Friday, February 13, 2009

More on "bisexual" versus "queer"

I've been very pleased to find a few other bi-identified bloggers through other folks' blogrolls and have been doing a lot of reading today. Some of my reading led to further thoughts on definitions and labels.

Aviva at Bi-Furious! writes that for her, "queer" is an oppositional identity:

Broad and welcoming as it is, it means some very specific things to me. It means setting myself against what society expects of me as a soft-spoken white girl on her way from and most likely to the middle class. It means radical lefty politics, and standing against racism, sexism, class-based oppression, ableism, fatphobia, etc. as much as I can and ideally as much as I do against heterosexism, biphobia, etc. It means being drawn to queerness in others, and building a community of people who share those values and convictions with me. Placing myself in a history that has involved riots and marches and protests and angry people of all colors and genders who’ve had enough, not corporate-sponsored parades attended mostly by white people claiming to be inclusive. Fighting for immigration righs and universal health care and the right to decide who makes one’s medical decisions and inherits one’s property regardless of whether one is coupled, rather than a few more coupled people’s right to access those things through marriage. And it means all of that much more than it means being attracted to other girl-creatures, though that’s a part of it and part of how I got here.
I feel similarly about the word "queer"--that it means much more than attraction unbounded by gender, but also an unconventionality of identity as regards gender and sexuality, and an identification and solidarity with other queer folks of all stripes.

As a ciswoman, I have never doubted my femaleness but have never felt particularly feminine in the traditional sense. I am attracted to androgyny as much as maleness or femaleness. I am kinky and perverted and poly-open. As I become more and more "out" in the world, I experience my queerness more and more--sometimes as alienation, sometimes as pride, sometimes just as difference: being outside the norm. Queer, strange, bent. I've realized that I have always unconsciously recognized and been drawn to other queer people, to my people.

In comments to her post, Aviva goes on to talk about the word "bi":

I’m deliberately queering the word bi by using it to describe my orientation, which goes far beyond liking “both” genders. I use it to fight the stereotypes that have grown up about bisexuals, things like us being confused, young and undecided, fickle, untrustworthy, etc.
Challenging the stereotypes of bisexuality is definitely one of my reasons for claiming bi identity. My main problem with the word is, as discussed in my last post, that it invokes a binary paradigm of gender and sexuality that is potentially offensive/oppressive to trans and genderqueer people. Is it possible to queer the word, as Aviva puts it? I'm not sure, but at the moment I do feel like it's as important to use the word as it is to challenge the assumptions on which it is based.

Bliss Warrior brings up another important aspect:

By creating a bisexual community that is strong and vibrant, we can show our diversity. Bisexuals can and do have successful monogamous relationships. Bisexuals are not liars, or confused, or discontent in their relationships. They are not trashy girls who will jump into bed with just anybody. The problem is, if we all go around saying we are ‘beyond labels’, how do we create community and fight the negative stereotypes?...

When we have no visibility or power, it’s easy for pornographers to define our culture.
Community and visibility are both sorely needed among those of us who exist between the lines of gay/lesbian and straight. Bliss Warrior also mentions a friend "who is ’straight’ when she’s with her heterosexual friends and ‘lesbian’ when she is out with her dyke friends. But she has no space to be her real self and few friends who understand who she really is." This really resonated with me personally. I am extremely lucky to have a small community of close friends who are queer/bi (or genuine allies) to whom my bi-ness is visible. But I also still have heterosexual friends who I'm not yet out to, and belong to an LGBT student group to whom I've never outright declared myself. In contrast, the relief of being among people who really know who I am is palpable, liberating, and it binds me very tightly to those friends.

I've seen a couple of queer-identified people who have rejected the word "bisexual" discuss how they enjoy throwing people for a loop by refusing to identify as straight, gay or bi. I feel the opposite: I want people to be as little confused as possible. I want to be very clear about who I am in this regard. And so I very much agree with Bliss Warrior that "floating under a non-labeled identity" makes us invisible.

Let me be clear here as well: I would never tell anyone how to identify. But I myself am driven by a personal and political desire (need?) to NOT be invisible, a need that emerges as much from my (admittedly spotty) knowledge of the history of the LGBTQ movement as from my emotional experience of being closeted--both voluntarily and involuntarily, as by other's assumptions--versus being out. Identifying as simply "queer" allows too many assumptions to stand for my comfort--by not defining myself, I feel like it gives others too much room to define me.

I guess, in considering all this, I am best identified as a queer bisexual/bisexual queer. All hail the both/and!


  1. Yay! I also identify as bisexual and queer.

    I've meant to write about how I feel about using the term bisexual and will probably do so in the near future. I see the debate over the word "bisexual" in the same sort of way that I see the debate about the word "feminist." I've had a lot of friends who support the idea of/goals of feminism tell me that they feel uncomfortable calling themselves feminists because they feel that it implies they somehow favor women over men, which is not the case. "Bisexual," to me and almost every other bisexual I've met, means that one is attracted to more than one gender. Like you, I would never tell anyone how they should identify themselves. If someone feels uncomfortable with "bisexual," I'm not saying they should call themselves that. But I get frustrated when people tell me that I shouldn't use bisexual to describe myself. It's definitely happened more than once. :/

  2. Bi Avenger: it is a bit like "feminist," isn't it? I haven't had someone directly tell me not to use "bisexual" but I've gotten a lot of "Why are you so preoccupied with labels? You shouldn't let them define you." But for me it's about effective communication, about expression, as much as it is about my internal identity. I know who I am, and the word I use doesn't change that.

    On the other hand, words are powerful, and I wish there was a better one that acknowledged the non-binary nature of gender.

    Looking forward to reading your post on the topic!

  3. you are so on point!
    i've always had an issue with claiming "bisexual" as my orientation, just because i don't believe in binaries, in "either/or" but really in "and".
    i claimed "queer" as my identity, sexual and otherwise, 2 years ago, and embrace the word/label as my own definition of what i love/am attracted to : trans/bio women, men, and the lovely lovely others.
    all hail Queer, all hail you Rien! u are the truth my friend!