Let There Be Words!

“Why do we need labels? Why can’t we just be people who love people?”

It’s a question I’ll hear or see periodically in discussions on sexual orientation and identity.

Most often, it comes from very privileged places—people who don’t have to deal with erasure and all that goes along with being an invisible minority.

Sometimes it comes from those who belong to said minority and seem to think the prejudice and invisibility are due to the label rather than to bigotry. For them being invisible is preferable to being targeted.

Very rarely it comes from someone who honestly doesn’t feel the need to have a label for themselves or is perhaps unsatisfied with ones that still don’t seem to fit.

Regardless of where it’s coming from, I always encounter it after someone else (sometimes that someone else is myself) asserted a desire for their identity to be named, recognized, and respected. It will pop up in discussions about all the identities under the Queer, Bi, or Trans umbrella. It will creep into any conversation about bi-erasure or biphobia—guaranteed. It will be present in the discussion over how many letters should be in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

And it will come up whenever and wherever an individual is complaining about social justice issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s one of those insidious questions that sounds like a mere preference of the individual expressing it but ultimately has a silencing, erasing, and oppressive quality to it. It’s not just about that individual’s desire not to use labels for themselves but about controlling the language and the existence of words that others want to use.

Below are some of the reasons why I think that label and identity words should and must exist.

To Express Internal Experience

As a language nut, I recognize that words hold a very special power. It’s not impossible for people to experience something without the language to describe it, but we’re verbal creatures. It’s much harder to acknowledge that experience, and impossible to talk about it in a meaningful way, without language.

I remember the first time I came across the word “bisexual.” In my mind, there was only gay and straight. Finding out that there was something to describe my internal experience of being attracted to multiple genders is on my list of most exciting life moments.

I was twenty-one, though, by the time I found out there was a term that felt like it referred to me.

For those who have never felt invisible, perhaps it is difficult to imagine what that experience is like. If you’ve ever read one of those lists of “untranslatable words” and thought, “damn I’ve experienced that!” when reading about schadenfreude (German word referring to the joy at seeing other’s misfortune) or dépaysement (French word referring to feeling displaced when traveling) then you can imagine a shadow of how I felt.

Generally those untranslatable words refer to things we experience periodically. Living without that word isn’t too problematic, and our happiness at finding that there is something to name that periodical experience is generally within the realm of the happiness of stumbling on five dollars dropped in the street. How lucky!

But when it’s something you experience every day and the language to describe that experience is lacking, the significance of finding your word goes well beyond mere serendipity.  Take that joy at discovering a beautiful, single word to describe an experience for which English doesn’t have a word and multiply it by…basically the sum of your existence.

To Decrease Isolation

Without language to create commonality, people also can’t find each other.

Being invisible can get lonely. Feeling like you’re so outside of the normal range of experience that there isn’t even a word to describe you can be a very isolating thing.

But having a name for that part of your identity means that even if you are the minority in your area, you can look for others who might understand you. You can reach out and find support, whether online or in person.

That’s why survivors of every imaginable disease and life experience have support groups. They recognize that they experience/d something that other people may not be able to understand and that bonding with others who “know what it’s like” is important.

Queer centers and pride centers are a haven for non-heterosexual people—a place where they know they can exist without hatred or judgment. Online forums are a lifeline to isolated and closeted individuals who need to know that there is more outside of their conservative Christian home and close-minded home town.

But it takes having the language of identity to be able to create these spaces where people who share that identity can connect.

To Seek Social Justice

In government and society, if something doesn’t exist as a word, it doesn’t exist. Period.

Oppression, discrimination, and prejudice towards a group of people cannot be addressed without the language to first identify that those people are even there.

Some express trepidation that labels create division—an us vs. other.

In reality, the division already exists. There is already oppression and prejudice. Being able to say “this is homophobia/biphobia/transphobia” doesn’t suddenly bring it into existence. It merely identifies it as already present—again putting a name to the experience of being hated for an aspect of your identity.

Diversity is never at fault for division. People’s intolerance for diversity is what creates the us vs. them mentality.

We never see scientists or doctors asking each other, “Why do we need to name this new discovery?” “Why do we need labels for disease?” “Why do we need to differentiate the elements and chemicals in the lab?”

Within most areas of knowledge, we recognize that the naming process is important. We take great pains to make sure that an appropriate name gets attached to a new discovery.

Hell, for a certain amount of money, you can even name a star after yourself for no other reason than to feed your own vanity.

We find it important enough to spend money on naming processes when the categorization of Pluto as a planet is probably going to have the least real-life effect on people, but somehow honoring a label that helps someone express their inner experience, find others who share that experience, and gain recognition in fighting oppression is…what? A waste of words and energy?

I don’t buy that.

Only you can decide what label, if any, is right for you. Only I can decide which is right for me. But as to the existence of words of identity—that shouldn’t be up for debate.

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5 Reasons I Love Being Bisexual

It’s been a rough week, and I don’t have the energy to delve into anything heavy. I wanted to find something to make me smile, so I decided to try to “count my blessings” in a way. Below is a list of reasons why I’m happy to be bisexual. I’m not saying these are universal for all bisexual people or that they are exclusive to bisexual people. These are just some of the ways that I feel my bisexuality enriches my own personal life.

1. Beauty

Although I’m not sexually attracted to everyone who crosses my path, I think every person has a unique beauty which I can see and appreciate even when I don’t like them “in that way.”  A genuine smile is gorgeous to me; a great personality can turn anyone into the most mesmerizing person. I like to think that since I’m not distracted or concerned so much with the outward expression of a person’s gender, I’m able to see their soul.

2. Body Image

Being attracted to multiple gender expressions means that I don’t have to rely on the feedback of others to figure out whether I think I’m attractive. All I have to do is look in the mirror and let my own heart decide…and I think I would probably date myself if I met me at a bar.

I don’t like everything about myself. Some days I don’t like anything about myself. But when I can take my own body image out of the male gaze and the self-hatred it perpetuates, I find that I’m able to acknowledge qualities I would find attractive in another person.

Being able to judge my body based on my own internal preferences rather than the ever-changing, impossible “ideal” of society is incredibly empowering. It highlights just how ridiculous the expectations I put on myself can be. If I wouldn’t want another girl I was dating to go through that, why would I do it to myself?

3. Spirituality.

In many ways, I see my bisexuality as just another expression of my zodiac sign—that living duality, walking-in-both-worlds Gemini.

But in other ways, I also feel I owe my spirituality to my bisexuality. Perhaps one of the reasons why I never saw spirituality and agnosticism as mutually exclusive is because I am already accustomed to the way that socially constructed dichotomies don’t prove true for me.

Even before I was able to name my sexual orientation, I subconsciously knew that I didn’t fit into the monosexist paradigm that one is attracted either to men or to women. When I began questioning my religion and felt that pressure of “either you remain Christian or you become atheist,” I knew that didn’t fit either.

It’s probably impossible to determine whether my bisexuality influenced my soul or whether my soul influenced my bisexuality, but I do know that my bisexuality enhances my spiritual life because it reminds me that I don’t like to color within the lines of convention or social constructs.

4. Entertainment

Two words: character crushes.

I absolutely love being bisexual when I’m watching a movie or reading a book. I can’t lose on the loveable character front. I can fall as much in love with Rose as with the Doctor, with Legolas as with Arwen…and don’t even get me started on Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swan!

5. Flexibility

When you’re bisexual and you have double jointed arms, at some point you have to make the joke:  “I can go both ways.”

This point is more about humor than about actual flexibility, obviously. I don’t think it’s possible to be bisexual without developing some sort of sense of humor. Otherwise the mix of homophobia and biphobia and the erasure of your orientation by the Queer and straight communities alike would just drive you absolutely insane.

Or at least they would me.

Bisexuality has taught me how to laugh—about little things, like a pun about my inordinate physical flexibility or the awkward silence that follows me blurting out “Catherine Zeta Jones!” in a discussion about celebrity crushes, as well as about big things like …I don’t need to name the big things though. If you’re bi, you know what they’re like. Why ruin the fun we’re having by naming them?

I know! I know! This doesn’t do anything to end biphobia, but sometimes I think it’s good for people to take a break from the activism. The cause will still be there tomorrow. There will still be plenty of prejudice and discrimination to call out, lament, and fight about tomorrow. 

But today, let’s just celebrate being who we are. I’ve given you five reasons why I’m happy to be bisexual. What are your reasons?

 

 

What about the “B” in “LGBT”?!

As a bisexual, I’m pretty used to being erased in the queer movement, and to some extent I think I’ve felt I almost deserve to be because I am in a hetero-passing relationship. However, the erasure has been vexing me more and more recently, peaking last week during the Exodus fiasco when bisexuality never came up in the whole discussion of ex-gay reparative therapy.

That’s a big gap to miss when trying to discuss whether someone’s orientation can change. A bisexual person can be easily convinced that they did change if they happen to fall happily in love with someone of the opposite sex. I grew up thinking I had narrowly escaped the whole “gay” thing. I had never heard of bisexuality and thought my attractions to women and men were an indication of how close I had come to being a reprobate—“but for the grace of God.” Outside of the very obvious ways that mindset could hurt lesbians and gays (and did when I used my own experiences as evidence that being gay was a “choice”), it can cause pretty significant problems for bisexuals as they struggle with their attractions, which I discovered aren’t going to go away any more than gay or lesbian attractions will.

don't assume straight or gay

Enter Shiri Eisner’s book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution

I hadn’t realized how erased I felt until I experienced what it was like to be recognized. Here was a book that didn’t deal with bisexuality as a subsection. My identity wasn’t a footnote or an endnote. I wasn’t a passing term. I started crying before I was even through the introduction. I was holding in my hands over three hundred pages dedicated to my sexual orientation.

More importantly, there were terms to describe how others react to me.

I’ve never felt comfortable describing the little snide remarks or actions that I experience as “homophobia.” What’s to be homophobic about? There’s nothing in my relationship to raise ire. For all intents and purposes, people feel pretty comfortable assuming I’m straight even when I tell them I’m bi.

But biphobia and monosexism—“the social system according to which everyone is, or should be, [attracted to one gender]” (Eisner, p. 321) —yeah, those I’ve experienced.

exterminate-mono1

No one ever walks up to me and says, “You’re just going through a phase.” But I’ve had both straight and gay friends tell me to just get it out of my system by finding a girl to ______ (fill in the blank because the suggestions range as far as you can imagine). Perhaps they think they’re being supportive; nevertheless, the implication is that if I can just have an experience with a girl, I’ll suddenly realize that I’m content with my male partner. It’s almost as if having capability to be attracted to multiple genders must mean that everyone is the same; therefore, when I experience one, I experience them all.

Others have suggested that I might be happier with a girl because I’m so attracted to them—that maybe I don’t really want to be with my male partner, which is really just a way to say that I’m a lesbian in denial even if they deny that they’re trying to say that.

Then there’s the “concerned” ones who grill me about how many sexual partners I have and, on the flip side, the ones who give me flak for being married.

Still others have dared to challenge my coming out, asking me what I hope to gain from it since I’m already married.

When I get these reactions, they bother me, but I’ve never been very good at pinpointing why. Usually I end up giving the pat explanation, “Being bi doesn’t mean I’m promiscuous. I am happy in my relationship and am not looking for anything else. It’s just really important to identify this part of myself right now.”

Sometimes I launch into it before anyone asks a question, which is an indication that I have some internalized biphobia myself.

Reading the beginning of Shiri’s book I began to realize how these prejudices play out. These aren’t necessarily the same prejudices that gay or lesbian people experience. Perhaps I would get some of that if I had a female partner, but for the most part I don’t find too many negative reactions when people mistakenly assume “partner” means “girl.”

But the prejudice is there.

It’s there when I need to explain why I’m marching in a gay pride parade with my husband or when I have to correct someone who assumes that because I’m married I have no vested interest in queer activism and gay rights. It’s there when someone tells me I “already have the right to marriage.” It’s there when people think they can define my identity and my relationships based on expectations of how I should or shouldn’t behave. It’s there when people assume they can ask any question they want about my love life simply because I told them I’m bi.

identity redefine

I wasn’t aware of them because bi-erasure was just part of the way things were. It took a book to tell me it shouldn’t have to be that way. From now on, rather than trying to convince people that I’m not promiscuous or unsure of what I want, I’m going to own the right that I am allowed to live my life on my terms. My identity doesn’t get to be defined by someone else’s prejudice or stereotypes.

Back when I started my blog, I described myself as a bi-feminist. Up until now, I’ve couched my bisexual activism in a broader activism for lgbt. Today, I’m giving myself permission to emphasize the bi part of my feminism. I’m no longer content to be railroaded and erased. I might make people uncomfortable, but it’s time to challenge the cultural lens. It’s time to make the “b” in “lgbt” visible.