Long before we were all stuck in our houses because of Covid-19, Britain was gripped by an entirely different outbreak.
Swathes of seemingly progressive women and feminists fell victim to a nasty bout of transphobia that swept through the press and population like wildfire. The spark was proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act which would make it ever so slightly easier for trans people to be legally recognised as their gender. Opponents to this change claim to have ‘legitimate concerns’ over how it will affect women’s rights and spaces.
“Before long, though, [this…] developed an obsession: that trans women aren’t actually women, and instead violent men intent on gaining access to women’s bathrooms, prisons, and domestic violence shelters to harm them, and the idea that gender self-identification is ripe for abuse by cis men who claim to be trans.” explains Edie Millier for The Outline.
This wave of mainstream transphobia has buoyed some very unexpected candidates to the top of the progressive feminist ranks, straight male comedians and anti-LGBT+ Catholics are now touted as some of the key voices of those ‘defending lesbians’ and ‘speaking up for women’.
Whilst trans people are the main and most vulnerable target of Britain’s TERF problem, they also take aim at anyone who threatens their world view, notably, bisexual women. Julie Bindel, one of the most prominent TERFs, regularly dismisses bi women as “boring straight women using lesbianism to seem interesting”, accuses us of treating our lesbian partners as ‘fashion accessories’, and called us ‘blue-fringed fake queers’. Graham Lineham, the self-professed defender of lesbians, has previously accused non-monosexual queer people of ‘land-grabbing gay liberation’, and Sarah Ditum, a straight woman, voiced on twitter that she finds the word bisexual ‘aggravating’ because it “lumps men and women in together in a way that [she finds] pretty meaningless and v [sic] erasing of women”.
So why would a group of people who claim to be fighting so hard to defend women, especially queer women, be so biphobic? Ditum’s comment is actually the most illuminating answer. Bisexuality is a threat to TERF politics for three key reasons; it undermines the importance of gender differences, it underminds the idea that any woman would choose a man-free life if she could, and finally, it makes it much harder to construct a desexualised universalised essence of womanhood.
The world view of today’s “blue-check transphobes” is the decedent from the same type of cultural feminism that grew out of the feminist sex wars of the 70s. “The feminist sex wars” were basically debates about the role of sexuality in feminist politics. It was during this time that some lesbian feminists managed to politicise lesbianism by framing it as an inherently feminist choice to live a man-free life. In doing so, they also positioned lesbianism as the only way to be a real feminist, free from the brain-washing of the patriarchy. To do so, they suggested lesbianism is a choice any woman could and should make, aka, the birth of Political Lesbianism.
Bisexuality is a threat to TERF politics for three key reasons; it undermines the importance of gender differences, it underminds the idea that any woman would choose a man-free life if she could, and finally, it makes it much harder to construct a desexualised universalised essence of womanhood.
“Given the political lesbian’s proximity to essential womanhood, her desexualization was a comfort to cultural feminists for two reasons. First, it purified her of embarrassing sexual habits that would tarnish her womanly image […] because sexuality itself was vulgar and unwomanly. Second, it universalized her. By definition, woman essence must exist in every woman. […] Because of her political nature, her sexual purity, and her universality, the political lesbian became cultural feminism prototypical woman,” explain Paula Crust in Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics.
Bisexuals do not fit into TERFs world view because we are much harder to desexualise and universal than Political Lesbians Our existence makes it much harder to argue that the differences between sexes are important and wide enough to make desire for either (because TERFs also refuse to acknowledge the existence of nonbinary people) incompatible and our decision to continue to identify as bi even when we could only date women undermines the argument that any woman would live free of men if only she were able to.
“[Bisexuality] challenges the feminist valuation of women in the same way that lesbians themselves challenge the male supremacist valuation of men. She belies the lesbian feminist argument that in a sexist society lesbian relations are inherently superior to heterosexual relations because she has had the opportunity to experience both and she does not agree,” writes Paula in the same text. It’s important to note that in this quote, ‘lesbian’ refers to a woman who prioritizes relationships with women over relationships with men, rather than a woman who is attracted to women.
Mostly, TERF’s biphobia is no different from run-of-the-mill monosexism. Because bisexuality destabilizes the category of ‘men’ and ‘women’, and ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ making it harder to argue that those categories need their own separate spaces, they try to erase and demonise us. “Does bisexuality, which stereotypically does not pass desire through the lens of sex, threaten human identity? […] it can be noted that bisexuality, like intersexuality, suggests that the question “Is it a boy’ or a girl?” is the wrong question to be asking. And if this is the question that determines our humanity, it should come as no surprise that the capacity of bisexuals to undermine the sex category is deeply threatening to individuals of all categories,” writes Kenji Yoshino in The epistemic contract of bisexual erasure.
So, bi people are a threat to TERF politics because we do not fit into their worldview that sex is the not important defining characteristic of identity, and because of this, a woman’s identity is inherently different (and purer) than a man’s. We also undermine their argument that all women both need and want the option to be completely free from maleness (as defined by sex and not gender) if possible.
As the tide of mainstream transphobia in the UK has risen, it has begun to break its banks and spill out into more generalised anti-queer rhetoric. This is most notable in the uncritical platforming of people like Caroline Farrow and the movement’s links to America’s Christian right. Bi people could have told you that TERFs will eventually turn on the entire LGBT+ community because while we may not face their wrath in the same way the trans community does, their hatred of us has always been bubbling away under the surface all along.
But their biphobia is also one of our strongest tools for how we can continue to undermine them as a community. We must be resolute in challenging their ideal version of womanhood as desexualised and purified of male essence. We must support other groups threatened by TERF rhetoric, notably sex workers, and advocate for bodily autonomy. We must push back against bio-essentialism and celebrate the diversity of womanhood, of our genitals, our desires, and our choices.