You can’t fight biphobia by erasing yourself. That’s what they want you to do.
There are a few different trails I want to explore today. Let’s walk, you and I, arm in arm, and not worry so much about how fast we are getting to the destination as on the journey itself. There are no straight lines in nature. Let’s just enjoy what we discover along the way. The Bog Loop explores the territory around conflicts over identity politics within the bisexual community (the “Label Wars”), the Chestnut Copse talks about myths and stereotypes, and Oak Peak looks at normatives. Now, in keeping with the metaphor, with the way I think and write, and the subject at hand, all three of these trails share a lot of the same undergrowth (some of which is daisies and bluebells, some of which is morels sprouting from rotten logs, and some of which has three leaves and white berries), and there are chestnuts in the bog just as surely as there are swampy patches around the liveoaks.
pre•scrip•tive /priˈskriptiv/ Adjective
1) Of or relating to the imposition or enforcement of a rule or method.
2) Attempting to impose rules of correct usage on the users of a language.
de•scrip•tive \di-ˈskrip-tiv\ Adjective
1) Referring to, constituting, or grounded in matters of observation or experience.
2) Factually grounded or informative rather than normative, prescriptive, or emotive.
3) Expressing the quality, kind, or condition of what is denoted by the modified term.
Green Grow The Rushes
The bisexual community has, for many years, been dismissed and erased just as surely as its individual members. Yes, we are an amorphous and heterogeneous community, but frankly no more so than any other community of Identity. Whenever I speak of the Bisexual Community, or make a statement that “Bisexuals (X)”, there is always someone waiting in the wings to point out that I don’t speak for all bisexuals, that no one can because we’re all different. I acknowledge that, and when I speak in person I am always careful to point that out. So take that as a given. I don’t speak for all of Teh Bi any more than Dan Savage speaks for all of Teh Gay. But these are distinctions that are only made within the LGBTQ community. As far as the Overculture is concerned, we are all the same.
And in important ways, we are.
If you don’t fit neatly into one of the two crisp and prescriptively defined monosexual categories, Straight or Gay, you are invisible. To use the Queer Theory concept of the cultural matrix, monosexuality has two boxes and people are shoehorned into one or the other. If you don’t, and you are loud enough about insisting that you don’t, you are at best assigned to some mythical fence where your lack of belonging completely to either puts you outside of and beneath consideration. (That’s a Chestnut, we haven’t quite gotten into the swamp yet, but feel how the ground is starting to get squishy underfoot, how the daisies are being replaced by ladyslippers?)
So a lot of people, especially people young enough to have Queer Theory with its prioritization of gender performance over sexuality and of rejecting that which rejects you as their key influence, have decided for whatever reason that Bisexual is just another box, and a loathsome one at that. Gee, I wonder why, when people like Judith Halberstam talk about how important it is to break away from the notions of straightness (via gender nonconformance) and, incidentally, classify bisexuality in women as being just a different form of being a Lesbian. When people like Sheila Jeffries (and her Tumblr acolytes) up the ante by claiming that everyone other than Gold Star Lesbians are oppressing everyone because Penises Are Bad. As a bisexual man, I get enough guff from the straight world telling me that liking them is horrible unless I’m a woman, in which case they are the only thing I should be authentically interested in. I don’t need it from the people who are supposed to be part of my community of mutual support.
The people I’m referring to are the people who have decided that any label or no label at all is superior to Bisexual. Anything But Bisexual. And they are not numerous. But they are loud.
And they derail every damned conversation we try to have about bisexuality in their efforts to justify their idea that there is something inherently wrong with the label, and their particular label or lack thereof is better, and bodies are not relevant.
It strikes me as some kind of twisted Puritanism. “Let’s take bodies out of the equation of sexuality.” You know what you have when you take the body out of sexuality?
Nothing. Bupkis. Zip. De nada. Love transcends mere flesh, I understand this. Sex, on the other hand, is sweaty and physically demanding and smells funny and is about the least abstract and dignified of all human activities involving one or more people.
If you divorce the flesh from considerations of sexuality, you’re left with something beyond hollow. Even the most abstract and convoluted parts of Queer Theory (yes, Judith Butler, I’m looking right at you) are fundamentally about bodies, and how they relate to themselves, each other, and society. You can talk about souls and minds and communion all you want, but no body=no sex.
The Label Wars serve to both divide and distract the bisexual community – and they keep bisexual activists from getting real work done. When you can’t form a bisexual support group without spending days or weeks or months debating how you’re going to get people to be comfortable by acknowledging their individual label (or lack thereof) when those ABB labels are themselves a tool of division, of setting people apart from the community by proclaiming that “I’m not like Them”?
When a support or activist group for monosexual gay women is formed, it’s a Lesbian group. Nobody argues about how the name should be sure to clearly state that it’s for butches and femmes. Same for a group for gay men.
When a group forms for everyone Under The Rainbow, it’s LGBTQ, sometimes LGBTQIA. Usually, but not always, the B and the T are only included in the initialism, of course, or in one or two desultory unpackings, but the rest of the content tends to show that LGBT is being used as a stand-in for LG and sometimes T if they stay right next to the door of the bus so they can be more easily chucked under the wheels if it will lend even a miniscule and momentary advantage to the cisgender Gay White Men who are in charge. (“Oh, yeah, QPOC? You can stand there right next to the T. We’re willing to use your money and numbers, but it’s not about you either.”) Shiri Eisner’s construction GGGG nails this ctrl-R inclusionism.
When a group for bisexuals forms? Holy moley, batten the hatches, better have something explicitly defining every possible variation of Anything But Bisexual ready to go! You don’t need a line or two, like you do for everyone else. Nope, you need pages and pages.
No wonder people like Dan Savage get away, year after year, with telling us we’re nothing but a bunch of closeted whiners who are really straights in queer clothing or confused kids who don’t know which way is up. You know his new book? The one that was supposed to “fix his bi problem?” All he does is up the ante again by repeating his assertion that being in the closet is entirely the fault of bisexuals rather than at least partially if not mostly on the shoulders of the people who erase and invalidate us, like he does, and drive many of us back into the closet because swimming against the tide is hard enough before you add in people like him who actively push us away from the shore. I’m going to read his book, because I need the bifurious rage, but I am certainly not going to buy it, because he deserves my money about as much as Orson Scott Card or Russia does.
Let’s look at the whole “no labels” thing for a second, which feels like the new battleground now that people have finally figured out that the biphobic (and, really, trans*phobic) definition of pansexuality that caught on for a while is, derp, offensive.
When Sally Ride was alive, she stayed pretty much in the closet. The evidence suggests that she was bisexual, having relationships with men and women. And she herself preferred No Label, for what I assume were both personal and professional reasons, as I think NASA would have kept her on the ground rather than painted rainbows on the Shuttle.
That’s her right. No one has to label if they feel that it’s to their benefit to isolate themselves from the community, as well as deny their community visibility (and in Ride’s case, deprive us of even the possibility of a powerful role model, even if she did not wish to be a spokesperson). I mean, Sally Ride, what a role model for girls who finally get to see that a woman can be shot into space, can be a scientist and an explorer and break free from the surly bonds of Earth. Just imagine for a moment what a role model she could have given to bi youth.
But that’s not actually my point, because no one should be forced to be a role model if they don’t want to be. Sally Ride chose her battles and decided that she wanted to focus on getting women out of the JAFO seat and into the pilot’s.
My point is that as soon as she died and was posthumously outed, the GL community was all over her. “First Lesbian in Space!” They co-opted her as a symbol, and not as a Queer symbol, not as an LGBT symbol, but as a specifically Gay symbol, with all the baggage that comes with it. (More about that when we get out of the swamp.)
What’s the lesson here? If you are an advocate of the No Labels label?
You not only have a label, but you are also going to be given a label, against your express wishes. Sure, it’s nice to imagine a world where there are no labels for sexual orientation. Well, maybe not so nice. After all, if you are in the dating scene, it’s nice to be able to tell before you go the bar (if you are going to get beat up or at the very least summarily and impersonally rejected if you make a pass at someone who has a different attitude about what constitutes an acceptable sex/gender pairing) whether the average person in said bar has similar attitudes about human sexuality and sexual orientation as you do. And even if you are not in the dating scene – I am 500% times more comfortable in a bar that caters to a queer clientele, and 1000% if I know that the owners and patrons aren’t biphobic such as my local Biology 701, than I am in any old run-of-the-mill watering hole. (Side note: There is one kind of bar that isn’t queer-oriented that I am perfectly comfortable in, by the way, and that’s what I call “a drinker’s bar”. You know the place. It’s dark, it’s quiet, there’s no jukebox, and the only people who talk there are the regulars who are either retired or wish they were. The plants are half-dead and the popcorn is stale. It’s a place that exists only for people who just want a quiet drink or six, and to have people around that they don’t have to talk to. Side side note: since I was about 30, it’s rare for me to have more than a glass of wine or sherry every couple of months if that often. But it is impossible to talk about Queer Community without mentioning bars. That is, after all, where our communities started, and I’m not just talking about Stonewall.)
In fact, the No Labels crowd reminds me a bit of the people who claim we live in a post-racial society. Even worse, they remind me of the people who just encountered Kinsey for the first time and conclude that “everyone is bisexual”. Because we don’t need no stinking labels, because if people would just open their minds they would see that in the dark it doesn’t matter.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, if you are prohibited from knowing anything about your partner. But relationships (and most good sex, heh) are conducted in the light. Where you do know at least something about the person(s) you are with. And if you tell me that there should be No Labels, the only thing you’re telling me is that you are almost certainly not straight (the exception being people who have made the privilege of obliviousness into a high art) and probably not strictly gay. (It also tells me that you have formed some sort of bad association with whatever label probably describes you. There are exceptions – if you are one of them, I’m not talking about you in the previous sentence.)
The No Label label is a rejection of labels and thereby a rejection of reality. If you really, truly want this to be a world where labels don’t matter, then you have to work for it. And simply saying “I’m not going to play” isn’t working for it. It’s actually working against it. Sort of like people who protest someone they don’t like being elected by not voting in the next election. Taking away your voice weakens the movement. The people who oppose your goals want you to shut up and sit down. That’s how they win.
Being quiet may be safer for you. I dig that. But if you have gone so far as to take a formal stance that you don’t label your sexual orientation, then you’ve already got a label from the Overculture, and let me assure you that it is one you are going to like less than L, G, B or T.
There’s also the overall label of Queer. I’m cool with that one, actually. If you show up at a bisexual support group or in a bisexual space and say “I’m Queer” you’re probably not going to get a lot of grief from me, if you are consistent about it, and not using it as a way to prescriptively define Bisexual as something you don’t want anything to do with.
And that last point? That’s where the swamp gets deep, and things that bite live, and that stuff squirming around your toes may be mud or may be something else entirely.
Before the yelling starts, let me repeat something I’ve said before. Call yourself anything you want. Because your label is descriptive. If you Identify yourself as pansexual because you want your personal individual label to reflect a particular attitude about gender politics, that is your inalienable right. But don’t prescribe. Don’t use your personal choice of how you describe your individual constellation of sexual attractions to, er, what are the words I am looking for? Oh yeah. “Attempt to impose rules of correct usage on the users of a language.” So call yourself by an ABB label, but don’t tell me that your slang needs to become my label, or the label of my community. Some would say that because language changes, the community label will change. That may be true. But you know what? It’s not going to change because some people try to claim that the very word that the community is Identified means something other than what it means because some Queer Theorist who has an investment in erasing bisexuality commits an etymological fallacy. As soon as you say the community label is the wrong one because it doesn’t “capture the nuances of my attraction” or “fully describe me” then you’ve lost sight of the truth: Community Identity Labels don’t capture the nuances of or fully describe anybody. They aren’t intended to. They are a flag to raise high and show us where to gather to do what we need or want to do, not the reason to gather there itself. You don’t have to change your label to participate in the Bisexual Community, you simply have to quit telling us that we should change ours.
The Lesbian and Gay communities, and to a large extent the Trans* community, appear to have settled their label issues. But there are people in the L and G communities that have some pretty potent reasons to despise bisexuality and by extension bisexuals (hint: read Kenji Yoshino), and while I’m not insane enough to call it a conspiracy, I can call it a strong tendency in parts of the L and G communities to want us, as the Bisexual Community, to be discohesive, fractious, uncertain, unsettled, and appear to be at each other’s throats. You can’t combat biphobia by erasing yourself. That’s exactly what they want you to do. Because by doing that, they can keep throwing the old chestnuts at us.
Let’s Play Conkers
Mythbusting is a triple-edged sword. On one edge, the Three Basic Myths About Bisexuality are used against us constantly. On another, even the act of repeating the myths in order to combat them merely reifies them, fixes them in the minds of the people we’re trying to reach (psychological fact, by the way, if you repeat a myth in order to fight it six months later people will remember the lie rather than the refutation. There are studies). And the third edge, the hidden killer in most mythbusting, is that when it’s done in knee-jerk style (which is generally is, quick, go google “bisexual myths” and you’ll see exactly what I mean) it falls prey to the assimilative impulse, paints a group of “bad bisexuals” in order to highlight the rest as “good bisexuals”.
Here are the people that get demonized the most, by our own side.
And the fluid.
The standard mythbusting post tries to fit into 1000 words what I’ve taken 75,000 to barely get started on. By nature it compresses and oversimplifies things. Now, I’m not dismissing the people who have these “10 Myths Busted” pages. In fact, it was a “Let’s Bust The Top Dozen Myths About Bisexuality” post, over on Facebook, that really started this blog and my evolution from “guy who doesn’t fit in” to “blogger and activist”. (And, yes, my activism doesn’t have as much of the boots on the ground aspect as many others, but some of that is time and circumstance while a big chunk of it is providing resources to the community and the other activists in it – I’m not the person on top of the hill with the megaphone, I’m the person writing articles that the people writing the speeches for the aforementioned Megaphone person can mine for metaphors, information, and hopefully a good line or two.)
I look at that original post now, and I can see the seeds of this work in it. It’s clumsy and way too short to have any real depth, but even then I was starting to recognize that you don’t fight the detrimental effects of, for example, people assuming that bisexuals are incapable of sexual fidelity by insisting that bisexuals don’t sleep around.
Of course, some of us do exactly that. I’d be willing to bet that it’s in about the same proportions as straight and gay people do. And there’s also the other kicker in that particular mythbusting that puts down the polyamorous bisexuals by implying (or even directly stating) that they’re inferior to monogamous bisexuals – by saying that polyamory and cheating are the same thing, and so the only good bisexual is a monogamous bisexual. Monogamous bisexuals exist (hell, I am one). So do polyamorous bisexuals. Because: monogamy and polyamory have exactly nothing to do with sexual orientation. They are as orthogonal as gender identity and sexual orientation.
(Some dark humor for me, by the way, comes from some polyamorous people who tell me that I’m hurting myself by being monogamous, going “against human nature”. That I am denying myself the full measure of sexual experience by being with one person. This is the same phenomenon at work, people – you cannot gain acceptance for yourself by saying “Well, I’m superior to/more evolved than you.”)
I’ve been wandering here amongst the chestnut trees, trying to get to one in particular. The Chestnut Copse is a tangle of paths, and I have only charted a few of them, but there are a few trees that stand higher than others. Ah, there it is. It’s a tall one, about three-quarters of a century old, and the ground around it is littered with spiky chestnuts that a lot of people play games with, or eat as a snack, but that hurt when you step on them – or when they are thrown at you.
And can you see it, carved on the trunk? “Everyone is bisexual.” The knife that carved the message was wielded by people who think Kinsey said everything that needed to be said, by people who confuse bisexual behavior with bisexual identity.
Yes. It’s possible that every single person in the world, under the right circumstances, could behave in a manner that can be described as bisexual. We all know gay men and lesbians who were married and hated it, or were trying to fool themselves. We all know someone who presents as straight and somewhere in their past has some experience or even passing thought that could be described as a bisexual one.
But that’s not what Identity is. Identity, especially when we’re talking about sexual orientation identity, is twofold: it’s saying who I am, and saying what community I belong to. Steven Barnes writes a lot about how humans are tribalistic, and while there are some pretty potent downsides to that, there are upsides too – and it’s a part of human nature. Anyone who has watched little kids knows that we will always form tribes. All we can do is try to build a society where the upsides of this human way of doing things reflects the positive aspects rather than the negative ones.
Proclaiming a Bisexual Identity, as part of the larger Teh Queer tribe, serves a purpose.
Walking around saying “Everyone is bisexual” is an attempt to erase my tribe. Which erases me. And I’d like to ask bisexual people to stop doing it. Stop now.
Recently I was on a Huffington Post Live segment that was purportedly about biphobia. However, what it turned into, and what the takeaway was, is that “Everybody is bisexual, try it, you’ll like it.” That wasn’t helpful at all. Since it was my first appearance on HuffPo Live (and only my second appearance online in a video that involved more people than just me reading a script I had written) I wasn’t very confident or assertive and so wasn’t able to seize the opportunity to refute the words of two/thirds of the other guests. (It’s much easier to be confident as a blogger, where you can edit your words before they come out. You really do NOT want to know what I cut out of this article, btw. What you are reading now is short a thousand word rant that probably would have made quite a few people pretty angry.)
“Everyone is bisexual” is cut from the same cloth as “No Labels”. It is an attempt to diminish rather than embrace your differences, and it tells the rest of the world you think you’re more evolved/in tune with/advanced than they are. It neither helps individuals nor builds community.
We need to chop down the chestnut trees, folks. But we can’t just come in and hack at them without taking steps to ensure that what grows here isn’t that poison oak that’s only being held back by the roots of the trees. We can’t cut them down and walk away, because all those old chestnuts on the ground will just sprout and grow, Hydra-like. And we can’t scorch the earth when we clear the hill or nothing will grow there – and using “Everyone is bisexual” as the tool to combat biphobia is exactly like clearing your garden spot with an airstrike. Sure, the weeds are gone, but so is the garden. You don’t destroy the community in order to save it.
You can’t combat biphobia by erasing yourself. That’s what they want us to do. It lets them find a niche within the normative rather than need to challenge it.
From Such A Little Acorn
I mentioned earlier, in my discussion of Sally Ride, that there is a lot of baggage that comes with being gay. There’s actually a lot of baggage that comes with any sexual orientation, gay, straight, or bi.
The baggage that would have come with Sally Ride, if she had identified as a lesbian, was her marriage. A marriage that certainly seemed happy and authentic enough to someone like me who didn’t even know she’d been married. (I know nothing about the romantic entanglements of real astronauts other than that case where the stalker drove cross-country in Depends, and that Gabby Giffords was married to one. Ask me about fictional astronauts, ‘nother story there.)
But if you’ve been in a long-term mixed-gender relationship, and then you come out as gay, that is a big question. Was it real? Was it a cynical beard to cover, was it self-hatred or self-deception? Was your spouse a willing partner or duped?
This is a piece of gay baggage that is encouraged by monosexual normativity. Because the normative, the forces that push us into the mold that society deems acceptable, the dare I say prescriptive, is “either/or”. If you like snails, you must not be able to stand even the thought of oysters, and if you adore oysters, you must have an abiding hatred for snails. Not just like one and don’t care about the other.
No, the normative that society prescribes for us is love/hate. What you don’t want, you must actively and wholly despise.
And when you look at it that way, it starts to make sense. Standing on the peak, under the oak trees, you can see all the way across the wooded valley we’ve just walked through.
It’s simply forbidden to feel an attraction to X without an equal and equivalent repulsion for Y.
This is the gay man who claims to become nauseous when they think about lady parts and calls women “fish”. This is the radfem who says that gay men are twice as bad as straight men because they not only have penises, but want them too.
And this, I think, is one of the reasons why some people think that being bisexual is anti-trans* to the point that they must label as anything but. Let me tell you, this has been puzzling me since the first time I heard it. Now, I am not going to say that there is no trans*phobia present in the bi community, that bisexuals cannot be trans*phobic because they are bi. No, what I am saying is that trans*phobic bisexuals are trans*phobic because they are trans*phobes, not because they are bisexual.
Here’s how it works. People who are steeped in this normative binary of love/hate look at the word bisexual. They apply the etymological fallacy and decide that since the prefix “bi” means two, it means that bisexuals can be attracted to two – and only two. Now, I have seen some truly strange constructions of this. Some people claim it means that bisexuals must be in a relationship with two other people at any given time. Some people bizarrely insist that bisexuals are attracted to only two possible sexes/genital configurations out of all the possibilities.
But most seem to grab onto the definitions put out before Gender Trouble, when Trans*gender wasn’t on the radar, when intersex was still called “hermaphroditism”. When bisexual was defined (the way it still is by organizations like the APA) as “sexually attracted to men and women.” This is a definition that still works for a lot of people, by the way. It is included in the more modern and inclusive definition of “Attracted to people of the same and other genders.” You still see the “men and women” shorthand, I’m guilty of using it myself at times, because sometimes using three words instead of seven happens. We’re all human. It is especially hard to say anything about a cisgendered person’s attraction to Trans*gender people without coming off as some kind of fetishist (thanks, modern pornographers, for turning every facet of sexual attraction into something dehumanizing and othering, by the way.)
And they decided that if the word meant we could love two, we must therefore hate everyone else. If we were attracted to two, we obviously were actively hostile to anyone else. And that because the language predated Queer Theory’s ideas about challenging gender and used cisnormative terminology, it must mean it was related only to cisgender attraction. (Note: the word cisgender was coined in the mid 1990s, about ten years after I figured out I was bisexual. Sorry, no one jumped in a time machine to tell my that my use of the term that had been used to describe people like me would be artificially brought into conflict with a word that had not yet been uttered anywhere in the world and so could I kindly just use the terms that would be prescribed rather than the word that describes.)
Is it really that simple? I think that it may be. Queer Theory is obsessed with binaries. Read some Sedgwick or Halberstam or Butler and tell me it isn’t. And this obsession with binaries, which is supposed to disrupt them, reifies them, cements them into actualities. While claiming to be about breaking down the binaries, much Queer Theory simply creates more and more and more binaries.
You know what breaks down binaries? Bisexuality. Because bisexuals are living proof that you don’t have to hate X in order to love Y. Or vice versa.
There is much, much more to say about normatives, but it’s getting late. Let’s camp here in the woods, and we’ll finish exploring the oaks here atop the hill in the morning, and maybe we will eventually find our way to the meadow that the rainbow launches itself into the sky from.