Visit theallusionist.org/bisexual to hear this episode and read more about it.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, know what language did last summer. (Camping trip and Konmaried the garage.)
Coming up in today’s show: a word that has had an unusually huge variety of meanings in a fairly short timespan. It’s been used variously for oysters, musical instruments, space stations, God, hats - and, most recently, for human beings.
Content note: this episode discusses sexuality, and pairs well with Allusionist episode 79 about the shifting usage of the word ‘queer’. Sure, I’ll recommend my own episodes like a wine pairing. Since I don’t drink alcohol, this is all I got.
On with the show.
MARK WILKINSON: If you talk about something a certain way for enough time over a sustained period of time then it will likely affect the way people perceive that issue, right? So if something is framed in a certain way over a sustained period of time, you always hear the same words for something, then eventually it frames the way you think about it.
HZ: In this case, he’s been studying the use and framing of the word ‘bisexual’.
MARK WILKINSON: I think bisexual - the word bisexual, and the people as well - the word has had a really rough go of it.
My name is Mark Wilkinson. I am P Ph.D. student at Lancaster University and I'm studying representations of the queer community in the British press between 1957 and 2017.
HZ: Mark collected every single appearance of the word ‘bisexual’ in the Times newspaper from 1957-2017. He chose the Times because, of Britain’s national newspapers, it’s not pointedly left or right wing, and it has been in publication throughout the period he wanted to study - he started at 1957 because that was the year of the Wolfenden Report, which recommended that homosexuality be decriminalised. Now bear in mind, this corpus, this linguistic sample that Mark has been analysing is not necessarily reflecting how the word was used in LGBTQ publications or by people who identified as bisexual themselves - it’s the mainstream media using the word, and in ways that really surprised Mark. At the early end of his corpus, the word wasn’t being used as a label for a sexual identity; it had multiple different meanings.
MARK WILKINSON: On August 31st 1957, the Times published an article about oysters, and they said, "Next week, that most glittering debutante of the gastronomical season, the oyster, makes her - or should it be his? - annual debut. Either ‘his’ or ‘her’ is correct, for the British oyster is bisexual. The American oyster," by the way, "are males or females during their entire life." So not only is it a wonderful use of ‘bisexual’ but it's also wonderful because they're lauding the British oyster for all sorts of features, one of which is that they are bisexual. And I was like, oh my goodness, what on earth does this mean? And you look a little bit further, and some of the other examples were bisexual plants, specifically prehistoric bisexual plants; bisexual giant tube worms were mentioned,
HZ: This sense of ‘bisexual’ is what bisexual meant in its earliest recorded form, from 1824 - bisexuous and bisexous were also around in the 19th century, to mean something which had characteristics of two sexes at the same time, a synonym for ‘hermaphroditic’.
MARK WILKINSON: And then, if you looked a little bit further, a lot of the examples were to do with bisexual situations. What they meant was situations that involve both men and women. So this would be a bisexual situation right now. And the first quote that I found was from the vice chancellor of Reading, and he's talking about graduates - this is in 1962 - he says: "It is a common experience that more individual and bisexual things, like fencing, canoeing and dancing, tend to attract immediately after leaving the school."
HZ: So he's using it like some people would say ‘unisex’.
MARK WILKINSON: Exactly. Yeah. So you've got bisexual organisms that just aren't sexually differentiated; unisex situations; another really good one was - this is in 1967 - he's describing how, in a novel, the main character is sending bisexual letters. The letters are bisexual because he's sending them to men and women. He's not bisexual, but the letters are bisexual.
HZ: It just doesn't seem to me now to be that essential a term, in that context.
MARK WILKINSON: Well certainly not. There's lots of this. There was lots of really like random uses of ‘bisexual’. There was one about Lord Byron and to explain the fact that he had romantic relationships with both men and women, they said that he must have had a bisexual nature. So like his spirit was bisexual because it was essentially hermaphroditic.
HZ: So the female part of Byron was having sex with the men.
MARK WILKINSON: Yes.
HZ: Right. So it wasn't an orientation thing, it was an identity thing.
MARK WILKINSON: Yeah. Which is really interesting for the time.
HZ: When was that?
MARK WILKINSON: They’re talking about that in 1957; that’s their explanation. There was another example of bisexual instruments: they say, “One of the most challenging ideas thrown up is that instruments have a dual or bisexual nature.”
HZ: Musical instruments or medical instruments?
MARK WILKINSON: Musical instruments. They reference the conque, the flute and the drum are all bisexual instruments as opposed to the violin, the cello…
HZ: Am I supposed to know which like which of the binary genders those are? I've always thought of the cello was probably being very gender ambiguous.
MARK WILKINSON: Yeah, absolutely. Same with the violin.
HZ: Drums, I would've thought more masculine.
MARK WILKINSON: Yeah, apparently they're bisexual. You were wrong.
HZ: I'm happy to hear it. Maybe they've managed to shed the militaristic associations.
MARK WILKINSON: Totally.
HZ: Do I understand what this is on about? No, I don’t.
During the first ten years of Mark’s corpus, the word ‘bisexual’ doesn’t appear many times.
MARK WILKINSON: Between 1957 to 1967 there's only 16 uses. Between 1968 and 1978, that goes up to 87.
HZ: That's a time of great societal change. What kind of context were you seeing?
MARK WILKINSON: It seems to me that the primary use for ‘bisexual’ was bisexual fashion. They were mostly talking about bisexual hats, bisexual clothes, bisexual fragrances - lots of bisexual fragrances. There were so many bisexual fragrances. In 1967 they start talking about using bisexual to mean ‘unisex’. So they say, "Perfumes are not described as potent for nothing. They're frankly bisexual. Perhaps the most ambidextrous of eau de toilettes is from Fragonade of Grasse".
MARK WILKINSON: What's really interesting is that there's some things that we can make sense of, like bisexual fragrances today means unisex fragrances. We still have unisex fragrances; we still have unisex clothing. But there are some uses, in the 1970s primarily, that the language is so imbricated in historically contingent ideological assumptions about gender that they're effectively untranslatable today. And so those two examples are: one that's talking about bisexual parenting. Which is really bizarre. They're talking about - I believe it was a review - they're saying, "The Laurence oeuvre is to be explained by the fact of his having had a dominant and domineering mother who, by filling the male role in the household as well as her own, provides the children with a bisexual model for their behaviour".
HZ: That's interesting, because in a way it's like the opposite of the other words where it’s referring to men and women, plural people. This is just absent dad.
MARK WILKINSON: Exactly. And also just the notion that a mother couldn't be an effective parent on her own; she has to somehow also take on characteristics of a man or of a father, so this is a really problematic and obsolete use of a term. I don't know that you would be able to even explain this to somebody now. Took me and a couple of times reading and it was like, “What exactly did they mean? Oh, this is deeply sexist heteronormative language around parenting and the family.” And another one - and there's quite a few of these, which is really interesting - is about a bisexual God. This is good. "Professor Beatrice Couch of Argentina, who engaged in an improvised public debate with Professor Morton, argued that the bisexuality of God had been obscured by a misinterpretation of Genesis. God made man and woman in his - or its - image, but the whole image exists only in combination of the two." So this is really interesting, because effectively what they're saying is that bisexuality in this way - they're using it to to express gender fluidity of this Judeo-Christian God.
HZ: I love that.
MARK WILKINSON: It's brilliant, isn't it.
HZ: God, the original queer.
MARK WILKINSON: It's perfect. And it is interesting that this concept of bisexuality is imbued with many assumptions about gender.
HZ: And also when they're questioning the pronoun 'his' but saying 'it's'.
MARK WILKINSON: And then this one's really interesting - again they're talking about God as being bisexual, but here they say "Biblical images of a female or an androgynous" and then in parentheses they say "(IE bisexual) deity put forward by Dr. Martin".
You can start to see the change in the lexis that they're using to talk about what we would today maybe term ‘intersex’ or ‘androgynous’. So they use the word ‘androgynous’ but they have to disambiguate androgynous by using ‘bisexua’l in brackets. So weird, right? That would be the last way that I would want to describe androgyny.
HZ: This is one of the only times I've noticed my modern day perspective really interfering with my understanding of how the different use of the word works then.
MARK WILKINSON: Yeah. And it's only the 1970s. It's not that long ago, and yet there's this massive change. And then this second one, where they're talking about a space station; they say, "American space engineers have therefore drawn up preliminary plans for a so-called androgynous" - and then in parentheses - "(bisexual) system that is neither male nor female in design, enabling any craft to dock on with any other craft."
HZ: Initially I was thinking, “Why have they needed to qualify 'androgynous' with 'bisexual'?” But then I thought if they're describing how the shape of connectors - because often in science those are described as man and female - now I understand why they said 'bisexual', and that makes androgynous seem somewhat redundant. It seems like they're very confused and maybe they should have just chosen terms that weren't to do with human comparisons.
MARK WILKINSON: Right. Exactly.
HZ: Of course, during this time, ‘bisexual’ didn’t just mean space station docking systems or fragrances or hats; the word was also a sexual identity. It had first appeared in the sense of attraction to both men and women in 1892, in Charles Gilbert Chaddock’s English translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing's 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis. This also introduced into English terms such as ‘heterosexuality’, ‘sadist’ and ‘masochist’. It was a very significant book in the field of sexology, but it did posit that any sex for purposes other than procreation was perversion, so I do question how realistic Richard von Krafft-Ebing was about human behaviour.
But, despite the huge popularity of this book, the term wasn’t necessarily being used with great frequency then, or for a long time after. Even when bisexuality was being written about - for example by Alfred Kinsey, whose groundbreaking sexuality studies in the 1940s and 50s proposed a scale of human sexuality, with 0 being attracted exclusively to the opposite sex and 6 being attracted exclusively to the same sex and the continuum between being what could be termed bisexual - except Kinsey didn’t use the word ‘bisexual’ at all for sexuality, he didn’t support the word’s use in that sense, believing there was too much of a problem with the word having so many other meanings, especially its original meaning of hermaphroditic.
Kinsey also had issue with how the terms bisexuality, homosexuality and heterosexuality didn’t tell you anything about the person to whom those labels applied, merely indicated the gender of the people to whom they were attracted. Hence his preference for the numerical scale rather than identity labels, although it solved that problem by creating others.
By the late 60s, the word ‘bisexual’ as a sexual identity was significantly more evident, not least because of the bisexual activists at the forefront of the LGBT rights movement, such as Brenda Howard, who coordinated the first Pride march in 1970, and in 1987 was one of the founders of the New York Area Bisexual Network. Before LGBTQ consisted of letters other than the L and the G, Brenda Howard campaigned for the inclusion and recognition of bisexuals, such as in events like the 1993 March on Washington, one of the biggest protest gatherings in American history.
What Mark Wilkinson sees in his sample of Times newspapers is the sexual identity meaning being a minority of uses towards the beginning of the corpus, then over the first couple of decades leaping in prevalence.
MARK WILKINSON: Contemporary use, ie sexual identity: between 1957 and 1967 there's 31 percent of the time; that doubled to 66 percent between 1968 and 1978; and then between 1979 and 1990 it goes up to 92 percent of the time it's a sexual identity. And what is really really interesting about that is that it's almost like right up until the HIV and AIDS crisis, they're still talking about bisexual fashions, bisexual perfumes, bisexual space stations; and then all of a sudden, bisexuality becomes almost completely associated with the HIV and AIDS epidemic. And that's the big shift. It's in 1982, 1983. Bisexuality all of a sudden becomes a sexual identity quite quickly in the language of the times, but it is almost inseparable from homosexual: 'homosexual and bisexual men', 'homosexual and bisexual men', 'homosexual and bisexual men'. And when it's talked about on its own, it's talked about as a vector for transmission for infections. So it's like, "the blood banks, bisexuals and people sharing needles". And of course homosexual men, but they're not saying that they're a vector; they're just saying that this is how it's going to get into the broader heterosexual community.
HZ: When oh when can these words catch a break?
MARK WILKINSON: They can't! It gets even worse. One of the other things that I found was that bisexual people are almost entirely represented as existing in fiction or existing in the past. What I started to notice, when you're looking through the articles on the The Times Digital Archive, they have different newspaper sections - reviews, news, editorial, etc. I started to notice that like 50 percent of the time in certain decades, bisexuality is almost completely in the review section. I was like, "Why is that?" And then when you start looking at the articles they are all reviews of books, of plays, of music, and there'll be the character of the bisexual detective or the character of the bisexual seamstress or something. And so it's almost as though bisexual people are so exotic that they can only possibly exist in in fiction. And then later on - happening at the same time, but you definitely see it sort of in more contemporary times - when they use the word 'bisexual' it almost entirely collocates, or it goes with, words that indicate the past. One of the primary words that goes with bisexual was ‘was’. Or ‘were’. "He was bisexual", "they were bisexual" - either they're bisexual and they're dead now - Caesar, the Celts, etc - or they were bisexual when they were young but they're not now. So they're being displaced both temporally and from reality.
And there is a temporal issue to do in the notion of bisexuality: if potentially you can be with either somebody who identifies as being female or somebody that identifies as being male, when you are with somebody who identifies as being female and you're not with that other person, then a lot of people are like, "Well, are you still bisexual?" It's almost like a potentiality, isn't it? So I think that this is the way they're writing about it. They're not allowing people to have bisexuality as an identity. They're only allowing them to have it - within the language, they're only framing it within this notion of action. You're only bisexual if you're acting on your bisexuality, and that if you want to be truly bisexual, you would actually have to be polyamorous because you would need to be in a relationship with both people at the same time. So again, right up until the contemporary era, bisexuality is getting a really hard deal.
HZ: And in the contemporary era, it’s still getting a really hard deal!
MARK WILKINSON: As we move into an era - or we are in an era now - where the politics and the discussion, the discourse, around sexual or gender identity has changed so much that that 'bi' in 'bisexual' really indicates the gender binary. And it reifies that gender binary. And I think that you would find that a lot of young people would choose instead to identify as pansexual or any other number of terms - maybe just queer - because 'bisexual' seems to be almost antiquated. Now, a lot of people would get very angry about that because they're like "That's not what it ever meant; it always meant pluri-sexual identities, just not being limited to one gender." And while this is true, I think that there would be a lot of young people that, without necessarily knowing that history, would immediately be like, "Well I'm not 'bi', because I don't really care whether you're non binary or whether you're a trans man or trans woman. I'm just interested in people."
HZ: Keep an eye out for pansexual, polysexual, plurisexual, omnisexual, fluid, queer, bisexual plus as ways to express sexual identity that encompasses a spectrum of gender. But don’t count out ‘bisexual’ either, because in living memory it’s never had one fixed meaning, and it doesn’t now.
MARK WILKINSON: It was this floating signifier, it was never really fixed. It was constantly meaning different things to different people and being swept up in a lot of different discourses and political and social phenomena.
HZ: Mark Wilkinson is a linguist and PhD student, and the author of a paper called:
MARK WILKINSON: ‘Bisexual Oysters: A Diachronic Corpus-Based Critical Discourse Analysis of Bisexual Representation in the The Times Between 1957-2017’. Rolls off the tongue!
HZ: And while researching the paper, Mark found some surprising vocabulary, which is coming up in today’s Minillusionist.
HZ: In the course of his research, Mark Wilkinson dug up many different terms that at some point referred to LGBTQ people.
MARK WILKINSON: By going through historical thesauri, by looking at literature…
HZ: He compiled a big list.
MARK WILKINSON: All sorts of really really bizarre ones.
MARK WILKINSON: Yeah.
HZ: ‘Tonk’? I don't think I've heard that… ‘Tribade’?
MARK WILKINSON: [corrects HZ’s pronunciation] Tri-bade.
MARK WILKINSON: There’s urningtons and uranians.
HZ: ‘Urning’ was the German version of ‘uranian’; both derive from the name of the Greek goddess Aphrodite Urania, who according to Plato’s Symposium was born from the god Uranus’s severed testicles that had been thrown into the sea. ‘Urning’ was coined by the German author Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the pioneering sexuality campaigner of the 1860s and 70s. In his late 30s, in 1862, he came out to his family as an urning - the term ‘homosexual’ wasn’t even around till a few years later; its first known appearance is in a German pamphlet in 1869 - and Ulrichs didn’t care for that term anyway, because it contained ‘sexual’, whereas he wanted to show that it was all about the person, not the acts, and created terms accordingly. ‘Urning’ was a man attracted to men, ‘urningin’ a woman attracted to women, ‘dioning’ a man attracted to women, ‘dioningin’ a woman attracted to men, ‘uranodioning’ a male bisexual, ‘uranodioning’ a female bisexual. Portmanteaus there.
Some of the words on Mark’s list are still in regular use - homosexual, heterosexual, lesbian, femme, butch, camp, sapphic. Some are no longer in common currency, so much - switch-hitter, fairy, pansy, ponce, sissy, confirmed bachelor, that way inclined, musical. Many of the words are feminine names - Lily, Mary, Margery, Miss Nancy. Some I had never encountered before in this context - ‘ginger beer’, rhyming slang for ‘queer’.
MARK WILKINSON: So of course, a lot of these were not in the Times because they’re so....
HZ: ‘Good with colours’?
MARK WILKINSON: It's my favourite. No, my favourite is ‘temperamental’. I absolutely agree with that. I identify with temperamental. There were so many...
HZ: ‘Omnifutuant’ - what?
MARK WILKINSON: ‘Ambisextrous’. That's a good one.
HZ: That's a hot term.
MARK WILKINSON: ‘Tenderling’, which I really enjoyed.
HZ: It's interesting that a lot of these are things like ‘sissify’ and 'pansyish' and female names, just to reiterate this idea that gayness is like a trading down of power and feminisation is a bad thing. Or that to be gay is feminising in itself.
MARK WILKINSON: Exactly, right? So there's a list here of strange terms and obscure ones like uranian, But the last one is 'womanizer'.
HZ: Is that an ironic use?
MARK WILKINSON: No, it meant to womanize oneself.
HZ: Oh - like a reflexive womanizing.
MARK WILKINSON: Yeah. A reflexive womanizing sort of like a womanification of one's self, as opposed to like kind of a lecherous cis het guy that's like, "Oh, what a womanizer" like the Britney Spears song. It's literally to to make oneself more womanly. Bizarre, right?
HZ: Speaking of making oneself more womanly: Mark pointed my attention to quite a shocking recommendation in the 1957 Wolfenden Report.
MARK WILKINSON: The Wolfenden report recommended the decriminalisation of sex between men over 21 - consensual sex between men over the age of 21. And it was by no means - I guess it was progressive for the time, but it was by no means progressive in the sense that it sought to legitimate same sex relationships or even legalize those relationships. They were basically just saying - it was a new interpretation of the law where they were saying the purpose of law is for public order, essentially, it's not to sort of put this moral order on the population. That's not really that the business of the state to be able to do that.
HZ: It was still classified as a mental illness though at the time.
MARK WILKINSON: Yeah, exactly. And that was one of the major things that it recommended as well: two major issues; one was it sought to do more research into the causes, effectively to find the root cause so that you can cure this mental illness. But also what was really interesting is that it did recommend that the state should provide sex reassignment surgery to people who are requesting it, because it would effectively solve this issue of sexual inversion. If you're a woman that wants a woman, if we just make you a man then the problem is solved.
HZ: So they'd conflated gender identity and sexual orientation.
MARK WILKINSON: Absolutely.
HZ: Great. Very helpful.
MARK WILKINSON: Doing a really good job.
HZ: I suppose also at the time understanding of mental health was not ideal either. So something surgical was quantifiable.
MARK WILKINSON: Yeah yeah, exactly right.
HZ: And that surgery alone can change gender, and that gender is just about the body… I mean, there’s lots here to take issue with, but it was written in 1957, quite a long time ago, but also not that long ago. So if there’s anything to be happy about, it’s how much progress has been made over the past few decades. And how much more there is to go.
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Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
utricle, noun: a little bag, bladder or cell (biology); a bladder-like envelope of some fruits (botany); a chamber in the inner ear (zoology).
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with help from Martin Austwick, who makes the music for the show. Hear his songs at palebirdmusic.com and on the Pale Bird podcast. Thanks to Paul Baker, whose new book Fabulosa!, all about Polari, is out now, so if you liked that episode you should read it.
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