Bi Any Other Name
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
*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/.
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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.