Writing about Bisexuality

This week, Conditionally Accepted will post my two-part essay on bisexual marginalization in the academy. In this post, I reflect on the experience composing these essays to offer some other things for people to consider when engaging with sexual fluidity in our world.

When a colleague I admire (Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman) asked me to consider writing about being bisexual in the academy, I began wonder what I would say. On the one hand, talking about my sexuality and sexual experiences is something I have a lot of experience with and generally feel very comfortable doing (in large part thanks to a very supportive network of loved ones of varied sexualities I can turn to for support when I need it).  On the other hand, bisexuality is a such a wide and varied experience that I was uncertain what aspects I should focus on in the post.

As I often do when confronted by such questions, I conducted an informal poll of sorts.  I reached out to a lot of sexually fluid people I know within and beyond the academy (most identify as bisexual, but others self identity as polysexual, pansexual, trysexual, fluid, and / or Queer), and asked them “If you were granted a platform to talk about bisexual experience that might be read by many binary sexual folk (i.e., heterosexual and lesbian/gay people), what would you want to discuss most.”  I was lucky enough to get a lot of responses, and I began to synthesize them along the lines of how we are typically defined by others in the academy and then symbolically assaulted by the same others using the definitions they came up with in the first place.  I then turned my attention to binary allies (i.e., lesbian/gay and heterosexual folk who are supportive of fluid people, communities, and issues), and asked them roughly the same question.  Again, I got many useful responses, and they ultimately spoke to the definitional question and attempts to “make y’all fit into our binaries” as one said.  As a result, I focused the Conditionally Accepted essay on definitions of bisexuality (part one) and strategies for combatting biphobia based on such definitions (part two – coming soon) and I encourage everyone to check out these posts (as well as this one by Dr. Julia Serano) and hope they may be helpful to people regardless of their sexual identities and preferences.

By the end of the experience, however, I realized there were at least two more important components that I should at least raise for further commentary. First, I would like to share some other common issues raised in my informal poll that we might want to consider in relation to sexual fluidity within and beyond the academy. Then, I would like to share some definitional issues I accidentally ran into in relation to talking about binary sexual people in hopes of helping other fluid folks avoid the same pitfalls with binary sexual colleagues and audiences.

In the first case, alongside concerns about how fluid people are defined in the academy, the three most common questions raised in my informal poll included (in no particular order) the following:

  1. Why doesn’t there ever seem to be much conversation about monosexism (i.e., the elevation of beliefs that one is naturally only attracted to one sex) in the academy despite rising recognition of systems (like heterosexism, homonormativity, and cisnormativity) that are often built upon this ideology?
  2. How do binary sexual people (generally lesbian and gay people and seemingly more and more popular recently) reconcile calling themselves Queer (i.e., a label initial conceptualized via the rejection and opposition to binary categories) and also mobilizing “born this way” or “binary lesbian and gay” claims? How do they make sense of this contradiction?
  3. Since studies show bisexuals are viewed less favorably and sometimes experience even more marginalization than binary sexual minorities (i.e., lesbian and gay people), where are the massive calls for action on behalf of bisexual communities that we see so often from and for gay and lesbian communities?

I can’t pretend I have answers to these questions, but I do wonder what binary sexual people would say in response.

In the second case, one thing this experience taught me is that some of the terms I use for binary sexual people (and hear used regularly by other fluid sexual folk) may be problematic when seeking to develop fluid-binary conversations. As a result, I thought I would mention this aspect in hopes of helping such conversational efforts since (best I can tell) we all have more in common (especially binary and fluid sexual minorities) than we are often taught. To this end, I want to share a handful of terms I use to refer to gay/lesbian and heterosexual people regularly in practice that do not seem to raise any issue for fluid sexual folk, but might for binary sexual folk.

I have used these terms (and was taught them – sometimes by gay/lesbian and heterosexual people) interchangeably because from a fluid perspective they all basically mean the same thing (i.e., the same way that in practice bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, trysexual, and fluid tend to all mean the same thing in practice among the vast majority of people I’ve met). While these are all the same from my perspective, I regularly learn that they can mean different things to binary sexual people, and I think it is important to be aware of such variation in order to avoid (likely unintentionally) hurting people who see certain terms in certain ways.

When talking about sexual binary folk, I tend to use the following terms as similes that all convey “this person identifies within homo/hetero sexual binary categories,” but here I’ve noted observations about how binary sexual folks respond in varied ways to these terms and / or how I’ve seen them used:

  1. Binary Sexual – I have only heard bisexual / fluid people, bisexual / fluid allies, gay/lesbian/straight folk who don’t agree with the “born this way” rhetoric, and / or gay/lesbian/straight people who identify as politically Queer and /or somewhat fluid or fluid capable use this terminology to date.  I admit, this is my preference simply because it focuses attention on monosexism and the sexual binary.
  2. Gay / Lesbian / Straight – I have yet to find any negative reactions to these terms in the academy, but some homosexual people without access to college education do not like the terms gay and lesbian and prefer homosexual or same-gender-loving.
  3. Homosexual / Heterosexual – Some gay/lesbian people in the academy don’t like homosexual and some straight people don’t like heterosexual – they offer too many different reasons in my experience for me to effectively summarize them here.
  4. Homophile / Heterophile – I’ve only heard this used by gay/lesbian elders and by elder straight allies to gay/lesbian communities. I don’t actually know what younger gay/lesbian/straight folks think of these terms, but I would like to learn.
  5. Same / Separate Genital Loving – I’ve only heard this term used politically by bisexual, intersex, asexual and transgender people seeking to (a) decouple sex and gender, (b) Queer assumptions of romance tied to genital appearance and use, (c) not erase same-gender (i.e., same gender identity and / or presentation) heterosexual, asexual, bisexual, and other relationships, and / or (d) oppose “born this way” or “genitals determine selfhood” rhetorics.

Once again, I have only learned what some sexual binary people think of these terms by engaging them in conversation. In much the same way I suggest in this weeks essays at Conditionally Accepted, I think the way forward is to have such conversations no matter how difficult in hopes of embracing the possibility of full sexual equality for all.

Finally, I should note that for many wonderful sexual binary people and sexually fluid people I have met, none of what I’ve written here will be new or original, and I appreciate such people everyday since they ease the experience of living in a primarily-binary-defined world. To those who this may be new information, however, I hope it is helpful to you in engaging with sexual fluidity or binaries in your own world, and building healthy and mutually respectful connections between sexually binary and fluid people.

I have been lucky enough to meet people who cannot imagine sexual or romantic attraction and activity with anyone that doesn’t have the same or different genitals.  I have also been lucky enough to meet people (like me) who cannot imagine genitals having anything at all to do with sexual or romantic attraction and activity.  I have also been lucky enough to meet people who exist in a wide variety of areas between these parameters and / or bounce around between these parameters in daily life and / or in relation to certain potential lovers.  In all such cases, I long for the day when members of each of these behavior and desire groups stand together equally recognized, celebrated and affirmed in their consensual sexual and romantic endeavors.

J. Sumerau