Tesseral Harmonics: “Bisexual” is not oppressive, can we talk about biphobia and straight privilege? and other thoughts on bisexuality
This topic has been discussed to death, and yet it continually comes up in tumblr discussion. So let me establish once and for all (I swear, I will never discuss this again) that “bisexual” is not an oppressive identity.
Bisexual is not binarist.
The argument that it is binarist posits that (1) bisexuality is attraction to binary-identified (sometimes people throw in “cis” too) men and women, and that (2) not being attracted to someone means you deny their gender or actively hate them. Clearly, these are both fallacies.
(1) There are many uses of the term “bisexual.” Some take the “bi” to mean “two genders” and don’t specify which. Some take it to mean “same gender and different gender.” Some take it to refer to the two different social spaces they occupy in a binarist world when they are read as straight or read as not straight based on their partner. And many people disregard the constraints of etymology and use it to mean “more than one gender.”
The language police on tumblr have a really unhealthy relationship with etymology. Don’t get me wrong — I adore etymology, and I think it’s important to critique how language reinforces prejudices. But it can only get you so far. The origins of a word do not demarcate the only ways it can be used. Almost any word that we use frequently can be picked apart to justify an argument that it should be banned from our vocabulary. (“Vocabulary,” for example, is ableist, because it is related to the Latin “vocare,” from which we have “vocal,” and who’s to say only people who can speak can use language? We shouldn’t use the word “rape” to refer to nonconsensual sex, because “rape” originally meant kidnapping, and this reinforces the idea that “real” rape involves brute physical force. And so on.)
It is suspicious that people jump on the word “bisexual” so easily, when there’s a multitude of words used frequently in SJ circles that could be branded oppressive based on a quick glance at their etymology. “Lesbian,” for example, is cultural appropriation, because, as we all know, it derives from the name of a Greek island, and, before this appropriation, people from that island were naturally called “lesbians” (and some are trying to reappropriate the term). “Feminism” connotes femininity, and as we all know not all women are feminine, not all feminine people are women, and not all feminists are women. “Straight” is homophobic, because it conflates heterosexuality with correctness, properness, and honesty; it implies that those who are not straight are “crooked”: immoral, dishonest, and improper. The “trans-” in “transgender” and “transsexual” is cissexist, because “trans-” means “across” or “beyond,” and it implies that trans people necessarily “cross” gender or occupy a space beyond the binary. However, these arguments do not dominate tumblr (yet — I hope I didn’t start anything terrible), because even though their etymology is “problematic” (and it some cases, it really is), these words have meaning and power beyond, and sometimes despite, their etymology. The question is “Does their value outweigh their harm?” They are useful terms and to discard them because someone with a Greco-Latin roots dictionary can find fault with them would be silly. And the same is true of “bisexual.”
(2) Some people do use “bisexual” to mean “men and women.” And that is OK! You have the right to be attracted to whomever you like. You are under no obligation to be attracted to any particular person or group. That is your right as a sexually autonomous human being. Identifying your attractions (or your identity!) along the binary does not make you binarist.
If you are not attracted to non-binary people, that does not mean you hate non-binary people. One of the most harmful messages of the current trend of sex positivity is that support=sex. There are many ways of supporting people without sleeping with them. Indeed, showing your support for non-binary people/trans people/women/men/POC/whoever by sleeping with them is creepy, fetishizing, and gross. It reminds me of this meme:
[Image text: “How can I be misogynist if I love having sex with women?”]
Moving on. Biphobia is a thing.
A lot of smart people I really respect have been talking about how we need to discard the term “biphobia” because it suggests an axis of oppression in which bisexuals lose and gay/lesbian and straight people win. Obviously, such an axis is just as ridiculous as so-called “sexual privilege,” in which straight and LGBQ people wield power and privilege over straight and LGBQ asexuals alike.
So let me get this clear: I don’t mean biphobia with the checklists. Monosexism is not an actual axis of privilege/oppression. Instead, it’s the reluctant extension of a heterosexist model to gay people: Gay men are pretty much women, just confused about their gender, and lesbians are practically men, just with gender issues. Bisexuals, silly things, are just confused or way too into sex. What sluttysluts.
People who are gay or lesbian do not wield institutional power and privilege over bisexuals. However, there are widely held and firmly entrenched prejudices against bisexuality among both straight people and lesbian/gay/queer people. I like the term “biphobia” because it summarizes those prejudices in one easily recognizable word. I don’t think “-phobia” should be limited to situations of privilege–oppression — for example, “biophobia” is a very useful word, and we don’t need to write up the living things privilege checklist — but if anyone has anyone good arguments to not use the word “biphobia,” please let me know. I have heard the term described as “appropriative,” but I don’t think this is necessarily true. (Privilege checklists, yes.) We can talk about misogyny as a real thing, and yet “misandry” doesn’t automatically assume male oppression by women, unless it’s, say, an MRA using the term. (cinnamonwheel and others have been rocking the “misandry for life” tag, and I’m pretty sure they’re not MRAs.) (This is a shitty analogy, because bisexuals are not analogous to men in terms of power or privilege, but the point is that morphologically similar terms do not have to carry the same SJ framework.) I find the term “biphobia” useful, and it’s what I’m going to use until I hear a sufficiently convincing argument against “biphobia” and a decent alternative to it.
Here are some examples of what I mean when I talk about biphobia:
- The hate that reality-TV star Krissily Kennedy got on Autostraddle when she came out as bisexual
- Dismissing bi women as straight but slutty and bi men as closeted gay liars
- I attended a “queer” event by the LGBTQ group at my school, and when a guy and girl (each, as far as I know, gay) were talking to each other for too long and being too (platonically) affectionate, they were told — as a joke!!111 of course — that they’d better not “turn straight” or they wouldn’t be welcome in the group anymore
- When I wrote an article on homosexuality in high school, and in order to cut down the story to fit the space allotted, I simply deleted the section on bisexuality, because “bisexuals don’t really count” or deserve representation
- When the only Hungarian “LGBT” YouTube show includes comments like these in their “best of” video and otherwise, mention of bisexuality is completely lacking: “Bisexuals are those who can’t decide whether they like boys or girls” (offered as a definition of bisexuality); “Yes, I usually date guys” “Well, in today’s world, who knows?!” (applauded by commenters as a hilarious joke)
- When “bisexual” is the label high school kids would put on their myspace as a joke, along with “divorced” and “salary: over $200,000”
- When everyone prefers “pansexual” and “polysexual” and “queer” and “heteroflexible” over “bisexual,” because “bisexual,” like “lesbian,” is a word that leaves a bad taste in your mouth
In gay people, biphobia tends to come from internalized homophobia (why would you be gay if you have the chance of being straight?) and insecurity (s/he’ll leave me for a woman/man!). It also intersects with misogyny and phallocentricism and straight people’s homophobia. But I don’t think it’s enough to simply call it the intersection of those factors and leave it at that. The way people revile the very word “bisexual” and leap to banish it to the box of oppressive terms speaks to biphobia being a phenomenon that, even though it doesn’t deserve the checklists and axes of oppression, should at least have a name, if we are to talk about it. It doesn’t have to fit the same framework as homophobia.
It’s a big problem that people who are bisexually identified (or engage in bisexual behavior) are dismissed and mocked by gay/queer/lesbian people. I honestly don’t think I need to spell out an explanation of why it’s important for spaces that call themselves “queer” or “LGBT” to be inclusive. In short, anyone who is bi (in name or behavior) is still queer and may need support as a queer person. Biphobia also makes it difficult for anyone who is gay-identified and experiencing sexual fluidity (Lisa Diamond’s research on sexual fluidity (pdf) is super interesting, btw). It also means that gay people who are in “straight” relationships for whatever reasons (family and religion are two examples) are dismissed by the queer community. Biphobia is part of a culture of identity-policing, where if you don’t adhere closely enough to the requirements delineated by the official bureau of gayness you’re out of the club.
But. If we’re going to talk about biphobia, there’s something else we need to talk about. And that’s bisexual access to straight privilege. (You don’t have to call yourself bisexual to experience this — all you need is to be read as straight, especially due to the way you and a partner are read — but it something that certainly some bisexuals experience.) I recommend this excellent article, which covers the topic better than I could: “Bisexuals and straight privilege.”
There are many bisexual people who have access to straight privilege. If you only partner with people of the gender that is socially normative for you, or if you’re in a long-term relationship with such a person, if you’re in an “opposite marriage,” you definitely benefit from heterosexual privilege. I’m not bisexual, but I was in a “straight” relationship recently, and the straight privilege was everywhere. Walking around in public together. The only time I ever tried being (discreetly) affectionate in public in Hungary with someone read as my gender, it barely took half an hour, if that, for a man to yell, “Ew, lesbians!” at us. Of the countless times my ex and I were together in public, we never got harassed once. And then there’s family. My relatives knowing — and approving. My mother sending him presents. My father offering me advice on “the battle of the sexes” (his phrasing and horrible gender essentialism made me scoff in disgust, leading him to get very hurt, and we ended up in a fight, as always — but it was quite different than the epic disowning that would have ensued had I ever gone to him with “girl trouble”).
There’s a myth I saw going around tumblr earlier: Passing privilege is not privilege. I want to dispel this immediately. Passing privilege is absolutely privilege. You may not be accessing that privilege all the time, but when you are, the privileges afforded you are real. Being invisible is shitty, but it doesn’t cancel out the privileges you gain in the meantime.
Bisexual access to straight privilege is complicated. Some people are bi and experience no homophobia for it. Others may experience just as much as, or even more than, gay- or lesbian-identified people. If you’re read as gay or queer from your appearance or gender presentation, it may not matter that you’re in a “straight” partnership when homophobes itching for violence come up to you as you walk down the street alone. If you’ve been in dozens of “straight” relationships and get kicked out your home for your first same-sex relationship, accusations of straight privilege may not mean much to you. Laws targeting homosexuality don’t make exceptions for the bisexuals who are caught having sex or relationships with members of their own gender.
Bisexual access to straight privilege is individually conditioned, depending on your personal circumstances. How much biphobia you experience too may depend on who you are and where you are. But on a group-wide level, they both exist and need to be discussed. I’m tired of the reductionist tendencies on tumblr to either hold up biphobia as the new most oppressed group evar!!11 or dismiss it entirely.