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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bi Any Other Name

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This weekend is Milwaukee PrideFest. That, coupled with Marquette’s recent decision to rescind its offer of employment to a lesbian professor, has many people in our city thinking about issues related to sexual orientation. Because I was recently asked to develop a workshop on bisexuality, I am dwelling on bisexual identity, biphobia and what meaning the term “bisexual” currently holds.

A few years ago, I was team-teaching a self-defense workshop for LGBT youth. At our first class, all instructors and participants introduced themselves and talked a bit about how they identified. After one instructor stated that she used the word “queer” to describe herself, one of the younger participants blurted out, “Oh, I know that word. That’s what bisexuals call themselves when they don’t want anyone to know!” I had to laugh, because this kid had hit the nail on the head—even in early adolescence, ze* was aware of both the stigmatization of bisexuality and the powerful equalizing property of the word “queer.”

That conversation took place within an “LGBT safe space,” one where everyone identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or an ally to LGBT people. Most people who are not part of the LGBT community probably assume that biphobia is something that happens outside of that community, not within it. Unfortunately, that is not the case. While the acronym “LGBT” is widely used, the mere inclusion of a particular letter does not translate to widespread acceptance of a particular identity. This week, I read an editorial about PrideFest that used the terms “LGBT” and “lesbian and gay” interchangeably. Transgender people were mentioned separately in the column, but the word “bisexual” was not used. This was probably unconscious, not deliberate, but the omission is telling.

The term “bisexual” comes layered with so many myths and stereotypes, such as: Bisexual people will have sex with anyone; bisexual people can’t sustain long-term monogamous relationships; and bisexual people are “confused” or just going through a phase. One would think that these tropes would have been laid to rest a long time ago, but just last year I attended a discussion where the facilitator dragged out the old line that people “are either gay, straight or lying.”

One legitimate critique of the word “bisexual” is that it reinforces a binary view of gender; the prefix “bi-” implies that there are two genders, male and female, and that the person using the label is attracted to both of them. As our understanding of transgender, genderqueer and third gender identities grows, we are moving away from this binary construction of gender to a view of gender as a continuum with three, five or an infinite number of points on it. To reflect this shift in thinking, some who previously identified as bisexual may switch to using the label “queer.”

However, I think that many more bisexual people may have started calling themselves queer because of the stigma that still exists in the LGBT community about bisexuality. Call yourself “queer,” and no one really knows what you mean, since such a wide variety of people use that term. Call yourself “bisexual,” and many lesbian and gay folks will mentally label you as fickle, untrustworthy, confused, immature, or “not gay enough” and thus not truly a part of the LGBT community.

Much of this has to do with people’s innate need to neatly categorize others in order to be able to understand the world around us. We are all constantly, unconsciously sorting everyone we see into different boxes. Uncertainty—whether it’s around sexuality, gender, race, or any other facet of identity—can throw us off. Uncertainty can raise our hackles and result in knee-jerk hostility unless we recognize what’s happening.

This weekend, I challenge all of us to embrace uncertainty. Don’t assume that someone at PrideFest walking hand-in-hand with a person of a different gender is straight. Don’t assume that cute girl with her arms wrapped around the waist of another woman is lesbian. Resist the urge to “warn” your friend that the guy he’s dating had a girlfriend last year. And if you see someone wearing a “bisexual pride” button or T-shirt, give that person props for embracing a label that, perhaps, carries the most baggage of any in the queer alphabet soup.

*This young person used gender-neutral pronouns to describe hirself. For more information about gender-neutral pronouns, check out http://genderfreeforall.org/blog/2010/02/28/pronoun-conjugation-cards/.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.

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