Bisexuals have been unfairly accused of reinforcing the notion that there are only two genders and thereby oppressing trans people. But those who make such criticisms of bisexuality are actually the ones doing the marginalizing, writes Julia Serano.
10 October 2010
Increasingly these days, I come across people who are ostensibly bisexual—in that they partner with both women and men—but who refuse to identify with that term.
Now this, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, as words (and especially identity labels) evolve over time and invariably go in and out of fashion.
What does bother me, however, is the explanation that is often given for this lack of identification: That the word bisexual supposedly “reinforces the gender binary,” or “reinforces the notion that there are only two genders.”
As a bisexual-identified trans woman*, I find this argument extremely problematic for a number of reasons.
While there may be an infinite number of potential genders, there are two general types of sexed bodies: female and male. Granted, there is a lot of variation within, and some overlap between, these categories (e.g., intersex people, trans people who physically transition from one sex to the other).
However, this variation and overlap does not automatically invalidate the existence of female and male bodies, but rather it simply means that these categories are far more complex than most people are willing to acknowledge.
In addition to this, we live in a society where all people are automatically (and often nonconsensually) read as either female or male, and where different assumptions, expectations and restrictions are placed on a person based upon which of these two sexes they are perceived to be.
The reason why I identify as bisexual is two-fold.
First, on a physical level, the attraction that I feel toward male-bodied people feels very different to me on a visceral level than the attraction that I feel toward female-bodied people. And having sex with a female partner feels very different to me than having sex with a male partner.
Such feelings are difficult to put into words, and I am not quite sure what the source of this difference is, but presumably it is related to what makes exclusively homosexual or heterosexual people attracted to one sex or the other, but not both.
I know that some people describe themselves as pansexual, which may work well for them, but I personally am not a big fan of that label with regards to my own sexuality, as it erases the way in which my attraction toward women is different from the attraction I experience toward men (and vice versa).
The second, and far more important reason (at least for me), why I embrace the word bisexual is that people perceive me and react to me very differently depending on whether the person I am coupled with is (or appears to be) a woman or a man.
In the hetero-mainstream, when I am paired with a man, I am read as straight; when I am paired with a woman, I am read as queer. In queer settings, when I am paired with a woman, I am read as lesbian/dyke/queer and viewed as a legitimate member of the community.
But when I am paired with a man (especially when the man in question is cisgender), then I am not merely unaccepted and viewed as an outsider, but I may even be accused of buying into or reinforcing the hetero-patriarchy.
So in other words, the “bi” in bisexual does not merely refer to the types of people that I am sexual with, but to the fact that both the straight and queer worlds view me in two very different ways depending upon who I happen to be partnered with at any given moment.
This aspect of the bisexual experience is not captured by the word “pansexual,” nor by the more general word “queer.” In fact, I regularly call myself queer, and when I do, people often are surprised when I mention that I date men (as though in their minds, bisexuality does not truly fall under the queer umbrella).
Anyone who is familiar with the history of the bisexual movement can tell you that the reason why some queer people began outwardly identifying as bisexual rather than as gay or lesbian (the two predominant queer identities throughout the ’70s and ’80s) is precisely because of this insider/outsider issue.
So long as a bisexual woman was only sexual with women and called herself a lesbian, she was accepted. But as soon as she admitted to, or acted upon, her attraction to men, she would be ostracized and accused of being a part of the problem rather than the solution.
This is why the label bisexual came into prominence—as a way to gain visibility within the queer community and to fight against exclusion.
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, all LGBT people were simply called “homosexual.” We were all present during the first queer uprisings and the early days of what was simply called “gay liberation.”
But as the movement picked up momentum, bisexuals and trans folks were both thrown under the bus, albeit for slightly different reasons. In a world where the straight mainstream assumed that gay men wanted to be women and lesbians wanted to be men, it is not surprising that many lesbians and gays felt uneasy about the presence of trans people in their movement.
And in a world where the straight mainstream insisted homosexuals could become heterosexual if they simply set their minds to it, it is not surprising that many lesbians and gays felt uneasy about the existence of bisexuals.
While the reasons for bisexual and transgender exclusion from lesbian and gay communities during the ’70s and ’80s may be somewhat different, the rhetoric used to cast us away was eerily similar: We, in one way or another, were supposedly “buying into” and “reinforcing” heteronormativity.
Transsexuals, transvestites, drag artists, butches and femmes were accused of apeing heterosexist gender roles. Bisexuals were accused of purposefully seeking out heterosexual privilege and (literally) sleeping with the enemy.
According to many lesbians and gays (both past and present), bisexuals and trans folks are not merely assimilationist, but we don’t even exist! According to this “homo-normative” logic, trans people are really gay men and lesbians who transition in order to pass in the straight world. And bisexuals are really either heterosexuals dabbling in a bit of sexual experimentation, or gays and lesbians who just haven’t fully come out of the closet yet.
It is because of this history of erasure and exclusion that bisexual and trans activists became more outspoken in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and fought for visibility and inclusion within the lesbian/gay/queer umbrella.
While most queer acronyms include Bs and Ts these days, our communities still remain largely invisible and have little voice in the now relatively mainstream LGBT movement. And the rhetoric that has been used against us for decades (i.e. that we are “assimilationist” and “reinforce heterosexism”) can still be heard in gay/lesbian/queer communities to this day.
This is precisely what makes my blood boil when I hear people say that the word bisexual “reinforces the notion that there are only two genders.”
First, it insinuates that self-identified bisexuals somehow oppress trans people. While I’m sure that there are some bisexuals out there who harbor anti-trans attitudes, in general, I have found that bisexuals are exponentially more accepting of trans folks, and way more likely than to consider us to be legitimate romantic and sexual partners, than the exclusively homosexual majority in our community.
So the idea that bisexual-identified people are oppressing trans folks is both wildly inaccurate and ahistorical, as it ignores the decades of marginalization both our communities have faced at the hands of the exclusively homosexual majority.
Second, exclusively homosexual people have been accusing bisexuals of “reinforcing” this or that for decades because of who we sleep with, and now we are supposedly “reinforcing the gender binary” simply by calling ourselves bisexual?
Knowing the long history of homosexual attempts to obliterate bisexuality using the “reinforcing” trope, it is difficult for me to view this as anything other than part of the systematic erasure of bisexuality from queer communities.
And can somebody please tell me how the term “bisexual” somehow reinforces the binary, yet “gay” and “lesbian” supposedly do not?
Most self-identified lesbians use that term to signify that they partner with women, but not men. Most gay men use the term “gay” to signify that they partner with men, but not women. So why are gays and lesbians not accused of “reinforcing the notion that there are only two genders”? Oh, that’s right, because their identities are accepted and seen as legitimate, while bisexual identities are not.
The funny thing about gay/lesbian/queer folks (and this can also be said about many feminists as well) is that often we are just as prejudiced as people in the straight mainstream, we just use different language to express it.
When somebody is transgender, or transsexual, or bisexual, or engages in BDSM, or sex work, and/or expresses themselves in a feminine manner, we almost reflexively accuse them of “buying into the system” or of “reinforcing” heterosexism/patriarchy/the gender binary/capitalism/insert-evil-hegemonic-ideology-of-choice-here.
For me, the word “reinforcing” is a red flag: Whenever somebody utters it, I stop for a moment to ask myself who is being accused of “reinforcing” and who is not. There is almost always some double standard at work behind the scenes.
And given the turbulent history of who gets to be considered inside and outside of the gay/lesbian/queer community, it does not surprise me that the only people who are never accused of “reinforcing” the hetero-patriarchal-gender-binary are non-feminine, cisgender, exclusively homosexual folks.
The word bisexual may not be perfect, but it does have a rich political history, one that involves fighting for visibility and inclusion both within and outside of the queer community.
If the word does not resonate with you personally, then simply do not use it. But if you happen to forgo identifying with the word, don’t dare say that it is because you believe that bisexual “reinforces the notion that there are only two genders,” as that claim goes beyond personal statement, and enters the realm of accusation, as it insinuates that people who openly call themselves bisexual (e.g. me) are at best, naive about gender politics, and at worse, oppressing trans people.
If anything, it is the “reinforcing” trope that has historically been used to undermine both bisexuals and trans folks, and we should learn to stop using the very same language that has been used to marginalize us in the past.
Julia Serano is an Oakland, California-based artist, activist, and author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. More about all of her creative endeavors can be found at juliaserano.com.
* In many of my past writings (for example my book Whipping Girl), I have described myself as a lesbian/dyke. What can I say, other than “Things change, people change, hairstyles change...”