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Photographs by Dave Lepori

Bi & Bi

Bisexuals have found a new dating scene online. But will this newfound community lead to a political identity?

By Vrinda Normand

A HINT of laughter behind Dave's warm brown eyes belies his composed demeanor as, seated on the restaurant's outdoor patio, he sips his iced tea and picks at his pasta Alfredo.

"Kissing has got to be the ultimate turn-on," he says. "Sometimes I need a softer kiss, which I like getting from a woman. Sometimes I need a more masculine kiss, which I get from a man."

Dave exudes a harmonious combination of opposites. His skin is smooth and caramel-colored, his upper body muscular. His short hair falls in a youthful wave that is textured with gray strands. And he speaks of an experienced love life with a boyish smile.

"I like people," he continues, "men and women. They both have good things to offer in a relationship. With my male friends, I like to do outdoor stuff—I like baseball; I like going on roller coasters over and over again. Sometimes, I like to wrestle or play rough. And sometimes I feel like I need a certain something that only a woman can provide. She can understand my sensitive side. Sometimes she is a better listener than a guy. I'm still attracted to the femininity of a woman."

One might say the 37-year-old bisexual man has the best of both worlds. After all, he gets to pick from a dating pool that is twice as big. He seems to move between straight and gay with ease, but many people don't see it that way. As he puts it: "I never used to believe in gray areas until I started dealing with this."

"I get criticized a lot," he says, "Most gay men say I'm confused, that I just want to deny who I am." Gay men he's dated "usually break it off with me after they find out they cannot convince me otherwise."

Dave has had similar experiences with straight people. He says he's always been attracted to both sexes, ever since puberty. But even he started to doubt himself when family and friends told him, "You must be confused because you can't be both."

As a teenager, he admitted his same-sex attractions to a few people, including girls he dated in high school, but didn't start seeing men until he was 18. Exploring his sexuality as a young man, he eventually found a word to identify with: bisexual. He has since been able to tell people, "Don't judge me. I don't feel confused."

In 15 years of being open about himself, Dave has seen a shift in the way others respond. "When I was first telling people about it, it seemed like I was the only one," he says. But lately, he's found that a lot of people are saying they might be "bi," too—straight men and women toying with the idea of same-sex attraction. They call themselves "bi-curious" or "experimental." Some venture into the world of bisexual dating on the Internet, some only talk about it. But many stay on the "safe side" of the line, remaining in heterosexual relationships while they branch out to homosexual activities.

While the avant-garde trendiness of "swinging both ways" boosts the acceptability of unconventional sexuality—especially with a younger generation—some say it puts a thorn in the side of gay and lesbian political movements. Twenty years ago, bisexuals were shunned by both sides of the spectrum, and although the "B" has since been added to "LGBT" (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) a new generation of "bi's" now talk about what it's like to be stuck in middle.

Anything That Moves

Lani Ka'ahumanu grew up on the peninsula. She dated men in high school, and in 1963, at age 19, she married the captain of the football team. She did what she was raised to do: become a housewife and have two kids.

It didn't last long. Eleven years later, she divorced her husband and came out as a lesbian. She became active in the women's movement at a time when feminism and lesbianism were gaining political momentum.

But her new life course changed direction again. In 1980, Ka'ahumanu fell in love with a man. "I was head over heels," she says. "It was like, really intense." She didn't fully understand what was going on and thought she might not be "finished with men."

"I so believed there was no such thing as bisexuality," she recalls. "My politics were just so radical." The man she got involved with didn't run away like the others. He himself identified as a bisexual and helped her understand her dual attractions.

As much as she struggled to accept her orientation, it was harder still to explain it to others, especially in the ultraconservative 1980s. "We were the pariahs of the straight community. We were told we didn't exist, yet we were [blamed] for spreading AIDS," Ka'ahumanu says. Many in the lesbian and gay communities also didn't take bisexuality seriously. So Ka'ahumanu took on "bi-phobia" within both the minority and mainstream society, becoming one of the founders of the modern bisexual movement.

"One of the hardest things about being bisexual is that you never stop coming out," Ka'ahumanu says. "You're always defined by your partner." She paints an eye-opening picture: If you see two women or two men together who are obviously involved as a couple, you immediately assume that they are gay. The same goes for a couple composed of a man and a woman: automatically heterosexual. "When in fact," she points out, "they could all be bisexual."

In many ways, this is what it means to be invisible. Bisexuals are almost always thought to be something they're not. Except for when they're single.

Anything That Moves, a short-lived international magazine based in San Francisco, shook up some of these false perceptions when it was published in the 1990s. With its title, it took back the stereotype that bisexuals are ready to jump on anyone at anytime.

Nowadays, similar ideas persist, with woman-on-woman action in all forms of pornography and the common male fantasy that a bi-girl will be his best chance at having a threesome.

"There is still a lot of stereotyping," says Robyn Ochs, another founder of the bisexual movement and activist on the East Coast. "Some still see bisexuals as people who are waiting to finish coming out," she says, "Or who have a choice and therefore might always choose to go with the straight world because that's safer or easier."

In the South Bay, controversy lingers around the bi-scene. "The gay community kind of shuns the bi's," says Wiggsy Sivertsen, a sociology lecturer at San Jose State University. There is an insecurity that bisexuals will say, "Well, I'll go out with you for awhile, but I want to let you know that I'm not really a total lesbian [or gay man]."

And there may be a kernel of truth to some of the suspicions about swinging both ways. With the help of online forums and hook-up websites, men and women are exploring the benefits of both genders in a decidedly unpolitical fashion.

Three's Company

Go the home page of Bicupid.com, "where bisexual or bi-curious friends feel at home," and you'll see photos of attractive young couples: two feminine women sensuously French kissing and two robust men locked in a steamy embrace. Register for $10 a month, and you can pore over detailed profiles, many with photos and sexy descriptions. The 60 or so ads from the South Bay portray men, women and couples in their 20s and 30s. Most of the couples posted are male/female looking for a feminine third. A mid-20s pair calls out for a single, confident, independent woman to share their relationship. "We're not looking for anything out of the ordinary," they say. "Just a real girl for real fun."

One 20-year-old man boasts, "I am always willing to try anything at least once." He posted the profile on behalf of his bisexual girlfriend who wants to live out her fantasy of a threesome with another woman. A couple in their early 30s is looking for the same thing: a lovely young lady to "spice things up a bit." They want to have fun, but say they are "discreet."

Discretion is important for many of these online adventurers. Women looking for women, who are often already in heterosexual relationships, are usually more inclusive of their male partners. One 30-year-old says she got "wet" after dancing with a woman one night, and since her boyfriend thinks it's cool, she's decided to search for more.

Another 27-year-old woman says she is attached to the man that she loves, "but he lets me play with other women when the desire arises." She yearns for a female playmate for a two- or possibly three-person game.

The men tend to be slightly older, late 30s to early 40s, married with children, and they seldom include photos. A 41-year-old man with kids living at home includes a detailed list of what he is willing to do. A self-professed married, handsome, smart, athletic, clean-cut, "straight-acting" man, 37, seeks a similar partner for some "down-low" fun. A 35-year-old man simply wants a "safe and responsible person who is willing to let me explore my fantasy at my own pace." He makes a few requests about age and then stresses, "Must be very discreet."

Just from scanning the profiles, many of the bi-curious people on this site don't seem ready to flaunt rainbow flags in a gay pride parade. Dave says most of the men he's met on Bicupid are married, "straight" or easing into their sexuality. He finds a similar pattern in bisexual chat rooms on AOL.

Among the women, it's hard to say how many are genuinely "bi" or just trying to please their male partners—at least that's what Nikki, a 21-year-old bisexual woman from San Jose, thinks. Nikki grew up with the freedom and anonymity of meeting people on the Internet. She also grew up dealing with some of the "trendy" contradictions in the bi scene.

Girl Watching

Nikki rests her elbows on the table next to her cafe mocha, minus the whip cream. She keeps her hands occupied: twisting her long strands of red hair, fiddling with her cell phone or resting on the shoulder of her boyfriend, a 22-year-old African American man who calls himself Mr. C.

Her eyes light up as she talks about the joys of being able to check out both men and women. "You just look," she says. "It's natural." When she was in Las Vegas this summer with her family, she found herself admiring women wearing thong bikinis—along with her dad. "He checks out girls with me more than with my brother," she laughs. Her dad tells her she needs to learn how to be less obvious. Nikki admits not only to turning her head but also to twisting her torso to get a good look. Her boyfriend smiles shyly and nods his head. "Yeah," he says, "You have to just move your eyes so they can't tell."

"But I almost think I could get away with a bit more than a guy could," Nikki adds. She once approached a group of girls who were on their way to a club and dressed to kill. "You guys look so fabulous!" she told them. "Can I take a picture of you?" They giggled and quickly agreed to pose for her.

It's not unusual for women to look at each other, regardless of sexual innuendo. "With straight women, it's like, 'Oh, that outfit is cute," Nikki says. "But I'm thinking, 'Oh, they are cute, and if I had a chance ...'"

She discusses this openly in front of her boyfriend, who says he doesn't mind. She squeezes his hand and tells him, "If you were a girl, I wouldn't care. It's you who I like."

"It's how I feel about music," Nikki explains. "There's not any one kind of music that I like in particular. There are just songs. People are like songs. A certain person just seems to attract me, and it doesn't really matter if they are male or female." Of course, things can get tricky with certain genres. She says she can never tell for sure if a woman is bisexual. "You see a cute girl and you don't know if she's straight. She might be offended if you even mention it."

That's why Nikki goes online—where it's easier to be open about who you are and what you want. She says she always knew she was attracted to both sexes. She started venturing into chat rooms on AOL at 15, and at 17, her father discovered her bisexual profile in the personals section.

"When my dad first found out, he was like, 'Are you sure?'" she recalls. Like other people in her life, he initially doubted her conviction. A friend once asked her, "If you've never experienced it, how do you know you are?"

"Well, just because you're a virgin doesn't mean you're not straight," she answered matter-of-factly. "It's just how you feel about it."

When she was just starting high school at 14, Nikki developed a crush on her close friend. "We started to get to know each other really well, and I just fell for her," she says. Eight years later, she still feels the same way, although she never crossed that line with her friend.

It wasn't until she was 17 that she had her first sexual experience with another woman. She got set up with a bisexual girl (we'll call her Emma) who was about the same age. They hung out for awhile at Emma's house; Nikki had a few drinks, and Emma smoked some pot. But they found out at the most inopportune time that the weed was laced with something bad.

"We went into the bathroom. I was scared out of my mind," Nikki remembers. "She lit some candles and we got in the shower. We made out and touched each other." She adds with a giggle, "I attempted to go down on her."

It seemed to be going pretty smoothly until Emma got really sick. She had a seizure from the pot, and Nikki freaked out. Luckily, Emma's boyfriend was in the house and called an ambulance.

The two never hooked up again, but Nikki would go on to have better experiences with closer girlfriends. She's dated both men and women over the years, and so far, most of the women have been better kissers.

"Kissing is the first way to tell whether stuff if going to go right," she says. "Girls are usually softer. They go a little more slowly and take their time. Guys often seem like they're rushing past the kissing to get to something else."

Now that Nikki has had a few good sessions of "babe-watching" with him, her dad is pretty convinced of her bisexuality. She says both her parents are very accepting. Most of the young people in her life have been cool about it, to the extent that she wonders how seriously they really take it.

"A lot of women go for it because it's some kind of trend. It's more acceptable now," she says. "But I'm never really sure about them. I almost feel like I might be wasting my time."

Under the Covers

With women flirting on dance floors and groping each other at parties in front of tantalized men, it seems like bisexual activity has become quite popular—apart from the identity that goes along with it.

A couple of years ago Nikki got drunk at a party and started dancing around a pole with two other women. She found herself sandwiched between the two, legs and arms wrapped at odd angles, grooving in front of a cheering crowd.

"I don't know if they were bi," she says. "One of them wrote their number on my arm, but by the time I woke up in the morning, it was all smudged."

She's had flings with other women who eventually moved on to pursue committed relationships with men. One of them now says she's not bi anymore, that she has to let go of her old self. Nikki wonders if her friend was ever really bi in the first place.

Three years ago, Nikki met a friendly couple online. They seemed really nice, she remembers. "I felt good about it." They arranged to meet in person and hung out for a bit; then things started to get intimate. And the good feeling started to disappear.

"She wasn't into me," Nikki says. "She just wanted me to do stuff to her." The woman was trying to please her enthusiastic boyfriend. The threesome didn't go far after Nikki said she felt "really used" and asked them to drive her home.

"It was a terrible experience," she says. "I'm a human being, not a sex toy." The episode dampened Nikki's image of threesomes, and understandably, she never got into that kind of situation again.

When it comes to the delicate interplay of emotions and physical attraction, she says, it's difficult to manage with more than two people. For a month, she saw another woman while she was dating Mr. C. He agreed to the arrangement at first but eventually admitted he was unhappy. The other woman didn't respond well to him.

"She would say she liked him," Nikki remembers, "but when he would come up to give her a hug, she would be like, 'Get away from me.'"

Then the woman said she wanted to see another guy, and Nikki decided it was time to stop. "It was getting way too complicated," she says. "The more people you throw into a relationship, the more problems there are going to be."

Another swinging couple had an awkward experience but has yet to be disillusioned. A 22-year-old community college student from San Jose who calls himself Anthony (not his real name) joined the Bay Area Bisexuals group on My Space, which Nikki started in August. Since then, 30 people have joined.

Anthony identifies as straight and confirms, "I'm not touching another guy, no way." But his girlfriend of the same age calls herself "experimental," and although she wouldn't consider having a relationship with another woman, she welcomes one into her bed—along with her boyfriend. Anthony's girlfriend (we'll call her Michelle), declined to speak for this article, but he was quite comfortable describing their adventures. He tries to lure in bisexual women online, but so far, none have passed their "screening test." Some don't look anything like their photos, and most ask for too much. "They want to get to know us," he says. But he doesn't want "to be with someone that we're going to see again." From firsthand experience, he knows that doesn't work.

It happened one afternoon, when he was hanging out with his girlfriend and her friend at his place. "My girlfriend started working on me and then grabbed her friend's hand to join us," he remembers. Afterward, they talked about it. He says it was great, and both women supposedly liked it as well. But the awkwardness came a few days later when Michelle's friend started checking Anthony out in his towel. Michelle told him she didn't want another woman looking at him. So the two are holding out for a less "personal" playmate, while they continue to frequent downtown clubs and browse the web.

"It's like a bonding thing," Anthony says, "It brings me closer to my girl."

On the Down Low

Earlier this year, J.L. King published a groundbreaking book called On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep With Men. He interviewed 2,500 African American men across the country and uncovered a widespread phenomenon that has serious social and health implications. King found that the macho culture among black men pressures them to keep bisexuality or homosexuality under wraps. Unacknowledged forays into the DL sex scene lead to unsuspecting wives and girlfriends being infected with HIV.

King's book and the subsequent media frenzy focused on the bisexual race connection. But something like the DL exists in the South Bay--and it isn't limited to black men.

From the beginning, Dave has been a magnet for married men. When he was working at a shoe store in Eastridge Mall 15 years ago, his manager kissed him behind the shoe racks. "He was a good-looking guy," Dave says, "tall, kind of dorky. But after meeting his wife and two kids, I started to feel bad. I didn't want to hurt his family."

Dave didn't go any further with his boss, but he would become quite the Don Juan among the same type. In 1998, Dave joined the personals ads on AOL. There he met more married men who were on the sly. Sometimes they just talked, and the affairs didn't last long, because the guilt eventually got to him.

A year ago, Dave joined Bicupid, the only website he's noticed that is entirely organized for bisexuals. "It seems to be an important outlet for a lot of men in the Bay Area," he says. When he first joined, he got flooded with responses. Now he receives an average of one a week. Many of the bi-curious men confide in him about same-sex fantasies, why they got married and had children. A man he's dating now is dealing with the fact that he feels "stuck" with his wife. Four years ago, Dave met a man online named Chris who was in a similar situation.

On the Cutting-Both-Ways Edge: Dave has always been attracted to both sexes. Lately, he's found a lot of people who say they might be bi, too.

The Watergarden

Dave and Chris exchanged a few emails and then one day, they ran into each other in the steam room at the Watergarden, a men's bath club in Santa Clara. Dave recognized Chris from his photo and approached him. "We chit-chatted for a while," Chris says, and that was about the extent of their relationship.

For several years, Chris identified as bisexual while he was married to a woman and dated men. Just a year ago, though, he determined that he was actually gay and came out to his wife.

"There is tremendous pressure from society," Chris says. "People would prefer to say they're bi instead of gay—move toward the straight end of the spectrum. In a way, you are trying to have the best of both worlds. I've been there myself."

As a bisexual, he was able to explore the gay side of his character in an "underground way," which was, at the time, a more plausible alternative to coming out and ending his marriage.

According to Chris and Dave, the Watergarden is a local hot spot for men to hook up. They check out other towel-clad guys, relax in outdoor pools, perfect all-around tans on the sun deck, chat in the steam room and, in some cases, rent small private rooms. The facility is remarkably clean, they say, and there are condoms available everywhere. "Quite a lot of the men at the Watergarden are married or would identify as straight if you asked them," Chris says. He's been surprised to find his own situation mirrored in so many. Even in public places, he catches them looking at him while they're walking with female partners.

As the bisexual activist Ochs explains (and as Chris can attest to), going from questioning your sexuality to coming out and feeling comfortable is a huge step. "We live in a world that is full of homophobia, especially with the [push toward] same-sex marriages," Ochs says. "There is so much backlash."

Like most gray areas, however, things are never cut and dried. People tend to generalize that bisexuality is just a stage, but Ka'ahumanu points out that heterosexuality and homosexuality were both stages for her before she finally settled into bisexuality. "There's no place to just comfortably prop yourself," Ka'ahumanu says about coming out as bi. "It makes both heterosexuals and homosexuals nervous." They may be questioning their own identities or conjuring unexplainable fantasies.

People's Choice: Kelli Swader doesn't get to 'choose' who she falls in love with based on gender: 'It's really about the person.'

To Bi or Not to Bi?

And here lies the crux of the conflict: the gay civil rights movement is based on the idea that people don't have a choice as to their sexual orientation. "Bisexuality seems to go against that," explains Kelli Swader, a South Bay bi who used to work for the Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center in San Jose. "Some people who identify as gay or lesbian feel threatened by the fact that a bisexual person has the illusion of being able to just flip-flop and blend in with mainstream society," Swader adds.

But for her, that illusion doesn't hold up. She doesn't get to "choose" who she falls in love with based on gender. "It's really about the person, in whatever form or color that comes in," she says.

Swader came out during her college years at Santa Clara University. "Once I figured out that I missed my best girlfriend a whole lot more than I missed my boyfriend, I was like, 'OK, things are starting to get clearer."

After college, she became involved with a lesbian for four years and assumed an active role in the queer community. But Swader's partner wasn't comfortable with her being bisexual. "I think she was threatened by the assumption that I would leave her for a man one day," she says. "It was never that I would leave her for someone else, it was always a man."

Chris O'Hare, a 29-year-old facilitator for the bisexual support group at the DeFrank Center, avoided this dilemma by marrying another bisexual man. "I would find it hard to be in a relationship with someone who wasn't bi," he explains. "It's so much easier to be with someone who understands your attraction to people of either sex without being threatened or put off, even in a monogamous relationship."

"From the bisexual point of view," he continues, "there's not that much difference between men and women. In any relationship you're going to have similar issues regardless of the gender of the person you're with."

Swader is now dating a man she met online. The Internet allowed her to "gauge people's reactions when I came out to them, before I met them in person or invested any real heartache," she says. "If they didn't accept it, I could just hit delete and move on to somebody who would be comfortable."

O'Hare has been involved with SOBOA (South Bay Bisexual Organizers and Activists), a small group of people who help coordinate local support groups and participate in the San Jose gay pride parade. For a long time, discrimination from the gay and straight communities created pressure for bisexuals to form their own community. Even though they were included officially, individual exclusions made many bi's feel out of place. O'Hare gives the example of a bisexual woman he knew who joined a lesbian group and then started dating a man. It didn't fly.

Although the collective of bi's in the Bay Area is somewhat scattered, there is a vibrant online community. The Live Journal forum and blogging haven boasts many bisexual-themed groups, and the SOBOA mailing list brings together a handful of outings and activities around the Bay Area every week.

"Bisexuals are fun to hang out with. There's only one rule for them," O'Hare says. "There are no rules."

He points out that there is a high crossover between bisexuality and nonmonogamy because "once you're thinking outside of the box in terms of gender, you're in a better position to consider other lifestyles."

Incidentally, he adds, "There is also a high crossover between bisexuals and science fiction fans."

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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