The Bisexual Is The Political

Two years ago I finally decided to identify as bisexual out loud.

Finding a label that helped me understand my sexual orientation was both exciting and scary. It was exciting because I felt a lot more at peace with my internal struggle of understanding who I am, as I have always been deeply in touch with my sexuality and feelings. It was scary, though, because I had to deal with my own internalised biphobia, social expectations and, well, the judgemental people and voices in my head.

Since then, I have talked more openly about my bisexuality with my partner, friends, family and my feminist online community. And with this – and a whole lot of reading – I’ve found myself tired of hearing the accusation that  bisexual individuals are cissexists because they supposedly reinforce the gender binary.

Drawing from Julia Serano‘s wonderful insights in her latest book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive and Shiri Eisner’s amazing blog Radical Bi, I will explain the importance of the label bisexual, as opposed to “more inclusive terms” such as pansexual or omnisexual, within the queer movement because of the uniqueness of our struggle against monosexism and bi-erasure.

Before we continue, I’d like to clarify that I am not against people identifying with the labels BMNOPPQ (bisexual, multisexual, no label, omnisexual, pansexual, polysexual, queer). Everyone has the right to identify as they want. I am just advocating for the use of bisexual* as an umbrella term to create a strong bisexual* community against our unique struggles. 

Bisexual and transgender with the asterisk (*) at the end signify umbrella terms. 

Is Bisexuality Cissexist? Or Is Pansexuality Biphobic?

There are many different definitions of the word bisexual. These definitions vary from person to person and their individual experiences. However, the traditional definition of bisexual denotes a person that feels sexual and/or romantic attraction to people of both the same and different genders. So, there is the implication of being only two genders by using ‘attraction towards both genders’.Other traditional definitions replace ‘same and different genders’ with men and women, making it more explicit. These definitions are assumed to reinforce the gender binary and; as a result, are accused of being cissexist

But, there are other definitions of bisexuality that are gaining momentum. Julia Serano defines bisexual in her book as “people who do not limit their sexual experiences to members of a single sex or gender”. What is the dichotomy being used in here? She makes the case that being heterosexual, gay or lesbian reinforces the gender binary just as much as the traditional definition of bisexual since they are exclusively attracted to the opposite or the same genders. Same/Opposite dichotomy, anyone? And they are not even using the words men and/or women!

The Bisexual Index enlightens us by saying that the definition of heterosexual, gay and lesbian have changed over time because now people recognise the existence of more than two genders. For this reason, heterosexual, gay and lesbian are now defined as people that feel sexual and/or romantic attraction to people of a broadly different or similar gender, respectively. Gender is a norm and so, it kind of exists like a rigid box (take, for example, men and women), but actually, no gender performance (for lack of a better word) is ever the same. Your gender, my gender, his, her, zie gender might be similar in expression, but they are all unique!

The Bisexual Index defines bisexual as the possibility for romantic and/or sexual attraction for people of more than one gender. 

But regardless of these definitions that acknowledge all genders, there are individuals that advocate for the complete elimination of the word bisexual for its ‘inherent’ cissexism. Some individuals who claim that bisexual is only about attraction towards men and women, may choose to identify as pansexual, queer or less popular labels like omnisexual, polysexual, multisexual or no label at all.

The word pansexual denotes a person that can feel romantic and/or sexual attraction towards people of all gender identities and expressions. Or as it is often described, a pansexual individual feels romantic and/or sexual attraction towards people, regardless of their gender identity and expression.

So, speaking from my point of view, the two are very similar. In fact, a lot of people use them interchangeably. If so, why do people keep fighting over the use of these terms? Is it to find who is the queerest of us all?!

While there are many similarities between bisexual and pansexual (and not just the fact that we feel attraction towards more than one gender), there is one crucial difference that provides the answer to the question asked above.

Activist Shiri Eisner explains in this blog post and Julia Serano explains in her book that bisexuality focuses on sexual identity while pansexuality focuses on gender identity and expression. This means that those two different identity labels are concerned with different oppressive binary structures: bisexual is concerned with the hetero/homo dichotomy that reproduces monosexism (we’ll get to that in a bit!) and pansexual is concerned with the sex/gender binary that reproduces cissexism. 

So, basically, when a person identifies as pansexual, they prioritise ending the oppression – in the form of cissexism and transphobia – that their possible partners might suffer because of their gender identity and expression. This means they are actively seeking to undermine the assumption that what’s between your legs determines if you feel like a man or woman (a.k.a. the sex/gender binary). In short, pansexual individuals focus on making explicit their attraction towards trans* and genderqueer people to end transphobia. 

But when a person identifies as bisexual, they prioritise ending the oppression they face – in the form of monosexism and biphobia – by feeling attraction towards more than one gender.  In a society that has conditioned us to think that people can only be attracted to the same or different gender (gay/straight), claiming a bisexual* identity is both revolutionary and radical since we are proving that we exist and that we are not invisible since our sexual orientations are always defined depending on who we are fucking. It is an act that aims to destroy monosexism and bisexual invisibility (if you aren’t sure of what these two mean, click here for my blog post about it!).

With this, I am not saying that bisexuals are fighting a different fight than pansexuals. Indeed, we have the same goal towards liberation. But just as much as there is transphobia within bisexual circles (sadly!!), there is biphobia in pansexual circles (also, very sad!). This is because of the fact that, regardless of the history behind the bisexual movement and our unique struggle against monosexism and bi-erasure, pansexual individuals choose to identify as such because they don’t want to reinforce the gender binary (and as we saw, bisexual individuals do not reinforce the gender binary any more than heterosexual, gay, lesbians and some trans* people supposedly do). That seems pretty biphobic to me. And frankly, it sounds like the start of the Queer Olympics.

Julia Serano quotes Shiri Eisner’s work in her book because both of them are two bisexual academics in the trans* spectrum that demand the bisexual* community to prioritise undermining their unique struggle against the hetero/homo binary and not the sex/gender one as this contributes to bisexual erasure. Shiri Eisner’s quote is as follows:

“A discussion focusing around bisexuality solely in relation to transgender politics performs structural bisexual erasure, as it prioritises transgender politics over bisexual politics in a discussion about bisexual identity”

For this reason, independently of how people choose to identify within the bisexual* umbrella of BMNOPPQ, it is important to retain the bisexual* umbrella term to fight against monosexism and biphobia. 

Regardless of the fact that many bisexual individuals (and other individuals within the queer and trans* community) want to reduce the meaning of bisexuality to that of attraction towards men and women, aiming to reinforce the gender binary, we need to remember that only we get to define what bisexual means (hopefully in the most inclusive light). As Julia Serano beautifully explains, bisexual is our word: “[it] is about our experiences with sexuality and sexuality-based oppression, and it makes no claims whatsoever about what other people are, or how they should be sexual or gendered”. 

We can’t pretend that the long history behind the word bisexual, as it is the first word bisexual* individuals used to fight for their inclusion within the queer community and their struggle for liberation. We can’t ignore the fact that the word bisexual is the most familiar term for everyone to understand BMNOPPQ identities and that creating new words to describe biphobia, bi-invisibility, bi-erasure, monosexism and so on would be problematic and would only further our invisibility within both straight and queer communities.

We shouldn’t abandon the bisexual* umbrella term because this would undermine any efforts made to create a bisexual community. Sadly, this bisexual community is not as strong, so creating new words would only weaken any attempt at forming it. I advocate for the creation of a bisexual* community to hold each other accountable, share and fight for our struggle and to move away from always trying to assimilate and navigate between gay, lesbian and straight circles. 


I want to remind that this post is not about belittling people within the bisexual* umbrella that choose to identify with any BMNOPPQ terminology; on the contrary, I fully support every individual’s right to self-determination. But I am encouraging us to hold on to the bisexual* umbrella term for political reasons. I did want to bring to light the problems of a weak bisexual community, the biphobia and transphobia within the community and debunk the myth that bisexuality reinforces the gender binary.

If you have any thoughts, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comment section below 🙂

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Your Partner Does Not Define Your Sexual Orientation

“How do you know you are bisexual if you’ve never had queer sex before?”

I’ve had to answer this question just as many times as I have come out to my partner and my selected group of friends and family members. The answer always is, “How did you know you were straight before having heterosexual sex with someone else?”.

That usually catches their attention because, really, how did they know? Perhaps they have never questioned being straight.

But I have. Many, many times.

And my bisexuality – one part of my identity that gives me a sense of self – often gets dismissed with comments like “but your current (or past) partners are male though”. 

I know, but this does not define how I identify myself. And to understand this, we need to realise that sexual orientation does not equal sexual behaviour or sexual identity and that this way of thinking contributes to bisexual erasure and biphobia.

Sexual Orientation ≠ Sexual Behaviour ≠ Sexual Identity

Michel Foucault, the king of sexuality studies (LOL), explains in the History of Sexuality: Volume II, that sexual identities such as ‘gay’ only became a thing in the 19th century. Before this, sexual acts defined the status of a man, not his sexual identity or sexual orientation (since they usually had wives and same-sex sexual acts were a rite of passage into manhood).

We can never assume people’s sexual orientation or how they identify themselves because of their sexual behaviour; and I will explain why through The OBI Model:

As one of my badass feminist idols, Melissa Fabello, elaborates more in depth in this article, the OBI Model was created by Don Dyson and Brent Satterly in 2010 to explain the complexity of what we usually think of as sexual orientation. They separated it into three related elements: Orientation, Behaviour and Identity (OBI).

O is for Orientation: describes the gender(s) the person feels sexually attracted to and fantasises about. I would add (not the original authors) that Orientation can be romantic and sexual, which are two different things.

B is for Behaviour: describes the gender(s) of the people the person engages in sexual activity with. (This sexual activity is not limited to intercourse, it can be anything!).

I is for Identity: describes how the person identifies/considers himself, herself or hirself*. Yeah, the label the person uses to better understand their inner sense of self (like queer, bisexual, gay, lesbian, pansexual, etc). Some people feel more comfortable not using a label to describe themselves at all, and that is valid too.

So listen up, straight folks! If you equate sexual orientation to sexual behaviour, then, your heterosexual identity before having sexual activity should be dismissed too, since you could not have known you were straight before having sex. And what happens to the straight people who engage in sexual behaviours that are not heterosexual? We cannot assume or force them to identify as something else because of that. Their identity labels (or lack thereof) can only be decided by them and them alone!

Disclaimer: I’m talking about heterosexual folks because that has been my experience when coming out to my friends and family. But people from the queer community could also question how I know I am bisexual before having queer sex.

Bisexual Erasure and Biphobia

To say that sexual behaviour determines sexual orientation and identity contributes to bisexual erasure and biphobia, and this is something both heterosexual folks and the LGBTQIA+ community alike reproduce in our society.

Biphobia and bisexual erasure go hand-in-hand. They usually cannot live without each other, but this is not always the case. Biphobia can be defined as the hatred, discrimination and fear of bisexual people. Just like homophobia, biphobia thrives on the belief that bisexuality is a threat to our heteronormative social order (since heterosexuality is supposed to be the norm). Bisexual erasure is the idea that bisexuality, as a sexual orientation, is not real. And this is an extreme form of biphobia.

Bisexual erasure and biphobia co-constitute each other, which means that they contribute to each other’s existence, they fuel each other’s fire. And simultaneously, they are both reproduced by the deep monosexism ingrained in our society.

Monosexism is the idea that a person can only be truly attracted to one gender, reinforcing binary thinking and legitimising the experience of straight, gay and lesbian folks. In our monosexist society, if a person that can only be attracted to one gender *feels* sexual attraction (because not everyone does!) to that one opposite/same gender engages in sexual behaviour, this person is considered either straight or gay.

So, if a bisexual person is engaging in sexual behaviour with someone of their opposite or same gender, this person is “not really” bisexual, they are just really straight or gay. Right?

NO!!!

Equating sexual behaviour with sexual orientation reproduces bisexual erasure and biphobia because bisexuality is dismissed by the gender(s) of the partners. If a bisexual girl is in a relationship with a guy, this does not make her straight. If a bisexual guy has sex with a guy, this does not make him gay. Even if passing as straight or gay, the person remains bisexual because they feel attracted to more than one gender. Or as it is also said, the person is bisexual because they feel attracted to people regardless of their gender, not because of it. Unless they identify as something else with time, because identity is contingent and fluid.

queerbits

The sexual behaviour = sexual orientation equation furthers the stigma, myths and stereotypes bisexual individuals struggle with on a daily basis. The most common misconceptions are that bisexual people are closeted gays and lesbians; that they cannot be faithful or monogamous; that they feel equal attraction to all genders; that they are promiscuous and have more risk of getting HIV; that they are confused; that they are 50% straight and 50% gay; and that they are greedy, attention-seekers that are just going through a phase. Or that in reality, they are just barsexuals.

Ugh.

So, next time we assume someone else’s sexual orientation because of their sexual behaviour or because they pass as such and such, we need to think more critically about this. Think about how a person’s experience can be completely dismissed by one hurtful comment or assumption about how their identity is not real.

Remember that only YOU have the power to determine your sexual identity and that your experiences are always valid.