Lani Ka’ahumanu: Bisexual Pioneer
Though bisexual organizations began to appear in the United States during the 1970s as part of the expansion of LGBTQ organizations in the post-Stonewall period, bisexual rights and the role of bisexual activists are downplayed within the history of the Gay Rights Movement. Bisexual pioneers are often erased through the assumption they are simply gay or lesbian. Our modern understanding of the term “bisexual” originates to the work of nineteenth-century German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In a 1892 translation of Krafft-Ebing’s treatise on “deviant” sexual types, Psychopathia Sexualis (originally published in 1886), Charles Gilbert Chaddock coined the English word “bisexuality” to refer to the “attraction to both sexes.” The term was previously used to refer to persons who possessed the anatomical characteristics of both sexes, those whom today we refer to as intersex.
Henry Gerber, the founder of the Society for Human Rights, the first U.S. homophile organization, established in Chicago in 1924, was a bisexual man. Columbia University’s Student Homophile League, the first university group for gay students, was founded in 1963 by Stephen Donaldson, who identified as bisexual. Brenda Howard, an openly bisexual woman, was one of the primary organizers of the 1970 and 1971 Christopher Street Liberation Day demonstrations, the precursor to modern Pride celebrations. It was Howard who suggested the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969 be commemorated not in a single day, but through a week-long series of events. As such, she was given the title “Mother of Pride.” Howard also went on to found the New York Area Bisexual Network (NYABN).
Yet, bisexuals were viewed with suspicion within the Gay Rights Movement, either because bisexuality was seen not as a legitimate orientation but as a stage on the way to being gay or lesbian due to internalized homophobia, or because bisexuals were traitors to the movement who would enter into heterosexual partnerships in order to “pass” as straight and shield themselves with heterosexual privilege. The needs and experiences of bisexual men were soundly ignored during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Bisexual men faced heightened stigma during the epidemic, as they were accused of spreading the virus to both male and female partners. It was not until the early 1990s that bisexuals, and the bisexual movement, gained widespread visibility and were accepted as a part of the LGBTQ community. Indeed, the LGBT (and sometimes LGBTQ) initialism began to gain traction at this time to represent the broadening of the identities and concerns represented by the movement.
When she realized she was bisexual, Lani Ka’ahumanu refused to be kicked out of the movement. Ka’ahumanu was born in Edmonton, Canada on October 5th of 1943. Her mother was of Japanese and native Hawaiian ancestry, and her father was of Irish and Jewish descent. The family moved to the United States where Ka’ahumanu experienced discrimination due to her mixed-race identity. As a first-grader at St. Bruno’s Catholic school in 1949, she was told “Lani” was a heathen name and she should instead go by her middle name, Marjorie.
Only seven years previous, in 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the creation of internment camps to detain Japanese Americans living on the West Coast following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. Though the internment of Japanese Americans was described as a “military necessity,” it was later discovered that internment was motivated primarily by public pressure and fear, not evidence of an eminent threat posed by those of Japanese descent. Anti-Asian prejudice remained high in the post-war period, and Ka’ahumanu was either treated with suspicion due to her ethnicity, or her multiracial heritage was erased because she could “pass” for white.
In 1963, Ka’ahumanu followed the expected path for women at the time and married her high school sweetheart, the captain of the football team. They had two children and moved to the suburbs. Ka’ahumanu, however, refused to be contained to the role of suburban housewife. She became a peace activist, joining the organization Another Mother for Peace, protested the Vietnam War, organized food drives for the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program, supported labor activist Cesar Chavez, and began reading about Women’s Liberation.
After realizing she and her husband grew up to be different people, they divorced amicably in 1974, and she moved to San Francisco where, in 1976, she came out as a lesbian. She enrolled in San Francisco State University and helped to establish the Women’s Studies Department. As a gay rights and feminist activist, she marched with Harvey Milk and spoke publicly about her experiences as a lesbian mother. “2–4–6–8 are you sure your mother’s straight?” proclaimed a sign she carried at one of San Francisco’s annual Gay Freedom Day parades to challenge the assumption that mothers are naturally heterosexual.
Ka’ahumanu was still attracted to me men, or as she put it, she was a lesbian with “unfinished business.” Yet, she was hesitant to come out of what she referred to as the “gay and lesbian closet.” At the time, there were no out bisexual role models in either mainstream culture or the Gay Rights or Women’s Movements. The only alternative for women who were not straight was lesbian sexuality. As the second-wave lesbian feminist slogan went: “Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.”
But in 1980, she fell in love with a man — who was also bisexual — and, feeling it was wrong to deny her attractions, came out a second time as bi. Ka’ahumanu was predictably shunned by the lesbian feminist community and regarded as a traitor. At a local women’s cafe, a lesbian Ka’ahumanu knew got up, gave her a dirty look, and proceeded to move to a table across the room as if she were tainted. She described herself as “a lesbian who fell from grace.” “The personal was political and fundamentally correct unless you slept with men,” she later explained. Ka’ahumanu herself realized she harbored so much internalized biphobia she had difficulty simply identifying as bisexual, instead calling herself a “lesbian-identified bisexual.”
But Ka’ahumanu would not be kicked out of a movement she felt she had a rightful place in. In 1982, she began writing about bisexuality and biphobia within the Gay Rights and Women’s Movements. Her influential article “Biphobic: Some of My best Friends Are” ran in a San Francisco lesbian newspaper. She soon met other bisexual feminists and, in 1983, co-founded BiPol, the first bisexual political action organization in the United States, which sought to “educate, advocate, and agitate” for bisexual visibility.
Ka’ahumanu marched with BiPol in the 1984 San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade wielding a sign that read “BI AND LARGE,” as an expression of both bi and body positivity and a “Bi-Phobia Shield” to ward off those who thought bisexuals did not belong in the parade or the movement. To raise bisexual visibility, Ka’ahumanu also registered with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and held a press conference outside the 1984 Democratic National Convention to announce she was running for Vice President of the United States. Walter Mondale, that year’s democratic presidential candidate, instead chose Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate of a major political party, as his running mate.
In 1987, Ka’ahumanu co-founded the Bay Area Bisexual Network (BABN) and participated in the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. She authored the essay “The Bisexual Movement: Are We Visible Yet?” for the official Civil Disobedience Handbook for the march. The essay was the first piece on bisexuality and the bisexual movement to be published in a national gay or lesbian publication. Out of the organizing for the march came the first national bisexual network, BiNet USA. BiPol also called for a national bisexual conference. BiNet USA supported the idea, and the first National Bisexual Conference was held in San Francisco in 1990 with over 450 attendees from twenty states and five countries.
Along with bisexual activist and academic Loraine Hutchins, Ka’ahumanu co-edited the seminal anthology Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out in 1991. Referred to as the “Bi Bible,” the book helped to catapult bisexual people and issues to the forefront of the expanding LGBT(Q) Rights Movement at a time when many activists were questioning assimilationist strategies and critiquing strict binaries of gender and sexual orientation. Other organizations, such as Queer Nation, an affiliate of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), forwarded the term “queer” as an identity for those whose politics did not align with the gay mainstream and whose sense of gender and sexuality did not fit neatly within in gay/straight, man/woman categories. Bisexuality, a stigmatized and invisible orientation when Ka’ahumanu came out just over a decade previous, was suddenly everywhere.
Ka’ahumanu was elected as one of the first national coordinators of BiNet USA and launched a successful twelve-city endorsement campaign to have bisexuality included in the 1993 March on Washington. The official name for the march, held on April 25th of 1993, was the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. Ka’ahumanu was selected as one of eighteen speakers on the mainstage, and the only out bisexual, though she was scheduled to speak last. Moments before taking the stage, she was told to shorten her speech from five to two minutes because they were over time and Park Rangers on the National Mall would cut the sound. But Ka’ahumanu was not deterred; she said what she came to say:
“Aloha, my name is Lani Ka’ahumanu, and it ain’t over til the bisexual speaks.”
She went on to assert that “bisexual pride challenges both the heterosexual and the homosexual assumption” of either/or divisions of sexuality and gender and “recognition of bisexual orientation and transgender issues presents a challenge to assumptions not previously explored within the politics of gay liberation.” She also connected her bisexuality to her mixed-heritage “hapa haole” identity — a term from Hawaiian pidgin English that refers to a person who is half native Hawaiian and half white — and implored closeted bisexual leaders within the movement to step up and come out.
Throughout the 1990s, Ka’ahumanu worked as a safer sex educator and headed up the “Safer Sex Sluts” performance troupe. She served on the editorial board of the Journal of Bisexuality and was the first out bisexual to serve on a national gay and lesbian board, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force board of directors.
Lani Ka’ahumanu and her fellow bisexual activists were right: bisexual erasure within society and the Gay Rights Movement are real. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)’s 2017 Accelerating Acceptance report, more Millennials and members of Generation X identified as bi or pansexual than they did as strictly gay or lesbian. The definition of bisexuality has also become more expansive and does not strictly refer to attraction to both men and women. Some, for example, define bisexuality as attraction to more than a single gender. Though biphobia and bisexual erasure persist, Ka’ahumanu refused, time and time again, to be kicked out of the movement, and as a result, more people today can identify proudly as bisexual without fear of being shunned or excluded within the modern LGBTQ Rights Movement.
“Remember assimilation is a lie,” Ka’ahumanu said, “it is spiritual erasure.”