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labels are for cans, because sometimes it’s nice to know what’s in them

September 23, 2010

Today is “Celebrate Bisexuality Day” (or Bi Pride Day, or Bi Visibility Day, or any of a handful of other names for it).  I’m celebrating with…a blog post.  Not as exciting as anything someone with half an imagination and any exposure whatsoever to popular stereotypes might suggest, but hey.  As exciting as my life is these days, it seems like a good way to celebrate, and it provides a nice excuse for me to get on my virtual soapbox, too.

So, what is it that everyone is supposed to be celebrating today?  I could throw you a dictionary definition of “bisexuality” and start dissecting it, but honestly I think we’re all on the same page (or at least in the same book): when we talk about bisexuality, we’re referring to something that’s not hetero- or homosexuality, an attraction to more than just men or more than just women.

That definition was surprisingly difficult to keep vague enough to describe the many things people call bisexuality.

Some people who identify as bi say that they’re simply genderblind, “attracted to people, not parts;” for some, they’re into both men and women equally, but only the most masculine guys and femmiest of femmes, “the football players and the cheerleaders.”  Others, contrary to a lot of popular belief, have nothing even approximating an equal attraction to men and women, and I’m not even going to get into the variations on genderqueer and its associated linguistic, political, and philosophical can of worms.  Some bi folks say they fall in love with men but love to sleep with women (and vice versa); others have no experience with one sex or the other, or have no experience at all with either.  And this is just a sampling, really, of the variations I’ve heard.  Of course, this all has a flip-side, too; there are folks who don’t identify as bi who have been attracted to both men and women, along with folks who actively pursue one gender or the other (or both) while professing a seemingly incompatible sexual identity.

Obviously, this is kind of a mess.  There are two main approaches to dealing with it (other than just using the term anyway) that I’ve run across.

One: “let’s use a more obscure (or newly-coined) term to describe our particular brand of sexuality, since it clearly defies/is more specific than existing labels.”  This is like talking about a tree, but calling it a pinus taeda.  Or maybe, calling a tree a grishuckle, or a yormdoodle, or another nonsense word.  It’s great for people who know what the hell you’re talking about, but there are other people in the world, and it’s sometimes nice to interact with them, too.  It’s really hard to do that if you’re speaking your own language about these things.  Not very useful.

Two: “labels are for cans!”  I get grumpy about this one.  It’s like refusing to talk about a tree altogether.  What?  How is that helpful?

I get the frustration here, I really do.  Labels can be ambiguous or confusing, and more often than not come with a boatload of assumptions and stereotypes (especially about something as touchy as sexuality).  At the end of the day, though, we use labels because they’re useful.  It’s helpful to refer to a tree as a tree, even if it doesn’t paint the whole picture, and even if it brings up nasty tree stereotypes (…yeah so I may have taken this example too far).

So my two cents?  Use the label.  It’s descriptive, and it means approximately what you want it to.  If it isn’t descriptive enough for your purposes all the time, explain yourself (“I’m bi, but for me, that doesn’t mean I want to sleep with you“).  The nasty stereotypes that come with it?  Fight them.  The annoying assumptions that follow it everywhere?  Educate people.  It can be an uphill battle, but it’s worth it.

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