Systemic Racism & Why I don’t want kids

In this guest post, David Springer reflects on the ways experiencing and studying systemic racism influence preferences for having or not having children.  David Springer is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago who studies race, ethnicity & gender and African American experience. 

At this point in my life, I’ve ended many different friendships and relationships because of racism. It’s a normal part of my life. Often, these incidents begin with comments like “You’re really ________ for a black guy” or “I like you, you’re not like other black people!” I turn 30 in about 2 months, and I don’t have the energy to explain to people why that’s offensive. I certainly don’t have time to explain why I or other black people are upset over Trayvon Martin’s death or his murderer’s acquittal, the Ferguson protests and the Baltimore uprisings. Over the past few years, I’ve come to learn that a big part of experiencing racism is about experiencing loss. It can involve losing access to resources (if you even had access in the first place), losing your humanity, losing your life (literally), and losing relationships. I thought I knew how to handle the latter until this past week.

I ended a completely functional, stable, 2-year relationship with a woman I loved because of racism. She is Asian-American and I’m black, but it wasn’t because of a microaggression. It wasn’t because she thought #BlackLivesMatter protesters were just rabble rousers or because she thought black people would be fine if we just pulled our pants up and stopped “acting ghetto.” In fact, in 2 years, we argued about something race related exactly one time. We ended our relationship because I came to the realization that I don’t want children, and she does. That, in and of itself, is not explicitly related to race. People end relationships all the time because they disagree on whether or not to have children. However, I’d venture to guess that most people who say they don’t want kids don’t cite racism as the reason. For me, racism has everything to do with why I don’t want to bring children into this world.

With the #BlackLivesMatter Movement in full swing and the seemingly endless stream of stories of violence against black people, racism continues to permeate our daily lives. On a personal level, I’m confronted with racism in my everyday life in ways I’ve written about before. I’m also a race scholar, so systemic racial inequality also shapes my worldview. My own research focuses on the ways race shapes the lives of even the most successful, middle class blacks in this “post-racial” society. Between my own personal experiences, an understanding of institutional inequality, and an awareness of how that inequality literally kills black men, women and children every day, you get what scholars refer to as “racial battle fatigue.”

Racial battle fatigue refers to the stress people of color experience when exposed to discrimination. This stress can be psychological (frustration, defensiveness, apathy, anxiety, hopelessness), physiological (headaches, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, sleep disturbances, etc.), or emotional-behavioral (stereotype threat, impatience, increased smoking, alcohol, or drug use, and poor job or school performance). For me, chronic exposure to racism tends to manifest itself though a deep sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Though I know that progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement and that my own success is a symbol of that progress, I’m also aware of how much that progress has stalled or regressed. On one hand, Census data suggests that black folks are generally less poor than they were before that era. That data also suggests that more of us are going to college and getting bachelor’s degrees, and that the black middle class has grown. Black success, at least on an individual level, is highly visible in our society. President Obama, as many have discussed before, is the most obvious example of this progress.

On the other hand, this racial progress coexists with racial disparities in income, wealth, poverty, unemployment, incarceration rates, housing and education. If black America were a country to itself, it would trail behind white America in virtually every measure of social mobility and life chances. It would have a worse infant mortality rate than many “3rd World” countries, a lower life expectancy than Mexico, a higher homicide rate (per-100,000) than the Ivory Coast, Sudan, or Haiti, and the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. While legally sanctioned discrimination has subsided over time, even successful blacks deal with racism in their neighborhoods, public spaces, stores, and the workplaces. Every day there is a new story of a black person being verbally harassed, followed in stores, harassed by security personnel, or killed by police and vigilantes. At this point, these kinds of stories are expected. I go through a range of emotions when I see these stories – anger, disgust, sadness, etc. But I’m never surprised by any of it. And from where I sit, I don’t have much evidence that it will stop. If Dr. King and the Civil Rights Generation could not stop it, what hope do we have?

I understand that this isn’t a 100% rational reaction. There are many people who are fighting for black lives. And that fight is not always for naught, as the students of Mizzou showed us this past week. Things like this provide some hope, but that hope is quickly tempered by how people reacted to those protests – death threats, terrorism, and general hostility. Which brings me back to having children. When I’m aware of the many ways racism hurts and kills black folks in this country, how can I justify bringing a child into this world? How do I handle the inevitable day when my child gets called a nigger or some other epithet? We live in a world where that’s a virtually a guarantee. So how do I explain that to them? And do I try to give them hope that it will get better, even when I know that probably isn’t true? Do I just “keep it real,” and shatter their innocence? These are the kinds of things my ex-girlfriend and I had to think about. How were we supposed to explain to a child that the police, who they will be taught to see as the good guys and heroes, are often hostile and hateful towards black people? I didn’t really interact much with the police outside of a D.A.R.E. talk here and there, but I can remember knowing very early in life that police didn’t like black people. And when kids are taught that people who hurt people go to jail, how do we explain that when white people hurt us, they’re more likely to avoid punishment? How do I help that child avoid the pain I felt the first time a girl’s parents rejected me because I was black?

These questions are what drive my preference to not have children. Since I was in an interracial relationship, I had to think long and hard about how race might affect a child’s life. And since my ex wasn’t black, many of the child’s experiences would be tied directly to me, especially if that child looked more like me than her. Of course being/looking Asian comes with many of the same problems and discrimination, as well as some unique experiences (“Where are you really from?”). But anti-black racism is, as critical race theorists often argue, a cornerstone of American society. And black people are often viewed as inferior to Asians on cultural grounds. And since I’m the darker one in the relationship, I am aware that the more the child looks like me, the more likely they are to experience discrimination in their neighborhoods, in stores, at school, and at the hands of police officers. Again, I know that isn’t a 100% rational thought. And it wouldn’t be my fault if my child experienced racism. But it would feel like it was, and I’m not sure how I’d be able to deal with that as a parent, let alone how to talk to a child about it.

What’s in a Name: On Bi and Pan Sexualities

A few weeks ago, I posted two pieces on Conditionally Accepted (see here and here) and one here on Write Where It Hurts exploring bisexuality in varied contexts and defined in varied ways. At the same time, Lain Mathers posted a piece here on Write Where It Hurts examining the ways these meanings and conflicts around bisexuality play out in lesbian/gay and heterosexual spaces. In this post, I want to reflect upon a question that regularly emerged in response to these posts – the relationship between bisexuality and pansexuality.

As I noted in the midst of some of the productive conversations that emerged in comment threads, the term pansexuality or pansexual (like bisexual, bisexuality and other fluid identity terms) is often rife with conflict. In my experience, this conflict arises as a result of the use of the term in three distinct ways by varied individuals and groups.

Before discussing these uses and the conflicts they contain, however, a little her-his-our-story may be useful. Initially, pansexuality was not coined as an identity term (i.e., like bi, homo, and hetero sexualities), but rather as a statement (often attributed to Freud and others at the time) on the presumed innate sexual desire of all humans. This elaboration is automatically problematic because it erases asexual existence and experience, but thankfully, this is not how the term is generally used at present. Rather, these days pansexuality is generally used as a form of sexual identification that dates back (at least) 3 or 4 decades. In this elaboration, it was initially established as a type or form of bisexuality wherein the person in question did not factor genital possession in the establishment of sexual desire and practice. In fact, many bisexual people I have known (myself included) use this term interchangeably with bisexual, fluid, and Queer among others to denote experience and identification with this end (i.e., lack of concern for genitals in matters of attraction and / or sexual activity and / or romance) of the bisexual spectrum (i.e., I may say I’m bi, pan, fluid, and Queer within a few breaths of the same conversation since for me (and historically) this is like saying I like guitars, fender guitars, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, and bass guitars = I like guitars and here are certain types of guitars that especially fit my needs).

When this identification practice emerged, bisexuality (even in general use) typically referred to those people attracted to their own body and / or genital type and the bodies and genital types of others who were not the same as their own (i.e., these were people who engaged in both homo and hetero sexualities, therefore bisexual). Within this umbrella definition, some bisexuals were (1) attracted to more than one type of genital set or sex, some bisexuals were (2) attracted to more than one type of physical form (i.e., size, shape, race, sex, gender presentation, etc), some bisexuals (like me) were (3) attracted to all types of bodies (i.e., like mine and not like mine) whether or not they looked like their own body type, and some bisexuals (4) fluctuated along varied points of this spectrum throughout their lives. Within this spectrum of possibilities between self (1) and other (2) body types (i.e., bisexuality) and between homo (1) and hetero (2) sexualities, pansexual referred to the third type noted above (as did ambisexual, polysexual, and other terms).

In fact, this spectrum still finds voice within bisexual communities and umbrella designations, and remains the most common definition of bisexuality I have seen among bisexual identified people. Other terms, such as fluid (noted as number 4 above), have even been established to make sense of bisexual people’s locations within this spectrum / umbrella. However, the last few decades witnessed systematic erasure and marginalization of bisexuality within lesbian/gay and heterosexual communities predicated upon transforming the word “bi” from an expression of two ends of a complex spectrum of human engagement and desire preference into a simplified binary articulation of the male/female genital binary homo and hetero sex norms are built upon. Instead of bisexual referring to both homo and hetero sexualities, people began linking it to sex / gender binaries to essentialize homo and hetero sexuality. To put this into perspective, imagine if we began saying homo and hetero sexual meant one sex only instead of preferences for a type of sexual engagement – you would have the same thing that has been done to bisexuality over the past few decades, and it would likely sound as silly to homo and hetero sexual folks as it does to most bisexual folks aware of this history. In the process of this extermination of bisexual complexity in the hetero-homo imagination, some people (not surprisingly) began to identify as pansexual in order to avoid biphobia and monosexism within lesbian/gay/straight communities.

It is within this context that (at least) three uses of pansexuality have emerged as regular components of normative or mainstream sexual politics. In the first case, people adopt a more traditional interpretation of pansexuality as a type of bisexuality that refers to sexual attraction and / or engagement regardless of genital consideration. In such cases, pansexuals stand along side other bisexual people against monosexism and biphobia (and in many cases hetero and cis sexism), sometimes refer to themselves as bi-pansexuals or pan-bisexuals though just as often simply say they are pansexual and / or bisexual (or any other terms within the bi spectrum) in varied contexts and with varied others, and often find comfort and security in larger bi communities while working to provide the same for other bi people in lesbian/gay/straight communities. In such cases, pansexuality is not problematic at all – it is simply someone exercising their self and bodily autonomy to identity in the way that best fits their experiences and desires. They are harming no one, and often, as members of larger bi communities, helping others. In such cases, their identification efforts are similar to working class people who prefer homosexual or heterosexual when identifying themselves, but do not have issues with or fight against middle class people who prefer to use the terms gay or lesbian or straight to identify themselves – they are merely identifying as they see fit within a larger umbrella of binary sexual (homo and / or hetero) others who they support and embrace.

The second most common way I see pansexuality used, however, is deeply problematic. In this case, people identify as pansexual to distance themselves from bisexual communities and avoid the marginalization of these communities within lesbian/gay/straight (i.e., binary sexual) communities. In such cases, these people will call themselves pansexual in a positive way, but then repeat biphobic notions of binary bisexualities used to marginalize bisexuality (however termed) within gay/lesbian/straight spaces. In so doing, they will generally receive affirmation and better treatment from binary sexual communities (lesbian/gay or straight identified) in exchange for supporting monosexism (i.e., sexual binaries) – a process referred to as trading power for patronage in inequality studies (i.e., the process wherein a subordinate accepts subordination on certain terms to gain a more comfortable location within a given matrix of inequality). In such cases, pansexuality is incredibly problematic because it is used as a form of sexual inequality reproduction that further marginalizes other forms of bisexuality and non-binary existence. In such cases, pansexual identification efforts are similar to some working class people who prefer homosexual or heterosexual to identify themselves, and then say those using the terms like gay or lesbian or straight are misguided or wrong or not “really” authentic and / or middle class and above people who prefer the terms like gay and lesbian and straight, and then say those using homosexual or other terms are misguided or wrong or automatically hurting them or not “really” authentic – they are using their own preferred terminology as a mechanism for demonizing people who prefer other terms for describing similar (in many cases the exact same) sexual desires and identities.

Within the aforementioned uses of pansexuality, there lies another common use that actually demonstrates the importance of the first two patterns. In this case, people grow up in spaces and communities devoid of bisexual our-his-her-story and understanding, and as a result, learn binary sexual (lesbian/gay/straight) perspectives of the world only. In such cases, they are taught horror stories and insults and jokes about bisexuality that reproduce monosexism and biphobia, and then adopt pansexuality as a term for themselves because they don’t look like or want to be like the negative depictions they are taught by those who benefit from monosexism. In such cases, they rarely know that pansexuality emerged as a form of bisexual identification, or the patterns of ongoing bi-erasure, marginalization, and just plain fear embedded within many contemporary binary sexual (lesbian/gay and straight) communities. Without access to this backstory, they simply identify in the way that appears “acceptable” to the people around them and embrace the biphobia promoted in the same circles. In such cases, pansexuality is once again problematic for the same reasons noted above, but it is nuanced because some of these people will change their behaviors and / or identities and / or politics when they meet bisexual communities, learn about bi-pan-Queer-fluid backstories, and / or continue to encounter marginalization (though often in a more polite form) within lesbian/gay/straight circles due to their non-binary sexual desires and practices. Others, however, will have grown accustomed to the comfort achieved by contributing to bi oppression, and thus slide into pattern two noted above over time. Finally, still more may never become acquainted with bi-pan-Queer-fluid backstories, perspectives, and / or communities, and remain ignorant of these dynamics or the ways their own self presentation and politics speak to these long term patterns. In such cases, pansexual identification efforts are similar to people who only grow up hearing heterosexual perspectives on the world, and internalize these depictions of dangerous or scary gay/lesbian/homosexual people and wrestle with these depictions whether or not they ever encounter gay/lesbian/homosexual backstories, perspectives, or communities in their own lives – they adopt terminology (i.e., I do this, but I’m not gay/lesbian/homosexual/bisexual/pansexual/etc) due to the fear, guilt and shame they were taught by others seeking to preserve their own position within binary sexual politics and power structures.

With these patterns in mind, I return to the conflicted positions of contemporary pansexual identification. As suggested in my use of gay/lesbian/homosexual conflicts I’ve observed over the years, the use of pansexuality as an identification term is complicated, nuanced, and not a new issue for sexual minority communities (i.e., one only needs to look back at previous conflicts between homophile and gay identifications or conflicts over lesbian and gay woman to see the exact same patterns play out in binary sexual minority (i.e., lesbian/gay) communities in the past). As a result, I tend to interpret these conflicts in much the same way I do in relation to the gay/lesbian/homosexual conflicts noted above.  As Queer scholars have long suggested, I focus on the actions tied to the label instead of obsessing over whether or not someone identifies in a “specific” way (i.e., I focus on sexual justice instead of identity politics).

As such, if someone identifies as pansexual while embracing and working for other types of bisexual people, then I see no problem, welcome them to the club, and stand beside them in any way I can. This is the same way I approach bisexual, lesbian/gay, heterosexual, or asexual people – if they identify as their chosen term while embracing equality for all beings of varied sexual identifications and working for such equality, I want to support them in all ways I can.

If, on the other hand, someone identifies as pansexual while demonizing and working against (intentionally or otherwise) other types of bisexual people, then I see a problem, oppose them in any way I can, and call them out on their biphobia, monosexism, and / or heterosexism. This is the same way I approach bisexual, lesbian/gay, heterosexual or asexual people – if they identify as their chosen term while demonizing other beings of one or more sexual identifications and working against such people, they are facilitators the pain of many other people, and I oppose them in all the ways I can.

I take a similar approach – no matter someone’s sexual identification – in relation to cissexism, racism, sexism, ablism, classism, colorism, nationalism, religious oppression (maybe religism?), and other forms of inequality. If the person in question is working to oppose these systems that cause so many people so much pain, then I stand with them whether our identities match or not and / or whether or not I agree with their chosen identification terms, but if they (intentionally or otherwise) feed these systems I stand against them, do my best to call them out, monitor myself to make sure I don’t slip into such practice or catch any practices like this in my own activities I’m not aware of yet, and otherwise seek to end (in any way I can with my one life) these systems and their power.

As a result, my ultimate suggestion in regards to differential sexual identification terms is to focus on equality and justice for all beings regardless of sexual identification. Do you identify and act in ways that support the equality of others? Do you identify and act against monosexism, heterosexism, biphobia, homophobia, and other forms of sexual violence and marginalization? Do you identify and act in ways that support the right of other people to exercise autonomy in self identification and activity even when such autonomy leads them to prefer different identifications and practices than your own? Do you identify and act in ways that support consent, bodily autonomy for all, sexual freedom for all, and the dignity and respect of all people who embrace and support these ideals? For me, these are the important questions regardless of the term one prefers to use to describe their own sexual practices and desires.

J. Sumerau

What “team”? Some thoughts on navigating monosexism

In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences navigating monosexism in contemporary society.  Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts, this is zir first blog.

Earlier this week, Dr. J Sumerau posted on Conditionally Accepted and this blog about the disjuncture between lived experiences and academic definitions of bisexuality. Specifically, ze wrote about how the definitions generated by academics, often with little or no experience interacting with bisexual people (that they know of) or living bisexual lives, are then used to enforce and regulate what is “really” considered bisexual. In this post, I am going to reflect on what it is like for me to move through the monosexual world (i.e., a world defined by sexual binaries) as a bisexual person and bourgeoning sexualities scholar.

Some of my earliest memories about bisexuality came from high school. I often heard my classmates joking about bisexuality (or “bicuriosity” as it was often reduced to). In the hallways, at the lunch tables, in the parking lot after school, such pejorative comments ended up reducing bisexuality to some “true” gay or lesbian “nature” (often in far less neutral language) and were always followed by hysterical laughter. In addition to these comments, my male heterosexual peers often leered at groups of teenage girls, audibly fantasizing about how “hot” it would be if one of them were bisexual so that she would presumably engage in a threesome with one of them and another “hot chick”.

I observed this trope of the “hot bisexual girl” (never a “hot bisexual woman,” only ever a “hot bisexual girl,” reducing adult bisexual women to an infantilized position) expand into my college years, as many of the teenage and young adult heterosexual men I met mused over the possibilities of finding the “right bisexual girl” that would be “down” for a threesome with him and another woman. At one point, I witnessed one of my female college peers follow up this statement with the question, “Well, why don’t you engage in a threesome with a bisexual guy? Maybe your girlfriend would prefer that!” This particular guy responded with, “Fuck no. I’m not having sex with a homo.” Following his blatantly homophobic, biphobic, and monosexist remark I asked, “Would you ever want to date a bisexual girl that you theoretically would have this threesome with?” He paused for a second, “Nah, I don’t date sluts.”

It was at this point that the messages about bisexuality I heard up to that point (from heterosexual people) congealed into a clear dichotomy – the hot, sexually available bisexual girl that you only have threesomes with, but never date contrasted with the always-already “truly homosexual” male who can never actually be bisexual because of the “one act rule” that is particularly pervasive in dominant heterosexual paranoia around males who sleep with other males. I even remember this theme coming up in interactions with some of my early heterosexually-identified boyfriends when they begged me to watch “bisexual girl porn” with them to “get in the mood”. This always made me uncomfortable, a feeling I attributed at the time solely to my discomfort with the sexist objectification in much of mainstream porn. While this was surely a large component of the equation, the fact that I also experienced bisexual desires (that I had yet to acknowledge) was likely another.

Despite the overwhelmingly derogatory lens through which I learned to view bisexuality from my heterosexual peers, I began to openly identify as bisexual during my last year of college. During this time, I did a great deal of research on the Internet and managed to find more positive messages about bisexuality in the form of online conversations among self-identified bisexuals. Additionally, after the negative experiences I had talking to heterosexual people about bisexuality in the past, I was encouraged by the presence of what I understood to be a fairly radical scene of activists and lesbian, gay, and “queer” individuals in the community where I resided at the time. I eagerly hoped that shifting my peer circle from a predominantly heterosexual and sexist scene to a supposedly “queer” scene would be a refreshing start to fully embracing my bisexuality in a positive and supportive environment.

You can imagine the disappointment, then, when a conversation like the following ensued:

At a coffee shop I frequented, some people that I knew were discussing the Occupy movement (this was in the early days of its existence, and many of the activists and “queers” in the place where I lived were planning a similar demonstration locally). The issue of sexuality came up and the conversation slowly veered away from Occupy and towards a conversation of sexual politics. At one point in the conversation I identified myself as bisexual, still a relatively new phenomenon for me, so much so that speaking it out loud felt disingenuous even though it wasn’t. The conversation lulled, some people’s lips pursed, one person pulled out his phone, another took a deep inhale of their cigarette. Finally, the quiet broke when one of the women sitting near me who I was accustomed to seeing rotating in this circle took a large gulp of coffee and then ardently informed me that:

“It’s actually pretty offensive that you use that language. After all, you’re limiting the existence of everyone to either men or women and there’s a lot more gender identities that exist beyond that. Just, like, politically try to be more aware.”

I was stunned, particularly because (unbeknownst to her) I was also reconciling my own non-binary gender queer existence at the time and did not at all see my bisexuality as an invalidating force in that regard. I was perplexed at how she arrived at the conclusion that the “bi” in “bisexuality” only meant “men and women.” From the hours of research that I did on the Internet, on bisexual community pages and Facebook groups, this was not at all the consensus. In fact, I read through a multitude of conversations of self-identified bisexual people reflecting on the beautifully multifaceted fact that “bisexual” can mean one’s own sex and other sexes, men and women, cisgender and transgender, intersex and non-intersex, or no preference for bodies and/or gender identities whatsoever!

I was beside myself trying to sort out why a college-educated supposedly “radical lesbian queer” individual would assert such a myopic view on the meaning of bisexuality. Yet, this was a circle I was fairly new to, so I did my best to disappear from the rest of the conversation (unsuccessfully based on the condescending looks of disapproval directed at me for the next half hour, what are also referred to as “microaggressions”).

In the midst of all this, I could not shake the questions running through my head: if the implication of bisexual attraction and desire supposedly means that I am saying only “men and women” exist, then why is it that no one interrupted the self identified gay male to my left when he discussed his sexuality? Wasn’t he suggesting that only men existed and that there was some “essential” type of being called “man”? Why was bisexuality the sexual identity and set of (extremely diverse) practices solely responsible for reinforcing the problematic and essentialist gender binary? Also, how did these people, a group of supposedly “radical activists, and members of a lesbian, gay, and queer community” not see that they were engaging in a kind of erasure that was not so dissimilar than what they experienced from heterosexuals? I was crushed and disappointed to learn that not only did I not belong in this space either, but also that my existence was offensive.

Be “hot” or be “offensive.” As a bisexual, what I first learned from heterosexual and lesbian/gay people was that I could not be considered fully human with ideas and desires of my own.

A few months after this interaction, I moved to a large city for school and hoped that I would find a more welcoming space for bisexuals in a big city (unlike where I previously lived). I started going on dates, primarily with self-identified lesbian women, in hopes of getting a chance to meaningfully engage this component of my desire and attractions (and also because I had no clue where to find other bisexuals). After the interaction I had with the woman at the coffee shop, I was apprehensive to disclose my bisexuality to anyone – straight, lesbian, or gay – and attempted to avoid talking about my sexual desires other than the ones that would be immediately relevant in that situation (while, ironically, cultivating an interest in studying sexualities). On these dates, I became acutely aware that not only was I offensive (as the woman at the coffee shop had informed me), but that I was also not to be trusted, since, as one woman put it, “bisexual girls can’t make up their minds,” (here, again, bisexual girls can’t make up their minds, reducing bisexuality to childhood not unlike the heterosexual males at my high school).

Eventually, I began to meet other bisexuals and became entirely frustrated with the notion that I was just not “gay” enough, and I began openly identifying as bisexual again (sometimes). Yet even when I did this, I found myself sitting around tables and making sure that those near me knew the story that I fashioned to shield myself from any potential judgment – that I was “like 85-90% gay, though,” generally followed by a laugh and a sip of whatever I was drinking at the time with the hope of concealing my profound discomfort and disdain for this practice of “quantifying” just how bisexual I really was just to avoid negativity from straight, but predominantly gay and lesbian people. In time this did not prove to be much better of an approach than entirely obscuring my desires altogether.

This dissonance was buttressed by the fact that, despite the multitude of ways I tried to present myself while navigating the changes in/with/to my gender, others most commonly read me as a lesbian woman. This was most clearly relayed to me in an interaction I had with a man one day while purchasing a pack of cigarettes at a corner store in the city.

“Congratulations!” The man behind the counter exclaimed as I walked through the door.

I looked around, unsure of whether he was addressing me, or someone familiar that he knew who happened to enter right behind me. I quickly realized there was no one else in the store and since all I had done that morning was get out of bed and walk to the corner, I inquired about the reason for his congratulations.

“Oh, well now you can get married!”

Setting aside the reality that I did not, in fact, have a partner at this time, I quickly realized that, in this man’s eyes, I was a lesbian woman and the day before our interaction the former governor of our state signed gay marriage into law in the state where we lived. Not only was I apparently a lesbian woman, but one who would, of course, automatically want to marry. His assumptions not only erased the fact that I, actually, could have been married to some of my partners long before this date, but that perhaps marriage was not something I had any intention of engaging in regardless of my partner choice. Alas, this man not only reflected his limited familiarity with only the most “respectable” of “LGbt” issues for many straight people, but also the erasure of bisexuality completely from potential “intelligible” forms of existence.

All of these encounters are just a sampler of my experiences navigating bisexuality in a monosexual/monosexist social world. In my adolescence and college years I primarily confronted the dynamics of heteronormativity (and still do). Yet, heteronormative regulations are only one side of a monosexist coin, the other side of which involves navigating the imperatives of homonormativity. For many bisexuals this is a phenomenon all too familiar. We are either too straight, or not straight enough. We are not gay enough either, or we’re really just gay and waiting to “pick a side already.” We’re hot, offensive, untrustworthy, a specter of danger, and volatile. Yes, we are destabilizing for homo and hetero normative assumptions in the most fluid of ways. This is a reality I continually have to work to embrace while navigating hostility from lesbian, gay, and straight others.

While I have often heard – from straight, gay, and lesbian people alike – that bisexuals have it easier because we can “just choose to be closeted” I want to stop and interrogate this assumption –especially since recent reports reveal that bisexuals suffer from more severe health complications than straight, lesbian, or gay people, and because the same assertion was made against lesbian and gay people not so long ago. Additionally, one of the most cited difficulties that bisexuals report is lack of community support. Monosexism is not just inconvenient for bisexual people, it is a form of violence, and it is quite real in its consequences, particularly for bisexual people who already occupy other marginalized structural positions.

My hope in sharing this information is to continue dialogue concerning how we define “bisexuality” in our own communities compared to the academy. I am hoping that perhaps we might opt to challenge where we see monosexism in our own classrooms, writing and research agendas, and community engagement projects.

Lain Mathers

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

Why “Marriage Equality” Is Not Enough


In this guest post, Dr. Betsy Lucal reflects on the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States. Dr. Betsy Lucal teaches sociology and women’s and gender studies at Indiana University South Bend.


It was my turn to sleep in on June 26, so I awoke to the news that SCOTUS had decided that same-sex marriage is a right. My initial reaction? I said, “Oh, fuck.” Probably not what most people would have expected to hear from me, since I’m well known as an advocate for equality and fairness.

But my concern is that the freedom to marry–the right to be allowed legally to marry–is quickly going to become a requirement to marry in order to secure other rights. I worry that this ruling has inserted the state into my relationship in ways that I cannot resist unless I’m also willing to forego other rights and protections that will now be completely limited to married partners. I’m afraid that this ruling—which indeed reflects the extension of the rights, privileges, and protections of marriage to same-sex couples—will further strengthen the perception and reality that only relationships that bear the stamp of legal marriage should be recognized and respected. I’m afraid that my partner and I will be required to marry in order to secure her access to health insurance through our employer (she works there part time; I work full time, so only my job includes health-insurance benefits). I’m afraid that this ruling will make marriage the only way for us to take care of each other in all the ways we wish to, the only way to secure the life and family we have built together.

When I filed paperwork with my employer to add my partner, Alison, to my health insurance, I completed a form that included my affirmation that I would marry her legally if I could. In other words, she could become my domestic partner as long as same-sex marriage remained illegal in our state. The university does not extend benefits to unmarried other-sex partners. And the implication was that, should marriage law change, that would still be the case; and only married partners, straight or queer, would be able to access benefits. Honestly, when I completed that form, I had no inkling that, within a year, same-sex marriage would become a reality in my very red state and, just one year after that, in the United States as a whole. We jokingly said that we’d only marry each other if we had to. In fact, we promised not to marry each other unless we had to.

As the marriage equality movement picked up speed, though, we started to talk more seriously about the implications of a potential–soon, likely–national ruling for our relationship. We agreed that we would only get married if we had to. We would only marry, in other words, if the state (and, by extension, the university) forced our hand.

You may wonder why a committed, loving couple would resist marriage. You may wonder why my reaction to this ruling was not to cheer and celebrate but to feel annoyed and irritated.

Here’s why: As of June 26, the only available path to the recognition of the commitment, seriousness, and mutual support involved in our relationship is through marriage. The only way to garner recognition for our partnership and our family now is by marrying each other.

Yet, for the last five years, I have supported her and our children emotionally, socially, financially, and in every other way. I have become a parent and accepted all of the responsibilities that accompany that status without having any of the rights that usually come along with it. All because we are not married. I cannot sign permission slips or grade cards; I cannot seek medical attention for my children and have no legally recognized right to participate in any decision involving their welfare. And this is true despite the fact that I have accepted all of these responsibilities for the past five years. That is, for the last five years, I have shared a home and a life with these three people without any legal protection for the life we’ve made together.

Please understand what I’m saying here. I am not suggesting that marriage rights should not have been extended to same-sex couples. I understand the symbolism, the feeling among many queer people that this, and perhaps only this, right could affirm their humanness. And I am certainly not asking to go back to the dark days of same-sex partners not being able to stand by each other’s side in medical emergencies, of same-sex partners losing the homes they had built together when their partners died because the house was only in the dead partner’s name, of pretending the love of your life was “just a good friend” and “de-gaying” your living space before suspicious relatives visited. I’m not calling for that. For those couples who, after months or years or decades together, long to marry, I will not stand in their way. I understand the desire to affirm your relationship this way, to make it public with this ritual.

What I am calling for is attention to the fact that marriage is an exclusionary, discriminatory institution. And this ruling doesn’t change that. It doesn’t change the history of marriage and it doesn’t change marriage’s present or future. It simply expands the possibility that now the meaningful distinction in our society will be between people who are married and people who aren’t, with the unmarried continuing to experience prejudice and discrimination. Will we now look skeptically at partners who choose not to marry when they legally could? If the history of treatment of unmarried heterosexual partners is any guide, then that’s exactly what we can expect to happen.

In other words, this ruling expands the possibility that partners who choose not to marry, who choose not to accept the legal strictures that marriage brings, will face prejudice and discrimination. This ruling does not, for example, allow individuals in multi-partner relationships to legalize all of their bonds and access the rights and privileges associated with marriage. It does not remove policies that penalize poor people with children for marrying by decreasing or ending their public assistance once a marriage is in place. (After all, the solution to women’s and children’s impoverishment is marriage, right?) If anything, this ruling places more pressure on partners to hew to the requirements associated with legal marriage to have the seriousness and dignity of their relationships recognized.

That is, unless I’m willing to enter into a marriage—which is one, but only one, way to organize a relationship—my family still will not be recognized by the state and others as worthy of protection, rights and privileges. Why is that? Why are we so convinced that only relationships organized this way are legitimate and worthy? Why is it that my partner must marry someone in order to access affordable, quality health care? Why is it that I must be married to their mother to legally parent the children I accepted as my own years ago?

June 26 was, indeed, a historic day for our country. Had you told me even five years ago that same-sex marriage would so quickly become the law of the land, I would have responded with incredulity and skepticism. But my fear is that, in the exuberance of that celebration, we have lost sight of the limitations of marriage.

Marriage, like any other contract, is supposed to be entered into freely, voluntarily. On June 26, SCOTUS took that possibility away from me and everyone else who shares my perspective on this flawed and limiting institution. Unfortunately, the freedom to marry also signals the tyranny of marriage.