Mincing Bisexual, or Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Procrustean Bed

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.

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.
This entry was posted in Bisexuality, Identity Politics (non-monosexual) and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Mincing Bisexual, or Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Procrustean Bed

  1. Amethyst says:

    ” 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.”

    Actually, something similar does happen to multiracial people in minority communities, especially if the person is dark enough to appear “other” to the white community. Everyone has an opinion on which community – white or your non-white race – you should identify with, and of *course* you can only pick one. :P As a biracial bisexual, I’ve definitely noticed the parallels. lol

  2. OMG THANK YOU. I’ve been feeling this way for quite some time. You’ve framed it beautifully. These people who run screaming from a label that works just fine because a radical feminist and her enabler decided we’re somehow evil do not cease to frustrate me.

  3. Kirk says:

    Nice essay, thank you.

  4. tschulte0296 says:

    Seriously… best post yet… and that is really hard to say because they have all been amazing. You word this so well. Now if only the places that need to read it will read it!

  5. Well said.

    Though you might want to use a verb other than “mincing”, which has generally homophobic connotations.

  6. Kirk says:

    It’s deeply frustrating to me to see these new definitions of “bisexual” repeatedly presented as if they were common sense or canonical. I came out as bi shortly after the publication of “Bi Any Other Name” (to date myself.) One of the first things we did as a community was to tear apart all of the prior discourse about bisexuality. We took a good, long look in the mirror, and looked at the mirrors of other faces that included genderqueer, trans*, people of color, gender-nonconforming, kinky, monogamous, polyamorous, and in relationships that put us outside of the other existing communities.

    One of the few things we agreed on is that the definitions of bisexuality posed by mainstream sexuality research, straights, gays, and lesbians were wrong. They were wrong because they didn’t encompass all of us who were meeting in church basements, college classrooms, in conventions, and on bulletin boards. They were wrong because they were reductive views of sexual identity, experience, affection, relationships, and communities. There’s a reason why the periodical for the bisexual community that reached national distribution was called “Anything that Moves.” While we didn’t all agree on a definition, there was a consensus that people should be permitted to define sexuality on their own terms.

    Many of us in that decade also identified as straight, gay, lesbian, queer, pansexual, omnisexual, or other. While we were deconstructing mainstream definitions of bisexuality, we were also deconstructing mainstream definitions of sexuality. Those words were not a taxonomy, they were modifiers for describing different aspects of our complex lives.

    I invested hours of my life on the hotline and in front of classrooms on the principle that I’m only one example of a gender non-conforming bisexual man, that if you want to understand sexuality you need to get to know people as individuals. I’m just one example, and if you ask a dozen others, you’ll get at lest two dozen definitions. I shouldn’t take these reductive definitions as a personal insult to my life, identity, and activism, but I do.

    • fliponymous says:

      And your investment of time has opened the door for people like me to carry on the work! Love the history lesson.

      I also take reductive definitions as an insult — I take them exactly as someone telling me that I am confused about my own identity, and as saying that people who do not identify as bi (and who frankly have only been redefining bisexuality for a few years at most) know more about me, someone who while only open and out of the closet for a few years has been bi as long as I’ve recognized that I had a sexuality at all, than I do. It goes beyond the personal insult to me, though, because of its negative impact on the community as bisexual erasure and reinforcing the “confused” myth.

  7. Amy says:

    Would polysexual work in place of non-monosexual?

    • fliponymous says:

      I don’t feel like it really would, because it would be introducing yet another word with a vague meaning (is it polyamory? Is it kink+vanilla?) into the debate.

      While it might serve the purpose of removing the odd “this or non-this” from the wording, it’s exactly the idea of not defining things as what they are not but defining them as what they are that I am challenging when I say “There’s that word again”.

  8. Corrin says:

    I don’t take issue with people identifying themselves as bisexual. I do take issue with this: ‘ 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.””

    I don’t identify as bisexual, though I am non-monosexual. In doing so, I’m not saying that bisexual is bad. I’m saying that the word others me, and using it to describe me hurts. Using it to describe you doesn’t hurt, but when you try to force it on me, it does.

    Yes, historically it’s been used before my gender was generally recognized, and has been used to include me.

    The same way that “mankind” has long been used as a gender neutral term for humanity. Of course people using the word don’t think women don’t exist (I don’t include other genders here, as many do claim that we don’t exist) or aren’t part of humanity.

    But the word itself, and its history, erases and others. It calls back to a time when women (in terms of mankind) and other genders were maybe thought to exist but weren’t deemed important enough to be included in the terminology. It’s almost like saying, “Well, we’ll let you be included, but you’re obviously not the focus. You’re an afterthought.”

    Other people can consider themselves part of mankind, or of the bisexual community, and that’s fine. That’s their prerogative.

    And it’s my prerogative not to use those terms, to point out how they other me and how they can be hurtful. Not the identities behind them, but the words themselves.

    Telling me that I’m harming others by not using the term completely erases the harm being done to me and others like me by a society, of all sexual orientations, that oppresses, others, and erases people who don’t fall within the so-called gender binary.

    Trying to force that label on us, or to shame us into taking it up ourselves, is cruel.

    • fliponymous says:

      Corrin, thank you for this. My point is not to shame you.

      What you are saying is that the word “bisexual” harms you. What I am saying is that when people reject the word bisexual on the grounds that it “reinforces the gender binary”, they are the ones giving it that harmful connotation. You describe yourself as non-monosexual. I ask, how does the word that has historically been used to label the segment of the queer population that isn;t monosexual do harm?

      It is not the people who are defining themselves as bisexual that are invalidating you — it’s the ones who are claiming that bisexual is invalidating that are doing so.

      Dividing and shrinking the very community that accepted trans*folk in the time before cisgender was even a word does do harm to you, in that it sets up the idea that people who identify as bisexual are hostile/invalidating to you, by allowing the mainstream gay community to disregard and erase us — and if you identify as non-monosexual, erase you too.

      If you wish to describe yourself with a label other than bisexual when you are attracted to your gender and other genders, that is indeed your prerogative. If this identification is based on the idea that somehow my identification as bisexual erases you, makes you an afterthought, then you’re not seeing me.

      What is more of an afterthought: continuing to use the B in LGBT as an umbrella label that encompasses a whole variety of non-monosexual identities, or growing the initialism until it is an entire alphabet of three umbrella terms and a rapidly growing and shifting list of smaller and smaller groups of people with non-monosexual identities? No one is arguing that, for example, every slice of attraction of male-identified persons attracted to other male-identified persons should be divided into another set of more and more specific initials — there may be a bear flag and a specific identity that is perfectly valid, but there is no one arguing that people who identify as gay are disenfranchising the bears. This is a burden that’s being laid only on non-monosexual identities.

      Here’s a way to think about what I’m trying to say. When a person who follows a pagan path, say Gardnerian Solitary Wiccan, is in the military and dies in combat, they get a headstone. Now, for many years, there was no headstone that recognized pagan as a religion. People have stood up and fought to have a pagan headstone.

      Now imagine if, when this was being decided, twenty people stood up with their own specific symbols for their branch of the Old Religion, and argued that not only should theirs be specifically recognized with an engraving on the stone (which is fine, no problem doing that) but that using the overall label of pagan to determine the overall shape of the stone (no cross or Star of David or cresent or wheel of Karma) hurts them because Pagan only refers to people following a Norse path and worshiping Odin and Thor.

      The military would have looked at it and said “OK, you just get the ‘no specified religion’ stones.” Erasing us all.

      I’m not trying to shame you into changing your label. I’m trying to present a case for the consistent use of a very broad umbrella with room for lots of people under it with their own raincoats so that people just like you don’t get left out in the wet.

      • Corrin says:

        We are not the ones creating that connotation. It’s always been there, just as the use of “mankind” has always privileged some over others.

        Yes, bisexual is the historically used word. It was a word created in a time and world when only two genders were recognized. It’s still largely that way, and those of us who are not one of those two genders must fight to be acknowledged or even seen. In the bisexual community as much as in any other community.

        You’re ignoring the fact that there are plenty of bisexual people who *do* mean it exclusively, who are binarist, who even use the word as a sword. I’ve been told to my face, by somebody who identified as bisexual, that the word does not include my “imaginary” gender.

        And I don’t think your example is completely correct. I think it’s closer to using the word Wicca, not pagan, as an overall umbrella, which I’ve also heard people do. Pagan, from its origin, was meant to cover a broad swathe of people, people who wouldn’t call themselves that. It was used as a slur for “people not like us.”

        Wicca, on the other hand, was never meant to apply to Celtic reconstructionists. And people who say that all pagans are Wiccan, or that all pagans are represented by the pentacle, are erasing those very reconstructionists.

        Yes, it may help show a “unified front” to outsiders and lessen their confusion. But only at the cost of erasing people who already deal with large amounts of erasure,

        A unified front would be even better served with a more inclusive term, as the pagan community is better served with pagan than with Wiccan (though even pagan has its issues and others some people, heathens, for just one instance).

        And I would consider it the height of arrogance to tell, say, the Asatru, that they must call themselves pagan, let alone Wiccan, in order to further our religious freedom.

        Because while erasing the fact that there are more types of this “family” of religions or of non-monosexual orientations may well help *some* get closer to equality, it does so at the expense of the fight for equality for those who don’t fit under that so-called umbrella, who are maybe similar but not the same.

        Allowing a pentacle on a headstone, for example, does help people, and it’s a good start. But it does nothing for somebody who would like a triskele on their headstone. And if we pretend that there are no differences between the religions, like there are no different groups, like there are no other symbols, it just delays the fight to get the other symbols accepted.

        Even worse, it causes some to say, “Well, we already gave you the pentacle, you should be satisfied with that” and consider the community to have already gained equality. And it causes even some of the included group to, if not drop their support, give it less weight, less time, because it’s no longer a fight for *their* rights.

        • Corrin says:

          Written by a pagan who is not only not neo-Wiccan, but who has had their religion “accommodated” by being allowed to act like a neo-Wiccan but nothing else. And who thus considers the move to consider all pagans, modern polytheists, witches, etc. to be neo-Wiccans as actively harmful to other religions.

          • fliponymous says:

            People who act like all Buddhists are Tibetan Buddhists or all Christians are Southern Baptists are committing the same error as you speak of. (I’m not Wiccan, but my handmate is,)

        • fliponymous says:

          Yes. There are people who identify as bisexual who use a limiting no-non-binary-gender definition. Holding out that the word itself supports that is saying that they are the ones who are right.

          There’s a hint of the etymological fallacy going on here, because if the problem is “what the word started out as” then “bisexual” would mean “hermaphrodite” — because that’s the original definition of the word, “having male and female organs”. (And hermaphrodite is not a word that should ever be used for a human being — intersex is much more inclusive.)

          I am not saying that words like pansexual, omnisexual, pomosexual, polysexual, and the like don’t have their place. To use the headstone analogy (and it’s an analogy not a literal description), it is easily understood that, for example, a crescent on a headstone doesn’t tell you if the person under it is Sunni or Shiite or Sufi — a broad umbrella isn;t meant to parse the specifics, it’s just that — a broad umbrella.

          I have an even bigger problem with someone who identifies as bisexual and spreads the offensive idea that it means binary gender recognition only than I do with someone who rejects the label. They are the ones driving people like you away, and it’s offensive and wrong. If I had been standing next to you when you were attacked by the person you spoke of I would have given them the sharp side of my tongue.

          You say that there is a more inclusive term than bisexual. What’s more inclusive than “attracted emotionally, sexually, and romantically to people of the same and other genders?”

          One of the very important points I’m trying to make is that no other spectrum is expected to divide up specifics of attraction into separate umbrellas. There’s no push to have lesbians who prefer butch women and lesbians who are only attracted to the most feminine divide into two separate labels. No one expects, just from hearing someone described as a gay man, to understand immediately that they are only interested in the hypermasculine or that they prefer willowy blondes.

          (In fact, if the problem involves the gender binary, how does gay and lesbian not support it? How do terms like FTM or MTF not support the idea that there are two Ideal Genders that all others are Other?)

          Like I said, I know people who use other terms who are not trying to make the word bisexual mean something that excludes others. I have no issue with that — there’s plenty of room here.

          But there is a very good reason to have a Primary Label, as it were, a single word that’s easy to understand, with a history of community, a flag to rally around when the personal becomes political. Saying that this word in itself creates a problem is contributing to the problem, and leads to all of us being erased — like the man who attacked me on the basis that bisexuality doesn’t exist because since it means 50/50, and no one is exactly 50/50, therefore no one is really bisexual and I’m just a self-hating gay man who is afraid to face myself and what I really need to do is quit playing with nasty fish.

          Corrin, I appreciate your engagement and your measured tone. This is a worthwhile conversation to have. I am not certain if we will ever agree, but that doesn’t mean it’s futile to try.

  9. M says:

    I appreciate your taking the time to write out your thoughts on this topic. I’ve been enjoying reading through your posts (just stumbled here recently, so lots to go back through). Thanks, applause, well met.

    I want to bring up another possibility for being unlabelled/ABB besides Bisexual is Bad. Ths is a case that you appear to not be considering. And, FWIW, I do have a personal stake in this, but I’ll get to that part…..

    Okay, so consider with me that a self-accepting and non-monosexal person may accept as “correct” a different definition of bisexuality than the one you believe to be correct. This may be the case for a number of reasons, but the reason that’s obvious to me is because the word has been culturally given to them with another meaning in one or many aspects. As an example, I have read copius amounts of writing to the effect that bisexual means 50/50 EQUAL attraction to male/female. I do not personally define it this way (in fact, I make A POINT of specifically stating the contrary). None the less, this IS a contemporary viewpoint….. I’ve read horrifying amounts of commentary in which this is stated as the definition or meaning of bi….. Quite seriously…. Contemporary writing…..

    So, suppose with me here that some non-momosexual person has been exposed to this viewpoint a great deal, perhaps overwhelmingly, and finds that this does not, in fact, reflect their own non-momosexual reality. Said person may not identify as “bisexual”. But not because Bisexual is Bad. Rather, because bisexual (as defined) does not fit. It is incorrect. It feels inauthentic and limiting because it does not fit.

    While you may protest that this person IS bisexual, this is only so given your meaning of bisexual (not given theirs).

    So. That’s just one example of a specific meaning that might make bisexual Not Fit. It’s a good example, but certainly not the only one. (and for some 50/50 would fit okay and not become an issue to grapple with)

    Now, I think your response to this is probably that the 50/50 definition is WRONG, and the proper thing is to “correct” the wrong definition.

    After discussing such issues with dozens of people in detail, here’s how I see it: I think a large bit of bisexual erasure is due to our lack of agreement about the concept and meaning of bisexuality. (If we cant agree on what it might be, how could we agree it exists, or spot it when we see it?) I find this lack of a common meaning Extremely Frustrating. I see it as kind of a self-perpetuating loop. We don’t have a shared concept and understanding of bisexuality, as reflected in our patched-together meanings of the term – which reinforces the lack of cohesive meaning of the concept, and so on. (in other words bisexual erasure leads to bisexual erasure.)

    There are some days certainly when I believe that the bi-activist-and-leaders’s-definition (as I understand it and/or tweak it) is correct and all else is biphobic badness, there are also plenty of days when I grant that language is complex and changes over time, and words have different meanings and implications for different people (whether due to longstanding biphobia and erasure or not). On these days I do still ferverently wish that we could all get a heck-of-a-lot-closer to a common understanding and common terms. I think the activist approach of telling people THIS is what it means (we are right and we will “educate” you) has a lot going for it, but has not exactly resolved the matter.

    Here’s the personal bit – I’m put off by your idea that the ABB folks are saying bi is bad. I was unlabeled for a couple of decades of my life, then I redefined the term (but didn’t change my attractions) and have since been bisexual…more or less (there were still some other issues that were less central that straggle along……). .In the many years that I was unlabeled, I did not think bisexual people were bad, I just had narrow / unstable / unclear ideas of what was involved, and thought it probably didn’t apply to me. (Historical footnote: I came-of-age prior to publication of Bi Any Other Name. I spent a lot if time in internal debates about things like 50/50 attraction being “ideal” and whether it is sexist to have differing feelings or modes of relating to men vs. women. I never seemed to fit either my ideas of proper feminism or bisexuality, and eventually gave up…… And I certainly wasn’t getting much help with understanding this stuff.)

    My tiny part in hoping to increase common understanding is that I’m often explicit about (certain aspects of) what I use the word bisexual to mean (and to not mean). Specifically I use bisexual to mean a person who is sexually or romantically attracted to (some) men and (some) women, but not necessarily similarly or equally attracted to men/women.
    Rarely I also might add that there’s no implication being made about monogamy (or polyamory). Since that one didn’t trip me to begin with, it’s not central to my definition.
    And it is high time that I add something about gender range. (I certainly don’t exclude people who identify as neither or both male/female).

    I also acknowledge (when pressed), that there is room for much fuzziness as to how many men/women or how much attraction. Many definitions of GLS allow for some bi attraction (e.g. Predominately attracted to men with only insubstantial attraction to women). Since I’ve never had a good grasp of monosexuality, it’s not surprising that I find this confusing. (what is insubstantial?) and once it gets fuzzy, it can easily all break down… and I can easily find myself thinking that labeling people is useless – too shifty and too fuzzy. In a range with so much variation, where do you draw the lines, and can I expect others to draw them where I do? (e.g. have a room full of people fill out the Klien grid, then try to see if anyone has a common understanding of Any of the terms.). Still, Wikipedia seems to do okay at defining and applying their definition…..

    I like the way you’ve pointed to the effects on young folks and how labeling relates to (defined) community and seeking of such. And all the rest –Good points. I’m often very concerned about young non-heterosexuals and what ideas they will be exposed to – I very much want them to have a bi-positive community and doubt they do.

    • fliponymous says:

      Good points, well said.

      It would be great to live in a world where labels aren’t a personal and political necessity. Unfortunately, in a heteronormative (and monosexualist) society, we are about as close to that as we are to a post-racial world.

      For example: Sally Ride. Here’s a person who didn’t use labels, as is her right to do. If she had used a label at the time, she probably would not have gotten into space. (Which is wrong on so many levels…). When she died, the truth that she was not heterosexual, and quite possibly bisexual (although since she didn’t label in life, I am not going to label her in death). But if I had met her in the last few years, and had known she was queer, I would have asked her if, as someone who is a hero and role model for girls and women, if she would consider applying a label so that she could also be a role model for Teh Queer while she was at it.

      I grieve not only at the loss of a hero, but at the loss of someone who might have helped us burst through the scrim of invisibility — and I watched as she was seized on by many as a specifically lesbian role model in violation of her wishes to remain unlabeled.

      And that brings me to my point — we are going to get labeled by others no matter what we do. Sometimes these labels will be accurate, sometimes they won’t, and more often than not they will be slurs and expletives (like Queer was before ACTUP took steps to change that).

      Your choice to not be labeled was your choice — personally, I’m glad that you have stood up under the umbrella (we have cookies!). Like you, I seek to educate people that the exclusive definitions are incorrect. While you were unlabeled, I would not have told you that you were “really bisexual” (I have a post coming up about how you simply don’t tell people who they “really” are, alive or dead), but I would have engaged you in a conversation about why you felt the way you did, and tied to, er, recruit you into helping educate others that bisexual means “attraction to people of the same and other genders” — which explicitly includes those who are outside the gender binary.

      I seek to educate not only those who eschew the label bisexual, but those who use it and try to claim that it means that everyone who uses it is “true 50/50 (I am SO tired of Kinsey)” or “only cisgender attractions”. From a couple of responses here, I think I need to write something more clear on that point.

      • fliponymous says:

        One more point: “And I certainly wasn’t getting much help with understanding this stuff.”

        I posit that one of the reasons for that is divisions within the bi community that lead to erasure, as well as the general erasure we receive from parts of the GL community. While you (and I) are old-school (I knew I was bi 13 years or so before cisgender was even a word), the problem continues, and part of it is because a couple researchers who identify as monosexual decided to say that “bi reinforces the gender binary”.

        • M says:

          Laughing…. Um no, I think your guess is wrong…AFAIK there was no (organized) bisexual community at the time of any kind whatsoever….. This was long before Bi Any Other Name – a book which was important in my re-examination of the issue (of definition of bisexual). There probably wasn’t much gay community especially, although I did read books….. Oh- I guess half of what you posit might be correct, in that the GL writing of the day wasn’t very helpful to me on these particular issues. (though it was helpful in other ways)

          I think now it would be a BIT easier for someone to find counter-definitions (a range of meanings, including some relaxed ones that I like) – but still not great- for young folks, I think a lot depends on who you know and where you are. It’s gotten better for sure, but still plenty of confusion about the vast in-between of bisexuality. (e.g. Contemporary 50/50 definitions.) And the bi-negative stereotyping is a whole mother ballpark and huge. (I see this as different aspect from the definition of bisexual, but certainly a huge quagmire.)

          While I was unlabeled it would not have helped if you were to try to expand meaning regarding number or range of genders. The parts I expanded are mostly covered by “not necessarily EQUALLY OR SIMILARLY attracted”.

          While I long for more agreement on meanings of bi (or otherwise non-monosexual labeling), I also find that telling people things OTHER THAN a label is sometimes a worthwhile route. I wonder if you also find this to be so.

          As far as the binary goes, I do think bisexual has a clear relationship to two, linguistically. For people for whom this is a major issue, I do not think that your reasons for wanting bisexual to be the umbrella (with other aspects being refinements) resolves it.

          For me, I continue to be reasonably comfortable with binary gender categories, with lots of overlap, lots of in between, and lots of acceptance of self-definition. If I took bisexual as meaning there are exactly 2 genders and there is no in between and everyone must follow lots of gender-restrictive rules – will, forget it. I don’t see it that way, but can see how the word can rub people wrong.

          But, of course, there are also a zillion other reasons people don’t identify as bisexual, or do identify but don’t speak up about it. (back to the bi-negative stereotypes etc)

          For me, in my life now, the things that cause me UPSET about labeling are the public displays of incorrrect and/or bi-excluding labels.
          Such as “gay marriage”, “gay couple” “lesbian potluck”, etc.
          The “gay marriage” one has many many variations, all over the place… E.g. Discussions of “gay people not having the same rights to marriage as everyone else” (assumes people are gay or straight – that is it means either gay includes bi or everyone else is straight. Most likely indicates no awareness of another category).
          The lack of bi-awareness in the press can be astounding at times……

          Actually, the business with press interviews with people who won’t ID as bisexual or won’t use the word seem odd to me, and sad. (it upsets me a bit but in a very different way.) I mean cases where a celebrity is saying they have had relationships with both male/female partners, but that there’s huge carefulness about wording….. Like fluid, or technically bisexual or no label. Are these the kinds of things you had in mind in this article? (perhaps so since you just cited Sally Rideas as an example?)

          I’d love to see the press do a better job in these cases, also. I think there’s lots of room for improvement without making anyone wrong in the process……

          • fliponymous says:

            Heh — my posit was much more contemporary, back in the day the bi community was much less visible than it is now. I’m a bit of a young pup compared to some (I was born the year before Stonewall) but I feel quite old compared to some of my college chums who feel safe to come out at 20 or 18 or 15.

            I’m going to be hitting on the issues you’ve described here as they are huge — I’m trying to attack issues facing the bi community one-at-a-time, as it were, not so much in order of importance but in the order I’m thinking about them. For example, I just finished (but have not yet posted) another article on identity politics that takes the people who identify as bisexual but say that “there are exactly 2 genders and there is no in between” to task as well as trying to explain how I see Queer Taxonomy — as an aid rather than an impediment to community building.

            What happens in the press, yes, is an issue. When someone whose coming out could be a very good thing for the bisexual community eschews the label due to the negative connotations (and my ranting about ABB is exactly due to negative myths such as “reinforces the gender binary” “can’t make up their mind” “can’t maintain a relationship”) they, much more than the ABB on the street, are hurting the community they should be helping. They are part of the reason that Anna Paquin, Lady Gaga, and Alan Cumming don’t get held up as Bi Role Models, even though that is exactly what they are. While I respect the individual decisions to choose their labels, I deplore the reasons for it.

      • judyt54 says:

        It’s that “bi” in bisexual that forces people into the 50/50 mindset, since we are trained from birth that half of anything is exactly half: some for me, some for you, and it better be the same size…never realizing that bi also just means ‘split in two” unequally–think, bifocal, bicycle, bilingual…more than one, less than three.

        • fliponymous says:

          The word “bisexual” was seized pretty early on after its creation, and that seizure involved a significant shift in meaning from “dual organs” to “dual attractions”. At the time these identity words were first developing, there were lots of meanings bruited about.

          Pansexual originally meant “vanilla + kink”, or “open to any sexual practice”. Since then it’s gone through quite a few meanings: many of these meanings that bisexual has had for quite some time.

          At its inception as an identity label rather than a botanical term, the bi in bisexual was taken to mean “male and female” — but this was at a time when these were the only words we had. Before the culture started to catch up to the reality of multiple genders, the bi community was already accepting of trans*folk who at the time didn’t have any positive (or even neutral) labels. Somehow in the last ten years or so, people have been trying to change the definition of bi to something that isn’t inclusive and I don’t know why, although Shiri Eisner of Bi Radical has some great thoughts on the subject that make sense.

  10. Pingback: Happy New Year! or, Spare Me The “No Labels” Biphobia | Eponymous Fliponymous

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

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