If you want to know what bisexuality is like, ask a bisexual person. But if you want to know whether you’re bisexual, don’t ask me or your therapist or Women’s Health. Ask yourself.
September is among the most bisexual months, containing as it does two days of great importance to our community: Bisexual Visibility Day (September 23) and my birthday. I was excited to see Women’s Health celebrating with an article entitled “So What Does It Mean To Be Bisexual, Exactly?” How cool to see a bi perspective in a mainstream women’s publication! But as I scrolled, my heart sank.
No one quoted in the article is identified as bisexual. You’ve got a boilerplate definition from GLAAD, and then lots of discussion from two therapists. There are no suggestions of bi-specific resources like, uh, the Bisexual Resource Center (which is the first thing that shows up when I Google “what is bisexuality?”) and not a single “I” statement from a bi person.
Bisexual people have struggled with having our identities defined for us as long as the word has existed. The earliest use of the word in its modern sense may be in the first English translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, a compendium of case studies by a man who believed all non-reproductive sexuality to be perverse. Like many other LGBTQ people, bisexuals have taken a word coined to pathologize us and transformed it into a sense of pride and community.
Turning to therapists, rather than bi thinkers and activists, to define bisexuality reifies the idea that it’s a mental health condition rather than an identity. The article almost reads like it’s presenting diagnostic criteria: “If you experience attraction to multiple genders lasting more than four hours, ask your doctor if you could have bisexuality.” It’s not usually a good idea to seek your information about a marginalized community from a person, however knowledgeable, outside of that community. You know how incredibly frustrating it is to see panels full of men discussing women’s health, or how to fight sexism? This comes across like that.
I understand that the goal of the article was to provide an “objective” explanation of bisexuality. The problem is, that can’t really be done: There is no independently existing thing called “bisexuality.” The words we use are imperfect summaries of overlapping but not identical experiences. Everyone’s bisexuality is a little bit different. Women’s Health acknowledges toward the end of the article that sexuality is messy and there are no clearly defined boundaries; still, a few sentences about embracing ambiguity doesn’t justify the preceding several hundred words of scrupulous delineation. The question in the article’s headline is simply not a useful one. Better to ask, “What does bisexuality mean to you?”
It’s hard to tell who the intended readership is. If the goal is to help straight and gay people understand bisexuality better, surely that could be better achieved by talking to a bi person, or a few bi people, about their lives and experiences. Sharing personal stories might not be an expert perspective, but it’s the only way to develop empathy.
If, on the other hand, the article is intended to help people questioning their sexuality, the choice to focus on mental health practitioners still seems misguided. No one can diagnose bisexuality. I know this, because I am asked to do it all the time. In seven years writing an LGBTQ+ advice column, the most common letter I get is the one where someone describes their sexual and romantic history and fantasy life and then asks me, “So am I gay or bi or queer or what?”
I can’t answer that question. No one can except the person asking it. Articles like this one feed the misconception that there is a precise combination of feelings and behaviors that add up to being definitively bisexual; that in choosing to describe yourself a certain way, you are either objectively right or objectively wrong. A lot of young queer people today are walking around concerned that their identities are incorrect, that they are impostors and will be found out. And for those people, an article that says “here’s how you can tell if you’re bisexual” is going to hurt more than help.
There is a lot of overlap between queer identities, and the choice to identify as “bisexual” instead of something else is a meaningful one. I identify as bi for many reasons, none of which are addressed by Women’s Health. The word fits me comfortably; it feels right in a way that “pansexual” doesn’t. By calling myself bi, since I’m married to a genderqueer person, I also reject the biphobic assertion that being bi means only being attracted to men and women. I align myself with the bisexual community and the history of bisexual activism; I recognize the commonalities between myself and other bi people, no matter what relationships they’re in; I stand against their erasure as well as my own. “What it means to be bisexual” isn’t just about who I want to fuck. I identify as bisexual because I identify with bisexuals.
This doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. Some bi people won’t see themselves in my explanation at all. But that’s why it’s important that our voices be the first ones people listen to when asking about our lives. If you want to know what bisexuality is like, ask a bisexual person. But if you want to know whether you’re bisexual, don’t ask me or your therapist or Women’s Health. Ask yourself. Listen to what your heart tells you, and be aware that it might not say the same thing forever — you have to keep checking in.
I’m tired of people making bisexuality out to be confusing, mysterious, or foreign. The only thing complicated is that it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and the solution to that is the simplest thing of all: Just ask.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).