Editors' note: This post ran over a year and a half ago on TBP and has been one of the most popular. Since there are lots of new readers on the site, we thought we'd run it again. Enjoy!
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."
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.