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Was Abraham Lincoln gay? Gay rights activists of the 70s and 80s sought solace through reimagining “Honest Abe’s” sexuality to hopefully find one like their own in such a historically significant figure. But the most recent account of the president’s life suggests otherwise.
Historian Charles Strozier recently published accounts of Lincoln’s close friendship with Joshua Speed and assures us that no, Lincoln was not gay. While he did sleep in the same bed as Speed, he also enjoyed vigorous, heterosexual lovemaking with Mary Todd.
The third possibility has clearly escaped both sides: he could have been bisexual.
Granted, I am not a historian and this isn’t a piece about our 16th president. This is about why society repeatedly leaves bisexuality out of conversations surrounding human sexuality, often going to absurd lengths to rationalize people into the dichotomy of gay and straight.
Society doesn’t believe bisexual people because of stigmas attached to uncertainty. There is a prevailing mentality that bi people can’t make up their minds, whether it’s gay men ‘pretending’ to be bisexual, straight women ‘experimenting’ with lesbianism, or the expectation that bisexual people can’t be faithful to their partners.
All of this, combined with the fact that most bisexual people rarely experience an even-split of attraction between men and women (indeed, the term “bisexual” is often a placeholder for “anyone who isn’t ‘monosexual'”), results in such a mountain of confusion regarding bisexuality that it’s far easier to just sweep it all under the collective rug.
Many studies regarding the fluidity of female sexuality have surfaced over the past several years. Beyond women claiming varying sexual orientation identities at different points in their lives, it seems that female sexual orientation correlates less with physical sexual arousal patterns than it does with male sexual orientation and arousal. In other words, men are generally aroused by sexual stimuli that matches their sexual orientation but women are generally aroused by sexual stimuli in general, including bonobo sex.
These discoveries, far from making society more accepting towards women’s sexual orientations and identities, seem to have made people less open to the possibility of bisexuality as a valid female sexual orientation.
“Lesbian” and “straight” remain the only two options, with bisexuality merely serving as the playful manifestation of this fluid physiological sexual arousal pattern. It’s just girls messing around, as we are so wont to do.
There are no bisexual men, only gay men in disguise. Or so goes the stereotype born of the transitional bisexual identity that many gay teenage boys adopt in an effort to cling to some shred of masculine, heteronormative behavior.
Incendiary headlines such as “Gay, Straight, or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited” have reinforced this stereotype. Researchers using objective measures of sexual response, such as pupillary dilation and erection measurements, found that bisexual-identified men generally physically responded only to videos with men and no women.
A more recent study by researchers at Northwestern yielded different results when they accounted for men who might not have as potent a bisexual response. They limited the study to men who had previously experienced at least one romantic relationship each with men and women. According to Allen Rosenthal, senior researcher on the study, this was the factor that led them to “proving” that yes, bisexual men exist.
“I’m certainly not ever saying that bisexual guys who don’t experience strong arousal to both men and women are not bisexual,” Rosenthal assures BTRtoday, “I’m willing to accept anyone’s identity label.” Rather, he wants people to understand that there are different motivations that influence the adoption of different sexual identity labels.
“When a man identifies as gay,” Rosenthal says, “usually we think the motivation means that he’s strongly aroused by men and not aroused by women.” The same logic applies to straight identification. With bisexual identity, however, Rosenthal explains that it’s interesting and difficult to convey because “there seems to be lots of different routes to bisexual identity in men–and in women, for that matter.”
These different motivations contribute to the erasure of bisexual identity because of the collective inability to comprehend sexuality beyond the even-split between straight and gay.
“Society in general doesn’t really like it when things are not black and white,” says Kate Estrop, Co-President of the Bisexual Resource Center. “It’s hard to decide whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ whether one should support it or protest it,” she tells BTRtoday.
Not only is bisexuality neither gay nor straight, Estrop explains, it’s not necessarily, “between gay and straight. It’s not predictable. Attractions are not split 50 percent our same gender and 50 percent other genders.”
Since bisexual people are already breaking a laundry list of social and sexual norms, a stereotype has also developed wherein they can’t adhere to the norm of monogamy.
“Bi+ people usually are wrongly accused of being unable to be faithful,” says Estrop, because of the myth that all bisexual people are attracted to everyone. With this “natural predilection” for cheating in mind, says Estrop, society often labels bisexuals as “undateable.”
Media coverage of the recent split between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is a telling case. Her bisexuality has been referred to as “tendencies” in her past, rather than a fully formed human identity.
More sobering is the fact that such “tendencies” have been juxtaposed with images and depictions of the physical violence she suffered in her marriage to Depp. The implicit argument is this: bisexuality equals cheating, which in turn justifies abuse.
This form of victim-blaming is one explanation for the fact that statistically, bisexual women are more likely than any other sexual orientation “group” to be victims of domestic violence.
It’s easy for bisexuals to “pass” within different-sex relationships. But do bisexuals have an “obligation” to come out, to fight the erasure of their identity? Estrop doesn’t think it’s that simple, in large part because of the aforementioned statistic.
She assures us that “visibility is important, and when faces can be put on statistics, it’s harder to deny existence.” The problem, she argues, is what Orlando taught us–which is that “it’s still extraordinarily unsafe to be LGBTQ in this country.”
“Many were not out to their families yet, and are now being outed by the media,” she says. “Those who did not lose their lives get to sort through those pieces in addition to dealing with all the trauma of that horrific night. So who can blame a single soul for wanting to stay hidden?”