Before I write – a disclaimer: this post contains criticism of the non-bisexual-identified transgender community and discourse. Please be aware that I am writing this criticism not as an outsider, but as a genderqueer person involved in transgender community, and activism. I hope this criticism is taken in the same spirit in which it was written – that of passion and solidarity.
This is a long post. But trust me, it is good. Take your time in reading in, it will be worth it ;)
A(n) (long) introduction
It appears increasingly acceptable of late, in transgender/genderqueer communities and activist discourses, to portray bisexuality as a binary identity, and thus intrinsically transphobic. As the claim classically goes – since the word “bisexuality” has “bi” (literally: two) in it, then it is inherently gender-binary, pointing to only two genders/sexes as its sources of reference – thus erasing non-binary sexes and genders out of existence. Those siding with this approach usually suggest the use of alternative identity categories, such as “pansexual”, “omnisexual”, “queer”, etc. (For the sake of fairness, I need to mention that I, too, once subscribed to these views, to the extent that they are now and forever recorded in a book and unchangeable. But – hey, we all make mistakes…)
On the other hand is the bisexual side of the debate, arguing to the contrary. I will say that I find these arguments to be nothing but a pile of apologetics, and so I’m going to be relatively brief with it, as they only matter to me here as background to the real core of the discussion:
- That, similar to “homosexuality” and “lesbianism”, “bisexuality” is a word reclaimed by the bisexual movement from the medical institution. The bi community itself had therefore little to no influence over formation and structure of the word, but has since reclaimed it to mean “potential attraction to more than one sex or gender”.
- That linguistically – the “two” in “bisexual” might refer to attraction to genders alike to our own (=homosexuality) + attraction to genders different from our own (=heterosexuality).
- That the bisexual movement has started gaining prime at around the same period as the transgender movement, and that, in its early stages, no language was available for the description of attraction to non-binary sexes and genders. However, throughout the history of the movement, the word has constantly been put to use in attempting to describe same, using terms such as “third gender(s)”, “androgynous people”, “those in between”, etc.
- That historically, bisexual communities have always been one of the most accepting places towards transgenders and genderqueers, and that the two communities have always shared a strong alliance.
- That a discussion focusing around bisexuality solely in relation to transgender politics performs structural bisexual erasure, as it prioritizes transgender politics over bisexual politics in a discussion about bisexual identity. Seeing as so far, I’ve only heard myself voicing this argument, I would give it a few more lines just to clarify my intention (quoting myself from a facebook discussion on the topic):
It often feels to me as if bisexuality is never really about our own sexual identity(ies), i.e. – our experiences, our desires, our lives as bisexuals, the oppression we experience as such, the cultural, social and political systems working to shape the experience of bisexual people, institutional oppression experienced by bisexuals, etc. etc. Instead, I feel that my sexual identity (i.e. whether I should identify as bisexual, pansexual, queer, etc.) is expected to be determined according to other people’s gender identity.
The question on whether bisexuality is more or less helpful in reducing gender binarism poses this quite clearly. It implies that bisexual people should determine their identification according to transgender politics as opposed to bisexual politics. Taken from that perspective, then of course the answer would be :”Yes, definitely pan/queer”. But lately I’ve been questioning this very outset as influenced by internalized biphobia. The fact that we (as a movement) have been focusing on this question as a central one implies a political hierarchy that prioritizes transgender issues over bisexual issues.
What I need to say around this point is that the great majority of this debate is being perpetuated and developed by bisexual-identified transgenders and genderqueers (Click the link! It’s Julia Serano!), and non-bi-identified transgenders and genderqueers. I need to draw attention to this, as the “binary” side of this debate often likes to frame it as a transgender-cisgender debate, thus locating the “bisexual” side not only as linguistically transphobic, but also as external to transgender community, identities and politics – i.e. privileged.
A painful example of this was a debate between one certain transgender blogger and myself in the responses section of one of his blog posts. Throughout the debate, my genderqueer identity and position was completely ignored and dismissed in light of my bisexual identification. Bauer even went as far as saying that, “If your concern for trans issues seemed to be equal to your concern that people be allowed to use a word that erases large categories of trans people, I would not have spoken like that” (i.e. addressed me as if I was cisgender), thus insinuating that bisexual identification and politics are inherently transphobic and therefore contradictory to genderqueer and trans identification and politics.
As implied through Bauer’s position – bisexuality is no longer critiqued simply as a term in certain transgender discourses, but is rather experiencing a slippage of meaning from the linguistic to the factual – if: bisexuality=transphobic, then: bisexual=transphobic as well. It’s not a huge jump, and I’m both unsurprised and broken-hearted to see it happening. I’ve once had someone argue to me that the “bad binary reputation” bisexuality is increasingly experiencing is due to bisexual people’s transphobia. And indeed, increasingly I’ve been noticing that, notwithstanding bisexual erasure, the only time in which bisexual people and the bisexual movement are mentioned in some transgender writings, is as oppressors of transgenders.
I’m currently reading Susan Stryker’s Transgender History, a book summarizing the history of the American transgender movement starting from the 1950’s and up to this day. I’ve recently reached the 90’s. Up until now, only one mention of bisexuality has been made in the book: one sentence at the introduction, explaining the meaning of the word (as “attraction to any gender”). From hereon and until the 90’s, bisexuality and bisexual people fade away from sight and historical attention, and this, despite the fact that gay and lesbian people are mentioned in abundance (both favourably and unfavourably). Just to make this really clear – bisexual people are being erased in the book even from where they were undoubtedly present – demonstrations, the Stonewall rebellion, pride marches, the gay liberation movement, etc. Mentions of the bisexual community resurface, however, when we come to the 90’s – solely in the context of transgender exclusion.
Another example is the acronym “LGB” that some transgender writers use in the same context of transgender exclusion. In his article, “Fighting to Win” from the wonderful anthology That’s Revolting!, transgender activist Dean Spade (who is otherwise awesome) constantly uses the form “LGBfakeT” – situating bisexual people not only as oppressors of transgender people, but also as benefactors of assimilationist gay privilege – wrongfully presuming that assimilationist gay campaigns include the needs and the agenda of bisexual people (and do not, in fact, trample all over us on their golden way to heteronormative white privilege).
So where is all this coming from?
I find this entire debate to be incredibly suspicious: if transphobia is truly the matter at hand, then why focus on bisexuality alone? If it’s words we’re concerned with, shouldn’t we first want to address the hetero-homo dichotomy – a far more prevalent and a far more oppressive binary structure? Or if it’s inner-community transphobic approaches that we want to address, shouldn’t we first see the white gay cismen? Or the lesbian movement, with its long-time and long-established exclusionary practices? Why the bisexual community, historically and currently the least transphobic of the three, as well as the one with the least resources from which to exclude transgender and genderqueer people?
To be fair – transphobia is indeed a problem in many bisexual communities, I have experienced this myself when attending BiCon this last August and have a mouthful not only about cissexism, but also about racism and classism within those communities (page 6). However, I feel that the scope given, within this debate, to addressing transphobia in bisexual communities is not only excessive in relation to actual amounts of transphobia (which says a lot, because transphobia is abound everywhere), but also that the content of the arguments fails to address any real problems existing within actual bisexual communities. Simply put, it feels less like community work and more like slander.
I think I know this song…
The argument claiming bisexuality to be binary situates bisexuality as an oppressive identity perpetuating hegemonic ideology. Less academically – to say that bisexuality is binary is to say that bisexuality is an oppressive identity contributing to dominant social order. Now, where have I heard that before?…
Apparently the first people to make this binary claim were not at all trans people, but one gay male and one straight female (gay-male-identified) academics. I mean, of course, Eve Kosofski-Sedgwick and Lee Edelman (separately). I could only find a quote of Edelman. Here is what he says in his 1994 book “Homographies”:
[…] the hetero/homo binarism (a binarism more effectively reinforced, than disrupted by the “third term” of bisexuality)
(I guess we’re not worth more than brackets, huh?)
Sedgwick said something, to the same extent, at around the same time.
So, apparently the transgender community didn’t make this up at all, but took this from the proverbial Academe. I don’t mention this to mock the transgender community, but rather to point out standpoints within this debate. To say that the stance on bisexuality as binary has been initiated, it appears, by an academic gay white cisman and an academic straight white ciswoman is to say that these people had a political and academic interest in the elimination of bisexuality from their theory and studies.
So what does this remind me of?
Claims of bisexuality as an oppressive/privileged identity are not new. As anyone who wanders the world as bisexual knows, we are often accused of bearing heterosexual privilege – especially by, but not limited to, lesbian communities. These accusations – classical by now – rely on the presumption that bisexual people are, in fact, straight, and that by refusing to relinquish our “attachment” to male-identified people we are accepting and perpetuating heteropatriarchal hegemony (in plain English: heterosexual and sexist oppression of women and queers).
Oh… wait… “perpetuating __________ hegemony”… rings a bell, huh? Let’s make an experiment:
- Bisexuals are a privileged group perpetuating heteropatriarchal hegemony and oppressing gay and lesbian people.
- Bisexuals are a privileged group perpetuating cisgender hegemony and oppressing transgender and genderqueer people.
OMG, I think I got it!!1
What else does this remind me of?
The same arguments were (and in some cases, still are) used against transgender people, too.
Here is what bisexual transgender activist and scholar Jillian Todd Weiss writes about transphobia in her Journal of Bisexuality essay “LG vs. BT”:
Although “male to constructed female” transsexuals claimed to be against the stereotyped gender system by virtue of their escape from stereotypical masculinity, they in fact added force to the binary system by merely escaping from one stereotype to another, or at most mixing together different stereotypes, rather than advocating true gender freedom. They were not political radicals, as they claimed, but reactionaries seeking to preserve a stereotypical gender system that was already dramatically changing due to the political action of 60s and 70s feminists and gays.
Similar claims, of course, have been made throughout the years against FTM transgenders as well, trying to paint them not only as perpetuating the oppressive gender binary, but also as opportunistic seekers of male privilege. And oh my! Doesn’t that sound familiar!
Why this? Why now?
For a brief explanation of this, I’m quoting myself from facebook, again:
Another thought regarding the origin of those allegations, is what Julia Serano calls the masculinism of the transgender movement, which I think comes into play on this issue as well. Serano says, and I agree, that the transgender movement consistently prefers masculine-spectrum viewpoints and ideas, while marginalizing those of feminine-spectrum transpeople and genderqueers. Specifically regarding the issue of increased criticism towards the bi community and relative lack of criticism towards the lesbian community about transphobia, I think this is heavily influenced by the fact that the transgender movement is mostly controlled by FTM’s who emerged and were influenced by lesbian communities (and who experience less transphobia by them by virtue of being “female-bodied”). That is, they don’t criticize lesbians since these are their home communities. However, criticizing bisexuals is very much in keeping with the often-present biphobia of many lesbian communities.
And of course – the transgender movement has a clear interest in the disownment of bisexuality: an acceptance of- alliance with- or association with- bisexuality would, doubtlessly, “drag” the transgender movement even further “down” along with it. Considering both widespread transphobia, and bisexuality’s lack of popularity and huge invisibility within both the GGGG movement and the heterosexual populace – everything is to be gained by a transgender movement dissociating itself from bisexuality, everything to be lost by alliance…
However, what makes it truly necessary for the transgender movement to will itself rid of connection to the bisexual movement is not to be found in any quality intrinsic to trans community or politics themselves. Instead, it seems that for the most part, the gay and lesbian movement makes it out as if there’s “only one spare place” at their proverbial table. Having only three imaginary chairs, where two are marked “gay” and “lesbian” creates the inevitable (and oh-so-convenient) consequence of pitting one invisible/suppressed group against the other, competing for that one extra spot. This is how those in privilege secure their own places, by having us step over each other rather than fighting the ‘real enemy’ together. In this way, the gay and lesbian movement can stop worrying about how to hinder our ways to threatening their positions of power – setting us against one another makes sure that we’ll do that job for them.
A short summary, and suggested solutions
So, to summarize:
- I’ve been writing this post for three hours now and I’m tired and want to sleep.
- The allegations of bisexuality being binary are a load of bullshit.
- The allegations draw not from actual transphobia within bisexual words, communities or bi-identified people, but from wide trends and long histories of biphobia within the gay and lesbian movements.
- Transgender people have historically (and currently) suffer(ed) from similar allegations by the same sources.
- The revolution
After a night’s sleep, and a day’s work: of solidarity
We are all we have. Isolated in a cruel world. We survive, separately and together – which is better? Which would you choose? We imagine ourselves in foreign worlds when we are surrounded by friends. Our friends – who surround us with comfort, love, solidarity and pride. Who pick us off the floor when we’ve forgotten our own footing. We go outside and we fight together, we bring down barriers and dismantle hierarchies. We tear apart their order while imagining and creating the world that is ours: from our communities and our families of choice and into the streets. We invade society. We disrupt order. Where society will kick us down, we will fight back, together.
What we need is to support each other. Understand me when I say this: we are all we have. To love, to struggle, to stand shoulder to shoulder with. We survive each other.
None of us are free until all of us are free.
Want to read more about this?
- Some differences and similarities between bisexuality and pansexuality
- Why I identify as bisexual and not pansexual
- Cissexism and transphobia in bisexual communities