Thumbing A Ride
“What is your precise attraction spectrum as it relates to gender and/or gender presentation?”
This odd and intrusive question is one that is asked of bisexuals all the time, both overtly and covertly, sometimes from honest confusion, sometimes to drive an agenda. It’s a question that comes from monosexuals and non-monosexuals. (And the very use of the clunky word “non-monosexuals” is in itself a clue to the problem… There may be a quiz.)
Setting aside the etymological fallacy that “bi means two, therefore…” for a moment, I want to look at the cultural and psychological dynamics that lead to what one frustrated researcher dubbed “Anything But Bisexual”.
TL;DR version – we (bisexuals) confuse others by not fitting into neat little binary boxes so they try to construct a box for us; consistent and broad umbrella labels for sexual orientations are necessary for community support to fight isolation, and political cohesion to fight oppression; and if you want to find out what a word means, ask people who know rather than random internet sites or people who don’t use it as an identifier as one is garbage and the others are forcing their own definitions of something they reject on others.
OK, buckle in, this is going to be a giant 3000 word Wall O’ Text, it’s going to take us a while to get to the next way station. Beverages and snacks will be provided, and blankets are available for those who have already traveled parts of this road before. Ready? Let’s go.
Trucking Down The History Highway
I’ve written before in broader terms about the four umbrella terms initialized in LGBT. Each of them has a reason for use, cultural as well as historic – it is due to historical precedence, for example, that the L is put first in a lot of circles.
There’s another interesting dynamic specifically related to the order of the LGBT initialism. You can tell something about a person from what letter they put first. Some Trans* and Bi activists put their own letter first, TLGB or BGLT, as a way of indicating their feeling that their issues should be highlighted. While the reasons for doing this may have some validity, and it can be an effective technique to focus attention, the problems are twofold: there are equally valid reasons for having any of the letters come first, and switching up the letters makes it harder to find.
Catch that last phrase? Take note, it will be on the quiz.
Bisexual is a word that’s been around for a relatively long time, notwithstanding the people who still deny we exist at all. The word originally meant what is today referred to as intersex.
It didn’t take long for people with attractions to multiple genders to grab the word as an identifier. Now, at that time, the dialog of gender was “male and female”. Notions of sexuality had not yet been separated from gender in the way that they have been over the last two decades – the last generation. Note for clarity on this timeline that the very word “cisgender” wasn’t created until the mid-90s, ten years or so after I figured out I was bi.
Beyond this “two genders and some freaks” paradigm, there was another one at play – that opposite gender (not multiple, because there were no multiple genders recognized) attractions and especially behaviors were the only acceptable expressions of sexuality. It might shock you to know that there are still some people around who feel this way. Same-gender attractions were considered so horrible and transgressive that they were erased – The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name. It was alluded to, euphemized, hinted at, danced around. In cases where it was acknowledged it was brutally stamped out, like the Nazi’s Paragraph 175. Even the laws against it did not mention exactly what they were against. It was so unacceptable as a part of discourse that books and organizations that brought it out in the open as anything but mental illness were groundbreakers – Rubyfruit Jungle, The City And The Pillar, The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis (and Bilitis, while fictional, was clearly not a Gold Star Lesbian).
At Stonewall, people had had enough. But who, exactly, was it that were not gonna take it, that stood up and said “If you kick us, we will kick you back, and you will know you’ve been kicked”?
It was not white upper-middle-class suburban gay men who wanted to raise their children in a nice split-level with a picket fence and a discreet rainbow triangle on the mailbox.
It was the transgressive. The gender non-conforming. The people called Fruits and Fairies and other words starting with F. The Loud and soon to be Proud. The assimilative impulse was not a factor, because you have to be recognized to be positively assimilated. True assimilation means that your culture becomes a part of the larger culture. It does not mean subsuming your identity, hiding, lying, fitting in by not getting caught. If you have to hide, you are not assimilated, you are erased, you are oppressed, you are decidedly not welcomed. You’re not even being tolerated if your survival depends on people not figuring out who you are.
A Brief Stop In Transgressionville
In the years since Stonewall, great strides have been made. What was one box with all the straight people in it and the rest of the people outside in the larger basin called mentally ill, sick, perverts, or worse, has become two boxes, one for people with opposite (not other, but strictly opposite) gendered attractions and one for people with same-gendered attractions. (Note: To this day many researchers and commentors only deal with behavior rather than attractions.) Both of these boxes rest in some part on the idea that these attractions exclude the other. Gay resources like the Cass Identity Model include the rejection of heterosexuality as a part of gay identity development.
Bisexuals stubbornly refuse to be jammed into those boxes. How dare we resist categorization? Why won’t we lie still in the Procrustean Bed of monosexual identity, cutting off our transgressive attractions – and the community identity and support that coalesces around these attractions – which ones we cut off depending on who we are around, or with?
Because we’re not half-this and half-that. We’re not Polymorphously Perverse chameleons who shift from rainbow to plaid to plain gray flannel at the drop of a brightly colored yet tasteful Versace scarf. We are who we are, and while we’ve been deeply involved with the gay, lesbian, and trans* communities for as long as those communities have existed, we’ve been consistently erased by both the community we fight against and the community we’ve fought for – and now we’re being erased from within the non-monosexual community itself. Which brings me, finally, to the original question that opened this ride a thousand words back up the turnpike.
But this time I’m going to ask it in a slightly different way.
The Intersection of Identity Avenue and Current Events Boulevard
“Why are non-monosexual identities expected to carry the entirety of their attraction spectrum in their label?”
There are straight men who only like very voluptuous women, there are straight women who only like men in uniform, but they are both considered straight just as a man who honestly says he is sexually attracted to any and all women is considered straight – in fact, he’s considered a Casanova.
There are lesbians who will only consider a relationship with a woman who has never has sex with anyone but another woman (“Are you Gold Star?” Now there’s a question that shouldn’t ever be considered acceptable) or even won’t allow anyone who isn’t a cisgender female into their circles, there are lesbians who like masculine women and there are lesbians who are only interested in the most traditionally feminine, there are lesbians who like anyone who fits their definition of female no matter how broad that might be.
There are gay men who fit under a lot of sub-categories (bears and twinks and twunks and many more – these are all slang terms and so they appear and disappear fast, shifting meanings faster than you can define them) and there are gay men who love only them, or are interested in men of all shapes, sizes, and presentations.
But you know what? The words lesbian and gay and straight don’t split attraction into a thousand, or even three or two little slices. It’s clearly understood that under this broad label, there are multiple variations on the basic theme of desire. No one says to a gay man they just met (or were just introduced to on the internet) “Oh, you label Gay, since that means you are only interested in the most stereotypically exaggeratedly masculine men, you are discriminating against/erasing the existence of/causing to feel bad men who exhibit more traditionally feminine characteristics.” No one says to a lesbian, “Oh, since you’re a lesbian that means you’re only interested in womyn-born womyn, so you must hate Trans* people.” No one says to straight people, “Oh, I see, missionary position in the dark with only one person of the opposite gender whom you are life-mated to.” (OK, some people do say that to straight people, but they’re confusing straight with pure vanilla.)
And yet it’s not considered problematic by some people to make those kinds of assumptions about bisexual people – and it is hurtful when it comes from other non-monosexuals (that word again!).
Not personally hurtful, but hurtful to the community.
And I’m not talking hurt feelings. I’m talking about real harm to both the community, and to the people who are looking for the community.
If you are young and gay, you can go to the internet and find gay community. You can go to different places (depending on where you live, of course) and find gay community. If you are young and trans*, you can do the same. If you live in rural areas, it’s harder, but it’s possible.
But if you are bisexual, if you have attractions that transgress the boundaries of strict monosexuality, you get told that you don’t exist, that you just need to give up the other gender – and in gay and lesbian discourse that degrades bisexuality as a phase, do you think they include attractions to trans*gendered people as “acceptably mainstream Gay”? According to that great shining light of inclusive gay discourse, Dan Savage, men who have a sexual preference including MTF are just straight men who don’t mind interacting with a penis. Of course, as far as the straight world is concerned, that’s considered queer at best, and lots and lots of other words most of the time.
And then you somehow find the Bi community, a community that has endured through years of mischaracterization by Kinsey, by Masters and Johnson (who decided they preferred the word “ambisexual” which includes as part of its definition [emphasis mine] “a man or woman who unreservedly enjoys, solicits, or responds to overt sexual opportunity with equal ease and interest regardless of the sex of the partners, and who, as a sexually mature individual, has never evidenced interest in a continuing relationship”), and by people who do not identify as bisexual but nevertheless consider themselves experts on what the word means.
But here’s what’s happened. People who do not identify as bi are redefining the word, saying it means something it doesn’t mean – people are patiently explaining to me, someone who was bisexual before it started acquiring different meanings willy-nilly, how these meanings are more valid than the one that has been in use for decades. Saying that the word bisexual is oppressive to the non-cisgendered. (Funny, as I’ve known I’m bi since around 1982 and the word cisgender has only been around since the mid-1990’s. Wonder who we were oppressing before then?). People like Eve Kosofski-Sedgwick and Lee Edelman, apparently – people who are not bisexual, who don’t identify as bisexual. People who I debate in various corners of the internet, who identify as Anything But Bisexual, and then wonder why I ask them, if they are not identifying as bi, what gives them the right to redefine the term simply so they can reject it? (The common answer is, “I’m not redefining the word, you are! Bi means two, therefore….” It gives my face a bad case of the palms.)
Look, it’s not important because it annoys me. It’s not even important because it’s a fallacious reconstruction.
It’s important because it disrupts visibility and bisexual community building. It’s important because people who are coming out as bi are going to have to struggle for years against people (straight and gay) who tell them they are just confused (and in the case of the gay spokespeople who say this, dollars to donuts that they used the bi community as a stage in their coming out, and rather than appreciate that they freaking used us for their own psychological and/or professional ends, heap denigration and disdain upon us because, well, OBviously we’re all fakers and liars too), are facing erasure and disdain and mythical definitions from other non-monosexuals.
While I am careful not to draw too many parallels between racial issues and queer issues (because, let’s face it, the racial closets are not nearly as easy to get into and stay in as queer closets can be, the dynamic is different) there is an analogy to be drawn. In the early days of Black Power, what if as many as half of the Black population were told that they were either too light (or too dark) to belong, and they needed to bleach/dye their skin before they could be accepted? Now push the analogy and imagine that this concept had been set up by two people, one White, one from a non-African descended racial minority that had, in the past, been known to discriminate against Black people.
Wouldn’t you expect some of the people looking for community to be upset that they were being treated this way? To say, hey, wait a minute, what gives you the right to tell me whether I belong to something that you don’t belong to, either through lack of qualifications or by deliberate repudiation?
But why do people, especially people of a certain age, want to be Anything But Bisexual? I’m not being ageist, here – I’m not saying it’s because they are in their early 20s. I’m saying it’s the times. It’s not the generation, it’s the paradigms the generation is growing up swimming in. It’s what longitudinal studies refer to as the Cohort Effect.
It’s not all internalized biphobia, although it certainly is for some people. A lot of it is externalized biphobia.
People get the message from everywhere that it’s great to be straight, it’s good to be gay, and it bites to be bisexual. They get told over and over that all the myths about bisexuality are true. They then say to themselves, “Well, since bisexuals are X, and I’m not X, I must not be bisexual. But I’m not monosexual, so what am I?”
And the mincing of the label begins.
People start trying to construct or find identities that describe, not a broad sexual attraction spectrum, but a specific one that excludes the bad connotations about bi that they’ve been exposed to – bad connotations that come from outside the community. They then justify this by referring to the internet, which is notoriously right about everything (and yes, I am aware of the sublime irony of saying on the internet that the internet is not a reliable source for information. I get it. It’s funny to me, too). They get definitions from all kinds of places, places like Tumblr and Urban Dictionary and college queer resource centers that may or may not have any standards of determining the veracity of what they are talking about. Some are very, very good. Some are ludicrously, hideously bad.
But here’s the thing.
The bisexual community is much larger than the pieces of it that you’ll find on the internet. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of bisexual people out there who don’t care what a small group of people think about them on the internet.
Until they reach out. Until they seek community or resources. Then, what should they find? The same kind of biphobia they can get any day from the mainstream? The same sort of erasure that was perpetrated on the gay community before Stonewall?
Once you find the community that you belong to in a broad sense, once you become comfortable with being queer, if there’s a label that you feel gives more information about you, go ahead, use it. But that doesn’t mean “reject the umbrella label of the community.” Bears don’t walk around saying “I’m not gay, I’m a bear.” Feminine lesbians don’t walk around saying “I’m not a lesbian, I’m a lipstick.”
I know a few people who identify as “bisexual and pansexual”. This doesn’t bother me. But people who walk around saying “I’m not bisexual, I’m [insert Anything But Bisexual]” do, because here’s what they are saying – “Bisexual is bad.”
And they aren’t just saying it to me. They are saying it to kids coming out as bi in high school and college who sit and wonder if the organization that exists to support the queer community is truly a Gay/Straight (only) Alliance, because bi is bad. They say it to the people who control funding to queer organizations, who perhaps may not have bisexual representation on their boards, and if they listen to the ABB crowd (or get frustrated dealing with the multiplicity of labels) may direct funding to organizations that don’t explicitly support bi people – because bi is bad, or because we’re seen as not cohesive enough, or not large enough. (Important Note: There are funding organizations that do make sure to represent everyone, I’m not saying this is always an issue, just that it can be.) They say it to straight people, who get their impression that they just can’t trust bi people bolstered – because, after all, straight doesn’t reinforce the gender binary. Nope. Not one little bit.
The more people within the non-monosexual (there’s that word again. Wish there was a better one without a hyphen that reflects who we are rather than who we aren’t. Something like, I don’t know, maybe BISEXUAL?) who eschew the label – or labels altogether – out of the false idea that Bi Is Bad, the smaller our community appears to be.
Smaller to researchers. Smaller to funders. Smaller to people seeking community of people who are, if not exactly in every detail, at least in general similar to themselves.
I’ve heard it said that identifying ourselves by our sexual/affectional orientations may not be a good idea, that the ideal is a state of no labels whatsoever. That’s a good dream to have, but frankly it’s not reality today, and it’s not likely to be reality in my lifetime, or in my child’s lifetime. We are going to be labeled by others, and by choosing our label as a source of Pride, we move the world forward to that day when everyone has the same rights and respect and labels become unnecessary. But I ain’t holding my breath. Human beings are the Animals Who Label. The Namers of Names.
We’re here too, we’re queer too, we have been all along.