Bisexual, Pansexual, and Queer Identities: Why People Choose Each Term and How They Defy Binaries

Bisexuality is an identity that defies binaries and queers heteronormative spaces. Bisexual people challenge ideas about relationships, gender, and race by just living their authentic lives. When a bisexual gets married to someone of another gender, it can often appear to be a heteronormative relationship, but they do not lose their queerness. On the other hand, when a bisexual marries someone of the same gender, they do not become “gay” or “lesbian.” Bisexuals are not half straight and half gay: they are humans, not fractions. I will explore how bisexuals define their identities, transgress binaries, and redefine what it means to be queer. I will also explore how bisexuality exists in relationship to pansexuality and queerness and how all three terms influence each other.

Defining Bisexuality

Bisexuality can have many definitions, but a broad definition for someone who identifies as bisexual is someone who falls between heterosexuality and homosexuality.[1] This definition positions bisexuality not as its own identity, but something that exists relative to monosexualities, however.[2] The Bisexual Resource Center provides the following definition: “Bisexuality is a diverse sexual orientation, because people within the bi+ community define it in various ways. Some identify as bisexual, while others use pansexual, queer, fluid, or no label at all to describe their attractions to more than one gender.”[3] Bisexual activist Robyn Ochs used to say she liked people “regardless of gender,” but she now recognizes that gender is part of what she is attracted to.[4] The term was originally used in 1892, but bisexuality was not openly discussed until the late 1900s because of cultural stigma.[5]

Some people avoid using the word “bisexual” to describe themselves. Ochs examined this in a column for a queer magazine in 2001. She reached out to women who did not like to use the word “bi” and got responses that the word was just “such a strong word” or that it upheld gender binaries.[6] She also got a response from one woman who wrote, “for many straight men, they only think it’s an opportunity to get two women in bed with them at the same time.”[7] Another woman wrote, “I’m afraid that if I say I’m bisexual people are more likely to make assumptions about me that are really wrong.”[8] The term has both been stigmatized and sexualized in a way that can make it intimidating to claim. But this also makes the term powerful. Using the term increases bi+ visibility and makes bisexual identities part of everyday life. The bi+ community has also used Twitter to promote projects such as #StillBisexual and #BiTwitter to create solidarity, decrease stigma, and increase visibility of the bi+ community and nonmonosexual identities.

Perspectives on The Bisexual Umbrella

Another way bisexuality has been described is as an “umbrella”: it can be used to describe “a range of nonmonosexual identities, behaviors, and forms of attraction.”[9] This includes pansexual, queer, and fluid identities.[10] Flanders writes that grouping these identities under the “bisexual umbrella” can bring together an extremely diverse set of individuals, but not all people who identify as nonmonosexual want to consider themselves under this “umbrella.”[11] One of the big issues is that pansexuals, those who identify as attracted all genders, and bisexuals do not see their identities as interchangeable.[12] Flanders argues:

There are more similarities than differences in the way bisexual, pansexual, and queer people conceptualize their identities. In these cases, it potentially makes sense for our different subcommunities under the umbrella to band together and advocate for recognition and inclusion of non-monosexual people. The finding that so many of us simultaneously embody multiple umbrella identities, such as bisexual and queer, further supports this union.[13]

However, there still remains the issue that bisexuality seems to reinforce a binary, while identities such as pansexuality and queerness “facilitate openness to more genders beyond the binary.”[14] Although people identify in more similar ways than they might think, it all comes down to the word: bisexuality. It has its own implications and histories that some people do not feel connected to or feel they should confront. Research has shown, however, that bisexual people are not more likely to think of gender as a binary than pansexual people are.[15] In a recent study of how bisexual and pansexual people utilize binary language, it was found that bisexual people used more binary language than pansexual people, but this was largely when they discussed their own attractions, and they were just as likely to use nonbinary language as pansexual people were.[16]

Pansexual and Queer Identities: How Do They Differ from Bisexuality?

Pansexuality is a more ambiguous and fluid identity that evolved out of an “alphabet soup of identities and transgressing identities.”[17] On the conception of pansexuality, Autumn Elizabeth writes:

[Pansexuality] developed as reactions to the binary system—even a system that includes the concept of bisexuality. Such systems confine human experiences in small boxes that are insufficient to contain the reality of those experiences. There are so many experiences that clearly do not fit into these LGB boxes, no matter how satisfying it was to add the B to LG.[18]

The author makes the important point that some experiences could not be expressed with the word bisexual. Another term related to bisexuality and pansexuality is the term “queer,” which is understood as its own kind of umbrella that sometimes refers to “a range of sexual identities that are ‘not straight.’”[19] It is used very differently in academic and political contexts as “a term that calls into question the stability of any such categories of identity based on sexual orientation.”[20]

To “queer” is to “denaturalize” heteronormativity and recognize terms such as “straight,” “heterosexual,” “lesbian,” and “gay” as constructed identities with social and historical contexts.[21] The term queer has been reclaimed from a stigmatizing one to an empowering one; it was especially used during AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s.[22] It was “meant to be confrontational- opposed to gay assimilationists and straight oppressors while inclusive of people who have been marginalized by anyone in power.”[23]

Queering Race

Heteronormativity, or the emphasis within society on heterosexuality and normalization of it, is completed constructed.[24] Similarly, race is a social construct that should be looked at alongside heteronormativity. Siobhan Somerville writes:

Heteronormativity itself must be understood, then, as a racialized concept, since “[racially] marginal group members, lacking power and privilege although engaged in heterosexual behavior, have often found themselves defined as outside the norms and values of dominant society”- This insistence on putting questions of race at the center of queer approaches has been vigorously argued most recently in a body of scholarship identified as “queer of color critique.”[25]

Heteronormativity can be understood as racialized, according to Siobhan Somerville, because it reproduces similar power structures, values, and norms that place certain groups outside of society.

In a 2011 study with female college students who identified as both multiracial or biracial and bisexual or pansexual, Alissa R. King writes that literature on multiracial identity blends into literature on socially constructed identities such as bisexuality.[26] Those who identified as multiracial or bisexual went through similar processes related to both identities: “trying on” different versions of self, negotiating different sides to their identities, and finding somewhere they fit, a college campus, for example.

[27]Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe constantly negotiates questions of race, gender, fluidity, sexuality, and identity in her music, and she recently came out. In an interview, she mentioned identifying with both bisexuality and pansexuality, which set both communities off on missions to claim her under their label on Twitter. She never really clarified which she would call herself, although she did refer to herself as a “queer black woman in America.”[28] A Slate article titled “Can Androids Be Pansexual?” recently responded to the question, “So what is she, exactly?”:

Let’s get one thing straight (er, or not)—Janelle is whatever Janelle wants to be. It’s not up to us to categorize her. Haven’t you been listening? She will defy every label! Plus, in the interview, she says she once identified as bisexual, but then also identified with aspects of pansexuality. In her words, “I’m open to learning more about who I am.” It sounds like she’s on a journey that may or may not end at a particular label. But, yeah, she “has been in relationships with both men and women,” so at the very least we can say she’s living under the broad non-monosexual umbrella.

[29]The article then went on to discuss the differences between being “bi” and being “pan,” which they discussed as being somewhat of a personal preference or comfort.[30] Later, the author even dives into the word “queer” and expresses that essentially, all of these terms have become more fluid.[31] This suggests that things may already be starting to change in terms of uniting different identities.

Uniting Bisexual, Pansexual, and Queer Identities

The debate between these terms will continue because terms are important: they have meanings, stigmas, memories, and symbols attached to them. They help people express who they are. Terms are also very unimportant, however. Bisexual, pansexual, queer, whatever: we are human. We do need terms, but sometimes they need to be put aside. The unification of all those in the bi+, pan and queer communities, while each community still identified with its word, would be such a strength in terms of confronting hatred and heteronormative structures. Three non-binary identities united together would create a force that would even help transform the LGBTQ+ community, and it may have already started. The question remains, how can these three identities begin to come together in the future.

Citations

[1]Corey E. Flanders, “Defining Bisexuality: Young Bisexual and Pansexual People’s Voices,” Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 17, no. 1 (2017): 40, accessed March 5, 2018, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15299716.2016.1227016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “What is Bisexuality?”, Bisexual Resource Center, accessed March 5, 2018, https://biresource.org/resources/youth/what-is-bisexuality/.

[4] Robyn Ochs, “Why Women Refuse the Label “Bisexual,” In the Family: The Magazine for Queer People and Their Loved Ones (2001): 5, https://robynochs.com/why-women-refuse-the-label-bisexual/.

[5] Miranda Rosenblum, “The U.S. Bisexual+ Movement: A #BiWeek History Lesson,” GLAAD, accessed April 8, 2018, https://www.glaad.org/blog/us-bisexual-movement-biweek-history-lesson?page=8&response_type=embed.

[6] Ochs, Why Women Refuse the Label “Bisexual.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Corey E. Flanders, “Under the Bisexual Umbrella: Diversity of Identity and Experience,” Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 17, no. 1 (2017): 1, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15299716.2017.1297145?needAccess=true.

[10] Flanders, Under the Bisexual Umbrella, 1.

[11] Ibid., 2.

[12] Ibid., 2

[13] Ibid, 3.

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Flanders, Defining Bisexuality, 52.

[16] M. Paz Galupo, Johanna L. Ramirez and Lex Pulice-Farrow, “’Regardless of Their Gender’: Descriptions of Sexual Identity among Bisexual, Pansexual, and Queer Identified Individuals,” Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 17, no. 1(2017): 119,  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15299716.2016.1228491?needAccess=true.

[17] Autumn Elizabeth, “Challenging the Binary: Sexual Identity That Is Not Duality,” Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 13, no. 3 (2013): 332, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15299716.2013.813421?needAccess=true.

[18] Ibid., 334.

[19] Siobhan B. Somerville, “Queer,” “Keywords for American Cultural Studies,” NYU Press (2007), accessed May 10, 2018, http://keywords.nyupress.org/american-cultural-studies/essay/queer/.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Somerville, Queer.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Alissa R. King, “Environmental Influences on the Development of Female College Students Who Identify as Multiracial/Biracial-Bisexual/Pansexual,” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 52, no. 4 (2011): 440, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/446120/pdf.

[27] Ibid., 446-448.

[28] Lena Wilson, “Can Androids Be Pansexual?”, Slate, April 26, 2018, accessed May 10, 2018, https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/04/janelle-monaes-historic-coming-out-explained.html.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Wilson, Can Androids Be Pansexual?

[31] Ibid.

Bibliography

Elizabeth, Autumn. “Challenging the Binary: Sexual Identity That Is Not Duality.” Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 13, no. 3 (2013). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15299716.2013.813421?needAccess=true.

 

Flanders, Corey E. “Defining Bisexuality: Young Bisexual and Pansexual People’s Voices.” Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 17, no. 1 (2017). Accessed March 5, 2018. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15299716.2016.1227016.

 

Flanders, Corey E. “Under the Bisexual Umbrella: Diversity of Identity and Experience.” Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 17, no. 1 (2017). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15299716.2017.1297145?needAccess=true

 

Galupo, M. Paz, Johanna L. Ramirez and Lex Pulice-Farrow. “‘Regardless of Their Gender’: Descriptions of Sexual Identity among Bisexual, Pansexual, and Queer Identified Individuals.” Journal of Bisexuality, vol. 17, no. 1(2017). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15299716.2016.1228491?needAccess=true.

 

King, Alissa R. “Environmental Influences on the Development of Female College Students Who Identify as Multiracial/Biracial-Bisexual/Pansexual.” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 52, no. 4 (2011). https://muse.jhu.edu/article/446120/pdf.

 

Ochs, Robyn. “Why Women Refuse the Label “Bisexual,” In the Family: The Magazine for Queer People and Their Loved Ones (2001). https://robynochs.com/why-women-refuse-the-label-bisexual/.

 

Rosenblum, Miranda, “The U.S. Bisexual+ Movement: A #BiWeek History Lesson.” GLAAD. Accessed April 8, 2018. https://www.glaad.org/blog/us-bisexual-movement-biweek-history-lesson?page=8&response_type=embed.

 

Somerville, Siobhan B. “Queer.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies. NYU Press (2007). Accessed May 10, 2018. http://keywords.nyupress.org/american-cultural-studies/essay/queer/.

 

“What is Bisexuality?” Bisexual Resource Center. Accessed March 5, 2018. https://biresource.org/resources/youth/what-is-bisexuality/.

 

Wilson, Lena. “Can Androids Be Pansexual?”. Slate. April 26, 2018. Accessed May 10, 2018. https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/04/janelle-monaes-historic-coming-out-explained.html.

 

 

 

 

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