How an Unlikely Publicity Stunt at the 1984 DNC Paved the Way for Bi Visibility

Ignored by the lesbian and gay community and demonized by heterosexuals, bisexual activists saw the 1984 Democratic National Convention as a golden opportunity to make headlines to promote bi visibility.  (Courtesy fo Lani Ka'ahumanu)

After coming out for the second time (first as a lesbian, then as bisexual) in the early ’80s, Lani Ka’ahumanu got together with the few out bi people in the San Francisco gay and lesbian community and started BiPOL, the first advocacy organization of its kind in the United States.

The problem was, no one wanted to join—at least not publicly.

“We’d go out there speaking for the bisexual community and we’d come into our meetings going, ‘Oh my god, where are they?’ We were all confessionals, all of us, for people who were too afraid to come out as bisexual,” Ka’ahumanu, now 76 years old, says over the phone from her home in Sonoma County. “I had more lesbians come up to me, or call me on the phone and say, ‘You don’t know me, but someone gave me your number. I’ve been relating to a man for six months and I’m really scared to come out or else I’d lose my community’—which is what happened to me.”

Indeed, Ka’ahumanu understood their trepidation. In the 1970s, lesbians were fighting for visibility within the nascent gay rights movement, and identifying as one was often considered a political orientation—not just a sexual one. Early lesbian organizations encouraged bisexual women to pick a side, and many chose to hide the fact that they loved men as well as women in order to be accepted in this new community.

In response to the dominant culture’s homophobia, gay rights activists in the 1970s adopted a born-this-way, binary view of sexuality as a means of gaining legal protections that hinged on defining sexual attraction as a biological, immutable characteristic. But that political ideology didn’t match many people’s lived experience of fluid sexual desire. After she left her husband and moved to San Francisco in the ’70s, Ka’ahumanu bought into the stereotype that bisexuality was just pitstop to coming out as gay or lesbian. Then, after years of dating women, things changed when she fell in love with a bisexual man, Bill Mack, who was traveling through a Mendocino County clothing-optional resort where Ka’ahumanu worked as a chef. In 1983, she and Mack started BiPOL along with Autumn Courtney, Arlene Krantz, David Loreau, Alan Rockway and Maggi Rubenstein.

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The founders of BiPOL were frustrated with the fact that lesbian and gay organizations treated their identity as illegitimate, telling them that they had “straight privilege” and no place in the movement. Meanwhile, in the heterosexual world, the only time bisexuals ever came up in the mainstream media was when they were demonized. “Bisexual men became the Typhoid Marys. ... We were the ones that were ‘spreading AIDS,’” Ka'ahumanu recalls. “Yet we were told we didn’t exist.”

When the Democratic National Committee announced that it would hold its convention in San Francisco in July 1984, two weeks after the Pride parade, the members of BiPOL knew they had an opportunity to do something to promote their cause—something big.

Rockway had political experience in Florida, where he helped write one of the United States’ first gay and lesbian non-discrimination ordinances. He hatched a plan: BiPOL would nominate one of its members for the office of vice president of the United States. Though presidential nominees chose their running mates in practice (it was already common knowledge that Walter Mondale had chosen Geraldine Ferraro in his race against Ronald Reagan), DNC rules stipulated that with enough delegate signatures, vice presidential hopefuls could still have the chance to address the DNC—and, more importantly, the American public—at the televised convention.

It was a golden opportunity for BiPOL to get bisexuality in the news—and to advocate for AIDS/HIV research and treatment at a time when the disease was ravaging the community. In a savvy move, Rockway decided that BiPOL’s nominee should be Ka’ahumanu: she had the perfect, media-friendly backstory as a former heterosexual housewife who gave up her cookie-cutter life and was now an out-and-proud queer mother. He knew the political press, hungry for kooky stories from San Francisco, would run with it.

BiPOL announced a press conference about Ka’ahumanu’s candidacy to local outlets—and, to the activists’ surprise, reporters with notepads arrived at the appointed time at the Moscone Center, asking her the questions they would of a serious candidate. Inspired by the political theater of the era—the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, San Francisco’s order of drag queen-activist nuns, had begun protesting in habits and wild makeup only a few years prior—the members of BiPOL showed up with airplane-sickness bags labeled “BARF,” with each letter symbolizing the name of a noted homophobe, including President Reagan, evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell and right-wing pop vocalist Anita Bryant, the citrus spokesperson who famously waged an anti-gay media campaign in the 1970s that resulted in a Florida orange juice boycott.

Lani Ka'ahumanu addressing constituents in 1984. (Courtesy fo Lani Ka'ahumanu)

The stunt confused the press, resulting in the headline “Terrified Woman Handing Out Air Sickness Bags Announces Candidacy,” as Ka’ahumanu remembers it, in the San Francisco Examiner

Though the headline didn’t quite convey the purpose of the campaign, the article did mention bisexual rights. That was a win. And as BiPOL ramped up its media antics in the days leading up the DNC, other media mentions followed.

“It was important visibility,” says Ka’ahumanu. “Even if it sounds completely silly, at the time there was nothing about bisexuality except the negative piece that we’re spreading HIV/AIDS. If we’re out there talking about more funding for AIDS, the Equal Rights Amendment or recognizing lesbian, gay and bisexual families, it addresses the issues.”

The day before the DNC, BiPOL held the nation’s first bisexual rights rally outside the Moscone Center. Admittedly, fewer attendees showed up than performers, which included a theater troupe called Ladies Against Women (satirizing right-wing female politicians), an out bisexual Reagan impersonator, a Veterans for Peace group and Dennis Peron, an early advocate for medical marijuana for AIDS patients.

Despite the low attendance, to everyone’s surprise, BiPOL ended up having one of its most successful fundraisers to date. That same day, gay and lesbian Democrats organized a march from the Castro to the Moscone Center to promote their visibility in the DNC. And they explicitly told BiPOL organizers that bisexuals need not join them. But it was an uncharacteristically hot summer day in San Francisco, Ka’ahumanu recalls, and everyone was thirsty when they arrived at Moscone. Thankfully, the bisexuals were selling ice cold beverages outside.

“We had the last laugh on that one,” Ka’ahumanu says.

In the days leading up to the DNC, Ka’ahumanu and her fellow BiPOL activists donned campaign T-shirts and set out with clipboards to scour San Francisco for Democratic Party delegates willing to sign her candidacy form, many of whom were tipsy at lavish parties, themed by state, in the ballrooms of the Hilton and other upscale hotels. 

“Puerto Rico had rum drinks and giant prawns and big ice sculptures—no holds barred on party[ing],” she says. “Every time we walked into a ballroom, it was like, ‘Holy mackerel, this is nuts.’”

The morning of the convention, the BiPOL team was pleased to have gathered well over the 200 required signatures, and Rockway went to DNC headquarters to submit them. After a formal count, however, Democratic Party officials claimed that Ka’ahumanu didn’t qualify; almost a third of the signatures were from alternates, not the delegates themselves, they said. As Ka’ahumanu recalls, the incensed BiPOL team stormed the DNC office, which was empty because party officials were already headed to the convention. But a binder with a list of delegates’ names revealed that some of the signatures that had been discounted were indeed from actual delegates.

Security arrived. Ka’ahumanu and Rockway demanded to speak to the head of the DNC, to no avail. “We knew it was over at that point,” she says. “But when we got together, we were amazed at what we had actually accomplished from this little idea about getting visibility and using political theater.”

Their accomplishment even snared the brass ring of media coverage at the time: a mention by prominent San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, despite Caen misspelling Ka’ahumanu’s name and taking subtle jabs at her sexuality and weight. “The Oral Majority tried to get a woman bisexual candidate nominated for Vice Pres. and collected 253 names on the necessary form (you only need 200) but the Demo Nat’l Committee quickly knocked off 99 signers as ‘unofficial,’ meaning alternates. The wouldn’t-be nominee: Loni Kaahunanu, a bisexual built for two,” Caen wrote.

Sure, not everybody got it, but Ka’ahumanu looks back at the summer of 1984 as a pivotal one for bisexual visibility. In the years that followed, she would continue her fight. In 1987, she helped create the Bay Area Bisexual Network, which took off as a social and support group for the bi community, attracting dozens of members. In 1990, she organized the first National Bisexual Conference. In 1991, she and co-editor Loraine Hutchins published the influential bisexual feminist anthology Bi Any Other Name, and in 1993, she lobbied for bisexuals to be included in the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation—where she was the only out bisexual speaker.

The crowd at the first bisexual rights rally in 1984 in San Francisco (above). Gay and lesbian marchers overwhelming the drink stand (below). (Courtesy of Lani Ka'ahumanu)

Ka’ahumanu and BiPOL’s work undoubtedly paved the way for increased acceptance of bisexuality and other fluid sexual identities, such as pansexual and queer. She and her allies were ahead of her time in other ways, as well: studies of Generation Z suggest the youngest generation embraces a spectrum, rather than rigid binary, of sexual orientations and gender identities alike.

Ka’ahumanu says she’s heartened by these generational shifts, and the increasing number of public figures who identify as bi. But she also knows the work is not over.

“Why do bisexuals have higher depression rates, higher drug rates? The invisibility is still a factor,” she says. “The fact that we can still be told make a choice—I still hear that from people. There’s a way in which bisexuals are still dismissed, whether it’s right in your face or it’s [treated as] not as important.”

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She adds, “We are still fighting for visibility.”