San Francisco's Bisexual Center and the Emergence of a Bisexual Movement
Originally published in: EJ. Haeberle and R. Gindorf, eds.,
The history of San Francisco's Bisexual Center is a story that reflects much of the discourse around sexuality and the organized struggles for the rights of so-called sexual minorities that began in the 1970s in the United States. The evolution and eventual closing of the Bisexual Center is best understood within that historical context. It emerged in a significant decade in the development of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities, marked at one end by the uprising of New York City bar patrons against police harassment (thereafter known as the Stonewall riots), and on the other end by die emerging threat posed by AIDS to that nascent community. While not the first bisexual group in the United States—it was preceded by the Bisexual Forum in New York City (founded by Chuck Mishaan)—it was the first organization to have its own center offering a variety of services, and served as a model and springboard for further organizing of a bisexual movement.
The Bisexual Center of San Francisco was cofounded in 1976 by Maggi Rubenstein and Harriet Leve, and it closed in 1985. In that span of time, it had a profound impact: it created a sense of a bisexual community, educated the general public and professionals about bisexualky, confronted the gay and lesbian communities about the tendency to render the bisexual invisible, spawned several organizations (including political action groups), and changed the lives of many women and men who had felt marginalized by both the heterosexual and homosexual communities. Its history is a story of community organizing and mobilization by a relatively small group of individuals who were deeply committed to generating a sense of bisexual community akin to earlier political efforts by the gay community.
The 1970s: A Decade of Discourse on Sexual Mores and Lifestyles
The 1970s saw the flowering of a more visible gay1 movement. The image of the "gay world" was replaced by the expanded concept of a "gay community" with its own culture, history, social organizations, and politics. The early gay liberation movement was strongly influenced by the discourse of previous social movements, including the women's movement. Early anticipations were that a major social revolution was under way, which would lead to a more socially conscious, androgynous individual, who was not defined in terms of limits, but in terms of expanded potentialities. Altman (1971) expressed a notion that was typical in the early 1970s: "To talk of gay liberation demands a broader examination of sexual mores than merely the attitudes towards homosexuality, for the liberation of the homosexual can only be achieved within the context of a much broader sexual liberation" (p. 70).
The women's movement had helped to raise questions about the organization of Western society around the masculine/feminine dichotomy of gender roles. The sexual revolution—fueled in part by technological advances in birth control—had led to debate about the meaning and integration of the erotic and sexual into daily life. The gay liberation movement in the initial years after Stonewall followed upon both of these arguments, and highlighted the link between gender roles and social acceptance of homosexuality. The initial ideal was that all people would be liberated sexually, freed from categories of gender and sexual orientation to behave and love as they chose (Orlando 1984). Activists anticipated that the categories of heterosexual and homosexual would lose their power to polarize actions, feelings, and people, and would cease to be considered mutually exclusive conditions. The use of the term "gay" was therefore distinct from the preexisting concept of "the homosexual," as reflected in the following:
Homosexual is the label that was applied to Gay people as a device for separating us from the rest of the population. . . . Gay is a descriptive label we have assigned to ourselves as a way of reminding ourselves and others that awareness of our sexuality facilitates a capability rather than creating a restriction. It means that we are capable of fully loving a person of the same gender. . . . But the label does not limit us. We who are Gay can still love someone of the other gender. (Clark 1977, 103-6, original emphases)
In contrast to this early ideology, gay men and lesbians came to be conceptualized as a distinct disenfranchised minority group as the decade progressed. Along with a broader set of nonsexual attributions to being "gay," came a diminishing emphasis on broad, sweeping changes to cultural constructions of sexuality and eroticism. The issue of sexual orientation was pushed into the public domain; however, the discourse on sexual choices impacted but did not change much existing ideology. The gay man or woman was reconstructed as a member of a distinct minority group, which led to an embrace of old essentialist constructs of homosexuality. This led to notions of homosexuality as a basic invariant aspect of self fixed at an early age (Malyon 1981) which may seem to emerge at various points over the lifespan only because it has been repressed or denied (Ross 1971; Voeller and Walters 1978; Bozett 1980; Malyon 1981).
Notions of an inherent "gayness," and the return to a conception of heterosexuality and homosexuality as two mutually exclusive conditions, forced a new invisibility to those who were bisexually active. Discounting bisexuality affirmed the absolute and exclusive nature of the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy. Thus, public images of bisexuality were mostly disparaging, with a trivialization of "bisexual chic" (Avicolli 1978). Individuals found that their claims to being bisexual were often met with suspicion and ambivalence in the gay community (Altman, 1981; Blumstein and Schwartz 1974; Bode 1976; Klein 1978). In the lesbian community, bisexuality had a special negative charge, as lesbian-feminism argues that lesbianism is a political choice having little to do with sexual desire per se. From this point of view, a bisexual woman "still define [s] herself in terms of male needs" (Loretta Ulmschneider of the Furies) rather than, as she herself might argue, in terms of her own desires. Since lesbian-feminism equates meeting male needs with supporting male supremacy, it considers bisexual women traitors by definition. (Orlando 1984, 1)
Nonetheless, the proliferation of discussions of sexuality and sexual orientation in the news media, as well as in literature and film, meant that bisexuality also received a higher public profile. This public openness is reflected in the trend in the early 1970s for more androgynous images among rock stars—extending to outright "drag" (Avicolli 1978)—and public notoriety as bisexual (e.g., David Bowie, Elton John). However, by 1974, there were attacks on bisexuality in the American press, with two news magazines running articles on bisexuals that trivialized it as a "chic" or trendy aberration. But there were also more balanced portrayals, as well as the beginning of more searching, scholarly discussion of bisexuality in professional publications (Blumstein and Schwartz 1974; Bode 1976; Falk 1975; Klein 1978; Wolff 1977). Television shows and films began to focus more on gay themes and gay characters. Science fiction—works that describe the concerns and intellectual questions of the day in futuristic metaphors—showed an increasing curiousity about the malleability of sexual roles and norms in the 1970s (Barnes 1982).
In the rapid growth of the gay community in this decade, San Francisco became highly visible as a major American urban gay center. It is estimated that several thousand men flocked to the city each year from the mid-seventies to the early 1980s, which "gave substance to the early myths that in San Francisco, gay people had personal, social, and political power, and it was a place where one could be perceived as a human being regardless of sexual orientation" (Peyton 1988, 4). By 1972, there existed a gay political club; a second was organized in 1976. By 1977, San Francisco had elected an openly gay city official, Harvey Milk. Election by district, combined with the city's rich diversity of ethnic neighborhoods, allowed the creation of a distinct gay political bloc along with voting blocs determined by ethnic groups. Given its apparent openness to the gay community, the city of San Francisco appeared to be a fertile birthplace for an organized bisexual community. David Lourea, a key person in the creation of the center, moved to San Francisco in 1973 from Philadelphia, as he felt that "if a bi movement was going to happen, it would begin in San Francisco" (Personal communication 1991).
The Founding of the Bisexual Center
The story of the founding of the Bisexual Center must be seen within the historical context of the emerging gay movement, and the development of San Francisco as a major urban center of the gay community, but it is also a story of individuals. Perhaps the one person most vital to the genesis of the Bisexual Center was Maggi Rubenstein. Born and raised in San Francisco, Rubenstein was trained as a nurse. She first came out as a bisexual in her early thirties while working at the Center for Special Problems, an agency that works with a variety of clients, including sexual minority groups. She credited the women's movement as giving her the sense of strength and courage to come out as bisexual. Her personal odyssey for others who could validate her sexual and emotional feelings for both sexes, and the "immense sense of relief" that she felt when she
found other self-identified bisexuals, led her to conceive of "a community center for bisexual people so that others would not have to struggle alone" (Rubenstein 1983).
The vision of starting a bisexual organization that would counter the lack of visibility of bisexually identified women and men began years before the actual founding of the Bisexual Center. Rubenstein left the Center for Special Problems in 1972. Her activities over the next few years helped her to consolidate a core of bisexually supportive friends and acquaintances who would assist in realizing the dream of a bisexual community center. In 1972, Rubenstein helped to found the San Francisco Sex Information hotline (a switchboard where the public could call in and get clear, non-judgmental information about sexuality) with Margo Rila. She also assisted in beginning the University of California Medical Center's program in sex counseling. The National Sex Forum was also begun by an overlapping group of individuals, and an adjunct school for training sexologists, The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, was founded in 1976.
It came to the point where opening the center simply hinged upon getting some financial backing. Rubenstein, Lourea, and Rila initially tried to get seed money to open up the Bisexual Center in 1974 from the owner of the local paper, The Berkeley Barb (which was closing); this failed. In 1975, Jeanne Pasle-Green introduced Harriet Leve to Rubenstein, and Leve supplied some of the financial support and additional energy to fuel this vision of a center that would draw together a bisexual community. Thus it happened that, in 1976, Rubenstein and Leve finally gathered together a group of twenty other like-minded people in Rubenstein's attic to formally plan how to open a community center that would be supportive and celebratory of people's bisexuality. Many of the others involved from the onset of the Bisexual Center were also psychotherapists, counselors, and sex educators, including David Lourea, Margo Rila, Alan Rockway, Evelyn Hoch, Hogie Wycoff, Jeanne Pasle-Green, and Vicki Galland. They were drawn to the notion of an expanded and inclusive notion of human sexuality that avoided dichotomization of sexual orientation.
Rubenstein came out publicly as bisexual on local television; on August 24, 1976, a small notice was placed in the local newspaper (The San Francisco Chronicle), and another notice was placed in a national feminist magazine. This led to hundreds of interested phone calls, and the formation of an ongoing bisexual "rap group" in September. The first general meeting of the Bisexual Center was held on November 7, 1976, at the National Sex Forum, with over eighty people in attendance. One week later was the first "potluck" social event, and the center was launched.
The Philosophy and Concerns of the Bisexual Center
FROM THE BEGINNING, there was a concern about the philosophy behind the Bisexual Center and a desire to influence the debate on sexuality and lifestyles. The original philosophy and objectives statement noted:
We have been caught on both sides and in the middle of the homosexual-heterosexual polarity. We feel we have a unique contribution to make toward unifying polarities, equalizing relationships, and understanding the cycles of human sexuality.
Both the parallels and the connections between conceptions of bisexuality, feminist theory, and theories of androgyny were raised consistently in the initial meetings and early issues of The Bi-Monthly. The Bisexual Center also supported and welcomed the transgender community; its board of directors, newsletter, and philosophy reflected the value placed in their representation. In the second general meeting, held on January 16, 1977, concern was raised about the stands that the Bisexual Center would take in the broader social/political struggles occurring in American society. Fears were expressed that the Bisexual Center would be little more than a "hedonist club," an escape for those unwilling to deal with larger social issues. This led to revisions in the philosophy and objectives statement, allowing it to note that the organization had stands on sexism, racism, classism, and ageism, and supported the women's movement and the gay movement. The alterations also emphasized die center's philosophy of self-definition as bisexual, lesbian, gay, or heterosexual, and its support for all consensual sexual and sensual activities. The revised version read as follows:
We are people seeking to love and share intimately with both women and men. Self-defined as bisexuals (although such labels are limiting) we are working to create for ourselves and others a strong sense of community.
The Bisexual Center is united in struggling for the rights of all women and men to develop as whole, androgynous beings.
We support relationships between persons of the same and other sex. These relationships may include relating spiritually, socially, emotionally, sensually, sexually, and intellectually. We also support persons choosing a celibate lifestyle.
We support people who have been oppressed because of sexual preference, gender, age, or ethnic group.
We encourage and support people struggling (a) to bring about equality in areas of employment, housing, medical care and complete sexual information; (b) for the right to engage in the free expression of consenting sexual activity.
We support the open expression of affection and touch among people, without such expression necessarily having sexual implications.
From the beginning, it was intended to be more than simply a social group; as David Lourea (1983) put it:
I knew that the one thing we had all agreed upon was that none of us had the time, interest or energy to devote to an organization that was primarily a place to party. . . . More importantly, we had all experienced the rage of being discounted, invalidated, taken as insincere individuals incapable of any degree of integrity, because of the biphobic notion held by many monosexuals.... Dispelling that image was one of our priorities, yet we did not want our existence to be based in reaction to the anti-bi feelings of the gay, straight and lesbian communities. . . .[S]ince we were likely to be the only safe place that served the bisexual community we needed to provide a safe, supportive haven for people to celebrate being bisexual. ... (p. 3)
Within a few months, the center provided a variety of "rap groups," workshops, and trainings for interested members of the community (e.g., "Coming Out Bi"; "How to Survive the Loss of a Lover"; "Confronting the Last Taboo"(S/M); "Open Relationships Workshop"; "I Want to Be Close—Wait, Not That Close!" Intimacy Workshop; "Loving Both"). It served as an information clearinghouse, and as a source of public outreach and education. People from all across the country wrote and phoned in, seeking information, support, crisis intervention, and referrals. The center supported a number of research projects, both by doctoral candidates and professionals, to increase the knowledge base on bisexuality. It created a strong local bisexual presence, with many of its board members appearing repeatedly on both television and radio talk shows over the nine years of the center's existence. The Bisexual Center's Speakers Bureau also provided in-service trainings and presentations to a variety of agencies, educational institutions, and health workers, ensuring that bisexuality was discussed as a topic distinct from homosexuality. Once the Bisexual Center found its permanent space in a flat on Hayes Street, it also held a variety of art shows, performances, and exhibits by bisexual artists or with bisexual themes.
From its inception, the Bisexual Center also took stands on a variety of political and social issues that helped heighten its public profile. In its first year, it sent out press releases and held press conferences against the antigay efforts of Anita Bryant and her Miami "Save Our Children" crusade. The first press conference (June 30, 1977) brought together Dr. Benjamin Spock as an expert in child care, Dr. Claude Steiner (as a therapist who was noted for his work, Scripts People Live), Ruth Falk (a feminist writer who authored Women Loving) and Dr. Phyllis Lyon, as codirector of the National Sex Forum and lesbian activist—and was aired on the evening news on local television and radio stations. The center had a booth at the National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas, in November 1977, and its representative supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and resolutions concerning sexual preferences, child care rights, and reproductive freedom. In late 1977, there was also a battle closer to home, in joining the Bay Area Coalition against the Briggs Initiative (a California state senator's initiative mandating that all homosexually active or supportive teachers be fired from public schools). At the same time, members acknowledged that it was early in the creation of a bisexual movement, and that much consciousness raising and self-discovery were crucial before bisexuals could hope to be a viable political group (Monty 1977).
Changes over Time at the Bisexual Center
WITHIN A YEAR of its founding, the center had almost 400 paid members; by spring of 1978, it claimed about 550 members.2 Over the first few years of its existence, the center supported the efforts of others to get bisexual groups going in a variety of areas across the country. This may explain why membership dipped, and then stabilized by early 1980 with about 330 paid members. However, there continued to be an
increasing demand for services, reflected not only in the increasing number of social events, but the switch to open "rap" groups on two nights a week at the Center in 1980. (An additional group, for women only, began on a biweekly basis in the summer of 1981.) Many of those who had been involved in the coordinating of bisexual events and services from the first years of the Bisexual Center started to drop out by 1982. To help provide services for all those coming to the Center, the Bisexual Counseling Services (run by David Lourea) began an internship program with graduate students in fall of 1982.
Despite all those who made use of its services, the Bisexual Center never became financially stable. Many of those who came through its doors were either young or earning marginal livelihoods. The center was committed to providing services, but was never more than minimally solvent. The center's board of directors was unsure about being able to continue after a fiscal crisis in 1980, and to ensure its survival, some board members gave not only of their time, but of their money. Efforts to gain nonprofit status as an educational community organization—which began in 1979—did not bear fruit until April 1983, when it was recognized as such by the State of California. Repeated entreaties to its membership were printed in The Bi-Monthly over the course of the years, but failed to change the financial health of the organization. The members of the board were not professional fundraisers, but counselors, educators, and community activists. Circumstances forced the board to regularly expend its energy on problem-solving around how to pay bills and maintain the status quo in services, rather than focusing on what they knew best: providing vision for the future of the Bi Center. (Some of those concerned about maintaining a bisexual activist presence would eventually form BiPOL, a bisexual political group, in May of 1983.)
Given this fiscal instability, the Bisexual Center was vulnerable to a crisis that would wound it further: the AIDS epidemic. On July 15,1982, Bobbi Campbell, a gay nurse with AIDS who had become an AIDS educator and activist came to the Bisexual Center to discuss the new (and as yet unnamed) epidemic that had begun to afflict increasing numbers of gay men. The AIDS epidemic would be felt on two levels: (a) its contribution to increasing conservatism in sexual mores and an emphasis on monogamy—in contrast to the decade before, where alternative forms of relationships were seen as inevitable and perhaps preferable (Francoeur and Francouer 1974; O'Neill and O'Neill 1972; Ramey 1976); (b) its demands upon the energy and attention of the Center's leaders. The increasing conservatism of the times contributed to a slowing of the numbers of people going through the Bisexual Center, and perhaps an increasing reluctance on the part of the public to celebrate sexuality of all kinds. Membership dropped. In addition, several of the leaders of the center committed themselves to working in the field of AIDS. Rubenstein and Lourea worked with the Committee to Preserve Our Sexual and Civil Liberties from 1984 on; Rubenstein was a founding member of Mobilization against AIDS and co-chaired it from 1985-1986; both worked as sex educators with a variety of organizations, including the "Women's AIDS Network, the AIDS Health Project, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. With its founding members moving on to other things, and under continuing financial pressures, the Bisexual Center floundered. It lost some members to a nonactivist organization which ran sex and intimacy "feel-good" workshops, and eventually closed its doors.
The Bisexual Center had been an ambitious venture, trying to be all things to bisexual people. As an early community organization that managed to last for nine years, and played a part in supporting the growth of other groups, it filled a significant need in a community that felt marginalized by the more narrowly defined "gay and lesbian community" and invisible within the larger heterosexual culture. It empowered those who came in contact with it to choose their own sexual labels, showed them that there were many others who shared their bisexual sensibilities, and affirmed the artificiality and restrictiveness of the common "either/or" perspective of sexuality. It gave rise to variety of efforts at increasing bisexual visibility on a number of fronts, not the least of which was political.
The Future of the Bisexual Movement
The bisexual community that coalesced around the Bisexual Center did not end when the Center closed. BiPOL continued to be an active political group, and in May 1987, another bisexual organization in the San Francisco area (known as Bay Area Bisexual Network) was begun. May of 1987 was also the time when the East Coast Bisexual Network held its Fourth Annual Conference on Bisexuality (having invited former members of the Bisexual Center to participate). Bisexuals also marched as a distinct national contingent on October 11, 1987, in the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (following the United States Supreme Court decision in the Hardwick case, upholding state laws against sodomy even between two consenting adults in the privacy of their homes). The networking that led to this national contingent in the March also led to the formation of a National Bisexual Network. San Francisco's significance was also reflected in its choice as the site of the 1990 National Bisexual Conference, attended by over four hundred people representing twenty-two states and five countries.
Despite the way in which AIDS has served reactionary, moralistic, and religious groups who view the epidemic as validating their restrictive, sex-negative perspective, it has also forced many in the United States to acknowledge the diversity of sexual patterns and preferences that exist. This has included a renewed attention to bisexuals (if only in a negative sense, as potential vectors of transmission of HIV to the heterosexual population), with two national news magazines covering the issue of bisexuals and AIDS (Gelman, Drew, Hager, Anderson, Raine, and Hutchison 1987; Smilgis 1987). The heightened visibility of bisexuals within the United States gay community has continued in coverage by gay-identified periodicals (e.g., Wofford 1991), the publication of new books (Geller 1990; Hutchins and Kaahumanu 1991), and the establishment of a bisexual magazine, ATM (Anything That Moves). Overall, the Bisexual Center helped to create a sense of bisexual community that has extended beyond its own lifetime. The "second-generation" bisexual organizations that have emerged can be thankful for its ground-breaking efforts.
1. For brevity, the term "gay" will be used on occasion in its more inclusive sense, referring to homosexual and bisexual men and women, rather than its more restrictive use to refer to homosexual men (particularly homosexually active men who identify as
"gay"). When intended to be used more restrictively, this article will refer to "gay men" or "gay and lesbian."
2. These numbers are based upon figures reported in The Bi-Monthly.
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