Dear Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian,
I’m looking for books about the experiences of bisexual women who come out later in life after identifying as straight, and, in particular, the tensions involved in navigating and joining a queer community. Thank you for your recommendations!
I’m so glad you asked this question! Not only for selfish reasons, because I’m bisexual too and love researching bisexual books, but because I was excited by the idea of “tensions involved in navigating and joining a queer community.” When you look at a lot of popular so-called lesbian fiction (and other pop culture like movies and TV shows), there are often formerly-straight women who fall in love with another woman over the course of the story. Rarely, though, do they identify explicitly as bisexual or does the book/movie/etc. address how hard it usually is for bisexual women to be active members of the queer (women’s) community—i.e., the biphobia that bi women encounter from lesbians. For some reason, so many of these stories seem to talk place in an apolitical world where labels don’t matter, or, conveniently, where every character seems to have forgotten about the existence of the word bisexual. Check out Anna Pulley’s article “Why Won’t ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Acknowledge That Bisexuals Exist” for an exploration of this in recent TV.
As I said, there are actually a lot of “lesbian” books that feature women whose behaviour / desire is bisexual (the ever popular Sarah Waters’s books come to mind), but finding the ones that actually address non-monosexuality is a lot trickier. For some reason, people seem to love stories like the movie Imagine Me and You where a “straight” girl falls in love with a lesbian, but don’t want to actually hear about the complexities inherent in such a character’s sexuality.
That said, of course I have some recommendations for you! The first book I thought of when you asked this question was Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre, which is an all-round fucking fantastic anthology. I loved it, and I’m sure you will too. There’s a very wide range of experiences written about in this book, but women who identified as straight for some time before coming out as bi definitely take up a good share of Dear John, I Love Jane. What I love about this collection is seeing women questioning and attacking conventional understandings of sexual orientation—that model that’s built for gay men that just doesn’t seem to do a lot of LBQ women justice. One woman writes about her lack of “brazen knowledge about” her sexuality; taught that she would be sure if she was queer, she felt paralyzed because she didn’t know for certain. Another compares her newfound feelings for women as an acquired taste for fancy espresso when she used to slurp down drip coffee from a styrofoam cup without thought.
Another book I loved that I want everyone to read is Daisy Hernández’s memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed. It’s a gorgeous book, structured thematically rather than linearly, that deals with things like growing up working class, language politics, Cuban and Colombian cultural and spiritual traditions, racism, money, and, of course, bisexuality. She writes about coming out as bi after identifying as straight in a striking, honest way:
There isn’t a good verb for what begins happening to me in college. Yes, I am meeting lesbians, but I am not one of them. I still find men attractive; it is that I am thinking of women in a new way. It is as if I am learning that I can shift my weight from one leg to the other, that I have a second leg. Kissing women is like discovering a new limb.
The only fiction that I can think of (that I’ve read, obviously) that really addresses a struggle with bisexual identity and is also a fun read, is Malinda Lo’s young adult, science fiction series Adaptation and Inheritence. These books are kind of like an episode of the X-Files, but with thoughtful teenager characters from diverse racial and sexual orientations. Along with discovering that aliens are actually living on earth and that Area 51 government conspiracies are real, the main character Reese is also figuring out that she’s bisexual. Of course, there’s a love triangle, which is eventually resolved in a way that might / might not be satisfactory to you in the end. It’s a fast-paced, easy read that will probably remind you of reading when you were thirteen. But it’s a great, realistic look at the confusion that happens when you thought your only options were gay or straight.
There are a couple bi specific anthologies, Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World edited by Sarah E. Rowley and Robyn Ochs and Best Bi Short Stories edited by Sheela Lambert, that I haven’t read yet, but that look awesome. Ochs is an outstanding bisexual activist, and has the best definition of bisexuality around:
I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.
So, I am pretty much convinced that an anthology she co-edited must be awesome. Lambert’s book looks great too: there are some familiar names for me (Deborah Miranda, Jane Rule) and it’s pretty much the first of its kind of fiction anthology. Both of these, I’m sure, will address all different kinds of bisexual stories, including the ones you’re especially looking for.
If you’re interested in some erotica, Twice the Pleasure: Bisexual Women’s Erotica edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel has been highly recommended to me, although I’ve yet to read my copy of it! All of the stories feature bisexual women (as well as some bi men too), and some address biphobia directly, although, of course, the focus here is on sexy times. Many of the women in these stories are previously straight women who are exploring relationships/sex with women for the first time (what you’re looking for), although there are also some formerly-lesbian-identified women who’ve started dating men too (an alternate perspective that is often ignored, and happens to be mine too!)
Since it sounds like you’ve recently come out as bi, I definitely think you should read Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner. It’s quite anti-assimilationist and radical, so you might connect or not connect with Eisner on that point, but it is an amazing overview and interrogation of bisexual politics, biphobia, and monosexism—the assumption that people are either gay or straight. As a newly out bisexual, I found it an incredibly empowering read, even if you don’t agree with everything Eisner is saying (I didn’t). Instead of saying we should apologize for and feel guilty about being different and complicated vis-à-vis gay and straight folks, Eisner says we should value it. Eisner writes directly about bisexuals’ experiences in queer (and straight) communities, and articulates a lot of what I’ve experienced or seen but not really put into words as biphobia. One of my favourite points that she made was that the sometimes positively-viewed assertion that ‘everyone is really bi’ is really the other side of the ‘bisexuality doesn’t exist’ coin. Both statements are trying to deny the validity of a bisexual orientation and the uniqueness of bisexual people.
I also highly recommend checking out what Autostraddle has tagged as bisexual, especially these articles, “Becoming Visible: On Coming Out as Bisexual” and “We See You: An Open Thread for Bisexual Women Dating Men.” I’m not going to lie, the second article there made me cry. In a good way. A lot of resources for queer women that claim to be bi-inclusive are really not, or even if there are positive articles/posts, the comments are inundated with dribble from biphobic jerks. Autostraddle is not like that, and that’s one of the reasons I love that site.
I’ve also made a list of best bisexual women’s literature that you should definitely check out: the books on there don’t necessarily deal with the specific issue you’re looking for, but they are awesome bisexual-themed books, also often by bisexual authors.
Okay, readers: what else should be on this list? Do you know any books where bi characters are dealing with being a part of the queer community or characters who’ve come out later as bi after identifying as straight?
Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian is a Book Advice Column where you can send me your LGBTQ book related questions and recommendation requests. Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian” in the subject.