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.