Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part I

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 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.

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Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part I

Actual Bisexuality

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.

Academic Bisexuality

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.

Introducing: Write Where It Hurts

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On June 2nd, three sociologists — Xan Nowakowski, J. Sumerau, and Lain Mathers (see their biographies on their site) — launched a new blog, Write Where It Hurts, that will feature blog posts for and by “scholars doing deeply personal research, teaching, and service.”  In this guest blog post, Xan, J, and Lain describe their findings from an informal study of scholars’ sense of personal connection with (i.e., subjectivity) or detachment from (i.e., “objectivity”) their scholarship.  These findings led them to create Write Where It Hurts (WWIH), which they describe in more detail below.  Readers are encourage to submit their own guest blog posts to WWIH (wewritewhereithurts [at] gmail [dot] com).

Write Where It Hurts

Like every scholar we have ever encountered, the three of us were initially drawn to teaching and research in hopes of understanding experiences within our own lives. While we have met people focused on lab treatments of biological material, evaluations of organizations, social inequalities and patterns, and survey design, in each case we came upon people who sought to make sense of things that were relevant to their personal lives. Through casual conversations with our colleagues, we noticed a discrepancy among their stories. Some of these people admitted this aspect of their life course by telling others and us directly how aspects of their life led to their work. Others, however, often claimed the opposite; for example, some people we met claimed to be “objective” despite making claims about elements – like race, class, gender, or other social issues – that influenced their social lives. As a result, we decided to explore this discrepancy further.

The Sources Of Scholars’ Research And Teaching Interests

To further our casual observations, we began directly asking fellow scholars how their personal experiences influenced their teaching and research at conferences, in departments, and on online forums. After learning in graduate programs that we were expected to attempt to be “objective” and pursue science from a “professional distance,” we sought to find out whether people actually thought such a position was actually realistic. We learned very quickly that the same discrepancy we saw in personal relationships and official training programs existed in the response of academics in various fields. Some of them quickly noted how, for example, a fascination with animals as a kid, a search for truth as a church member during childhood, or an experience of marginalization shaped their interest in academic work. Others, however, found many ways to argue that their own focus on this or that subject had nothing to do with their personal life, and was rather simply a “creditable” and “important” area of work. Not surprisingly, these informal conference talks revealed some interesting patterns in who said what about “objectivity.”

Digging deeper, we found three patterns in our informal study. First, most of the people who claimed “objectivity” or a “lack of emotional investment” occupied privileged social locations (e.g., white, male, middle-to-upper class, heterosexual, cisgender, religious, or normatively-bodied). Yet, most of the people who admitted the “subjective” nature of academic work and disclosed the “personal” experiences that fed into their research and teaching interests occupied at least one marginalized social location. Second, the people who claimed “objectivity” tended to be doing work in mainstream areas of scholarship long defined as politically and academically legitimate, whereas the people who were most often open about the “emotional” aspects of their work typically worked in newly emerging, controversial, and/or emotionally charged areas that conflict with established political and academic traditions. Finally, we noticed that academics in mainstream fields and privileged social locations often made claims about personal aspects of their lives without ever being accused of doing “me-search” (i.e., heterosexuals using lab samples to make claims about sexual norms, or religious people using surveys to talk about religion), while these same people used “me-search” as a type of slur targeted at anyone doing innovative work or occupying marginalized social locations.

Along the way, it became increasingly clear to us that academic programs, departments, and traditions encouraged people to pretend they were “objective” or “rational” despite the “subjective” and “emotional” aspects of all teaching and research. In fact, we listened as countless people in varied academic fields explained the ways that talking about emotions or personal experiences were devalued, marginalized, and attacked within their training programs, tenure-track positions, and academic organizations. Familiar with long traditions of critical pedagogy and scholarship, we began to recognize this culture of silence as a way to maintain academic hierarchies concerning who could speak, what could be said, and what “counted” as legitimate teaching and research. As many activist and academic communities have done throughout ourstory – including Conditionally Accepted in relation to marginalization within the academy – we sought to find a way to pull the emotional and personal elements of teaching and research out of the shadows and into the light of day.

To this end, we began hosting panels at conference meetings wherein people were encouraged to share the personal and emotional side of their research and teaching experiences. In so doing, we realized very quickly that many people longed to have space for sharing these stories, building community around these issues, and gaining resources and support for doing emotional and personally relevant work within and beyond the academy. As a result, we decided to create such a space in hopes of providing an opportunity to discuss the emotional and personal aspects of our work and in so doing, begin dismantling the myth of “objectivity” promoted in our disciplines and used to marginalize many academics and fields of study. Last week, we launched such a space in the form of a blog community entitled Write Where It Hurts, and we invite all interested parties to become involved in this conversation.

WWIH Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Write Where It Hurts Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Creating A Space To Write Where It Hurts

Write Where It Hurts serves as a public forum for discussions about the personal and emotional aspects of teaching and research. Specifically, we offer and collect contributions from scholars in different fields teaching and doing research in areas that are personally relevant to them, emotionally charged in relation to academic and broader social norms, and/or marginalized or defined as “me-search” by people attempting to enforce notions of “objectivity” predicated upon privileged social status and approved areas of study. Further, our site offers resources, tips, and strategies for navigating emotional and personal tensions, traumas, and concerns we face as teachers and scholars facing systemic inequalities within and beyond the academy, and critiques of “objectivity” claims made by members of privileged groups to justify hierarchical notions of what “counts” as legitimate teaching and research. Finally, our site displays both open and anonymous examples of these dynamics and the ways people manage them in hopes of providing a supportive community and public dialogue about these issues, which may be used when scholars attempt to disrupt the culture of emotional and personal silence promoted throughout academic operations.

We chose to call the community Write Where It Hurts for three specific reasons. First, it is noteworthy that people are only accused of doing “me-search” or “subjectivity” when they study things that are controversial or innovative, and thus these people are subjected to painful experiences with other academics simply for daring to be different types of teachers and researchers. While white males (or members of other privileged groups) who use surveys to measure gender or race are also doing personally relevant research based on their own emotional and social experiences, for example, they are freed from such critique due to their privileged social positions in ways that minority scholars are not. Minority scholars and those utilizing non-standard methods must therefore subject themselves to pain (or write where it hurts) to build careers within inequitable academic traditions. We thus focus on Writing Where It Hurts to draw attention to this imbalance, and begin the process of dismantling these inequitable patterns of academic interpretation and practice.

Second, we recognize long standing traditions wherein revealing marginalized narratives, experiences, and ways of knowing disrupt the silence necessary for maintaining inequitable systems.  Following Feminist, Critical Race, Queer, Interactionist, Nonreligious, Indigenous, and other Critical traditions, we thus recognize the power of expression to disrupt existing norms and patterns that serve to marginalize and silence some preferences and peoples for the sake of the elevation of others. In such traditions, there is a long tradition of writing about the pain, sharing the hurt, and expressing the struggle to build community, facilitating recognition of unconventional practices and beliefs, and finding support in the face of dominant ideologies and structures. We thus encourage others – both within and beyond the context of our blog, Conditionally Accepted, and other forums seeking to better our current academic structures – to Write Where It Hurts to both allow others to recognize the existence of such pain, provide support for those who have been convinced they suffer alone, and establish narratives and resources for challenging the inequalities at the heart of such pain.

Finally, our experiences (both informally and formally) offering panels on the emotional aspects of teaching and research have shown us that there are many people wrestling with these issues on a daily basis. In many cases, people are facing and navigating personal trauma, experiences with harassment and discrimination in varied forms, and other difficult life experiences in an attempt to further understanding of understudied aspects of this social experience that effect multitudes of people. In so doing, these people are drawing on their own pain to teach the world about sensitive and controversial realities, but in so doing, they face their own pain and trauma in every aspect of their professional lives. As such, we call our project Write Where It Hurts to celebrate their efforts, and create a community where these efforts are validated, recognized, and given voice in ways that are often to hard to find in existing academic programs, departments, and traditions.

In closing, we invite all readers to check out our blog community, and contribute in any way they see fit. Write Where It Hurts is committed to inclusive and supportive dialogue where all people are recognized and respected regardless of perceived difference in social location, and where the only requirement for membership is supporting the equitable treatment and affirmation of all people seeking a more just and egalitarian world. As fans and supporters of Conditionally Accepted, we are delighted to have the opportunity to share our project on this platform and with its readers and contributors, and we see our own project as an emerging complement to the work done by this site. To this end, we encourage all readers to consider Writing Where It Hurts on this site, our own, and others while doing your part to affirm others who openly engage in emotionally and personally relevant teaching and research geared toward the betterment of our shared social world.

“I Am A Skeptic” by Dr. J. Sumerau

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 guest post, Dr. Sumerau reflects on zir academic and social experience as a skeptic, or one who sees all “truth claims” (even those ze makes) as arguments to be critiqued, discussed, and debated rather than “accepted” or “trusted” in relation to binary notions of “right” or “wrong” and “true” or “false.”  Instead of suggesting other people’s “beliefs” or “truth claims” are right or wrong, the following post thus seeks to share the experience of a skeptic experiencing academic and social life within our contemporary (and often faith based) world.

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I Am A Skeptic

While I was raised in a religious home, religious belief never suited me even though I tried to believe for a few years. I was unable to “have faith” or “believe” in any thing I could not directly experience with my own senses. Since I have never felt the presence of a supernatural force, I do not believe there is one even though I remain open to the possibility that I may be proven wrong at some point. I also have trouble imagining a supernatural being or force that would create a world filled with so much pain, suffering, discrimination, and violence without thinking said being or force should be fired for negligence at the very least. I just always thought that if I (a simple human being as far as I can tell) was capable of caring for others when I wasn’t forced to and able to make every effort to avoid hurting others, then certainly a supernatural being or force could at least do as well.

Since religious belief never suited me, I spent time with freethought and atheist groups as a teenager, and have both studied and interacted with both since. In so doing, however, I ran into similar problems with these groups – the ones I met “believed” (and expected me to believe) in things that could not be proven. Most of the nonreligious people I met, for example, believe deeply in science (e.g., they define it as a form of truth rather than a method limited by human assumptions, biases, and interpretative abilities) and often sound much like their religious counterparts in the process. Some others in these groups explained to me that while it was silly for religious people to “believe” in an unproven supernatural, they were “certain” there was no supernatural even though that can’t be proved either. Since I am unable to “believe” that there isn’t or is a supernatural for sure (after all, neither assertion can be proven) and since I have read widely enough to realize that “scientific” findings are produced by humans with biases, assumptions, and prejudices, I could not adopt the nonreligious “faith traditions” I found either.

The nonreligious “faith traditions” I found did, however, give me an idea – maybe I would find a haven for skeptics in scientific communities. Alas, I was once again mistaken.  (As readers have learned from this very blog, academia tends to enforce its own set of beliefs and values about what constitutes “normal” or “acceptable,” but even this blog has sometimes included religious and spiritual references without critique.)  Instead of skepticism, my seven years (10 counting undergrad) of scientific practice have shown me that most of the scientists I meet also carry around a lot of “beliefs” and have a lot of “faith.”

Despite the preponderance of statistical analyses in our journals, for example, most scientists I’ve met take these findings for granted even though replications are rarely done to verify claims. Similarly, I have noticed (and been explicitly told) that theoretical (i.e., possible explanations) and psychic (i.e., predicted probabilities that show what “might” happen in a given circumstance) contributions are granted much more value than concrete statistical or qualitative observations of the world we actually live in everyday. Further, I have been amazed to learn that most scientists I meet refer to findings as “facts” or “truth” despite the fact that (1) all such findings come from human “interpretation” of data (especially in the physical sciences where our data cannot generally talk back to tell us if our interpretations are incorrect or incomplete), and (2) scientific history is littered with examples of things the humans doing science have gotten wrong. Especially as a bisexual raised in the lower-working class who was transsexual as a teen before transitioning into a genderqueer identity rather than another sex (i.e., a member of three groups historically denied access to the academy and voices in science), I have thus realized that I also lack the “faith” necessary for properly fitting into “scientific faith traditions.”

I have thus come to realize that at present “skeptic” is likely the best way I can identify myself, but this leads me to wonder if there is space in the academy (and beyond it) for skeptics. While I have been lucky enough to find other skeptical folk (some that have “faith” in some of the above and some who, like me, are skeptical of all truth claims they have thus far come across even any we make at specific times), I wonder about other skeptics surrounded by those who develop “faith” in the truth claims of other human beings. I thus thought it might be useful to announce my presence in this space in hopes of both letting other skeptics know they’re not alone, and asking is there a place for skeptics among the religiously, nonreligiously, and scientifically “faithful.”