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Lani Ka'ahumanu (born: Oct. 1943) is a bisexual, feminist writer and activist of Hawaiian, Japanese, and Irish descent.
If one person has the right to claim the title of Founder of the Bisexual Movement in North America, it’s Lani Ka’ahumanu. That might sound like a pretty hefty title for anyone to carry around, but Lani is no stranger to adversity. As a bisexual, biracial (Hawaiin/Irish) woman, she’s fairly comfortable with contradiction and difference as well. Lani entered the world in October 1943. She was an activist in the 1960s, during the great heyday of activism. It was a time when “suits”, “the man” and heavily medicated housewives were firmly planted on one side, and long-haired, free-loving hippies took their customary place on the other. There was a comforting normalcy in these obvious and unalterable designations. And then there was Lani. Sure, she was heavily involved in the civil rights, peace and feminist movements. She was also a suburban housewife, mother of two, and member of the PTA living the American dream with her high school sweetheart. Even then, she could see the attraction of both sides.
In 1976 Lani came out as a lesbian. She relocated herself and her two children to San Francisco were she found the warmth and comfort of a welcoming and burgeoning gay and lesbian community. Her new chosen family was eager to show her the ropes, tell her that difference is a gift, and that love, in all its many manifestations, should be embraced. She found the courage to come out to friends and family and soon became a vocal lesbian mother and activist. She became the first member of her family to complete college and was instrumental in the founding of the San Francisco State Women Studies Department. Lani became increasingly involved in San Francisco’s activist community that demanded equal rights for all sexual orientations. Then she came out again.
The birth of a new decade gives most people cause to pause and re-evaluate themselves. In Lani’s case, 1980 was a time to re-examine her desires. She had found love, but this time, it was with a man. Not only her orientation, but her place in society, was in question. Lani discovered, like so many bisexuals before and after her, that the differences and loves that the gay and lesbian community had encouraged her to embrace, did not include bisexuality. Suddenly the San Francisco queer community had ceased to be the warm, welcoming place she had arrived at four years earlier. Lani learned that to come out as a bisexual may offer twice the rewards, but with it comes twice the discrimination.
In the early 1980s, the concept of gay and lesbian rights was still in its infancy. And while we are still struggling with bisexual rights and visibility today, back in the ‘80’s, it was extremely hidden indeed. Most bisexuals hid in the closet. They had the added bonus of being discriminated against by everybody, and existed by either passing as straight or passing as lesbian or gay. Bisexuals were accused of being fence-sitters, greedy, confused, incapable of monogamous relationships, unreliable and, most of all, non-existent. Lani, being a born activist, organizer and all around hell-raiser, wasn’t about to take this lying down, so to speak. Instead, she began to raise bi-awareness. She wrote articles about bisexuality. She organized other bisexuals. By 1983, she had founded BiPOL, the first Bisexual Political Activist group in the U.S. In 1987 she founded BiNet USA and the San Francisco Bay Area Bisexual Network (BABN). These groups spread into other chapters throughout the country. You’d think between all this organizing and endless memorization of acronyms she’d be up to her ears in work, but Lani found time to devote to her career as writer, editor and poet.
In 1991, she was the co-editor of BI ANY OTHER NAME: Bisexual People Speak Out (Alyson, 1991) with Loraine Hutchins. This book is now considered one of the great classics of bisexual literature. It was so ground-breaking that it continues to be called the “Bi-ble” of the bi-movement. This collection of “coming out” stories filled the great, empty void that existed in place of bisexual literature. It contains 75 short essays and interviews, documenting the coming out stories of an astounding array of bisexuals. Not only are there contributions from the well known bisexuals like Annie Sprinkle, Carol Queen, and Robyn Ochs, there are stories and essays by unknown writers, otherwise classified as “regular people”. These personal stories address how our society believes in the existence of either gay or straight, but not the vast grey area in between. In the early 90’s, Bi Any Other Name acted as a life raft for a population of bisexuals, whether they were isolated in a small town in Middle America, or equally isolated in a bustling metropolis with a thriving, but exclusionary, gay and lesbian community.
Over the years Lani has continued to write prolifically, been a contributor and model for Women En Large: images of fat nudes, (Books In Focus, 1994). She has also been a spokesperson on behalf of the bisexual community on radio and television talk shows.
According to Ms. Magazine, who honoured her efforts in the “50 Ways to be a Feminist” issue, her most important work to date is her innovative and inclusionary safer sex workshops. It all began in 1992, when, with the help of a 2 year American Foundation for AIDS Research grant led Lani to become an HIV Prevention Project Coordinator and the “Head Matron Slut” was born. The grant was designed to target lesbian and bisexual women, and is considered the first of its kind in the country. She was given the daunting task of reaching a community that had been led to believe it was largely immune to HIV, while at the same time avoiding a barrage of hell and brimstone type warnings about how sex will kill us all.
Lani’s scheme was to educate women about safe sex, but in a way that keeps sex fun. In her opinion, it’s just as important to learn how to say “yes” to sex as it is to say “no”. She and the rest of the Peer Safer Sex Sluts Team (pssst!) hit the bars with Safer Sex Sluts t-shirts. They ran the Women’s Safe Sex Club in San Francisco, only allowing women entry to the establishment if they could answer a safer sex question. They broadened their audience through work as an education-based performance troupe that sometimes goes under the tamer name, Latex Warriors: Keeping the World Safe for Sex.
It wasn’t long before Lani and the rest of the troupe learned that the crazier, more outrageous and funnier they were, the more people talked and their message was spread. Not only are women often misinformed about their own health issues, but they are told that infection, especially STIs are their own fault. Rather than blaming, attacking, or avoiding, the Peer Safer Sex Slut Team made learning about safer sex fun, hands on, sexy and about the empowerment of women, regardless of their sexual orientation. The Pssst motto: All information to all women without judgment or assumptions. Currently Lani Ka’Ahumanu is as busy as ever. She is working on two books. One is her activist memoirs called My Grassroots are Showing: Stories, Speeches and Special Affections 1975-2000. The other is a book of poetry, Passing for Other: Primal Creams and Forbidden Dreams, Poetry Prose and Performance Pieces.