What does it mean to be bisexual? I’ve been surprised by how many people have asked me what the word means. Wiki defines it as romantic or sexual attraction or behaviour towards males and females, which is a good start. It’s probably easiest to define if I disentangle it from some of the misconceptions:
1. Bisexual doesn’t mean wanting to have more than one partner at the same time. This preference is called polyamory, or poly. It’s been a bit startling to have people assume that I’m in an open relationship on the basis of my bisexual identity! Some poly people are also bisexual, others are straight, others are gay.
2. Bisexual doesn’t mean lots of sexual partners. Without judging anyone who enjoys casual sex, these are separate concepts. Some bi people do, some don’t. 🙂
3. Bisexual doesn’t mean that I can’t make up my mind about what gender I like. It doesn’t mean I’m really gay but not properly out of the closet. It doesn’t mean I’m really straight but want to experiment or get into the cool nightclubs. 🙂 Being with a partner does’t mean that I’ve gone straight or gone gay.
4. Bisexual doesn’t mean that I’m attracted to all men and all women, any more than being straight means being attracted to everyone of the other gender. One of the ways I explain what bisexuality means for me, particularly when kids ask, is that I am capable of falling in love with a very few men in this world, and a very few women.
5. Bisexual doesn’t mean being equally attracted to men and women. I’ve read bizarre reviews of openly bisexual celebrities’ lives where the number of months they’ve been in relationships with men and months with women were compared and used to assess that they were ‘really’ gay or straight unless they exactly matched. Let’s put sexual preferences on a scale for a moment – on one end we have entirely straight, on the other, entirely gay. Many people strongly identify with one or the other end of this spectrum. Some people are right in the middle. Some people are more up side than the other, perhaps they mostly date men but have fallen for one or two women. Because there is a political aspect to how we identify ourselves, some people are attracted to men and women but choose to identify with their strongest, primary focus – women who identify as lesbian but have the occasional fling with a guy for example. If being mostly into one gender means you’re more comfortable identifying yourself as straight or gay instead of bi that’s absolutely your right, and it’s an accurate description of your tastes most of the time, even if occasionally you surprise your friends.
However, you can be anywhere in this spectrum between totally straight and totally gay, and identify as bisexual. It’s not something you have to prove by having sex or lots of relationships. It’s not just a dead-centre third category between straight and gay. It’s all the ground between straight and gay, even if that means ‘mostly into guys and sometimes into girls’ or vice versa. You can live and express that any way that’s right for you.
6. Bisexual doesn’t mean sexual predator, paedophile, or sociopath. Enough said!
7. Bisexual doesn’t mean unfaithful. It doesn’t mean ‘pining’ for the gender your partner isn’t. It doesn’t mean being dissatisfied in any relationship. It doesn’t mean betraying and hurting people. Certainly there are bisexual people who do these things, but that is not a result of their orientation. There’s a deep distrust of bisexual women within the lesbian community where being hurt by partners – especially those who have been left for a male partner, has been ascribed to the orientation and led to a lot of distrust and discrimination.
Bisexuality can be difficult. There are some unique pressures, a lot of misunderstanding and hostility from the straight and gay communities. Social and family pressures can lead to poor decisions and hurtful behaviour where bisexual people walk out of same-sex relationships to find partners who’s gender won’t make them stand out for such strife.
8. Bisexual doesn’t mean binary gender. Gender is different from sexuality. Men can be bi. Women can be bi. Manly men can be bi. Femme men can be bi. Genderfluid people can be bi. Trans women can be bi. Androgynous people can be bi.
Bi people can also be attracted to other people who are non-binary. Non binary simply means anyone who doesn’t identify within the boundaries of ‘manly men’ and ‘femme women’. Some bi people are attracted to androgynous men and butch women, for example, or have a particular passion for high femme trans women as well as shy sweet gay guys.
Personally as a multiple, I find people most sexy when they are comfortable expressing a range of gender identities – and enjoy me doing the same. I vastly prefer people who can be masculine and feminine and androgynous and move between them as they want. People who stay with one gender expression all the time kind of bewilder me.
9. Bisexual doesn’t mean being attracted to “only two” genders. There’s a bit of an argument in the queer community that bisexual people are attracted to only two gender identities and pansexual people are attracted to all of them. I’ve been hanging out in the bi community for a few years now and I’ve learned that very, very few bi people are okay with that definition. Which is a surprise as that’s what I thought it meant too, when I came out!
For a great article about this, check out Bisexual vs Pansexual.
A better way to frame how most people use bi-sexual is being attracted to “more than one” gender. There’s so many gender expressions out there! Some of us are super specific about attraction, we have a really narrow band. Think – slender, white, redhead, femme women and men. Or you probably know someone who’s ex’s all look pretty alike. Others of us are attracted to a wider range of qualities – women, however they present, or all genderqueer people. Some of us find specific groups most attractive – eg. femme bi men, ‘bears‘, butch bi women, and androgynous men. Some people describe themselves as ‘gender-blind’, meaning their attraction isn’t geared around bodies or gender, but other qualities such as personality instead. Gender identity has different levels of importance to people when it comes to sparking attraction.
When you explore a little more in the marginalised communities of intersex people (those who have both male and female characteristics) transsexual people (those who have a gender identity different from their physical sex) and transvestites (people who dress in clothes of the other gender), you start to see gender differently. There’s a term for this – genderqueer. It’s a big umbrella term that basically means – anything outside of the gender binary of men born in male bodies who dress like men and like ‘male’ things and likewise women. A common form of genderqueer you’ve probably come across is people who have an androgynous look.
If you’d like to learn a little more about people who identify as genderqueer, I’d recommend the blog The Felt Fedora. For some more information about the differences between gender identity and gender expression, check out this great infographic, The Gingerbread Person.
I hope that’s been helpful and cleared up a few myths. People who are bisexual can also be many other things obviously, but it’s helpful to pull apart what the word itself means and what it doesn’t.
It’s been a really interesting process for me since coming out and dealing with people’s reactions, and also learning more about the history of the bi movement and the challenges of being a part of a community that is often invisible. As I am with Rose, I am usually mis-identified as lesbian, which sometimes I don’t mind and other days really grates. Mono-sexualities (straight or gay) are more visible and both can demand that people fit in one of their boxes, or treat people as tourists – gay for the duration of this relationship, and now straight for that one. It’s rather bizarre how often the media labels as ‘gay’ people who have outed themselves as bi, and how often coming out stories are told as ‘then they went gay/lesbian’ when the story really is ‘then they realised they were bi’. So I’m finding myself with a sense of sympathy for a people group who are often struggling in both queer and straight communities to be seen as real and legitimate.
Personally I identify as bi/pan, and genderqueer. I care a lot less about how someone fits into boxes than I care about how they connect with the aspects of themselves that don’t fit. As a multiple, our system spans straight, bi, gay, lesbian, and asexual, as well as male, female, non-gendered, and genderqueer. We chose bi and genderqueer as our group identity because they contain the broadest range, but that’s not a perfect fit and sometimes there’s a need to express and be seen as individuals. Sometimes one is out who is a straight woman and doesn’t identify at all under the umbrella of queer. That’s okay, we can navigate that. 🙂
The comments refer to an earlier edition of this post where I mislabelled bi as being attracted to 2 genders.