Bisexuals are "slutty." They're "men in denial about their homosexuality." Most of us are closet cases. We're "not a legitimate sexual orientation," in the eyes of 15 percent of heterosexual people. We're undermined by the "mysterious" female sexuality. We're "something you simply do," devoid of any parallel to gay culture. Sometimes, we're even "en vogue" because, you know, bisexuality is "the new black."
At least this is what the mainstream media would have you believe about us.
Last week, the New York Times Magazine featured a story by Benoit Denizet-Lewis called 'The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists.' The story profiled the research of the American Institute of Bisexuality, which is responsible for funding much of the scientific research around our orientation. Though the piece didn't overtly question the very existence of bisexuality itself (the New York Times already did that in 2005), it focused largely on experiments that measure pupil dilation and genital arousal in search of concrete evidence of male bisexuality. Coupled with personal stories from mostly white, bisexual cis gender people (people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth), the research presented by Denizet-Lewis served as a reminder of the ease in which bisexual lived experiences are reduced to the offensive -- and untrue -- platitudes listed above.
Yet, while The New York Times story was imperfect for its failure to present diverse bisexual identities, a response to the piece on Slate titled 'Is Bisexual Identity a Useful Fiction?' posited whether bisexuality is more than "something you simply do" in part because "it's nearly impossible to imagine a developed bisexual culture at this point in time," according to writer Mark Joseph Stern. Stern, for his part, ultimately affirms the existence of bisexuality in men and women, but condemns the modern bisexual movement for failing culturally "...to articulate a coherent platform beyond its initial goals of recognition."
Even if these writers concede -- with hesitation of course -- that us bisexuals exist, now we do so without a cultural identity?
This might as well be the same as questioning our very existence -- it certainly translates into real life experiences that do. At it's best, it's when I'm viewed as little more than sexual meat by couples propositioning me on OkCupid, or when I'm accused of being too afraid to come out as gay. At its worst, it's precious media space devoted to how I'm perceived as "dirty," instead of exploring why 45 percent of bisexual women have contemplated or attempted suicide, why we're twice as likely to have an eating disorder compared to our lesbian counterparts and why, compared with straight women and lesbians, we have the highest rates of alcohol abuse instead.
But, I don't have to look to Slate or any other online magazine to know that when I tell people I identify as bisexual, it holds less cultural currency than when I say I'm simply "queer." Given that the term has been recently reclaimed from its pejorative roots, the political undertones are more obvious. Remove the word "bisexual" from my vocabulary, and I'm instantly more accepted in the lesbian scene; considered more dateable, and trustworthy, even. So, when in October, bisexual writer and editor Anna Pulley gave some compelling reasons in Salon why we ought to consider putting "the word to bed," it was hard to look away.
After all, "bisexual" is marked by strong negative connotations that perhaps a new term would present a re-birth for those of us with fluid identities. "I think people's attitudes toward bisexuals comprise the bigger obstacle to acceptance....We're Girls Gone Wild or giving you HIV or closet-cases taking advantage of straight privilege or stealing your boyfriend. These are hard stereotypes to fight because they're so pervasive and culturally ingrained, even among bisexuals ourselves," Pulley wrote me in an email last year. Then, the term is criticized within the queer community for being too binary. Pulley wrote in an email that "If you're involved with a person who's genderqueer, trans, or intersex, for instance, "bisexual" doesn't really cut it."
Given that "bisexual" triggers the world's-worst-dirty sex taboo, I wonder: Has this connotation, perpetuated by places like the New York Times and Slate, become so unshakeable that it's time to replace the term?
Bisexuality should, for once and all, be publicly understood under activist Robyn Ochs' definition: "I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted -- romantically and/or sexually -- to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree." While this definition itself encompasses all the identities of the LGBTQ community, in Slate, Stern wonders if its one unto itself: "Is bisexuality even an identity, in the way that homosexuality is?"
My bisexual identity is one that is defined by proudly challenging assumptions about sexuality altogether. Outsiders frequently judge my sexuality based on the gender of the person I'm with; in coming out to them as bisexual, through my capacity to love, I immediately challenge their notion of what makes a person LGBT. Faith Cheltenham, president of BiNet USA, put it this way in a phone call this week, "People think one thing about bi people and the reality is different. That's what we talk about when we use bi-culture, how people see us being different than who we are." Equally as profound is the word's rich cultural and political legacy. Just look to last year's bisexual White House summit, which helped inspire Bisexual Health Awareness Month, and the many publications, musicians, manifestos and organizations dedicated to documenting the experiences of bisexual people. If these don't constitute a "coherent platform," what does?
Perhaps most proudly, bisexual culture represents intersectionality at its core. We are cis gender and trans people alike, among all of the other identities we intersect as 50 percent of the LGBT community. Cheltenham wrote me in an email last year that for her, "Bisexuality is not who I am, it is a component of my identity. As a black woman I have other aspects of my identity that will consistently affect my life. As a black American I am more likely to have poor health outcomes. As a woman I am more likely to be affected by sexism." So, when Stern insisted in Slate that it's time for the bisexual "movement to stop substantiating its own existence and start trying to give that existence the cultural substance it craves," it made me wish I could. In fact, I'd be more than happy to stop -- as soon as the media stops looking to scientific studies to prove we exist.
Correction: An earlier version of this blog stated that no people of color were interviewed for the New York Times piece. One person of color was quoted in the piece and and several were featured in the slideshow that accompanied the piece.