Same/Different: How Bisexuality and Queerness Overlap and Diverge

Updated March 29, 2016 4:50pm PDT
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Last year, I was asked by a friend to define ‘bisexual’ for the local community college’s LAMBDA brochure.

Though she is the organization’s president, she didn’t feel it was her place to define a sexuality with which she did not identify. Being both bi and in the business of writing, I thought it would be a wonderful chance to clear up misconceptions about bisexuality and gender inclusivity. Still, it took days for me to come up with a concise definition. I wanted to get it right, still knowing that I would not get it right for everyone. 

Words carry baggage; bisexuality has the deluxe matching set.

I wrote:

Bisexuality is when a person is romantically and/or sexually attracted to people of a different gender and the same gender as themselves, though not necessarily to equal degrees.

“But doesn’t ‘bi’ mean ‘two?’”  If we’re going for cut-and-dry etymology, that is indeed the Latin translation. However, let’s not assume that the two subjects we’re discussing are “male” and “female.” The word “bisexual” was coined in the 19th century at the same time as its hetero-and homo-counterparts, which is to say, a time when the study of sexuality did not necessarily extend to discussion of more than two genders.

This “either/or” view has hindered our understanding of bisexuality ever since.

When I talk about the term “bi,” I’m talking about "same" and "different," two concepts that eliminate the idea that bisexuality subscribes to gender binary. By using this definition, we leave room for individual preferences. For example: one can be a bisexual genderfluid person who is attracted to other bisexual genderfluid people and people who do not identify that way. 

For some, attraction is all about finding what we like about ourselves in another person–this can extend to gender identity.

How does the definition of "queer" overlap and differentiate from bisexual?

Queer comes with its own baggage, due in no small part to its recent history as a slur. Older generations have memories of bigoted shouts and playground games called “Smear the queer!”. Queer meant strange, and oftentimes, strange meant wrong. Little by little, the “strange” began to reclaim that word and turned it into a statement of power: “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!”

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This photo, titled "Sexy macho holding rose lesbian lovers in background, threesome" is the seventh result when you search for "bisexual" on Shutterstock. Just FYI.

Similar to being bisexual, identifying as queer varies in definition with each person. For some, a resistance to specific labels equates “queer” with “not straight.” For others, the stereotypes associated with identifying as bisexual are far more damaging for them personally than it would be using the word queer.  When a person claims the “bisexual” label, we’re often inundated assurances and refutations:“it’s just a phase”, we’re called greedy, slutty, or worse, nonexistant

Queer can be an umbrella term that sometimes stops a dismissive conversation–or it can provide an opportunity for the person identifying as queer to articulate what that label means to them, if asked.

According to a recent report from the Williams Institute, roughly 1.8% of people in the United States identify as bisexual, making them slightly more prevalent than the 1.7% of the population who identify as lesbian or gay. Another report from the National Health Interview Survey indicates a smaller percentage of self-identified bisexuals (0.7%), but also reports 1.1% of people declined to answer, said “I don’t know,” or identified as “something else.”

Is that “something else” queer? Of course, it’s up to the individual to say, and not everyone needs to label themselves something that fits neatly into the LGBTQ+ acronym. However, I wonder if the “I don’t know” answers would be lessened were bisexuals (or otherwise somewhere in the middle of Kinsey scale) to have more representation in day-to-day life. 

How often have we seen same-sex marriage referred to as “gay marriage,” or have bisexuals been erased from conversations about “gay and lesbian” issues? How do these attitudes affect how we identify ourselves? A report from the Human Rights Campaign indicates that bisexuals are far less likely to self-report their sexuality, even in an anonymous survey — 59 percent versus 79 percent of gay men and 77 percent of lesbians.

Neither my husband nor I are straight, but we have varying levels of comfort with the label bisexual—while it does account for attraction not being limited to gender, there is something about it that fits like an ill-cut jacket. It’s nice to be part of the LGBTQ+ acronym, but we often feel invisible within it. Not taken seriously. It can be a hard place to live, and I often think it’s easier to dance around the idea, to say things like we’re “equal opportunity.”

Pew Research released a study earlier this year stating that 84% of bisexuals reported being in a relationship with the opposite sex, and 32% of the bisexual women and 23% of bisexual men were married. Since my marriage is in this demographic, it can be disheartening to hear stereotypes about bi or queer people and their supposed inability to maintain a longterm relationship. We’ve been married 13 years, and have been out to each other from the very beginning. I don’t expect our relationship to be the rule when it comes to married not-straight people, but the above percentages point to us not being the only ones.

Our personal approaches to sexuality differ, but in a compatible way. While I want to claim the B in the LGBTQ+ and fight the good fight, to make the orientation less invisible, my husband feels somewhat differently. He told me:

I think a major issue within the movement is the separation of everyone into their own tribes; ‘Queer’ allows for a more umbrella term. It’s nice in the regard that people have some sexual orientation fluidity on some level. Everyone is one thing, until they're not anymore. 

Queer removes the need to re-explain yourself. It also takes back the power of the word from those who would use it to oppress. And then, of course, the punk rock side of me likes to ruffle feathers on any side of the aisle.

I think it's also true that queer indicates more than sexuality. It can indicate gender orientation in terms of relationships that are non-sexual. Queer by its very nature simply means "different," and I like that generalism. I'm willing to sacrifice specificity because what goes on in my private life is not public domain. No one but me and my partners needs specificity. Relationships being qualified as queer don't have to be sexual in orientation. They can be entirely platonic but passionate all the same. A queer relationship is simply a relationship that is passionate, beyond a friendship, without specificity to what sort of plumbing another person is rocking.

Yes, I said, that’s exactly it. I am on board with everything he’s said, even though I more strongly identify as bisexual in addition to queer. Our marriage can be a fully committed one, but our discussion of what that commitment means is productive and ongoing. 

I started and stopped this piece several times because, like when asked for that simple definition of bisexuality, I was plagued with the idea of getting queerness ‘right.’ I can only speak for myself and do my part to elevate the voices of others, but I’m still wrestling with the idea of what all these words mean for me.

One can be both bisexual and queer. Queerness allows room for anything that is non-heteronormative—be it non-monogamy, kink, asexuality while being bi-romantic, trans and gay, or just a nonspecific way of saying, “the rest is maybe none of your business.”

Sexual orientation is definitely a “Your mileage may vary” part of our existence. My discomfort and hesistence to define my sexuality is rooted in the desire not to be hassled, though the in-your-face side of me wants to shout against erasure. We spend all this time bogged down in reminding people that we exist,  and it becomes hard to talk about anything else.

We need to be aware of our own subconscious biases and make sure we’re adapting our language to be more inclusive toward bisexual and queer folk. Let’s move the conversation forward from having to prove our existence and instead share stories about the people out there, already existing. Let’s speak up when we hear others dismissed.

Let’s start with these definitions. Let’s add more. Let’s hold each other up in ways that are satisfying and inclusive. Know that I’m with you.

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Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of micro-fiction. She is a staff writer for Persephone Magazine and the blog editor for Word Riot. She is co-owner of Electric City Creative, an arts promotion/events organization based out of the Great Falls, MT area, which also includes the small press Nouveau Nostalgia. Her book reviews, music commentary, and more appear at Glorified Love Letters.