Bisexuality: It's not what you think it means

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·7 mins read
A woman is seen holding the bisexual pride flag at a recent Pride March in Chicago. (Photo: Getty Images)
A woman is seen holding the bisexual pride flag at a recent Pride March in Chicago. (Photo: Getty Images)

“Bisexual people are promiscuous.” “Bisexuality is a phase.” “Bisexual people who settle down with a person of one gender are no longer bi.” “Bisexuals don’t exist.” If you’ve ever heard any of these myths and misconceptions about those who identify as bisexual, you’re not alone — and that they persist is the reason behind Bi Visibility Day, on Sept. 23.

Launched by three U.S. activists in 1999 as a way to raise awareness and challenge the “erasure” of “B” from the LGBTQ rainbow, the visibility day is still sticking to its mission. “Because as Bis, we get erased sometimes even by our own partners, as well as wider society, as we are often invisible in relationships where we are read as gay or straight,” explains Jen Yockney, a bi activist who has been running the Bi Visibility Day website, linking to events around the world, since 2001.

That’s despite a recent poll showing that a quarter of Americans identify as something other than straight — rising to over a third when looking at the responses of 18- to 34-year-olds. In the U.K., meanwhile, one in five young people identify as somewhere between straight and gay. In the LGBTQ community as a whole, 52 percent identify as bisexual (including celebrities Lili Reinhart, Megan Fox, Lilly Singh, Daya, Daniel Newman and Halsey).

Many activists took to social media to give a bi-visibility shoutout, including GLAAD’s Black LGBTQ video series, NEON, which posted a video addressing “bi erasure.”

“I think there are several reasons that bi-plus [an all-encompassing umbrella term] erasure and invisibility still occurs, both from gay/lesbian and straight communities,” Kate Estrop, of the Bisexual Resource Center, tells Yahoo Life. “The B is getting more vocal by the day, but there are still many folks out there who think that bisexuality is a phase and not a ‘real’ orientation.”

“We can only tackle a sense of isolation by articulating our identities,” Yockney tells Yahoo Life. “Things like Bi Visibility Day give us a great chance to do that.”

It’s also a great chance to clear up misunderstandings around the actual meaning of bisexuality — which is not, despite its name, tethered to the notion of a gender binary. In other words, rather than simply referring to being attracted to both men and women or to both sexes or genders, it’s all-encompassing, and about being drawn to various sexes and genders, including those who identify as non-binary or transgender.

“Pretty much every bi organization, since at least the ’80s,” Yockney says, “has seen bi as trans- and non-binary inclusive, perhaps because we break those binaries in other ways ourselves, too.”

Mackenzie Harte of GLAAD tells Yahoo Life, “The most important thing about defining any identity is respecting how individual people describe themselves. At GLAAD, our go-to definition for 'bisexual' is "anyone who has the capacity to form enduring physical, romantic, or emotional attractions to those of genders like their own and genders unlike their own.”

One widely accepted and complete definition of bisexuality, first published by activist Robyn Ochs in her 2005 anthology Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World, is this: “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.”

In summation, she wrote, “For me, the bi in bisexual refers to the potential for attraction to people with genders similar to and different from my own.”

Ochs, in fact, flagged to Merriam-Webster.com its outdated, binary-specific definition of the word through a tweet in 2018, and eventually teamed up with GLAAD to lobby for an updated definition. A change was made, Ochs noticed by accident, as part of a “regularly scheduled update,” Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster.com, told NBC News.

Some say it needs to push further still, though it may take some time to pull away from society’s deeply entrenched gender binary.

“We are embedded in a binary culture — a culture that is very comfortable with binaries and uncomfortable with things more complicated than two,” explains Ochs, a frequent college speaker and editor of Bi Women Quarterly. “We have a tendency to take all sorts of complex things and [simplify them] — the political binary, racial binary, gender and sexual orientation binaries — we’re just so good at that, unfortunately. We see what we expect to see… And we have a hard time with anything that’s messy. That’s a big challenge for bi-plus people.”

Estrop concurs, noting, “I think there is still an innate desire that humans have for things to be ‘either/or,’ not ‘and.’ This comes out in our politics (red state or blue state) our ideologies (pro-choice or pro-life) and even our pet preferences (dog person or cat person)… Gay or straight is so much more comfortable to people than bi-plus that they’d rather just forget the option exists altogether.”

So why then, if gender is not strictly binary, not just nix the term “bisexuality” altogether?

“We don’t really use English that way, do we?” says Yockney. “If I marry five people it’s still ‘bigamy.’ We know many gay people aren’t always happy — and loads of lesbians have never even been to Lesbos, let alone were they born there. Bi is the word history has given us, and it’s still the first one people often hear or understand.”

Also, notes Ochs, erasing “bisexual” from language would be erasing part of LGBTQ history. “None of the existing sexual orientation identity words are true to their literal origin… they’ve all changed and evolved over time, but they all have histories which make them important. I’ve identified as bi for 44 years this month. I also identify as pansexual. I also id as queer. But bi is nearest and dearest to my heart. There’s just a way that these words are more than words.”

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