Looking both ways with Jennifer Baumgardner

Contributed by Mandy Van Deven.
During time off from her book tour, Jennifer Baumgardner invited me to talk about her new book Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics. Her previous books, Manifesta and Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism (both co-written with Amy Richards), resonate with many young women who are searching to establish their own feminist identities. Look Both Ways combines an examination of how the social and political gains of the second wave feminist movement contribute to the ability of younger women to claim their own sexualities – and all of the complexities that come with it – while featuring the personal stories of many well-known bisexual women across generations. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to dig deeper into these issues with this prominent third wave writer and activist.

How long have you been working on this book? What was your process like?
I began thinking about the book in 1994, when I first began dating Anastasia, the Ms. intern who became my first girlfriend. I felt inspired, I guess, by the relationship and how new being a feminist suddenly in love with a woman felt to me. I wrote the book proposal and sold it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2001, but I didn’t really dig in and write it until 2004 and 2005, when I was pregnant and then right after I had my son. I finally banged out the first draft summer 2005. The process was sort of drawn out and interrupted, but I did conform to the original proposal, which I didn’t do with my first two books (co-authored with Amy Richards).
You wrote in the book about the resistance to your magazine article pitches on bisexuality; was it difficult to get Farrar, Straus and Giroux to sign on to this project?
No, it really wasn’t hard at all. I wrote the proposal about a year after Manifesta came out, and that book was already doing very well in that it spoke to a younger breed of feminist, so they have been subsequently very supportive of all of the projects I brought to them. My editor, Denise Oswald, has created a niche of third wave-ish books over the years.
I should mention also that Glamour magazine excerpted the book, and they made a big point of saying “you don’t have to defend bisexuality–it’s valid—just describe it.â€? I thought that demonstrated a huge shift in media consciousness.
This book focuses on bisexual women and there’s not a lot of mention of bisexual men. Did you go into the book with this focus or was it something that came up in the process?
I did go into the book with that focus. My natural audience thus far has been younger feminists, primarily women, so I usually think in those terms. With Manifesta, though, Amy and I were surprised by how many men came to the readings and talks, and how much younger men thought of themselves as part of the feminist movement, so we sort of regretted not including them more specifically in the book.
With Look Both Ways, I wanted to talk about bisexuality and younger feminists–and the phenomenon of younger women, ostensibly straight, dating women that I didn’t see so openly replicated among men. More than that, though, I didn’t really feel equipped to deal with male bisexuality. I think the best insights will come from a male bisexual writer, and I felt less interested. Since the book came out, though, I have been surprised, once again, by how many men have bought the book, or shown up at readings. The main generalization I can make there is that there is not as much culture flexibility and acceptance around male bisexuality. Two men in a straight bar kissing is grounds for a gay-bashing; two women kissing in a straight bar is just another Friday night. That’s because men’s sexuality is taken very seriously and seen as not a put-on, whereas women’s sexuality (even with one another) is often written off as being “for men.”
This may also be related to the increased stigma and punishment for men who take on what are perceived to be more feminine gender roles. Somewhat related, I found it interesting that you got permission from the women in your book to use their first and last names, but not from the men. Why do you think that is?
It is interesting, in that it conveys both some generalizations about women’s openness vs. men’s, as well what kind of relationships I have with same sex exes vs. opposite sex exes.
On that last part, Amy and Anastasia are truly good friends of mine, so that no doubt accounted for some of it, but they are also both public figures (to greater and lesser degrees) and accustomed to having at least a part of their life a bit public. Steven and Gordon were less invested in the project (in the case of Steven, we have no relationship), and Gordon, whom I see every day because we parent a son together, tends to feel somewhat used in my writing.
All four partners are writers (Amy and Gordon write songs; Anastasia and Steven write non-fiction), but the two women write very personal work, the two guys don’t write in clear-cut ways about themselves.
One thing I feel I learned by dating Amy, who has thousands of passionate fans and whose songs are well-known, is that while a piece of writing might be inspired by real life people or events, it becomes its own thing. There are quite a few songs of hers that I have shown up in, but I wouldn’t say the songs are about me. They are about a larger truth, a human feeling and the real life details are what animates them.
I was also a little surprised at just how honest you and your contributors are about your own sexuality and sex lives and relationships. Why did you decide to have this book be so inclusive of these intimate details?
By a little surprised, do you mean put off?
Not at all. It is pretty atypical for public figures to be so forthcoming, unless they’re doing something scandalous (i.e. the Clinton-Lewinsky mess). I find the candor rather refreshing, actually. How have other readers responded to this?
I’m sure it’s too much information for some people (particularly my parents), but I made it more intimate because I think people relate to the details, rather than broad strokes, of a story. I tend to write in personal, confessional ways and to seek out those kinds of stories in my journalism, too—for instance, in my articles on abortion, I focus on women’s and men’s experience of making the decision, going to the clinic, etc.. I think there is power in that revealing voice—it is the centerpiece of consciousness raising, including the idea that these little things that we think only happen to us are in fact part of a larger political system.
I also think that a way to shrug off shame and stigma (which is something I think is crucial for people often referred to as oppressed) is to speak out and tell the truth about one’s life. I wanted to be really open about my bisexual life, because I think it is still really common to misunderstand, dismiss, and disparage people with bisexual experiences.
I suppose I am influenced, also, by my time—the era of blogs and reality TV and believing people want to know your business.
You talk about your “coming out” experience as being pretty anti-climactic, which isn’t something that I’ve seen a lot in queer coming out stories, but it resonates with me because I had a similar experience. Is this something you heard from other women? What do you think contributes to this more gradual, less dramatic experience?
I’ve heard from several women that their coming out was no big deal. I think there is less fall out than there once was because the world has changed a bit due to efforts and successes of the gay rights movement. We have a critical mass of of out, visible queer people living their regular lives.
Another interesting aspect to “coming out” is that for bisexual women, particularly those with male partners, we are really constantly coming out again and again, which can be very frustrating.
That very issue is one of the main reasons that I wanted to write the book. I think it’s awkward to be constantly coming out, and yet very painful to feel like you are sinfully omitting previous relationships and allowing people to think you are gay or straight. I do want women who have been in love with women and who now have a male partner to have acknowledgment of all of their loves; and I want women who are currently married to women to be allowed to honor their fabulous ex-boyfriends, if they have them.
How do you see bisexual women responding to that frustration?
In various ways – some healthier than others. My ex-girlfriend (now close friend) Anastasia says that she feels like she is always awkwardly inserting references to her bisexuality into random moments of conversation with her boyfriend’s parents. I do that. On the more sad side, I think a lot of women just give up and say “I have a boyfriend now; I guess I’m straight� or “I’m with Lisa so I guess I’ll just let everyone assume I’m a lesbian.�
A theme in this book seems to be that there is an intimacy, sense of egalitarianism and unspoken knowledge, of sorts, in romantic relationships between women that can’t be reproduced with men, which is an idea that has really been put forth in feminist communities to promote sisterhood. Do you see the two as related?
Just speaking from personal experience, I do have a more effortless intimacy with women and have really noticed that fact in my love relationships. Amy and I used to be able to talk for hours about feminism and activism and family dynamics and high school and politics and Buffy and religion. Even with Steven, with whom I shared a lot of professional interests, I had a hard time feeling like we really got each other. Intimacy isn’t everything, though, and the mystery and sexual tension that I felt with boyfriends was compelling in its own way.
As far as sisterhood theories and the idea that women relate in a way that can’t be reproduced with men… I don’t know if I believe that it can’t be reproduced, but it isn’t so easily reproduced. Some of that is, no doubt, women not really trying in the same way with men. I write in the book about not being myself as fully with men, often, so that is my limitation, and one that I am trying to address. My personal investment in sisterhood – that I think Look Both Ways promotes – is the idea that some forms of misogyny (i.e. disgust or fears about one’s own body) are defanged by falling in love with a woman (and experiencing and enjoying her body). Also, that females competing to be chosen by a man can be hurtful; and aligning with and choosing each other has a glorious power to it.
You also draw a connection between an increasing number of women embracing bisexuality as a result of the social and political gains of the Women’s Movement in the ’60s and ’70s and explore the how strong, whole, self-actualized women many times have trouble maintaining positive relationships with men, which may increase the likelihood of women turning to other women instead when they may not have acted on this desire in the past. Do you think this is because men are having a hard time embracing powerful women?
I don’t know if men have a hard time embracing powerful women, but I do feel like I see a trend of seemingly actualized, very powerful women dating fuck-ups. I don’t know. I do sometimes feel like I or my friends choose men who aren’t allies—either because they feel so disappointed in their own lives that they can’t be happy for us, or because we feel more comfortable taking care of damaged men because that is a recognizable female role, or because we are scared of being abandoned so we date men who are dependent or whom we will have to leave, thus never risking being left ourselves.
Bisexuality seems to connote more fluidity within and among both gender and sexuality. It muddies the binary of “either/or” and creates a sense of “both/and,” which you touch on in the book. This really creates some conflict with identity politics and the history of political movements. Do you think this is why some communities (feminists and lesbians, for example) are so wary of bisexuals?
I think that bisexuality is totally in keeping with new avenues in feminism, in particular, transfeminism, which suggests that gender is on a spectrum and is concerned with liberating the individual to have the whole range of human, emotional, and professional possibilities.
When I think of who is most hostile to the ideas in this book, it’s lesbians more than straight people. Paradoxically, I think that is because lesbians take the ideas more seriously and feel it affects their community more directly. Whereas some straight people might say they don’t “believe� bisexuality exists, but it’s sort of an abstract argument for most. Many lesbians, by contrast, had a moment when they identified as bisexual—often it was part of their coming out process, so I can see why someone might extrapolate that another woman who says she is bi is just en route to being a lesbian. Bisexual women have always been a part of lesbian history, and I think we are in a unique time where this bi-visibility isn’t just within queer organizing circles. There is some loss of identity when a movement goes from being its own small, tightly-defined world to something that has penetrated the mainstream, but that is where the gay movement is right now. It can’t help but evolve.
You write an entire chapter on the rift between lesbians and bisexual women, which made me wonder if lesbians think bisexual women exemplify the “choice” aspect to being a lesbian, as though “lesbian” isn’t a fixed identity and can be changed or “corrected.”
Well, the right wing certainly believes that being gay or lesbian can be changed or corrected, but homophobic theories aside, I don’t think that lesbian (or straight) is a fixed identity for everyone. I have witnessed tremendous fluidity in women’s lives regarding their sexuality, and I wanted to shine a light on that.
But there are many lesbians and gay men who believe that their sexuality is not a choice. Wouldn’t that make bisexuality, and other more fluid sexual identities, threatening to those who view their own sexuality as unwavering? If so, do you think this contributes to the distancing of lesbians and gay men from bisexuals?
I’m not threatened by their unwavering orientation and don’t think my fluidity need be threatening. This argument, while emotionally valid, strikes me as similar to why straight people are occasionally threatened by gay sexuality – it’s different and, therefore, calls into question that there is one (or two) correct ways of being.
Having said that, I am sensitive to the threat. I was very freaked out by transgenderism when I first began interacting with transfeminists. Looking back, I think my opposition to some transwomen who came to see Amy Richards and me speak was really my own discomfort with taking up space and aggression. I felt the women behaved in forward, commanding ways that “real� women would not. Now I think I was afraid to own my own aggression, so I wanted to create rules (or subscribe to rules) that said all aggression was bad and not allowed in a good feminist space.
You write a little disparagingly about people using alternative terms, like queer, to describe their sexual identification, as opposed to “bisexual.” Was that me being sensitive since I identify as “queer?” And what do you make of using these multiple terms: bisexual, queer, pansexual, omnisexual, etc?
Oh gosh, I didn’t mean it disparagingly–more self-deprecatingly. I think that I don’t identify as queer partly because I’m too old and/or out of it. But, I also think “queer” designates being part of a political or politicized gay community that not all of the women I’m writing to or about are part of. For instance, I am writing to and about Jessica, a 22-year-old who has only had boyfriends but fell in love with her best friend in high school. Their first seduction was while watching the French film The Swimming Pool. Jessica probably wouldn’t call herself queer, which I think implies a certain relationship to a gay community and to progressive politics.
Do you advocate more bi-focused organizing?
No, I don’t really advocate it, though I’m not opposed to it, of course. I’m not part of bi-focused organizing or groups myself.
What do you see as the benefits or drawbacks of bi-focused organizing?
I don’t know if there are any drawbacks, but I will say that it doesn’t interest me. At a couple of my readings, representatives of bi-oriented groups have attended. I so appreciated their presence and support of the book, but I feel like I have an informal bi community (i.e. my friends, many of whom have “looked both ways�) and don’t personally need a support group, nor do I want to have to go to more meetings! I feel like I’m a feminist without being part of NOW or a bunch of organizations, and I can be bisexual without joining a bisexual network.
You end the book writing about how bisexuals have a lot of access to multiple groups simultaneously and that this influences your decision to be bisexual because you want to be able to belong to all of these communities. It seems to me that you’re sort of lauding bisexual privilege, but it’s a double edged sword, right?
The occasional privileges of bisexuality didn’t influence my decision to become bisexual – I just am – but I do think that every social justice movement has to deal with privilege a bit more honestly, including the gay rights movement. I think social justice activists are fighting for same sex couples to have the privileges of respect, marital rights, etc. that heterosexual couples currently have. If bisexual people can access those privileges, they can also deploy them in the service of social justice. A bisexual married woman can be the person who goes to bat for partner benefits at her job, even if it doesn’t benefit her personally, for instance, and because she is protected by the cloak of heterosexual privilege, it is less risky for her to do so. Also, I think bisexual people, like other privileged and mildly clueless, have the confidence of feeling entitled to certain rights. Bisexual people are and have the potential to be great allies.
I agree, but this is tricky because a bisexual with a same sex partner wouldn’t have this ability, so only straight-appearing bisexuals can actually access this privilege – which is, essentially, passing – and doesn’t challenge the heterosexual assumptions that the institution is founded upon. Do you think a strategy of modifying existing problematic institutions, like marriage, is preferable to creating alternative models?
I think even bisexual women with same-sex partners exhibit this clueless-but-entitled (to full rights) attitude. Witness Anne Heche, who certainly felt like she had the right to PDA and open acceptance when she began dating Ellen.
Some people are invested in the problematic institutions, such as marriage, and for those people, making changes to the institution will always be preferable to creating an alternative or doing without. I know many same sex couples that have gotten married in the last few years and, increasingly, opposite-sex couples that are raising families together without the benefit of marriage.
As far as passing, I think I pass as straight in that I don’t look very butch – have long hair, carry a purse, wear lip gloss, etc. It’s not some elaborate put-on so as to pass, but pretty much just how I like to dress. I acknowledge that women who look more classically dykey – while sure to attract women like me – are not as valued in mainstream society, but that is a function of homophobia, which I am seeking to eradicate as much as the next queer ally is.
You mention your son a few times in the book. How has being a mother affected your sense of your own sexuality and other’s sense of your sexuality?
Well, I think others are more likely to assume I am straight, since I had a child with my ex boyfriend. As far as my own sexuality, it’s been kind of nice to have love and cuddles and intimacy that doesn’t have to do with sex and sexuality. I really enjoy having Skuli and feel pretty satisfied with my life.
I’m going to be a little nosey now and ask you if you’re seeing anyone currently.
Mandy Van Deven is the Associate Director of Girls for Gender Equity, a grassroots nonprofit in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn that organizes in the New York City public school system around the ten points of Title IX of the Education Amendment. She is a multi-issue social justice activist, who juggles work, grad school, editing an anthology on young women’s activism, and writing for FeministReview.org. She can be reached at mandy@ggenyc.org.

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