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Look Both Ways: Baumgardner Makes Bisexuality Visible

Author and filmmaker Jennifer Baumgardner has made a career of injecting taboo topics into popular discourse. She continues the trend with her new book about bisexuality, "Look Both Ways."
 
 
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Ask Jennifer Baumgardner about her proudest moment in 14 years in media -- as a journalist, film producer and cultural critic -- and the 36-year-old native of Fargo, N.D., smiles broadly.

"Gillian Aldrich and I had just finished a film called 'I Had an Abortion,' which we hoped would invite people into conversations -- not bumper sticker slogans -- about it," she says. "It was 2005, and the film was being shown in a big art deco theater in downtown Fargo. There were picketers outside, but a few came in. After the screening one man stood up and said that even though he'd come to protest, he'd learned something. He said that he now understood why women had abortions, that he felt compassion for them. It was a goose-bumps moment for me because we usually only preach to the already converted."

Since its release two years ago, the film has been shown throughout the United States and has garnered numerous awards.

Baumgardner, meanwhile, is pushing on. "Look Both Ways," her third book and the first she's written alone explores bisexuality and was released in late February by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Two others, "Manifesta" in 2000 -- about the history and continuing need for feminist activism -- and "Grassroots" in 2005 -- about the many ways that individuals can contribute to movements for social change -- were co-authored with Amy Richards, a founder of the New York City-based Third Wave Foundation.

"All of my work has a similar point," Baumgardner says. "I try to bring things that are secret out in the open to take some of the stigma off of them or make something like bisexuality, which is invisible, visible. If 'Look Both Ways' can make people feel understood, and if the book imposes a description of bisexual women into the culture, I've done what I set out to do."

Beginning as Unpaid Intern

Baumgardner got her media start in 1993, fresh out of college, when she became an unpaid intern at Ms. magazine. "Ms. was on the coffee table when I was growing up," she says. "Then it shut down for a while. When it re-opened, ad-free, I was 20 and the head of the feminist organization at Lawrence University. I would read it and cry, I was so moved by the articles."

At the time, she wanted to be an actor-singer and hoped coming to New York would be a stepping stone, allowing her to audition for Broadway while working at her favorite magazine. Her dreams of stardom faltered, but unlike many in that situation, Baumgardner was largely unfazed. Within months of arriving at Ms., she'd discovered the joys of writing and editing.

Slowly, Baumgardner began proposing story ideas and when several people resigned in 1994, she was hired. "I went from Gal Friday to the woman who edited features and the health section," she laughs. "I moved up really fast partly due to initiative and partly due to the circumstances facing this beleaguered publication."

Although Baumgardner had never taken a journalism course, she says that writing comes naturally to her. What's more, she has always been good at drawing people out, an essential skill for a reporter.

'Look Both Ways'

This ability is evident in "Look Both Ways." From indie folksinger Ani DiFranco to actor Anne Heche, Baumgardner analyzes bisexual behavior, drawing upon her personal experiences with both men and women. "Girls today look both ways," she writes, "not because it's a phase and we're painfully trendy, or because we are pathological and weak, but because there is plenty in it for us ... Looking both ways is not about just behaviors. It is aiding women to make that final step toward liberation." She credits feminism for opening this and other options up to women.

Although some -- including Norah Vincent in The New York Times -- have questioned Baumgardner's conclusion, she refuses to be silenced.

She says that it was her family who first encouraged her to voice unpopular positions. "I'm an underdog defender," she says. "My older sister was very sensitive and since childhood, my identity has been connected to safeguarding her."

It was a small leap, she says, from protecting her sister to protecting the Fargo abortion clinic, and another small leap to begin writing about abortion and feminism. "Since I was a very little kid, abortion made sense to me. Right away I got that it should be available and legal."

Baumgardner left Ms. after five years and now freelances for publications including Glamour, Jane, the Nation and Redbook and gives of her time in other ways.

"Writing and speaking connects me to feminism," she says. "I regularly answer five to 10 e-mails a day from women who write me for advice. I try to informally connect those who are trying to do projects with resources, and I donate a lot of my time to nonprofits."

Baumgardner says she was also instrumental in getting Farrar, Straus and Giroux to re-issue such feminist classics as "The Dialectic of Sex," "The Female Eunuch" and "Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen."

A Feminist's Day's Work

Baumgardner's daily life is exciting and exhausting. She juggles writing articles and books, networking, launching feminist projects, speaking at colleges, universities and community groups and co-parenting a 2-year-old son.

Amy Richards, Baumgardner's writing partner since 1997, describes her not just in terms of output, but in terms of lived values. "Jennifer believes that an investment in collaboration is an investment in feminism," Richards says. Calling Baumgardner hard-working, respectful, generous and funny, Richards makes her sound like the perfect colleague.

"Jennifer travels the path from theory to action and is highly committed and multi-faceted in her creativity," says New York City abortion clinic owner, Merle Hoffman. Hoffman first met Baumgardner when she volunteered as a patient escort. Years later, the two share feminist parenting strategies and continually debate how best to invigorate the pro-choice movement.

Baumgardner's book tour for "Look Both Ways" recently kicked off. While that will keep her busy for the short term, she's already looking ahead. "I'm thinking of doing another film dealing with unplanned pregnancies," she says, "and a book that personalizes abortion and discusses what we need to do and where we need to go."

Before she says more, her phone rings. It's her son's school and she rolls on with her day.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, freelance writer and activist who contributes to the Brooklyn Rail, Library Journal, Lilith, the Public Eye, the NY Law Journal and Z Magazine.