We Are Bisexualised: Wherein I was wrong.

Kanika Ameerah left what I feel is a really important comment on last week’s post Boundaries, thresholds and love: why it’s time to take back ‘bi’Here’s what she had to say:

I personally don’t identify as bisexual, and find the word problematic not because of the gender binary issue, but because I find it too simplistic to encompass the various types of orientations, identities and experiences in one neat term.

There are some people who are biromantic, and can love either gender, while others are more fluid in orientation. Then there are many people who strongly prefer one gender for relationships, while their attraction to the other is more physical. I believe that the aforementioned scenarios are all completely different orientations, and should be seen as such.

I responded in comments, but I want to bring it up here because it’s related to an incredibly important point that I hadn’t thought of until I read it. I think, you see, that I was wrong.

I argued the other day in defence of the term bisexual as a term to use politically, even if it doesn’t exactly describe our own orientations. I didn’t speak at all there about my experience of my own orientation. I didn’t feel it was particularly relevant. But Kanika reminded me, among other things, about the mindblowing revelation that was my learning about the difference between romantic and sexual attractions. I don’t want that either that awareness or any of the distinctions within the nonmono communities sacrificed at the altar of a common political aim. That feels too much like the way that LG organisations tell bi+ people that we don’t need representation, because our issues are so similar to theirs.

How can we be a bisexual community when many of our members would describe themselves as biromantic? How can we be inclusive of, say, biromantic asexual people if we insist on using a word that includes ‘sexual’? I don’t want to be part of a community that erases its members in favour of my own interests. Not now, not ever.

What do we do, then? We look back to social models. One of the steps that proponents of the social model of disability take is to describe themselves not as people with disabilities, but as disabled people– people who have been disabled by society. Similarly, people like myself would be described as enabled people– people who society physically enables as we go about our days. The focus, always, on the action that society takes.

I was wrong.

We do not need to call ourselves a bisexual community when so many of our members don’t feel that label describes their orientation. We don’t need to sacrifice identity for politics. Because whether we’re bisexual, biromantic, panromantic asexuals, aromantic bisexuals, homoromantic bisexuals or any other shade of the bi+ umbrella, one point I made in my earlier post rings true: we are bisexualised.

I know a bunch of you read this just the other day, but I’m going to quote from that post I wrote:

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.

A little bit later, I said this:

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.

I said I don’t know any other word that does that, and then I said that we needed to call our experiences out and show them for what they are.

I didn’t know any other word that does that. But today it’s clear as can be that the word that I was using– bisexual– was woefully insufficient to describe our bi+ experiences. We are bisexualised. Whatever our own experiences of our romantic/sexual orientations– if we are attracted to more than one gender, we are bisexualised. We are forced into a binary. That binary is, whether we like it or not, a sexualised one. Our experiences are sexualised: we are forced to deal with sexualised stereotyping and sexualised erasure. Both of these are imposed upon us from outside by a society that refuses to deal with bi+ people as fully realised humans and to acknowledge our attractions and love in anything other than a stereotyped or erasive way.

So, I’m calling on you– the bi+ community, all of you bi and pan and nonmono queer people reading this– let’s start using bisexualised. Let’s use whatever labels we damn well please to describe our own orientations, but to gather as people who have been bisexualised when we need to work together for our recognition, inclusion and dignity.

Because our own identities are useless if we can’t create communities, communities are useless if they erase our identities, and it’s high time that we placed responsibility for our recognition and inclusion on society at large, where it belongs.

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5 thoughts on “We Are Bisexualised: Wherein I was wrong.

  1. 1

    When I say I am bisexual, I am not referring to two genders. I am fully aware that sexuality is a complex gradient. When I speak of sexual orientation, I think of homosexuals as being exclusively attracted to people of the same gender, heterosexuals as being exclusively attracted to a gender different from their own, and bisexuals as being attracted to both people of their gender and people of a different gender. Herein lies the binary. But I think everyone should define themselves however they choose and I have no problem with it whatsoever.

  2. 2

    I’d never use that term* because I don’t feel that my orientation is something imposed on me from outside, as though other people get to define what makes me me. To do so would make me feel like I’m saying I’m a victim of something**.

    *For reasons that are a long story, I don’t tend to use any self-identifying label at all, but bisexual is the one that I probably would should the occasion arise.
    **Okay, so in a small*** way I am (v. the “long story” referred to above), but I think of it more like being a victim of circumstance, not something that implies a sense of a total lack of agency.
    ***I’m not including bisexual erasure or homophobia in that description. Obviously those are quite serious issues per se.

    1. 2.1

      Hmm.

      I think one thing I want to make clear- that I didn’t make clear in this as much as I should have- is the separation I want to create between terms we use to ID ourselves and terms to describe social phenomena. I do use bisexual as an identifying label for myself, and I don’t see that as something that should be exclusive of using ‘bisexualised’ to describe the experiences of the wider bi+ community.

      Acknowledging that we are subject to oppressive and marginalising forces is the same as claiming some kind of victimisation. I’d object pretty strongly to that, in fact- it feels a lot like the way that people describe feminists and whatnot as claiming victimisation when we’re just pointing out the stuff that happens to us.

      When I use the word ‘bisexualised’, I’m referring specifically to the ways in which all nonmonosexual/nonmonoromantic people have to deal with bi erasure, fetishisation, tokenisation, and a consistently conditional un/welcome in LGBT spaces. Acknowledging those things isn’t saying that we’re somehow victims.

  3. 3

    I think to a great degree that this reflects my thoughts on the matter. One caveat that I would add is that the word bisexual comes to us almost directly from victorian “inversion” theory, under which, homosexuality was envisioned as a gender disorder and bisexuality reluctantly added to the schema to explain people who didn’t quite fit as fully feminine men, or masculine women. It is distinctly weird to me in the 21st century to be stereotyped within some segments of the multi sexual community as being focused on gender conformity, when the abuse and discrimination I experienced during the first half of my life was based on the premise that that I was queer, feminine, and promiscuously eclectic in my choice of partners.

    But beyond that, I am not convinced that labels can do much more than serve as an introduction, or hook into an elevator pitch for a process of qualitative self disclosure. Human sexuality can be described, but it can’t be conveniently categorized or even mapped to a multi-dimensional construct such as the Klein grid. I use the term “bisexual” because that is the term of art for over a century of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and abuse. That it is a social construction doesn’t change the fact that it is a political reality that shapes my life. I feel distinctly uncomfortable when people attempt to reify additional categories along those lines.

  4. 4

    I see, also “victimized” could describe that there is something that society does to people that we are trying to point out, and not that groups are claiming special privledges.

    I have heard disabled people described this way before, but now I finally start to get it. The language still sounds clunky to me but the concept is powerful. It is ironic that anti-feminists accuse feminists of trying to be a separate, privileged group of victims. When what is actually happening is feminists complaining about society putting people is separate groups and treating them differently based on (often unimportant) differences.

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