“It Ain’t Over Till The Bisexual Speaks.” Activist Fights For Bi Inclusion Throughout The Decades.

by Lani Ka'ahumanu

From Living As A Straight Housewife to Becoming A Lesbian Activist. “It Was An Amazing Awakening.”

I was conceived in Hawaii. This is how the story goes – conceived in Hawaii, born in Canada. My mother was an immigrant to this country, and she was born in Japan, raised in Japan. And then both her parents died, basically, and she was raised in Hawaii in the thirties. My father is from a Minnesota family – Duluth, Minnesota – and his family drifted out to California, and then he was stationed in Hawaii, and that’s how it all began.

I was in San Francisco from about six months old to four-and-a-half years old, late forties, when people from San Francisco moved to the peninsula, and so in the late forties, moved to San Bruno, California.

Looking back on it, when I’m trying to figure things out, I was the kid that organized everything. I organized the Kool-Aid stand. The Kool-Aid stand wasn’t good enough for me, so I added a puppet show. Then I’d have a Kool-Aid stand and I had a circus, so I’ve been an organizer and an activist from day one, when I look back on it. It kind of makes me laugh.

In high school, I was a rah-rah. I was in the finals for cheerleader, but then I got a D minus in shorthand. Worst grade I ever got. And I got kicked out of the finals for cheerleaders, which was, like, really a bummer for me, but I became rally commissioner. You recover, and do something else. The captain of the football team and I fell in love, and that was pretty amazing

We went steady from the time I was 16, got married when I was 19, and by the time I was 24, I had been married five years and had two kids, and he was teaching high school where we met.

Everything was perfect. Great husband, home, organic garden. It’s the sixties, and I started reading – I watched a lot of talk shows, which were different then, and they’d have these feminists that came on that were talking about the women’s movement.

So we started talking about women’s rights, and what’s going on. I remember changing from Mrs. to Ms., and my father’s family was upset with me. It was so disrespectful, blah, blah, blah. And I’m thinking, really? My husband didn’t mind at all. He thought it was, oh, that’s kind of cool. He’s real laid back. But my consciousness was broken open, and I got involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement. And as a housewife, with my limited experience of the world, really, even if I was in my mid-twenties, where had I gone? I hadn’t gone anywhere, really.

There came a point in our marriage and this was in the sixties – late sixties. And everything’s changing around us. Very exciting, shifting in gender, the peace movement, the civil rights move – you know, it was just like this time. And we were swept away in that. And he was an anti-war activist and we were – you know, it was both of us doing that.

And there came a time in the late sixties, early seventies where I was just crying a lot. I didn’t know why. I just couldn’t – I just was not happy, crying a lot, just … it wasn’t making sense, since everything around me was so exciting. I was, like, a Little League mom. I ran the art corner at my kid’s school… fieldtrip driver. Full, you know, amazing life.

We just came to a point where I realized … I stood up for myself in a way I never had. A good friend of mine was relaying a really moving story that had happened to her, like reviewing something, and it was time for me to go home, and cook dinner for the kids.

I made a decision to stay there with her during this time. I’d never done that before. And I called and told him. He’d go, “Okay. Fine.” But then I said, “I’m gonna stay with her. I’m gonna stay overnight.” And he just kind of backed away. It was the first time I ever kind of just did some – said, “No. You can cook dinner,” because he cooked sometimes, too.

After that, I just remember I was still crying, and trying to figure things out. I’ll never forget this. He looked at me, and he goes, “I figured out why you’re crying.” He just said, “You need to leave.” He goes, “You’ve never, ever had a life of your own.” And he goes, “I’ll have the kids.” He goes, “You can’t do what you need to do.”

As soon as I heard it, it was right, and within six weeks … I mean, we invited my sisters and their husbands over, my mom, and we just told everybody at the same time. We’re trying this out, although we knew. And six weeks later, I had an apartment. And I was still the teacher’s aide at school. You know, like, I was still doing it. I was about a mile away from the kids. And that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, and leave those kids.

So he stayed in the suburbs, and I, after a year living near my kids’ school, I moved to San Francisco, and I had a few years earlier started college. I took a night class, which was huge for me. I was just like, Oh, wow, I really like this. I’d been going to night school, and I started going to school full-time at San Francisco State, right when people were organizing to found the Women’s Studies Department. So I got involved with all that, and of course, it was complete lesbian, women’s, feminist, amazing people – leaders that I got to meet, and have them as my professors, mentors.

And I came out as a lesbian. Because I knew I always loved women. I was attracted to women. I think being raised Catholic and being so repressed, I didn’t connect it with sexuality or anything. It was just like, I really was attracted to women. But it, kind of, the feminist movement just kind of lined it up. There’s theory. Oh, my god. There’s – it was an awakening, an amazing awakening.


1970s: “Coming Out As A Lesbian Was A Political Statement.”

I didn’t come out as a lesbian right away after I divorced. I moved to the city, and it was the first time in my life that I had ever been on my own. I was 31 years old. I met my husband when I just turned 16. I was a teenager.

Everything was an adventure. Every single moment of my life was an adventure. I didn’t want to settle down. I didn’t want to be with anybody. I just wanted to find out, what could I do? I got a job as a waitress in one of the jazz club restaurants in the bay, by the airport, and became friends with a lot of people. I had what I used to call – it’s a line from a country western song – my one-night stand in boogie band days. It lasted about six months. It got really boring.

I was the token feminist, and there was a token African American woman who, I would pick her up in Honer’s Point, and we would go to work, and then I would drop her off on the way home, in the city. And come to find out she was a lesbian, on top of everything else. So there was something about my life that I was ending up being around a lot of lesbians, and going to school, and being a waitress. So it was a whirlwind and in this whirlwind, it was like, Ugh, I’ve got to stop. What is going on? Am I a lesbian? Am I heterosexual? What’s going on? You know, all my friends are starting to come out at school. I don’t – what’s going on?

I was going through this whole period of, like, I’ve just got to … I just won’t be sexual for a while, and just clear my head out, and try and figure out what’s going on. But in that year, I was celibate for a whole year, and when I figured it out, it just felt really good, and I came out as a lesbian. I did not fall in love with a woman right away. It wasn’t because I left – the reason for leaving my husband, or anything at all like that.

And coming out – coming out as a lesbian was a political statement, but it was much more than that. You were becoming part of this growing community, this giant wave, and it was – there was so much support, and a cheering section, literally. It was just like, Yeah, you’re in the club. You know, there’s like this community feeling [that] just washes over you, and it was exciting and wonderful and so supportive. And if something hard happened, or you lost your kids, because that was happening, there was support. You know, there was like – everywhere you went, you were supported and loved and honored. But the politics of the time were so lesbian that if you said women, it equaled lesbian.

When I came out as a lesbian, two interesting things. My ex-husband said, “You’re not a lesbian. You’re bisexual,” and I told him there was no such thing. And there was never – I was never threatened with him taking the – you know, like, taking the kids, taking my rights to see them away, or anything, but I did have friends that lost their rights. One friend, the husband kidnapped them, and took them to Italy.

Coming out is so different if you’re isolated in a place, like rurally or whatever it is, and you don’t have support anywhere around, it’s very hard to come out. But I know people come out online, and then it’s a safer kind of a thing. And I think it’s important to come out. Risking yourself is one of the most important things, and I guess I’ve been really privileged to be able to have done that in my life, because there wasn’t violence around me, or the possibility of violence around me, when I came out. And I came out twice. There was emotional violence, and I had to deal with stuff coming out as bisexual that was not nice. It was wrong.

It was basically safe for me to come out, and I think for somebody young coming out and trying to figure it out, if you don’t feel safe, and you don’t have anybody to talk to that could help you or protect you or give you advice, I would check out the internet, and find a safe place there to come out and connect with people. Because holding something like that back in is not so good. Love yourself. Love yourself for exactly who you are. That’s the most important thing.


After Coming Out As Bi, Activist Faces Rejection From The Lesbian And Gay Community.

In 1979, I was at San Francisco State. I graduated from Women’s Studies. The first job I got … I was totally pride, activist, just needing some … and I’m a cook. I’ve cooked before, and so I became the out lesbian chef at a new age, clothing-optional resort up in Mendocino County. It was called The Village Oz, so structures all over the place, weekend massage, weekend meditation, all that stuff. I was there the first summer, in ’79.

In the fall, I went to the first March on Washington for lesbian and gay rights, because it just … I had never been to D.C. I went by myself. It was an amazing trip,

I went and lived in Hawaii for seven or eight months. I was a prep cook at the Aloha Cantina. The first day of work, the cook sliced her hand, and I became the lunch person. The name Lani was everywhere, the Hawaiian culture, the … I just felt at home instantly. I went back, and was the chef at The Village Oz, kitchen manager, basically.

In July, this young man comes hitchhiking through. The first thing he said – because everybody had come in the kitchen and would do karma yoga in the kitchen and in the garden – so his first night there, he came and he goes, “Wow!” Because there’s feminist posters everywhere in the kitchen. And he goes, “Have you read Of Woman Born, by Adrienne Rich?” I said, “Yeah.” It talks about the institution of motherhood. It was a big book in the seventies that we used in Women’s Studies. I said, “Yeah!”

He goes, “Oh, I’d love to just discuss it with you. That’d be great.” You know, no flirting. Nothing. I’m going, Wow, that’s totally cool. And it just went on from there. Within a few weeks, we’re sneaking around, because the owner of the resort had a cartoon book and I was one of the main characters in the book, and I didn’t want him to know that I was having sex with this young man, because I was the lesbian cartoon character in the book.

And then he caught us one day making out in the storage room, and then it was all in the open. “Lan, what are you doing? You’re not a lesbian. You’re a bisexual.” No, there’s no such thing. We argued. I couldn’t do it. My bi-phobia was so deep, and I knew when I went back to my community in San Francisco, this was 1980, I knew what I was facing.

When I was an out lesbian, I fell in love with a man. Whoops. I had to prove that I wasn’t a traitor. I didn’t want to be kicked out. It was my community, but the internalized bi-phobia was enormous. There I was, in love with a man. I was truly in love with this person, and how could that be wrong?”

When I moved back to the city, it was, like, horrible. It was so hard. It was like the lesbian who fell from grace. I wasn’t invited to parties because people thought I’d bring a man. Well, it’s like – you don’t forget, you know? Like, four years of lesbian feminist, activism, and stuff, and you think I’m with a man, and I’m going to forget everything? No.

Or really rude things would happen. Really, really hurtful things, everything from people just talking like I was not there. After a big march, like a NOW march for choice in Golden Gate Park. Everybody’s very high. You know, you’ve just – you feel good at the end.  And we’re standing around and this lesbian who I knew had this infamous dog, little black lab, very sharp, always had a red scarf on her neck, the dog, was a legendary crotch sniffer. This woman, who will remain nameless, told me, made this loud announcement after this exhilarating march, that her dog Natalie was never going to sniff my tainted crotch again. Announced it to everybody there. I didn’t know everybody there. It was, like, so humiliating. What do you do with that?

And her lover just said – said her name, and you knoe, kind of, she kind of withdrew. But it was, like, just sitting there. The shunning, people just not looking at me. I’m still doing the work. I’m producing women’s dances, lesbian dances. I’m still producing – you know, like, I’m still a member of the community like I was before, and more so, but the only difference is, is I’m naming myself “lesbian-identified bisexual” right away. You know, I dropped the lesbian-identified after a while, because I started realizing, well,  it’s more than that. You know, I’m bisexual. I have to say that several lesbians did stand strong with me. Bless them, because it was not easy for them to do.

At the time, another interesting thing that I learned is that there was a bisexual center in San Francisco on Hayes Street. They had – It was internationally renowned. Support groups, social, therapists, parent groups, newsletter. I mean, you know, it was a big deal. And so I went to their coming out group, all women, and every woman there said, “How do you ask a woman to dance? What is it like to kiss a woman? Why are lesbians angry?” They were coming from a heterosexual place into bisexuality. And I was just like, I could answer all their questions. My question was, what do I … I didn’t ask it, but what do I do with this man? How do I integrate my life as a bisexual, because I’m not going to leave that community. That’s – my heart was home in that lesbian and lesbian and gay community.

All this identity stuff is getting in the way of us taking care of the mess this world is in. It’s just like, we’re human beings here together, and we need to start identifying ourselves as human beings with other living things because our world is in big trouble. If we don’t gather, we might not be here.


1993 March On Washington: “It Ain’t Over Till The Bisexual Speaks.”

I was in the lesbian community, and part of our idea was to organize bisexuals within the lesbian and gay community, because the farther I came out, I became a confessional to all these people that were having – sleeping with the wrong gender. So the farther I came out, I started writing to get visibility, because I knew I wasn’t alone, even though nobody’s standing around me going, “Yay!” except for a small handful of people. So I started writing. Started  – I organized Bi-Pole with a bunch of other people, which so politically, we started becoming more visible and loud. And then in ’87, there was the March on Washington. Bisexuals were very visible there.

There was a pre-march gathering. I walked into that room, and on my gut, in my gut, I thought, “We have a national movement.

Part of what happened in that room that day, there was a flyer: “Are we ready for a national organization?” Bi-Pole, the organization I helped found, our address was on there. So between ’87 and ’90, or late eighties, we got so much mail saying, “Yes.” People sending money. Cash was coming in, 500 or 600 bucks. And  we planned the 1990 conference – National Bisexual Conference. So that was huge. Another huge step. And it was during that time that the right wing started recognizing bisexual people.

There was a call for another March on Washington. With the right wing, you know, we were in their sights. And I realized – I’m a good strategist. I didn’t know that about myself, but it just made sense to me. It’s time. This march, I’d been to the last two, we can get our name in the march this time. We’re visible enough. We’re organized enough. We have enough visible people in big cities around the country. I organized a 12-city endorsement campaign, and I wrote up this little thing, “It’s time for bisexuals to be recognized. We’re being included in the veterans’ organizations. We’re being included in campus groups.”

You know, I just made the list, and it’s time, and then I organized, on-phone, 12 cities, and had people go get signatures from well-known people, lesbian and gay people, because my idea was, the strategy was, is that they’ve been doing a lot of talk, but they haven’t done any walking at all. It’s time for them to put their – their name on a piece of paper that says it’s time to endorse, you know, for bisexual to be in the name on the March on Washington.

And we got – we were successful, but we had to remove “sexual” from it, so when you see it, it’s, “The 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.” They couldn’t deal with sexual. What is our movement about? Sexual liberation, hello. But they couldn’t deal, No, we got to take the sexual out. So, got the bi in, and so bisexuals were active in every city. We were carrying the banner in the front. We were on the stage, the small day stage, and I was asked to be a speaker for the day. There were 18 speakers of the day. Guess which one I was? 18.

I was supposed to go on at 5:30, and it was 6:45, and I still wasn’t up. I’m going in to look in the mirror, to see, okay, and one of the co-chairs comes to me and says, “You have to make your speech two minutes.” I’m going, What do you… You know, like, what? The park is going to turn off the speakers at 7:00. It’s after, you know, t’s less than 15 minutes, by that time. So I’m furious.

Another co-chair comes up, and, “What’s wrong?” I said, “They just told me my speech is two minutes.” And she was always an ally. She said, “That’s wrong. Let me go see what I can do.” Within ten seconds, I’m not kidding, they said, “You’re on.” And I get up there, and then Robin Tyler, who I knew from the eighties, West Coast Women Music Festival, gets on her knees to me, and says, “Please make your speech two minutes.”

She goes, “We have to shorten your intro.”

I said, “It’s two sentences.” And she wanted one, and I wanted the one that was more radical, saying I had been a housewife, I had identified as a lesbian, and I’m bisexual now. The media tent had already collapsed. There was no media, you know, the press.

So I walk up there, and I had … you know, a five minute speech isn’t that long, and I knew it was a little too long, and I just trusted myself to edit as I went. It was longer than two minutes, but as she’s introduc … People are leaving the stage. The musical group, Minaj, is leaving. I’m walking up. Robin is at the podium, introducing me, and I’m on. That’s, like, maybe a minute and a half after I was told. I mean, seriously, it was that quick. I just said, “Aloha. It ain’t over till the bisexual speaks.” And then I launched into my speech. And they were breaking down the stage around me.

The March on Washington and getting our name in that title, at that time, was, we were at that national table. Before the March on Washington in ’93, the buildup to that was, you know, the religious right, radical right, was targeting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. And yet, the lesbian and gay movement could not recognize us. They didn’t recognize us as part of the movement. It’s just like…  completely frustrating.

I think it’s important that the B and T got added to LGBT, because it represented all the work that had come before, but it doesn’t mean that everybody understand B or T at all, and what the connections are, and what the history is, and especially the history.

My whole life, my organizing, my activism, it’s all of us and. And I’m so glad I’m mentoring, and there’s so many young bisexuals coming up, and transgender people, and pansexuals, and sexuals, and fluids, and whatever you want to call yourself. Yes, do it! Just push it. Push it all. Please.

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