Way Beyond the Binary
Since the word “bisexuality” has “bi” (literally: two) in it, some claim that using it as one’s label promotes a gender binary, i.e. exclusively male and female. According to this line of thinking, anyone who uses the label “bisexual” not only has no romantic interest in non-binary sexes and genders (including transgender, intersex, and genderqueer), but also is promoting their very erasure.
This couldn't be further from the truth. Sadly, this thinking propagates misunderstandings and even a divided community based on confusion and misinformation about the term "Bisexual." Here's the lowdown:
The Golden Rule
Above all else, a person who prefers to identify as “pansexual,” “flexisexual,” “fluid,” or any number of labels instead of “bisexual” has every right to do so. But, like all good things in life, it goes both ways. No one has the right to define our label, just as we do not have the right to define others’ labels either. To imply that, by definition, a person who labels zirself* “bisexual” does not respect and/or is not sexually/romantically interested in people outside the male/female gender identity is not only untrue, it's actually insulting to that person.
Again, one doesn’t have a right to define the label “bisexuality” for others regardless of your vast knowledge of Latin prefixes.
Five Simple Reasons Why the “Binary” Argument Holds No Water
1.) Historical context is important, so it's critical to note that, similar to “homosexuality” and “lesbianism,” “bisexuality” is a word reclaimed by the bisexual movement from the medical institution (specifically the DSM III which pronounced it a mental disease). The bi community itself had little to no influence over the formation and structure of the word, and simply did what gays and lesbians did: empowered their communities by claiming the word for themselves. Of course, no one would say that miserable people can't be "gay" because they're not happy or upbeat all the time. Nor are lesbians restricted to women who hail from the Greek island of Lesbos.
2.) For many bisexuals, the "bi" in "bisexual" refers not to male plus female, but to attraction to genders like our own, plus attraction to genders different from our own. In other words, it's the ability to move in two directions along a continuum of multiple genders.
3.) The bisexual movement emerged around the same time as the transgender movement. Thus, in its early stages, no language was available for the description of attraction to non-binary sexes and genders.
4.) The bisexual community cannot oppress the trans community (which is part of what these misconceptions claim) because we are not privileged among queers. In other words, we ourselves are being erased, just as is the trans community.
5.) Historically (and very much currently), the bisexual community has been one of the most accepting places toward transgender and genderqueer people. Our communities have always shared a very strong alliance.
Pitting Minorities Against Each Other
The sad fact is these allegations of binarism draw not from actual transphobia within bisexual communities or bi-identified people, but from a long history of biphobia within parts of the gay and lesbian movements.
Claims of bisexuality as an "oppressive identity" are not new. We used to (and still) hear that bisexuals are a "privileged group" perpetuating heteronormativity and oppressing gay and lesbian people. Yet now we hear that bisexuals are a privileged group perpetuating cisgender** normativity and oppressing transgender and genderqueer people. Both are demonstrably incorrect. An oppressing class/system will often point to the groups it seeks to marginalize and demonize and claim that they are in fact the ones who are the force of oppression and evil. It's a classic maneuver, and it couldn't be more false.
Trans people have suffered from very similar allegations from gays and lesbians. Male to female (MTF) trans people have been accused of merely escaping from one stereotype to another rather than advocating true gender freedom. Meanwhile, female to male (FTM) trans people have been accused of being opportunistic seekers of male privilege. Boy, we just can't win, can we?
The “Bisexual = Binary” argument pits these minorities-within-the-minority against the other, compelling us to compete for a place in the gay and lesbian movement. In this way, the movement can stop worrying about how to prevent bi and trans communities from threatening their positions of power. Setting us against one another makes sure that we’ll do that job for them.
Enough Is Enough
The good news is that the tide is turning in some gay and lesbian groups, many of which are beginning to welcome both trans and bi people with open arms (not enough in our opinion, but still we want to give props to our allies). The bad news is that a number of folks who identify under names other than bisexual have bought into the absurd arguments outlined above and are playing right into the hands of those who seek their downfall.
Consider this an alert from the Bisexual Resource Center to the community-at-large that we are not falling for this tactic of divide and conquer. We will continue to work to raise awareness about the rich and diverse continuum of sexuality that goes far beyond the gay/straight binary – the real enemy.
*zirself: third person personal pronoun, gender irrelevant
**cisgender: a person whose gender assignment at birth matches their gender identity
Nearly all of the concepts and some of the actual words in this piece are from Shiri Eisner's blog," Radical Bi": radicalbi.wordpress dot com