“What”, I hear you ask, “are you talking about?” Surely you’re one or the other? Typical bisexual eh, can’t sit properly on chairs and can’t make up their mind!*
I previously wrote (on coming out) that I sometimes identify as bisexual and sometimes as queer and that I’d write about that in a future post, so here is that explanation—as well as I can give it without becoming too academic. Because although I am currently a scholar, and although I have taught and used parts of queer theory, I don’t consider myself an expert. What I can do, is give an explanation based on my having lived as a bisexual and queer person sometimes concurrently and sometimes not.
I’ve come to realize in writing previous posts (for example on learning Japanese, and on why depression is not feeling sad) that the experience of being-in-the-world is essentially a/the resource that we use to talk about our identity, and that this experience is not one made up solely of thoughts, but is made up of feelings—sensations that we have in the body, reflecting actions with others, and that we subsequently ‘think about’ when we create the narrative of our lives. So when asked to define my sexuality, I take into account the context of the question, look into my experience and give an answer. In some cases that will be ‘bisexual’, and in other cases it will be ‘queer’ and although these seem like very different categories, in my experience they are not incommensurable.
So, let’s begin with ‘bisexual’ as this is the easiest. As I said in my previous post, I have known since my mid-teens that I am attracted to my own gender and different genders. Although the majority of people still are confused by the bisexual label and think (erroneously) that it means someone who is only attracted to men and women, the bisexual community has increasingly—and for quite a long time—defined it more broadly than this. So my sexual orientation is in this sense pretty simple to understand.
There is a political history to the term ‘bisexual’ and I respect this history when I use the term to define myself. Bisexuals have over time become a community with politics, and it is essential to remember that they have been at the heart of LGBTQ rights from the very beginning although they have often been erased from this history.
I use the label of ‘bisexual’ to describe myself often to straight people. I use the label to describe myself to gay people who I assume (perhaps wrongly, but better to be safe than sorry) may be offended by the term, ‘queer’. There is definitely a generational aspect to this, with, in my experience, older gay and lesbian people not comfortable with the reclaiming of the term. So in one sense, ‘bisexual’ is a safe option. It’s not safe in the torrent of reactions to bisexuality; bisexuality that can upset the apple cart as it is not monosexuality, but it is at least relatively easy to understand for most people. In this sense it is ‘comfortable’ for the recipient of my answer to the question, “what sexual orientation are you?”
But actually I use the term ‘queer’ to describe myself precisely because it is uncomfortable. It raises the hackles, it brings back all the memories, the feelings of being called names in the playground at school. It’s a term that, like other queer-phobic/bi-phobic terms, was spat out by people determined to belittle us, to hurt us. And it did hurt. Although I was not out to my friends at school, as a child I absorbed the hate of other kids who used brutal terms to bully me: faggot, poofter, nancy-boy, queer. I can’t recall ever being called ‘bisexual’ as an insult by these kids.
Queer theory can be very cerebral, even when it aims not to be. And rather than misrepresent it here, I can only speak personally. I reclaim the word ‘queer’ as my own, and as a distinctly political act. I am those things that made (and still make) straight queer-phobic people uncomfortable. I don’t fit with their ideal. I fit, quite comfortably thank you, in the queer community. I don’t have to bend to your perception, I can build my own. Indeed I have built my own self-perception through the (many) years of feeling attraction, absorbing the gaze/love/disgust from others. This is what it means to me to be queer.
Recent years have seen great strides made in equality for gay and lesbian (and those invisible bisexual) couples as same-sex marriage rights have expanded around the world**. But queer relationships don’t have to fit in the same mould as heterosexual relationships. In fact to be queer is to not fit into heteronormative frameworks. It is to be open to different ways of relating to one another. To experiencing different feelings, different modes of being-in-the-world. To be queer is not to be ashamed, not to crumple under the hate of others, but to be proud, to stick out and refuse to be hammered down.
So sometimes I will describe myself as bisexual, but other times, either when I want to make salient the political aspect of my identity, or when I am in the supportive environment of other queer people, I will use ‘queer’. It’s not clear-cut. But then identity itself is always messy and context-dependent.
I am queer. I am bisexual. I am both.
* This idea that bisexuals can’t make up their minds is a form of biphobia.
** Not yet to Japan, it should be noted. Come on Japan.