Monday, November 19, 2012

Bisexuality and Binaries Revisited

[note added 8-1-13: The following piece will be included in my next book, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, which comes out in October, 2013!]

In October, 2010, my essay, “Bisexuality does not reinforce the gender binary,” first appeared on the internet. The main reason why I wrote the piece was to illustrate how the reinforcing trope (i.e., the notion that certain genders, sexualities or identities “reinforce” the gender binary, or heteronormativity, or the patriarchy, or the hegemonic-gender-system-of-your-choice) is selectively doled out in queer and feminist communities in order to police their borders. Since queer communities are dominated by non-feminine, cisgender, and exclusively gay and lesbian folks, these individuals are almost never accused of “reinforcing the gender binary.” In contrast, more marginalized identities (e.g., bisexual, transgender, femme) are routinely subjected to the reinforcing trope. While my “reinforcing” essay received many positive responses, it also garnered some harsh criticism, particularly from within certain segments of transgender and gender variant communities. All of the critiques that I heard or read pretty much ignored my primary point—namely, the underlying forms of sexism that determine who gets accused of “reinforcing” shit and who does not—and instead focused solely on the rote assertion that the word “bisexual” (and, by association, anyone who identifies as bisexual) really does “reinforce the gender binary.”

Since then, I have been considering writing a follow up piece to discuss the numerous problems with such claims (aside from the obvious fact that they single out bisexuals for being attracted to “two” sexes, but not the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians who view themselves as attracted to the “same” sex, but not to the “opposite” sex—a notion that appears to be just as binary). In addition, since my piece was published, I became aware of an excellent blog-post by Shiri Eisner called, ‘Words, binary and biphobia, or: why “bi” is binary but “FTM” is not.’ Eisner’s post made a number of points similar to my own, but also forwarded new arguments that had not occurred to me before, and which led me to think about this debate in new ways. For all of these reasons, I felt that it would be worthwhile to pen a new essay (this very one here!) to revisit this subject.

Before delving into this topic, let me state for the record that I am writing this piece from the perspective of a bisexual-identified transsexual woman. Since some people paint bisexual-identified folks out to be “binarist” in our partner preferences, I will mention for the record that I date and am sexual with folks who are female and male, trans and cis, and non-binary- and binary-identified. I most certainly do not speak for all bisexual, or all transgender people. My views on this subject are my own, and if you disagree with what I have to say, please consider the possibility that our disagreements may stem from our differing vantage points. Finally, over the course of this essay, I will sometimes use the word “we” to refer to transgender folks, and other times to refer to bisexual folks. Perhaps some may find this a bit confusing, but it is an unavoidable consequence when one straddles multiple identities.

Some preliminaries: monosexism, bi-invisibility  and bisexual communities (or the lack thereof)

In my previous essay, I used the word “bisexual” because (both historically and currently) it is the term most commonly used and understood to denote people who do not limit their sexual experiences to members of a single sex. Of course, bisexual is not a perfect word, but then again, neither is gay, lesbian, dyke, homosexual, heterosexual, straight, queer, asexual, or any other sexuality-related label. However, perhaps more so than with any of the other aforementioned labels, people who are bisexual in experience often fiercely disavow the “bisexual” label. For instance, many prefer the labels queer, pansexual, omnisexual, polysexual, multisexual, or even no label at all, over the term bisexual. Sometimes I use the phrase experientially bisexual to refer to people who, regardless of label choice, do not limit their sexual experiences to members of a single sex. But alas, some folks may also reject experientially bisexual because it contains the word bisexual. So an alternative solution, taking a page from the LGBTQIA+ acronym, is to describe experientially bisexual folks as BMNOPPQ folks, where B = bisexual, M = multisexual, N = no label, O = omnisexual, P = pansexual, P = polysexual, and Q = experientially bisexual folks who primarily identify as queer (arranged alphabetically).

Am I advocating BMNOPPQ terminology? Not necessarily. I think that it is rather clunky and confusing. Personally, I would prefer it if we all simply accepted bisexual as an imperfect, albeit easily understood, umbrella term for people who share our experience. But since I don’t expect that to happen any time soon, I will instead use BMNOPPQ here in the hopes that we can put aside the issue of label preference for a moment, and instead focus on what the bisexual-reinforces-the-binary accusation means for BMNOPPQ people.

Important disclaimer: Above, when I used the phrase “share our experience,” I am not in any way insinuating that BMNOPPQ folks all share the same sexual histories, or experience our sexualities in the exact same way. We do not. We are all different. We are all attracted to different types of people, different types of bodies, different types of gender expressions. We all fall at somewhat different positions along the dreaded “Kinsey scale.” Some of us are more immersed in queer communities, while some of us primarily exist in straight communities, and many (if not most) of us find ourselves constantly navigating our way within (and between) both queer and straight communities.

So if we are all so different, then why even bother to try to label or lump together BMNOPPQ people? Well, because the one thing we *do* share is that we all face societal monosexism—i.e., the assumption that being exclusively attracted to members of a single sex is somehow more natural, real, or legitimate than being attracted to members of more than one sex. Monosexism is also sometimes referred to as biphobia. While biphobia is clearly the more common term, I will use monosexism here, both because I am not a big fan of the use of the suffix “phobia” when discussing forms of sexism (as it seems to stress “fear” over marginalization), and also because monosexism avoids the pesky prefix “bi” that some BMNOPPQ folks seem to find objectionable (more on that in a minute).

Monosexism exists because most people, whether in the straight mainstream or in gay and lesbian communities, view sexual orientation as a rigid binary, where people can only ever be heterosexual or homosexual in orientation. This hetero/homo binary directly leads to monosexual assumption—that is, the assumption that all individuals are exclusively attracted to members of a single sex. (Note: the hetero/homo binary also assumes that all people are sexually attracted to *somebody*—an assumption that marginalizes asexual folks.) Because of monosexual assumption, most people automatically assume that BMNOPPQ folks must be heterosexual if they perceive us to be in an “opposite”-sex pairing, or that we must be homosexual (i.e., lesbian or gay) if they perceive us to be in a same-sex pairing. This is a foundational predicament experienced by BMNOPPQ individuals.

If we BMNOPPQ folks outwardly claim to be bisexual (or pansexual, or polysexual, etc.), monosexual assumption leads many people to doubt the validity of our identities, and to project ulterior motives onto us. This is why people will often say, “You’re not really bisexual (or pansexual, or polysexual, etc.), you’re just confused about your sexuality,” or “...it’s just a phase,” or “...you still have one foot in the closet,” or “...you’re *really* gay/lesbian, but seeking out heterosexual privilege,” or “...you’re *really* straight, but just sexually experimenting, or perhaps overly promiscuous” and/or “...you’re just a fence sitter. Choose a side already!”

In other words, monosexual assumption leads to what has historically been called bi-invisibility: we are presumed not to exist, and any attempt to assert our existence is immediately thwarted by accusations that we are hiding, faking or simply confused about our sexualities. Bi-invisibility is what leads many of us to simply blend into existing monosexual communities (whether straight, gay, or lesbian) rather than seek out or create BMNOPPQ communities. This lack of community has had a devastating effect on BMNOPPQ folks. For instance, even though we outnumber exclusively homosexual people, we have poorer health outcomes and higher poverty rates than gays and lesbians, and we are generally not acknowledged or served by LGBTQIA+ organizations, even the ones that have “B” in the name. Our invisibility is what allows straight, gay, and lesbian folks to regularly get away with forwarding stereotypes about us—e.g., that we are mentally deranged, predatory, hypersexual, promiscuous, deceptive and/or fickle—without being called out or challenged. But most poignantly, bi-invisibility leads many of us to identify more with the straight, lesbian or gay communities we exist in (and rely upon) than with other BMNOPPQ folks. This lack of identification with other BMNOPPQ folks, in combination with the external pressure placed on us to blend in with the monosexual communities we exist in, is a major reason why BMNOPPQ folks have historically tended to avoid calling ourselves “bisexual,” often by refusing to label our sexualities at all. In stark contrast, exclusively homosexual people do not tend to outright disavow the labels “lesbian” and “gay,” nor do they tend to get bogged down in philosophical battles over whether or not they should label their sexualities at all, to nearly the same degree that BMNOPPQ folks do.

I have heard countless BMNOPPQ people ask, “Why do we have to label our sexualities?” I do agree that we should not be forced to reduce our complex sexual attractions and orientations down to a simple moniker. But as an activist, I would argue that the most persuasive argument for why BMNOPPQ folks should unite around some kind of umbrella label (whether “bisexual” or otherwise) is to challenge monosexism and bi-invisibility. In this scenario, said label would not blithely detail who we are sexual with, nor claim that we are somehow inherently different from hetero- or homo- or asexual folks (because I do not think we are), but rather point out that we (and we alone) are targeted by a particular sexist double standard, namely, monosexism. Doing this would enable us to raise awareness about, and to challenge, monosexism in our culture.

Given that I am more well known for my trans activism than my bisexual/BMNOPPQ activism, I should point out that the case that I am making here is identical in form and structure to the case I made in Whipping Girl regarding cissexism. That argument goes as follows: we live in a world where trans people are unfairly targeted by a sexist double standard (i.e., cissexism, analogous with monosexism) where one group (i.e., trans people, analogous with BMNOPPQ people) is assumed to be less natural, real or legitimate than a majority group that does not share that experience (i.e., cis people, analogous with monosexual people). As I once wrote in a blog post called “Whipping Girl FAQ on cissexual, cisgender, and cis privilege”:

When I use the terms cis/trans, it is not to talk about *actual* differences between cis and trans bodies/identities/genders/people, but rather *perceived* differences. In other words, while I don’t think that my gender is inherently different from that of a cis woman, I am aware that most people tend to *view* my gender differently (i.e., as less natural/valid/authentic) than cis women’s genders. 

I would argue that the above paragraph also holds true if you were to substitute “mono” for “cis,” “bisexual/BMNOPPQ” for “trans,” and “sexual orientation” for “gender.”

So to sum up, from this activist perspective, the primary reason why I call myself trans or bisexual is *not* to communicate things that I have done (e.g., aspects of my gender transition, people I sexually partner with). After all, it should not be incumbent upon me to have to reduce the complexities of my gender and sexuality down to a sound-bite and provide it for other people at the drop of a hat. Nor am I insisting that I am “just like” other trans or BMNOPPQ people when I call myself “trans” or “bisexual,” respectively. After all, it goes without saying that all trans people and all BMNOPPQ people are different from one another. Rather, I embrace these labels in order to be visible in a world where trans and BMNOPPQ people are constantly erased by the male/female and hetero/homo binaries, respectively, and to build alliances with people who are similarly marginalized in order to challenge societal cissexism and monosexism, respectively.  

How might relinquishing the term “bisexual” impact bisexual/BMNOPPQ people?

OK, so with this background in mind, let’s go back to the recurring claims that calling oneself bisexual “reinforces the gender binary.” Mind you, this claim is not typically made against people who gravitate toward sexual identity labels such as gay, lesbian, dyke, homosexual, heterosexual, straight, queer, asexual, and so on. Just bisexual folks. And it puts us in the unenviable position of constantly having to defend our label choice.

For example, even though my “reinforcing” essay was focused on how the reinforcing trope has been used to delegitimize both trans and bisexual communities, I still felt compelled to begin the piece with an explanation as to why I call myself bisexual. To this end, I offered both a personal and political justification. The personal explanation related to the fact that, while I am sexual with both female- and male-bodied/identified people, I tend to be more attracted to the former than the latter, and perhaps for this reason, being sexual with a woman feels very different to me on a visceral level than being with a man. For this reason, labels like pansexual and omnisexual (which imply attraction to everyone) do not personally resonate with me, because they seem to erase a difference that I experience. While this continues to be an accurate description of how I experience sexual attraction, I now realize that this comment is somewhat superfluous. After all, all BMNOPPQ folks experience our sexualities somewhat differently, and if we each had a unique word to precisely describe our internal experiences of attraction, that wouldn’t necessarily help us challenge monosexism and bi-invisibility. So if I were writing the “reinforcing” essay today, I probably would have left that personal tidbit out.

It is worth noting that (perhaps unsurprisingly) a few people took this personal comment as evidence that I must hold essentialist and rigidly binarist views of gender, even though earlier in the essay I stressed that there is lots of variation among, and overlap between, female and male bodies (this includes the existence of intersex people, and trans folks who physically transition). In Whipping Girl (specifically pp.102-106), I made the case that one can acknowledge differences between female and male bodies without necessarily engaging in essentialism or binarism, so I won’t bother to relitigate that here. Suffice it to say, if simply recognizing differences between female and male bodies is tantamount to essentialism and binarism, then that means that *all* heterosexual and homosexual people are essentialist and binarist, because they are sexually attracted to one sex but not the other. It also means that *all* transsexuals who physically transition are essentialist and binarist, on the basis that we choose to be one sex rather than the other. Once again, calling out a bisexual person’s experience of sex differences as “essentialist” and “binarist,” while paying no heed to gay, lesbian and trans people’s experiences of sex differences, can only be viewed as monosexist.

The political explanation that I gave for why I choose the bisexual label stems from the fact that societal monosexism invisibilizes bisexuality, and ensures that we can only ever be read in one of two ways, namely, as homosexual or heterosexual:

...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.

I admit that this is a relatively novel way of viewing the word bisexual, but it is one that I personally fancy, and it is consistent with the theme of challenging monosexism, bi-invisibility and the hetero/homo binary.

Here is another potential interpretation of the word bisexual: The prefix “bi” can mean “two,” but it can also mean “twice” (e.g., as in bimonthly). So while monosexual people limit their potential partners to members of only one sex, bisexual/BMNOPPQ folks challenge the hetero/homo binary by not limiting our attraction in this way, and are thereby open to roughly twice as many potential partners. My main point here is that the prefix “bi” has more than one meaning, and can have more than one referent. So claiming that people who use the term bisexual must be touting a rigid binary view of gender, or denying the existence of gender variant people, is as presumptuous as assuming that people who use the term “bicoastal” must be claiming that a continent can only ever have two coasts, or that they are somehow denying the existence of all interior, landlocked regions of that continent.

The truth is that there are many different ways one can interpret the word bisexual (or other sexuality labels, for that matter). The bisexual-reinforces-the-binary accusation is an attempt to fix bisexual to single meaning, one that is an affront to how many bisexual-identified people understand and use that label. As an analogy, what if cis people suddenly started claiming that they do not like the label transgender because (in their minds) it seems to imply that all people should change their gender. (I actually have heard someone make this bizarre claim once before.) How would we, as transgender people, react to that accusation? Personally, I would respond by saying that transgender is *our* word: it’s about transgender-identified people’s experiences with gender and gender-based oppression, and it makes absolutely no claims at all about what other people are, or how other they should be gendered. Similarly, my response to the bisexual-reinforces-the-binary accusation is that bisexual is *our* word (in this case, bisexual-identified people): it is about our experiences with sexuality and sexuality-based oppression, and it makes no claims whatsoever about what other people are, or how other they should be sexual or gendered.

But upon looking back on my “reinforcing” essay, my main regret is that I failed to explicitly mention what is perhaps the most important political reason behind why I call myself bisexual. Namely, the word bisexual has a long history, and it was the word that the original BMNOPPQ activists embraced several decades ago when they fought for visibility and inclusion within (and beyond) lesbian, gay and queer communities. This activism spurred the creation of now common terms such as “biphobia” and “bi-invisibility” that have played a crucial role in challenging societal monosexism since their inception. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the word bisexual is familiar to most people, both in the straight mainstream and within LGBTQIA+ communities. Having a familiar umbrella term is critically important given that one of the biggest challenges that BMNOPPQ folks face is invisibility and societal erasure.

I appreciate the sentiments behind alternative labels such as pansexual, omnisexual, polysexual and multisexual, and I respect the right of BMNOPPQ folks to choose any of these (or other) labels over bisexual. But from an activist standpoint, the notion that we should completely abandon the word bisexual in favor of some alternative label that is unfamiliar to most people does not seem to be a wise political move. Indeed, such a move would make it significantly harder for us to come out and gain visibility in our communities, and we would need to start from scratch with new activist terminology (panphobia? poly-invisibility?) to describe how we are marginalized.

Along similar lines, I respect the right of BMNOPPQ folks to choose to identify as queer rather than bisexual. (For the record, I identify as both bisexual and queer.) However, queer is a much broader umbrella term meant to include all LGBTQIA+ people, and as such, it does not seem to be the best position from which to challenge monosexism and bi-invisibility.

Now of course, language is constantly evolving. And if this mass fleeing from the word bisexual toward alternate identity labels was simply part of a natural progression—such as the historically recent shifts from the label “homosexual” to “gay”, or from “lesbian” to “dyke”—then I would not have any problem with it. However, it seems to me that the primary force driving these alternate label choices is not coming from within the BMNOPPQ community itself, but rather from external pressure exerted on us by other queer subgroups. As I’ve already discussed, there has always been pressure on BMNOPPQ folks to hide or subsume our identities in order to fit into existing gay, lesbian and queer communities. But these days, there is additional pressure placed on us by certain transgender voices that insist that we must stop using the term bisexual because it supposedly “reinforces the gender binary.”

Lots of folks these days (both transgender and BMNOPPQ) seem to be buying into this “reinforcing” allegation, which essentially accuses bisexual-identified people (such as myself) of propagating cissexism/transphobia. And yet, virtually no one is asking what should be a rather obvious question: isn’t this argument quite one-sided? Shouldn’t we also be considering what affect relinquishing the label “bisexual” would have for BMNOPPQ folks and our efforts to challenge monosexism and bi-invisibility? Genderqueer-identified bisexual activist Shiri Eisner (in the aforementioned blogpost) was the first person I heard make this crucial point:

“...a discussion focusing around bisexuality solely in relation to transgender politics performs structural bisexual erasure, as it prioritizes transgender politics over bisexual politics in a discussion about bisexual identity.” [emphasis Eisner’s]

When put this way, it becomes clear just how brazen it is for transgender folks to claim that bisexuals should abandon an identity label that BMNOPPQ folks have been using for decades simply because it is supposedly incompatible with transgender politics. Why stop there? While we are at it, why don’t we tell lesbians that they have to stop using that word? After all, few ideologies have spouted as much cissexism over the years as lesbian-feminism has. Come to think of it, what about people who describe themselves as a “woman” or a “man”—those labels most certainly reinforce the binary! Shouldn’t we be calling out anyone who uses those labels? Or what about trans people who self-identify as “MTF” and “FTM”—acronyms that imply that there are two sexes. Don’t they reinforce the binary?

Or, what if we put the shoe on the other foot? Cisgender feminists have long argued that gender is a patriarchal invention designed to oppress women. So what if cisgender feminists took a similar tactic and began accusing transgender people of “reinforcing the patriarchy” because the word “transgender” has the word “gender” in it? Isn’t this argument is structurally identical to the bisexual-reinforces-the-binary claim? If cisgender feminists made this claim, how might we react? Would we stop calling ourselves transgender (or genderqueer, or gender variant) as a result? What would that mean for us as a marginalized group that has only recently garnered visibility and a modicum of acceptance in our society? What would happen to all the policies that now include “transgender” people, or that prevent discrimination on the basis of “gender identity” (yes, that term also has that pesky word “gender” in it)? Would we, as a transgender community, really be willing to give up all that in order to accommodate cisgender feminist politics?

I didn’t think so. So how can we, as a transgender community, expect bisexual/BMNOPPQ folks to give up the same in order to accommodate our politics?

There is more than just one binary!

Nothing demonstrates the fact that the bisexual-reinforces-the-binary claim prioritizes transgender politics over bisexual politics more than the assumption that the “bi” in bisexual must automatically be referring “the gender binary.” This is a bold assertion given that BMNOPPQ folks have our own sexual orientation binary to contend with, and that bisexual activists have long argued that being “bi” subverts the hetero/homo binary. So how is it that a debate about “bisexual” (a sexual orientation label) can wind up being solely centered on the gender binary, yet completely ignore the sexual orientation binary?

This seems to me to be a fairly new development. Back when bisexual and transgender activism were first gaining momentum in the 1990’s, it was quite common for activists from both camps to point out the parallels between the way transgender folks challenge the male/female binary and how bisexuals challenge the hetero/homo binary. There was even an entire anthology (entitled Bisexuality and Transgenderism: InterSEXions of the Others) largely centered on this theme. Around the time that I transitioned (back in 2001), trans people referred to “the male/female binary” (which seems to acknowledge the possibility that there are other binaries out there) about as frequently as they mentioned “the gender binary.”

But over time, this perspective has shifted. These days, many transgender folks seem to be referring to an all “caps lock” version of THE GENDER BINARY, as if it were the one and only binary from which all gender and sexual oppression stems. This interpretation reminds me of the way many cisgender lesbian-feminists talk about THE PATRIARCHY, using it as the single lens through which they view all aspects of gender and sexuality. Viewing all forms sexism in terms of THE PATRIARCHY (i.e., men are the oppressors, women are the oppressed, end of story) is precisely what led many cisgender lesbian-feminists to misinterpret trans men as “female” traitors who transition in order to obtain male privilege, and trans women as privileged “men” who attempt to appropriate women’s oppressed status and/or to infiltrate women-only spaces.

When we view the world through any one single lens, we are bound to overlook many things. Viewing all aspects of gender and sexuality through the lens of THE PATRIARCHY has led many cisgender lesbian-feminists to condemn not only transgender people, but feminine and masculine gender expression, butch/femme relationships, BDSM, pornography, sex workers, sex toys that resemble phalluses, and so on. Similarly, viewing all gender and sexual oppression in terms of THE GENDER BINARY might seem to make sense to some transgender people, but it overlooks (and thus erases) numerous other gender and sexual hierarchies, such as masculinism (i.e., the assumption that masculine gender expression is more legitimate than feminine gender expression), trans-misogyny, subversivism, asexophobia, and of course, monosexism.

So, in other words, if we are going to have a cross-community conversation between transgender and bisexual/BMNOPPQ folks, then we have to talk about the male/female binary and cissexism, as well as the hetero/homo binary and monosexism. If we are not taking both communities issues and interests into account, then we are not having a conversation, we are merely engaging in one-sided slander.

One final note on this point: during the course of writing this piece, it struck me how strange it is that the bisexual-reinforces-the-binary debate, which prioritizes transgender politics over bisexual politics, has successfully proliferated for several years now, and has persuaded many BMNOPPQ folks to disavow the word bisexual without that much of a pushback. And I find it alarming that, even though the word monosexism was coined and used by bisexual activists at least a decade before the word cissexism was by trans activists, these days I find myself having to explain what the former means far more so than the latter. In other words, while the bisexual movement gained initial momentum prior to the transgender movement (which is why the B typically precedes the T in most queer acronyms), the transgender movement seems to have leap-frogged over the bisexual movement, at least within the context of queer communities. To be clear, I am not in any way insinuating that BMNOPPQ folks are “more oppressed” than transgender people (lord knows, there is nothing I loathe more than playing “oppression Olympics”). But I do think that transgender people have gelled more as a community than BMNOPPQ folks have. And this lack of cohesion among BMNOPPQ folks (in combination with the single-minded THE GENDER BINARY perspective) has certainly contributed to the one-sided nature of the bisexual-reinforces-the-binary debate.

One final observation

Finally, it must be stressed that this bisexual-reinforces-the-binary debate is not raging uniformly throughout all LGBTQIA+ communities. It seems to be largely absent from gay men’s communities, and among transgender and bisexual folks who spend most of their time in straight communities rather than queer ones. As far as I can tell, this debate is primarily occurring within queer women’s communities and among trans folks who also inhabit those spaces. And I think this specificity offers some insight into why this debate has surfaced and gained traction at this particular place and time.

This connection occurred to me after, on a couple separate occasions, I heard trans men claim that, in their opinion, bisexuals (as a group) tend to be more transphobic than lesbians. Frankly, this claim astonished me. Historically, transgender and bisexual activists often saw themselves on the same side of challenging exclusion within greater gay and lesbian communities and organizations. And in my own personal experience, I have found that the self-identified bisexuals in my queer community tend to be far more supportive of me (as a trans woman) than exclusively lesbian and gay folks. And while cisgender lesbians typically do not view trans women such as myself to be legitimate romantic or sexual partners, cisgender bisexual women often do. As a testament to this, *all* of my queer female sexual and romantic partners have been either bisexual and/or gender variant in some way. While I am definitely open to the idea of having a cisgender lesbian lover or partner, I have never once had a cisgender lesbian express interest in me in that way. And this experience is not specific to me—it is pervasive enough that trans women often refer to it as “the cotton ceiling.”

Of course, things are different for trans men and trans masculine spectrum folks. They often feel relatively accepted (as both individuals and prospective lovers/partners) by cisgender lesbians these days. So it makes sense that, from their point of view, bisexuals might appear more transphobic than lesbians (indeed, Eisner makes a similar point). In stark contrast, from my perspective as a trans woman, I find that cisgender lesbians tend to be way more likely to be trans-misogynistic than cisgender bisexual women. These are generalizations, of course, but they seem to account for our greatly differing perspectives on this matter.

Ironically, while lesbian-feminism is typically considered to be passé these days, its foundational premise—that cisgender men are inherently oppressive, and that women who partner with them are traitors to the cause—still lives on in today’s queer women’s communities. Elsewhere, I have referred to this mindset as FAAB-mentality. Because of FAAB-mentality, trans women are seen as suspect because we are viewed as being “really cisgender men,” and femmes are dismissed for too closely resembling heterosexual women. And of course, bisexual women are viewed as suspect because some of us choose to partner with cisgender men.

I believe that this FAAB-mentality is at work behind the scenes when trans male/masculine folks stress how different they are from cisgender men in order to be accepted in queer women’s spaces, and when queer women who partner with trans men (and who therefore fall under the BMNOPPQ umbrella) go to great lengths to avoid identifying as bisexual. While I respect any person’s right to choose pansexual, polysexual, queer, etc., over bisexual, I sometimes feel that these alternative labels function like code words in queer women’s communities, as if to say, “I am sexual with everyone *except* cisgender men.” While people are certainly free to choose not to partner with cisgender men, I am disturbed by the binary that seems to be developing here, one in which pansexual/polysexual/etc.-identified women are supposedly subversive and queer because they refuse to sleep with cisgender men, whereas bisexual-identified women are supposedly conservative and straight-minded because they do sometimes partner with cisgender men. And it seems to me that the bisexual-reinforces-the-binary trope exacerbates this binary, which is probably why this accusation has become so prevalent in queer women’s communities.

While it is true that some bisexuals are cissexist, it is also true that many lesbians and trans folks are monosexist. As a bisexual trans woman who is very active in queer women’s communities, I would like to see us all stop pitting ourselves against one another, and instead work together to challenge all binaries and all forms of sexism.

20 comments:

  1. THANK YOU! I have been struggling with this for over a decade. I now feel even more confident in my decision to return to proudly naming myself as bisexual.

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  2. OMG. This is amazing. This is powerful. Thank you.

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  3. Thank you for this wonderful text. I feel honored to be cited here ^_^

    Regarding FAAB mentality and queer women who only date people who were assigned female at birth - this is a very pronounced trend in my local queer community. I think that in addition to the subversivism issue, it's also a very straight-forward case of cissexism. For a lot of people, what ultimately determines their choice of partner(s) is the sex they were assigned at birth rather than their gender. And so some people have no problem with dating cis women, trans man or genderqueer/non-binary people assigned female at birth - but will not consider dating trans women or any transfeminine person assigned male at birth.

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  4. Thanks again for articulating so well the tangle of thoughts I've had about this over the past few years. I was surprised to hear that you've encountered trans men who've experienced bisexual folks to be more transphobic than lesbians - I've personally experienced the opposite. I'm a trans guy who has almost entirely partnered with bisexual (or that giant, clunky acronym) people because, like you, I've found them to be supportive and way more likely to find my body unproblematically desirable. This could be a geographical thing, as I'm in Toronto, but regardless... astonishing, indeed.

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  5. Thank you for this. This is beautifully written and made me tear up because it resonated so clearly with my own thoughts and feelings. I have thought a lot about how my decision to identify as bi does or does not relate to the myth of a gender binary and you've articulated the issue so well here. I must admit I have a wee brain crush now. You may or may not be interested in a post I wrote on the topic a while back. (http://www.kristincraiglai.com/blog/2012/09/25/sometimes-i-think-i-should-base-my-life-on-random-quotes-from-anais-nin/) I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

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  6. This is excellent. Due to the outright hostility I encountered as a baby bisexual, and my long recovery from it, the only response I can muster when I encounter monosexism of the Label Police variety is cussing. I'm glad you can be more articulate.

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  7. As a cis-woman outside of the queer community who tries to be an ally, I greatly appreciate essays like this that help me understand the dynamics of the varying queer communities.

    I also think you've laid out your arguments in a very logical and compelling way, and hope this gets the recognition and response it deserves. There is enough discrimination and challenges facing alt-folk without us creating more of them. (I'm reminded by the equally damaging attacks by poly-folk on swingers, that swingers are 'just in it for the sex' and therefore aren't 'legitimate' or 'ethical' non-monogamists.)

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  8. Thanks everyone for all the wonderful & insightful comments!

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  9. "These days, many transgender folks seem to be referring to an all 'caps lock' version of THE GENDER BINARY, as if it were the one and only binary from which all gender and sexual oppression stems."

    I'm very skeptical whenever someone invokes "challenging the gender binary" as part of an argument. Most of the people I've known who do this are not at all interested in making it possible for people to live outside the gender binary. They feel that using the slogan gives them academic or street cred, but they can't even be bothered to use gender neutral pronouns for people who request them.

    So when people argue that the term bisexual "reinforces the gender binary", I'm skeptical that they are using a catchy slogan in a hypocritical way to further an agenda that has nothing to do with the gender binary.

    Also, it seems that there is an ongoing backlash from within the trans community against the idea that the gender binary *should* be challenged. The thinking here is that some trans people -- especially ones who are poor or women of color -- derive some safety and security from the general belief that there are only two genders, deriving from two sexes.

    I think such concerns are valid, and there needs to be more dialogue between parts of the trans community on this, as well as on many other things. But I remain convinced that the existing sex/gender system is the root of much evil. In challenging oppressive systems, there is always danger that marginalized people will be worse off in the short term. A time often comes, though, when the consensus is that the status quo is unsustainable.

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  10. Thank you for this essay--as a genderqueer bisexual I've struggled with the need to define my orientation to not only gay and straight people but to other non-monosexuals (which can sting especially). I read a blog entry that explained why so many non-binary people prefer to identify as pansexual over bisexual (claiming that the "bi" in "bisexual" only refers to two binary genders, and that therefore using it contributes to erasure of non-binary people): http://zanself.blogspot.com/2010/05/bisexuality-and-erasure-of-non-binary.html
    I wrote a criticism in response, and bring up similar points that you do, namely that there is value in identifying as bisexual due to the bi community out there, the need to unite in order to challenge binarism, transphobia and monosexism (within the BMNOPPQ community as well as within monosexual communities), and that bisexuality should not be defined by pansexuals at the expense of bisexuals (my response follows the quote): http://center-for-chthonic-studies.tumblr.com/post/35471776348/one-reason-multisexual-people-who-are-not-bisexual

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  11. Very cool yo, an excellent articulation to a long long conversation I have had with in my own head as a GenderXueer non-monosexual person of color....I have used the term Bi before but have shied away from it. More to talk about with myself thank you

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  12. It's like I've been traveling in the desert for many years and your essays are like my first drink of water. Thank you!!!!! I <3 my bisexual me!

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  13. a few thoughts, mostly about terms and their histories, since this seems to me largely an argument about what terminology those of us who don't restrict our sexual experience to one sex/gender category should use... (i'm using sex/gender here as a nod to an argument that FAAB-sexuality is best understood as an initial-assignment-essentialist flavor of monosexuality)

    i don't disagree with intervention you're making around "bisexuality" and "binarism", but i do think that there's an important piece missing in your look at the larger question the post raises: why "bisexuality" is and is not used in the umbrella/massive-acronym-avoiding way that you propose.

    i greatly appreciate the post's calling attention to the history of "bisexual" as a term promoted for a specific political purpose - as all identity terms are. but the post presents a misreading of the parallel history of "queer", which makes the divergence between "queer" and "bisexual" identifications nearly impossible to understand, much less address.

    "queer" is now used to a degree, as you say, as an "umbrella term meant to include all LGBTQIA+ people". this, however, is a recent product of the cooptation of some of our movements' language by 'mainstream' gay and lesbian organizations. as a public term of identification, "queer" was promoted in the 1980s and 90s very specifically as a marker of a radical politics that began with sexuality and gender but also explicitly included race, class, ability, and migration.

    in terms of gender and sexuality, "queer" involved a rejection of the hetero/homo binary through a rejection of the gender binary. 'het' folks could be "queer" in part because the key line was drawn politically rather than in sexual practice, but also because that political line rejected the enforcement of at-birth-gender-assignment and the categories dependent on it.

    but that wide umbrella of sexual practice and gender positioning was very specifically one that *excluded* those who see sexuality (or gender) as 'single issue' topics separable from racism, disablism, and other structures of oppression. at heart, "queer" was developed in critique of, and as a mark of active opposition to, gay and lesbian communities' increasingly limited political vision (exemplified by the marriage-and-military focus of the HRC).

    and the gap between that critical political position and the aim of "visibility and inclusion within [] lesbian [and] gay [] communities" is, fundamentally, is why so many of us moved away from "bisexual" towards "queer" as a point of identification in those years.

    it is, as you say, similar to the shift from "homosexual" (a term adopted by inclusion-oriented white men) to "gay" (a term rooted in slang shared with sex workers, and initially publicly adopted by folks of many genders and races). but even more so to the ongoing tensions between "lesbian" and "dyke" - which have moved from marking class difference to marking the political divergence between liberals and radicals to an uneasy overlap and uncertainty of meanings.

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    1. Thanks for this. I love the articulation of bisexual as possibly belonging to straight & LGBTQ communities, but still have a greater affinity to the word "queer" & this helps articulate why.

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  14. Thank you for writing this. I am 24 years old and still identify as a bisexual male. I've found it very difficult to be Fully accepted As a man who truly is attracted to and wouldn't mind dating either sex. This piece has helped put me at ease a little bit more.

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  15. I have a pathological urge for gossip! You ID as bisexual now Julia? And are you no longer with your wife? Or are you guys polyamorous/open now?

    Sorry, you don't have to reply, I'm just uncontrollably curious XD

    Thanks, anyway, for being awesome. I'm a big fan. Sending you good vibes,

    Sophia

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    1. we amicably split up a few years ago. I briefly discuss that and my bisexuality in a chapter in the next book: http://www.juliaserano.com/excluded.html

      and thanks for kind words! -j.

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  16. The way I like to interpret the "bi" in bisexual has always been that the "two things" insinuated by "bi" are "same and different genders." This is consistent with "heterosexual" (different) and "homosexual" (same). Bisexuals are attracted to both the same gender and different genders. Then it doesn't have to be cissexist or reinforce the binary at all.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that - yes, I've heard this take on "bi" before as well & agree that it is another positive way to interpret the word! But I also (additionally!) want to encourage people to recognize that bisexual is a historical term, and that it need not be read literally. Nobody assumes that lesbians are from a Greek island, or that all gay men are happy. They are not "perfect labels", they just so happened to be the ones that activists rallied around when the movement began to take shape. Same with bisexual. I think this case needs to be made as well...

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