More Thoughts On Labels, or, Sisyphus Unchained

Wow, what a start to the year. I’ve got a few things on my mind, and some of this may be familiar to people who follow me on FaceBook (in other words, I worked out a lot of this in public or semi-public).

1) Tom Daley. After the whole “No labels, I’m with a guy but I still love the ladies” kerfuffle, the GGGG media has fallen all over themselves to turn TWO SYLLABLES into an absolute repudiation of bisexuality, complete with “I Told You Soes” and crowing from the rooftops that Bi Yesterday is Gay Today. Check this out for a better look at the whole story. Pay particularly close attention to the way people were waiting to jump on this one.

As far as Jessie J goes? She said it was a phase. You know what? That is possible. It’s an unfortunate turn of phrase for the bi community, but if she honestly feels that she had a phase of attraction to women that is now over? I am not going to tell her that she can’t. Here’s what she said: “For me, it was a phase,” she says. “But I’m not saying bisexuality is a phase for everybody.” And as long as she is willing to say that it’s not a phase for everyone, I am not willing to say that it can’t possibly be a phase for her.

2) Redefining Bisexuality, Again. There are a lot of different words people use to label themselves. I’ve written extensively on this, but it is the nature of life that it is going to keep coming up in slightly different language, so it’s worth revisiting with, er, slightly different language. The way to sort out the good definitions from the bad ones: if you have to define someone else’s identity to define yours, you’re doing it wrong. So the definition of pansexuality that entails bisexuality as “cisgender only need apply” is a bad definition.

You will note that definitions of bisexuality (or of any sexual orientation for that matter) that work do not need to reference or compare their definitions to that of any other sexual orientation identity label.

Here’s a definition of pansexuality that I developed based in no small part on Shiri Eisner’s and Julia Serano’s writings on the subject —

“Pansexual is a personal identity label for attractions to multiple genders that is also intended to convey a specific attitude toward gender identity politics.”

It’s a neutral definition that makes it clear that pansexual does not stand in opposition to bisexual, that it is one of a multitude of personal labels that are found in the bisexual community.

I hope this makes it clear that I am not slamming people for their personal identification labels, only pointing out that it is an issue when people redefine the community (which all these different non-monosexual identiy labels are a part of) in order to split the community.

Bisexual and pansexual makes sense, bisexual or pansexual doesn’t. The inclusive definition of bisexual isn’t the update, it’s old-school — the exclusionary definition is the one being forced on the community by people who are outside the community and/or people who think they can avoid biphobia via self-erasure.

And I’m in my 40s and was bisexual (and not trans-exclusionary) a decade before the good and useful word “cisgender” was coined, and two decades before the NYT called us all liars on the front page — which seems to coincide with the beginning of the historical push to redefine bisexuals into something we’re not. Now, correlation != causation, but the more I think about it, the more I feel they have to be connected in some way, even if that connection is nothing more than two expressions of one zeitgeist.

I’ve never argued against personal identity labels, only against slicing and dicing and mincing the entire Bisexual community into smaller and smaller bits by repudiating the community label, the B in LGBT, on fallacious pretenses. It becomes especially troubling to me when I see people who are not part of the community — straight allies, and people who identify as Gay — telling me that there need to be not only additional personal labels, but additional community labels, as if there is a pressing need for a Pansexual community and a Multisexual community and an Anthrosexual community and a Trisexual community that are separate and significantly different in attitudes and needs from the Bisexual community.

When a person who identifies as Straight starts telling me that Bisexual does not represent the community because some college LGBT resource center’s website says “LGBTQQIAP” and therefore Pansexual is so different that it needs its own letter? When a person who identifies as Gay tells me that identifying as Bisexual means that I am not supporting non-binary identities? I see red. Fire shoots out my eyes. And I start asking, “What is your motivation for this? How do you gain by splitting my community, and by driving a wedge between the B and the T?” All this kind of thing does is erase us further, ignore the problems that we face both as part of the LGBTQ+ community and the problems we face specifically as the B in that continually flexing initialism. (I also am starting to see pushback against the initialism itself, whether in the laughing-at-us forms like “lgbtqqiaapwtfbbq” or the attempt to remove all of our differences with GSM. Another day, I suppose, after I finish the research paper about doing therapy with bisexuals.)

3) The Word Is Not The Problem. The other terms that are referenced in the initialism LGBTQ are seen as inclusive umbrellas that don’t require either conformity to a specific platonic ideal of “what is L or G or T or Q” or changing the umbrella label to become a perfect complete one-word representation of precise attraction. As long as people insist that the problem is the word itself, that “bi means 2 therefore cis only…” or “the syllable ‘sex’ is why the stereotypes…”, we’re going to have ongoing ontological crises.

As long as people try to split the community into warring factions because the broad, general, ill-fitting umbrella doesn’t precisely parse and describe the full complexity of an individual’s sexuality, personality, and intersectional identity, we’re going to have ongoing ontological crises.

As long as people keep redefining the word bisexual to mean whatever negative they want to avoid, they are (with well-meaning, with good intentions, without malice, inadvertently) supporting, endorsing, and reifying those very negatives.

Divisions in the community, imposed from the outside — imposed by heterosexism and heteronormativity, imposed by heterosexual people in a heterocentric society, enabled by monosexual gay people and non-monosexual people who reject the community label because of what the heteronormative and monosexual people falsely claim it means — is a problem on an institutional and a personal level, as it disrupts the community and people who find themselves without a strong and stable community to come out into.

The word is not the problem.

The word is not the problem.

The word is not the problem.

The people who have invested their time, energy, and money into a schema that discredits and erases bisexuality in order to make themselves seem more acceptable to a culture that would shrug them off in an instant are the part of the problem that lets the haters keep on hating.

The Overculture that assimilates by trivializing differences and celebrating conformity is the problem.

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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3 Responses to More Thoughts On Labels, or, Sisyphus Unchained

  1. Your position on all this is quite strange. It appears that you want to continue to embrace queer theory language while condemning the basis of all critical theory (CT) philosophy. The entire mission of CT is to identify and label an ever expanding universe of oppressed groups. You seem not to understand that there can be not mutual supportive overarching community if one remains committed to CT. Once a new subgroup is identified, they immediately are at odds with the prior larger group. That is the core activating doctrine of CT.
    You seem to be advocating to return to the classic liberal position that we should be a community, positively bound by our positive similarities and mutual respect rather than the CT position that we are bound only by our anger at our perceived oppressors.
    The problem is that CT and liberalism are mutually exclusive. I happen to agree with your conclusion that CT offers nothing but eternal conflict as we splinter into ever smaller angry divisions, straining at differences so tiny that they are difficulty for anyone but the most extreme activist to comprehend. You decry that people are putting their definitions on others sexuality so as to prevent the maintenance of a mutually supportive community. You fail to grasp that that is the default tactic of all CT models. Dogs bark, cats meow and CT college professors will continue to teach students to split into ever smaller groups preventing any real community.
    For several years I have been trying to engage those who present themselves as part of the bi community in reexamining their blind allegiance to queer theory and I find there is not stomach to begin to question queer orthodoxy.
    It is good to see someone who at least sees the problem, even if you don’t seem to see the cause.

    • fliponymous says:

      Prof, thanks for your response. I suppose I may be a classic liberal who also wants to find useful things in Queer Theory — because I’m one of those glass-half-full fellows.

    • I cannot but disagree with your description of critical theory: as a grad student who does critical theory day-in-and-day-out, I find it unrecognisable. Critical theory isn’t about splitting oppressed communities into ever-smaller groups in order to prevent community. Critical theory is about critical-analytical engagement with received textual and structural orthodoxies in order to extract and unpack the dynamics of privilege and power, Othering and oppression, which support them and which they support in turn. There is nothing inconsistent with CT about moving from such an analysis to a community-based response to these dynamics, nor is there anything particularly liberal about doing so (in fact many schools of critical theory take critical aim squarely at liberalism).

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