Review: Lesbian & Bisexual Identities

Lesbian & Bisexual Identities
Lesbian & Bisexual Identities: Constructing Communities, Constructing Selves
Kristin G Esterberg
Temple University Press, 1997

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — February 4, 1998, 5:00pm

Kristin Esterberg, Director of Women’s Studies at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, displays an overview, "in their own words," of how many lesbian and bisexual women feel about themselves and their sexual identities in the appropriately named, Lesbian and Bisexual Identities. From a small sample of interviews, the author investigates how these women have come to identify themselves and how, if at all, they interact with the lesbian and bisexual communities in their area. Many of the interviews which Kristin Esterberg conducted were conducted again with the same women after a few years had passed, giving an insight into just how lesbian and bisexual identities can change over time.

Ms. Esterberg conducted interviews with 25 lesbian and bisexual women in 1989 in a Northeast college community. In 1990, she interviewed 13 of the original 25 women again, along with 18 additional women who had not been interview previously. While the author makes it clear that this small sample "should in no way be seen as a representative sample of lesbian and bisexual women" (178), it is evident from these interviews that the sexual orientation of many lesbians and bisexuals are much more "fluid" than one might suppose. Feelings of sexual attraction towards a particular sex changed in many women, but even more surprisingly the women’s feeling of lesbian/bisexual/straight identities seemed to change more than did their actual attractions or encounters. The author seems to stress this fact throughout the book, although this is obvious just by reading the various accounts by the interviewees.

Esterberg begins this work by laying out some theories of sexual identity that have historically been used. Some of the women’s stories seemed to match some of these theories, but the "fluidity" of these women’s sexual identity soon became apparent. Some women became lesbians as a political statement and insist that any woman can be a lesbian; other women consider themselves lesbian from birth. Many lesbians in the study had periods of celibacy in their lives; although some of these still felt that they were lesbians or bisexuals, they had no actual sexual relations. Coming-out stories often sounded like religious conversions (56), and they were often likely to reshape and portray past events to help create and substantiate their current feelings of identity.

This book is less about bisexuals than about lesbians, and less about lesbians than about identities in general. While the number of lesbian women interviewed and discussed far outnumber the number of those who claimed to be bisexual, the emphasis was on how these women identify themselves. This proved very interesting; as it turns out, feelings of identity are very complex and did not depend solely on whether the women felt attracted to men, women, or both. Furthermore identities did not depend solely on whether the women were involved with men, women, or both — or had been, or thought it probable that they might. Feelings of identity involved both of these issues, of course, but also was dependent upon degrees of activity in a lesbian or bisexual community and their feelings of acceptance by others.

Some women felt that sexuality was a small part in their overall identity; others felt that they would not feel like the same person without their lesbianism. Some felt that their being Jewish, African American, and so forth were much stronger factors in determining how they identified themselves. Some of these women sometimes felt less included in the community because of their minority status. Social and economical status also played a big roll, both in identity and community acceptance.

One item that may come as a surprise, considering the "accepting" reputation of non-straight sexuality, is that the lesbian community in which many of these women were involved were often very hostile toward reversions to heterosexuality or bisexuality. The lesbian community also often acted critical towards appearances and actions not typically considered lesbian, such as dressing or acting too feminine (96).

There seemed to be quite a difference between personal identity and community identity. While a person's sexual orientation, that is, their feelings of sexual attractions, seemed to form many people's personal feeling of identity, what many times seemed most important to the lesbian community as a whole was whom these women here having relationships at a given time. One woman’s statement illustrates this importance in the community: "It’s who you sleep with that really is important. Not anything else. And bisexuals are not going to be accepted because they’re sleeping with men." (162). This further illustrates the consideration of many lesbians (in the communities of the women in this particular study, at least) of lesbianism being the only alternative to male suppression — in fact, some lesbians advocated that any woman could and should become lesbian as part of being a feminist.

As noted previously, this study was done in a small area (a "Northeast community") and the participants were chosen by advertising; the interviewees were picked from those who responded and/or accepted. This means, as the author noted, that, "like most lesbian and gay research, the sample includes those who participate in lesbian and gay community life. Those who are most out and open about their sexuality often tend to be white, middle-class, and highly educated — especially in a college town such as this one" (178). The attitudes of other women and communities towards lesbianism and bisexuality, such as if they feel sexual orientation is intrisically linked to feminism, may vary in other areas. One woman, for instance, claimed that there was a difference between bisexual women living in the city and those living in the country just outside of town (160).

While emphasizing throughout the book that labels for lesbians and bisexuals are changing and many times artificial, Ms. Esterberg claims in the last chapter, "Beyond Identity and Community?" that this idea may not always help the gay/lesbian/bisexual "political strategy." She makes a distinction between the "academic arena" and a "political context." She seems to advocate that the "fluidity" of sexual orientation is a fact that needs recognizing (in the "academic arena," at least), but that this idea can be hurtful in promoting non-straight political, and should be therefore downplayed in the political setting. Saying that one should study and come to certain conclusions in an academic setting, but then misrepresent or downplay these conclusions in a political setting seems to me at first thought to be a bit hypocritical — and requires a bit more thought on my part before fulling coming to this conclusion.

This book is not a novel; it is the results of a series of interviews, and it reads like it, although Ms. Esterberg has done a good job of interspersing actual quotes with her explanations of her findings to guide you through this book-long report. Its contents are very thought-provoking, however. Once you are finished, you will realize that, whatever your gender or sexual orientation, the general situations these women encounter in forming their own identities and relationships within their respective communities look surprisingly familiar.