This article is reprinted from the 2014 CSWS Annual Review (p. 13)
The BiSciFi Project: Researching Speculative Fictions and Bisexual Lives
2014 CSWS Jane Grant Fellowship winner seeks “to achieve a more complex recognition and understanding of multisexual lives.”
by Jenée Wilde, PhD candidate, UO Department of English (Folklore)
As a PhD candidate, my research has resulted in part from frustrations I have felt with the lack of serious treatment given to bisexuality as a position from which to theorize sexual knowledge within humanistic scholarship. While studies of gay, lesbian, and transgender communities and cultural production have dramatically increased over the past two decades, research on bisexuality remains highly undervalued in much of the humanities and social sciences.
This situation led to a “formative moment” early in my English/Folklore program. While I embraced queer theorizing and reading practices in graduate coursework, I kept bumping into a noticeable absence of bisexuality and bisexuals in the majority of the research I was introduced to. I felt both excited by queer perspectives and perplexed by their failures to address my own standpoint as a bisexual woman. Then one day in class, we discussed a study on “straight” women in gay and lesbian spaces—only the researchers, it appeared, had not bothered to ask any of the “straight” interlopers if they identified as something else. When no one else seemed to notice this issue, I finally blurted out, “Where are all the fucking bisexuals?”
I began conducting interdisciplinary research under an umbrella I call “The BiSciFi Project.” Unlike more traditional humanities scholarship, half of this research involves ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Philadelphia and Minneapolis in communities where bisexual and science fiction fan identities overlap. My purpose is to challenge the dearth of research on bisexuality in humanities fields and to demonstrate the untapped potential of bisexuality studies across academic disciplines.
The BiSciFi Project combines methodologies from literary studies, queer cultural studies, and folklore to explore multiple aspects of bisexuality and its representations in non-realistic or “speculative” literature and television. Imagining alternatives to “normal” human life is what speculative fiction does best, making it an ideal site for exploring marginalized sexual representation and identity.
Approaches include critical analysis of dissident sexuality in 1960s-70s speculative literature, archival research of a 1980s bisexual fanzine, cultural analysis of contemporary genre television shows, and ethnographic research with bisexually identified speculative fiction fans in multiple settings. So far, the project has yielded several national conference presentations, two published articles, and my PhD dissertation-in-progress, “Speculative Fictions, Bisexual Lives: Changing Frameworks of Sexual Desire.”
The dissertation is concerned with bisexuality on three cultural levels—bisexual identity and community, bisexual representation and interpretation, and bisexuality as a category of knowledge. On the level of group identity, I am not so much interested in understanding how bisexuality is defined by individuals but rather why some people choose to self-identify as bisexual rather than (or in addition to) queer, pansexual, fluid, genderqueer, or other terms that resist binary categorization or refuse them outright. I’m interested in how this self-definition helps some people to understand their social and cultural experiences and to find communities. Moreover, I’m interested in how non-realistic or “speculative” fiction genres may have contributed to some bisexual people’s experiences of group identity and community.
The connection to speculative fiction brings me to the second cultural level—bisexual representation. Here the issue I am interested in is how we “read” and interpret images of non-binary sexual desire in cultural production. In other words, what does bisexuality look like? The question isn’t as straightforward as it may seem since in the United States our cultural codes for “knowing” the sexual orientation of another are directly linked to binary gender categories. We assume straight, gay, or lesbian sexual orientations by the gender of one’s partner in relationship, but non-monosexual people don’t neatly line up with this coding for a person’s “real” sexual orientation. So again, speculative fiction plays a role by representing that which doesn’t seem to “exist” within a particular socio-historical moment. It helps us to imagine what dissident, queer, non-binary sexualities might look like—a critically important function for self-identified bisexuals seeking validation and community.
I’ve already touched on the third level because it is impossible to extricate from the other two—bisexuality as a category of knowledge in U.S. culture. This epistemic level governs what can or can’t be “known” about bisexuality and is utterly conflicted over what bisexuality is, what it looks like, who counts as bisexual or not, or whether it is even real. Since bisexual first appeared in late nineteenth century medical and sexological debates, the term has accumulated a cargo hold of pathological baggage that was later retooled with Stonewall and gay liberation, rejected by lesbian separatists, demonized during the AIDS crisis, and ignored in the remaking of gay marriage as the poster child of homonormativity. Reverberations of these discourses have passed through cultural representations of bisexuality as an evolutionary or developmental phase, a utopian ideal, a lavender menace, a typhoid Mary, a ratings booster, and as a letter in an acronym that remains stubbornly invisible. As a lived identity and experience, bisexuality remains outside the dominant framework used to organize sexual knowledge in U.S. culture—heterosexuality and homosexuality.
“Speculative Fictions, Bisexual Lives” asks how these gender-linked binary categories affect cultural understandings of bisexuality, and how some bisexuals use non-realistic or “speculative” fiction to help negotiate oppressive cultural norms and assumptions in the lived world. At the heart of these lines of inquiry is “Changing Frameworks of Sexual Desire,” or the idea that the “both-and” logic upon which bisexuality is structured may be a key to reframing the “either-or” logic that now dominates categories of sexual knowledge. To achieve a more complex recognition and understanding of multisexual lives, I propose dimensional sexuality as an alternative hermeneutic model and framework for analysis. My thesis argues that we must shift away from sexual “knowing” that is singular, static, exclusive, and oppositional to that which is multiple, temporal, relational, and indeterminate. Dimensional sexuality helps to facilitate this shift by providing a new method of interpretive analysis for humanities scholarship as well as a flexible analytical model for social science research. ■
—Jenée Wilde is the 2014-15 Jane Grant Dissertation Award recipient from the Center for the Study of Women in Society. More information on her research can be found at jeneewilde.com or at The BiSciFi Project on Facebook.