To Find Each Other, or, You And Me And Us

I write a lot about identity labels and why the incessant redefinition of bisexuality is problematic. I just spent a few days at BECAUSE 2013, a conference that is for bisexual community and centered around bisexual experience. It was the single most affirming and validating experience I have ever had. Some of the time spent was talking about labels – about bisexual, pansexual, fluid, polysexual, omnisexual, sapiosexual, homoflexible, you name it.

Here’s more of my thoughts on the subject.

Bisexual is a label of community identity. While for the majority of non-monosexual people it is also a label of personal identity, the most important role of the word is to identify the community.

Personal identity labels are just that, personal. They are a way for an individual to have an easy description of themselves. This means that the exact same word can (and does) mean different things to different people. And that’s OK, because I can’t possibly say that the word that fits you best doesn’t.

Community identity labels, on the other hand, do not serve as nor are they intended to be precise descriptions of every member of the community. Rather, it’s a broad and inclusive description that people use so we can find each other and for political muscle once we do.

So we can find each other.

Personal identity labels serve a vital function for individuals: they describe my difference and give me a space in which to be unique.

Community identity labels describe our commonalities and give us a space to be together.

There has been a certain amount of fragmentation in the Queer Identity over the last half-century or so. We all found ourselves under the label Gay, a word that back at the birth of Pride meant pretty much the same as the modern (post Queer Nation) definition of Queer. Later, it made political sense for the community label to split by gender into Lesbian and Gay, while retaining Gay as a useful over-term, because many Lesbians felt the concerns unique to their community were being overlooked by gay men. Once people started using L and G to erase bisexuals, it made sense to bring the B into the label. All along and throughout this process, people who were non-gender-conforming had been deeply involved in the movement, so the T clearly belongs as part of Queer as well, as a key component and not an afterthought, even though gender identity and sexual attraction orientation are orthogonal – Queer in a political and community sense is much more about our relationship with the Overculture than our relationships with each other.

{Important note about the language coming up here: the word subcommunity is not intended to say that these are any less important, just that they are communities that share the broad characteristics of the umbrella and have distinct differences that are not so large as to make them substantively different.}

Within each of the different divisions of Queer, there are smaller subcommunities. One that I use a lot is the distinction between being gay and being a Bear-lover. The Bear (and Bear-loving) subcommunity is vital, recognizable, well-known enough that I feel I can assume that my readers know what I am talking about when I cite them (I mean, they even have their own flag!). People who identify in the Bear subcommunity don’t generally claim that they shouldn’t also be claimed in the larger political identity movement that is Queer (and for monosexual Bear/Bear-lovers, Gay).

I think one of the major sources of the problems that the Label Wars are a symptom of is that people have trouble getting their mind around the difference between a community label and a personal one. It just so happens that in my case, the community identity label Bisexual neatly matches the personal identity label bisexual. There are others who don’t feel this way, who feel that for whatever reason their particular individual identity of [ ] is significantly different than the community label Bisexual.

Thing is, that doesn’t actually matter. The community identity label is not and has never been intended to prescribe to people what their exact attractions should be. It’s just a broad and loose term for “people who have attractions to more than one sex/gender” just as gay is a broad and loose term for “people who have attractions to their sex/gender” and lesbian is a broad and loose term for “female-identified people who have attractions to other female-identified people” and straight is a broad and loose term for “people whose attractions are only to the sex/gender that society considers sufficiently ‘opposite’”.

Attempting to divide the community identity label into finer and finer divisions damages community. The biggest reason we need an overall label is so we can find each other.

So we can find each other.

The conference I was at last weekend, the Bisexual Empowerment Conference, A Uniting Supportive Experience (BECAUSE 2013), was amazing. It was the first time in my life that I spent a significant amount of time surrounded by and interacting with people who shared the same struggles, the same issues, and the same joys as I do. I’ve been to Queer events before, a couple conferences, a couple Prides, and although the feeling of belonging was there at those, it was not complete the way it was at BECAUSE. It was, for one thing, the first time that I was in a gathering of queer people where no one (except for That One Guy, you’ve met him around, more about him another time) was saying stupid things about bisexuals – and when That One Guy did, he got ripped a new one in an impassioned off-the-cuff speech that drew a standing ovation.

Imagine. A standing ovation for someone tearing apart biphobic remarks. When was the last time that happened at a Pride? More likely the MC was making jokes about how we should “come out of the closet sometime” or that we’ll “go home with anybody”.

I have never felt so welcomed, so safe, my existence so taken for granted.

And you know what? There were individuals there who use personal identity labels other than bisexual, and it wasn’t a big deal, because we were all at a Bisexual Community conference. It was understood that our personal identity labels were just that, and we could all come together as one community – a Bisexual Community.

And that’s not only an important thing, it may be the most important thing. There’s a line that recently appeared in a blog post I did over at BiNet USA and Huffington Post, and is now in the header here at Fliponymous, and I think it is the most important statement of what we need (not what we want, but what we need) and I am going to be repeating it a lot, because it is that important:

To live a life of integrity in a community of mutual support. That’s what all this is about, and that’s why the label debate is an important one to resolve.

Not to have over and over endlessly, but to resolve. I haven’t found a way to resolve it just yet, but I am beginning to feel like we might be able to, if we can find the things that unite us. One of the most annoying things about the Label Wars (or as it’s often referred to, “the bi/pan thing”) is that there is a very, very small group of people who seem to feel that the best way to assert their individuality is to try to drive a wedge into the heart of the Bisexual community (and not incidentally to try to drive a similar wedge between the B and the T in the Queer Community); people who want to divide the community into smaller and smaller slices and make it impossible for people to find. And often, it feels like this issue is not coming from within the Bisexual Community at all – it sometimes feels like people who don’t identify as part of us are telling us that there’s something wrong with us. That we’re confused. That we’re immature. That we just need to get with the program and come out of the closet already.

Imagine the Queer community as a bowl of citrus. There’s Gay mandarin oranges, Lesbian tangerines, Bisexual clementines, and Trans*gender mandarin oranges, tangerines, clementines, and navel oranges. The identity of any individual element in the bowl is distinct, but as a group? We’re all orange, round, sweet, tangy, segmented– within each of the individual elements there are segments, but all these segments with their individual differences are still parts of a larger whole.

The way to locate an individual segment is to look within the whole. The community. Bisexual, as a Community identity label, serves to bring us all together. It doesn’t mean we don’t have individual differences, just that we need to focus on what we have in common rather than those differences.

At this point you might be asking “Well, why don’t we all just identify as Queer, then?” In one sense, we should. We should be presenting a unified front to the Overculture. Not a front that only acknowledges those who can blend in the closest to that Overculture, not an assimilative front that says that there are some of us who are really Others, but a unity of purpose that will not stop until everyone has the full rights of an equally valid and valuable human being.

But that doesn’t mean we should lose our community identities. It means that we can and should work together on the issues that are important to all of us (GENDA, for example) and should cooperate with each other on those issues that affect some of us (DOMA comes to mind), but that we should never, ever leave some of us behind or throw anyone under the bus to achieve a goal. And the first step in throwing someone under that bus is to erase them, to make them invisible, to tell the Overculture that they don’t really matter. That they are too queer for Queer.

Using a consistent Community Identity label does not negate one’s personal identity, even if that umbrella label does not describe you with precision.

Other parts of the overall movement appear to have figured this out – you don’t see workshops at Lesbian-centered conferences dedicated to figuring out what they should call themselves; you don’t see small groups of Transmen saying that “Tm” should be added to the initialism in order to distinguish them from other Trans*folk; you don’t see groups of male-identified people whose sexual attraction is only to male-identified people with a BMI above a specific number claiming that Gay is not an appropriate flag to gather under because modern Gay culture is so often a deeply fat-shaming place. And especially, even if those things do happen, you don’t see them being signal-boosted the way that the divisive biphobia of “Bi means two so it’s [insert horrible thing about bisexuality here]” seems to be every hour.

Why is it such a huge issue in the bisexual community?

I suspect that a large part of it is external pressure, external pressure that feeds internalized biphobia. Obviously the biggest problem that bisexuals face is the same that queer monosexuals face: the Overculture. But there is constant pressure from inside the Queer community, a pressure that tells us pretty quickly that we’re considered outsiders, freaks, Others on a continuum from immature to unreliable to tourists to predators.

And it seems like every week someone tries to deflect that pressure by coming up with a new word. I heard two new ones this month, and I won’t mention them by name here because I don’t wish to participate in signal-boosting biphobia. Because the last thing we need is a new word.

It’s time to stop trying to deflect the pressure.

It’s time to push BACK. And pushing back we are.

(Huge thank you to Dr. Meg Barker for the word Overculture, along with biopsychosocial it’s now firmly part of my lexicon. Thank you Natalie Clark for your insight, as usual half of my material is stolen from you – if anyone is wondering, it’s the good half. Thanks to Victor Raymond for more inspiration and conversation and one heckuva workshop. Thanks to the good people of BOP for putting together the conference, and thanks to BiNet USA for letting me represent the organization there.)

About fliponymous

Bisexual activist, thinker, writer, husband and father, non-traditional Graduate student, member BiNet USA Board of Directors. When I grow up I want to be an Existential/Feminist Psychotherapist, a community college instructor, and expand my work for bisexual visibility and equality for everyone in the QUILTBAG. This is my personal blog and the views here do not represent the official position of BiNet USA.
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5 Responses to To Find Each Other, or, You And Me And Us

  1. Thanks for a interesting post. I really appreciated reading this. A question regarding the ‘important statement’ : what are you meaning when you say ‘a life of integrity’? thanks

    • fliponymous says:

      A life of integrity is a life of congruence, where your interior self and your exterior presentation are in line — a life of “completeness and wholeness”, undivided.

      Welcome to the page!

      • Excellent. I’m really pleased to hear the word congruence – are you into psychotherapy in any chance? I think this works better than integrity for – less resonance of a moralistic tone. Although, saying that, the idea of wholeness in terms of ‘self’ is also a little problematic for me. Nonetheless, great reading. Thanks

        • fliponymous says:

          I am entering my Master’s degree program in Community Counseling — when I grow up, I want to be a therapist serving primarily the Bi community with a side of adults w/Asperger’s. Yes, it’s not a moralistic thing unless you count the ability to adhere to your own moral code.

          For example: one of the most problematic things about being in the closet all those years was that I had to lie with every word. That didn’t sit well with me and I had a lot of problems dealing with it.

  2. ah Kudos – good luck with the Masters. I’d like to begin some sort of counselling training at some point. My own moral code – good point, yes, i’ll have to think about that in more depth. :)

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