Note: If you came here seeking reassurance that bisexuality is binarist and/or that all bisexuals are transphobic, you will not find it here. Please see this first.
A note for commentators: Please remember that I’m the same person who wrote Words, binary and biphobia, or: why “bi” is binary but “FTM” is not, and that I consider these two posts as complementary. If you could avoid using my own arguments to dispute me, that would be helpful for productive discussion. Thank you.
If you’re not aware of the problems with using a binary gender system, please see this post: Not Your Mom’s Trans 101.
* Thank you to Robyn Ochs, who helped me think of many of these things.
Why this post?
Within the mainstream bisexual movement, the links between bisexuality and transgenderism have always been thought of as close. Challenging of binaries, and the close relationship often existing between bisexual and transgender communities and politics, have been spoken and applauded by the mainstream bisexual movement (especially in the US) since its very beginnings. However and notwithstanding, in this post, I would like to raise a few thoughts about why the efforts of the mainstream bisexual movement to be trans-inclusive have been lacking. I’d like to call out specific problems within bisexual movements so that we, as a community, might be able to put work and energy into addressing these issues, and to be accountable for our communities’ cissexism* and transphobia.
This post came about because recently I’ve been noticing a disturbing tendency within mainstream bisexual discourses, to pretend as if the bisexual community has “always” and only ever defined bisexuality as (non binary) attraction to “same and other” genders, rather than as (binary) attraction to “both men and women”. This tendency is both inaccurate and dangerous, as it paints a false image of bisexual realities and histories in which the mainstream bisexual movement has used (and routinely uses) binary definitions and language widely.
In fact, definitions of bisexuality as attraction to “both genders” or to “men and women” abound in both past and present, activist and academic bisexual writing. While there have always been people in bi movements who defined bisexuality as attraction to “same + different” genders or as attraction to “more than one” gender, claiming that this is the only way bisexuality has ever been defined by “the movement” is misleading and has nothing to do with the realities and histories of bisexual movements themselves.
This argument is dangerous not only because it makes bisexual activists look like wishful thinkers at best and fabricators at worst, but also because it “relieves” the mainstream bisexual movement from responsibility and accountability about our own communities’ cissexism and transphobia. However, despite ardent denials, cissexism and transphobia both remain significant problems within many bisexual communities. As bisexual people and activists, we need to learn how to be accountable and work towards dismantling these forms of oppression in our communities, without glossing over these problems in attempts to avert biphobic accusations.
Cissexism and transphobia in bisexual communities
First off, and before I start, I have to mention that if asked on any occasion, I would say that the bisexual movement, as a whole, is light years ahead of most other activist communities (not just gay and lesbian) as far as it concerns transgender and genderqueer inclusion. I’m also aware of the huge amounts of bisexual writing about the intersections between bi and trans. I think the bisexual movement deserves every bit of respect when it comes to acknowledging these things, and this should not be dismissed in light of the critique I put forth below.
However and notwithstanding, despite awareness and declarations which encourage trans/genderqueer inclusion, the mainstream bi movement has long been suffering from several problems around transphobia and cissexism, which remain largely unaddressed. Note that when I talk about “the” mainstream bi movement, I am referring mostly to mainstream movements within the US, UK or Europe – and within those, I’m referring only to hegemonic discourse**. While it’s worth remembering that a lot of different bi communities exist all over world, and that not all of them behave in similar ways, it should still be acknowledged that there’s a huge body of bisexual work which nonetheless comprises a dominant discourse for these communities: Books, zines, articles, essays, papers, blogs, mailing lists, facebook groups, and many more. The fact that I do not live in US (or the UK, or Europe) only serves to emphasize this: I am more likely to be exposed to hegemonic discourse, because it is hegemonic.
And the hegemonic discourse about bisexuality, that I see from my own vantage point, is one talking about “both genders” or “both sexes”, treating bisexual and transgender people as if we’re two discreet populations, a movement generally lead by cisgender people (making it, de facto, a cis movement), engaging in tokenism, and many more things – even as they talk about trans inclusion and patting themselves on the back. Clare Hemmings talks about this in her book Bisexual Spaces when she says that in general, bisexual communities in the US and the UK have a tendency to speak of themselves as if they’re “already inclusive” without actually concerning themselves with the dirty details of actually working to include marginalized groups (not just trans/genderqueer people, but also people of color, working class people, disabled people, and many more).
From a personal perspective, I can cite two (kinds of) incidents that disturbed, and continue to disturb me. The first is pretty typical for me: Reading any kind of book or anthology about bisexuality, ever (except Clare Hemmings’ book) – and I’ve read a whole lot – I often need to curb my irritation and frustration with the amount of “both genders” that I need to read just to get through a single text. It’s stopped me several times from reading bisexual anthologies fully in one batch – I needed whole months of breaking it down. Even while reading a single piece, I often have to stop, take a deep breath and make a conscious effort to move forward. Often it is not the only problem, but most of the time, it’s definitely one of the most disturbing ones. This frustrates me all the more because as a genderqueer bisexual person, it seems as though I can never really get it right – or rather, can’t ever be gotten right. In bisexual texts I’m erased as a transgender person, and in transgender texts, I am erased as a bisexual person. I’ve seen very few texts that successfully incorporate the two – it’s usually either one or the other.
The second thing which works very strongly in my head is my experiences from BiCon 2010. After years of reading all the self-congratulatory ‘inclusive’ texts of the US and UK bi movements, I was shocked with how little trans/genderqueer inclusion was actually taking place. I mean things like language, people saying “LGB” instead of “LGBT” or saying “both genders”, discussion topics which never seemed to incorporate viewpoints or issues related to transgender people, I mean the teeny-tiny amount of workshops and spaces explicitly targeting trans/genderqueer people or issues (As I recall, there were only 1-2 workshops specifically targeting trans people. The other two trans-only spaces, during the lunch breaks, were a last-minute effort organized by my girlfriend). One evening I sat down with quite a few other trans and genderqueer people (most of whom were local) and we had a long conversation about transphobia at the convention and in the bi community in general. People were definitely feeling marginalized. And yet, throughout the convention, many cis people were still praising the bi community for being so trans-inclusive.
For me this is even more disturbing by comparison to the Israeli bi community: We grew out of the transgender community, and our politics are intimately related to transgender politics. The community here is led by trans and genderqueer people, and the rest are mostly allies. Transphobia is routinely called out and is not tolerated, our language and our politics incorporate multiple gender identities and trans issues. People who join the community without knowing these things are subsequently educated about them. This is our local ‘hegemonic discourse’ – there’s no such thing as “both genders”.
These are all issues that are generally unspoken in American/western bi communities. Moreover, in my experience online, when they are mentioned, they are generally silenced or met with pretty heavy criticism. For example, in a recent incident on one facebook group, some people actually argued that acknowledging that some bi people were attracted to more than just two genders might make others “feel uncomfortable”.
I could go on for much longer on this (and I do intend to, in my book). However, I think that even these few and rather associative examples are enough in order to point out a significant problem within mainstream bisexual communities. Despite speaking itself as if it’s trans/genderqueer inclusive, the bisexual movement in fact shares much of the cissexism and transphobia of mainstream society and of lesbian/gay communities. As a movement which largely proclaims allegiance to the transgender movement and to trans/genderqueer people, it is our responsibility to take up these points of criticism and to turn them into productive work towards eliminating transphobia and cissexism in our communities.
Afterword: concerning attraction
Some people have suggested to me that there’s nothing wrong with defining individuals’ bisexuality as attraction to “men and women”, since some people actually are attracted only to cisgender men and cisgender women. So to briefly reply to this:
I don’t think that being attracted only to cis men and women is overtly/deliberately transphobic and evil. I don’t think that such people intend to hurt anyone or to practice cis privilege on anyone’s back. However and notwithstanding, I do find that this tendency resonates with cissexist social standards.
People often like to think about attraction as a non-political, inborn, pure, uncontrollable quality which is somehow a given, but in most cases this is not so. More often than not, our attractions are shaped by social standards of beauty and attractiveness – of who/what is “allowed” to be considered attractive, and who/what is not. These standards of beauty are of course deeply political as they are shaped by dominant social beliefs and structures: to name just a few, white people are considered more attractive than people of color, thin people more than fat people, nondisabled people more than disabled people – and cisgender people more than transgender/genderqueer people. In Read My Lips, Riki Wilchins argues that the reason why transgender people are considered unattractive is that their/our bodies are unintelligible in terms of sexual attraction, to a culture which constructs its sexuality upon cisgender bodies. In order to be considered attractive, one must possess a body that “matches” their gender identity. This means that cisgender bodies are structurally privileged in terms of sexuality and sexual attraction – and we know what structural privileging of cisgender identity is called (that’s rights, cissexism).
Lisa Millbank of A Radical TransFeminist wrote very elloquently about how people need to challenge themselves in terms of sexual attraction to include people of marginalized groups, whom society teaches us to find unattractive: Significant Othering: Attraction Down The Privilege Gradient. I advise anyone to whom it may concern, to read this and reflect upon the contents.
P.S.: Some important comments contributed below
emergentlifeform adds below:
I haven’t had time to read through all the comments here so maybe someone has brought this up already, but I just wanted to bring up some other forms of transphobia within the bi community which you don’t seem to have addressed here. I am bi myself and am not interested in attacking the bi community, but I’m concerned about the way the controversy around binarism obscures other forms of transphobia within the bi community, such as third-gendering/ungendering trans people, and fetishisation.
Firstly there is the issue of fetishisation. I have many times seen trans people fetishised as a bi person’s fantasy, ‘the best of both worlds’, etc. I think it’s clear that this is third-gendering and objectifying. Obviously trans women bear the brunt of this esp. re: their representation/exploitation in pornography, but I’ve seen similar statements made about trans men too. This relates to something I heard recently, about an acquaintance who is a bi activist, who was saying to a friend that gay cis men who sleep with trans men must be ‘a little bit bisexual’ or at least included in some way under the bisexual umbrella. Clearly, also transphobic/ungendering (and also really not true, I know of a lot of exclusively gay cis men who’ve slept with trans men, including my own previous partners). I’ve also seen this sentiment reflected elsewhere but I thought it was notable that it came from a bi activist who claims to be a trans ally.
I guess I find it frustrating that I am seeing more and more of a trend towards ‘trans inclusion’ actually just meaning genderqueer and non-binary inclusion, and an increase in people referring to ‘men, women and trans’ as if trans people aren’t ever also men and women. Obviously, non-binary inclusion and the eradication of binarism is important, but I can’t help but feel like sometimes it happens at the expense of third-gendering all trans people. In general you seem to be pretty good at including binary trans people in your work, but it is a trend that worries me more generally.
* Cissexism is the social system according to which everyone is, or should be, cisgender (i.e. nontransgender), including the social system of privilege for those who are cisgender, and punishment for those who are not.
** Discourse means everything spoken, written, or otherwise communicated about a certain topic. Hegemonic discourse means a discourse created by those in power and which dominates social understandings about a given topic.
Want to read more about this?
- Words, binary and biphobia, or: why “bi” is binary but “FTM” is not
- Some differences and similarities between bisexuality and pansexuality
- Why I identify as bisexual and not pansexual