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.