This essay was published in “Becoming Visible: Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan.” Firestein, B. A. (Ed.) New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Note: I strongly recommend this excellent anthology!
What’s in a Name? Why Women Embrace or Resist Bisexual Identity
Some women have relatively simple stories. They may meet their romantic partner in their youth, bond strongly, and mate for life. At least in terms of sexual orientation, this can result in a relatively simple narrative. Others have had multiple sexual and/or romantic attractions, but toward people of only one sex. These individuals too face a relatively simple task when describing their sexual orientation.
But many women’s stories are less straightforward (pun intended). They may have experienced attraction toward or had sexual or romantic experiences with people of more than one sex. They may be attracted to the qualities of androgyny, masculinity or femininity in an individual, regardless of the person’s biological sex (Levitt & Bridges, this volume). Or they may find themselves attracted to genderqueer, intersex or transgendered individuals who simply do not fit into binary categories (Horner, this volume).
Why do some women with attractions toward people of more than one sex embrace a bisexual identity, and others resist it? How do we label or describe our sexual orientation? Is it even necessary or desirable to self-label? Lives are complex narratives, existing over time and on various levels. Is there any one word that can adequately describe a person’s sexual orientation? For some, the answer is yes; for others, no. And for yet others, the answer is “to some extent.”
In the present chapter, I outline the experiences of bisexual women, focusing on the realities of external oppression as it manifests in the forms of external homophobia, heterosexism, biphobia, and internalized biphobia which compromise our ability to freely and comfortably self-identify. I explore the reasons that some women resist a bisexual label, reasons which may or may not stem from internalized biphobia: some women simply prefer a different label, or see the bisexual label as inadequate or problematic. I will explore why other women choose a bisexual identity despite these myriad difficulties. Finally, I suggest ways to foster mutual respect between those who choose a bisexual identity and those who resist one, and for arriving a nuanced and mature understanding of bisexual – and other – identities.
The Role of Homophobia and Biphobia
The Big Picture
Identity development involves a complex process of interaction with our environment. Every woman inhabits a different body and occupies a specific geographic, temporal, and interpersonal environment. We have our own experiences, our own thoughts, our own desires. Furthermore, we exist over time, and our experiences may be dramatically different at different points in our lives. To this constellation we assign meaning. We interpret and name ourselves.
We do not choose our identities in a vacuum. We are given, based upon our individual context, a menu of options, and a system of feedback, punishment, and reinforcement. How we interpret ourselves is in part dependent upon the tools available (Bower, Gurevich, & Mathieson, 2002). Our imagination is limited by our environment, by our culture, by our vocabulary, and by our experience (A. Fox, 1991). Furthermore, we not only interpret and name ourselves (self-identity); we are constantly interpreted and named by others (ascribed identity), resulting in a complex negotiation between an individual and those around her. Even the most independent individual cannot help but be affected by external feedback. And sexual orientation – like sex, gender identification, sexual orientation and race – is what Allport (1954) calls a “label of primary potency,” a label which is seen to be of such significance that it overshadows other labels applied to the same individual and is thus assigned disproportional importance. Thus, our sexual orientation identities matter.
Individuals in society are punished and rewarded based upon our perceived majority or minority group status (Greene, 2003; Ochs & Deihl, 1992). We are either given preferential treatment or denied our fair share. Furthermore, dominant identities are universalized: they are seen as natural, normal, and unproblematic. When we assert a non-dominant identity, we often encounter surprise and disbelief, and our assertions can be perceived as threatening – an aggressive challenge to the status quo. Furthermore, the visibility or invisibility of a particular minority population directly affects its members’ experience of oppression (Greene, 2003; Ochs, 1996). Members of a visually identifiable group can easily identify each other, and can be easily targeted by others. Those with visible and invisible identities have qualitatively different experiences of prejudice and oppression, though none escapes the effects of stereotyping (Greene, 2003).
Members of groups with invisible identities, such as bisexuals or lesbians, have the advantage of not being easily identifiable, which may in certain contexts protect us from discrimination (Ochs, 1996). However, we have the disadvantage of not being able to readily identify other members of our own group. Both minority and majority people are likely to assume that everyone else – until proven otherwise – is in the majority, resulting in a gross underestimation of the size of these minority groups. One bisexual college sophomore I was introduced to in 2001 exclaimed, “You are the first grown up bisexual I’ve ever met!” As she grew up in a medium-sized town and attended a large university, this was surely not the case, but she had been unable to “see” any of the others.
In addition, the “privilege” of passing also carries as its counterweight the onus of having to actively announce our identity in order to avoid incorrect assumptions, as well as feelings of guilt or discomfort that may arise when we are silent. If we are silent, we are subject to misinterpretation, invisibility, and even the perception that we do not exist. We carry the weight of constantly having to make the decision of how and when to come out, and at what cost. It is also important to remember we are each members of numerous identity groups. We simultaneously have racial, ethnic, religious, political, gender, sex, sexual orientation identities and other identities (Firestein, in press; Rust, 1996). To further complicate reality, many of us have complex identities within a given category. For example, someone may have Mexican and Chinese ancestry; and the identity “lesbian” can be both a description of one’s sexual orientation and a social and political category(Rust, 2000). Our identities in one category affect our construction or experience of other categories, resulting in identities that are a complex, multidimensional tapestry (Rust, 1996).
Biphobia, Homophobia and Heterosexism
“Biphobia is fear of the other and fear of the space between our categories.” (Ochs & Deihl, 1992, p. 69)
Biphobia shares many characteristics with other forms of oppression, especially homophobia and heterosexism (1), and women who are attracted to people of more than one sex, regardless of how we identify, generally experience our share of all three (Ochs, 1996; Ochs & Deihl, 1992). This oppression may take a number of forms, ranging from social prejudices to name-calling and anti-gay violence, to discrimination in housing, employment or public accommodations, to the devaluation of our same-sex relationships, to legislation resulting in second-class citizenship (Blumenfeld, 1992).
How does oppression affect sexual minorities? Allport (1954) lays out multiple ways in which individuals respond negatively to stigmatization which he calls “traits due to victimization” (p. 142). Of special importance to the discussion of biphobia are two of these characteristics: aggression and blame directed at our own group; and prejudice and discrimination directed against other minorities. This may assist us in understanding theoretically two phenomena frequently observed in sexual minority populations: 1) internalized homophobia and biphobia and 2) hostility directed at bisexuals and transgender people by some lesbians and gay men. Individuals may act out feelings of victimization through anger toward and rejection of those within or outside of our group who are perceived as even less acceptable than ourselves (Blasingame, 1992). One reason for this is the fear that these people who are even more marginal will give lesbians and gay men an even worse image than that which they already hold in the eyes of the dominant culture, further impeding the struggle for acceptance and legal equality. Paradoxically, hostility may also be directed at individuals perceived as less marginalized: they may be called to task for not having suffered as much as their peers (Herek, 2002). Bisexuals may be considered too queer, or not queer enough (Esterberg, 1997).
There is debate within LGBT communities over where biphobia and homophobia/heterosexism overlap, and where they differ. I contend that there is both considerable overlap between homophobia/ heterosexism and biphobia, as well as specific ways in which each is unique. Furthermore, homophobia/ heterosexism and biphobia affect men and women differently, both as subject and as object. (See Ochs, 1996)
How do biphobia and homophobia/heterosexism overlap? It is obvious that a homophobic school board will fire a bisexual teacher, not place her on half-time status because she identifies publicly as bisexual rather than lesbian. Visible bisexual women, like visible lesbians, may be targeted for discrimination. The key factor is not whether we are bisexual or lesbian, but whether our minority status is known (Ochs, 1996; Ochs & Diehl, 1992).
Another area of congruence between the experience of biphobia and the experience of homophobia may be with respect to “coming out” issues. A bisexual woman coming to terms with her same-sex attraction is likely to experience shame, ambivalence, and discomfort similar to that experienced by lesbians (A. Fox, 1991). Both homosexuality and bisexuality are denied and distorted. Furthermore, people in the general population, as well as professionals, lack accurate information about both homosexuality and bisexuality (Dworkin, 2000; Firestein, 1996). In fact, these two identity groups are actually rather fluid and tend to have considerable overlap (Bower, Gurevich, & Mathieson, 2002). Many bisexually-identified women have in the past considered themselves to be lesbian, and many lesbians have in the past considered themselves to be bisexual, and individuals may use different words to describe similar narratives (Esterberg, 1997; Rust, 1995). R. C. Fox (1995) found in his study of 835 bisexually identified people that 38.3% of women had previously identified as lesbian or gay. Rust (1992, 1995) maintains that the line between lesbians and bisexual women is blurry and that the two identities in fact overlap.
In summary, invisibility, isolation, and oppression are experiences shared by bisexual women and lesbians in the United States. Any visible sexual minority may be a target of oppression, and each suffers internally when forced to remain silent.
A primary manifestation of biphobia is denial of the very existence of bisexual people. We live in a culture that thinks in binary categories, with each category having its mutually exclusive opposite. Thus, those of us whose sexual orientation, sex or gender defies simple labeling create profound discomfort simply by making our existence known. This is a major root of the hostility directed toward bisexual and transgender persons (Alexander & Yescavage, 2004).
Bisexuals are pressured to remain silent about our existence, because a great deal is at stake. Our silence allows the dominant culture to exaggerate the differences between heterosexual and homosexual, and to ignore the fact that human sexuality exists on a continuum (Ochs & Deihl, 1992). There is considerable anxiety in being forced to acknowledge that the “other” may not be quite as different from you as you might wish.
Binary thinking renders bisexuals invisible and contributes to biphobia (Ochs & Deihl, 1992). A quiet bisexual will be assumed to be either heterosexual or homosexual. To avoid being mislabeled, a bisexual woman must declare her bisexuality and risk being seen as aggressively and inappropriately flaunting her orientation, an experience shared by other sexual minorities. Otherwise, bisexuality only becomes visible as a point of conflict. Bisexuality becomes visible as bisexuality only in the context of complicated, uncomfortable situations: a woman leaves her husband for another woman; a woman leaves a lesbian relationship for a male lover. Often, when bisexuality is given attention, it is portrayed as a transitional category, an interim stage in an original or subsequent coming out process, usually from heterosexual to homosexual (Bower, Gurevich, & Mathieson, 2002; R. C. Fox, 1996). This has the effect of associating bisexuality in many people’s minds with conflict and impermanence. Bisexuals whose lives are non-controversial are the least visible.
And the word bisexual itself can be problematic. Many people struggling to understand bisexuality can only imagine the concept of bisexuality as a 50/50 identity. In their minds, if a third category exists, it must fall midway between the other two. They struggle to fix bisexuals in the middle of the scale, further assuming that if bisexuality is a 50/50 identity, there are very few “true” bisexuals.
Lesbians sometimes see an insistence on a bisexual identity as a holding back, a failure to declare full allegiance to the “community” (Bower, Gurevich, & Mathieson, 2002; Esterberg, 1997; Rust, 1995). This is similar to the response by some people who identify as African American to those who identify as bi- and multi-racial (Blasingame, 1992; Funderburg, 1994). Instead of being understood as an insistence on claiming one’s full self, it may be viewed as an attempt to opt out of the more oppressed group (see Scott, this volume). Like so many stereotypes, this may be true of some individuals but certainly is not true of all. In fact, coming out and declaring a bisexual or biracial identity requires a great deal of courage.
Biphobia does not only come from the outside. Internalized biphobia can be powerful, sometimes overpowering, and the experience of isolation, illegitimacy, shame, and confusion felt by many bisexuals can be disempowering, even disabling (A. Fox, 1991; Ochs, 1996; Page, 2004). What contributes to internalized biphobia and how does it manifest?
Even today, with modest improvements in this area, bisexual individuals have few role models (Firestein, in press). Though there has been some improvement, bisexuals are rarely mentioned or represented in mainstream or in the lesbian and gay media and when we are mentioned, it is often in a negative context (Ochs & Deihl, 1992). In most parts of the United States, there are no organized groups for bisexual people (A. Fox, 1991; Firestein, in press). Except in the largest cities, we cannot walk into a neighborhood bookstore and find resources on bisexuality, and even there the best we can hope for is to find a book or two in the “Lesbian and Gay” section. Due to bisexual invisibility and the paucity of bisexual role models or bisexual community, most bisexuals develop and maintain our bisexual identities in isolation. (Bradford, 1994; Ochs, 1996; Page, 2004)
Most bisexuals spend a majority of their time in the community that corresponds with the sex of our romantic partner (Bradford, 2004; Ochs, 1996). Partner changes – especially when our new partner is of a different sex than the previous one – can result in a sense of social discontinuity (Esterberg, 1997; Ochs & Deihl, 1992). Other bisexual women have a strong social affiliation with either a heterosexual, lesbian or queer community. This can result in a different challenge: a feeling that if our partner is not of the “correct” sex, we are hurting or betraying our community (Ochs & Deihl, 1992).
Contributing to bisexual invisibility, many women privately identify as bisexual, but to avoid conflict and preserve ties to a treasured family or community allow others to assume that they are lesbian or straight (Ochs & Deihl, 1992). Those in this position are likely to feel like imposters, outsiders, or second-class citizens in their community of choice.
Therefore, it is not surprising that some bisexual women experience bisexual desire as more a burden than a gift (Bower, Gurevich, & Mathieson, 2002). To avoid internal and external conflict, they may feel a pressure or a wish to choose heterosexuality or homosexuality. Many desire the ease they imagine would come with having one clear, fixed, socially acceptable identity.
Ironically, bisexual individuals in “permanent” relationships may experience a feeling that insistence on a bisexual identity constitutes a double betrayal of both our community of primary identification (whether heterosexual or homosexual), and of our partner. Alternatively, the partner may believe that a bisexual person continuing to identify as bisexual is not committing fully to the relationship. This sentiment overlooks the fact that identity is, in actuality, distinct from current behavior. By contrast, heterosexuals’ ability to establish and maintain committed relationships with one person are not assumed to falter even though they, while in a relationship, may retain their heterosexual identity and acknowledge feeling attractions to other people. These pressures can come not only from lovers, but also from parents or other interested parties who want the bisexual woman to stop “holding out” or a feeling that she is making much ado about nothing by holding onto her bisexual identity. The road to a positive, affirming bisexual identity is a long and arduous journey (Bradford, 2004). Our conditioning, invisibility, and the negative images which surround us make it extremely difficult to feel an unqualified sense of pride in our bisexuality.
Resisting a Bisexual Label
Many women avoid a bisexual label (Bower, Gurevich, & Mathieson, 2002). Some don’t like any label. Some privately identify as bisexual but do not want to deal with other people’s fear and stereotyping. Others are not sure whether they are “bisexual enough” to call themselves bisexual. Some feel that their attraction toward a person of a different-from-usual sex is an isolated incident, as such insufficient to motivate them to change their identity. Some women reject the bisexual label because they feel that a different label better meets their current needs. And finally, some reject the bisexual label because they believe that the “bi” in “bisexual” reifies the binary sex/gender system. I will discuss each of these in turn.
To recruit respondents for the present study, I posted the following message to three email lists:
This is a question for women who are attracted to both men and women but don’t like to use the word “bisexual” to define themselves.
Can you send me an email to explain WHY? Your answers will be confidential. I am on deadline, so please respond immediately!
Within 36 hours, I had heard back from 36 women. Their responses are summarized below.
Don’t put me in a box
One third of the respondents shared a distaste for labels. Some women said that they resist all labels. “I decided that my sexuality was too complicated and ever-changing to pinpoint on a line, so I came up with the undefined thing (it’s NOT the same as undecided). I won’t limit my love to words or put it in a box (even if the box has pretty ribbons).” Another woman wrote: “The very accurate term ‘bisexual’ has the unfortunate side effect of sounding important, or like it should be capitalized, or worn emblazoned on a purple baseball hat.”
Some women feel that their attractions are not defined by sex/gender. “I just like people and the best thing to really label myself as is ‘sexual’ I suppose. Sexuality, for me, does not involve gender.”
One teenager wrote: I used to use the term ‘bisexual’ to describe myself but now I no longer do. It is a stereotype like any other. I’m not straight, I’m not gay, I’m not bi, I’m just me.I don’t stereotype and label myself because I have the ability to love anyone regardless of gender, race, religion, age etc. because I have an open mind and that is all one needs. No labels, just openness and the ability to potentially love anyone regardless.
Bi is too binary!
This response would have been rare 10 or 20 years ago, but one third of the respondents objected to the binary implicit in the word bisexual. One wrote, “I don’t like the word ‘bisexual’ because I don’t want to reinforce the gender binary – I’m attracted to people of more than two genders.”
In the words of another respondent: “I date people who identify as men, women, trans, boi, boy, grrrl, intersexed, hermaphrodite and a whole slew of other gender-related terms. Their genitalia ranges, their hormones range, their chromosomes range How can I possibly classify myself as bisexual given this? Doing so would do a disjustice (sic) to both my political and social beliefs as well as to the identities of my partners.”
Another wrote: “I’m not bisexual. I’m sexual. I don’t limit myself by outdated systems of categorization like genitalia or gender.”
But isn’t bi 50/50?
Some women have difficulty identifying as bi because they have not yet been in a relationship with a woman (or with a man, or with either). There are many women who have a history of relationships with people of one sex, but who have fallen in love (or in lust) at some point with someone of the unexpected sex. Often, this is perceived as an isolated event unlikely to be repeated.
In the words of one respondent: “As for sex, well, I’m certainly attracted to male people a lot more often than female people, which is one reason not to call myself bisexual – it seems misleading. I don’t feel right calling myself ‘bisexual’ when I haven’t *had sex* with someone female.”
Another wrote: “I’m not sure I have a right to call myself bisexual. Most of my attractions are toward women.”
Bi identity has too many negative connotations
Several women said that the plethora of negative stereotypes about bisexuality make identifying as bisexual “too hard.” A stereotype commonly cited was the idea that bisexuals are just horny, sexually active/promiscuous people.
One woman felt that the word itself was pat of the problem: “I wish that someone would come up with a word that didn’t have ‘sex’ right in it. Self-identified bisexuals are sometimes seen as traitors, or as being in a state of transition (sliding down the slippery slope from straight to gay). Maybe a gay friend will say ‘Traitor’ or a straight friend will say ‘Oh it was just a phase’ and either way it makes me want to cry, so I try not to talk about it anymore, and just answer people’s questions honestly with as few labels as possible.”
Bi identity can be seen as having too many disadvantages, and too few perks: “I have to deal with ‘bi-phobia’ (I got enough phobias to battle) and ‘gee- can i watch’ from the boys at the bar, and frankly, bi folks don’t get all the cool perks that ‘gay’ folks and straight folk do in terms of community, and resources. Oft times bisexuals get ostracized, or told that they can’t be a part of things because they aren’t ‘hardcore’ enough to be lesbians, or gay men (or whatever).” Another stated, “I’m afraid that if I say I’m bisexual people are more likely to make assumptions about me that are really wrong.” Another said: “There’s a lot of suspicion in the queer community toward bisexuals. If you declare yourself as one, people don’t see you as queer, at best, and they see you as a trend follower. It’s annoying not to be thought of as a ‘real’ homosexual, and my fear of being mocked discourages me from openly calling myself a bisexual.” According to one woman, “The problem with the word ‘bisexual’ is that it implies, at least in today’s day and age, that you are attracted to everyone. Or at least to more people than, say, a straight person is. I don’t believe this is true at all.”
Lesbian trumps bisexual
One fourth of the women who responded identify simultaneously as lesbian and bisexual, but choose to identify publicly as lesbian, citing a number of reasons. Some stress the political power of the word lesbian or their desire to ally themselves with lesbians. Others are now in what they expect will be life partnerships with someone of their own sex and thus feel that their lesbian identity overshadows their bisexual identity. Others said that their home is centered in the lesbian community, where it would be very uncomfortable to maintain a bisexual identity. “I see being out as lesbian as the best political statement you can make, and I’ve always felt more ties to the lesbian community, so I choose to make my political statement for lesbians, rather than bisexuals.”
I came out as lesbian 15 years ago, and I am so connected to my identity as a lesbian that it feels just plain wrong and not who I am, to change it in any way (even though I’m now attracted to men too); I’m afraid of giving up/losing some of my community that is strongly lesbian identified due to their judgment (real or perceived).Though I have used that word to describe myself in the past, it feels like after 10 years in a relationship with my partner the term bisexual doesn’t really seem to fit, except technically. What’s that about? Why such passion? And what’s so bad about identifying about bisexual, anyway?
Embracing a Bisexual Label
To locate women who embrace a bisexual identity, I sent the following message to several email lists:
I’m writing an article and need your help. WHY DO YOU CHOOSE TO USE THE WORD BISEXUAL TO DESCRIBE YOURSELF? If you self-identify as a woman, and if you identify as bisexual, please help me out by answering this question. I’ll need to hear back from you within the next few days, and please do reply, even if your response is short.
Coincidentally, 36 women responded to this inquiry as well, although their responses arrived over a seven-day period. A summary of their responses follows:
If the shoe fits
Almost all who responded said that they use the word bisexual because it is the best available word to describe them. For example, “The bisexual label describes my present, living, daily reality: I am sexually attracted to both men and women. My life partner is a man, but like anyone who is ‘married,’ I am still attracted to other people, and those people are of both sexes.”
Women used different criteria – sexual experience, attraction, relationship history, potential, or a combination of these factors – to explain why they consider themselves bisexual. Some appeared to accept the idea that there are two sexes; others challenged it; some said that they were attracted to both men and women; others said that their attraction was irregardless of sex or gender. “I’ve been able to be in meaningful relationships with people of both sexes.” “It’s the only word (so far) that fits how I feel – attracted to and capable of being in relationships with people regardless of gender.” “I have a history of forming lasting partnerships with people of both genders, as well as those who are transgender. While I appreciate certain experiences that I consider to be unique to being with a man or a woman, gender is not something that is a determining factor for me when it comes to attraction.” “I’m emotionally and sexually attracted to men, women, and people who don’t exactly meet either description. There isn’t any other single word that works quite as well to describe me.”
Some described their attractions as 50/50 and felt that bisexuality was therefore a perfect fit for them; others embraced a bisexual identity although their attractions or relationship history is skewed toward one people of one sex. “I call myself bisexual because it fits so perfectly. I would put myself smack dab in the middle of any scale that measures attractions as I really do find both males and females attractive. Or perhaps I should say that the sex of the person is not material. I find specific people attractive.” “I call myself bisexual not simply because I’ve had sex with both men and women, but because I have been in love with both sexes. My attraction is about 70% toward men, but I have been in a loving relationship with a woman as well.” “I have never had a sexual encounter with a woman, but I still am bisexual because the attraction is there.”
Four women made specific reference to ascribed identity, saying that one reason they identify as bisexual is that it is “the word that best describes my sexual identity in a way that others would understand” or “because that is what others would identify me as.”
Others said that bisexual identity was broad enough to encompass all of their experience: One woman wrote, “Bisexual identity is flexible enough to encompass variations in my past, present and future, without pretending that some relationships were authentic and others weren’t.” Another wrote, “rather than seeing myself as half-lesbian and half-straight, I feel like all of me is attracted to women, and all of me is attracted to men. There is no lesbian half and no straight half. I am a third category that contains the first two but is wholly different, and that is bisexual.”
or at least fits better than any other
Several women made reference to the limitations of the bisexual label, but felt that it was nonetheless the best choice available to them: “I know that the binary view of gender is a chimera, and that my attractions to people involve other aspects than sexual, but the alternatives to the word ‘bisexual’ have their own drawbacks and require so much more explanation.” “I call myself bisexual because it is the least inaccurate of all the labels available.” “I hate the word bisexual because of the fact that sex is right there in the name.I wish we had a word similar to lesbian or gay that envelopes ideas of sex, relationships, and culture rather than just sex. But until then I guess I will be stuck with bisexual.”
Strategically bi: politics and visibility
Seven women said that they identify as bisexual for political or educational reasons, seeing themselves as role models for others. “Using the term “bisexual’ as much as possible will help to get more people to understand that there are more than just the options of *heterosexual* or *homosexual* for describing one’s sexuality.” “Being out as bi challenges the myth that there’s a vast difference between straight and gay, and that people can easily distinguish one from the other.” “I think I’m continuing to call myself bi simply because so many people are afraid of the label. Maybe I’m a lesbian-leaning bisexual, but I would hate to give someone ammunition to the prejudices that bis are undecided, going through a phase, or disloyal to the gay community. We’re legitimate, we’re queer, and we all identify as bi for different reasons.” “Bisexual people are often invisible and assumed to be either straight or gay, so I feel it is valuable to claim a bisexual identity proudly and publicly to counter that invisibility.” “I use the word “bisexual’ often, loudly, clearly, proudly, because who I am, unfortunately, is not written on my face, and I use it in the hopes that, as much as humanly possible, I will not find myself hiding behind either heterosexual privilege or lesbian appearances.”
Moving Together Toward the Future: Suggestions for Counselors
Labels are problematic. Human languages are inadequate to the task of describing the complexities of human experience. Even women who embrace a given label may find it only partially succeeds in serving its descriptive function. And those who reject a label may still recognize its merits. The responses above are clear evidence that choosing how to identify is a complex issue with a myriad of possible opinions and strategies, and no simple solution or correct answer. Each individual must find her own way.
My own experience of identity has been an ongoing process and may serve as one example. The bisexual label works for me, and has greatly enhanced my life. It has also, at times, cost me dearly.
I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge in myself the capacity to be attracted to and sexual with people of more than one sex, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree. It is clear to me that I was bisexual long before I ever “acted on it,” just as a person who has never had sex can be lesbian or straight. After all, identity is not only about behavior. It is also about what we feel inside. A woman can be bisexual even if she never ends up acting on it, or even if – like me – she is in a monogamous relationship that she expects will last the rest of her life.
On the negative side, by calling myself bisexual I exposed myself to anger, hostility, stereotyping, and lowered my status in the “gay and lesbian” community.
On the positive side, my bisexual identity was a route to community. By responding in September 1982 to an announcement in the paper about a discussion about bisexuality, I found my way into a room of women who also identified as bisexual, who understood my experience. This led to membership in a support group, to friendships, and subsequently to advocacy and activism, all of which have greatly enhanced my life.
I have become, over time, less a believer that there is some sort of essential difference between people who use various words to describe ourselves. Lesbian, bisexual, queer, even “choose-not-to-label” – these are tags that we place on ourselves to give others information about how we understand ourselves. These words mean different things to different women.
I have been committed to a woman (for life, we hope) for eight years, and we have been legally married since the first day it was legal in Massachusetts to do so: May 17, 2004. I haven’t slept with a man since 1992. Many other women whose stories are similar to mine would by now have adopted a lesbian label. I haven’t. I am happy to be grouped with lesbians. Queers too. But it is important to me that I be seen in full: past, present, and potential future; internal and external, and that no part of me be obscured or erased.
We use words to describe ourselves, but these words are at best tools to help us explain – to ourselves and to others – who we are and how we see ourselves. They have value in so far as they can be used to make us visible, and to help us find others with similar experiences, but in reality each of us has our own path and unique experience. And while this may not feel like a very stable foundation upon which to hang ones hat, it is in fact facing up to reality.
It can be very frustrating for those of us who identify as bisexual when others reject the label we have worked so long and hard to create a space for. I am left with the question: is my bisexual activism about making it safe for these women to identify as bisexual? Or is it about making it safe for all of us to identify, or not identify, however we choose, and to be respected as we are.
My answer, clearly, is the latter. However, we still live in a world in which people think in either/or binaries, and most people believe we are either one thing or the other, and are uncomfortable with notions of fluidity. How can we make it safe for women who identify as bisexual? Or not? How can “not bi” women be visibly “not straight” and “not gay” either so that they can help dispel binary notions? This is the challenge that I put forth to all of us: let us respect one another, speak our truths, listen to each other’s stories, refrain from imposing our own assumptions and understanding on others, and figure out ways that we can increase the space available for all of us.
(1) Homophobia: Fear or hatred of homosexuals and homosexuality; heterosexism: prejudice and antagonism shown by heterosexual persons towards homosexuals; discrimination against homosexuals; the belief in the superiority of heterosexuality. (Source: Oxford English Dictionary Online). Biphobia is not in this dictionary. I use it to mean prejudice and antagonism toward bisexuals and bisexuality.
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