What’s Up With That? Bisexual visibility, LGBT, and labels (Queer 201)

First came the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society.  Then came Stonewall.  Now, June is Pride Month because a bisexual activist named Brenda Howard thought it should be.  As bisexuals, we have a tendency to disappear unless we take specific and targeted efforts to be visible – for example, the phrases Gay Pride and Gay Marriage and the simple truth that when a bisexual person walks down the street with a partner, they are assumed to be straight or gay based on their partner’s gender.  One area where there has been some success with visibility is in the LGBT initialism – although it appears in different forms, GLBT, LGBTQIQA, QUILTBAG, there is a B there.

Unfortunately, for too many organizations (and queer activists) the initialism is where bisexual inclusion stops.  In a recent look at articles from a particular author, someone who holds a public position in a pro-LGBT organization, written for a venue that claims to cover “all the stripes of the queer rainbow”, the words gay and lesbian are considered acceptable and inclusive stand-ins for LGBT.  This serves to erase bisexuals as well as transgendered people, although in these articles some steps to correct trans* erasure were taken.  One article out of seven examined mentioned bisexuality independently, and that was in a quote – a good quote that stated that each of the groups under the LGBT umbrella has issues that are specific to that population.  It felt good to have those problems acknowledged, that while we all share a set of basic issues, we all have some things going on that don’t affect the others as strongly if at all: the average gay man doesn’t have to worry about his identification not being accepted by the TSA because his presented gender doesn’t match it; the average lesbian doesn’t get told that she doesn’t exist by other queers. It’s too bad that such acknowledgements are so rare.

It’s simply not acceptable to use B in the initialism if the content below the initials erases a significant segment of the queer community.  If a specifically gay or lesbian issue is what’s being discussed, then of course I don’t expect to be awkwardly shoehorned in.  But if the subject under discussion is something that impacts us all, and it’s considered suitable to highlight one particular segment, then others should be considered.  You simply cannot use LGBT as political cover to claim inclusivity if you erase or misrepresent the B the rest of the time.  In an interesting case of inverted erasure, one of these queer venues used the initialism as a means of erasure by referring to a bisexual person as “the first LGBT person to” whatever rather than simply say “bisexual”.

Bisexuals may make up a majority of the LGB part of the LGBT community.  It’s hard to measure the actual numbers because of our notorious invisibility – something that is always going to be problematic even if issues of erasure are solved, simply because so many of the primary markers of sexual orientation break down when bisexuals are considered, because of the way we challenge and in many cases outright destroy the binaries.

“Wait a moment”, a few people are saying, “I was told that bisexual reinforces the gender binary.”  I’ve addressed this, and seen this addressed, in a variety of ways, but it’s a pernicious myth with a lot of legs, as it’s one that comes exclusively from within the queer (and queer ally) community, where the others come from both within and without.  So here’s another attempt to resolve this, a new way of looking at it.

Let’s look at the letters in the initialism.  LGBT.

L is for Lesbian.  It comes first, because of history and politics, and because of the three affectional orientation-related letters, it’s the only one that is specifically tied to gender.  A lesbian is a woman who is attracted sexually, romantically, and/or emotionally to other women.  This is the only label that always and specifically identifies the gender of the labeled.  This has caused problems between segments of the lesbian community who choose to only accept as lesbians what they call “womyn born womyn” and people who were assigned a male gender at birth but identify as lesbians, having made a transition to a female gender identity.  One very important part of this is there is no group of people under the umbrella of lesbian who are trying to claim that because some lesbians discriminate against trans*folk, all who identify as lesbians are therefore pushing such discrimination.

G is for Gay.  Although it’s an identifier for gay men, it is also acceptable for use to identify people with homoerotic and/or homoromantic attractions regardless of their own gender.  So the term is both potentially gender-specific or gender-nonspecific for the person it’s applied to: you can make the statement “This woman is gay” but you cannot accurately say “This man is lesbian” unless you are deliberately working to blur or transcend gender.  However, one piece of both Lesbian and Gay identity is that you are attracted only to people of your own gender (however broadly you may define “your gender” to be) just as an identification of Straight excludes attraction to people of your own gender.  This exclusion of particular genders from attraction is an important point, because no one (or very very few people) are trying to make a case that identifying as Straight or Gay or Lesbian is reinforcing a gender binary or contributing to the oppression of others.  Excluding someone from your personal inventory of attractions does not discriminate against them in important ways, doesn’t say they don’t exist or don’t belong under the rainbow.

T is for Trans*.  There are a lot of potential meanings and interpretations, but the one I am most familiar with is “people whose internal sense of self does not match the gender they were assigned at birth.”  Unlike L and some interpretations of G, T does not say anything specific about what the gender of the person using the label is, and unlike LGB, T has nothing whatsoever to say about the attraction spectrum of the trans*person.  This is because while LGB are labels for who we are attracted to, T is a label for who we are: a person who labels as Trans* may be at any stage of transition between defined binary genders (such as MTF or FTM), may identify as genderqueer or genderfluid with no binary gender considerations, and people who identify as Trans* also identify as LGB, or as Straight, or as Asexual.  The only thing that Trans* universally means is “not cisgender” (cisgender meaning “sense of self is the same as the gender you were assigned at birth”, for those not up on the terminology).

This brings us to B.  B is for Bisexual.  Bisexual means being attracted to people of the same or other genders than your own.  Pretty simple.  Monosexual LGS, nonmonosexual B.  Identifying as bi does not say anything about your gender – you can be male, female, genderqueer, cis, trans*, it doesn’t have anything to do with the label at all.  Historically, bisexual has as a label been one that accepts people outside of the gender binary in a way that LG and S does not: if gender is not clearly defined, attractions to people who present with these non-binary genders is best defined as attraction to genders other than your own (or the same as your own, if that’s where you happen to be on the gender spectrum).

A lot of people, when asked casually to define bisexual, say “attraction to both men and women”.  That’s because most people are not steeped in theories about gender and sexuality, even in the queer community.  Most people are just trying to live their lives, keep body and soul together, and if they’re lucky, have a good time along the way.  Even those people who have made some study of gender issues and/or academic Queer Theory will often, in quotidian conversation, speak of men and women instead of cismen and ciswomen and transmen and transwomen and genderqueer individuals.  Are they reinforcing the gender binary by their speech?  Maybe.  Are they hurting people? Maybe.  Does their sexual and affectional orientation have anything to do with that?  Obviously not.

There is an effort underway in some circles, primarily in academia and on the internet, to redefine bisexuality, to tell people who identify as bisexual they are hurting the Trans* community, excluding Trans*folk.  The idea behind this is generally based on an etymological back-construction, on the idea that because the prefix “bi-“ means two, bisexual means “attracted to two and only two genders”.  There are a lot of answers to this, and to a lot of people it’s considered not a big deal – it’s just a bunch of fractious queers who are so confused about themselves that they can’t even figure out what side of the fence they are on, much less find a label.  This erases us all, people who identify as bisexual, those who identify as pansexual, those who identify as fluid.

It’s easy to say that we should simply quit arguing amongst ourselves, that we should just stop the Label Wars.  Some say that pansexual is a better label because it includes Trans*folk rather than excluding them.  The thing is, it doesn’t.  Are there bisexuals who are only attracted to a few specific gender presentations?  Sure.  Same for lesbians, gay men, and straight people.  It doesn’t erase the T when they do it, why do some think that bisexual does?  I have yet to get a good answer as to who is saying this — there are a couple academic references from people who don’t identify as bi, and I’ve heard a couple anecdotes saying that they were told this by a couple of Trans*folk.  Anecdotes and redefinitions by people outside the community don’t hold water.

Dividing nonmonosexual orientations into “Trans* inclusive” and “Trans* exclusive” is problematic for many reasons.  For one thing, there are plenty of people who label in other ways whose attractions exclude lots of people – there are gay men who only date Bears, and others who are only interested in those less overtly masculine men sometimes described as Twinks, but both of these attraction patterns fit under the umbrella of Gay; there are lesbians who like butch women and lesbians who like women who fit the traditional societal model of femininity, but they all fit under the general description of Lesbians; there are straight men who only like straight redheaded women with a BMI of 16-20 and straight women who like bisexual men with graying receding hair and paunches, but they are all called straight.  So why is it considered necessary by some to split one specific attraction spectrum under the historic and sensible umbrella of Bisexual from the others and then claim that because of this split, the majority of people who call themselves bisexual are wrong about what floats their proverbial boat?

I’ve been able to have a few rational discussions about this lately, which is an improvement over what happens frequently in online venues like Tumblr or the comments section of articles in The Advocate.  In one recent one, I was informed that because bisexual reinforces the gender binary, the proper label is pansexual, with bisexual reserved for those under the pan umbrella who are only interested in two genders.  This might make sense if the world were a blank slate, and if we were going to define words entirely by the most literal interpretations of their syllables.  If that was appropriate, gay would mean only happy men who are attracted to men, lesbian would mean “women from the island of Lesbos who are attracted to other women”, and pansexual would mean “open to all sexual practices”.  In addition, an umbrella label is not something that should be used to try to parse the finer points of attraction.  It’s an umbrella, a rallying point.  Trying to redefine labels already in parlance to make their definitions more and more specific would lead to an initialism the size of a book.  A label like LGBT is intended to show how we are alike in big ways, not how we are different in small ones.

Some people think this isn’t important, that we should just get rid of all labels.  More power to them.  It might happen someday.  But I just don’t see it happening in my lifetime, and it certainly is not going to happen by denigrating one label, a label with a history, and replacing it with another label, especially if the change is because of a myth.  Each of the four labels of LGBT serves a distinct function.  As a whole it’s a marker of Pride, a flag to rally around, because community is an important way to battle isolation.  You may as well get rid of all professional and recreational affiliations – I chuckle when I see someone in a Packers or a Red Wings jersey tell me to keep in in the bedroom; how would they feel if they were told that their affection for their team was something they should hide so as not to offend people who prefer the 49ers or the Sharks, told so strongly that there had been laws against it and that at one time it had been classified as a mental illness?

For those who argue that bisexual reinforces a gender binary, I say that both the labels bisexual and transgender have historically (and continue to) break down the gender binary, in a way that lesian, gay, and straight do not.  A brief review of history shows that.

Bisexuals have been, not at the edges, but at the forefront of the Queer movement right along with everybody else — working together.  But because we are so easily erased, it seems like we haven’t been here at all.  But we have – go back to the first paragraph and ponder.

In closing, and as another argument for the use of the label bisexual as an umbrella term, as the B in LGBT, I offer a quote from UK bisexual activist Jennifer Moore: “…I’m interested in what people can accomplish in co-operation with one another, and there already is a strong and vibrant, albeit relatively small (compared to its potential), community under the name “bi”. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel by coming up with some brilliant new etymologically sound name and trying to recruit people to adopt it. I’m willing to build from what we’ve got.”  http://www.uncharted-worlds.org/bi/queerbi.htm

About fliponymous

Bisexual activist, thinker, writer, husband and father, non-traditional Graduate student, member BiNet USA Board of Directors. When I grow up I want to be an Existential/Feminist Psychotherapist, a community college instructor, and expand my work for bisexual visibility and equality for everyone in the QUILTBAG. This is my personal blog and the views here do not represent the official position of BiNet USA.
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4 Responses to What’s Up With That? Bisexual visibility, LGBT, and labels (Queer 201)

  1. fliponymous says:

    From a friend in another venue: “Some heterosexual women are attracted to FTMs. Some homosexual men are attracted to FTMs. Some straight-identified men are attracted to MTFs. Some lesbian-identified women are attracted to MTFs. Yet nobody insists that we need a new special term for heterosexual or homosexual people whose attraction patterns can include trans and/or gender queer people. So why are bisexuals the only orientation expected to do this?”

  2. Pingback: Mincing Bisexual, or Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Procrustean Bed | Eponymous Fliponymous

  3. Pingback: Anger-shaming, Strawmen, and Hurt Feelings | Eponymous Fliponymous

  4. Pingback: Episode 03: “Labels” Links | The BiCast

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