Thursday, March 4, 2010

In defense of "bisexual"

It's 2010, and we are still having this discussion. There have been good posts on this subject before - find one at Queer Subversion and another at the Bisexual Index. If you know any more I'll add them to the list. I want to add my $0.02 to the discussion just so's I've got something down here in my own words. I tried to write about this around a year ago, but I think this time around I've put it down clearer.

I've been told for years by some people that I basically shouldn't or can't use the chosen label of "bisexual" because I am reinforcing the gender binary. Other people I know have actually been told that by continuing to use "bisexual," they are directly oppressing trans people. Now, I'm fine with people who experience attraction to more than one gender who choose not to use the label bisexual for whatever reason. What I am NOT okay with is when you tell me I gotta change my own label. NOT OKAY. First of all, you have no right to tell someone to change their label, ever. Secondly, you need to recognize that I may have indeed thought about the meaning of this word, and I might actually have some good reasons for using it.

This post contains some generalizations about bi people. I'm making these generalizations based on my involvement with bi communities for several years. I think they are fair generalizations. If you have had a lot of involvement with bisexual communities, and you have had a different experience, I'd like to hear about it.

I call myself bisexual because I experience attraction to people. I don't use gender or sex as the first criterion for dating. I am not monosexual. What draws me to people is not (or not just) what's in their pants. I have loved people of multiple genders and I expect that trend to continue.

Here are some clarifications and points about bisexuality, the gender binary, and various labels:
  • Many, and possibly the majority of, bisexuals love who they love based on non-sex-related criteria.
    I am using "sex" in the biological sense here.
    I can count the number of people on one hand whom I've met who are bi and who would only date a cisgender/cissexual person. If you ask a bisexual what bisexuality means to them, they'll often give you an answer along the lines of, "It means I love without gender." Even if their answer to that question is, "I am attracted to men and women," ask them if they would date a trans person. They'll usually say, "Absolutely!" There are some bisexuals who are attracted to people and not so much their gender. There are some who love androgyny. There are some who love the extremes of femininity and/or masculinity. But that doesn't necessarily mean they only want to date "women" and "men."

  • Bisexuals are usually strong trans allies.
    We know what it's like to be left out of the movement. Seriously. We're sick of it too. Do you know how many times we've been "gaywashed" or "straightwashed" and made invisible? Do you know how much biphobia we've had to put up with from people who ought to be our allies? Because we're not straight or gay, we do actually know what it's like to fall outside a binary.
    There is a story in Bi Any Other Name (I think) about a group of bisexuals that refused to join a gay and lesbian march unless trans folk were also included. The gay and lesbian groups were willing to include the bi folks in their march, but not the trans people. The bi people didn't see that as an option, because they understood that we are all in this together.

  • Some trans and genderqueer people identify as bisexual.
    Surprise! (Are we oppressing ourselves?)

  • Using the word bisexual acknowledges the bisexuals that have come before us and puts us within that movement as well.
    What do you know about bisexual movements? Bi Any Other Name is a great book to start with. The people who have come before me and done so much work for us are my heroes. I am proud and honored to stand with them as a fellow bisexual.

  • "Bisexual" is a word that most people know.
    It's something that they have usually heard of. It gives us a starting point to explain ourselves and our attractions. It starts a conversation. That's hugely important.

  • Queer is not a synonym for bisexual, so it won't work as a replacement label.
    What queer means depends on who you ask. It could be a political label, a synonym for gay, an insult, a reclaiming of an insult, a word for non-heteronormative sexuality... But queer is not just a substitute for bisexual. It doesn't work that way, sorry. I personally started using bisexual after I had identified as queer, because queer simply wasn't specific enough for me. Today I call myself bisexual and queer.

  • Many individual pansexual people are wonderful. Pansexual communities sometimes have a holier-than-thou attitude.
    Okay, so maybe this is not very nice. But it's the truth. I know some damn fine pansexuals who accept me just the way I am. If you want to call yourself pansexual, that's great! I am all about people using whichever label they feel works best for them. However, I can't tell you how much of a turn-off it was to go to a popular pansexual forum and read stuff like, "Bisexuals are so unenlightened for still using the word bisexual." I'm just not eager to be a part of that community. Plus, were I to use some other label besides bisexual for semantic reasons, I'd rather use one like "sapiosexual," because I'm attracted to humans, not everything.
I want to know why the correctness of labels is an issue that people criticize bi people about, but the same people aren't going after self-identified lesbians and gay men. Most lesbians aren't actually from the isle of Lesbos. Gay men aren't literally always happy. Why is there so much pressure on bisexuals to change their label and be more accurate? Where is the criticism for lesbians and gay men?

The word "bisexual" has the prefix "bi-," meaning two. Well, the word "feminist" has the prefix "fem-" That prefix means means related to females or women, right? Is a feminist someone who places women's rights over everyone else's? No. The word may look like that, but that's not what most feminists feel that the word means. It's the same thing with bisexual. Just because it has the prefix "bi-" doesn't mean that the word ought to be taken literally. In fact, the dictionary's first definition of bisexual isn't even the definition that most people would give; it says, "hermaphroditic."

It's true that labels may not be perfect. That doesn't mean they are useless. Sometimes we need a label for visibility. Sometimes we need a label to clarify. Labels are not the end of the discussion. Labels are a starting point.


Anonymous said...

Yes yes YES! I agree with your assessment 100%!

Anonymous said...

thank you. You put the words right in my mouth! cheers, kara

Anonymous said...

Really awesome post. Simple and to the point. Lovely. Thank you. lili

Amy said...

Thank you. This is fabulous! One thing I have told folks is, even if the "bi" in bisexual meant I was attracted to two genders, how would you know which two? ;^)