The “two” in “bisexual”

As Jen pointed out in a comment a few days ago, The Bisexual Index has a great take on which two things the “bi” in “bisexuality” really refers to:

Bisexual isn’t about there being only “two sexes”

Some people get hung up on the ‘bi’ and protest that gender isn’t binary. In traditional dictionaries:

  • Homosexual is defined as “attracted to the same sex”
  • Heterosexual is defined as “attracted to the opposite sex”

So why then dismiss bisexuality as being about “men and women” when the definitions of hetero- and homo- don’t mention those? In this modern age with a wider understanding of gender some would re-state those as:

  • Homosexual means “attracted to people of broadly the same gender”
  • Heterosexual means “attracted to people of broadly a different gender”

In fact many people say there’s more than two genders, but if two options are either “the same as me” or “different to me” then we think it’s clear that “both” can refer to those two options rather than two perceived sexes.

I love this. Really love it. I’ve written here before about finding the word “bisexual” problematic but feeling strongly about using it anyway. In the past few days, as this way of thinking sinks into my psyche, I’m feeling less like the word is really all that flawed.

There are a lot of genders different from my own (and each other), and several that are similar to mine as well. But I’m perfectly comfortable describing my sexuality as attraction to both similar and different genders. It’s not always the similarities or differences that I get off on or that draw me to someone (though sometimes it is), but as a way of describing the group of people I might potentially be interested in, it works for me. It’s big enough to not make anyone invisible or deny their existence.

If I continue to have a problem with the word, it’s that it implies one is both hetero- and homosexual in a way that encourages people to refer to a bisexual’s “queer portion” or “straight half”. As far as I’m concerned bisexuality is a complete identity in and of itself, not a mishmash of other things. It doesn’t look like a pie chart unless you want it to. But, while it’s something to keep thinking about, I can deal with that for now. I don’t think any of the other words at my disposal are much better.

My very sincere thanks to The Bisexual Index for pointing this out to me. It’s delightful.

31 Responses to “The “two” in “bisexual””

  1. 1 jess
    7 May 2009 at 2:37 pm


    Thanks for this. I’m trying to think about it, and I really appreciate the ways you’ve encouraged/inspired me to rethink my resistance to the “bi” in “bisexual,” but my initial reaction to this is:

    “same as” and “different from” still feels binary to me — though I really appreciate how you’re complicating “different” and showing how multiple that could look.

    Maybe it’s that I perceive my own gender identity (and many other people’s) as too complicated and shifting to even know what “same as” might mean in relation to it, so … ?

    Lots of questions, and appreciations for your work and thoughts.



    • 2 Aviva
      8 May 2009 at 10:26 pm


      I’m definitely still in process on it, as well. Most of what I’m thinking about right now is how binary-supporting “hetero-” and “homosexual” are as well, and whether there’s even a way to express gender-related attraction in words that won’t reinforce the binary. Because “queer” almost does it, but it’s so broad as to not even talk about gender. Which is fine in a lot of ways, but not specific enough for people who are more “mono”sexual. And at least currently invisibilizing for people who aren’t, since as you observed people tend to hear “queer” as “politicized gay.” At this point I think I’ve concluded that the language just isn’t designed for the things I want to say, and the best route is to invest words with the meaning I want them to have. “Similar” and “different” are certainly a much less strict binary than “man” and “woman” or “same” and “opposite;” it might be the best I have to work with. (And I want to note that, while The Bisexual Index used “same,” I was careful to use “similar.” Which I think does open the binary some — placing things near me or somewhat farther, rather than in the same place as me or in some other clearly-defined place.)

      I hear you on how comparing someone else’s gender to your own seems to tie yours down. I think I have less of that, since while my gender is evolving, it also stays in one general location. (Talk about tempting fate.) I think for me that would be part of what’s similar or different — whether someone had similar fluidity, for example — but if it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right. I know how much “different” encompasses when I say it, but it might be risky to do when other people aren’t sure to hear that in my words. And I’m not entirely comfortable defining attraction based on similarity or difference. I’m not in the “gender is irrelevant” camp (more on that soon), but I don’t have one kind of attraction to similar genders and another to different in the way that language might imply.

      Thanks for all your feedback! I’m glad you’ve gotten so much out of reading. I have to admit that I kind of love how thorny all of this is, that there can be so much back and forth on it. I love the things it forces me to think about. Thanks for joining in.


      • 3 jess
        12 May 2009 at 2:24 am

        aah — i didn’t even catch your switch from “same” to “similar”! that’s what i get for being a too-fast blog reader. oy. that is so subtly substantive. more to mull over. thank you …

        • 2 July 2009 at 7:19 am

          Actually, you’re right. “Similar” is much better than “same”, so I’ve altered the article to say “similar”.

          I’m loving this discussion, it’s great to see people actually discussing these terms rather than accepting they either fit (and there shouldn’t be any others) or don’t fit (and there’snothing to be done about that).


          • 5 V.
            31 March 2010 at 2:33 pm

            Thanks! I’m glad I could be helpful.

            I agree. I love the discussion on this, much more than the two options you outline.

  2. 7 May 2009 at 9:00 pm

    If you’re worried about bi being considered “both gay and straight”, you could describe “straight” as the *lack* of attraction to similarly-gendered people, and so on. This leaves bisexuality as neither gay, nor straight, nor any combination thereof.

    Or how about the football analogy: someone who cares little for whether the football is played by Man U or Arsenal is definitely not *both* a Man U supporter *and* an Arsenal fan. They’re a neutral—neither. Even if they want Arsenal to win *this* particular game, they’re still not a Gunner.

    • 7 Aviva
      8 May 2009 at 10:37 pm

      I’m not big on neutral/neither, for various reasons I’m planning to write about soon. (Even “neither” implies a binary, in rejecting both options.) And I could define gay and straight that way, but I’m not sure it would take, and language isn’t useful if no one else understands what I mean by it.

      • 12 May 2009 at 11:10 pm

        ‘Even “neither” implies a binary, in rejecting both options.’

        I disagree with this. I think it implies at least a trinary: neither gay, nor straight—therefore there must be a third possibility (and possibly more).

        When it comes to discussions of “gay or straight”, sometimes it’s necessary to make it clear that bi-ness *is* a separate thing. Here, “neither” is sensible as an explanation by counter-example. It doesn’t mean you’re defining yourself by what you’re *not*.

        I think for some people, this is like trying to grok Schrödinger’s Cat: “So, what?—the cat’s dead *and* alive? Neither? Both? Eh?! Aaagh!”

  3. 9 adrianlang
    8 May 2009 at 2:45 am

    So what about Pansexuality? Sounds like a suitable term.

    • 10 Aviva
      8 May 2009 at 10:32 pm

      I, um…just don’t like it? Because of who uses it, it carries all sorts of implications that just aren’t me — woo woo paganism, etc. That’s just not how my life works. And I’m not willing to abandon “bisexual” to the people who feel that it’s closed-minded and binary and say that only the enlightened new sex radicals can see things as they really are. I feel an affinity with the bisexual movement and community.

      • 11 Daomadan
        9 May 2009 at 9:53 am

        I also use “bisexual” because I don’t want to see it abandoned to people who think, just as you said, that it’s close-minded, binary, etc. I sometimes say “omnisexual” to try and express how I am not just interested in two genders but many, but it never sounds right to me.

      • 12 Sheena
        10 May 2009 at 8:04 pm

        I think about this in the context of “yin” and “yang” within classical Taoist thought where the Taiji (the symbol of the yin and yang people are familiar with) shows that the yin and yang contain a portion of the other within itself. Similarly, in the I Ching, the solid and broken lines represent the “yin” and “yang” but are meaningless without being in permutations of three lines to form the “ba gua” or the 8 pieces that fit together to form the hexagrams of the I Ching, so in a sense Absolute Yang is represented by 6 solid lines and absolute Yin is represented as 6 broken lines, and then there are 62 variations of solid and broken lines. So, the “binary” of Yin and Yang are the extremes in a spectrum…similar to a lot of what gender theorists talk about. Following that thought, there’s nothing wrong with using the word “bisexual” to describe being attracted to people who fall anywhere on the gender spectrum.

        And I agree, I don’t like the word “pansexual” or “omnisexual” because it sounds funny to me.

        As I explained in a previous post, I suppose my idea of “bisexuality” that fits with my identity is more on the side of I’m attracted to “femininity” regardless of the gender identity or genital morphology of the person. In that regard, I don’t think “pansexual” or “omnisexual” fit with what I’m actually attracted to.

        • 13 V.
          31 March 2010 at 2:40 pm

          That’s an interesting thought, that there are sets of attraction “bisexual” would work for that “omnisexual” or “pansexual” wouldn’t. I keep coming back to wishing that we had language that defined what we were attracted to based on itself (words for attraction to femininity, masculinity, men, women, queer genders, all genders, queers, straight people, etc) rather than based on comparison to ourselves (different from mine, similar to mine, and both). That would make me happy, and seems like it would also give you more accurate ways of expressing your attractions in a word.

  4. 14 liza-lou
    8 May 2009 at 3:30 am

    ooh, I like the idea of neutral-neither! Like who gives a f*#k about gender at all!

    Aviva, nice to see some action around here at Bi-Furious! Thank you for your always thoughtful posts.

    • 15 Aviva
      8 May 2009 at 10:37 pm

      Thanks! What with all of the positive reinforcement around here, I might actually manage to keep up the habit.

  5. 16 Morne
    8 May 2009 at 9:41 am

    Adrian: for me, the word “pansexual” just has too many implications of promiscuity, and attraction to absolutely anything, for me to want to use it. I have a theory, though I could be totally wrong, that the word is named after the god Pan, because of this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pan_(mythology)#Erotic_aspects

    But I dunno. I think I mostly have a prejudice against the word because I first saw it used in an article about how rats tend to go crazy in crowded conditions, with increasing incidences of cannibalism and stuff like that. The article said some of the male rats exhibited pansexualism, which I think was basically defined there as attempting to have sex with all the other rats.

    • 17 Aviva
      8 May 2009 at 10:48 pm

      My understanding is that the “pan” comes from the Greek prefix meaning “all.” As in all genders, not all people.

      I haven’t encountered “pansexual” carrying that kind of implication; I think pansexuals probably vary about as much as other people that way. Nor would I avoid a word because it had undertones of promiscuity — I don’t think promiscuity is a bad thing, and I wouldn’t feel soiled to be associated with a promiscuous sexuality. Of course, I’m a slut. A discerning one, but still, I imagine even most slutty pansexuals are. And it can be uncomfortable to have something implied about one that isn’t true even when it’s not a bad thing, but I think that the way people go out of their way to clarify that THEY’RE not gay/bi/kinky/poly/slutty even though of course there’s nothing wrong with being so says something about whether they really feel there’s something wrong with being so.

  6. 9 May 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Actually… in my experience, the idea that bi people are also attracted to people who are neither clearly male nor clearly female seems to be pretty well-understood.

    However, that could just be a reinforcement of the idea that everyone is “really” either male or female.

    • 19 V.
      31 March 2010 at 2:42 pm

      And therefore the not-clearly-male-or-female people bisexuals are attracted to are actually either male or female, really, and fall into the “bi” that way? (Just making sure I understood you).

  7. 14 May 2009 at 3:10 pm

    I’m a little unwell right now so this won’t flow as prettily as I might like it to but:

    Binary things. Black|White Yes|No

    Gay|Straight Homo|Hetero

    So screw the spelling of the word, “bisexual” inherently doesn’t damn fit on a binary. It’s the |Grey| or |Rainbow| mucking up the simplicity of black and white, the |Maybe|, the |Sometimes|, the |Either|And|. The most binary “bisexual” gets is to have this cover that might let it sneak in past binary thinkers’ defences as a trojan horse to blow their whole simple one-dimensional world open.

    The more I come across people trying to make out that my bisexuality undermines my genderqueerity, the less I damn believe it and the more sure of the exact opposite I get.

  8. 22 ShannonB
    20 May 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Well, since pansexual is out, you could always go with omnisexual. Ommisexual is pansexual without the baggage.

    • 23 amethyst1
      26 May 2009 at 2:05 pm

      I like polysexual, rather than pan sexual. Being attracted to more than one gender doesn’t necessarily mean attracted to all genders.

      • 24 V.
        31 March 2010 at 2:44 pm

        Also true. If I were looking for a different word I’d like this one (though I think I may be attracted to all genders at least sometimes. Just not all people embodying them.)

    • 25 V.
      31 March 2010 at 2:45 pm

      I could, but I’m not actually looking for another word. I’m happy with “bisexual.”

  9. 26 I'm a bibrarian
    31 May 2009 at 3:43 am

    I love this discussion. Aviva, I love how you said you just dont like the word pansexual. Because I’m the same way. I don’t judge others who use it, but for myself, I dont like it. One reason is that many times when I’ve heard someone describe what “pansexual” means, they’ve called it a new and improved version of “bisexual”–that unlike “bisexual”, it acknowledges many genders and isnt transphobic. I’ve definitely heard it used very biphobicly and it’s turned me off.

    I really like the “similar”/”different” gender thing, and I’ve definitely used that myself. That’s an awesome way to explain the “bi” thing. On the other hand, I’m getting to the point were I’m like, why can’t we just completely fuck the fact that word bisexual has “bi” in it! Why should we have to answer to that? I’m over it. The literal breakdown of the word has so little to do with what it actually means to many bi people. Yes, many bis are transphobic and only see 2 genders, but just as many queers, gay, lesbian and straight people do too. It’s a problem, but it’s not any more of a problem for bis than it is for everyone else. So let’s all work together to call it out.

    There’s so much history and community in the word “bisexual”. I dont even know where I would be without it. If my school’s LGBT Center was called the Lesbian and Gay Center, I wouldn’t have gone in. Because I’m just as lesbian as I am straight..not at all. The only reason I mustered the guts to go there was because I saw the word “bisexual” in the name, read it over and over to myself, and convinced myself that if that word were in the name of the center, there had to have been at least one bi before me to put it there, there had to have been at least some other people like me. That’s the purpose of this word, to connect us. And not at the expense of others. Past bis have taken way too much shit for us-for us to just throw the word away.

    Like I said, I have absolutely loved this discussion; thanks for everyone’s comments.

    • 27 V.
      31 March 2010 at 2:54 pm

      I agree; the way “pansexual” is sometimes used to condemn people using “bisexual” as unenlightened definitely turns me off.
      And I’d also love it if we could just get past having to answer for the “bi” in bisexual. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, though, and I hope that discussions like this one are doing part of the reframing that needs to be done to get us there. There are people who feel really discounted by the “bi” in bisexual. I’d like to answer those concerns, not paint over them in my rush to get to an easier future. (This isn’t a criticism of your readiness to be at that point. I’m ready, too. Just still working at it so everyone else will be.)

  10. 10 June 2009 at 7:56 pm

    I worry that all “there are many genders that aren’t my own that I might be attracted to,” makes being “queer” this incredibly idealistic (in the sense of being not material) rather than, *ahem* firmly grounded in the body.

    I don’t think that suggesting that something is embodied (and about physiology, as well as the verb) rather than about gender a more abstract concept of attraction is necessarily essentializing, in the way that I suspect many people fear.

    So while gender–particularly insofar as it fails to correspond with normative ideas regarding embodiment–may perform a particularly influential role in the emergence of [bisexual] attraction (or whatever we want to call it), but I think our problems with bisexual as a term grown not from our discomfort with gender diversity, but rather with sex and with bodies.

    my approach is to disconnect the socially constructed labels and identities (etc. “lesbian,” “gay,” “fag,” “dyke,”) in such a way as to make them more open to all sorts of people rather than develop new categories to cover the real diversity. Attraction is diverse enough that no matter what identities exist, no matter happens, there’s always a disconnect between the expereinces of people and the identities in which they participate.

    So I’ve been known to lump any guy who is attracted to/sleeps with other guys into a “fag” category (because in the history of people using the word fag to refer to guys who slept with guys, no one seems to really dither over the difference between the “I only sleep with guys” folks and the “I sometimes sleep with guys” folks, and why should I, that division doesn’t always mean much.) I’ve known enough lesbians who sometimes sleep with male-folks, to know that that line isn’t always as firm as we’d like to believe.

    Identities are not simply culturally constrained. But also historically constrained. The label that applies to me in today’s world isn’t always going to work for me or for people who feel the same kinds of attractions that I have, and I try to keep this in mind as I participate in these kinds of politics.

    But annnyway…

  11. 29 Adam
    25 June 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Similiar to another thing I usually can’t be bothered to debate about – is atheism a belief or a disbelief?

    • 30 Sheena
      31 March 2010 at 4:11 pm

      Okay, totally off topic but this is one of my pet peeves.

      First, let’s dismiss the popular use of the words atheist and agnostic as contrary to theist.

      The “A” is a Greek prefix that means “without”

      Atheism would be then be belief system that maintains that there is no demiurge (Creator Deity) as an explanation. As it is, natural processes tend to be favored among most (all) atheists.

      But then there are “atheistic” religions/philosophies/spiritualities: Buddhism for one. The question of Deity and Ontology was left open by the Buddha. Buddhism definitely has a different paradigm than secular humanism for its atheism, but it isn’t irreconcilable either.

      Agnosticism. Most lay people use this to mean “doubt” or “unsure” when it really describes what should be the scientific presupposition. “A” and “Gnosis” without knowledge. Agnosticism is an epistemological position. If we compare the Rationalist versus the Empiricists, knowledge is either innate (a priori) or learned (a posteriori). In this manner, agnosticism would state that since there has been neither an innate or sense experience of a deity, then one cannot have “knowledge” of a deity, so until otherwise proved wrong, most people who are agnostic reason by the law of induction that there’s probably no god.

      In this since, I am an atheist Buddhist with the attitude that certain “ultimate answers” are intrinsically beyond our ability to “know” and as such we will never “know” so I’m going with the approach that if I walk off a cliff, then I will fall and this happens every time I’ve seen it, so let’s call it Gravity…that’s much simpler than saying that we fall off of cliffs because the Devil pulls harder than God.

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