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Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012

So, What Did You Do on Celebrate Bisexuality Day?

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This past Sunday, Sept. 23, was the 14th annual International Celebrate Bisexuality Day, the purpose of which is to increase the visibility of bisexual people and raise awareness of the unique challenges that they face.

Although I think this is a very important issue, I must confess that I am not a fan of the word “bisexual.” The “bi-” prefix reinforces the concept that gender is a binary system—that there are only men and women, and nothing in between. The GLAAD Media Reference Guide defines “bisexual” as “[a]n individual who is physically, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to men and women,” and I believe that the average person, if asked, would come up with a similar definition. Since I believe that gender is a wide spectrum containing far, far more than just two categories, “bisexual” makes me uncomfortable—so much so that I had originally decided not to write anything about Bisexuality Day.

I changed my mind because the misunderstanding of people who are attracted to more than one gender is very real. The Bisexual Resource Center defines “bisexual” differently than GLAAD, as “an umbrella term for people who recognize and honor their potential for sexual and emotional attraction to more than one gender (pansexual, fluid, omnisexual, queer, and all other free-identifiers).” The word “non-monosexual” is also sometimes used to express the same concept. “Bisexual” is merely the oldest and most well-known label to be applied to this concept, and new identity words will continue to be generated more and more quickly as our understanding of sexuality evolves.

What doesn’t seem to evolve are the stereotypes that are often held about non-monosexual people. I teach a workshop about non-monosexuality, and in it, I show a 5-minute clip from Season 3 of “Sex and the City” (which first aired in 2000). It’s a great piece to get discussion started about this topic, because in just one scene, Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte parrot every cliché about bisexuality in rapid-fire fashion: Bisexuals don’t really exist. It’s just a phase. Bi men are really gay, and bi women are really straight. Bisexuals are greedy and promiscuous. Bisexuality is trendy, something that young people do. Bisexuals are not good relationship partners. Bisexuals are confusing because they don’t fit neatly into identity categories (which Charlotte puts most succinctly when she says, “I’m very into labels. Gay. Straight. Pick a side, and stay there”).

Even though this clip is more than 10 years old, if I ask participants in my workshop whether they still hear these stereotypes expressed, they invariably say yes. And these stereotypes exist not only in our culture at large, but also within gay and lesbian subcultures, where non-monosexual people are often viewed as not “real,” full-fledged members of the queer community; as traitors to “real” gay and lesbian people who take advantage of heterosexual privilege when it suits them; and as undateables who are likely to betray or cheat on their same-gender partners.

Things that are not easily understood or defined scare us. But most of us are not easily defined or understood. I end my non-monosexuality workshop with an anonymous exercise where I ask participants to share their own sexual attractions, activities and identities. Regardless of identity, most people have attractions and partners that are somewhat fluid. When a person identifies as straight, gay or lesbian, we think we know what that means—but when it comes down to each individual’s behaviors, we don’t. We’re all more fluid than we believe. Bisexuality and non-monosexuality put that fluidity out in front of us and challenge us to break down the easily understood boxes that we use to categorize each other. If we do this, the world can seem harder to comprehend and therefore scarier, but it is at the same time a place that has more freedom and more truth for all of us.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the
Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than 15 years. 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.