Spotlight on Maggi Rubenstein: A McCall Guest Blog

by - June 30, 2022

Photo courtesy of Ren Shelborne

If you’re reading this, you already know the state of the shitshow we colloquially call the American Government. But given the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade and ever-present threat to gay rights in America, I thought it would be nice to spotlight a woman that I hadn’t heard about until recently, despite her being an integral activist in the fight for gay rights. Maggi Rubenstein was an incredible woman who found ways to transform adversity into educational movements for the LGBT community.

Maggi Rubenstein was a nurse, educator and activist born in 1931 in San Francisco. In retrospective interviews, she says she had feelings for both boys and girls growing up, but never acted on her desires until the early 1950s when she married her first husband. Despite marrying at the acceptable age of 21 and remaining abstinent until her wedding day, she was met with disapproval from her parents because her husband was not white. They ultimately split up around a decade later, and Rubenstein began dating a woman. Like many bisexuals, she’s talked about feeling pressured to “pick a side”. In a 1981 interview with The Gay Life, she says, “ the first relationship, I was heterosexual, in the second...I was a lesbian. What I came to realize was that I really am both.”

In 1969, Rubenstein came out as bisexual to her coworkers at the Center for Special Problems - a clinic that specialized in issues surrounding sexuality. Very special problems, indeed. She was motivated to come out publicly due to the rampant bisexual erasure she was witnessing, at the clinic and elsewhere. She came out to her children and parents shortly after, and was met with more acceptance than she was with her marriage. Her mother thought that “all lesbians do is hug”, and was perhaps relieved by her daughter’s new, “sexless” lifestyle.

In 1973, she paired up with her coworkers and fellow activists, Tony Ayers and Margo Rila, to start San Francisco Sex Information, which was essentially the first hotline for people to anonymously receive information regarding sexual and reproductive health for free. The organization quickly became a haven for bisexuals who had previously been met with judgement and exclusion from both gay and straight communities. As the community began to expand, Rubenstein and her partner at the time, Harriet Leve, began working on what would eventually become the San Francisco Bisexual Center. The purpose of the coalition was to present workshops on bisexuality and sexual health, as well as campaign politically against anti-LGBT legislation. It began in 1975 with a meeting of 20 bisexual doctors, educators and activists in Rubenstein’s attic before being moved to the house of Dr. David Lourea, one of Rubenstein’s colleagues at the Sex Information hotline, in 1977. These small gatherings gained quiet traction throughout San Francisco, but began growing rapidly after the organization publicly fought against the Briggs Initiative, a ballot point proposed in 1978 that would ban any non-heterosexual people from working in public schools in California.

The San Francisco Bisexual Center also became a safe space for trans people in the early 70s. Gay and lesbian organizations would frequently turn trans people away because of how they were presented, so in addition to the workshops on bisexuality, the Center started hosting in-depth workshops on gender and sexuality. It’s clear from the language in these workshops that the Center highly valued androgyny and saw the future of the LGBT community as a genderfluid one, which was very exciting to read, given that the stereotype of 60s and 70s bisexuals is that they were transphobic. The Center was far ahead of its gay and lesbian counterparts on the topic of gender.

Moving into the 1980s, the Center’s focus shifted from exploration of sexuality to education in regards to sexual health and the AIDS crisis. When bathhouses and BDSM clubs (where a majority of gay men gathered) were being closed to slow the transmission of AIDS, she campaigned to keep them open, because it was the best place to provide safe sex information to as many gay men as possible. Her and Dr. Lourea worked not only to make sex safe, but to promote the idea that safe sex was just as sexy as unprotected sex. Rubenstein also organized a “Women and AIDS” program to educate people on how to have safer “hetero sex”, as they called it, regarding AIDS. Because of the homophobia and bi-erasure prevalent at the time, very few people were talking about the spread of AIDS to women and bisexuals. The organization pushed for bisexuals to be recognized as a demographic that was at risk for AIDS, but were ultimately overlooked by the gay communities and demonized by straight people as the reason for transmission to the heterosexual population.

Devastatingly, this exclusion led to the downfall of the Center in the 80s. Given that a majority of leaders in the center were doctors, nurses and sexologists, they needed to turn their energy and efforts towards actively helping the overrun hospitals and clinics in San Francisco and offering AIDS prevention education. They had to turn away from the workshops and community building activities that the Center was known for and had been founded on. The Center shut down in 1984, before Rubenstein and Lourea reframed and reopened as BiPOL with a more political focus.

We are in a time period where bisexuality is more accepted and understood than it has ever been, but the pop culture acceptance does not mean the work is done. Many bisexual people still feel excluded from the queer communities around them, and bisexuality is still seen as a proclivity towards promiscuity and a “fake” sexuality used to “get attention” by a majority of straight people. Learning about the political and educational movements organized by Maggi Rubenstein and the members of the San Francisco Bisexual Center has cemented for me the massive role that bisexual activists have played in the fight for gay rights over the last century, and reaffirms the importance of acceptance within the LGBTQ+ communities today. We don’t have to relate to the experiences and struggles of everyone in this big, beautiful and ever-growing population to work together towards a common goal.

Given that Maggi Rubenstein doesn’t have her own Wikipedia page and a majority of her writings are behind paywalls, I gathered a majority of references and information for this article from verilybitchie’s video essay, “Bisexual Activism in the 70s: The San Francisco Bisexual Center”. Her presentation is thoughtful and drenched in far more humor than I presented here. I highly recommend giving it a watch.

You May Also Like