As an out and proud bisexual, I have always had a difficult time understanding why others who are attracted to people that span the gender spectrum won’t embrace this terminology as well. One of the most widely accepted definitions of bisexuality was coined by author, speaker, and activist Robyn Ochs: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” Seems pretty clear, right? Not so, however, for a large swath of the population.
The definition of what it means to be bisexual — in terms of identity and terminology — was brought up again recently in EJ Levy's Salon piece “I’m a Lesbian Marrying a Man.” The title alone had many bisexuals (as well as lesbians) scratching their heads — and the full text even more so. The author writes, “I know plenty of people who identify as bisexual; I am not. The term simply doesn’t apply. I am not, as a rule, attracted to men. I simply fell in love with this person and didn’t hold his gender against him.”
Reading this, I was a bit confused. Levy states, “I simply fell in love with this person and didn’t hold his gender against him.” According to most definitions, that's what bisexuality is. Many bisexual people (or those who identify with other fluid terms such as pansexual, fluid, queer, etc.) fall for people regardless of gender or sex. Lesbians, on the other hand, by definition, are women who are attracted to and engage in relationships with other women.
While everyone is free to self-identify as they see fit (and that's beautiful in and of itself), it seems clear to me that the attractions the author describes could be described as bisexual, pansexual, or queer, among other terms, so why not embrace it? I wouldn’t doubt that some of the reasoning behind her chosen label has a foundation in societal biphobia that goes beyond her one op-ed. We’ve seen the aversion to the word “bisexual” time and again from bisexual people themselves, like actress Cynthia Nixon, who found herself explaining the nuances of what the the term meant to her a few years ago. It also exists in the media’s gay- or straight-washing of bisexuals who come out of the closet. Working against pressures from our peers and society to not be heterosexual also tends to make some people hold tightly to a label they’ve fought to maintain due to oppressions in our culture.
I can understand how falling in love with a man after identifying as a lesbian could be a very scary thing for someone who has identified strongly with that label and the community and politics that go along with it. During my own sexual evolution, after coming out as bisexual I only felt welcome in certain LGBT+ spaces if my partner were female or genderqueer. When I became involved with a cisgender man, I was terrified my queer card would be taken from me by others who saw me as retreating to the safety of presumed heterosexuality. In fact, my fear and anxiety over losing my community led to a lot of relationship problems with my then-boyfriend as a result. It wasn’t until I discovered the booming bi community online and realized that there were plenty of happy bisexuals in different-gender relationships that I started to feel more comfortable with my own relationship, coming to terms with the fact that my current partner did not negate my bisexuality whatsoever.
The article in question brought up a lot of interesting debate within bisexual spaces around the topic of identity and how it affects both the individual and the wider community. Some echoed my confusion about the author’s chosen label, like activist Tiffany Blakeman who said, “She really doesn’t want to identify as bisexual, which goes to show how much stigma is attached to it. But I don’t think it’s particularly legit to publicly label as lesbian if you’re married to a man. It ‘waters down’ the label for women (lesbians) who already get told they can change for the right guy.”
Others voiced similar thoughts to my own, regarding the writer’s right to choose whatever identity marker she felt comfortable with. Allison Woolbert, a trans* feminist, bisexual, polyamorous writer and programmer noted, “I am certain that there will be those out there that yell FOUL at this woman’s article and expression. Unfortunately, they have an overriding investment in the label, not the person and the joy she is now pursuing. That does not mean that bisexuality should be erased based on the misuse of the terminology of ‘lesbian’ for what is now by definition a monogamous bisexual relationship.”
And then there is the difference between orientation, identity, and behavior. There are certainly those in multiple categories who choose to identify with a label for a variety of reasons, some sexual, some political at times. This individual is associating her chosen identity with the sexual orientations of her past, and perhaps her past and current political leanings as well. What’s interesting is that her current relationship with a cisgender man does not appear to be important for this person to acknowledge in her sexual orientation.
In my view, continuing to identify as a lesbian doesn't work here, because it throws a wrench into both the lesbian community she wants to remain affiliated with, and the bisexual community she's negating entirely. A real concern is the potential for it to create even further confusion about an already marginalized and widely maligned community. Unlike LGBT-specific spaces where such an article can be framed within a “queer theory” discussion, Salon, like many mainstream news organizations, can be bi-erasing, often even when reporting on the overall LGBT population. And because of that, there's the possible danger that comes in the ability for a queer youth’s parents to use such an article to “prove” that their child can choose heterosexuality.
At the end of the day, to say the issue is complex is quite the understatement. As a bisexual and a bisexual activist at that, however, I cannot help but feel like this author’s complete dismissal of bisexuality does potentially take the community’s movement back a step. For those still coming to terms with their bisexual identities, it is pieces like this that may make them step back into the closet, fearful that they will not be supported if they come out further.
It must be made clear to them and wider society that bisexuals are here, we are doing incredible work in our own community and the LGBT+ community as a whole, and we welcome everyone who wants to get involved, no matter where they are on their own journey of self-discovery.
A.J. WALKLEY is the author of Queer Greer, Vuto, and Choice. A BiNetUSA board member, she was one of 33 activists to attend the first White House Roundtable on Bisexuality in September 2013. Follow her on Twitter @AJWalkley.