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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity GLB Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity archived GLB Bisexuality does not reinforce the gender binary

Bisexuality does not reinforce the gender binary

BisexualityBisexuals 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...”

 

 

Comments   

0 #29 Cleo 2013-01-31 17:36
It's amazing, no matter what article I stumble across relating to gender identity and LGBT issues, no matter what the topic is, there will always be at least one bible thumper posting hate in the name of their god.
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0 #28 Molly 2012-12-02 23:09
I just stumbled across this article and I have to thank you so much for writing it. For a long time, I've been trying to figure out why I preferred the term "bisexual" over "pansexual" to describe my rather complicated romantic/sexual attractions, and you put it into words in a way I couldn't--my attraction to male-bodied people feels different from my attraction to female-bodied people, and pansexuality just sort of glosses over that. I'm still not entirely comfortable with "bisexual" because it also glosses over some nuances, but I prefer it to a more precise mouthful about heteroromantic and yada yada, especially given that the level of attraction I feel towards a particular sex and/or gender can vary from day to day.
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0 #27 Indi 2012-05-17 04:24
wow some very emotive opinions yikes

pansexuality v's bisexuality

if bisexuality is valid then so is pansexuality, the difference being that pansexuality may include trans and gender diverse people then bisexuality would apply to a binary trans person. I dont think its erasing per-say I just think the better distinction is pansexuality if you are including some trans, intersex and gender diverse people.

so there I said it, Panseuxlaity is also very valid
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-1 #26 lm 2012-03-28 11:50
Too bad you don't look at biblical principals. We can theorize, attain scholarly degrees, ponder all we want: in the end, God sets the standard, not us.
No wonder everyone is confused here: men and women were meant to enjoy sex within a marriage. The rest should abstain. Period. Not my opinion - as I don't have a 'right' to an opinion. It's God's law.
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0 #25 shaed 2011-07-03 00:09
The word bisexual isn't binarist.

Your definition of it is.

Fuck you for thinking you've the right to invalidate my or anyone else's body.
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0 #24 Bi Social Network 2011-05-23 18:52
I was very intrigued by this article. We shared it with our readers at Bi Social Network. As I know many bisexuals transgender, this is what they stated to me also. thanks for adding light to this large issue in the bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender communities.
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0 #23 Jen 2011-05-17 09:51
I also don't think "bisexual" should automatically mean "I like every gender and everything in between" - for example, my bisexual fiance loooves feminine, androgynous looking men, but personally, I like my women very feminine and my men very masculine (cis or not doesn't matter, but androgyny just doesn't turn me on.) Calling me "pansexual" would be patently incorrect, but using the word "bisexual" shouldn't mean I'm putting anyone down.
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0 #22 Ani 2011-05-17 09:06
So much I agree with. It's been a huge frustration with me and upsets me every time I hear someone state so matter-of-factl y that bisexuality reinforces the gender binary. My bisexuality does not limit my partners to a gender binary. My bisexuality doesn't have anything to do with a person's gender!

Lately correcting people has been maddening, but I will continue to do it because we need to speak out. I get that "bi" which means two an is probably the reason why people brush us off as people who only enforce the binary. I've been thinking maybe it would be easier to express bisexuality as being two sexualities. Straight and gay. I'm either one and I am both. If someone who is straight or gay is capable of dating someone who is trans, why is it a far stretch of the imagination for people to see how bisexuals would be able to include them as well?
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0 #21 Allison 2011-04-29 01:41
I said this over at another blog where this was cross-posted, but it bears repeating. I so deeply appreciate you articulating that very simple fact that your bisexual identity comes from your different attractions to masculine and feminine folks. I think this is the crux why queer works well as a descriptor for me, and why bisexual works so well as a descriptor for many bi folks. And of course, this is why it's wonderful to have use of both words.
Instead of defining our sexuality on the gender of the people we're sleeping with, we're beginning to refine our definitions to the quality of the attraction itself. I think these subtle moves away from body-specific sexual qualifiers will go a long way to achieve a better lexicon for sex and attraction over the long run.

Kudos and thanks!
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0 #20 julia serano 2011-02-14 00:48
hi, thanks to everyone for the comments. it seems to me that most of the negative comments relate to the idea that "bi" reinforces the idea of two genders/sexes. A main point that I tried to forward was that bisexual identity (for me, at least) has way more to do with me being read as either an insider or outsider in het & homo spaces than it has to do with how I relate to my partner.

Personally, each partner I have been with has been different. I have been with straight & queer-identifie d women and men, and I have been with trans & genderqueer identified folks as well. To me, every single one of these relationships & people has been different, and are unique in my mind.

But what is consistent is that:
1) people read my partner one way or the other,
2) they assume us to be homo or het, based upon how they read us,
3) they welcome or ostracize us based upon their assumption...

For me, bisexual is about being read as "outside" of both homo & het. it is not any more "binary-reinfor cing" than lesbian/dyke/ga y identities. Plus it has a rich history that seems to be largely ignored by many folks...

best wishes, -julia
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