Jessica Hoffmann

Why I Don't Do 'Bi'

Filed By Jessica Hoffmann | August 05, 2007 1:50 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement, The Movement
Tags: bisexual, bisexuality, Feministing, heteronormative, Judith Butler, queer identity, Wendy Curry

It's been years, but suddenly this week the word "bisexual" is landing in my life a lot. First, I was invited via e-mail to moderate a panel of young lesbian writers at an upcoming book fair. I replied--to a person whose identity and politics I know nothing about--that I have to check my schedule and, not-sure-if-you-care-but "I don't identify as a lesbian. I identify as queer, and I often do work around lesbian media and literature, and I'd be happy to moderate the panel, but"--just checking--"I want to let you know in case you specifically want a lesbian to moderate this panel."

He replied that, yeah, I should check my calendar--and meanwhile he'd think about the lesbian-versus-queer question. Maybe we could even talk about it, because he's curious about why so many young people identify as queer instead of lesbian and gay. [Much more after the jump...]

At which point I realized we had more to talk about than it sounded like he realized: "queer" isn't an alternative term for "lesbian" for me. I don't identify as a lesbian not because I have issues with the word (I don't, particularly), but for a simpler reason: because I'm not one. And, in this instance, I felt compelled to mention it because I figured this man had probably extended this specific invitation to me because he'd assumed I am. People often do, and I usually don't disabuse them of the notion, cuz I've identified that way in the past and it's not something I mind being read as. It's just, in this case, I had the feeling he might want the moderator's identity to match the panelists', and, well, I'm queer but I'm not a lesbian. Just thought he should know.

Writing that, I thought of a moment last fall when I first met a fairly prominent feminist writer/editor of my generation (after months of e-mailing), and she met my partner, who's a guy, and later that night said to me, "It's funny, cuz I totally assumed you were queer."

"I am queer," I had to say back. "I am."

"Oh."

Scenes like that are why I relate to the small moment in this weekend's feature interview on Feministing when BiNet USA's Wendy Curry talks about bisexual invisibility (even while I sigh at the mainstream, assimilationist, liberal unfortunateness that dominates the rest of the interview, but more on that below). Yeah, sexual normativity is strong, so strong that people look at some people who live together, or kiss in public, or whatever looks couple-like to them, and because they are part of a culture obsessed with coupledom (and very limited notions of it), they almost immediately make assumptions about each person's gender, and then the relationship between them and their sexual identities. And it's all a bunch of gender-binaristic, heteronormative damage--fed to you nonstop by pop culture and almost everyone you know.

And that is why it makes me especially sad to be read that way (or, read away) by people who identify as feminists, or whose own sexual identities and practices lie outside of the heteropatriarchal norm. It's also why I find the term "bisexual" a big, endless letdown.

To be clear: There was a time when I identified with it. A few times, actually--in high school, for a few months when full-on-homo seemed scary, until it didn't anymore; a couple years later, when, after "dyke" had felt fine and mine for a little while, I was surprised to find myself really, really wanting to reach out and put my right hand on the broad back of a male-identified creature walking a few steps ahead of me, and shortly thereafter fell in love with him; and then last year on Myspace, where "queer" isn't an option (but I quickly changed from that over to the much more queer "not sure").

I've identified as bi in the past for lack of better options, or because I thought that must be what it means to desire people of more than one gender. I mean, that was the word other people put on it--but, then, why "bi"? What kind of investment in or resignation to binary gender norms does "bisexual" identity represent? How could I identify with a term that limits and dismisses others' identities--and my own? (If Judith Butler long since earthquaked my brain out of ever again being able to think "woman" makes sense--adding theory to what some non-verbal parts of me already felt--how could my own gender identity seem fixed and coherent enough for someone to call it the same as or opposite a sexual or romantic partner's?) And how could I possibly describe my sexuality in a way that leaves out everything that matters to me about it--its multiplicity, its boundaryless-ness, its fluidity, the way it is all over the place and unpredictable and both familiar and strange?

I identify as queer because that term has been actively politicized and theorized to describe genders and sexualities that exceed and undermine normative ones. Pop culture may have wildly appropriated it and sucked all the meaning out, but I'm still holding on, investing it with the politics and meanings it has for me every time my gender or sexuality is misread, every time my relationships are presumed to fit into categories and descriptions that have very little to do with them.

Because most of my friends are queer feminists who are living and thinking way outside the gender binary, this conversation often feels old and done to me. But it is apparently not. This weekend on Feministing--one of the most popular blogs among young feminists (and one I read frequently)--Wendy Curry is talking about her hopes for electoral politics and a bisexual political agenda that involves "trying to overthrow 'Don't ask, don't tell'" and "supporting same-gender marriage while supporting the 'alternatives to marriage' people." And I guess that's just about right--"bisexual" feels to me like a limited, and limiting, liberal term that is about assimilation-with-some-gentle-reforms to existing gender/sexuality norms.

Why?


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Jessica, what a thoughtful (and thought-provoking) essay! I like this notion of "assimilation-with-some-gentle-reforms," I mean the notion of challenging that hypocrisy...

What an excellent post!

We've had several discussion on the site about what "identity" our readers prefer - gay, lesbian, bi, queer, etc. Interestingly enough, we've found that some folks just don't like "queer" - it has a derogatory meaning to them just as deep as "faggot." (I'm thinking of one contributor in particular that hates the word, but I must admit, I grew up being called "queer" more often than any other slur but "faggot."

I got a few e-mails a couple of weeks ago after someone else posted about bisexuality. This should help to stir the conversation some... And being bi/queer is one thing that doesn't get talked about nearly often enough - whether its your post examining the theory of gender identity or simply wondering if bisexuals "really exist" even though a simple read of Kinsey's work can tell you that.

Since this is a topic you feel strongly about, I'd love it if you would expound on what your idea of the term "queer" really means. I've not found a common or even non-conflicting definition of what queer means. It seems to me that each person makes up their own definition and to me, that is what makes the term meaningless and lacking in social power.

I am just not sure how queer liberates anyone. Let's look at the "old school" folks who identify as some flavor of LGBT. I hate to call him out when he's not here to defend himself, but I'm specifically referring to Don Sherfick. He hates the term queer. Finds it derogatory and offensive. How do you convince folks like him to come around and accept queer as a good word that describes sexuality in a positive way?

Personally, I've always thought we should adopt the term queer to replace the alphabet soup, but I've never thought of it as meaning something different from or in addition to the L, G, B, or T. So, how do you help people like me and people like Don - who are clearly open to alternative forms of sexuality - that queer means something else?

Nothing you described in your piece here makes me think of you as anything other than bisexual to my definition of the term. I don't see anything that pushes you outside that definition for me. So, what am I missing here?

WOW... Jerame

I must say I read some very interesting posts and comments on bisexuality. Upon stubling upon this original and VERY PASSIONATE post from Jessica I originally thought... OMG... here it is another "lesbian" unintenially down playing bisexuality an its merit or the basis of it actually existing.

As I fully read Jessica's blog an HER reply to your post, I was GREATLY pleased that it was not a lesbian "bash" so to say but in fact a post from a VERY passionate woman with great thoughts and wondeful ideas... Now with that said I still did not find myself agreeing with her very valid personal feelings on the term bisexual, nor did I agree on the term an use of Queer!

It was interesting as I read your particular post I felt OMG here it is exactly a POV I really relate to on this subject. I agree that for some getting them to look at Queer as a alternative word or as you stated an "addition to the L, G, B, T" that ALREADY EXISTS would be a very daunting task. Now do not get me wrong I do not think the goal of sexuality should ever be to get everyone else on board or some form of assimilation I think that is actually the VERY NATURE and TRUE meaning of the word BISEXUAL... It is the elephant in the room or black sheep of the FAMILY... basically b/c well IT REFUSES to assimilate... refuses to CHOOSE, and refuses to be placed in a NICE and neat little box for everyone to say... "oh now I get it your like..." Bisexuality means so many different things to so many different people. It means a difference in lifestyle, sex, sexuality, heck even personality. It basically just refuses to be limited to one way or the other, an it does not care if people or our society would like it to stay quiet or assimilate... it completely chooses its path within each of us who identify as bisexual.

I just really find it difficult to see ever calling myself QUEER, for one it seems to me the same as Bisexual seems to Jessica... It feels very limiting and also it feels Negative and Hurtful to me. It would be no different than as an African American woman to consider hearing someone refer to me as the N word to be acceptable b/c I personally felt African American or Black was too limited of a term. I know that may sound a tad extreme but my point is I think b/c of how some words arise you just CAN'T erase the pain they caused in their wake to make it into our lives and dictionaries. The connotation is still there even though it is the underline meaning it still comes to mind first before any type of GOOD thought. The negative effects and feelings associated with the root of the word Queer I think will always carry a lingering effect for so many within the LGBT family.

Now with all of that being said I DO fully agree that when you as the oppressed take an use a word of negative connotation you take the power it has away from it and the original negative meaning of it, similar to that of the N word. However, that does not mean to me that I feel the broad definition has changed just the actual shift in power an how the word is used to control or toward a group of people. Personally I just feel sexuality is and can be a very FLUID term and has very fluid and broad meanings. An I think depending on the scholar you ask an on which day of the week it is... the opinion or info you receive can vary vastly.

In closing, Jerame This was a great reply post to Jessica's very thought provoking blog. Thanks for you insight. Now I realize this blog and post is a tad old but I just felt it was still very interesting an I wanted to add my comment.

Thanks for commenting on a Sunday morning, all!

I'm drinking coffee and hoping to head out to the farmers' market soon, but first I definitely want to respond to Jerame's questions:

The definitions of "queer" I'm using and excited by are ones that were really consciously developed and articulated by both intellectuals and activists--they took a term that, yes, had long had derogatory connotations, and very actively invested it with meaning that to my mind none of the other terms had or have. (I'm no academic, and have absorbed whatever queer theory I have from my own rather scattershot reading, so I've no doubt I'll get some of this "wrong" from a professional-theory perspective, but this is my sense:) One root system of queer theory is in Judith Butler, whose work challenged the notion of coherent gender categories -- specifically shaking up and questioning the idea of a coherent, universal category called "woman." If there's no coherent identity called "woman" -- and if I don't occupy any gender identity like that -- how can there be a judgment made as to whether someone's partner is of the "same" gender or an "opposite" one to land at a label of hetero or homo?

So that's one piece. I feel like when I'm read as straight or gay based on who I am perceived to be and who my partner is perceived to be -- "bisexuality" invisibilized -- all sorts of assumptions have been made about my and my partner's genders. As someone who doesn't believe in a two-party gender system, this is already limiting and disappearing.

Then, there's the part of queer theory that questions norms around sex, relationship, intimacy, domestic and familiar structures -- why, for instance, do we attach living together to monogamy to romance to sharing expenses? Why do we presume--or enforce--two-member pairs (couples) as the best or only good way to do all those things, in combination? Queer theory questions and challenges these norms. Queer identity, for me, means in part that I live outside of these norms -- that they don't describe my relationships and the ways my life is organized, and that I actively resist being routed into them by others' assumptions.

This is a bit of the reason a lot of anti-assimilationist queer folks find gay marriage so sad -- it's basically taking the rest of heteronormativity as an okay given (coupledom--and a certain kind of it--as an acceptable and sensible norm; the gender binary that defines a relationship as hetero or homo as reasonable and acceptable, etc.) And so part of queer visibility--and a challenge to relationship/sex/gender norms--for me is not getting married, although the state and dominant culture would have no problem with my marrying my current partner. Part of it is also talking and showing whenever and however I can that I don't organize my life around one "primary" relationship, or see the one with the person I live with and sleep with (but don't share a bedroom or bank accounts with [and that is a whole other wing of this story, which has to do with class privilege and other things] as primary or more important than other relationships in my life that involve various kinds of intimacy and partnership as we all move through the world.

That's just a bit of it. For those reasons and many more, "bisexual" feels limited, and limiting, to me. It reinforces a binary gender system I think is damaging, and it simply does not describe the ways intimacy, love, relationship, domesticity, and other pieces work in my life.

A. J. Lopp | August 5, 2007 1:36 PM

I, too, grew up in an era during which being called "queer" was a shameful insult ... but slogans such as, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it" began the unloading of that term toward something tolerable, and eventually, something positive, at first defiant, and by now matter-of-course.

I agree with Jerame, the word makes an attractive shorthand for the alternative of endless alphabet soup which is always destined to exclude someone.

"Queer", I gather, is roughly akin to Freud's classic phrase "polymorphous perverse" ... except it is not infantile, and it is not perverse in any objectionable sense. Instead of seeing sexuality and gender in a frame of bi-polar opposites, male/female and same/opposite, "queer" sees the sexual world as fluid, non-polar, and accepting of every permutation that does not genuinely inflict intolerable harm on the individual or society. Closest definition I can suggest is "sexually amorphous".

But in another sense, it introduces a whole new bi-polar frame: There is normative-traditional-socially-regulated-heterosexual ... and alternatively there is only "queer".

"Queer" clearly is a useful concept --- but the supposedly "old school" classifications do supply greater precision for situations that they adequately describe. So there are trade-offs involved in using each set of terms.

I think there is promise in working toward a linguistically facile world in which both frameworks can be evoked. I don't see one as intrinsically superior to the other.

The important thing is that people shouldn't be made to feel like they are being put into a box that they don't want to be in --- including the possibility of putting oneself into a box that turns out to be undesirably self-limiting. Hopefully, the mere existence of the notion of "queer", which highlights the possibility of sexual fluidity, might be helpful in avoiding that.

Jessica, I echo those above, that this is an excellent and thought-stimulating post.

AJ -- Thanks for your comments! I'm very intrigued by the idea that there's a new binary being established here, with traditional/normative on one side and sort of alt/queer on the other. Also, I do understand the value of more specific terms that describe specific kinds of queerness (e.g., queer-identified lesbian). I'm not sure where that leaves those of us who don't/can't identify with those more specific terms -- we could create our own, surely. For now, "queer" feels right to me -- I like its flexibility and openness, even though (or maybe in part because?), yeah, it leaves a lot to the wondering ... but is that connected to the invisibility of those of us who don't/can't identify with some of the other terms? Yes. Something to think about ...

Good post, Jessica. I'll just jump in here to respond to Mr. Davis, b/c I think he actually said something pretty important about "queer".

OK, you say that no two people define the word the same way, and that's one of the beauties of the term to me - that it can't be pinned down. Huzzah, I know, that's meaningless and pointless and anyone can make up words that don't mean anything. But in a culture that violently favors things that are deemed "meaningful" by rich white dudes, a signifier that I see gets applied to things that are pretty meaningless to me or others, having such a democratic term can be liberating.

In one sense, of course. The fact, and I've said this before, that someone like Don (and you're right, he's not on this thread to defend himself, so I'll just refer to people like him, since he's not alone) don't like the term doesn't take away from it's liberatory power for me. It's like looking at the same piece of road and one person seeing black and another person seeing purple - they can both be "correct" in two contradictory statements. Like I don't feel a need to convince people like Don to see the word my way - in the context of their lives it's offensive and I'm not going to take away from that or be able to change that. I just hope we can work from a place of mutual respect for each other's interpretations.

But on what it means, I identify as both queer and gay. Gay because I'm a man and I've experienced only attraction to men and expect for it to stay pretty much exclusively so throughout my life. Queer because I can see where other people who don't share that experience, like trans folk and bi folk and people who are just up in the air about sexuality and gender, share the experience of living outside of the heteropatriarchy and that term is useful for describing that transgression and works better than the alphabet soup.

That said, you say that everyone has a different definition of that term, but then you say that Jessica fits into what you would describe as "bi". but, from my experience, there are a whole lot of definitions of the word "bi", some people thinking it has to be exactly 50/50 attractions or it's gay or straight, some people thinking that it has to be 50/50 actions or it's gay or straight, some people thinking that it can be anything between 1 and 99 percent attractions one way or another and still be bi, some others having definitions in the middle, and a whole bunch of people thinking that they're just liars or deluding themselves. And some people think that it assumes a gender/sex binary and others think that it doesn't. And then there are lesbians who have at one point been attracted to a man... does that one attraction make them bi? And this one guy I'm was seeing once was only attracted to men but loved watching porn with men eating pussy, did that make him bi? What about those folks who had "that one night back in college"...?

Like, honestly, I'd like for everyone to agree on a definition for that one before we attack "queer" for being undefinable. And just reading Jessica's response now I can see that my definition of "queer" is pretty much the same as hers, and Allen's now that I read his, we just describe it differently, IMO.

I like the term "queer" and have often used it to describe myself but find the word "gay" much more empowering.

My sexuality is "quirky" if anything: I have obly had sexual relationships with men and expect that to always be the case. I am not attracted to women, per se, and have no emotional or romantic interest in them.

However, I have had one encounter that included a woman (and another man) because I felt that being with a woman was something I wanted to experience. Kind of like traveling someplace you've never been but always heard about-- I wanted to see it for myself, judge it for myself and then get back home where I belonged. Many gay men have felt this way.

I do enjoy str8 porn-- this is just one of the quirks of my sexuality. To me it's simple exoticism. To me heteros and their sexual behavior is so strange and different from mine that I find it intriguing. This may have something to do with my first two formative sexual experiences which were str8 out of SeanCody.com (pun intended): The other guy (s) & I looked at hetero porn (because the other guy(s) identified as str8) then had sex together. What's intriguing to me is that so many gay men find this scenario "HOT" and yet feel threatened when a "gay" man expresses anything other than same-sex attraction.

I don't identify as bi tho' I have many bi friends who try to impose the label on me when I express an openness in my own attitude toward my sexuality. To me the shoe just doesn't fit.

I'm queer, perhaps; gay definitely. Everything else is just window dressing and isn't really important.

Alex, I knew you couldn't respond without using heteropatriarchy in your response. I love it! But I digress...

I don't begrudge anyone's identity. Don't get me wrong. My grudge is with the confusion inherent in explaining sexuality to the masses. Most people are programmed to see sexuality as strictly binary and therefore it's a big jump to go from that binary mode of thinking to an understanding of something as nuanced and fluid as queer identity.

As someone who was born and raised into a very bigoted and sexist take on that binary world view, I have taken a long journey of my own to get where I am today in my understanding of sexuality. It has taken even longer to get people like my parents to understand that there may be a third or even fourth way of looking at things. Getting them to ever comprehend sexuality as fluid and infinite seems like a bit of a stretch. I think there are a lot of people out there just like them who will never understand the difference between queer and gay or lesbian or even transgender.

We are all what we are. The more labels we try to find for that, the more confusing it gets. Why accept queer? Any label, including queer, sets you apart from everyone else. If sexuality is fluid, then we're all on the same scale, yet everyone is defining their own labels. Your queer is my bi, her gay is someone else's lesbian and so on.

It seems that queer just adds another letter to the alphabet soup at this point. It can't be any of them (gay, lesbian, bi, etc) but it incorporates all of them. But as Alan (AJLopp) pointed out, this still creates a dichotomy - it's still calling it different and alternative. It's distinctly different from every other label, but I don't sense a suggestion that queer supersede any of those other labels but, instead be added to them.

Perhaps we should be moving away from labels altogether. If the theory is that all sexuality is fluid and everyone has a place on the spectrum, how does labeling those points help us find common ground? For every person that revels in the uniqueness of their identity, there are several others who just want to feel part of the crowd. As soon as you create a label, you're setting up a difference between yourself and another. Adding a new label for yet another point on the spectrum of human sexuality doesn't really advance the mass understanding of the complexities of human sexuality.

It just seems to me that we're all trying to find our own label that fits when we honestly just shouldn't be worrying about it at all. It's unfortunate that we have to use any labels, but adding to and expanding on these arbitrary constructs seems counter productive. Wouldn't it be more liberating to refuse to embrace these labels rather than adopt a new one that few understand?

I'm not sure where I stand on this still, but I am fascinated by the discussion. Thanks to everyone for a great Sunday diversion.

Wolfgang E. B. Wolfgang E. B. | October 20, 2008 9:19 PM

Jerame wrote, "It just seems to me that we're all trying to find our own label that fits when we honestly just shouldn't be worrying about it at all."

I sort of agree. The only practical purposes that labels serve are A. to give others a very generalized snapshot of who we are, and B. to give our demographic a name for political purposes. I understand the desire to get rid of them altogether. I also understand the desire to label people, including myself, but labels aren't perfect because they're subject to a variety of interpretations, definitions and nuances. That's true of any label. The important thing is not to enslave ourselves to them.

Personally, I use several labels to self-identify and choose the one that seems most appropriate for the conversation at hand: Gay, Queer, Transgender, Transsexual, or even just Man or a combination of any or all of them.


You raise good points, Jerame. I think it would be great to eventually drop all labels and people just do what they want. But for now, they're pretty descriptive and necessary, IMO, b/c we can't really forget that some people are privileged because of their sexuality/gender over others.

Hmmmmm.... Heterosexuals identifying as "queer". I knew a prof at ASU who thought that straight people could be queer if they rejected heteronormativity. I dunno about that, or if that's possible (hell, even I make heteronormative statements every now and then).

And yeah, I agree that there is a difference between a label that one will use to advance equality among people who are relatively separated from anything outside of heterosexuality and a label one would use among people who are hip to the nuances of what we're doing.

And:

I knew you couldn't respond without using heteropatriarchy in your response.

The heteropatriachy made you say that! AAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!! The HETEROPATRIARCHY IS COMING FOR YOU IN YOUR SLEEP!!!! AAAAHHHHHH!!!!! Don't look now, it's the heteropatriarchy! It's all about the heteropatriarchy! AHHHHHHHHHH!!!! I can't stand it!

Jessica,

Thank you for bringing up the label discussion. This is the biggest "alienation factor" in our community. People will see a label and automatically see baggage. As a result, individuals might judge peers based on labels and not even bother to try to understand them.

I love that you expanded on your label choice, for it allows us to see beyond the one word description of your life.

In BiNet, we have had at least 4 (that I can think of) campaigns to change our name to a more trans-friendly (for lack of a better term) label. Our community has ALWAYS been tight allies/sisters to that community. We face the same exclusionary/"other" factor in a monosexual world. We work together, behind the scenes, hold an annual "Transcending Boundaries" conference for Bi/Trans/Intersex/Gemderqueer. So important is this collaboration, we are including this as part of the next international conference on bisexuality.

If we could find a term that was inclusionary, did not alienate the older generation, AND had the recognition factor of the current label, we would change it in a minute. I don't mean to come across as flip. It is very hard to choose to stay with a label that might harm a young genderqueer youth so a kids in Iowa or a social worker for a prisoner can find information.

At a personal level (I loved your description of your label choice.. allow me to bore you with mine). When I was coming out, back in the cave man days, i did try the queer label. My family said - "of course you're queer - just look at your hair" Or, of course your queer, you like Ralph Nader.. In my family, i was the leftie odd ball. My "one year younger" sister told the world that I was only sleeping with women so I could be cool. Like my sexuality was just part of the beatnick-ing outfit I was putting on.

Through those experiences, for me, queer evoked more of a "rad" label and was not specific enough regarding sexuality. Polysexual was too confusing with polyamoury. Pansexual resulted in a lot of head scratching. I wanted a widely recognized term, with which we could move to the follow up queston more quickly. You can say i got lazy, or gave up. And that's ok.

I'm encouraged that the next generation continues to challenge the term and am hopeful there will be a day when we have a more universal non-monosexual umbrella term

Your essay (and your comment below it) has provided one of the most descriptive, concise, and useful definitions of "queer"that I think I've ever read. I'll definitely bookmark this and use your wording the next time I have to explain to someone (e.g. my conservative family) what the "Q" in LGBTQ stands for. :)

Jessica:

I'm a bit late to the party on this topic, but I wanted to take a moment to thank you for this very illuminating discussion.

I, unfortunately, have been "on a journey" (a la John Edwards) -- and it's been a long one -- regarding how I feel about using the word, and/or identifying myself as, "queer." I grew up and still live in Texas. Queer is a word that, if used in conversation at all here, is only used in the most hateful way. So, it hits certain triggers with me. [I have lived most of my life in rural areas, so my experience is borne out of that; I really have limited experience in living in a truly urban area, like Dallas, where I lived for about 8 years before returning to a rural area. Perhaps those in more urban areas of the South have a different experience.]

When I came out to myself 20 years ago (and to others not that long ago), I couldn't conceive of a bisexual orientation; I just thought those who identified in such a way were only unwilling to really come out as gay or lesbian. My view on that has changed over time, especially when I became aware of Kinsey's research.

So, just for reference, I would consider myself a Kinsey 6: I am biologically a man who has only ever been sexually attracted to men and I don't expect that to change during my lifetime. Nor do I consider myself transgender; I'm a male and I like it that way, to put it bluntly. But it was when I learned of transgenderism (and it was one of those "holy crap! what's that?" moments) that my opinions started to change.

It has only been in the last year that I've begun to take a serious look at the fluidity in my own sexual experience/identity. I identify my gender as male (for obvious physical reasons), yet when it comes down to a ratio of masculine vs. feminine attributes, I see myself as smack in the middle, firmly 50/50 of each. I'm a man biologically, but I'm conflicted about identifying solely as "male." By my admission before, I'm clearly not transgender by any modern definition. So what am I? "Gay" is the only term I've so far felt any comfort with.

I think, for many gays, lesbians, bisexuals, etc., concomitant with the term "queer" is also a feeling of "otherness" in a bad way in American society. We've spent so much time not being part of the discussion -- or perhaps only being derided in the discussion -- that sometimes being "queer" makes us feel all the more alienated and derided. That's not really our fault; the idea of a fluid sexuality seems (to me, at least) to be a relatively new idea/discussion in human history and it's quite scary, both to homos and heteros, because it bucks long established and accepted heteronormative behavior. The majority in American society doesn't even yet have a handle on the concept of two people of the same biological gender loving each other and wanting to have sex with one another. How can they be expected to understand fluid sexuality? Of course, there's a part of me that says: "Okay everybody, hurry and catch up! We've got progressing to do and we don't want to wait for you numbskulls!"

But I am still excited about the future progression of sexuality. It comes at a price though. Humanity will have to rid itself of stringent definitions like male, female, gay and straight. That will be enormously difficult, especially given the multitudes who are stuck in self-perpetuating religious conservatism who can't identify the box, much less think outside it. But some people among us identifying as queer is definitely a step in the right direction to making that happen.

I stand on the verge of a new frontier. I can understand the reticence of many about identifying as queer, but I can also clearly see why some would want to. I think there are many now who identify as one of the alphabet soup that might eventually migrate to a identifying as queer or some equivalent term. But I also think a term less "loaded" with negativity than "queer" might need to surface for that to happen.

Thanks to all who have commented in this discussion. It has really set my cogs turning.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | October 27, 2007 6:58 AM

I identify as queer because that term has been actively politicized and theorized to describe genders and sexualities that exceed and undermine normative ones. Pop culture may have wildly appropriated it and sucked all the meaning out, but I’m still holding on, investing it with the politics and meanings it has for me every time my gender or sexuality is misread, every time my relationships are presumed to fit into categories and descriptions that have very little to do with them.

This thread went quiet weeks ago, but I just came across your post and wanted to tell you how great I think it is! Your explanation of your preference for 'queer' above is excellent. As an FtM I'm constantly aware of the inadequacy of the labels 'LGB'. Am I gay when I'm with a man, even though what we do in bed is, on a superficial level, what straights do? Or am I gay--or lesbian, as my ex's family insisted-- when I'm with a woman? Or gay only when I'm with another FtM?

My very existence throws a monkey wrench into the smoothly running engine of sexual orientation. :-)

Thanks for the post!

Paige Listerud | December 13, 2007 9:03 PM

I had to put in my two cents.

I feel frustration over the fact that I have heard nearly all these arguments for over 20 years. There just doesn't seem to be much leadership coming from the bi, lesbian, gay, or trans communities to move us beyond the bi label debate.

I remember when identifying as bi was seen as too mushy, liberal, apolitical, weak, and "false consciousness".
I remember holding a bisexual 101 talk at my college gay and lesbian union--the first they were ever aware of that suggested bisexuality was real and not a phase--only to be confronted by an angry and insecure young gay man afterward. "You dilute my identity," was his accusation.

I remember while working on anti-gay bashing organizing, a fellow activist and counselor at the local gay and lesbian services center confessed to me privately that only she and a volunteer at the center were bi and they were only out to each other. She literally shook in her chair as she told me. She also told me that a bigger issue for her was domestic battering in the gay and lesbian community and if she came out as bi, she would not be taken seriously on domestic battering issues. At the anti-bashing demonstrations we worked on, when she stood up to speak through the megaphone, she declared, "I'm a dyke and proud of it." You see, being a dyke, a fag, gay, lesbian, or queer was something to be proud of within the community; being bi was nothing to be proud of.

I remember a similar conversation with a transwoman a year later. She told me she identified as bisexual but because transgendered issues mattered more to her, and because she believed lesbians would never listen to her as a bi transwoman, she identified as lesbian to make her issues heard.

I remember an anti-bashing meeting where I pleaded for bi inclusion in the poster and advertising materials for a demonstration. One young gay man ran from the room, saying, "You know, some of us are just getting used to the idea of being gay." I later learned that an older lesbian-identified woman who opposed me broke down in tears before her fellow Act Up activists and confessed that she was bisexual. They blamed me for bringing her to tears.

I remember a fellow bi activist attending the Michigan Women's Music Festival only to hear a workshop leader declare that bisexual women had no place in the women's community--a community that included straight women. My friend came out to the circle as bi and openly opposed her. When the workshop was finished, the workshop leader confessed to my friend that she was bi.

I remember a conversation with a gay male fellow in Queer Nation about why bi activism was so important to me, how I thought it went beyond the boundaries of gay and lesbian civil rights activism. He said to me, "Couldn't you just wait until lesbians and gay men get their rights and then you could work on yours?" This was in 1992, 23 years after Stonewall.

So it's now 2007. It almost seems that nothing has changed when it comes to discussing bi identification. Sure, there's inclusion, but mostly nominal. In my opinion, gays and lesbians have never really confronted their fear around the "b" word.
Instead they prefer to deny it, belittle it--it's not good enough, not radical enough, it doesn't deconstruct the gender binary, etc. These arguments bear a curious similarity to the old days.

For me, identifying as bi has always been about opposing homophobia, the kind of homophobia that gays and lesbians won't look at because of the rigid boundaries they have accepted in order to pursue their own acceptance within our society. I do "bi" because there is currently no queer theory that can make me ignore the fear and anxiety surrounding that word or the transgressive sexuality it represents. I do bi because I just want to tell the truth about myself, in the best way I can, with the language I have. I do bi because "bi" vanishes within "queer", without distinction, and I have no desire to see it made invisible, at least not yet. I suggest that we not make "bi" vanish until the homo/biphobia that is associated with it vanishes, in the LGBT community and the culture at large.

Does “bi” really suck too much, as a sexual identity? Biphobia really sucks, that’s for sure.

WOW! what a great post! I, who do identify as a lesbian, completely and wholeheartedly support you use of the term queer. However, I think maybe your reticence in using the term "bi" is because those of us who do identify as lesbian or gay have no respect your identity as bi. And that sucks and is just plain hypocritical on our part. We want people to respect our lives and relationships but we are not going to do that for you. However let us not kid ourselves that it is just about BIs that there is an issue. The mainstream gays don't really see the racism in our own community. Nor do they see the gender inequality. Nor do they see the blatant classism. Oh we are very good a demanding that mainstream America accept our diversity but we are not very good embracing the diversity within our own community. So I accept and applaud your decision to use the word queer. But the real radical idea is to call yourself BI and demand to stand within this community equally. And this dyke will be right beside you.

What kind of investment in or resignation to binary gender norms does “bisexual” identity represent?

The same amount as the word "terrific" means "fills with terror" any more: language evolves and the roots of the word really do not matter the way that some people want to make out. So I'm with hinchey here - queer is the easier label right now and can be in its own way a cop-out from the battles of giving us all a place at the table.

So what if in an interview a bi activist gave moderate views on the political agenda? You tailor your message to your audience's level of understanding of the issues and the space an interviewer gives you. And if in ten years her quoted aims were won and the next step in going past equality to liberation were begun, we'd look like people who could acheive their aims rather than being dismissed as the people who were going to abolish gender and never got anywhere.

*takes the 'bi' badge down off the shelf and pins it on my sleeve*

While I appreciate you for sharing this, and appreciate the commonalities of many of our experiences (being defined in relation to the genders of our partners, being asked to participate in events that "belong" to other people/ identities), I feel that this article seems to be more about why you "do" queer, rather than why you don't do bi or lesbian. And, actually, as a bisexual, I find the title of the article to be biphobic. Why not call it "Why I do queer"? Why not define yourself by what you define yourself, rather than in reaction to what you define bisexual as?
I also find your definition/ interpretation of bisexual problematic, especially as it is negative and coming from a non-bisexual space. If you want a definition of bi, why not ask an actual bisexual? You might be surprised. I would be the first person to call myself bisexual and the last person to say it had anything to do with any kind of gender binary.
I find queer-normativity (and the bi-bashing that all-to-often goes with it) to be a sad development in the evolution of queer politics. I expected more.

Well,
the question i have to pose is:
why does anyone want a definitive answer to someones sexuality anyway? Why are there labels at all? Im wondering if people who identify as queer, such as myself, are just more comfortable not having answers. The term queer can have multiple conotations to multiple people, and intstead of saying this lacks power, I'd have to say this is what gives it its power. It gives it the authority to make anyone quetions why someone would label themselves as such and also what it means to them. To have term that confuses the majority of our constantly-answer-wanting society, the term queer brings back a notion of the unanswerable and begins to shrink the power of those who make the labels.

Please bear with me, as I am very new to the activist community.
I have identified as bisexual for many years, I have been intimate with both sexes, sometimes at the same time. I have been repeatedly told that I was just "afraid of my gayness" and I was hanging on to women because "I was scared of being called a faggot"
Not even remotely true, I remember taking sexual psychology class in 1978 and being taught about the continuum upon which our sexuality lies,on one end is totally gay and on the other totally straight and all of us are somewhere on that scale. I don't really care one way or the other if anyone accepts that notion, I believe it to be spot on, because that defines my sexual identity.
Why is it so threatening to both straights and queers for me and others to be able to love other humans, regardless of gender? I relate to the person and the gender is just another difference along with hair and eye or skin color. It doesn't matter.
I am not particularly articulate today, in this my first post. I feel sure as I find my place here that I will become much more vocal.
thanks for the forum to comment

I normally have a short attention span when it comes to blog posts, but I read this one all the way through. Great writing. I identify as heterosexual, but have recently become interested in gender issues via my interest in politics, religion, and morality. I'm trying to educate myself about a world that is frankly a bit alien to me, so your distinction between bisexual and queer was helpful. I always thought of "queer" as a popular slur, and assumed that the title "queer studies" at universities was some sort of holdover from a less enlightened era. I didn't even think about the way the term "bisexual" reinforces our assumption of binary gender categories. A thought-provoking concept. Thanks!

* i think there's a generational question, bisexual as an identity appears to be in the process of being replaced among the younger generation by "genderqueer" and "trans" and "queer", etc. I think the older you are, the less likely you are to identify this way.

* older folks fought like the dickens for "bisexual" recognition, and endured the pain of a second coming out and consequent loss of community and social support networks - especially the womenfolk, the wounds among the folks a generation or so older than me (I'm 37) are still raw; they have a lot invested in the concept of a bisexual identity

* even older folk have a hard time getting past the historical usage and meaning of the word "queer"

* I'm kind of in the middle: I'm comfortable with the re-appropriation of the word queer, I'm of a generation where the most brutal and painful fights over "bisexual" inclusion are a historical memory (not to say that there still aren't issues), and so I identify as "queer" and am comfortable using the term, but see that as an umbrella term for everyone in the "glbt" community... the problem I have with "queer" as an identity, is that it leaves us ("bisexuals") invisible (again), in a culture that insists on binaries and on reading us based on who we're with (st8 when with wife) or where we are (gay when in a "glbt" setting) - and I'm not o.k. with that. Find me a term that has broad currency, or that can be re-purposed to that end (and "queer" isn't it), and that is specifically limited to folks like myself who love and are attracted to people regardless of their gender / sex, and I'll use it.

Until then, I'll be out there insisting on the usage of the word "bisexual", as a means of ensuring that we are not rendered invisible within our own communities, that we have easily identifiable role models and historical figures of prominence, etc.

Thomas,

These are such great points. Thanks for writing! I have actually been thinking a lot lately about the invisibility implicit in not naming a specific kind of queer identity, and how to reconcile that with shifting/flexible identities as well as issues with the binary implications of "bi." I, too, would love for there to be a word that specifically describes, in your words, "folks like myself who love and are attracted to people regardless of their gender / sex." Sometimes I feel like the openness of "queer" does that well enough, but I also increasingly feel the need to identify as "bi"(-except-I-don't-mean-binary) for clarification, for lack of a better term, for visibility, etc., etc., etc... So, I hear you. Thanks again for writing.

This is something I've been thinking about for a long time, too. Being a transsexual woman, I find it difficult to justify gender as a reason for choosing my partner. My gender path has just given me more and more reasons to not limit my choice of potential partners based on gender.

That said, there is a huge pressure from the wonderful medical community that a trans woman be with a man, as there is form society in general that someone who lives as a woman has a boyfriend. I lived that life for a while but soon returned to finding partners from both the whole gender spectrum and I hung onto the 'bi' label with the tenaciousness of a Jack Russel. After all, large chunks of the LGB community have enough problems with me being trans, I may as well be open about being bi too! :)

Now, I have a problem (a sweet, delicious problem!) I've met a wonderful woman and we've fallen deeply in love with each other. I've found something I've never found with a man, a depth of relationship and understanding which just doesn't exist there. It's reaching the point that I'm questioning my 'bi' status and that is worrying me on one level... I feel like I'm losing an openness of spirit in doing so.

Mind you, what a lovely way to lose some things like this. I'm rather over the moon with my new girlfriend! :)

As always, learning so much from you, Jess.