Bisexuals make up the largest population within the LGBTQ community—46%, according to a Buzzfeed News and Whitman Insight Strategies survey published this summer—yet destructive stereotypes and misapprehensions about them persist. You’ve likely heard them: That bisexuals will bed “anything that moves”; that bi men are really closeted homosexuals; that bi women are really straight girls feigning interest in their own sex to titillate men; or, worse yet, that they aren’t “real.”
Not “real?” Just imagine having your very existence questioned.
This past spring, when I wrote a story for The New York Times that profiled a bisexual woman and her non-binary spouse, I saw firsthand how members of our community and the world at large contribute to the erasure of bisexuality and iterations of queerness that don’t jell with preconceived notions of who “counts” as queer.
The article was about LGBTQ parents who reject the terms “mommy” and “daddy.” While I had the option of profiling a lesbian couple, I chose a bisexual woman named Amanda Davidson, who also self-identifies as queer because she’s dated across the gender spectrum, and her spouse, Isaac Schankler, who goes by “they/them” pronouns, but is culturally intelligible as male. My sense—although it may have been short-sighted—was that the duo added unexpected layers of complexity and nuance to the discussion that a straight-up same-sex pair would not.
I thought it was particularly interesting, and a sign of progress, that a person who culturally reads as male didn’t identify with masculine pronouns and sought to challenge the hyper-gendered terms “mommy” and “daddy” by taking up the Hebrew word for dad, “abba,” which doesn’t have a gendered connotation in non-Jewish American contexts, as their parental label. But mostly, I was compelled by Davidson’s quest to keep her queerness alive and visible in a mixed-sex relationship by using language to help demarcate her identity. Although she made it clear in the story that in her universe “identity wiggles around,” underscoring her numerous appellations, including Manzo, Manzers, Man, Sissy Man, etc., she said she’d settled on “mama” for the time being after failing to find an alternative that jibed with her sense of self. Given that identity is relational, her partner’s parental moniker and renunciation of gendered pronouns helped signal her queerness.
Perhaps all of this was too abstract for the more concrete-minded, but what I had hoped to accomplish in profiling Davidson and Schankler was lost on many. The criticisms poured down with waterfall force, generating 414, mostly negative, comments.
“Oh please, enough!” one reader wrote, “They read as a straight couple because they are!” Another added: “It’s not clear to me what makes them ’queer.'”
A commenter named Daisy fumed: “Here’s a piece of news: If you have two XX chromosomes you are the woman. i.e., the mother; and if you have XY you are the man, i.e., the father.” (The transphobia and ignorance of that particular statement was especially breathtaking.)
And a person named Brian offered this succinctly snarky reply: “Great, a heterosexual couple thinks they’re queer…”
Lesbian journalist Katie Herzog took her discontents with the story even further, dedicating a whole piece to it in The Stranger problematically titled, “The Family Featured in NYT Article About Queer Families Looks Awfully Straight.” Herzog chided me for ignoring “the very real trials and tribulations that actual same-sex couples go through” to make a family and dismissed Davidson and Schankler as queer because “in the eyes of the law (and, let’s be real, society)” they are “a plain old heterosexual couple.”
The implicit biphobia of the comments, including Herzog’s essays, perfectly capture the reason why I wanted to lead my article with a bisexual woman’s narrative. First, Herzog’s point about the financial and emotional obstacles same-sex couples endure to create families is a valid and important point. I’ve written extensively about the struggles my spouse and I have overcome to bring our daughter into the world, so I fully get it, but the story was not about that; rather, it was about the ways queer families challenge gender norms through language.
The fundamental flaw in the logic mapped out by Herzog and The Times’ readers, however, is this reductive notion that the optics of queer are the essence of queer. As bisexual activist Robyn Ochs said in recent exchange with NewNowNext, “I was disturbed by the conflation of appearance and identity in the comments. Just because a couple looks straight to someone does not make them straight.” The total undermining of Davidson and Schankler’s queerness because they inhabit bodies capable of making a child together also rubbed Ochs and myself wrong: “Identity and behavior are two different things,” she explained, “and being in a mixed-gender relationship does not make a person straight.”
I will admit, though, that some of the critiques were legitimate. I should have spelled out that Davidson formerly identified as bisexual but now identifies as queer because she’s had romantic relationships with cis and trans men, women, and individuals who’ve ditched traditional pronouns, but I only identified her as queer. I should have, as leading LGBTQ family scholar Abbie Goldberg suggested, explicitly laid out the bi-affirming reasons I used this particular couple to tell this particular story, and perhaps included a few same-sex couples as well. Maybe it would have ruffled less feathers if I’d noted, as Davidson and Schankler requested, that they understand their passing—and actual—privilege.
But the issue at heart here is our inability and unwillingness to collapse the border between binaries. In fact, the spicy responses to Schankler’s claim on the term “abba” and their pronoun preferences show how difficult it is to defy binaries.
“You can try to repurpose an existing term, which inevitably has gendered associations, or you can make something up,” they mused, “but if you choose the former, you can be criticized because the term isn’t really gender neutral. If you choose the latter, you can be criticized as being unnecessarily difficult.” For Schankler’s part, the term “abba” had several associations that spoke to their sense of self: “It’s a palindrome, it’s a musical and poetic form, it implies a choice or ambiguity (a or b), and of course it’s a Swedish pop group.”
Ochs seconds Schankler’s sentiments: “Underneath all of this runs an ocean of binary thinking that makes it so hard for people to understand non-binary genders and sexualities.”
The fallout from our inability to think against or outside dichotomies feeds into the enduring myths that persist about bisexual people. And these myths aren’t just inconvenient, they’re detrimental: The Buzzfeed-Whitman survey found that more bi women than any other queer demographic described their health as “poor” (20%). Some 70% of bi people said they’ve endured bouts of depression; more than half reported suffering from anxiety and panic disorders; and a third have attempted suicide or self-injured.
“I contend to this day with an internalized sense of fear, shame, and, sometimes, lack of safety around this aspect of my identity and experience,” Davidson said. “There is so much hate rearing its head in our country, not just homophobia, but racism and xenophobic violence. I want to stand in my fluid queer identity without shame, to use my privilege as a sometimes straight-passing person, and as a white person, to stand against that fear and violence.”