“Being Bisexual Means That You’re Only Attracted to Two Genders. Bi Means Two. Two Genders.”

Oh, blogosphere, when are we ever going to convince each other that etymology does not, in fact, determine meaning? On the one side, you have queer-hating dipshits talking about how they couldn’t possibly be homophobic…because they aren’t afraid of gay people.  And then on the other, we have well-meaning activists who really truly believe (correctly) that gender is not just a male/female dichotomy and are trying to adjust their language accordingly.

Unfortunately, no one told these people how language works. And moreover, no one told them that it is unacceptable to re-define other people’s identities. Telling me that, as a bisexual person, I am either attracted to two genders exclusively (e.g. men and women, but not genderqueer people) or flat out lying about who I am isn’t just intelletually lazy, it’s oppressive.

I don’t think I can even impress upon y’all how incredibly grossed out it makes me to witness conversations in which none of the major players are bisexual, but everyone is tripping the fuck over themselves to define the word “bisexual” to their satisfaction. To be honest, it feels like I’ve just walked into a room where a bunch of straight girls are trying to determine who “counts” as a lesbian, and whose identity is a total farce.

So here’s the deal: anyone who identifies as bisexual is bisexual. Full stop. And if you don’t want to identify as bisexual? Congratulations! You don’t have to! But please, if you’re going to decide that you’d rather be pansexual than bi, don’t back it up with “bi means two genders and I’m attracted to *every* gender.” Because there are bisexual people who are also attracted to every gender, and they don’t appreciate you errasing them to make yourself look more legitimate. Non-monosexual people often feel like they need to justify their non-monosexual identity, but the way to solve that problem is to combat monosexism, not turn on one another to prove that one of us is somehow “correct” in their identity.

Here are the reasons why I identify as bisexual:

  • Because it was the first term I heard that could reasonably describe people like me.
  • Because it represents a community that I am part of.
  • Because more people understand the word “bisexual” than they do “pansexual” or “polysexual.”
  • Because I’ve decided that it fits.
  • Because I’m attracted to two exact genders and that’s the only way Kinsey Hope will allow me to keep this label.

The word “bisexual” originated in 1824, when it was used to describe things that had both male and female genitals. And it has since evolved. It’s not like the word “bisexual” was made up at a conference of queer SJ people and just happens to be widely misused. So when you try to take me back to the 1800s to teach me a lesson in etymology in order to convince me that you have a better label for what I am than I do, what you really should really be saying is this: “being bisexual means that you have two pairs of genitals. Bi means two, sex means genitals. Two genitals”

Or, better yet, you should just not be saying anything at all.

[A similar version of this essay appeared here on my tumblr]

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22 Comments

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22 responses to ““Being Bisexual Means That You’re Only Attracted to Two Genders. Bi Means Two. Two Genders.”

  1. z

    I’m here from the Feministe thread. I just want to say that I *love* your first sentence and just… that whole point. As a linguist, I’m always extremely irked by the frustratingly common notion that the etymology of a word somehow contains its “real” meaning, and it’s also saddened me that that notion has also surfaced not-rarely to back up social justice points that I actually agree with (e.g. you shouldn’t use words that many people consider slurs) with arguments that make me angry (e.g. because what that word REALLY means is [marginalized group]). No, you shouldn’t use slurs because many people *will* think of the [marginalized group] meaning, so that meaning clearly still exists, and it will hurt people.

    Anyway, sorry for that rant, and thanks for the post.

    • Don’t apologize! That was lovely.

      The thing with social justice activists who feel qualified to tell other people all about the “real meaning of [whatever]” is…frustrating. There always seems to be a sort of entitlement (which might be privilege talking, but is probably also just a little arrogance) to telling people “what [they] really mean.”

      You bring up a really good point that I didn’t flesh out in the other post (but now wish I did): it doesn’t so much matter what someone *means* so much as it matters what they’re saying.

      • z

        Aw, thanks.

        As I see it, it’s not a problem specific to social justice activists; I’ve also seen rather too many philosophy and literature texts delving into the etymology of a word in an effort to explain what it *really* means. There’s just this unfortunate notion that history somehow determines real meaning – and not, say, how the word is used. But I’d agree that some arrogance is mixed in with that too – I understand this word to mean ____ so clearly you understand it wrong if you disagree!
        I just complained about this surfacing in the social justice blogosphere because that’s a community (set of communities?) I care a lot about and it makes me sad to see bad linguistics used in service of goals I share.

        And I’d say that what people mean is also important – but it doesn’t get rid of the other meaning of what they said.

      • Oooh, definitely.

  2. z

    (…and then I see that you already said that much more skillfully in your previous post. Awesome.)

  3. shaedofblue

    No one is saying you can’t label yourself this way.
    People are just saying that doing so is binarist.
    The language erases non-binary people, just like GSAs erase non-monosexual people.
    You are free to call yourself bisexual, just as you are free to call things you don’t like “gay” or “retarded.” What you can’t do is be surprised when people point out that you are reinforcing harmful norms.
    (And being non-binary does not make binarist behavior less binarist, just like how misogynistic women aren’t less misogynistic due to being women)

    • So many things about this comment are problematic, I feel like I barely have time to scratch the surface.

      People *are* saying that I (or anyone) can’t label myself “that way.” For you to contextlessly contradict my lived experience is condescending and privileged at best. And no, it’s not “just like” using a slur against someone (or someone’s work/ideas) to self-identify. Get it together.

    • Comparing using the word “bisexual” as an identity to calling people “retarded” as an insult is using developmentally disabled people as a doorstop to justify your own biphobic attitude. You’re totally able to keep making those comparisons, but don’t be surprised when people are utterly appalled by how shallow they actually are.
      The thing is, it’s easy to nit-pick on language in order to create the academic appearance of inclusion, it’s an entirely different story to actually be inclusive and non-oppressive.
      I didn’t have a GSA, I had a Rainbow Alliance, which was chosen as a label to avoid the whole thing being about the gays. That didn’t actually make it inclusive, and as a bisexual and trans person I was regularly erased and ignored, as were many of my friends. I was told by our (gay male) president once that T-shirts we were selling should use “gay” because otherwise they wouldn’t be marketable. But hey, at least we weren’t a GSA!
      I don’t have this problem in the bisexual community, or at least when I do it’s rare. You can talk all you want about how bisexuals “erase non-binary people” by daring to keep using a word people actually understand instead of deliberately confusing people, but it won’t change the fact it’s not your etymological dissection of language that’s causing us difficulty, it’s actions.

      • Thank you for this 😀

        I still can’t quite believe that shaedofblue had the gall to compare our identities with slurs, WTF.

        Also, I hear you re: “queer/trans*” spaces becoming gay spaces, regardless of what they’re called. It’s actually even more offensive to me to see “LGBT” when it should be “LG,” because not only is it erasing, it actually prevents us from starting our own supplementary group for the nonmonosexuals and trans* folk by insisting that we’re already having our concerns addressed by “our” community.

  4. Max the Communist

    It’s not just the social justice types who act out of sense of privilege vis a vis defining us instead of listening to how we define ourselves. It’s the academics, who are so caught up with queer theory, as defined by straight and gay queer theorists, that they don’t do the necessary legwork of getting to know the demographic or culture of the bisexual-identified people they judge and condemn as oppressive. You want to talk about intellectual laziness? That’s where it lies. Go ahead and complete your queer theory term paper to please your biphobically blinkered professor. That’s your privilege. But if your work doesn’t recognize the struggle bi-identified people have contributed and still contribute to the LGBTQ, if it sets up another binary between queer and straight and still treats bisexuals as an Other to be discredited and ignored, then it’s simply re-inscribing an age-old pattern of identity politics set by lesbian and gay predecessors. Surprise! You’re not the revolutionary intellectual you thought you were.

  5. Lindasusan

    To me, the great irony in this discussion about supposedly binary language is that on the whole (in my experience at least — YMMV), the bisexual community has been pretty freakin’ awesome when it comes to being ACTUAL allies to trans/genderqueer people.

    We were there before it was the cool thing to do. We spoke up about these issues at least 10-15 years before most everyone else (rightly) voiced their outrage about HRC’s non-inclusive ENDA gambit. We’ve talked about “same-sex” and “different-sex” attractions that acknowledge gender diversity when the word “opposite” still crops up all over the place in other queer spaces. Both groups recognized we were outsiders even from LG space, and we worked together for more inclusion.

    As I think about it, forget irony — this erasing of bisexuals’ history of trans/genderqueer solidarity just makes me angry.

    • @MaxtheCommunist and Lindasusan: yes! As “gay rights” became more mainstream, both trans* and bisexual identities went from being casually erased (the absorption of trans men into “butch/femme” comes to mind) to outright excluded. Both communities are very much in the same boat.

      One of the reasons I actually suspect that the (increasingly homogeneous) queer community has started to harp on “bi means two! You’re excluding trans people!” is that they feel threatened by the bisexual-trans alliance.

      I don’t remember any original members of the bi community that denied the existence of nonbinary genders; that interpretation was forced on us by a gay community that very much wants both groups to accept our place as easily-erasable members of the Gay Community without finding any solidarity with one another.

      (Also, in my experience, coming out as bi to trans* people and coming out as trans* to bi people are both very validating experiences, all things considered.)

  6. I never bookmarked a blog post before! I agree that “bi” does not just mean “two.” The way “bi” is used by the majority of bi people who I know, including myself, is to be inclusive of attraction to anyone, any gender. No one deliberately says “bi” meaning “only genetic males and genetic females but never transfolk.” Anyone who does say that is out of touch with the majority of the bi community.

    And I don’t see anything wrong with using LGBT as an umbrella term to describe ALL lesbian gay bi trans and queer people. Using an umbrella term (or acronym) as an umbrella term does not diminish our capacity to create our own bi communities.

  7. I can’t even begin to explain how awesome you are for writing this. If one more pansexual-identifying person tries to put me down, minimize me, erase me, (or any other such ridiculousness) because I identify as bisexual, I will just lose it.
    I’ve had people try to argue that bisexual is a sub-category of pansexual, among all the other typical crap you mention. It’s infuriating.
    Pansexual is a political identifier, and a fairly recent one at that. To me personally, it’s entirely obnoxious, although I fully own that as a result of my own personal experience that every pansexual-identified person I’ve encountered has been obnoxious about it, compounded by the fact that it’s unnecessary. To me it feels like the “need” for the label was created with the label, to make a stink about something.
    HOWEVER, I am about respecting individual identity first and foremost, and I do not judge or disrespect anyone who feels that is the best way for them to identify. I just wish that sentiment was reciprocated.

    End of rant. And thank you 🙂

    • Thank you. Though I do think that “pansexual” is a meaningful sexual identifier, especially for people who feel like gender just isn’t a factor in terms of who they’re attracted to. I mean, I haven’t even met enough people who self-identify as agender to know if I’m attracted to agender people, so applying the label “pansexual” to me would be absolutely ridiculous.

      • I feel like I should clarify, because I didn’t mean to come across like a jerk: I agree that it is meaningful, both on a larger scale and (I’m sure) to people who identify as such.

        I just feel like the meaning is redundant. To say that “bisexual” is binarist is to force that meaning to create a “need” for the term “pansexual” after its creation. I have not ever met anyone who identifies as bisexual with the stipulation or clarification that they are only attracted to (cis) men and (cis) women (who identify and present as such). I’m sure there are a handful out there, but I’m sure they are the minority, not the majority. If some people feel the term “pansexual” is a more fitting identifier, more power to them. I totally respect that. But I feel there needs to be a recognition that it’s not a totally distinct or discrete identity from “bisexual,” and that is not to minimize either one. It’s just not cool to try to force a re-definition of an entire identity to justify your own. (It’s not like we have specific terms for straight people who are only attracted to cis-people vs straight people who are not attracted to just cis-people. I don’t really feel that we as a community should be the people to try to force that trend.)

        I guess that short version is, whatever identifier is chosen- “bisexual,” “pansexual,” or “queer”- the attitude should be one of respect, not trying to make other identities look bad, and recognition that they’re all shades of the same thing.

      • @Makenna

        Ohh, I see. We’re definitely in agreement 😀

  8. i identify as genderqueer and as pansexual; these words feel right to me. i know what they mean to me and i know i relate to them.

    if somebody else describes themselves the same way i do while choosing totally different labels than the ones i choose— who gives a fuck? i don’t know what those words mean to other people. NO one has the right to tell other people how they should identify.

    however, some people see certain uses of the word “bisexual” as being binarist. that’s just a fact and being rude to everyone who points it out isn’t going to make it go away. you’re totally correct in saying that the meaning of “bisexual” has changed— it’s up to bisexuals to enlighten the ignorant. good thing you’re up to it.

    and before anyone questions my right to even comment, i identified as bisexual before i discovered language that worked better for me.

    interesting post.

  9. @makenna: i could be mistaking your meaning, but your post seems to indicate that you consider the difference, whether real to you or not, between pansexuality and bisexuality to be based on the “difference” between transpeople and cispeople.

    there is no real difference between trans and cis. a transwoman can be a lesbian. a transman may identify as a gay man, whether or not he is transsexual. if a heterosexual woman is in a relationship with a heterosexual non-op transman, she may still identify as heterosexual.

    in fact, if a previously-identified heterosexual woman decides that she is bisexual/pansexual/whatever because her transman boyfriend has a pussy— she’s a very disrespectful and ignorant person. a transman is a man, regardless of his plumbing. a transwoman is a woman, regardless of plumbing.

    in my experience, very few people identify as pansexual because they are attracted to trans people as well as to cis people. most (but not all) pansexuals i know identify as such because they are attracted to people. not to gender, but to people.

    in addition, many pansexuals feel that they need a sexual identity that clearly includes their attraction to people who exist outside the gender binary.

    of course, “pansexual”, like “bisexual”, means different things to different people. that’s just how language works, it’s true.

  10. @mx. punk: Um, no. That is the exact opposite of what I’m saying.

    I’m pointing out the ridiculousness of the argument used to justify “pansexual”- that “bisexual reinforces the gender binary”- because it does not and in reality is generally all-inclusive. As an identity, anyway, if you’re not making up meaning to attribute to it.

    I’m very clear on all of that, thanks.

    • i’m sorry that i misunderstood your post. however, i still don’t understand what you meant by this sentence: “I have not ever met anyone who identifies as bisexual with the stipulation or clarification that they are only attracted to (cis) men and (cis) women…” i wondered if you meant that pansexuals assume that bisexuals are only attracted to cispeople.

      you’re most welcome, makenna.

  11. Dave Page

    My understanding of the modern use of bisexual from Kinsey’s era is that it means “both homosexual and heterosexual” – if you’re going to get literal about it, then that means “both sexual with the same and the other”, or “sexual with everything”, so bisexual is identical to pansexual in that regard.

    That of course hinges on the fact that heterosexual doesn’t literally mean “attracted to the opposite of two genders” but “attracted to other-gender from myself”, which we know isn’t how the word is used.

    So either you’re being literal about language, in which case bisexual is identical to pansexual per the Kinsey definition, or you’re not in which case we look at how the word is used, which is identical to pansexual.

    The only way that bisexual is seen as exclusive to non-binary people is an attempt by a small group of people to redefine the word and erase the meaning used by pretty much everybody who identifies as bisexual.

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