Chaotic Bisexuals Through History

February 9 9 min read

You’d think with the advent of Twitter that chaotic bisexuality was a recent phenomenon. In the course of my lifetime bisexuals have gone from being “not real” to swashbuckling heartbreakers in the queer scene. There’s many types of bisexuality obviously, domestic, asexual, disaster bi (cousin of the chaotic bi with subtle differences) etc, but chaotic is the one most often discussed because, frankly, it’s a bit of a spectacle. It’s put on tv characters given to specific aesthetics, and chaotic bisexual energy is an otherworldly vibe that everyone is very tapped into.

While we’re very focused on chaotic bisexuals in the modern era including Kristen Stewart, Bella Thorne, Halsey, and wildly speculating on Harry Styles, chaotic bisexual ancestors abound, and here’s a collection of bizarre saints to worship. 


Julie d'Aubigny (1673–1707)


I gotta say, being a member of the nobility looks really fun. France seems like the sort of country that makes space for knife-wielding, crossdressing, opera singers. Born to horse trainer of Louis IVX, Julie d’Aubigny grew up fencing and causing a general ruckus. d’Aubigny was known for challenging people to illegal duels and had a bit of a bloody trail behind her. Not only was she sleeping her way through the duelling vagabonds she consorted with, but she was also bedding a lot of their wives, and used masquerades as a way to meet women. 


At one point, her girlfriend got sent to a nunnery, and Julie actually took religious vows to get into the nunnery, showing up at the convent to bust her girlfriend out. d’Aubigny was tried for this with the sentence of “death by fire” but this trial fell apart and nothing came of it despite reports d’Aubigny had killed an officer and injured two more during her apprehension. She seems to have calmed down slightly later in life and ended up reconciling with her husband and died far too soon at age thirty-four. 


Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970)


Singer Janis Joplin, famous for her energetic stage performances, and amazing songs that get skewered at karaoke, was chaotic even for the sixties. She discovered the Blues in high school, worshipping other bluesy queers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. After scandalizing her home state of Texas, she moved to San Francisco where she cursed like a sailor, had a bottle of Southern Comfort glued to her hand, and was incredibly sexually forward. Typical Capricorn. 


Joplin’s chaotic behaviour very much aligns with the hedonism coursing through rock n roll at the time. She’s a member of the twenty-seven club, having died from an accidental heroin overdose before her 28th birthday, slept with hundreds of people, and lived like a pirate. Her drug use was a struggle, with attempts at sobriety that were brief and hard to sustain in the music business.


Lots about Joplin gets skipped over, including her bisexuality. She was a great songwriter, musician and producer, and a deeply introspective person with a lot of great big feelings. But being a sensitive person often makes for a very insensitive person, and though she had scores of lovers and numerous menage a trois, she treated most people like conquests and was a disaster bi. A lot of it was brought on by the trauma of fame and the general disregard people had for women at the time. She was repeatedly raped by men she admired, and it’s hard to be a good romantic when no one teaches you how to respect women. Convinced she was unlovable, she spoke of her love life as a scoreboard:


“I hear a rumour that somebody in San Francisco is spreading stories that I'm a dyke. You go back there and find out who it is and tell them that Janis says she's gotten it on with a couple of thousand cats in her life and a few hundred chicks and see what they can do with that!" Bless you, Janis. 


Lord Byron (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824)


Lord Byron is the Michaelangelo of ruining marriages. Called by his beloved Lady Caroline Lamb, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, Lord Byron was the inspiration for Dr Frankenstein (a maudlin, moaning wretch desperate for love but unable to receive it) and died with delusions of military glory. 


Lord Byron had several relationships with men before doing his damndest to ruin women of the aristocracy. In his defence, it’s hard to measure what “ruining” looks like when the affluent largely seemed to be lounging around, pining for disaster. But Byron brought it with force. At the time, homosexuality was a hanging offense in Britain. Byron kept falling in love with distant cousins and beginning tumultuous relationships that left his partners harried, wrung out, and abused. After treating the married Lady Caroline...uh...we’ll go with harshly he married her much younger cousin and then treated her like dirt also before she left him, taking their daughter with her. Ada Lovelace, their child, went on to be an incredible mathematician and is credited as the first coder. 



Tallulah Bankhead (January 31, 1902 – December 12, 1968)


If I fucked Greta Garbo it would go on my tombstone. So I would actually like to give Tallulah Bankhead some applause for having such restraint. But Bankhead still lived fairly unrestrained. Not only did she manage to get into the Hayes Committee Doom Book for being “unsuitable for the public”  for her “verbal moral turpitude” (she publicly called Hays “a little prick”), she was loudly anti-segregation and pro-civil rights despite her family being Southern Democrats.

The brassy broad banged her way through the leading ladies and character actresses of the time. And, not surprisingly, some very mediocre men too. She was one of the “Four Riders of the Algonquin” (all lesbian or bisexual members of the Algonquin Round Table) and was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. She even played the role herself, which Tennessee Williams called “the worst” of the portrayals. Her bedposts were decorated with the names Marlene Deitrich and Billie Holliday and said of her love life: 


“I've had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself."


When she wasn’t deflowering artists (Rex Whistler) or sleeping with the cast of Gone With the Wind (HATTIE MCDANIEL, Y’ALL) she was helping families escape the Spanish Civil War and World War II and was a foster parent. 


Richard Pryor (December 1, 1940 – December 10, 2005)


So while I recognize that everyone hooked up with Marlon Brando (Another notable chaotic bisexual) but Richard Pryor is on the list. 


Prior is chaotic for being a comedian more than a bisexual. He cavalierly discussed his bisexual experiences (on stage?) and had a relationship with a trans woman (it’s a little tricky on language because Pryor identified her as a transvestite but Pryor refers to it as his “gay experience” which clarifies the relationship as queer if nothing else). He falls under the usual puritan definition of “chaos” -a a lot of marriages and a lot of children with various women. Pryor struggled with substance abuse, lived an outrageous life, and never apologized for it. 


He grew up in a brothel in Illinois, run by his grandmother, a violent woman, and ended up joining the military, where he was stabbed by a white soldier. He moved to New York City and opened for Nina Simone.  He was open about his bisexuality with friends, wrote about them in his autobiography in 1990, and lived an extravagant life where he rubbed elbows with legendary Black Panthers. He developed MS later in life and appeared in films with his mobility scooter, refusing to be less than transparent about living with a chronic illness. Prior’s chaos came from an overwhelming desire to be authentic.


Paul Verlaine (30 March 1844 – 8 January 1896)


When it comes to chaotic bisexualism, Verlaine walked so we could run.  His most notorious chaos was with the poet Arthur Rimbaud, who honestly was just as chaotic as he was. 


Paul Verlaine was born in Metz, entered the civil service and married a seventeen-year-old whilst living in Paris. He met Arthur Rimbaud after receiving his letter of admiration, and despite Rimbaud being eighteen and functionally homeless, Verlaine moved him in with his pregnant wife.  He then proceeded to abandon his wife and child (booooooo) for Rimbaud and moved to London where his torrid affair coheadlined with a lot of drugs. He then got so high and jealous that he shot Rimbaud in the left wrist twice. Verlaine ended up serving two years in prison for the offence and, when released, converted to Catholicism, and became a teacher in Britain and America before slinking back to Paris to cause more havoc. 


In Paris, he got involved with a male student (this fucking guy) who then died of Typhus. His death prompted Verlaine to spend his remaining years drinking absinthe and gaining renown for his poems before dying of alcohol and drug abuse at fifty-one. He was elected “France’s Prince of Poets” whilst living in slums and public hospitals (everyone who’s won a creative award can relate to this). 


He was a  brilliant poet but to quote the late Rimbaud, “yeah sure these poems are nice but remember when you fucking SHOT me?” 


Sexuality is fairly chaotic in general, an emotional interaction that has stakes you’re only aware of after it’s happened. And while we’re not operating with swords and guns (I hope. You’re not right?) there’s still the unpacking of emotions and connections that all these disasters were sorting through. And in the greater scheme of things, bisexuals of old show a lot of us up. 



Lauren Parker
« Lauren Parker is a writer based in Oakland. She has written for the Toast, the Tusk, Ravishly, The Bold Italic, Daily Xtra, Pulp Magazine, and Autostraddle. She’s the winner of the Summer of Love essay contest in the Daily Californian, the Vachel Lindsay poetry prize, and the author of the zine My Side of Our Story. She produces a monthly reading series in the Bay Area called Cliterary Salon, and embarrasses her family on Twitter. » All posts →