In what we call the bi+ or nonmonosexual communities, we have a problem with words. We have so many words to describe ourselves, not one of which keeps us all happy. We in-fight, we argue, and when we do, the word that takes the worst of the damage? Is ‘bisexual’.
I want to argue for ‘bisexual’. I want to say that bisexuality is nothing to do with men and women, nothing to do with binary gender or any of the accusations levelled against it. I want to say that it is, in fact, the single word that best describes the particularities of our experiences, and that has the potential to be incredibly politically powerful if we allow it to be. I want to argue that when we talk about nonmonosexuality, the most important thing isn’t the precise genders or gender presentations of the people we fancy. While that is really interesting to us all on personal levels, when it comes to representation and activism, it shouldn’t be our main focus. Instead, our focus should be on the ways in which society- including us, because we are part of society- behaves towards those of us who are attracted to and/or have (had) relationships with people of more than one gender.
This isn’t about relationships. It’s not about the people who you or I do or don’t fancy. It’s not about the precise nature of any of our own sexual/romantic orientations. It’s not about who you or I love, or about what that love feels like- although those are immensely valuable conversations to have within our communities, and I hope we keep having them for a long, long time.
This is about political reasons to use, or not to use, particular words. This is about why I believe this word is the best we’ve (yet!) come up with to define the issues common to our community- the experiences we have, the negative outcomes to our lives and our health that are caused by them, and the reasons why a group as numerous as us is as invisible and erased as we are. In short, while there are as many ways to be nonmonosexual as there are nonmonosexuals, there aren’t as many ways to be treated by society as a nonmonosexual as there are nonmonosexuals. And that is why we need ‘bisexual’.
Hold on to your hats (or make a cup of whatever you’re having), because this is gonna be a long ‘n’ bumpy ride*. Let’s start with some social theory, shall we?
There’s a thing called the social model of disability which has been gaining a lot of currency among disabled communities and activisms in recent decades. Mainly because it’s awesome. The basic idea behind this- with a massive caveat, by the way, that I am currently enabled and by no means an authority on this and if disabled people show up in the comments to disagree with this definition you should listen to them- is that disability (as opposed to physical impairment) is not a necessarily innate thing that just happens, but is in fact caused by the actions of the communities in which people live. In short, if you live in a place that’s built to be accessible to you and populated by people who treat physically impaired people as human, and with access to any assistance you require, you get to live a perfectly ordinary life, able to do the things you need/want to do. If you live in a place that is not built to be accessible to you, where basic services are denied you and where people treat you like you’re subhuman, life’s gonna be a hell of a lot more difficult because you are not able to do the things you need/want to do. In addition, the designation of certain things as ‘normal’ (glasses, cars, elevators, spoken language, the 9-5 workday, etc. etc.) and other things as abnormal (wheelchairs, canes, ramps, signed language, different patterns of work, etc. etc.) is wholly arbitrary and based on an ableist definition of what normality is in the first place.
In short: impairments are physical things, but disability is, according to the social model, something that is done to people by ableist societies. There’s, of course, a lot more to it than that, and I highly recommend having a noodle about the internet to read more.
Let’s go back to bisexuality. The common negative experiences of bisexuality- bi erasure, biphobia, and the liminal sense of disconnection from communities that too many of us feel- are not caused by the fact that we are attracted to people of more than one gender. They are caused by the way society is set up to erase and denigrate us. Our orientations may (or may not) be innate, but our experiences? Are socially created and done to us by intersections of homophobia, misogyny, oppositional oppressions and biphobias.
Let’s look at some of the other words that nonmonosexuals use to describe ourselves- why they are useful and important, and why I think they are insufficient on their own.
Queer it up?
‘Queer’ is a wonderful word. It’s a fantastic umbrella term for those of us with non-normative, non-hetero romantic/sexual orientations- and there’s something wonderful about a term that takes the ways that we’ve been othered and owns them. Queer is a massive two-fingers to homonormativity and respectability politics. It’s about prioritising ways of living love, sexuality, family, gender, romance, and community that are based on what works for and liberates the people in them, instead of what is deemed appropriate by the wider culture. How awesome is that? And it’s an umbrella term that acknowledges our shared experiences of oppressions, while not imposing a common narrative or identity. It’s bloody brilliant.
On the other hand, you can’t talk about ‘queer’ without acknowledging that the word we use to describe all of this is one which has been used to harm a hell of a lot of people within our community, and for many people those associations of harm outweigh all the good that we’ve created from it. That is legit.
And on the other-other hand? This brilliant yet damaged umbrella term can only be that- an umbrella. A person calling themselves ‘queer’ tells you a certain amount about them- that they’re probably not a cisgender heterosexual, that they are probably not politically in favour of assimilationist GGGG politics. That is essential, but also insufficient. We need more words to describe the myriad of experiences within the queer umbrella, or we risk losing the ability to speak of our distinctiveness and our differing needs and commonalities.
‘Queer’ is about one (glorious, gorgeous, wonderful) aspect of who we are. It is not enough. And- yes, by the way, this is something that I’m gonna have to ask some of you queer-ID’d people to grit your teeth through- the insistence of many people on IDing as queer-not-bi is one which, at least in part, stems from biphobia. But more about that later, after I’ve pissed off a whole other group of nonmono people. Gotta catch ’em all, like!
What about pansexual?
Pansexual is… complicated. It comes from an important place- the acknowledgement that there are more than two genders, and that bi people rarely have the experience of having two separate orientations. Pan feels like a massive fuck you to every time we’re asked “which we prefer” or “what percentage we are”. Pan says that it’s about people, not genders, and that is awesome.
It’s a huge pity that the way it does so- saying that attraction is to all genders- if it is used politically or to describe the community as a whole, erases gender in more than one way. On one hand, the word assumes that nonmonosexual people either are only attracted to two genders, or that gender is irrelevant to their attractions. There’s no space in ‘pan’ for people to have gendered attractions that have nothing whatsoever to do with men and women, for example- you can either be attracted to people along normatively gendered lines, or you must ignore gender entirely. And by saying that gender is irrelevant, it erases the expressed genders of the people that someone might be attracted to. Gender isn’t just for normatively-gendered cis people. Gender is for all of us, and for many of us it’s a huge part of how we express ourselves, how we move through the world, how we create our identity. Particularly for those of us who aren’t normatively-gendered cis people, this is a hell of an important thing to be recognised.
I’m not saying, by the way, that nobody should ID as pan. I know that it’s a word that fits many people’s sexual and romantic orientations. Remember, though- this isn’t an article about our personal identifications. This is about what words are most appropriate politically- how words define our experiences, and which of these are most useful.
But first, a little digression.
That biphobic elephant in the room
I love ‘pan’ and ‘queer’. They’re fantastic words, and one of them is one of my absolute favourite words to describe myself. To put it in far more words: I am not arguing against the fact that there are a diversity of labels that people in the bi+ umbrella choose to use. We all have differing experiences, orientations, and ways of understanding these, and that is a damn good thing. But their use to the exclusion of bi comes from biphobia.
Let me phrase that again, with entirely different emphasis: Their use, to the exclusion of bi, comes from biphobia.
There are certain biphobic threads that I have noticed within pansexual/queer communities and discourse. Things you hear all the time. Things like:
“I’m not bi- I don’t see gender”
“I’m attracted to the person, not the body”
“Bisexuals are attracted to men and women, but I’m capable of loving all kinds of people”
It’s kind of painful to read/hear, to be honest. But, y’know something? I know what it feels like to say things like that. I used to say those things. All of them. They are, of course, all bullshit.
We all see gender- we’re bathed in gender, whether we like it or not, in every interaction we have with another person from the moment we’re born. It’s one thing to say that we don’t want to live in a world divided along coerced gendered lines. It’s another thing to blithely go about your life pretending that you already do. To do that only ignores the myriad of gendered ways in which all of us act towards ourselves and others. Saying that you don’t see gender just ’cause you can be attracted to people regardless of it isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card from doing the painful work of dismantling your own internalised misogynies and heteronormativities.
As for the second? People who are attracted to multiple genders are no more or less likely than monosexuals to have physical traits they find attractive. And the idea that physical attraction is somehow less valid than, or exclusive of, attraction to someone as a person is the height of sex-shaming. There is nothing shallow or meaningless about being physically attracted to people. And being physically attracted to someone doesn’t mean for a second that you can’t fancy the hell out of their brains as well.
As for the third one? We’ll get to that, but suffice it to say that bi+ communities haven’t been using the definition of bisexuality as meaning attraction to men and woman for a long time.
I said earlier that I’m not here to rag on people who use pan or queer. That’s not what this has been for- hell, I use one of them myself, and used the other for a long time as well. I’m talking about this because all of these statements come from a painful-as-hell place of internalised biphobia, and none of them will, in the long run, do a damn thing to make anyone’s situation better.
Hell yeah, we internalise it.
You see, biphobia is, frankly, incredibly shit. Biphobia is horrible, particularly when you’re in the process of coming out, consolidating your own identity, and finding spaces where you can comfortably exist in that identity. Unlike monosexual queers, bi people don’t have the considerable luxury of numerous communities (both online and offline) where we don’t have to censor who we are. When we get, instead, is slim pickings of spaces where we can express this or that part of ourselves, with the constant awareness that other part has to keep silent for now and that our acceptance is always conditional. And the specificities of bi+ experience? You can forget about expressing those.
And remember this: oppressions and marginalisations are never things that are solely done by privileged groups. They’re things that we all experience, which shape all of our actions and thinking processes, and which privilege some of us and marginalise, oppress and erase others. All of us, including those marginalised, are complicit in our own marginalisation. We live in a biphobic society that tries desperately hard to erase our experiences. We are part of that society.
I understand why people might want to distance themselves from the ‘bisexual’ label. It’s a word that is used to dismiss our experiences, thrown at us to harm us, and it comes at us filled with negative implications- slut-shaming, greedy, indecisive, attention seeking, not real. And because bi+ community is something that most of us take too damn long to find (hello, bi+ erasure!), those connotations are the only ones we see for a long, long time. It’s not surprising that we turn our back from the word in droves.
Or: I really want to call this part How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The B, And So Should You
Or: Liminality: “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold”.
Right. We’ve heard a lot about what’s wrong with using other labels instead of bi, and very little about why this word is really important. To explain why, we’ll have to take a look at what the word means, what it could mean, and what this can illuminate about our experiences.
I mentioned earlier that bi+ communities haven’t been using the most commonly known definition of bisexuality- that of meaning attraction to both men and women- for a long time. The most common definition that is used instead runs something like this: attraction to people of the same and other (or similar and different) genders. It’s a hell of a lot better than the first definition, requiring no assumptions of a gender binary.
It’s better, but it misses the heart of the issue. The issue is this: bisexual experience is full of binaries. They do not come from within our selves or our attractions, but they permeate every aspect of our experience as bi people, and are a defining characteristic of our experience. Bi experience is liminal- a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. In other words, our experience- not necessarily our nature- is to be forced to inhabit a position constantly on a threshold. Constantly on a boundary. Constantly with one foot in the door, because our welcome is constantly conditional. Our experience is defined by the ubiquity and number of externally imposed binaries that we are constantly faced with.
What do you mean, binaries?
Let’s start in the middle- with the individual- and work our way out.
As a bi+ person, coming out and being out are, frankly, a pain in the ass. In my entire life, the only times I’ve ever been assumed to be bi without having to say the word were when I was giving talks and workshops on bisexuality, or at a specifically bi meetup. That’s it. On the other hand, I’ve been assumed to be either straight or gay all the damn time- probably every day of my adult life, with the average assumption generally based on how long it’s been since I’ve had a haircut or who I’m hanging out with at the time.
Mononormativity – the assumption of monosexuality – is ingrained everywhere. Even when people know that I’ve previously been involved with people of more than one gender (because I mention them in conversation), I’m generally assumed to be gay (it’s probably because of the haircut). Simply coming out and being out as a bi person can feel like a kind of tightrope walk, constantly being nudged to fall onto one side or the other.
Of course, the tightrope- like all tightropes- isn’t part of us. It’s just a thing we’re stuck walking on, which doesn’t make staying on it any less tough.
We occupy a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. We are forced into a binary.
And then we fall in love.
One of the most important divisions within how bi+ people navigate and experience relationships is not between whether the people we date are men or women- it’s whether they’re queer or straight. Queer/LGBTQ culture, with its DIY attitude towards gendered roles in relationships and with our common experiences of self-discovery, coming out, and being out, is its own particular thing. It’s a set of shared understandings, and gay people pretty much always have that in common with partners. Bi+ people? Not necessarily. And so much of queer cultures were created as a different way of thinking about and doing relationships more-or-less in opposition to heteronormativity. But as bi+ people, whether or not we come from within queer cultures and ways of doing relationships, our lives are often defined by our relationships happening both within and outside those cultures. Some of the people we love (of all different genders!) will be queer. Some of the people we love will be straight and will not have had- or may not understand at all- queer experiences and their significance. But we still have, and those relationships don’t take from the experiences that we have had and who they have made us.
We occupy a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. We are forced into a binary.
And then we go outside.
Leave the house with your partner. Walk down any street. Grab a coffee. Go visit your extended family. Go on holiday together. Live together. Have a family. Get sick. Grow old. In the meantime, go to work, or out with your friends. Talk about your lives. Do anything- anything– outside closed doors together with your partner. See what happens. Depending on how your relationship is viewed- as gay or straight, because our society brooks no middle ground- all of this will be different.
And it has nothing to do with you or your partner. This isn’t about you or about them. It’s about the assumptions made by others about them- assumptions that, of course, can either be relatively constant throughout your days and years, or vary between one pair of eyes that sees you and the next.
It varies. It changes. With one person you have all the respect and benign invisibility that heteronormative expectations (no matter how incorrect) can give you. With another you have to watch your back, and there will always be people who’ll sigh and call your love a waste. But while mononormativity demands that each of these experiences be neatly packaged into one person, both of these are or have been part of your life. Where you are given respect, a scared part of you is watching your back. Where you are not, you rage against that unfairness all the more because you know that this is no better or worse than that.
And you never, ever know for sure whether in a week or ten years you will be in a situation where you are seen as us and this, or as them and that.
We occupy a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. We are forced into a binary.
Why is the word important?
Let’s go back to the other words we can use- queer and pan. I said that queer, while wonderful, is an umbrella term and a way of creating cultures in opposition to heteronormativity. It’s not a specific orientation or set of imposed experiences. Queer is a word we choose, and that’s gorgeous. But we need something more. And pan, while wonderful, both makes the assumption of attraction to all genders (as opposed to the myriad ways in which non-monosexual people experience attractions), and focuses solely on our individual internal experiences. It’s about attraction- and that is marvellous- but it has nothing to say about how those attractions play out in a heterocentric, monocentric society.
Bi is important because we need a word (or set of words- biromantic is as important as bisexual) that both locates us as nonmonosexual and acknowledges the implications that has for our lives. A word that is specific to who we are within the umbrella groups where we locate ourselves, that acknowledges our nonmonosexuality, and that doesn’t gloss over the fact that this means that we will spend our lives straddling and navigating multiple binaries that refuse to have spaces created between or outside of them.
A word that acknowledges that we constantly, in a myriad of ways both personal and relational, are forced to occupy positions at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. I don’t know any other word that does that.
And it is only if we can name our experiences, call them out and show them for what they are, that we have a hope in hell of doing anything about them.
Editing to add: In response to a comment left here, my ideas on this have come to develop a LOT. Please do read the follow-on post to this- I think that what Kanika helped me to figure out is incredibly important. Possibly the most important thing out of all of this.
*hehheh. Long and bumpy ride. hehheh.
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