Bi+ Identities: Past, Present, and Future
Once a month, Pandemonium meets for “Bi with Pie.” “Bi with Pie” is a discussion group wherein members discuss issues related to bisexuality and bi+ identities. In the past, we have discussed our experiences as well as topics such as bisexuality and domestic violence, bi phobia, and the importance of bisexual organizing. Usually, I try to facilitate the discussion by bringing an essay or article to share. This month, I wanted to explore various bi+ identities. Originally, I wanted to compare bisexuality and pan-sexuality, but this expanded to include other bi+ identities. I am not an expert on sexuality, but it is an area of interest. Certainly, there may be some errors in my definitions and analysis. But, the point of our group is to grow and connect as a community. Part of my own growth as an activist is my own growth through learning and sharing information. With that said, hopefully this essay provides an overview of some of the identities within the Bi+ community. It is far from comprehensive, but I think it helps to clarify some differences between identities while revealing a trend in LGBTQ identities.
Bisexuality was first coined in 1892 by Charles Gilbert Chaddock in his translation of Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. It is in the late 1800s and early 1900s that psychologists sought to classify sexuality. As such, our modern sexual concepts emerge during this time period. However, these understandings were medical understandings meant to delineate health from deviance. For instance, Freud believed that humans were innately bisexual, but that normal individuals would become heterosexual unless exposed to trauma. Unfortunately, many people still seem to believe that being gay, lesbian, bi, or anything but a cisgender heterosexuality stems from poor parenting or some kind of trauma. Despite the relative newness of labels such as homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual, there has certainly been a wide array of sexual behavior across cultures and time periods. Men in Ancient Greece entered relationships with older men as youth, but also married women. In Ancient Japan, young men formed sexual relationships with older men in the context of Buddhist temples and among samurai warrior culture. While these cultures aren’t precisely bisexual in the modern sense, and even then, this sexual expression was limited to men, it should at least demonstrate that attraction to more than one gender has deep historical roots.
Although the word has been around since the late 1800s, there are many misconceptions of what it means to be bisexual. For instance, the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines bisexuality as a sexual or romantic attraction to both sexes. It also defines it as something which possesses male and female reproductive structures. This definition is confusing, since it implies that there are only two sexes and does not mention gender at all. It is also confusing, since it defines bisexual as synonymous with hermaphrodite. This use of the word might be appropriate in strictly scientific contexts, but it is potentially confusing and offensive in other contexts. Finally, the definition implies that bisexuals are not attracted to trans or non-binary individuals.
Because of these limitations and misunderstandings in mainstream definitions of bisexuality, bisexual organizations have sought to create their own definitions. For instance, BiNet defines bisexual as, “A person whose enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction is to other people of various sexes and/or gender identities. Individuals may experience this attraction in differing ways and degrees over their lifetime.” This definition is notably inclusive of various sexes and gender identities. Likewise, the American Institute of Bisexuality defines bisexual as, “A bi person has the capacity for romantic and/or sexual attraction to more than one gender.” Once again, bisexuality is not limited to attraction to both men or women, but more than one gender, which could include many gender identities. The Human Rights Campaign defines bisexuality as, “A person emotionally, romantically, sexually and relationally attracted to more than one sex and/or gender, though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree.” This definition acknowledges that bisexuality does not mean an even proportion of attraction to various gender. It is clear by these definitions that bisexuals do not define themselves as simply being attracted to men or women, but simply more than one gender. In fact, there have even been petitions to define bisexuality more accurately on online dictionaries.
While many people believe that the bi in bisexual means attraction to “two” and the two being male and female, according to the American Institute of Bisexuality, it is a scientific word that describes someone who is both heterosexual and homosexual. Despite the efforts of bisexual activists to define themselves in a way that does not reinforce binary gender identities, the misconception persists that bisexuals are attracted to men and women. Many bisexual individuals choose to identify as bisexual because it is the most commonly used word for someone who is attracted to more than one gender. Some use bisexual in combination with other sexual identities. Some use it because they are indeed only attracted to men or women or their sexuality is not inclusive of all gender identities. Bisexuality is also used as a generic umbrella term for a variety of sexualities that involve attraction to more than one gender. Personally, I choose to identify myself as bisexual since it is the most commonly understood word for attraction to more than one gender, it is a word that is associated with social movement organizations and history, and because I believe it is a word that should be reclaimed to be inclusive of all genders.
Although bisexuals have been part of the modern LGBT movement since the 1960s, it is still in many ways very new as a movement. The bisexual pride flag was not invented until 1998. BiNET USA, the first nationwide organization for bisexuals, was not founded until 1990. The first Celebrate Bisexuality Day was on September, 23 1999. The first books that specifically focused on bisexuality were written in the 1990s. Thus, bisexuality as a distinct movement and community is only a few decades old. Although it is new, there are many identities which have arisen since the 1990s. This can make some bisexuals feel threatened or may raise the question of if bisexuality has become obsolete. Hopefully, bisexuality is not obsolete as this would cut short its development as an identity and community and undermine its potential in the struggle against heterosexism. It is my hope that bisexuality will remain relevant by collaborating with and making space for emergent identities.
The 1990s saw a flourishing of bisexual identity with the emergence of national organizations, books, a flag, etc. It was during this time period that Queer Theory emerged. In a larger social and historical context, this period also marked the end of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. The apparent victory of capitalism, complete with its insidious institutions of globalization and finance, led to a crisis of faith in Marxist or even modernist understandings of society. This has played a large role in sexuality is presently understood and the emphasis on identities. Of course, identity politics is important to building movements as it helps individuals develop a sense of self, a sense of unity, and an understanding of their own oppression. Yet, I think that this also explains the plethora of new sexual identities that have emerged since the 1990s. We live in a society where politics are very identity driven and individualized. This is not to discredit anyone’s identity. It is simply to put these identities into a material and social context.
With that said, while pansexuality may seem like the new kid on the bi+ block, the term has been around since the early 1900s and was coined by Sigmund Freud. At the time, it was a term that described how sexuality was the basis of all human interactions. According to an analysis of google data, pansexual began to appear online in about 2007. The concept arose or at least became more popular with the emergence of genderqueer and non-binary activism. The word pansexual was invented to specifically include non-binary individuals. The word pan means “all,” so someone who is pan-sexual could potentially be attracted to all genders or sexes. There is a slight difference between bisexuality and pansexuality, as bisexuality is often defined as “more than one” and pansexuality as “all.” Thus, pansexuality does come across as more broad and potentially gender blind. Adopting this label is an attempt to make clear that an individual is attracted to all genders. Some bisexuals may feel upset with this term, since pansexuality may seem like it is trying to correct a failure of bisexuality to include trans and non-binary genders. Some bisexuals may feel that this term is not necessary since bisexuality is inclusive or that the label may somehow shame, denigrate, or marginalize bisexuality. I would hope that pansexuals are not seeking to differentiate themselves in such a manner. At the same time, everyone should have the autonomy to define themselves how they like. Pansexuality should be viewed as legitimate and important.
Since bisexuality is misunderstood and pansexuality is not a well-known sexual identity, one benefit of adopting this identity is that it may require an explanation and definition. This is a way to specifically spotlight the gender component of bisexuality/pansexuality. Unfortunately, it has added to the misconception that bisexuality is about binary gender and sexes. Both bisexuals and pansexuals can be attracted to a variety of genders and sexes and both can be allies to these groups. And, while bisexuals struggle with the rootword “bi” which by default sounds like binary, pansexuals must wrestle with the rootword “all” which to some people implies animals, inanimate objects, children, etc. Thus, both identities struggle with defining themselves on their own terms. At the same time, bisexuals have various organizations to advocate for their interests and development as a community. Pansexuals do not have independent social movement organizations (or at least national or well-known organizations). As such, they may be dismissed as an internet identity with no presence in the real world. Pansexuals are lumped together with bisexual organizations. Because the identity is fairly new, perhaps with time it will grow and separate from the bisexual movement. For now, both are conjoined.
I am not certain what percentage of the Bi+ community identities as pansexual. However, in a 2014 Needs Assessment Survey of the Bisexual, Fluid, and Pansexual Community of L.A., 26% of the respondents identified as pansexual. 61.8% identified as bisexual and 36% identified as queer. Thus, pansexual was the third most prominent identity in the survey, consisting of over a quarter of respondents. Despite the lack of pansexual specific publications and institutions, some celebrities have come out as pansexual such as the feminist sex educator, Laci Green, rapper Angel Haze, and Miley Cyrus. The pansexual flag was invented in 2010. The pink represents women, the blue stripe represents men, and the yellow stripe represents non-binary gender. In conclusion, pansexuality as a distinct identity is much younger than bisexuality, but is quickly becoming a popular segment of the Bi+ community. While pansexuality is similar to bisexuality, it emphasizes gender over sexuality. It remains to be seen if pansexuality will separate from bisexuality and form an autonomous movement with its own organizations. I suppose this depends upon how well both groups collaborate and identify common needs and demands. Interestingly, the Bi+ group that I am a part of is called Pandemonium, which puts more emphasis on “pan” than “bi” identity. An effective Bi+ organization should ensure that pansexuals feel like an equal partner in the struggle against heterosexism.
Another identity that may fit in the Bi+ umbrella is fluid. Of course, since fluid is fluid, it may not fit from time to time. I suppose how it fits in would be up to the individual and how that person wants to relate to the Bi+ umbrella. A fluid individual is someone who may be attracted to multiple genders or may be attracted to one gender. Someone who is fluid may reject labels. Their sexuality may involve attraction to multiple genders at once, or a single gender at one time. 24% of the respondents to the 2014 Needs Assessment Survey of the Bisexual, Fluid, and Pansexual Community of L.A. identified as fluid, which made it the fourth most common response. To those who identify as fluid, they may feel as though bisexuality or other labels do not adequately describe the variability in their sexuality. Another word for fluid sexuality is abrosexuality. Though, abrosexuality may mean rapidly changing, so I am not certain that it is perfectly synonymous with simply being fluid. Most bisexuals and pansexuals likely recognize that sexuality is to some degree fluid. It would be rare to find a bisexual person who is always exactly 33.3% attracted to men, 33.3% attracted to women, and 33.3% attracted to non-binary individuals without change or deviation. However, identifying as fluid makes it very clear that sexuality is always changing and evolving.
Queer is often used as catchall term for anyone who is not cisgender or heterosexual, so it is a term that is applied both to sexuality and gender. Thus, it is commonly used to describe any sexual and gender minority or denotes any identity that is not heterosexual. Importantly, it should not be applied to people who don’t self-identity as queer, as the word has historically been used negatively against sexual or gender minorities. The word is multifaceted, so some individuals adopt the word to express their identity as someone who is attracted to men, women, trans, or non-binary individuals. The word is also employed to express that an individual is against the status quo or is a radical or revolutionary sexual or gender minority who is looking to challenge oppressive social norms and systems.
Although queer was once a derogatory word used against sexual or gender minorities, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, activists sought to reclaim the word queer. An early example of the popularization of the word queer is Queer Nation, an organization that was founded in 1990, which used direct action, marches, education campaigns, and protest to challenge homophobia, violence, and promote LGBTQ visibility. Queer Nation came out of ACT-UP, an group which used similar tactics to draw attention to the AIDS crisis during the 1980s. The militancy of ACT-UP was in response to government inaction in response to AIDS and the deaths of thousands of people from the disease. By 2000, almost 450,000 people in the United States had died of AIDS, though the rates of infection and death had decreased since the mid-1990s. Because of this history, the word queer has been associated with LGBTQ militancy, though today, many mainstream organizations have adopted this word.
There are many other sexuality within the bi+ umbrella. Another identity is polysexual. Poly means many. Thus, a person who identifies as polysexual may be attracted to many genders but not all genders. This definition implies that there are some genders which a polysexual is not attracted to or potentially attracted to. A challenge that polysexuals might face is that “poly” may sound like polyamorous. Thus, they might be mistaken for polyamorous, or non-monogamous. As you can see, each identity has some challenges on account of the root word. Finally, polysexual is much more obscure than pansexual and bisexual, so it may require more explanation or confusion. I am uncertain of the history of exact history of polysexuality, but judging by the historical trend of other identities, I imagine it was first articulated in the late 2000s. There are few online resources related to this identity, but it seemed worth mentioning as it relates closely to pansexuality.
In a similar vein to polysexual, there are some people who are only attracted to non-binary identified individuals. These are skoliosexuals. Skoliosexuality is not very well known. I wasn’t even 100% sure which flag represented this sexual identity or if this identity had its own flag. The prefix “skolio” may refer to the Greek word for bent, such as scoliosis, a curve of the spine. The challenge of this sexuality is that it is not well known, it sounds like a spinal deformity, and individuals may be accused of fetishizing gender non-conforming people. The history of this sexuality is unknown, though it may have appeared on the internet after 2010.
Omnisexual, Ambisexual, and Trisexual are other varieties of bi+ identities which I found online. Of these, omnisexual is the most commonly referenced online. Omnisexual seems to be used as a synonym for pansexual. Ambisexual and Trisexual appear to be rather obscure labels at this moment of time. While there may be individuals who identify as these labels, there are few resources regarding what the identity entails. There are more common labels such as heteroflexible, homoflexible, and bi-curious, but it is beyond the scope of this particular essay to explore all of these labels. As such, this essay provides an overview of some but not all Bi+ identities. The big idea is that there are many ways to describe and experience attraction to more than one or multiple genders.
Why So Many Labels?
A big question that a person may have after reading this essay is why are there so many labels? This essay doesn’t even offer a comprehensive list of possible identities within the bi+ community! I think that there are several reasons why there are so many labels. First of all, there are some “old school” labels. These came about in the late 1800s by scientists and medical professionals. Labels like homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual were coined in the late 1800s. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the mid 1800s saw the emergence of powerful medical institutions which replaced folk understandings of human bodies and health. This time period also saw the emergence of new disciplines of understanding and organizing knowledge, such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The esteemed position of scientific knowledge over religious or folk knowledge was not new, but it was accelerated by the industrial revolution, the subsequent growth of urban centers, and the global expansion of capitalism. This trifecta of conditions called for new ways of studying human beings and articulating deviance/difference for better control of colonies and workers. For instance, scientific racism emerged in this time period as a way to classify some humans as lesser. This justified colonization projects and the exploitation of these people. The veneer of science was used to define deviant from “normal” sexuality for the purpose of controlling the reproduction of workers, pitting some workers against others, and controlling workers themselves by ensuring the unequal position of some groups within the labor force and household. Therefore, these original labels for sexuality were meant to control and divide people. I don’t think it is a coincidence that scientific racism and sexual labels emerged during the same time time period. There was a fear of demographic crisis. Population is a resource within capitalism. Anything that potentially threatens reproduction is automatically suspect.
While different words and labels were adopted and rejected over history, there seems to be a real flourishing of identities since the 1990s. These labels are not coming from scientific institutions, but individuals and activists who want to define themselves. The biggest boon in this process seems to have been reclaiming the word queer in the early 1990s. This came out of militant LGBTQ organizing during the 1980s, which itself stood on the shoulders of the LGBT movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Queer was adopted by activists themselves, but entered academia through queer theory. Of course, the academia of the 1990s was somewhat demoralized by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the perceived failure Marxism. Thus, it seems to me that LGBT theory and analysis has been very centered upon the use of language and the development of identity, as academia has been influenced by post-modernism and post-structuralism. I find nothing wrong with exploring language, identity, or thought. I also find nothing wrong with deconstructing gender and sexuality. These things should be deconstructed. The status quo should be challenged and social movements must promote new understandings. But, I also think that larger economic forces should ground this analysis.
With that said, new identities have developed because identity is a focal point of understanding LGBTQ issues. Identity is important to organizing, but it is a double edged sword because it can be atomizing, dividing, and self-focused. The emergence of so many new identities since the mid to late 2000s can be attributed to social media and the increased ability of individuals to develop a sense of self through the internet. It can also be attributed to American hyper individualism. This is not to say that the emergence of new identities is wrong or bad. It is simply to argue that we live in a society which values individuality (inasmuch as it can be subverted for consumer interests or as a distraction from class consciousness). At the same time, these identities are subversive, since they do challenge heterosexism. This may sound contradictory, but I am simply arguing that a society that allows us to define ourselves through thousands of styles of shoes, clothes, music, and food choices also creates the space for us to define ourselves through thousands of labels for sexuality. And, to add to this, there truly ARE thousands of ways to express sexuality and gender. Finally, there are more labels because there is increased social space to explore gender and sexuality. Victories in the realm of marriage equality and trans bathroom access and trans acceptance (despite recent setbacks) create more space for individuals to think about and express gender and sexual identity. It is my prediction that many more sexual identities will emerge. That there will be many more new flags. I think that this is because people are seeking to define themselves and social media provides a platform for connection and identity creation. There is nothing wrong with this. The question isn’t a matter of right or wrong or what identities should exist or should not exist. It is a matter of organizing to fight heterosexism. To that end, I believe that uniting towards common goals, articulating common interests, identifying economic and structural forces, mobilizing in real time and physical spaces, and building a collective movement that consists of affirmed individuals will further the cause of bi+ individuals as we move towards the future.
This essay draws from the following sources: