Dr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa. Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this first part of a two-part essay, Dr. Sumerau reflects on how bisexuality is defined and understood in academia (particularly by heterosexual, lesbian, and gay scholars), which differs greatly from how it is defined and experienced by bisexuals in the real world.
Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part I
I have identified as bisexual since the first time I heard the term at a political rally in the late 1990s. Although I have experienced bisexual attractions and sexual engagements for as long as I can remember, I will never forget the moment an intersex bisexual activist took the stage and provided a sexual definition and label that finally seemed to make sense in relation to my own experiences.
I had driven the hour plus with my boyfriend and best friend (at the time, ze identified as gay and I identified as “heterogay” for lack of a better term). We were there to learn more about transgender and intersex issues because I was considering transitioning and ze had recently learned ze was born intersex, but neither of these things were discussed in the small town where we grew up and neither of us knew much about these issues. We were holding hands under a banner (happy enough just to feel safe holding hands) with the words bisexual, transgender, and intersex printed in purple, and we both felt proud that we knew at least two of the three words when the speaker began zir commentary. In the middle of the definition, we each turned at almost the same moment and ze said, “hey cool, that’s you,” and I said, “wow, that’s me.” I remember feeling an almost immediate sense of relief that at least I was not totally alone in my sexual attractions and desires.
I share versions of this story with students in every course that I teach. I do this for three interrelated reasons. First, after much time spent in communities and libraries learning about the erasure and marginalization of bisexuality by heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities as well as the broader social marginalization of minority groups of all types, I see coming out as both a necessity for (me) living an authentic, honest, and healthy life, and as part of the process whereby such marginalization may be reversed and undone. I come out automatically in classes to raise the issue of taken-for-granted assumptions that benefit some at the expense of others. Second, I can’t forget what it felt like to not know there were other people like me, to believe (as heterosexual and lesbian/gay people often told me and some still do) that I had to “pick a side” as if monosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of beliefs that one is necessarily only attracted to one sex) would be any better than heterosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of heterosexual norms and perspectives). I share this story in case there are others in these classrooms who have yet to learn that bisexuality exists in the world around them.
Third and finally, after years experiencing an academy where bisexuality is defined (usually by cisgender heterosexual and gay/lesbian scholars) much differently than I’ve seen in bisexual communities without academic access, I share my experiences to give students a concrete example of the ways minority experience is socially constructed in mainstream institutions. While I believe each of these three reasons are important for me personally, for students educationally, and for minority communities politically, I would like to focus for a moment on the third reason because it is an ever present experience that I encounter as an openly bisexual teacher and scholar that I rarely hear mentioned outside of hushed conversations in hallways.
I remember very clearly how bisexuality was defined the first time I heard the term, and I’ve heard the same definition throughout my life in non-academic bisexual, intersex, transgender, and queer settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities not affiliated with academic institutions and/or composed primarily of people who never had access to college education). In this tradition of knowledge, bisexuality refers to attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement preferences for (1) one’s own sex and other sexes, (2) cisgender and transgender people, and/or (3) people regardless of genitalia. In each case, the “bi” refers to two distinct possibilities of sexual engagement along a spectrum of bodily and presentational options. Specifically, one may identify as male, but experience attraction to males, females, and intersex people; one may identify as transgender or cisgender but experience attraction to both cisgender and transgender people; or, one may have a clitoris but experience attraction to others regardless of whether they have a clitoris.
As it did in the 1990s, this definition resonates with me and is the one I come across most outside of the academy (and in private within the academy) to this day. No matter whom I have had sexual relations with – intersex, female, or male people, cisgender or transgender people, bisexual (or fluid, queer, pansexual, or other terms more frequently used in academic communities) people, asexual people, gay/lesbian or heterosexual people – the similarities among people in each of these groups (for me) outweigh the differences by a wide margin.
In fact, as I often tell my students, I consider myself lucky to have had romantic experiences with all of these groups because they allowed me to recognize just how similar we all are in terms of dating, relationships, sexual desires, and needs. These experiences also helped me to figure out what differences are important for my own sexual and romantic satisfaction (for me these differences are mostly personality based). While I have met bisexual people who are only attracted to males and females, who only date gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual or bisexual others, and who only desire cisgender or transgender lovers, the variations in these patterns (both between people and in the life course of individual persons) speak to the multifaceted elements of the definition and direct attention to the variation and complexity embedded within other seemingly static sex, gender, sexual identities.
When I entered the academy ten years after first learning of the term bisexual, I encountered a very different definition of bisexuality. In academic settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities affiliated with the academy and/or composed primarily of people who have had the privilege of access to college education), I’ve generally read and heard bisexuality defined (mostly by cisgender heterosexual and lesbian/gay scholars) as attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement to males and females. In this tradition of knowledge, the “bi” refers to the sex/gender binary initially established by cisgender heterosexual scientists and religious elites in the 1800s, which was meant to grant science religious legitimacy by matching the origin story of Judeo-Christian-Western theological traditions.
This definition of bisexuality automatically erases intersex and trans experiences, and provides the foundation for the heterosexual/homosexual binary constructed by the same scientific and religious traditions. Further, it reduces sexual attraction, desire, and engagement to the genital properties of a given being, which provides support for interpretations of sexualities predicated upon reproduction rather than pleasure. From what I can tell, this definition seems to comfort some people who identify within sexual binaries (homosexuality/heterosexuality), sex binaries (female/male), and cisgender binaries (man/woman), and has even been adopted by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual academics (at least in public). Yet, it was completely foreign to me before I entered the academy and did not fit any bisexual I had met at that point in my life.
Beyond the fact that this definition does not resonate with me or capture the bulk of bisexual experience that I’ve witnessed in my life, it is often used as a weapon against bisexual people within and beyond the academy. Academic people use their own definition of bisexuality to then argue that it reinforces the same binary they used to define it; I’ve encountered this mostly by cisgender heterosexuals and lesbian/gay people, but even by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual or people claiming other fluid sexual identities. Such efforts, echoing patterns of bi, trans, and intersex erasure in heterosexual and lesbian/gay communities, define bisexuality as problematic based on definitions of this identity created and repeated by people who rarely have personal experience in this area or who only learn about it within academic settings and communities.
This practice is eerily similar to the ways cisgender heterosexual scholars defined homosexuality as pathological sex inversion, then used their own definition to argue that homosexuality was a disease or perversion of nature. It is also reminiscent of the ways white scholars (usually heterosexual and cisgender) defined people of color as a separate species before using this definition to justify systematic marginalization of, and discrimination and violence against people of color. Another example can be found in the ways medical science defined intersex people as abnormal and then used this definition to justify the mutilation of these people to fit into rigid sex binaries.
Since academic his-her-our-story is littered with examples of minority groups defined by privileged groups in ways that justify marginalization (i.e., transgender communities, differently-bodied communities, working and lower class communities, cis-trans-intersex women, etc.), I could offer plenty of other examples of the ways current academic definitions of bisexuality that are used to justify the marginalization of bisexual people mirror long standing patterns in academic gatekeeping and social control. In each case, the beliefs of the ruling academic class remain salient at least until voices from [insert minority community here] are granted access to the academy and disrupt the dominant narrative.
I would like to end this post by simply asking readers to think about definitions of bisexuality (and other marginalized statuses). Do you subscribe to or assume academic definitions of bisexuality predicated on binaries rather than two ends of a spectrum? If you occupy marginalized statuses yourself, do you currently define them in ways that come from your own communities or do you harken back to the ways privileged groups defined your people once upon a time? When you hear “bi,” do you think of binaries constructed by cisgender and monosex norms, or do you here two ends of a spectrum? By thinking about these questions, you can take the first step to figuring where you stand in relation to bisexual marginalization within the academy and the broader social world.
In the second part of this essay (posted here), in which I explore ways to resist or counter biphobia brought upon via academic definitions of bisexuality. And, see Dr. Sumerau’s reflection on writing this essay at Write Where It Hurts.