Inclusive v. Exclusive: or, Mincing Bisexual Part Two

I’m going to talk about the same thing here in a few different ways. I’ll pull the threads all together at the end. It’s not going to be unfamiliar to those of you who’ve been reading other articles here – if this is old hat to you, I present these as analogies and explanations you can use. If you disagree on my basic premise, perhaps these will convince you to look at your assumptions in a different way or at the very least spark some great conversations. And the analogies are just analogies – try not to get hung up on the specific details. (TL;DR version: inclusive is better than exclusive, and inclusive terms should not be redefined as exclusive. It is in our best interests as a community to agree on certain basics.)

Thread One: So here we have a plant. It’s related to the nightshade, but it has edible fruits that are indispensable for cooking certain dishes. Now, this plant species, Solanum lycopersicum, comes in a lot of different cultivars – 7500+, according to not-a-source Wikipedia. Some sweet, some meaty, some full of seeds, some juicy. Most are red, but plenty of the fruits (technically berries) are yellow and orange and green and purple too.

Now, fields of these plants look pretty similar from a distance, but if you’ve ever had a garden you know that each individual plant is very different. You can look at a picture of one of the plants in your garden and tell exactly which one it is, how heavily it fruits, if you had any issues with blossom end rot or had to pick caterpillars off or if it’s the strongest, thickest-stemmed plant in your garden. You might even have named it George because the fruits were so good that they made you say “Oh myyyy” when you first tasted them.

But if you showed that same picture to your cousin Rollie, he’d say “nice tomato plant.” And he would be right. And you could rightfully and truthfully say, “Yup, that’s George.” And your cousin Rollie might look at you with a question in his eyes, but hey, that’s OK – only you really know your tomato plants well enough to give them individual names, and if you explain why this tomato plant is George rather than Sally he’ll get it.

But if you started insisting that no, it’s not a tomato plant at all, it’s George, because it’s a potato-leafed heirloom pink Brandywine and therefore clearly distinct from a standard-leaf hybrid red Early Girl which is what most people think of when they think “tomato”?

George is a very special tomato plant, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a tomato plant. And when you show the perfect tomatoes that George grew at the county fair, you have no possibility of getting a blue ribbon if you try to enter them in the “Sweet savory berry with thick flesh and few seeds but not-a-tomato” category, but are guaranteed to at least get a judge to take a look in the “tomato” category.

Now, suppose you get a few Brandywine enthusiasts together and lobby the Fair board for years until they agree to create a special category for just Brandywines. You might even be successful – but not if you go in saying that Brandywines should be judged separately because they aren’t tomatoes, because they are pink heirloom varieties with potato-shaped leaves and tomato refers only to red hybrids with standard leaves, and that because of this the category of tomato is unsuitable to use as a rough, general description of your special Savory Berries.

Thread One and a Half: It just so happens that your cousin Rollie is a mid-20th Century hardboiled detective fiction/noir film enthusiast. He accepts your description of George as not a tomato because in the language that he uses, a tomato is “a human cisfemale with long smoothly-shaved legs and large mammaries” – or, as he puts it in the vernacular of his beloved hard-drinking hard-fighting fedora-wearing gumshoes, “a broad with great gams and big knockers”. (Rollie is a bit of a pig, but he’s your cousin and makes a great Green Jell-O Surprise, so you don’t tell him he’s not welcome at Harvest Dinner even though you end up apologizing for his behavior. A lot. Aunt Jane will get over it, and she has the option of not inviting cousin Rollie when she hosts next year’s dinner, after all, he’s only related to her by marriage. Ah, family systems. Gotta love ‘em.) Now, is Rollie’s alternate definition of tomato, accepted in some quarters, but very specific to those particular circles, going to make any sense at all to someone who isn’t steeped in the argot of the Postwar American Hard-Boiled Detective genre, especially as it says that something that is quite clearly a tomato isn’t?

It’s one thing to use jargon amongst people who know it. Sometimes we forget that the precise and careful language we use in queer theory circles isn’t the language of most people. I am particularly bad about that, by the way; I tend to be so concerned about precision in language that I forget that being sesquipedalian can come across as pedantic (although it’s my contention that anyone who uses the word pedantic is either being a pedant themselves, or has a keen sense of the ironic).

Thread Two: What about tomatillos? Tomatillos are not the same genus, but they are the same family – they are nightshades, and much more closely related to the tomato than they are to, say, sweet potatoes. Here’s the deal with that, though. Go to the grocery store to buy some tomatillos. Where do you look for them?

In the produce section next to the tomatoes. They are in a separate bin within the general tomato area, as well they should be – but if the grocer were to look at them, parse the taxonomy in order that no one accidentally think that they thought there’s no important difference between Physalis philadelphica and the common tomato and therefore put them with the blueberries (because they are berries) and the sweet corn (because they have husks), then no one wanting tomatillos for their salsa would be able to find them without either a lot of luck or looking in the “wrong” spot – and then they might make a very good salsa, but it wouldn’t have any tomatillos in it. (And as far as I’m concerned, while salsa without tomatillos can be quite tasty, it’s not my homemade secret recipe salsa. Yes, I’ll post the recipe.)

Taxonomically, a tomatillo doesn’t belong with the tomatoes any more than it belongs with the potatoes or the eggplants, but as a practical matter, they are similar enough that people trying to find them will look in the tomato aisle first. The salsa verde is on the shelf next to the salsa rojo.

Thread Three: This is addressed specifically to those people who say “Well, I’m bisexual, and I’m only interested in the poles of the gender binary, so that is what it means.” Yes, you, over there, I’m talking to you.

If you identify as bisexual, and your definition of such as the overarching definition for all leaves out anyone who isn’t cisgendered, then you’re doing it wrong, and here’s why. I’m not saying that your attraction spectrum has to include anyone in particular, because the definition of bisexuality is inclusive, not exclusive. Go ahead and identify as bisexual, because you are (I know you are because you say so).

But if you, as a bisexual, are saying that it’s specifically an orientation that, for everyone who identifies as bisexual, is men and women only – and I’m not talking about the casual kind of shorthand that we all use, the colloquial English “men and women”-type speak that is so built into the language that it takes a specific effort to avoid, but about the specific statement that “Trans* and genderqueer attractions are not bisexual but something else” – if you’re one of the ones who is turning people away from the label because you feel you should kick out the pans, then you are guilty of shrinking our community. I’m not talking about saying that your own personal orientation is towards men and women only. Failure to be attracted to someone is not what erases them. Saying they don’t exist, are confused, need to pick a gender, are only girls from the waist up, are “not a real boy”, and that bisexuality cannot include attractions outside the gender binary? That is erasure, and it needs to stop.

Now, in the interest of reality, this kind of language isn’t coming nearly as much from bisexuals as it does from the monosexual community. It wasn’t bisexual people that I overheard at Pride calling the trans* MC of the drag show a “shemale”, it was upper-middle-class white suburban gay men. It wasn’t bi women I read about telling a transwoman that she wasn’t welcome in their circles because she didn’t belong in a space for womyn-born womyn. It’s heteronormative people who aren’t going to start including pansexual/onmisexual/pomosexual/anysexual/trysexual/heteroflexible/humansexual/etc in their speech – even their speech that is in support of the “gay and lesbian community” when they already leave out the B just about Every. Bloody. Time. (Look, I don’t have a problem with straight people qua straight people, hell, I’m married to one. It’s heteronormativity that puts a burr under my saddle.)

I try to be very careful about language, because I am specifically Trans* positive, Ace positive, Gay positive, Lesbian positive, as well as Bi positive. I also understand that not everyone is, and frankly there is no possible world where everyone is always going to say only those things that don’t offend anyone.

Even with the level of care that I take, I am certain to offend someone. And when I do, I try very hard to be certain that I’m not microaggressing. I don’t get defensive, I don’t start derailing and mansplaining – and if I do, I firmly expect to be called on it.

Here’s the important thing, here’s where it all comes together.

For any word that attempts to convey the necessary breadth of a label of sexual/affectional orientation, there are multiple ways to define it. There is an inclusive definition, and a raft of exclusive definitions.

The inclusive definition is necessarily the better one.

Lesbian means female-identified person who is attracted to female-identified people. Gay means a person who is attracted to people of their gender. Trans* means that your internal sense of self-gender is not the same as the gender you were assigned at birth. Bisexual means you are attracted to both people of the same and people of other genders. Straight means you are attracted to only people of the “opposite” gender. (And there’s a lot of overlap, there are a lot of straight people with some same-gender attractions. That doesn’t make them “really” bi – more about that another day.) Queer means that you fit into a category other than straight.

There is no specific word that means “Attracted to cisgender only” – if there was such a word, it would most likely be filed under “Straight”, because, let’s face it, someone who identifies as straight and introduces their partner as genderqueer at, oh, let’s say “Bubba’s Bucket” is likely going to find out real fast that whatever they label themselves as, Mr. Homophobe at the next barstool won’t be gentle when he points out his opinion of the accuracy of their use of straight… possibly with a pool cue for punctuation.

In other words, if you are one of those bisexual people who is hurting others by using an exclusive rather than an inclusive definition, not simply of your own personal spectrum (which is, let me repeat, fine), but of the entire bisexual community, quit doing it. One of the commenters on another post here mentioned that they went without labels for a long time because bisexual didn’t fit, precisely because of exclusive definitions. Another was hurt because you got in hir face about how bi means two, so hir identity wasn’t valid. There’s simply no excuse for that to be happening.

We’re here to support each other. That means that people who identify as pan or omni or pomo or any other non-monosexual identity must be genuinely welcomed under the umbrella, and I apologize if I have given the impression that they are not welcome here.

They are. It’s a big enough umbrella that no one needs to get wet. I’m simply asking that you don’t poke holes in the umbrella because someone with an agenda other than community cohesion told you that you don’t belong here. You do.

What I care about, the reason I keep talking about non-monosexual identity politics as if it’s the most important issue we face (it’s not the single most important thing, but it is important enough to spend some real energy on, and it’s one of the many things I’m thinking about right now), is because the absolute most important thing is community.

United we stand. This isn’t a mere slogan. This is the reality of being part of a gregarious species whose members need to find commonality with each other. This is the reality of being in a world where numbers matter – if identity didn’t matter, there would be no need to Come Out.

But the benefits of using a broad umbrella term mean that it is not a good thing to reject it on the grounds that it has “bad connotations” that it quite simply doesn’t, not to the people who are standing under it yelling “Hey! Come on in! It’s dry under here! We have cookies!”.

And the reason I get so incensed over this particular issue, personally, is I’ve seen too many people seize on the multiplicity of non-monosexual identities as a reason to discount us: our numbers appear smaller; people are accusing those of us who are inclusive of being exclusive; because the labels are in flux and frankly confusing to anyone who isn’t steeped in it, it’s assumed that we are ourselves confused about who we are. And I’ve seen too many people, mostly either outside the bisexual community or informed by things that came from outside the bisexual community (or by some people inside the community who say exclusive rather than inclusive things) use the word bisexual to say bad things about my community and by extension about me – to say that I’m hostile to trans*folk, that I’m confused, that I am being exclusive.

And because no other identity based on sexual or affectional orientation, as a broad umbrella, is expected to carry such a large load of meaning regarding specifics of attraction. None.

“Same and other” is the two. Simple, no? Did it at one time mean “men and women?” Sure. But that doesn’t mean that the bisexual community doesn’t have a long history of being trans* friendly. Ask Dan Savage about the place and role of trans*folk in the “gay and lesbian” movement.

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.

15 Responses to Inclusive v. Exclusive: or, Mincing Bisexual Part Two

  1. Jessica Burde says:

    Speaking for myself, the main reason I never claimed bi-sexual is because of the exclusive definition. Ihave found myself attracted to every gender identity on the spectrum except cis-women. Don’t ask me why, I couldn’t tell you. That’s just the way my attraction has fallen. I can enjoy sexual interaction with a cis-woman (preferably in a threesome) but I ‘m not attracted to them. *shrug* So, does bi-sexual, even by your definition (attracted to same and other) apply when the only people I am not attracted to are other cis-women (ie, ‘same’)? I don’t know.

    • fliponymous says:

      That is the first argument that I have seen that distinguishes a multiple-attraction spectrum identity from bisexuality without claiming a false definition of bisexuality — without rejecting the inclusive definition.

      Thank you. I’ve been waiting for someone to present a challenge to what I’ve been saying that rests on a definition of who they are rather than a misidentification of who I am.

      Here’s what I think would happen if you showed up in my circles of IRL or online friends and colleages– you’d be welcomed rather than told you don’t exist or that you need to pick a side or that you’re stuck at an early stage of identity development or that you’re doing it for attention or that you’re trying to hold onto your heterosexual privilege. Even though you don’t perfectly fit any narrow definition, the issues that you face in your personal identity are issues of homophobia and biphobia. I would say that you are welcome under the bisexual umbrella when you don’t want to spend a lot of time explaining your personal spectrum (of which the fine details are no one’s business unless you are comfortable discussing it), but as you’re not saying Bi Is Bad? If you don’t want to, then don’t — I would ask that you strongly consider using the word “bisexual” rather than “bi-sexual” when you talk about it, as the hyphenated construction can be problematic.

      And I’m certainly not going to tell you that your identity is “wrong” in large part because I don’t tell anyone to reject their personal identity (there will be a fresh article about that in the next couple weeks), and in larger part because you’re not trying to tell me that mine is wrong.

    • spotter says:

      A number of months ago I finally saw a definition of bisexuality that I liked, and it almost immediately, and it became MY definition and THE definition with almost alarming quickness.
      A pansexual is someone who is sexually attracted to all people regardless of gender; a bisexual is someone who is sexually attracted to two or more genders.
      This was a defining moment in my ongoing process of self-discovery, and was, along with my (perhaps still temporary) rejection of the idea of myself as demisexual, the reason I now identify as bisexual.

  2. Kirk says:

    More than any other sexual identity or community out there, bisexuality seems to be vulnerable to the “death of a thousand theoretical cuts.” It’s not really bisexuality if we’re monogamous, if we live in straight culture, if we live in gay culture, if our sexual history bends more toward gay or straight relationships, if we don’t get equally aroused looking at visual porn while strapped into a clinical device to measure blood flow, if we transition to another identity, if we’re trans*, if our partners are trans*.

    Which is why we explicitly adopted inclusive definitions rather than rely on definitions derived from Freud, Kinsey, Klein, etc., etc.. Most of us had the ugly experience of having parts of our history and identity erased in order to fit a convenient theory. If a theory requires modifying, erasing, or denying the history and identity of a large portion of bisexual people in order to work, perhaps the theory is wrong.

    And that’s what the bisexual community brought to queer theory. Attempts to categorize human sexuality according to idealized continuums and categories fail to account for the richness of human sexuality, and exist primarily for the benefit of people seeking to publish about us.

    • Kirk says:

      And perhaps eventually we should eventually move away from bisexual the way we did “invert.” But the current round of identity arguments seem like a step backward in refusing to acknowledge the prior work that the bi* community has done in advocating for inclusive and ethnographic ways of talking about sexuality.

  3. I love the tomato analogy. Especially the theoretical argument that George is not a tomato. Is your salsa recipe suitable for canning, by the way?

    My first thought on finishing this post was actually, “Dammit, he used ‘hir’ in a context that makes perfect sense to me.” I can explain! I had been perfectly content to write off the made-up gender-neutral pronouns (xie, xir, hir, etc.) because the only way I ever saw them used was when people were referring to an individual online and literally didn’t know what gender they were. So whenever I saw them, my instantaneous impression could be summed up with the words, “Oh, I am TOO SPECIAL to just use ‘them’ and ‘they’ like so many American-English speakers are doing lately that it’s about five users away from becoming standard for a singular person of unspecified gender. No, I must show How Sensitive I am, and How Much More Accepting Than Thou by the use of an artifical construction that nobody uses outside of circles of people who want to rub in how Tolerant they are while actually just building completely different dividing barriers.” (Sometimes my instant impressions squeeze a lot of words into a very small space.)

    But at first I didn’t even notice your use of ‘hir’, and when I did it didn’t trigger the same associations, and thinking it over to write this comment I realised why I think. ‘They’ is fine if you’re dealing with a situation where you don’t know what gender to use. But if someone’s gender has been presented, and it just doesn’t fit the two pronouns we have… well, then using ‘they’ feels almost as depersonalizing as using ‘it’ would be. ‘Hir’ makes perfect sense in that instance. grumble grumble making me change my thinking on things grouse grouse.

    (Of course, as cis and raised in the 80s, the concept of gender not being binary still makes my brain melt a little bit. It’s like hearing for the first time there’s more than three states of matter, or that Pluto’s not a planet or something.)

    • fliponymous says:

      My salsa recipe is so small-batch that canning it has never come up. It’s a cooked salsa and almost never has a chance to even get cold before it’s gone… :)

      I’m very comfortable with gender-neutral pronouns, in part because for a couple of years I used a non-gendered identity online, in part because I have a lot of friends who are genderqueer. I’m glad that you found my usage appropriate.

  4. Matthew says:

    First I need to tell you of oppression. About ten years ago I fell in love with a woman and she was interested in me. But had sexual abuse issues and we agreed that it was best for her to sort that out in therapy before we became involved. She did. We stayed in contact over three years long distance. She then called me one day to tell me she wanted to have a relationship. Her therapist told her “if he says he is bisexual he is really gay and in the closet.” I protested and then asked her, “are you a lesbian in the closet according to your therapist?” She replied, “no he told me to stop messing around with women and go get married but not to you.” In this case both her and I did not exist in the mind of a professional psychologist (who happened to be gay.)

    The point is that gays and lesbians have fought for years for the right to love the same gender without discrimination. Strangely even though 80% of my life has been with the opposite gender to some gay men these relationships are illegitimate because I also date men – and hense I am just a closet homo. While she is really just straight and shouldn’t “mess around with women”.

    But this really did happen. Bisexual people of all types actually need to get their act together. Because strangely I have to fight for my right to be in an opposite sex relationship! Isn’t this strangely ironic.

    • fliponymous says:

      One of the reasons that I am on school working towards my degree is so that I can be added to the ranks of bisexual therapists, someone who understands that there’s more to human beings than straight and gay. There are a few out there, but I’ve heard a lot more stories about gay therapists telling bisexuals to “pick a side” than I’ve heard of bi or authentically bi-friendly therapists treating us as whole, integrated, congruent beings.

      • Matthew says:

        There is so much real discrimination against bisexual people that it is now necessary for all of us to get real. I am slowly letting out my story on these blogs. But another example being out at work my boss called me a “liar and a coward and I don’t deserve respect”. In a court case where I was punched by a straight man the hate crime charges were thrown out because the court did not know what a bisexual was as the puncher could have thought I was straight (after he called me a faggot). Hello people! We can receive job discrimination and be victims of hate crimes that can’t be prosecuted! and I have a whole long list of other stories like this! We currently have limited legal advocacy, limited representation in health and mental health professions. We can have all sorts of names, bi pan fluid etc. BUT we all need to know our human rights will be and have been violated by both the straight and gay community! But we can also find allies in the straight and gay community. The issue is we can debate all of these names BUT all non-binary people need to unite and realize we currently have limited human rights and work towards them for ourselves and for future generations because no one will do this work for us.

  5. M says:

    “One of the commenters on another post here mentioned that they went without labels for a long time because bisexual didn’t fit, precisely because of exclusive definitions.”
    You are referring to me. Exclusive definitions were part of the reason, yes. Not sure they were “precisely” the reason. I’m not sure that “exclusive” makes sense to me. I guess I’d say definitions were part of the reason. I’m not sure what’s really true here: was it having several definitions? Clear but narrow definitions? Shifting definitions? Lack of definitions?

    Anyway, the meanings available at that time, and issues with those meanings, were quite a bit different than what’s under discussion now. To me it seems like a product of those times, a long time ago, and including much feminist/separatist confusion. There really was NOT a bisexual movement or voice at the time AFAIK. And there was no internet so the limits were quite different. Things are different now. There’s a history of having a solid inclusive meaning. Or, um, is that just in my mind?

    In the end, I guess the point is the same. Different issues with the meaning of bisexual, but issues. Narrow definitions make for issues and problems.

    • Matthew says:

      I think in reflection of my life “bisexual” is a broad descriptor that does not actually get to the root of it all. As far as long term relationships I have found that I am strongly drawn toward and am compatible with certain women (usually bisexual) and certain types of men (usually effeminate). I am drawn toward certain trans and genderqueer folk usually people who have a mix of masculine and feminine traits. But I have met bisexual men who were only interested in women in general and masculine cis gender men. On a political/social level it feels good to date other bisexual people because I don’t immediately run into the prejudices as often as dating straight women or gay men. The variety of preferences of bisexual people are broad. But the oppression is the same: “Bisexual people are not real, or confused, or really straight or gay, blah blah etc. etc. “No label” is in someway better when one’s attraction has a sort of ineffibility, or you can’t put your finger on it. But “No label” also is a barrier to creating community and political activism. A barrier to finding like minded people and barrier of furthering the discussion. I have found finding a bisexual community healing and something that I have needed from an early age and have rarely found. Bisexual people are diverse and live diverse lives. It has been wonderful in the past few years because it has really helped heal the pain of being ostricized by both the straight and gay communities. I think another part of this has to do with “wholeness” – Meaning in the gay and straight communities I am often required to cut off or not display an aspect of myself. If a person wishes to nurture a sense of wholeness and not cut off aspects of themselves a bisexual community has a great deal to offer. Some gay identified men come to our group to talk about their occasional attraction or occasional sexual encounters with women. Although these men are largely gay in orientation and sexual desire this other aspect of themselves is often suppressed in the gay male community.

  6. Lynnette says:

    Reblogged this on The BiCast and commented:
    As usual he articulate what I can’t. Lynnette

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

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