This is the first part in a two-part series about intentionally including bi+ (plus) labels other than “bi” in bi+ (plus) activism. The first part breaks down the center of the issue: cisgender privilege, inclusion of transgender people in our movement, and non-binary erasure.
When I first conceived the idea for this article, I immediately became weary. Anyone intimately involved with the bi+ (plus) community in the U.S. knows the anxiety, pain, and even mistrust that can be—and has been—caused by what is often referred to as the “label wars.” When you have an identity as diverse as those of us attracted or drawn to more than one gender and/or no gender, you’ll find that people have different lived experiences. It’s inevitable that some people will then find a variety of language to describe those experiences.
I tend to avoid those blood-pressure raising debates, but, I often wonder, whenever they surface: how did we get to this point? More than anything, I wanted to write this article because I fear a tipping point, a splinter in a community that—other than the words we use to identify ourselves – has the exact same issues and needs (as it relates to our sexual/romantic/relational orientation). And it’s a rip that, once it’s begun, I fear may never be repaired.
But to begin healing, individually and collectively, cisgender bi+ (plus) folks must wrestle with the truth that, as writer and activist Adrian Ballou states, “All labels about romantic/sexual attraction have gender wrapped up in them [not just bi+ (plus) ones],” and, they go on to say, for this and other reasons, transgender and non-binary people should be at the center of our movement. To that end, most of the concepts and ideas I will discuss in this article I have learned from transgender and non-binary people. They have given of their labor publicly, through their work and culture creation, and privately with me. And that public labor is as it should be, because we can only learn about marginalized communities by listening to them.
When I think of this issue, I think back to my own coming out experience and identity development. As I wrote recently, I came out as bisexual in October 2007. According to writer Kaylee Jakubowski, internet presence for the term “pansexuality” appeared around the same time, in September 2007.
I’m a cisgender woman; that is, when I was born, the doctor said, “It’s a girl!” based on my genitalia. (Totally weird, right? But that’s how cisgender supremacy works.) And, as I grew into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, I’ve identified as a girl and woman. That experience and process makes me cis. Like all cis people, regardless of sexual orientation, I benefit from a society that legitimizes my identity and experiences of, in this case, womanhood. Yes, even as a Black, fat, disabled person, though those marginalized experiences certainly complicate how people perceive and validate (or not) my gender and cisness, I still benefit—greatly, systematically—from that privileged identity.
As a result, when I first came out as bisexual, at 20, I understood there to only be two genders: men and women. And men had penises and testes while women had vaginas and ovaries, unless by accident or illness they had to be altered or removed. I exist(ed) in a society that told me that this was the only way. That privilege and, by extension, the perpetuation of transgender folks’ oppression, even if I wasn’t completely “conscious” of it at that time, was all that I knew.
The truth, though, is that I was—and still am—indeed attracted to more than just cisgender men and women and, furthermore, attracted to more than just men and women period. But a cissexist, gender-binaried society means that I had neither the knowledge to understand that nor the language to express that at the time.
That doesn’t make that erasure and, quite frankly, violence okay—by any means; the ways that I thought, spoke, and behaved were (and still are) fucked up—and it has real consequences. There’s nothing to do but to own that shit, especially when I continue to benefit from it, no matter how “woke” I may be today.
However, that’s the reality for many people who choose the label “bisexual” or “biromantic.” This is part of why bi leaders specifically assert that, in terms of who we’re attracted or drawn to, “bi” has always included transgender people and has always included genders outside of the binary. Not necessarily for everyone—some individual people are legitimately only attracted or drawn to men and women—but, for many of us, this experience is the case, even if we didn’t always know it.
In addition, while that ignorance may influence the label decision for some of us, choosing those labels is influenced by many things that have absolutely nothing to do with the bi antagonistic idea that bisexual and biromantic people “uphold the gender binary” simply by way of our label choice. Some of these reasons are generational, cultural, and educational. Furthermore, in terms of generations, it’s not only our important, precious elders who identify as bi. I’m 30 and, by most accounts, not old—not even close. I have proudly claimed the ‘B’ word for over a decade. And younger generations continue to use it. It’s not going anywhere. If we want to build a movement that fights to dismantle ageism, racism and ethnocentrism, classism, and education privilege, we need to acknowledge all of these and recognize their legitimacy. Otherwise, who the hell are we fighting for?
In fact, transgender people who belong to the bi+ (plus) community have written about this topic at length, including Jakubowski, to whom I linked previously. Bisexual activist Aud Traher states, “If you feel the need to pick apart, ditch, or otherwise get rid of the word ‘bisexual,’ you are harming transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary people who identify as bisexual. […]it causes people to become depressed, anxious, or to self-harm.”
Cisgender people who choose other labels for their attraction or connection to more than one gender or agender folks don’t somehow get a pass on trans antagonism and non-binary hate and erasure. And you don’t get to use your faux superiority (and it is false) as a punching bag against those of us who identify as bi. Period. If you truly care about transgender and non-binary people, you’d listen to the voices telling you that the word “bi” is not the problem.
However, the fact of the matter is, as Adrian Ballou wrote in 2015, the bi+ (plus) movement (distinct from individual people and our attractions) has a long history of cissexism, cisgender supremacy, and trans and especially non-binary erasure. This is a fact, an indisputable fact that no amount of “But we included [insert well-known trans bi+ (plus) elder/activist here] in our [insert list of historical figures, current movement builders, or event here]!” can erase.
We must face the truth head on. And pointing that out is not, contrary to what some may believe, an attack on bi-labelled cisgender people. Cissexism is and has been rampant in Black movements, disability movements, feminist movements, immigration movements, and so on and so on. It’s entrenched in our society, so it’s entrenched in our movements. All of them. Every. Single. One.
I wanted to start this short series with the backdrop of cisgender privilege and trans inclusion and visibility because, as Jakubowski highlights, “[Pansexuality and other “plus” identities are] tightly entwined into the politics of genderqueer and non-binary activism, awareness, and progress…” Transgender issues, including non-binary erasure, are ultimately at the center of this entire label struggle within our community. There is, quite literally, no way to talk about our bi+ (plus) elders (known and unknown), our history and movement building, our culture, and our own individual understandings of who we are without also, in some way, grappling with trans and non-binary erasure and our own privilege.
For the next part in this series, I will talk specifically about the “plus” in bi+ (plus): the complicated nature of “queer history,” the need for compassion and reciprocity, and who is responsible to lead this charge, among other things. I hope that you will refrain from commenting extensively until the second part is published. And even then, I hope that all of us will spend more time reflecting rather than talking. Further, note that this is specifically a bi+ (plus) community issue. While this issue is certainly complicated, if you are only attracted to one gender—whether straight or gay/lesbian—respect our community conversations, our need to heal, and our digital space by refraining from inserting yourself.
New York-based social justice warrior Denarii (rhymes with “canary”) Grace is a freelance writer/editor, blues singer-songwriter, poet, aspiring screenwriter, and a long time activist. She holds a B.A. from Rutgers University and is a two-year Pace University Master’s program dropout; she studied English and Adolescent Education, respectively. Denarii is a board member of and the blog editor for the Boston-based non-profit Bisexual Resource Center; she’s also a nonfiction editor at The Deaf Poets Society, an online journal featuring literature and art by D/deaf and disabled people. As a freelance writer, she has written for Bitch Magazine, Black Girl Dangerous, Everyday Feminism, and The Establishment, among several others. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. She has a dog named Dog and a cat named Cat and you will love them, she promises.