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Let’s celebrate bisexuality, minus the identity policing

Your sexual orientation, and chosen label for it, is your business.

Bisexual contingent of the 2012 San Francisco Pride Parade. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Today, September 23, is Celebrate Bisexuality Day. A simple definition of the word bisexual is “attracted to more than one gender”. A more expansive definition of the term is offered by Robyn Ochs on the BiNET USA web site:

Bisexuals are people who acknowledge in themselves the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.

As I explained in a 2015 blog entry about bisexuality vs pansexuality, there was a time when I understood bisexual to mean “attracted to men and women”, which would seem to exclude non-binary people like myself. But I later learned that narrower definition is rejected by many bi people. And as trans feminist writer and activist Julia Serano argues on her blog, the term bisexual does not reinforce the gender binary any more than other commonly used terms for sexual orientation.

Regardless, though I identified as bisexual for many years, I now identify as queer. For reasons described in my earlier blog entry, I feel this is the best way to describe my current sexual orientation. I’m fine with others who are attracted to more than one gender using terms such as bisexual or pansexual to describe themselves, but I’m not fine with them assigning those labels to me, or to anyone else who doesn’t explicitly choose them. Labels for gender and sexual orientation can be useful and empowering, but they must be self-chosen.

Back when I was active in the San Francisco Bay Area bisexual and polyamorous communities, I was somewhat of a bi bigot. I assumed that the vast majority of people were closeted bisexuals, and couldn’t imagine why most considered monosexuality to be the norm. I even pressured a male friend who had expressed some sexual interest in men to come out as bi, but he declined, saying that his same-sex attraction was only incidental. I now understand that it was wrong of me to assign a label to another person based on my perception of their feelings or behavior.

Though I understand the schadenfreude that many liberals enjoy when an avowed homophobe is caught in a same-sex encounter, even in those cases I don’t assume that the person caught is necessarily gay, however hypocritical and harmful their public stance on homosexuality may be. (The Gay Homophobe site notes in a footnote: “Yes, most of them are probably bi, not gay, but “biorgaypeoplewhosupportrevocationofgayrights.com” isn’t quite as quippy. ;-)”) It’s no different when it comes to assuming bisexuality or any other label for sexual orientation; I cannot see into another person’s mind.

Of course, there are many cases where a person does consider themselves to be bisexual, but won’t use that label publicly for fear of discrimination, mockery, or violence. Such bisexuals should be encouraged to come out of the closet, when and where it is safe to do so, and celebrate their authentic selves. Making the world a safer place for people of diverse orientations to express themselves is what occasions like Celebrate Bisexuality Day are all about.

Celebrating bisexuality does not mean that one has to “prove” that orientation by having sexual encounters with people of more than one gender; this is a common misconception. Bisexuality is about attraction, not action. You can be bisexual and in a monogamous long-term relationship. You can be bisexual and celibate.

Nor does being bisexual presume any particular clothing or hairstyle, mannerisms, or other forms of gender expression. Sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are very often conflated; this is a mistake I made myself before my gender transition. Many years ago, I saw a male acquaintance at a party wearing a dress, and figured he must be bi (like most of my other friends were at the time) or gay. I soon found out that he was almost exclusively straight, and cisgender as well; he just felt like wearing a dress that night.

Visibility can be challenging for bisexuals who aren’t actively “advertising” their multiple-sex attraction. But individuals shouldn’t be pressured to do so just to bolster the cause of bi visibility. Instead, LGBTQ organizations should be more explicitly inclusive of bisexuals, both in their marketing and event programming, while making it clear that those with other (non-hetero) sexual orientation labels are also welcome. (Many LGBTQ groups also welcome straight allies, but I don’t feel this is necessary.)

Groups that are not specific to lesbians or gay men, yet only have those two identities in their titles, should consider updating their names to be more inclusive. As I know from being in one such group, renaming can be a lengthy and controversial process, and is not always practical. Community input is vital to determine the best course of action.

As awareness of gender and sexual diversity grows, opportunities abound to be more inclusive of those who do not fit into binary models of identity. We should welcome and encourage this expansion, without policing the labels of others. Individual agency is necessary for each of us to have the opportunity to live as our authentic selves.