The following essay was published as the “Uncommon Wisdom” column in the Fall 2001 issue of “In the Family: The Magazine for Queer People and Their Loved Ones.” (p. 5).
Question: “Why do so many women who easily admit to having male and female lovers refuse the label ‘bisexual’?
What a great question! As a bisexual activist and scholar, I have long been wondering about this myself. So many women seem to be allergic to “the b word.” Women have a variety of reasons for avoiding a bisexual label. Some women reject bisexual because they 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 experience with a person of a different-from-usual sex is a one-time-only happening and as such insufficient to motivate them to change their identity. Some women reject the label “bisexual” because they feel that another label, such as “lesbian” 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.
In preparation for this essay, I sent out a few emails seeking input from women who fall into this category of not wanting to label themselves “bi” even though they have had both male and female partners [and/or attractions]. Within 36 hours, I had heard back from 36 women. Below are some of their responses.
Don’t put me in a box!
A few months ago, Ann Heche was interviewed by Barbara Walters on 20/20. Walters asked Heche, who had just come out of a very public relationship with comedian Ellen DeGeneres and was now engaged to a man, “Do you consider yourself bisexual?” Ann replied “I do not label myself bisexual. Nor do I label myself straight or gay.”
One third of the respondents shared Ann Heche’s distaste for labels. Some women said that they resist labels, period.
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.
Others expressed a desire to separate themselves from the stereotypes associated with bisexuality.
Bisexual is such a strong word. To many people it implies that you are seeking relationships with both genders consistently. For many straight men, they only think it’s an opportunity to get two women in bed with them at the same time.
Some people feel that their attractions have nothing to do with 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, Pepper. I love people, not genders. 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 implies that there are only two sex/genders!
This is one answer that would have been rare 10 or 20 years ago, but was a reason given by one third of my respondents.
I am attracted to both men and women but don’t identify as bisexual for many reasons. The main reason is that I spend a lot of my time in the transgendered community. Lots of my friends id as trans in some way MTF, FTM or more often somewhere in between. As a gender activist I feel like I can’t label my sexual identity with a word that simply by it’s use upholds the binary gender system.
Another 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 2 genders.
Another wrote: I date people who ID 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 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 have sex with people who I find attractive and intriguing. I don’t limit myself by outdated systems of categorization like genitalia or gender.
But isn’t bi 50/50?
For some women, it’s hard to identify as bi without having had a “real” realationship with a woman. 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 a one-time only event unlikely to be repeated. Lesbian sexpert Joann Loulan was a good example of this: when she fell in love with a man, she emphasized that she remained a lesbian, that she was attracted only to this one man, and did not generalize her feelings to men as a category.
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 so many negative connotations
Several women said that the word bisexual is “too hard.” Stereotypes cited included the idea that people think bisexuals are just horny, sexually active/promiscuous people.
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.
A bi identity can be seen as having too many disadvantages, and not enough 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 said: I’m afraid that if I say I’m bisexual people are more likely to make assumptions about me that are really wrong.
And another wrote: 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.
Another wrote: I think 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. : Also, the term “bisexual” is pretty much taken to mean “straight and gay at the same time.” I don’t find this true either. There are periods in my life where I find myself looking at guys, and other times where I find myself looking at girls. Rarely, if ever, do I find myself hunting both sexes at the same time. I’m not saying that some days I wake up straight and some days I wake up gay (Hrm, today’s a Wednesday…I think I’ll be straight today) but rather that sex becomes more of an optional characteristic instead of a must-have. Sort of like being tall, or having long hair: For some reason, the word just doesn’t work for me. Maybe I’m just too picky. Another wrote: I guess that I assume that bisexuals aren’t really sure what they want instead of thinking of them as open to both men & women.
Lesbian trumps bisexual
One fourth of the women who responded choose to identify as lesbian rather than bisexual. There were a number of reasons given. Some stressed 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 and thus feel that their lesbian identity has overshadowed 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.
But if it walks like a duck…
I’ve never met a label I didn’t find problematic. To be totally honest here, I sometimes cringe at the passion with which some women tell me that they have (or have had) attractions and/or erotic experience with men and with women but then roundly insist that they are NOT, repeat NOT bisexual. No way, no how.
The bisexual label works for me. Calling myself bisexual means that I acknowledge in myself the capacity to be attracted to and sexual with people of more than one sex (notice I don’t simply say men and women – that’s because I know that there are more than two sexes), not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily to the same degree. To me, you can most certainly be bisexual without having “acted on it.” Just like you can be a lesbian or straight person who has never had sex. After all, you know what you feel inside. And you can continue to be bisexual, even if you never end up acting on it, or even if you are in a monogamous relationship that lasts the rest of your life.
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. IWhat’s that about? Why such passion? And what’s so bad about identifying about bisexual, anyway?
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 labels, name tags that we place on ourselves to give others information about who we are. These words mean different things to different women. I have been married to a woman (my life partner, we hope) for five years. I haven’t slept with a man in close to a decade. Many other women with a story similar to mine would have by now “switched over” to the lesbian label. I haven’t. I am happy to be grouped with lesbians. Queers too. But for me it is important that I be seen in full: past, present, and potential future, and that none of me be obscured or erased. We use words to describe ourselves, but these words are simply tools to help us explain – to ourselves and to others – who we are. They have value as they can be used as landmarks to make us visible, and to help us find others with similar experiences, but in reality each of us has our own path and our own experience. And while this may not feel like a very stable foundation upon which to hang one’s hat, it is in fact facing up to reality.
It can be very frustrating for those of us who identify as bisexual to see 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 is: the latter. However, we still do 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 these “not bi” women be made visible so that they can help dispel these notions? This is the challenge that I put forth to all of us: let us respect one another, listen to each other’s stories, and figure out ways that we can increase the space available for telling our truths.