September is Bisexual Awareness Month! Some of you may be wondering why, now that pansexual identity is on the rise and has smashed the binary, we would want to acknowledge this old-school sexual orientation. And that is exactly why bisexuals continue to need a commemoration that acknowledges who they are—not what other people would prefer them to be. (Just to be clear: yay to the loosening of the binary’s grip! Pansexuals didn’t do the whole job themselves—trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming folks, we see you! This change has been coming for a while, and contrary to what you may read on the interwebs, bisexuals have not rallied to protect a binary.)
I declared my bisexuality in the 1970s—that was the decade when bisexuality truly came out of the closet, with David Bowie and other prominent heroes of popular culture embracing that identity. That was also when bisexual organizing began to pick up steam— the Bisexual Center opened its doors in San Francisco, and by the time of the first big bisexual conference held in SF a decade later, there were also significant bisexual communities (complete with newsletters!) in Boston and Seattle. International conferences have been held every few years ever since.
Why this organizing? Often when you see people embracing a particular identity banding together under one umbrella, it’s because they need support and want to raise awareness about discrimination or other offenses. I was not the only bisexual bunny who came out only to be told that I didn’t really exist: that there was really no such thing as bisexuality, that people were either gay or straight, and any “middle ground” was a false space to hide in because we were really just afraid to come out. We were just a bunch of fence-sitters! This point of view was embraced by many in the lesbian and gay community—the acronym LGBTQ was years in the future, and bi and trans people were barely acknowledged in many parts of the gay and lesbian world. A painful irony, since that community appeared to be the only place we would be safe from homophobia.
Now this notion is inherently binary, right? Gay or straight: pick one! I even co-edited a book, PoMoSexuals, that explored the space between gay/straight and male/female identities—among other things, this calls attention to binary thinking and the effect it has on our lives, plus sheds some light on what it’s like to live in those less-understood and often stigmatized identities. More awareness is always needed about such topics. Because in general, biphobia (as well as transphobia and other identity stigma) flourishes where we are not seen and understood, where false ideas about us can spread unchecked and be believed. We need to tell our own stories, be heard when we do: in short, we need to find spaces where we can be represented to each other and everybody else.
Bisexuals are often characterized today as binary thinkers because our identity label has “bi-“ built into it. (And I bet many of you have never even heard the word “monosexual,” right? That is the term for people who are only attracted to people of one gender—whereas “bisexual” today is usually defined as loving/desiring more than one.) Pansexual, by contrast, is often defined as those who are attracted to others regardless of gender. But this is true of many bisexuals as well, and for us, the effort to differentiate us from pansexuals can feel like bisexual erasure—which, as I’ve already noted, has been a problem for many of us all along. Some bisexual thinkers and activists have even begun using the term “bi+” to make it extra-clear that “bisexual” need not mean “I only acknowledge or love two genders, no more.” (And there are also those who identify as both. Both/and! If you’re dealing with a binary, this is a pretty decent one.)
But that this felt necessary to people in the first place means that we still have a problem with bi visibility and bi erasure. One way erasure happens in the first place is when others tell our story for us—not to mention misrepresenting us in the process.
So to commemorate Bisexual Awareness Month, maybe start by being nice to—and listening to!—bisexuals. If you yourself are bi, be good to yourself! It can be stressful to be bisexual (research has shown disturbing health and wellness trends among bi folks, and a high level of sexual harassment that bi women, in particular, face). Google “Bisexual organizations” and study up—or join and donate! Above all, remember that sexuality and identities are diverse and varied. Bisexual, bi+, pansexual, and so many other people seek to live the lives that are right for us, and when we do, we make more space, support, and awareness for everyone!
Dr. Carol Queen [www.carolqueen.com] is staff sexologist and Company Historian at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sex shop, where she has worked since 1990. A noted cultural sexologist whose work has been widely published, she's written or edited several books, including Exhibitionism for the Shy; PomoSexuals (ed. with Lawrence Schimel); The Leather Daddy & the Femme; and >The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone(lead author, with Shar Rednour). In 1991 she contributed an essay to the groundbreaking anthology Bi Any Other Name, which appears in her collection Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture--Queen has identified as bisexual since the mid-1970s. She has been speaking publicly about sexuality for 45 years and frequently speaks to the media as well as college, conference, and other audiences.