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.
2 thoughts on “What bisexuality is, and 9 things it isn’t”
Please read this long but wonderful article by Yoshino (it is a bit dated):
In it, he spells out why it it necessary for monosexuals (gay and straight people) to erase bisexuals. So a couple of generations of monosexual college professors, teaching queer theory, have done just that, by teaching a false definition of bisexuality, which I was very sad to see you promulgate.
I have been a bi activist for quite some time, and, since I am also non-binary, a trans activist as well, I am attracted to many genders, but actually am NOT attracted to manly men or feminine women, but rather more androgynous types. When the college kids started to use the words “pansexual” and “fluid,” we older activists were respectful of their right to label themselves, and started calling everything “bi/pan/fluid. But then I can remember the first time I was watching a YouTube video “What is the difference between bisexual and pansexual?” In it, a college-aged young woman with a shadowy older man in the background was saying that pansexuals were wonderful people while bisexuals were awful people who just liked manly men and feminine women and oppress transexuals. I was so used to fighting biphobia, all the things you describe so beautifully above, from OUTSIDE the community. But here was a horrible biphobic attack coming from WITHIN the community. I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. But when the bi community started to try to explain to the pansexuals that this was simply untrue, they started screaming at us that we were oppressing them.
It has taken a HUGE amount of time and resources, but finally pansexuals are just beginning to acknowlege that the definition of bisexuality is the one the bi community uses (from Robyn Ochs) : “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” Please do not use a definition of bisexuality imposed on us from outside the community that is not true. I will leave you with some final thought on the matter by the wonderful Shiri Eisner:
Hi there, thanks for your comment and links. I’m sorry you found this a frustrating post and not representative of your experience or the way you’re using those words. It’s certainly not my intention to be part of making bi-sexuality out to be something awful! 🙂 The gender binary/monosexuality issue is a tricky one, not least because the language is complex, new, and evolving all the time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with personally orienting yourself, either as a transperson or in the respect of sexual orientation, within a gender binary (or a far more specific and narrow framework – loving butch lesbian redheads). I know a lot of people do and they are somewhat finding themselves looked down on in the new world of non-binary-queerdom (where I most feel at home)… Where I get upset is when this is forced onto other people, or treated as the ONLY way to experience love/attraction/personal identity. It sounds to me like the term bisexual might once have been an umbrella term for anything not straight/gay exclusive, whereas the use the term pansexual has shifted the way it’s perceived outside the community. My use of the term bi in this way was informed by my bi friends (who are young-ish, I admit) and my reading on the topic, none of which referenced this history of a split between bi and pan in a way that people who had historically identified as bi were experiencing as phobic and hostile. So, I’m sorry for contributing to that – I’ve encountered so much bi-phobia and spent so much time having to out myself as bi when it’s assumed I’m a lesbian as I currently have a female partner that I hadn’t considered the different ways people were self identifying as bi and feeling misunderstood and misrepresented within their own communities. I’ve also been a bit startled by some pretty offensive attitudes towards straight people within some of the queer community, it can be a huge challenge to stop any particular group bullying another one! And the attitudes of the straight community towards bi has been… startling to say the least. The challenges around the use of language reminds me of a parallel in the mental health scene – for years, a whole lot of people with mental health problems fought against the term ‘patient’ and put forward the word ‘consumer’ as an alternative. I come along a generation later when the word is in wide use, and I hate it. I always feel like I’m expected to start gnawing on the furniture and eating the paperwork. So I argued against it, without any understanding of this history. Now that I do understand this history I still don’t like it. It’s not ‘my word’ and I’m not comfortable with it. The same is happening with the word ‘recovery’ aka The Recovery Movement – more and more often I encounter people who hate the word and don’t necessarily know anything about the history of the movement and the change in power it was supposed to represent. The term has become ‘colonised’ and changed. I feel SO SAD about this but other people are counselling me to fall back instead of fight for it, to accept that words change and find new ones that inspire the current generation of people struggling for recognition and respect. I’m not suggesting that should be the way you handle the bi/pan situation! Language being mobile is frankly a pain in the neck at times… at other times I like it, particularly reclaiming words like ‘mad’, ‘queer’, or ‘freak’. So, I think my post here is how ‘bi’ is being used by a lot of people, and I can appreciate this is very frustrating when this is ‘your word’, something you identify strongly with and care deeply about, and the meaning is being shifted to something that does not fit or represent you. Personally I’m moving more towards pan rather than binary in my own identity – which you would classify as being bi anyway. I have never bothered to self identify as pan because explaining non binary gender to people who haven’t even wrapped their brains around bi is just more effort than I can deal with. So in that sense, I’m probably closer to the way you’re using the word ‘bi’ anyway, except perhaps that I don’t see desire being bound up in a binary gender framework to be lesser than other forms of desire – and certainly not to be phobic or otherwise horrible to people who experience desire differently. It’s a misunderstanding I can live with while I’m still explaining about paedophilia and having integrity in my relationships… Thanks for your input, thought provoking. Always good to have another perspective.