The bisexuality spectrum

Sex on Tuesday

My first impression of bisexuality as a kid was my older cousin vehemently expressing her irritability regarding this group: “They should just make up their minds,” she said in that authoritative way slightly older kids use with slightly younger kids.

We were runts, then, but implicit in her statement was a sentiment not uncommonly held by society at large, beyond preteens: the sense that bisexuals are such by choice, that they are somehow overly voracious or greedy in their sexuality, that this is just a temporal phase.

And there’s some difficulty fighting those preconceptions. For starters, bisexuality can be a transition period for some people. Some find it helpful to identify as bisexual for a while as they try to work out what works for them and what doesn’t. But that isn’t to say there aren’t many, many others who identify as bisexual their entire lives.

On the flip side, more liberal supporters of the sexuality spectrum sometimes claim, “Oh, but we’re all a little bisexual!” But that too is misleading. To casualize or trivialize bisexuality is to erase the experiences of those who truly consider themselves bisexual and have had the struggle of learning to accept and live their non-monosexual lives; or maybe they have never come out and still struggle with internalized biphobia.

A 2013 Pew Research Center report on a nationally representative sample of self-identified LGBT Americans found that while bisexuals comprise a very large chunk of the LGBT community, they are far less likely to be open about their sexual orientation: 77 percent of gay men and 71 percent of lesbians in the study had informed the most important people in their lives, whereas only 28 percent of bisexuals reported the same.

This is problematic because coming out is extremely important for personal well-being (studies show that coming out of the closet lowers rates of depression) as well as for societal politics. People who know gay/lesbian/transgender folk are more likely to be accepting of gay/lesbian/transgender folk. The same applies with bisexuals. And though some of the lesbian/gay community may scoff at bisexuals — “You’re actually just gay but sitting on the fence,” or, “You’re just looking for attention” — bisexuals coming out as a distinct group would actually do the gay/lesbian community good. By giving bisexuals as much public acceptance as gay men and lesbians, larger society will no longer conflate the groups; they won’t bring forth that one bisexual guy who used to date a guy but now dates a girl as evidence that homosexuality can be “fixed.”

But coming out as bi is sometimes hard to come to terms with because people experience their bisexuality in many different ways. As Anna Pulley on Salon wonders, “What if you’ve slept with a number of women, but only see yourself ending up with a man? What if you’ve never had a same-sex experience, but exclusively fantasize about it? What if you’re 99 percent gay, but would go straight for Beyonce in a heartbeat?”

And then there are issues with terminology. Many people simply don’t like the word “bisexual,” viewing it as too entrenched in the gender binary. Even if someone is explicitly only attracted to men and women, the term “bisexual” feels polarizing to me, as if I were torn between the extremes of man and woman. It implies an equal attraction for men and women, when really a bisexual simply has the ability to be attracted to both men and women. Many are attracted to one sex more than the other; it just depends on the individual. In my case, if I were asked to compare apples and oranges to quantify my bisexuality, as imperfect as such a comparison might be, I’d say I tend to enjoy my sexual experiences with female-bodied folk better and like to romance men better.

And if we’re looking to escape the binary, there are pansexuality, polysexuality, omnisexuality, sexual fluidity … all distinct from bisexuality by definition, though they’re often reduced to the term. At this juncture, many get frustrated and question the need for all the labels. Why bother putting a single word onto something as nebulous and intrinsic as sexuality and bisexuality, anyway?

Though I agree to some extent, I also think it’s important to mobilize even if it is under a word as potentially problematic as “bisexual.” As much as I like the umbrella term “queer” as a unifying agent for nondominant gender and sexual identities, there is something to be said for standing up as bi/pan/omni/whatever identity it is that you feel fits you best. There is a reason newscasters often still say “gay and lesbian communities.” The fluid folk and the rest of the queer community are still often marginalized in the discourse. And like it or not, labels help broadcast what you’re looking for if you’re queer.

As times and mindsets change, new terms will surely emerge — the word “homosexual” didn’t even exist until the late 19th century and wasn’t in a dictionary until the mid-20th century. There are a lot of ways to experience your sexuality. Name it whatever makes you happy. As for me? I’ll stick to “fluid.”

Vi Nguyen writes the weekly Sex on Tuesday column. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @yonictonic.