On the Gender Binary and the Word Bisexual

Greta Christina has just made a post talking about her thoughts on whether to identify as bisexual or pansexual or something else, and one commenter linked to a post by Julia Serano that defends the word bisexual as not reinforcing the gender binary. I ended up writing a pretty long response, and thought I would repost it here in case other people were curious or wanted to share thoughts on the issue:


That post is an interesting read, and a lot of the history and it is stuff I didn’t know, but I think her defense of the term bisexual as not reinforcing a binary is incredibly weak. In terms of a discussion of different possible interpretations of the language itself, this seems to be her key point:

“Here is another potential interpretation of the word bisexual: The prefix “bi” can mean “two,” but it can also mean “twice” (e.g., as in bimonthly). So while monosexual people limit their potential partners to members of only one sex, bisexual/BMNOPPQ folks challenge the hetero/homo binary by not limiting our attraction in this way, and are thereby open to roughly twice as many potential partners. My main point here is that the prefix “bi” has more than one meaning, and can have more than one referent. So claiming that people who use the term bisexual must be touting a rigid binary view of gender, or denying the existence of gender variant people, is as presumptuous as assuming that people who use the term “bicoastal” must be claiming that a continent can only ever have two coasts, or that they are somehow denying the existence of all interior, landlocked regions of that continent.”

And okay, fair enough, it is entirely possible to interpret the prefix as meaning “two” and not “both”, but if that’s the interpretation, then, first, it should make just as much sense for someone to identify as bisexual because they are attracted to both male and neutrois individuals, for example, and I have never in my entire life seen anyone of any identification use it for that. She, herself, in the very beginning of the essay describes her own sexuality in terms that make it clear that interpretation would be just as apparently inaccurate interpreted to mean “two” as interpreted to mean “both”.

“Since some people paint bisexual-identified folks out to be “binarist” in our partner preferences, I will mention for the record that I date and am sexual with folks who are female and male, trans and cis, and non-binary- and binary-identified.”

I do agree with her that bisexual isn’t the only term that reinforces the gender binary, and that we ought to pay attention to the others as well, but I don’t think that means that it’s reasonable to ignore the implications of the word bisexual until we’ve dealt with the others. The word bisexual is a perfectly reasonable word for people to use if they are actually attracted to two different genders, but the problem is that that isn’t what anyone, including the author, uses it to mean. Bisexual is never used to describe someone who is attracted to two and only two genders unless those two genders are female and male. There are other “discrete” gender categories (to the extent that any gender category is actually discrete, anyway) that are taken to never apply under the bracket of genders that the word bisexual could imply attraction to, so either it is a word that implies attraction to two genders and oh by the way we all know that those two genders are THE two genders of male and female because we never use it to imply attraction to any other pair of genders, or it is used, as it is being used in the author’s case, to identify as attracted to male, female, and other genders as well, but with a word that implies attraction to only two genders, and since we all know which two genders are implied by that, because we are all comfortable automatically assuming that bisexual means AT LEAST attracted to men and to women, I don’t think there’s anyway to read it as not erasing the other genders that enter the equation.

She does list some other possible interpretations of the word as well, but the problem is that while those other interpretations are hypothetically reasonable, the fact is that that’s not what she means by them, and as far as I know that’s not what anyone who has ever identified as bisexual means by them. As long as it is a completely safe to assume that anyone who identifies as bisexual is definitely attracted to men and definitely attracted to women, we all know what is referred to by the “bi” prefix, and we all know that it is going to be used frequently to describe people who are attracted to men and women and no other genders and to people who are attracted to men and women and also other genders. As long as that is the case, I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that using the word bisexual as an identifier that specifies attraction to both men and women, and does not differentiate between whether someone is attracted to other genders or not implies that the only attractions that are important to specify are those to men or women.


Meanwhile on Tumblr

3 comments on “On the Gender Binary and the Word Bisexual

  1. As an FYI, this issue is easily resolved and the response from the bisexual community is not new. The “bi” in “bisexual” refers to both “hetero” and “homo”- that is, attracted to people with both the same and different gender presentations as the referent. “Bisexual” doesn’t reinforce gender binary any more than “heterosexual” or “homosexual” does. (One could argue that it excludes people with no gender presentation whatsoever, and that would be valid.) This reading of the word is both sensible (it’s very reasonable that it’d be analogous to the two most common descriptors of sexuality in mainstream culture) and widely-used by the members of the bisexual community to self-identify. See http://bisexual.org/qna/doesnt-identifying-as-bisexual-reinforce-a-false-gender-binary/

    resumes quiet lurking

    • I have seen people say that and I have very complicated feelings about it.

      For starters, I do think that heterosexual and homosexual reinforce the gender binary. I don’t think that, linguistically, they have to. I think it’s possible to come up with modern definitions of them, but I don’t think coming up with modern definitions erases the weight of the history and common practice in which they are and have been used.

      I also tend to be somewhat skeptical of “here is a new definition” arguments, because having new definitions does not necessarily mean that people’s practice of using a word reflects that definition. If someone genuinely uses heterosexual in the sense of “attracted to gender differences” and not “attracted to the opposite side of a binary”, then their identification as heterosexual in practice needs to reflect that.

      This is just my own experience, and it’s possible that I just haven’t spent time around crowds where the common experience is different, but I have never in my entire life encountered anyone who in practice identified as heterosexual as a way of explaining that non-binary genders were among the genders they were attracted to, or who in practice identified as bisexual as a way of explaining that non-binary genders were among the genders they were attracted to. In my experience, the only safe assumption to make when someone identifies as heterosexual is that they are attracted to people on the opposite side of a perceived gender binary, and the only safe assumption to make one someone identifies as bisexual is that they are attracted to both sides of a perceived gender binary, and the ways in which people use the terms heterosexual and bisexual reflect that in that they are used as a way to specify attraction to binary genders but are not used (or at least not used without significant additional clarification that suggests they are not sufficient) to specify attraction to non-binary genders.

      For someone to say that these identifications encompass non-binary genders but then use them in practice to refer both to people who are attracted to non-binary genders and to people who are not, or to use them regularly to imply attraction to a particular binary gender but then not use them to imply attraction to non-binary genders — a theoretical progressive definition does not necessarily translate to a progressive use in practice.

      I am very sympathetic to the argument that bisexual is a term people have had to fight for over the years, because monosexism is a real thing, and now it feels like the bisexual identification is being attacked in more in different ways than it used to be – I get that. I get it and I respect it and I find it, personally, a much more powerful argument than progressive definitions that don’t, in my experience, accurately represent the practice of using the term. If a person genuinely does use and interpret the word bisexuality, both in theory and in practice, to refer to both binary and non-binary genders, and has spent time fighting for a recognition of their bisexual identity, I find it difficult to argue that they should have to stop using it — that their uncomfortable feelings with respect to not being allowed to self identify that way are trumped by my uncomfortable feelings about the history and my perceived implications of the use of the word.

      I have also found in watching this discussion that there are non-binary people like myself who actually prefer others to use the term bisexual, because they feel that the word pansexual is often used in a disrespectful way by people who say things like “gender doesn’t matter”, when, of course, it matters incredibly powerfully to lots of both binary and non-binary people; otherwise what would be the point in going through all of these difficult, painful transitions just to identify as different genders?

      Anyway, here is a comment-book for you :-)

    • I feel like I should also specify that when I say bisexuality is not used as a way of specifying attraction to non-binary genders without additional clarification, I mean something fairly specific. There is a big difference to me between the two following sentences:

      I am bisexual, which means I am attracted to genders, binary or otherwise, that are different from my own.

      I am bisexual, and yes, I am attracted to binary and non-binary genders.

      The former reflects well on the use of the term, because it implies that it necessarily means attraction to non-binary genders as well. The latter is more what I was referring to when I said “without significant additional clarification”, because it implies that bisexual is not sufficient to specify an attraction to non-binary genders.

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