. I asked why contemporary American society(2) organizes people according to their sexualities;(3) why we do so on the basis of sexual orientation in particular;(4) and why, when classifying by sexual orientation, we insist on doing so with the binary system of heterosexual and homosexual.(5) In discussing the last question, I adduced the view--powerful in modern American culture from at least the publication of the Kinsey studies(6) onward--that sexual orientation arrays itself along a continuum from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality.(7) I noted that this view encouraged us to think of the straight/gay binary as defining the ends of a continuum that could be stretched, accordion-like, to accommodate ever finer gradations of cross-sex and same-sex desire. This meant recognizing a group often called bisexuals--on the intermediate stretch of the continuum, as well as the possibility of a group--sometimes called asexuals--not represented on the continuum at all.(8) Indeed, I argued that sexual orientation classifications that only used the two "monosexual" terms(9) "heterosexual" and "homosexual" were unstable and naive.

As soon as the introductory unit was over, however, the inconsistency occurred. I found myself and the class falling back into the very "unstable" usages I had worked hard to retire--specifically the usages of the words "heterosexual" and "homosexual" as mutually exclusive, cumulatively exhaustive terms.(10) While we sometimes rallied by using the word "queer" instead of "gay,"(11) or by adding the rider "or bisexual" to "gay,"(12) these efforts were token and fitful. In the face of legal discussions(13) and academic commentary(14) that were relentless in reifying the straight/gay binary, it was difficult to hold the bisexual steadily visible, even as a spectral possibility. And while this failure to resist what I had criticized as a distortion was striking in a class that sought to treat the issue of sexual orientation with sophistication, it was simultaneously all too recognizable as an inconsistency that fiddles more quotidian discourse. Many who would not deny that bisexuals exist when the subject of bisexuality arises can nonetheless revert to the straight/gay dichotomy when the topic shifts.(15) I myself can speak at length about bisexuals at one moment and then, in the next, field a question such as "Is X straight or gay?" without instinctively feeling as if an important possibility--the bisexual possibility--has been elided.

What is happening here? Why is bisexuality so invisible? If we interpret that invisibility as the product of erasure, why does that erasure occur? Why is bisexuality now becoming sufficiently visible that commentators have begun to theorize its invisibility as the result of erasure? How might contemporary sexual orientation politics and law look different if this trend toward visibility continues? This article will occupy itself with these questions.
Read more:

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