Bisexuality and transphobia

According to the Oxford online dictionary, a bisexual person is someone who is ‘sexually attracted not exclusively to people of one particular gender; attracted to both men and women.’ At first glance, this definition seems to have cissexist and transphobic connotations. However, it goes without saying that discrepancies can exist between language in theory and language in practice.

This article from Pride suggests that mainstream definitions of bisexuality barely scratch the surface of what it means as an identity to individuals in the bi community, and puts forth a definition by the Bisexual Resource Center that describes bisexuality as ‘attraction to genders like our own, plus attraction to genders different from our own’, while the writer of the article itself suggests that bisexuality could exist on a spectrum ‘from a binary attraction to cis men and women, to a more queer, umbrella term that means attraction to more than one gender or all genders’. Of course, expanding the definition of bisexuality raises the question of whether it is even necessary as a label. After all, doesn’t the label of ‘pansexuality’ already exist?

However, it isn’t as simple as that – to better understand the situation, we must first examine the discourse from which these questions stemmed.

In the first place, this issue arose because of how the discourse surrounding the definition of ‘bisexual’ has evolved over time. To begin with, the ‘bi-‘ in bisexual was originally thought to refer to male and female (that is, to subscribe to the idea of binary gender), so pansexual was created as a less biologically based response. Then, the definition of bisexual was broadened to be more trans-inclusive, so bisexual came to refer to ‘own and other genders’. Nowadays, even pansexual individuals sometimes refer to themselves as ‘bisexual’ as a sort of “starter” term when communicating with others who may not necessarily be familiar with queer discourse, especially since the term ‘bisexual’ tends to be more widely recognised and understood than ‘pansexual’ by the general public due to prominence and exposure in the media. However, this doesn’t mean that the two terms are necessarily interchangeable. Rather, the distinction between these terms has now come to lie in individuals’ own subjective understanding and definitions.

While it may seem silly to even spend time trying to tease out the intricacies of labelling, we mustn’t forget that language plays an important role in the construction of identity, particularly for marginalised groups, since renaming challenges the hegemonic discourses and ideologies on which the subordinate status of some groups is predicated and accepted as ‘natural’. While this doesn’t mean that we should blindly accept accept all labels that emerge from the underbelly of the internet, it also doesn’t mean that we should police the labels that people ascribe to themselves or others like themselves, especially if we don’t belong to the same communities as these individuals. Ultimately, what this boils down to is that we should consciously reject narratives that pit marginalised groups against each other and avoid labels which may unintentionally presuppose some notion of normativity (and negative deviation from it).

Author: Kai Wen

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