Jessica Hoffmann

Why I Don't Do 'Bi'

Filed By Jessica Hoffmann | April 21, 2009 4:30 PM | comments

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

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.


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Good points.

The usage of 'bi' remains interesting to me, though as an optic, it fails to bring into focus my other identities. The 'bi' identity 'others' my identities, as it takes up my sexual identity as the master identity. 'Bisexual' doesn't work as I'd like, so I use 'queer.' There are problems with 'queer,' though.

A woman with whom I spoke about her taking up a 'bi' identity stated she'd found 'a home' between her movements to-and-fro lesbian and heterosexual sexual identities. At once, I was reminded of Munoz's play with 'disidentifications,' though the woman discounted any 'third' identity for a singular fluidity. 'Bi' was not for play, but for home. I felt happy for her to have a home, but not sure I could ever live there.

I identify as "bi" for the simplicity of those around me. Most accurately, I identify as "pansexual" as I fall in love with souls, not genitalia, and love it for how the term works outside binary gender norms.

I can understand going with queer, though, as it's a possible synonym for bi inasmuch as you like men and women but also conveys that you disagree with heteronormativity and gender binarism. However, the problems you ran into with its over-fluidity (such as meaning "just homosexual") pose problems for me.

I actually find is most distressing when people think within the binary for both sexuality or gender, and discriminate within it. Misogyny is just as vile as groups like lesbian retreats that keep out female-gendered folks who have a Y chromosome. Or how many disagree that there even is such a thing as bisexuality, pansexuality, or the cover-all queer.

Kudos for thinking outside the heteronormative box!

See, I don't consider my use of the term bi as limiting or denying others their identities. I'm not saying that there are only two genders. What I am saying in that I am romantically and physically attracted to two genders. This is the case for me. I tend to use the terms bi and queer to self identify in that respect.
There have been a couple of times where I have been accused of contributing to binary ideas about gender because of my bi identity. But I have not found that to be a valid argument because I am not denying anyone anything, though I have found it interesting that the people making the argument want to deny me a tool of self identity and try to get me to agree to their views of sexual identity. Being the queer that I am I refuse to allow them to convince me to change my self concept for their comfort or agenda.

Paige Listerud | April 22, 2009 1:21 AM

Among my other complaints, which you well know from the first time I posted comments to this article:

1) your article still has a "queerer than thou" tinge to it that leaves a bad taste in the mouth

2) the title "Why I don't do "bi" sounds like something I would read in a personals ad, like "no bisexuals".

DanaRSullivan | April 22, 2009 1:31 PM

I think it's great that you've found a word that resonates with you, but it's also important to recognize that the word "bisexual" doesn't always, to everyone, represent adherence to a gender binary--that's just one interpretation. The majority of self-identified bisexuals I've met (including myself) don't divide people up into two genders, or really pay attention to gender, when it comes to relationships. If you look at the etymology, sure, it has "two" in it, but language is full of words that have very little to do with their literal root meaning.

If you want to identify as queer, that's fantastic, but it'd be just as easy to do that without dictating to bisexuals what "bisexual" means.

On a lot of these points, I tend to agree. I also agree with some of the comments as well.

Sure, if you're comfortable with the word "bisexual" and feel that your orientation lies along gender binary lines: "I am attracted to two sexes". If it works for you, more power to you! :)

Personally speaking however, since my own gender identity (as well as attraction) lies along the full gender spectrum, I think it would be misleading to call myself bisexual. I also use the term queer to self-identify.

I understand also the concept of being mistaken for your average heterosexual couple, as I'm a biological female (who is transgender), in a relationship with a man. There are times we are mistaken for a straight couple, and other times where we are mistaken for a gay couple. We're just a queer couple, and I leave it at that. :)

DanaRSullivan | April 22, 2009 2:39 PM

That's exactly what I was talking about, though-- from my experience, most bisexuals *don't* feel that their orientation lies along gender binary lines. Saying you're bisexual is not at all the same as saying you're attracted to two separate genders.

I don't mean to be argumentative, it's just a little off-putting, since I've never met someone who says that *their* bisexuality is about a duality of gender, but I've heard many people say that *other people's* bisexuality is about that duality.

It would be like me saying that I don't identify as queer because being queer is all about [insert paradigm here], when people who do i.d. as queer generally oppose or don't care about [insert paradigm here]. I just think it's something that should be avoided out of respect for others.

I can't see the logic in the statement that saying one is bisexual is not the same as saying that one is attracted to two genders. It seems to me that saying that I am bisexual and defining it as a statement that I mean by this that I am attracted to two genders is exactly that in meaning. When I say that I am bisexual and that I am attracted to two genders I mean that. How can you say that my statement does not mean that when I say specifically that this is what I mean?

DanaRSullivan | April 23, 2009 2:25 PM

Sorry, maybe I didn't describe it well. (Also in case it didn't show up right, my comment wasn't a reply to yours, and I thought your comment was right on.) I didn't mean that people can't define bisexuality along gender binaries if they want, but that it should be done in a way that doesn't project that idea onto others. Saying "I'm bi/not bi because bisexuality means being attracted to two genders" sounds like a blanket statement covering all bi folks, which is what makes it misleading. Adding something like "to me" or "for me" makes the difference, imo.

I identify as both bi and queer. Queer, to me (and to many others), is not just an umbrella term for "not straight." It has a political identity associated with it, and I mean it that way. It also encompasses my potentially kinky side. And, I hate to say it, but I hope that my calling myself "queer" clarifies to those who might be turned off by "bi" that I acknowledge my potential to fall in love with someone of any gender.

One of the reasons I identify as bi has to do specifically with the points that Jessica brought up. I can count the number of bi people on one hand who I've met who have said that for them, bisexuality means "being attracted to two genders." Most often, I encounter from bi people, "bisexuality, to me, means being attracted to more than one gender (or sex)." Those who say that bisexuality reinforces the gender binary also need to recognize and acknowledge the role that bisexual activists have played alongside trans activists in advancing trans rights/inclusion. Did/do those people really want to reinforce the gender binary?

To most feminists, "feminism" doesn't mean "giving women more rights than men." This is one of the biggest misconceptions that I encounter about the word feminism. I've met many who might identify as feminists but are simply turned off by the word. They want something like "equalist" or "human-ist." Does that mean that the term "feminist" is outdated or incorrect? Does "feminism" truly imply that women ought to be superior to men?

I've had more than one queer person (who also is usually a feminist...) tell me I'm reinforcing the gender binary with my use of "bisexual." I'm always taken aback by that. I certainly wouldn't try to tell people that their identifier(s) is/are incorrect. So I'm reclaiming "bisexual" from those people. I definitely respect everyone's right to identify how they like, because I don't want anyone to tell me how to identify. If someone ultimately feels uncomfortable with "bisexual," they ought to feel free to choose any other label or none at all. But we also need to consider our beliefs and our history before we draw any conclusions. When I use the term bi for myself, it is a conscious choice to (re?-)establish its meaning as "attracted to more than one gender."

Hey, everyone.

Thanks for all your comments!

It's been interesting -- in the almost two years since I wrote this post, my own thoughts about "bi" identity have evolved a bit.

It still does feel to me to reinforce the gender binary -- that's not to say others aren't endowing the word with other beyond-binary meanings in their own identifications with it, but for me, I can't not hear "two" in "bi," and so I can't totally identify with it. But at the same time, I've realized that as I've engaged this conversation beyond the little radical/queer/feminist bubble of my friends and close collaborators, I increasingly see the value in being visible specifically as a queer person who is attracted to people of more than one gender, and I'm in a process of thinking through what language might allow that.

Also, biphobia within LG communities and within straight communities is nasty and oppressive and makes me feel really sad and alienated and more -- so I'm trying to think through what it looks like to be a person whom most of the world would read as "bi" and who doesn't identify with that term because I feel it upholds the gender binary and problematically simplifies my own gender identity (as well as others'), but who also wants very much to resist and challenge biphobia.

Things like the wonderful blog give me lots of hope around possibilities for more complex, less gender-binaristic bi/queer identity. Have you checked it out?

Still figuring it out,


Yes, I check in on bifurious every now and then. Not often enough though.

Thanks at the very least for an honest look at the dizzying complexities of the politicization of attraction. I'm a woman of trans experience, so I've grown with a confusing sense of where the "line" is for the entire time I've been coming out.
A non-op trans woman, attracted to another woman is....what? Objectively, people can say whatever they want, but I've only recently begun to embrace the delicious power of being attracted to everyone and fuzzying the binaries to boot. I have at least two female friends who are attracted to men and always have been who I would classify as "queer" in outlook,social network and politics. That said, when I recently found myself attracted to another trans woman,I tried on the term "lesbian"; didn't quite fit.