I recently had a coffee date with my friend Alison, with whom I share an interest (or should I say obsession) in talking about all things sex and sexuality. Alison, a University of Iowa lecturer, told me about several questions she poses to her human sexuality classes.
After her students list qualities or characteristics they look for in an ideal partner, she asks how many have had the experience of being really attracted to someone until they got to know them. This is almost a universal experience. She then asks how many have had the experience of finding someone on their sexual radar only after they got to know them. Also a really common experience. How many wonder why on Earth they used to pine after that person? Another resounding majority.
Our attractions, like ourselves, are constantly evolving. We may find patterns in our “type,” and labels can provide clarity and community, particularly for non-straight and non-cis people, but floating between gender and sexuality camps can be as natural as falling for a new crush.
There’s no written process for finding a place on the LGBT+ spectrum, especially in the “plus” category. Some labels can feel restrictive, while others by definition are freeing. In this two-part series, I’ll highlight an oft misunderstood and misrepresented queer identity — bisexuality and the identities under its umbrella, including pansexuality.
Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s studies, published in 1948 (men) and 1953 (women), established the idea of a sexual continuum. His famous Kinsey scale (on which he identified as a perfectly balanced three) goes from zero, or exclusively heterosexual, to six, or exclusively homosexual. Anyone who fell in the one to five range, he believed, was bisexual.
In 1978, Dr. Fritz Klein, concluding that black-and-white categories are often too simple to be accurate, introduced the Klein Grid, which measures sexual experiences, attractions, preferences, lifestyle and self-perception in a person’s past, present and future.
Media representation of bisexuality has lagged behind research. The 20th century saw mega-stars Freddie Mercury, David Bowie and Frida Kahlo come out as bi. But — like Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, James Dean and Billie Holiday before them — they came to be defined by their most famous straight or gay relationships.
GLAAD, which analyzes LGBT+ representation in the media, found most bisexuals on TV and film are femme fatales, and bi characters in everything from Sex and the City to Orange is the New Black have been dismissed as “in a phase” or barely acknowledged as bi. (Happily, a few recent shows have been recognized by GLAAD for their positive representation of bisexuality, including Brooklyn 99 and This is Us.)
Invisibility and erasure in the media aren’t the only challenges faced by bisexuals. Others have come from within the group itself.
The term bisexual has been condemned for excluding trans, intersex and non-binary people, since the root “bi” means “two.” This has led some to seek broader labels such as pansexual, which acknowledges the potential to be attracted to any of infinite gender identities, beyond just male and female.
Pop star Janelle Monáe told Rolling Stone in April that she identified as bisexual, but later learned more about pansexuality and found the term a better fit. “Being a queer black woman in America,” she said, “someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.”
However, many who identify as bi accept pan’s free-ass definition as well. The bisexual community uses a bi+ label to include all the identities in the spectrum including pansexual, queer, questioning and omnisexual.
“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree,” bisexual activist Robyn Ochs said.
“Bi means two, except not really,” a moderator explained at a 2014 student-run event in Ohio entitled “Not So Straight and Narrow: An Introduction to Bisexual, Pansexual and Fluid Identities.” The event sought to combat age-old stereotypes about bi+ people — that they’re confused, in denial of their homosexuality, are more promiscuous than average, etc. — accusations that come from both straight and gay people.
Proud bisexual Eliel Cruz embraced the term in an Advocate article, saying the word “bisexual” itself honors LGBT pioneers including Brenda Howard, the “Mother of Pride,” and Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, trans women of color who demonstrated at Stonewall.
“Their bisexual identities are often forgotten,” Cruz said. “Others who have been at the forefront of the marriage equality movement, HIV activism and who have marched for equality have claimed bisexuality for themselves. It is because of their contributions to our equality that I have the space to freely claim my bisexuality today.”
10 Bi+ Anthems
Spice up your Pride Month (and everyday) playlist with these 10 bi+ songs by bi+ artists, celebrating love, lust, identity and relationship drama in all their gender-transcendant glory.
“Make Me Feel” by Janelle Monáe
“Chanel” by Frank Ocean
“Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen
(Though never an “out” bisexual, Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury had confirmed relationships with both women and men.)
“Poker Face” by Lady Gaga
“John, I’m Only Dancing” by David Bowie
“Bad at Love” by Halsey
“Coming Clean” by Green Day
(Lead singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong identifies as bisexual)
“Masseduction” by St. Vincent
“In or Out” by Ani DiFranco
“Rough Boys” by Pete Townshend
Bonus: “Medicine” by Harry Styles
Harry Styles’ sexuality has been a subject of speculation for years, and in interviews, the former One Direction singer has expressed an aversion to labels (while praising out musicians such as Miley Cyrus, who is pansexual). But without expliciting coming out, or explicitly releasing the song, Styles has been performing a new tune called “Medicine” on tour, and it’s already been accepted into the bi anthem hall of fame. Welcome to the squad, Harry.
Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 245.