The Bi Identity

At this point I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t a phase. At 40-something, I’m still bi. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t a stop on the train to Lesbianville, and it wasn’t a brief period of exploration before settling into heterosexuality. While I fully acknowledge the fluidity of sexual identities in others’ experiences, I’ve been bi since my tween years, though I didn’t have words for it then, let alone the wherewithal to come out to others.

I do wonder though, if on the movement level, the “bisexual” label was a kind of phase. For many of us who recognize in ourselves the capacity to love individuals of any gender, the naming has been fraught with misconceptions layered so deep it is no wonder many folks have no use for it.

For a long time, before the early 90s or so, bisexuality was simply invisible in the Gay, and then Lesbian and Gay movement. There was a lot of pressure to identify as lesbian or as gay. Bi people were asked, are you in or are you out? Are you a traitor to the cause, a liaison to the patriarchy? Bisexuality was suspect and our political commitment to the movement was questioned; in lesbian communities, bi women were often stigmatized as carriers of HIV.

Our invisibility lessened in the late 80s and throughout the 1990s, as bi people were added to “lesbian and gay” organization names, taglines, and mission statements. It didn’t eradicate biphobia within the movement or from hetero folks, but we belonged in some official sense. Still, with people so ready to sort us based on a present partner, many found it easier to just accept monosexual labels and move on.

At the college where I teach, students use a wide array of labels (or no labels at all) to describe their sexual and gender identities. Bi is not a common label these students choose, even though their descriptions frequently fit my understanding of bisexuality. For many, the problem is that “Bi” connotes two, and since are more than two genders, bisexual would be a misnomer. Of course, the same problem exists — though perhaps less obviously — with heterosexual and homosexual, gay and lesbian, whose definitions are all based on definitive binary gender categories. So I find it ironic when bisexuality is singled out here, because the identity underneath the label is one that allows for fluidity with gender, because gender does not delineate the boundaries of one’s attraction.

There is an active quest for new terminology that creates fewer misconceptions. Some have called for using “omnisexual” or “pansexual” to acknowledge the existence of more than two genders. The thing is, these terms have a history of signifying the “anything that moves” stereotype about bi people – accusations of bestiality and pedophilia inevitably follow.

Queer is often offered as an alternative to bi. I do identify as Queer, but I find it means different things to different people in different contexts. For me, Queer is first and foremost a political identification, one that signifies critique of heteronormativity and gender binaries as well as a commitment to resist sexism, racism, classism, ableism, ageism, and other forms of oppression. But I don’t find that Queer adequately conveys to others information about my sexual orientation.

Indeed it does this intentionally; Queer seeks to resist the power dynamics of labels and challenges the boundaries of our neat sexual orientation categories. And yet in practice I find my identification as Queer can be received as a kind of shorthand or catchall for LGBT, a generic way to say “I’m one of you” without having to sort through or challenge my audience’s biphobia. Queer provides cover, especially when my meaning gets misinterpreted in de-radicalized ways, most frequently as a synonym for lesbian. Which makes me wonder whether I am on some level reading power dynamics and taking cover by using Queer, out of survival instinct. Does this practice maintain some internalized biphobia? Am I conceding the negative connotations of bisexuality – slut, traitor, straight privilege holder — when I do not claim and fight for the bi label? Am I Peter, betraying my community and issuing denials until the cock crows?

It is a radical thing, in this society so hung up on gender as a central site of division, to say that gender is not a limiting factor in whom we love. In claiming the bi label, we make it harder for others to categorize us in ways that cover up this fact or minimize the threat we pose to gender hegemonies.

Spiritual identity is similarly fraught. When people ask me “are you religious?” it is said with both trepidation and disdain, and piles of presumption about what “religious” entails… rigidity, dogmatism, judgment. To say “I’m spiritual” provides cover, conveys a sense of openness, but is utterly vague about belief and practice. The simple fact is, I’m Presbyterian. To the core. I couldn’t even find a fit with the UCC living in New England where Presbyterians are few and far between. Sure, the theology was reformed, but I missed the creedalism, the connectionalism, and the ways we radically live out the priesthood of all believers with ordained laity. But more than this, I am Pres-bi-terian. Presbyqueerian. I am religious but my relationship to my denomination is not that of a hegemonic Christian. So I insert “radical,” “progressive,” “queer friendly” or “social justice” as descriptors, modifiers, and ways to signify resistance to the kind of Christianity they might assume. Multiple labels seem to help.

It is hard for bi people to come out. One cannot casually reference a current or past girlfriend or boyfriend, or current interest, and expect people to reach the correct conclusion. I find I must say bisexual if people are to actually understand my sexual orientation (and Queer if they are to understand my political positioning within the LGBT community). And even then there are no guarantees; it can still be heard as lesbian in some weird Bermuda Triangle of Bi Invisibility.

I have long cultivated the practice of using gender neutral language to talk about my partner. I think of it as a way of being subtly out as a bi person as well as articulating a kind of genderqueer politics; it comes from my determination that gender should not bound my relationships. And because I am in an opposite-gender (there’s that troubling binary again) relationship, omitting pronouns is an important way for me to resist heterosexual privilege. Assumptions follow from gender revelations, and only once has someone followed a pronoun revelation by asking whether my partner is cis or trans. Among people who pick up on my gender neutral language, some wrongly assume I am a lesbian trying to cover a same-sex relationship. Again I find am in need of the bi label to convey the truth of who I am.

It’s not that gender doesn’t matter – it matters immensely – but for bi people, it does not limit. I mean to resist others placing limitations on what my relationship can or must be based on gender. I like to think that is the real meaning of Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…”) – not that we become oblivious to gender, abandon our identities, or ignore and forget relationships of oppression, but that being one in Christ would mean we act to end injustice, and free ourselves from the limitations of the binary. To do this work, we must take the risks of clearly claiming who we are, in word as well as deed.

What labels to do you use? How do they constrain or limit? How do they challenge and transform?

You can learn more about Donna Riley at our MLP Movement Authors page. All her posts can be found here.

3 thoughts on “The Bi Identity

  1. Thanks for this well thought through discussion. I identify with much of what you say, including the ambivalence with which people respond when I describe my partner and my transgender teenager in gender neutral language. One additional point about the tension between the gay and lesbian communities and the bisexual community involves efforts to sway public opinion into acceptance of gays and lesbians because theirs is an inborn characteristic and not a lifestyle choice. Acknowledging that I can love a person of either gender implies that I could chose to ignore same sex relations in favor of the opposite, and denigrates the argument that “it’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s the way God made me”.

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  2. Thanks to both Donna and Mary for your careful distinctions. Yes, we Bi folk do live with quite amount of gray in our lives, but I like to think that we live between the extremes – between the poles – in such a way as to remind all of our siblings that orientation and gender expression are gifts from God that express the diversity of the faces of God as well as the diversity of the human family. Knowing that hundreds of other species exhibit homosexual and bisexual expressions isn’t enough for some people, especially those who won’t admit that humans are a part of the animal kingdom. Beyond that, today I bought a hat of an Clown Fish. I’ll be using it in my Biblical Self Defense courses to point that at least one species can change their gender if the cluster of fishes needs a male in its group.

    Gender identity and expression is so confused by most people today (even in the LGBTQQI2-S community), so how do we claim our place in the community? What about those of us who find ourselves attracted to specific parts of the Transgender community (even those in transition)? Sure, some will accept that there is gender fluidity, but how many will accept that many Bi or Pan-sexuals also experience orientation fluidity?

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