After growing up in small-town central Wisconsin, Sarah Wallisch came to Milwaukee to attend UWM. As a young adult, Sarah felt pretty disconnected from the local LGBT community, but also felt hungry for something – something that wasn’t really being served anywhere.
“I didn’t realize that people weren’t attracted to multiple genders until I was in middle or high school,” said Sarah. “I was really fortunate to have parents who didn’t enforce gender or sexuality stereotypes. They were always so supportive. When I was 11, my father showed me 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' with me. Seeing bisexual representation, right around the time I was starting to understand there was stigma for not being straight, cut through some of that stigma for me. My mother was asking if I was bringing my boyfriend – or girlfriend – to holidays long before I ever came out to her.
"Still, I felt this social pressure to ‘pick a side.’ I joined groups that leaned heavily lesbian, but they often saw me as an ally. I even had a girlfriend who told me not to call myself bisexual in front of lesbians. I still consider myself bisexual, but I often use queer, because it’s a useful shorthand to encompass sexuality and gender.
“So, I took to the internet to find bisexual and pansexual groups. At the time, there was 521 in Madison – where I first heard the term ‘non-monosexual’ – but nothing based in Milwaukee.”
Bi Definition formed in 1995 when two Counseling Center of Milwaukee groups merged to create a “social, support an activist organization.” Attendance and funding dwindled over the next decade, and by 2004, Bi Definition was out of business. For the next ten years, there was no bisexual support organization in Milwaukee.
It was an opportunity to be the change needed in the world. In 2014, Sarah created the Bi+ Pride Milwaukee Facebook page so that bi+ people searching for connection could find their community.
“It was an online-only space for a few years, with a few ‘what if’ coffee conversations here and there,” Sarah said. “But nothing really went anywhere until Amy found us. That was really the start of Bi+ Pride Milwaukee as we exist today.”
Amy Luettgen, a lifelong Milwaukeean, grew up in Bay View. Married for 36 years, with three children and two grandchildren, Amy will soon retire from the State of Wisconsin after a quarter century of service.
At the same time, Amy has identified as bisexual for over 40 years.
“I tried to use ‘pansexual,’ but I guess I was just ahead of my time," Amy said. "I could just as easily use pan or queer, but I use bisexual because so many activists have worked so hard to make sure the B was included in LGBTQ.
“I don’t remember a time when I was not attracted to more than one gender. I knew bisexuals existed, but I couldn’t seem to find any in real life, and references to bisexuality were all so negative and diminishing. The only person in the world who acknowledged their bisexuality was David Bowie. It seems so quaint now, but you so rarely heard the word, so it was very affirming. It really mattered. Anything that made you feel as though you were not the one and only one mattered, a lot.
“When I left home at age 17, I just knew I did not belong in straight spaces and so I sought out LGBTQ people. It was not easy being out as a bi+ person. You were pressured to ‘pick a side’ and I just couldn’t. I was always identified by whomever I was in a relationship with. People were always telling me who I was, and that made things very difficult. I knew precisely who I was and there was no one who could convince me otherwise.
“After commuting to Madison for many years, I found time for extracurricular activities for the first time in a long time. I’d tried to connect with the community for years but could never seem to find what I was looking for. I felt isolated for most of my adult life, feeling like one of the few bisexuals I knew, and wanting to feel part of a larger community. I realized the only way to get things going was to try to do it myself. I reached out to the Bi+ Pride Milwaukee page in 2018, and it took off from there.”
Together, Sarah and Amy joined other passionate local activists to form a dedicated steering committee. Bi+ Pride MKE hosted a series of regular monthly events that brought people together from across the region. Within two years, their online community grew from 100 to 700 followers. Although the pandemic stalled their social schedule, and planning virtual events proved more difficult than expected, Bi+ Pride MKE is committed to their community.
“We know how important a sense of belonging is for bi+ people, and we hope to make that happen again soon,” said Amy. “We’re enjoying this rare moment for reflection.”
There’s no LGBTQ without the B – so let's take this opportunity to understand the current state of bisexuality in Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee: What are some of the challenges for bisexual people to find themselves and each other in Milwaukee?
Sarah: If you google “bisexual Milwaukee,” Bi+ Pride MKE is pretty much it! Even if you go to the LGBT Center’s website and search “bisexual,” you will only find one program. (Ed. note: The Center is only doing virtual programming right now, so this doesn’t include the discussion group run before COVID.) When people are looking for community, they want to engage with people who have some understanding of their experience. The first instinct for many LGBTQ folks is to check out the local LGBT center, so I think it’s especially important for centers to offer programming.
Amy: We were starting to turn a corner, with so many wonderful bi+ folks coming out, joining our group and being more willing to get involved with the community. We started a discussion group at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, and we were seeing growing attendance at our events. We started a private Facebook group for people who wanted community but needed more discretion. And then the pandemic hit! In early summer, we heard from an intern at the LGBT Center who wanted to start a new program, but we haven’t heard from them in months. Hopefully, they will get something off the ground soon.
Milwaukee has seen bi-first organizations come and go in the past. Why do you think it’s so hard to activate the local bisexual community?
Amy: I don’t think Milwaukee is unique. It’s a real challenge due to bisexual erasure and a lack of bisexual visibility. We are the majority of the LGBTQ population – an estimated 52% of all LGBTQ people. However, we don’t always feel welcome at queer events. When we are not visible, it makes it difficult to make and sustain connections. Thankfully, this is changing as more people come out as bi+ and there is more media representation of bisexuality. Anytime a bisexual person comes out, it is a major form of activism, as only 28% of us do so.
Sarah: What she said! There’s also an issue of bi+ people having to come out over and over again, sometimes to the same people. It’s like a relationship-based memory loss. Every time I’ve been with a man, people forget that I’m not straight. Every time I’ve been with a woman, people forget I’m not gay. Every time I’ve been with a nonbinary person, people forget that genders outside the binary do exist. People make so many assumptions about who you are based on the gender they think your partner is. It can be easier, in some cases safer, to let people believe their assumptions and only be your full authentic self with your nearest friends and family. But that eats away at your heart and your sense of self.
Amy: I have been out – and in and out again – for the past 45 years!
What is bisexual erasure, and how does it harm voice and visibility?
Amy: Bi erasure is when our legitimacy is questioned, and our existence is denied. It manifests when people make assumptions about our sexuality. It stems from an either/or thinking and a rigid mindset about binary sexuality. The nonsense that we must “choose a side.” Really? Says who? This stigma causes real, serious physical and emotional consequences for the bi+ community. Just imagine being told you don’t really exist or can’t exist. How would that affect you emotionally? Bisexual people see higher rates of depression and mental health issues, because erasure makes them less visible, less likely to come out and less likely to get the health and wellbeing services they need. It is hard to raise your voice, when your very existence is being questioned, and sadly this is something too many bisexuals contend with daily.
Sarah: I think it’s a pretty common experience for LGBTQ people to have a nostalgic connection to representation that we now recognize as problematic, because otherwise you’re just erased with no representation at all. I remember Alyssa in "Chasing Amy" having to constantly defend her identity. I remember Willow being written as, in her words, "gay now" when she fell for a woman. I think the first time I heard a media character actually say the word "bisexual" was the movie "Velvet Goldmine" – and it was said multiple times by multiple characters! A revelation!
According to a recent research study, more people know lesbian, gay or transgender people than a bisexual person. Why is it difficult for people to come out and be understood as bisexual?
Amy: I cannot count the number of times I’ve come out to someone, only to have them tell me, “You can’t be bisexual, you’ve been married for years!” Thank you, virtual stranger, you know me better than I know myself! It’s a constant battle.
Sarah: There’s an insidious trope that bisexual women are actually straight girls who want attention, bisexual men are actually gay and just afraid to come out and bisexual enbies don’t exist at all! It all comes down to misogyny: the idea that what everyone really wants is sex with men, and that if you are attracted to men, then your relationships with women and nonbinary folks are not “real.” It unfortunately leads to hypersexualizing bisexual people read by society as women and hyper-stigmatizing bisexual people read by society as men.
Amy: I do want to make it clear that bisexuality is not binary. It includes genderqueer, trans and non-binary people as well as “men” and “women.” But there’s always this question about whether it is easier for men or women to come out as bi+, and it’s a deep one, because it addresses the disparity of male and female sexuality. Female/femme bisexuals seem to always be defined by the male gaze, which is neither good nor healthy. Females/femme bisexuals do not have an easier time coming out or identifying as bisexual. In fact, they suffer a very high level of sexual violence because they are hypersexualized. Male/masc bisexuals are viewed as “really gay” or “not full ready to come out as gay.” This is very damaging and discouraging to bisexual men. In general, you cannot identify a bisexual or pansexual person by their partners or lack of a partner. Sexuality exists on its own.
Sarah: Being publicly and, somewhat, loudly out has shown me how prevalent bisexuality is in society. I’ve gotten Facebook messages from law enforcement officers who are closeted at work because the culture is too toxic to be safely out. I’ve had people whisper to me on the bus, “I like your pin, I’m bi too.” I’ve had baristas loudly exclaim they’re bi when they see my pride flag. While we might be the "least out" of the LGBT community, I think we’re hungrier for connection, for understanding and for community. I’d like to see the conversation reframed from “why is it so hard for bisexuals to come out and commit” to “what is it about our society and community that makes bisexuals feel like they aren’t able to be safely out in these spaces?”
What are some bisexual myths you’d like to explode?
Amy: There are so many damaging misconceptions out there – too many for one article to address! But here are the ones I wish would end forever.
"Bisexuality is a phase before someone comes out as lesbian or gay." While sexuality is fluid, and can change a great deal over a lifetime, being bi+ is a core truth. We have the capacity to feel attraction to people of multiple genders. While we may choose a life partner, we never not to be bisexual because that is not a possibility. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to come out as bi+, so if someone tells you that they are, believe them.
Sarah: This myth actively discourages people from being out, because it tells them that they don’t even know who they are. I like to say my only “phase” was not correcting people when they thought I was straight.
Amy: "Everyone is just a little bisexual, but women are more bisexual than men." Wrong. Just so wrong. There is no question that there are people who are romantically and sexually attracted to just one gender and have no interest in other genders. That is a scientifically verifiable fact. While it is clear that more younger folks are identifying as bisexual, as our culture becomes more accepting and welcoming, that does not mean everyone is bisexual.
"One cannot be bisexual if they have not been in a relationship with a man and a woman." False! A person does not have to be romantically or sexually active with anyone to identify as bisexual. They can be asexual, they can be celibate, they may just not have dated anyone yet. That does not change their identity. We do not owe anyone our romantic history to “prove” we are bisexual.
"Bisexuals are cheaters." Absolutely not. Bisexual people are no more likely to cheat than anyone else. Being bisexual has nothing to do with how you date someone, or what kind of relationships you prefer.
Sarah: I’ve never met a single person who cheated whose cheating had anything to do with their sexual identity.
Amy: "Bisexuals are transphobic." Very much no! The bisexual community has always included trans, non-binary and genderqueer human beings, as we see commonalities based on the fluidity of sexual and gender identity.
"Bisexuals aren’t as oppressed as gay men and lesbians because they have heterosexual privilege." First of all, it is never a privilege not to be seen and accepted for exactly who you are. We definitely struggle to be visible in the LGBTQ community and are often made to feel as though we are not queer enough to belong.
Sarah: Each part of the LGBTQ community has oppressions specific to their experience, and oppressions that overlap. The same people who cling to the myth of heterosexual privilege turn around and blame bisexuals for not being “out enough.”
What does the future hold for Bi+ Pride MKE and bisexuals in Milwaukee?
Amy: If you told me 40-plus years ago that more and more people would be coming out as bisexual and that society would be more accepting of queer people in my lifetime, I would have been very skeptical. I grew up during some very dark days for LGBTQ people. However, it has happened, and it is happening! We are seeing more bisexual representation in media. We are seeing more bisexual organizations popping up nationally and internationally. The more who feel safe and secure coming out, the more we will become a large and thriving force to be reckoned with. I have to be positive just because there is still so much to do. Being out and open is a form of activism. It makes a world of difference. We need to elevate and celebrate each other.
Sarah: I hope the future holds a continued expansion of how we understand attraction, gender and relationships. I think they’re all connected: As we expand our understanding of the universe of gender experiences, our understanding of sexuality will hopefully expand along with it.
Amy: To someone who is questioning their identity today, I say trust yourself. You are vibrant. You are valid. You are queer enough. You have a community. Join us! You will feel in your heart who you are and don’t let anyone else tell you differently. Seek out other bi+ folks when you can, look for any organization that can provide support, and know we want to see you and welcome you.
In the Midwest, there is BOPP (Biversity Madison, hosted by OutReach LGBT Community Center) and BQAC (Bisexual Queer Alliance Chicago).
Sarah: Trust yourself! You are queer enough. It’s okay for your identity to be a moving target. It’s okay to explore and try labels on, even if you aren’t positive if they’re 100 percent right. What works for someone else might feel all wrong for you and that’s OK. Our understandings of our sexuality, gender and place in the world may change over time. They may be constantly changing. It’s not your job to know who you are immediately. After 36 years, I’m still learning who I am, changing and reimagining who I will be. That’s one of the things I love most about the bi+ community: We try to cultivate spaces where if your understanding of yourself changes, that’s fine and great!
Would you like to know more? Connect with Bi+ Pride MKE on Facebook.