A ‘bi’ by any other name

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while because it’s something that really bothers me. I was having a conversation about my recent semi-coming-out with someone who identifies as lesbian, in which I confirmed that I was queer. She tried to clarify: “so you like girls and guys”. An interesting choice of words, given one of the reasons I feel most comfortable with the word “queer” is it doesn’t implicitly support a gender binary. But me being queer translated to the most accessible reference in her head: bisexual. For people who haven’t studied gender, I suppose, the closest and most accessible way to understand “queer” is being bisexual – the hotly debated “only Other option” in between gay and straight.

People choose to identify as queer for a lot of reasons. For me, it’s because I’m attracted to individuals who may fall all over the gender spectrum. It means I’m not explaining a part of myself to people using a word that has “sexual” in it, alluding to something much more private than a politicized identity. Something about the word “sexual” just conjures up all those hypersexualized images of Joe Francis-inspired girl-on-girl makeouts in tv-order commercials  (not intended to slut-shame, merely to point out that this is the PREDOMINANT way we see lesbians and bisexuals in the media). It’s because when I want to talk about this one part of myself, I’m not inclined to explain (or justify) my entire history, particular affinities, and future possibilities – I can just leave it at “complex”.

BUT, most people outside of my campus women’s center “bubble” don’t even know what Queer means. How do you explain THAT? Not that it’s necessarily easy to come out to someone, but it’s a different kind of problem when the person hasn’t HEARD OF what you’re trying to come out as. Sure this can be an opportunity to educate them, but when you’re abouttocry you’re not always prepped to do a Queer 101. I can’t tell you how many times I attempted (okay, three times) to tell my friend (who is gay anyway, and a kick-ass queer ally) – just because I didn’t have the vocabulary for it myself yet. I kept wanting to tell him I was bisexual, but each time it just didn’t feel exactly right. Trust me, if I’d known queer was an option, I’d’ve been using it way before college.

The point is, I’ve always viewed sexuality as LINEAR, with gay at one endpoint and straight at another. Everything between is wiggle room, or grey area, or Other. It doesn’t matter what you identify as, people will always match you to the best-fit category in their head, and load you up with all those stereotypes and expectations. If you don’t ALWAYS and ONLY like “boys” and you don’t ALWAYS and ONLY like “girls” (loosely defined), you’re Other.  And the best-fit category for queer-other seems to be bisexual.

By the way, a google search sadly confirmed I didn’t come up with this clever title all by myself. It’s part of an anthology I heard about called “Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out”, edited by Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu. Anyone owe me a belated Hanukkah present? 🙂

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About FemWriter

FemWriter is a dedicated unlearner, privilege caller-outer, language finicker, and aspiring professional feminist.
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13 Responses to A ‘bi’ by any other name

  1. J says:

    I just tell people that I am queer, which means I am attracted to people not gender. If they still seem confused I explain that all I really care about is what is in a persons head, not what is in their pants… and you know I get the “so your bi…” thing too, I’ve taken to telling the questioners that “Yes, I would be bisexual if I believed there were only two genders out there!” At which point the conversation either ends, or I get a chance to expand on gender-theory, but only if I want to… if I’m not in the mood I encourage them to plug “gender-binary” into google and see what comes up!

    It got less scary for me the more I did it… and I found that if I acted like it wasn’t a big deal the invasive questions lessened, probably because the person I was talking to felt as if they were the weird one for being skeptical about my sexual/affectional orientation!

    I really like this post 🙂

    • CellarDorre says:

      “I just tell people that I am queer, which means I am attracted to people not gender.”

      Isn’t that just pansexuality? How is being “queer” different from that?

  2. J says:

    Honestly, I don’t think there is much of a difference… I was just introduced to the idea of being queer before I had ever heard of the term pansexual. I could start calling myself pansexual and it would mean this same thing, its just a personal preference I suppose. I like queer better because people are less likely to assume that they know what it means.

    • CellarDorre says:

      Actually, apparently it isn’t the same thing at all. The slang term for “queer” originally meant homosexual and was eventually adopted by others to be an term for anyone who isn’t heterosexual or living a lifestyle dictated by society’s “masculine” and “feminine” ideals. Many people in the LGBT community dislike the use because they associate it with the hatespeech in which it originated.

      So, from what I’ve been reading, this article isn’t accurate and queer doesn’t specifically mean that you have an attraction to people, not genders. Queer encompasses everything along that spectrum except heterosexuality.

      The word the author is actually looking for would be pansexual, not queer.

      Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pansexual
      “Pansexuality (also referred to as omnisexuality) is a popular term referring to the feeling that one has the potential for sexual attractions, sexual desire, or romantic love, towards people of all gender identities and biological sexes.”

      Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer
      “Queer is an umbrella term for sexual minorities that are not heterosexual, heteronormative, or gender-binary.”

      • Jessica says:

        @CellarDorre,
        Thanks for such a thoughtful and researched reply! When I wrote this, it was more of a reflection on the reasons *I* identify as queer, which I realize were without a very good understanding of pansexuality. It seems to me that they are quite similar, although at the time I saw queer as something that had a more inclusive and celebratory spirit. Since its use as an umbrella term for non-mainstream sexualities was reclaimed, using the word had an empowering quality that I really liked.

        Since you also recognize the similarities, can you explain your reasons for thinking pansexual would be more accurate to the things I described here? (Speaking objectively now, since the way I have experienced the word Queer and what it has meant for my own identity development is, I think, significant enough to not be likely to change.)

    • Jessica says:

      @J – thank you for contributing to the conversation as well! It is interesting to hear how the ways we experience different “labels” affects the ones that we choose to identify ourselves, perhaps without as much respect to the ways they are popularly used. (Also, even if we are actually trying to use words that indicate we are avoiding ‘labels’ 😛 ).

  3. CellarDorre says:

    It would be more accurate to say pansexual, because that’s exactly what pansexuality is. Pansexuality is where you are attracted to people, regardless of what their gender or sex is. In other words, you’re “gender-blind”, if you will.

    Queer, is just a word that’s meant to encompass everything from homosexuality to transgender to pansexual. It’s like if you had a cat, bird and a frog. They are each something unique, but if you want to refer to them all at once, you’d just call them animals. Bisexuality, trans-sexual, homosexual, etc. are all unique things, but if you wanted to address them all at once without getting into specifics, you could just call them queer.

    The only thing to be wary of when using queer is the fact that the main slang definition for “queer” is a derogatory term for a homosexual and many people still find it to be offensive and prefer that it not be used. It’s similar to the situation with African American people and the word “nigger”. Some African American people believe that by using it, they’re taking away the negative power it had. Others, however, disagree and feel that it’s just perpetuating the pain and oppression their race has suffered.

    So, with the word queer, I would advise you to use it carefully.

    • sara says:

      Well, if you want to get pedantic about it, “pansexual” would actually be more *precise* than “queer”, not necessarily more *accurate*.

      What I’m getting at is that Jessica gave a number of reasons she prefers the term queer (one reason being that she doesn’t like to bring the word “sexual” into it, which specifically precludes the term pansexual) so I think we ought to let her identify how she likes.

      • CellarDorre says:

        Actually, it would be more precise and more accurate. According to her responses, Jessica said it was because she didn’t have a proper understanding of what pansexuality was.

        She can “identify” however she wants to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accurate. You can call a cat a dog all you want, but it’s technically still a cat.

        • sara says:

          My problem is that you are treating these things as if they have a single, static definition. Queer is an extremely complex word.

          As you mentioned, it can be used in situations as diverse as a term encompassing any non-heterosexual person, or it can be used to specifically mean homosexual, in a derogatory sense.

          It can also be used in other ways. For example, the term genderqueer. That isn’t any of the things you mentioned.

          A lot of people identify as queer, for a lot of different reasons. You can’t just read a wikipedia article and then start telling people that their definition of queer is wrong. It’s a term whose meaning is extremely dynamic. It’s not like the word “cat”.

          Besides which, if we make the assumption that queer can only be defined as you mentioned – as an umbrella term for non-hetero individuals – then pansexual would fall in that group, meaning that the terms are equally accurate and pansexual would only be more precise. You can look up precision versus accuracy on wikipedia.

          • CellarDorre says:

            “For example, the term genderqueer.”

            The term “genderqueer” is a different word from “queer”, thus they mean different things.

            “You can’t just read a wikipedia article and then start telling people that their definition of queer is wrong. ”

            That would be like saying, you can’t just read the dictionary and tell people their definition is wrong. Yes, you can. It’s not as diverse and you’d think. People are just turning it into something that seems diverse because they don’t actually know the proper words to describe things, so they’re just using one word to cover all their bases.

            “as an umbrella term for non-hetero individuals – then pansexual would fall in that group, meaning that the terms are equally accurate and pansexual would only be more precise.”

            In relation to this article, it would be both more precise and more accurate because the author wasn’t just describing being outside of the heterosexual norm of things, she was specifically describing pansexuality without realizing it and then calling it queer. Because queer encompasses a lot of things, it has more characteristics than just the ones she mentioned. She made it seem like that’s all that queer was, so it was inaccurate. In the grand scheme of things, pansexual is a more precise word, but in regards to this article, it’s more precise and more accurate.

  4. Jessica says:

    Look for a post on this topic (Choosing between Queer and Pansexual) coming soon!

  5. bummertent says:

    Protip: take something else besides Gender Studies classes. This post epitomizes the most stultifying aspects of academic terminology/practice and its irrelevance in the real world.

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