Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part II

Dr. J. SumerauDr. 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 second part of a two-part essay (see part I here), Dr. Sumerau reflects on the ways that academic definitions of bisexuality (which differ greatly from how it is defined and experienced outside of academia) actually facilitate biphobia.  Ze offers a few ways to combat these biphobic tendencies.

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Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part II

In the first part of this essay, I outlined contradictions that I have observed between academic and non-academic notions of bisexuality. In this second part, I will focus on some ways that academic definitions of bisexuality facilitate biphobia. After almost seven years working as an openly bisexual scholar in the academy (i.e., since my first days of graduate study), I’ve had plenty of time to think about these issues. I would like to offer readers some ways to disrupt biphobic academic definitions and interpretations of bisexuality in their daily lives. While I limit these examples to things I’ve tried myself (to varying levels of success), my hope is that we may begin a conversation wherein people seeking to be inclusive and supportive of bisexual people (as well as bisexual people themselves) can begin the work of moving past academic simplifications and marginalization of bisexuality.

  • When someone says that bisexuals are only attracted to males and females, ask them where they got their information. Point out that some bisexuals are attracted only to male and female people, while others are attracted to all sexes (i.e., their own and others).
  • When people cite or read from academic definitions of bisexuality, ask them who wrote or said it, whether they were bisexual-identified, did they come direclty to the academy after childhood or did they live among non-academic populations for some period of their lives, did they come up with this definition or did they draw it from somewhere else (if somewhere else, ask the same questions about that source). In other words, follow the lead of Black Feminist, Queer, Trans, early Lesbian and Gay, and Intersex scholarship by interrogating where these definitions come from and why they make sense to the people using them. In my experience, these questions will likely lead you to a cisgender heterosexual source at the foundation of the definitions, and thus – like white definitions of people of color or heterosexual definitions of homosexuality or religious definitions of the nonreligious – they should be examined critically.
  • When someone says attraction to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, ask them if attraction exclusively to males suggests the existence of only one sex or exclusive attraction to females suggests the existence of only one sex. This may sound silly to lesbian, gay and heterosexual people, but it is the same logic: attraction to X group means there is only X group. If being exclusively attracted to males and females automatically suggests there are only males and females (i.e., this attraction means you believe in binary sex only), then attraction exclusively to males or to females suggests there are only males or only females (i.e., this attraction means you believe in only one sex). I have yet to find lesbian, gay or heterosexual people who believe this, but I have encountered many who quickly recognize this logical fallacy when it is directed at them.
  • At other times, when someone says attraction to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, ask them if homosexuality and heterosexuality reproduce the binary. Lesbian, gay and heterosexual people often use expressions like “opposite sex” or “same sex,” which are predicated upon the existence of mutually exclusive and recognizable binary sex categories, but these people are generally not accused of reproducing the sex/gender binary when they do so. If being attracted to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, however, so does being attracted to the “opposite” or “same” sex. Again, in my experience, lesbian/gay and heterosexual people do not like this line of logic so much when it is directed at them instead of bisexuals.
  • When someone says “bi” automatically refers to the existence of only “two” sexes, ask them why they feel that way, ask them why it doesn’t refer to cisgender and transgender, ask them why it doesn’t refer to my sex and others, ask them why they decided (i.e., note that they chose what “two” to which the word “bi” referred) that it must mean two sexes. In my experience, you will very quickly learn that they see the world in binaries themselves, and are thus simply (intentionally or otherwise, with or without malice) seeking to place (or cage or box) bisexual people within their own frame of reference.

Finally, I would suggest readers – whether or not they adopt any of the above strategies in their lives – ask themselves if they have internalized academic or non-academic definitions of bisexuality. One way to do this would be to ask what the academy and the world might look like if we stopped trying to place every marginalized community into binary boxes, and instead embraced the fluidity, variation, and spectra of bio-social-psychological experience in all its forms. In fact, doing away with binary boxes and dichotomous definitions (no matter how comforting to existing academic traditions) might well provide more breathing room for all types of people. It might further help us recognize that (to the best of my knowledge) there is no one universal type of gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, fluid, queer, heterosexual, intersex, female, male, cisgender, transgender, or any other “static type” of being. Rather than seeking to place people into “bi”nary boxes based on oppressive traditions, we could seek to map, explore, and celebrate our similarities and variations “bi” treating all people with dignity and respect.