I’ve been thinking for a while about identity labels, their utility, and their limitations. (This seems to crop up in most areas of life, as you may have noticed recently in my post on homeschooling/unschooling/independent learning/whatever). On the one hand, I sometimes become annoyed with language and some people getting all persnickety about Defining Stuff, as if “identity” wasn’t essentially a squirmy, uncontainable otter sliding off the riverbank into the water. On another hand, I think about how much many (most?) of us want to be seen, known, recognized, understood, and supported and having to wrangle the foibles of language in order to manage that.
Also, I was thinking it’s been a while since I wrote anything about sexual identity. It’s not a burning issue on my mind, honestly, but a) I would like a mental respite from some of the other stuff I’ve been grappling with, and b) sexual things are generally interesting, in my opinion.
So what’s this about bisexual vs. pansexual vs. queer? I guess I’ve become gradually more aware of the proliferation of terminology in the [insert endless, partially indecipherable acronym relating to sexual and gender identity trying to encompass everything here] community. I am not at the forefront of [endless acronym] activism, although there have been times in my life when I was quite a bit more active (like in my early 20s, in Boston). The word “pansexual” just wasn’t a thing, then. (Although I knew a few too many people who would smirkingly claim to be “trisexual,” i.e., “I’ll try anything, baby.”)
But now we are in the era of pansexual being a thing. I had to look it up in a few places to figure out if it is now uncool to use the word “bisexual.” I wasn’t sure. Call me a doofus. Apparently I was still deferring to the authority of the book “Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving” which I read in 1988 at age 16, saw the span of sexual identity very tidily and linearly defined as either heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, and concluded, well, duh, obviously the one that fits me here is bisexual.
I’m actually not worried about being uncool. There are a vast array of ways I’m uncool, and that is really okay. But I was intrigued at the possibility of sexual identity being approached in less rigid, linear ways, and wondering if there were problems with the term “bisexual” that I should know about. It turns out that there have been a whole bunch of discussions and arguments about it, of course. One criticism of “bisexual” is that it reinforces binary conceptions of gender, i.e., that it erases the possibility of attraction to gender fluidity beyond cis-gendered maleness and femaleness. So, in essence, by saying “I’m bisexual” you could be saying “I’m reinforcing rigid beliefs about gender” and/or “I’m attracted to cis-gendered men and women but not to anyone transgender or gender fluid.” Meanwhile, there are many bisexuals saying, no no no, that’s not what I mean by “bisexual” at all, and why are you messing with my label that has worked for me for years or decades? “Pansexual” seems to be much more encompassing and inclusive, but runs into problems like a) a large number of people don’t know what it means and b) it leads to jokes about being attracted to kitchen cooking vessels. (Personally, I have no shame about my attraction to kitchen cooking vessels, or to good cooks.) “Queer” is another term that many find preferable, since it is clearly a statement of non-straightness, but that seems to run into the issue of people assuming you’re gay rather than bi/pan since there are still rampant assumptions of you-must-be-either-straight-or-gay-or-lying. And then there are all the political implications of allying oneself with particular labels.
In all cases, whether one claims the term bisexual or pansexual or queer (or any other sexual identity label), there is a whole lot missing in terms of one’s very particular attractions, behaviors, history, and changes over time. And those are the parts I, at least, find most interesting. If I tell you I’m bisexual, what does that really tell you about me? Or if I tell you I’m bisexual and polyamorous? Or a pansexual relationship anarchist? This may be conjuring up images of a wild sex maniac. Appealing as that image is at times, I’m very sorry to burst the bubble and say that I am not having sex all the time, not even close, nor am I having it indiscriminately with any creature with a pulse, nor do I think sex is the measure of intimacy (although it can play a part). Do the labels tell you about the depth of my love? the ways I calibrate my integrity? the path I’ve traversed through relationships, marriage, becoming a mother? the striving for autonomy, authenticity, connection, interdependence? the interweavings with sexual/relational otherness? Is this a story that anyone wants to hear or has time for?
Because swapping stories about such things, the stories full of questions and details and idiosyncrasies, seems so much more real and alive than little stand-alone words, words that can’t contain the richness of human experience.