Bis and Binaries?

BCN 118 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 118, April 2013

American bi research quarterly Journal of Bisexuality gave us all a treat in February as its entire back-catalogue became free to browse for the month. That included the latest edition, which had a stimulating piece titled “The Black Sheep of the Pink Flock: Labels, Stigma and Bisexual Identity”
In this, April Scarlette Callis reports back on a 17 month project talking with 80 people of various gender and sexuality identities in Lexington, Kentucky.  A city with an urban area of a little over half a million people: big enough for an LGBT community like those in reasonably big British cities, albeit with the cultural differences of being on the other side of the Atlantic.
April’s starting theory is that bisexuality, in entering the wider consciousness, will break down the binary of gay-or-straight and so challenge other binary thinking.
Her findings start with remarks from straight and gay identified interviewees, with a nuanced gender divide around whether they or their friends would date bi people.  There is a common theme – reflective perhaps of the narrative in the popular press – that bi men are ‘really’ gay and bi women are ‘really’ straight, or that at the very least both will end up in relationships with men after an experimental stage that might include a wider variety of partners.  Asked what they think of bis we have a catalogue of worn cliches – disease spreaders, unfaithful, lying and so on.
Some non-binary-identified research subjects meanwhile attack identity as bi for not being radical enough and implying two discrete attractions.
The bi identified and behaviourally bi participants reflect different aspects of biphobia: the way we take on board the negative things about bis we get from received social wisdom, and so often end up not identifying as bi because we are “not that kind of bi”.
All those stresses are perhaps part of why of the 37 interviewees who don’t identify as straight or gay, only five have identified as bi for a long period of time, and some twenty – a quarter of the interview pool – are “ex bis” who used to use that label and now describe their sexual orientation differently.
April concludes the fragmentation of identities encompassing being attracted to more than one gender is damaging the potential to get beyond straight and gay and break the binary.  I’m not quite persuaded – I think what’s going on in those debates is more shifting and less frozen than a research snapshot can reflect – but it’s a thought provoking exploration about where bi people and a bi movement wants to get to, and how.