What Should Be In A Word?

Hey, take a look on the Guest Poet’s page! Something (and someone) delightful awaits you there. Poet Mary Kasimor has been published in print and online journals, including Mad Hatter’s Review, Yew Journal, Big Bridge, Reconfigurations, Moria, Certain Circuits and Altered Scale. She received a Fellowship from US Poets in Mexico for the 2010 Conference. She was also a Finalist in the 2011 Ahsahta Chapbook Contest. She’s also served as a great friend and mentor to a certain fish-out-of-water – we used to meet for an hour every Wednesday, ostensibly to talk about the class I was taking from her, but in reality it turned out to be the forging of a bond which has remained long after the grades were in, even though I don’t get to see her nearly often enough these days.

Other than poetry, there are four things on my mind right now. The first is personal stuff that I won’t go into here – the day-to-day nuts and bolts of life that is important but not related to what I’m doing in this space. The second is getting ready for our “Island of Misfit Toys Thanksgiving” where we invite all of our friends who for one reason or another aren’t able to spend the day with their families, whether it’s due to geographical or emotional distance.

The third has to do with identity development models. I’m not going to say a lot on that today, other than to mention that in conversations I’ve been having lately it is becoming more and more clear that the “initial stages” of queer identity development in most common models, especially as they relate to bisexual identity, need to be recast to take the “confusion” piece out, because it’s not the case that we are generally confused about who we are – rather, the confusion is on the part of others who assume that because they are confused by us, we must therefore be confused by ourselves. I’m working on this, but it’s about #3 on my long-term to-do list (the one that doesn’t include stuff like life and school and blogging and work), after a research project I’m working on, and a way to finally (please, oh please) get people to stop nattering on about Kinsey like he was the last researcher in the world. Seriously. He’s the Sigmund Freud of queer research, but that doesn’t mean that the people who have come after him should be ignored, or that he should be assumed to have gotten everything right.

What’s on my mind today, then, is words, specifically identity labeling. I know that I’ve already written quite a bit on this, but there is quite a bit more to say, and some of the things already said can stand to be restated in different ways – I mean, when you look at it, everything that this blog is about could be said in one short sentence:

Wild Stallyns

“Be excellent to each other…”

Who am I to improve on the wisdom of Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan?

(Of course, in a sense I have, by removing the phrase “Party on, Dudes!”, mostly because the argot of 1980s California isn’t something I feel like spending a thousand words on today. I came of age there and then, when the strange doings afoot at the Circle K were most likely my friends and I, and to this day when I am excited I call the person I am talking to “Dude”, regardless of gender – and I never, ever, use the stupid and sexist term “Dudette”.)

But I don’t feel this is a topic that can be exhausted in 5000 words – so here’s 2500 more.

The specific topic I am revisiting and expanding on today is one of the ways the word bisexual is treated differently than the other words initialized in LGBT. Language note: this post contains a few descriptions of body parts used in a rather clinical manner, and a word that while to some might be considered a slur if misused, is meant always and only with love and affection to those I am referring to.

There is an expectation put only on non-monosexuals that their label should not only give a broad description of attractions, but should be usable by other people to determine if they fall into the attraction spectrum of the person labeled.

Let’s dig into this for a moment.

Since society is heteronormative, straight people don’t need to announce their orientation: it’s the default. So when you walk into a singles bar, no one even asks for a single word to describe what kinds of people you are attracted to – the ones you’re attracted to know it, because you go up to them and say “My van is completely soundproofed”, and they make it absolutely clear that they are not attracted to you by giving you their phone number as 867-5309.

Now, in a bar that caters to single gay and lesbian people, the normativity of monosexuality rather than heterosexuality comes into play. A quick note here, something of interest – although heterosexual etymologically means “other” rather than opposite, it’s taken to mean exactly opposite, and the word “straight” has no intrinsic meaning regarding sexuality, as the hippies who railed against “the straights” knew. Straight meant conservative, hidebound, “normal”. Folks who want to discuss the gender binary (which is not the focus of this article, just these few sentences) take note: no word, absolutely no other single word used for sexual orientation, reinforces the gender binary more than “Straight”. And heterosexuality, straightness, is also quite clearly monosexual, but the mononormativity is lost in the overwhelming glare of the heteronormativity.

Back to the gay bar. I use the gay bar as an example a lot, simply because for years the gay bar pretty much was the gay culture in America. Anyway, in this hypothetical but perfectly average and representative gay bar, there are lots and lots of people who describe themselves as gay or lesbian (and a lot of the lesbians wouldn’t bridle at using the word gay to describe themselves, although some would). Now, if you were to walk up to a pleasant young man and he was wearing a button that said, “Yes, I’m gay” you would not expect to know from that one simple word exactly what kind of person he was attracted to, other than male-identified. He might prefer big burly masculine Bear Daddies, he might find that men who blend feminine characteristics turn him on, he might enjoy men who have at one time identified as women – the only thing that the word “gay” actually says in and of itself is that his sexual and/or romantic attractions are to people who identify as male.

Same thing with the lesbians in the bar. That woman-identified person over there in the pullover hoodie? She might have a particular attraction to uberfeminine women, she might prefer women in flannel shirts and Doc Martens who drove to the bar in a lifted 4X4 truck with chainsaw in the back (and goodness look at all the gender stereotypes in that short phrase!), she might find that people who were assigned a male sex at birth but who have since come to understand that their gender identity is best expressed by identifying as a woman are what make her heart pound faster – and there is nothing, absolutely nothing in the word lesbian that would give you a clue until she says to you, “Sorry, hon, you’re just not my type, but could you introduce me to your friend over there?”

(The identity word transgender? Says nothing whatsoever about sexual/affectional orientation. Bupkis. If you want to find out what people whose gender identity transcends cisgender norms are sexually interested in, you’ll have to ask them if they are straight, gay, or bi. Asexual? Same thing – people who have little or no sexual attractions are not in any way incapable of romantic attraction, and that can be parsed with nearly the same labels as sexual attraction; heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic.)

And that’s not all.

Perform this experiment (and I am not responsible for your medical bills afterward, by the way.) Ask someone you do not know who identifies as straight or as gay exactly which people within the broad range of people identified as potential foci of their attraction they are attracted to. No, seriously, go to the stranger physically closest to you right now, identify their sexual orientation, and ask them “exactly what kinds of people are you attracted to?” If they don’t punch you in the face for sticking your nose in their private business, they will probably mumble a couple names.

“Um, I don’t know, hot ones I guess. Brad Pitt.”

“No, seriously! What are the specific gender attributes that attract you? Is it large uncircumcised penises? Medium breasts with upturned nipples and small dark areolae? Dark curly chest hair perfect for running your fingers through? A soft belly that hangs over the waistband that you can cuddle up to and feel warm and safe? Broad shoulders and just a little tang of pheromone-laden sweat? A complete absence of body hair? Protruding labia minora? Come on, what is it about someone’s body that gets your sexual engine running?” (Because, let’s be real, people. You can talk about love, and you can talk about the attractiveness of intelligence, and these are important, but sex is about bodies. Your body engaging with another person’s body. If there’s no body involved, it’s not sex.)

Keep pushing, and at some point they will tell you to mind your own gorram business, what kind of freak are you?

Now I know that not a single person reading this actually performed this experiment. What you actually did was put yourself in the position of the person being questioned and thought about how you would react, and all but the most uninhibited among you felt some discomfort at this kind of grilling about what is fundamentally something that’s really only between you, your lover, and possibly Grindr. (If you did accost a stranger, then when you get out of the ER or custody please re-read the part where I said I would not be held responsible for any medical bills resulting from this experiment.)

But that seems to be exactly the kind of information people want to hear from those of us that identify as bisexual. And furthermore, they seem to want it packaged into one word. Not for our comfort and benefit, but for theirs.

People who assume that all bisexuals are sexual predators with no morals, ethics, or taste, want to ensure they won’t be the object of our desires. Now, this is not the only reason – someone might ask you this sort of question if they are wondering if they are in your spectrum. But having the one short simple word you use to identify your sexual orientation carry so much meaning is not something that benefits you – it means that people can label and dismiss you with one word, without having to listen to an entire short sentence.

If a label is expected to identify exactly who I am attracted to, then we would each have to find an individual label that describes in detail only our personal spectrum – what’s the word for “attracted to butch Earth Mother types regardless of hair eye or skin color but with an appreciation of broad hips and deep breasts, slightly effeminate or at least androgynous cismales with a bit of scruffiness to them, and some transwomen and genderqueer people who present more feminine than masculine, but I have never actually felt that catch in my breath or flutter in my belly for transmen or for women who lack at least some traits traditionally considered masculine”?

Does my lack of visceral, bodily attraction to transmen make me hostile to transmen? The body does what it does, as does the mind. We don’t choose who we are attracted to, and we don’t choose what gender we are – we choose who we act on our attractions with, and we choose (if we are lucky) how we do gender.

Does it even matter, other than “same, other, or same and other?” I’m pretty flexible and could probably have mutually satisfying sex with someone of any gender presentation, even though the total number of people I am attracted to is quite a few less than a lot of straight guys I know.

Now there’s another myth, by the way, one brilliantly lampooned by the title of the bi magazine Anything That Moves (a title that did double or even triple duty, really, because it also highlighted that bisexual means more than just attraction to two opposite biological sexes but rather a whole range of genders). Just because my attractions cast a wide net, doesn’t mean that it necessarily catches more people than anyone else’s. No, when I was single, I did not have twice the options on a Saturday night.

What is it specifically about bisexuality that makes people think they not only want to know but have the right to know exactly who we’re attracted to beyond the broadest of categories? What is it about bisexuality that leaves many of us wondering if we need to have a label that specifies our exact attraction spectrum?

Is it because straight society is so xenophobic and egotistical that they are afraid that they’re going to be preyed on by the greedy uncontrollable bisexual? Is it because queer theory is so strongly based not only on embracing homosexuality but on rejection of heterosexuality?

One of the reasons bisexuality gets erased by gay culture is that we have not rejected heterosexuality, and so it is assumed that we have not rejected heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is in no way the same thing as having attractions to other genders, even if those attractions are restricted entirely to cisgendered people.

Are there some bisexuals who are attracted only to cisgender people? Sure. Does that mean their particular smaller slice of the attraction spectrum means we all feel this way, or even that their lack of attraction to people who don’t fit a cisgender paradigm means they are hostile or nonsupportive or erasing trans*gender people?

Of course not. Because a broad umbrella covers many.

Look at it this way – a general label for a sexual orientation does not describe who is excluded but who is included. In the case of straight, no one assumes that every straight person is sexually interested in every person of the socially acceptable “opposite” gender.

In the case of gay and lesbian, no one inside the gay and lesbian community (or the bisexual community for that matter) assumes that every gay man wants to have sex with every other man (straight or bi or gay), or that every lesbian wants every other woman, or even every other lesbian.

There are personal identifiers for people who do want others to know, for whatever reason, more details about their attractions. But generally, those identifiers would seem to be more for personal identity than to tell other people if they will be interested in them. A lesbian with a lumberdyke tattoo would not seem to be trying to tell the rest of the world that she’s interested in the particular constellation of gender characteristics that the word “lumberdyke” is intended to describe, rather that this is how they describe themselves (unless it says so specifically; “I ❤ Lumberdykes", and even then, unless it also says "and nobody else"…).

A gay man with a Bear Flag on the back of his sleeveless denim jacket may very well be announcing to the world that he is a Bear, or is only interested in his Bear – but he does not then reject the umbrella label of Gay. If you said to him, “So, that flag with the paw print, that means you’re not gay, right?” they would laugh in their face. Of course he’s gay, he’s a fracking Bear! (Please note that for accuracy, of course there are bisexual Bears. In this particular case, I’ve stipulated that the Bear or Bear-lover is gay.)

So why are bisexuals expected to a) discuss extremely personal details and b) have the word they use to describe their sexual orientation in the broadest possible terms reflect that level of detail?

Every one of us on this hurtling ball of dirt is a very complex individual. We all have the right to describe ourselves to whatever level of detail we’re comfortable with. We don’t need a single word to attempt to specify these complexities, we need to be able to describe ourselves in broad and general terms and reserve as much of our complexities for our intimates as we need to.

And that’s why I keep sweating over labels. Because they are meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

You. Straight guy reading this. You don’t feel attraction to that woman over there because you’re straight, you’re straight because out of the set of all possible people that you are attracted to, they will all share the attribute of being female-identified. I seriously doubt you’re attracted to every woman on the planet, though.

I’m bi because I am attracted to both people who are identified as being the same gender as myself, and people who identify as genders other than myself. This includes people who transcend gender, or who transition between poles of a gender binary. I don’t have these attractions because I’m bi, though – I would have them whether I have a label or not.

And it describes a large set of people I am potentially attracted to. It’s essentially the set of {all adult people I’m not related to}. But just because all the people who I am attracted to are in this set, it doesn’t mean that I am attracted to everyone in this set.

Because that’s all that the broad, general labels are – descriptions of very large sets of people that you can potentially be attracted to. For straight, or for gay or lesbian, for monosexuals in other words, the set is {half the population}. For me, it’s {just about everybody}.

But this set, for everyone, contains a much smaller set, the set of {people I am actually attracted to}. And for everyone, of every label, that smaller set is pretty small indeed, and while there may be words for more common subsets, it doesn’t mean that the big set is invalid.

Bisexuality confuses many people who aren’t bisexual – and, honestly, some people who are, but have internalized some or all of the negative messages laid on us by the mononormative world. They want to find out exactly who I can be attracted to, because that makes me easier to stick in a box, so that they can stay in their boxes. Hey, boxes are comfortable. You see me wandering around outside of a box, you figure that means the walls of your box have an exit too, and you’re either afraid you will find it, or afraid that you won’t.

This question, “so what is your precise spectrum of attraction?”, is nothing more than an attempt to stick me back in a damned box. No thanks. I’ll answer it if I have to, because let’s face it, as someone who is very public about his sexuality I have to accept that I will have to be comfortable answering questions that someone who is private about the personal stuff like sexual orientation and religion and position on the Autism Spectrum wouldn’t be. It’s part of my job, as an activist, as someone who wants to make changes in society, and I understand that a lot of the time the question is well-meant.

But there is absolutely no need for such a personal, intimate, and specific question to be answered by the single word of an identity label. No reason those who choose to answer it shouldn’t, but they should not be expected to do it with one word. And it should not be a standard that only non-monosexual identity should be expected to adhere to, in one word or many.

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About fliponymous

Bisexual activist, thinker, writer, husband, father, Licensed Professional Counselor.
This entry was posted in Bisexuality, Identity Politics (non-monosexual) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What Should Be In A Word?

  1. Matthew says:

    “One of the reasons bisexuality gets erased by gay culture is that we have not rejected heterosexuality, and so it is assumed that we have not rejected heteronormativity”

    This is a big issue I think for both bisexual men and women. I have noticed bisexual women can often range on a wide spectrum of very femme to very butch. Bisexual men on the hand are not necessarily unmasculine (I was a star football player) but my core personality is actually rather sensitive and I have noticed that to be consistent with most bisexual men. SO a heteronormative role in an opposite sex relationship is not what I am interested in AT ALL. In this way I think bimen in opposite sex relationships need a very special type of support from each other reinventing their gender role to forge healthier relationships. In my longest relationship with a woman I have often had straight men tell me how to be “the man”. My girl was both masculine and femme as was I, and in some ways it would have been more ideal for us to be creative in gender role and reject heteronormative ideas all together.

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