"Bisexual" Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Photographed by Refinery29.
As a budding lesbian who was still mostly clueless about the LGBTQ+ community, I didn't totally understand what it meant when my first girlfriend told me she identifies as "queer." If she's interested in more than just women, I thought, why not call herself bisexual? I eventually got an answer. Queer made more sense for her, she said, because she's attracted to all kinds of people, including cisgender men and women, trans folks, non-binary people, genderqueer people, and people of many other genders. "Bisexual" didn't feel right because the prefix "bi" literally means two, and there are way more than just two genders.
Advertisement
My ex isn't the only person who's attracted to more than one gender to choose a label other than bisexual — whether it's queer, pansexual, omnisexual, or something else. So it's easy to wonder: With so many people becoming more aware that "man" and "woman" aren't the only two genders, is the word "bisexual" becoming outdated?
The answer is a clear and resounding "no," according to Alexandra Bolles, GLAAD's associate director of campaigns and public engagement.
Bisexual isn't an outdated term, because it doesn't actually reinforce the gender binary at all, and much of the confusion around the term is rooted in misunderstanding. In fact, non-binary understandings of bisexuality have been around at least since at least 1990 (see Bisexual Manifesto), though they were not then in widespread use. Currently the most popular definition, developed more than a decade ago, is one that includes everyone. It was crafted by famed bisexual activist and editor of the Bi Women Quarterly Robyn Ochs, who says she continually edited her version of the definition between 2002 and 2005 based on conversations and feedback at her speaking engagements and in bi+ communities.
The definition she uses now has become widely accepted among the bisexual community: "I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge in myself the potential to be attracted romantically and/or sexually to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, in the same way, or to the same degree." In short, this means that bisexual people are attracted to genders like their own and different from their own.
Advertisement
And actually, more people are identifying as bisexual than ever before, according to data from GLAAD. The organization's 2017 Accelerating Acceptance report, which surveys national attitudes about LGBTQ+ people, found that people aged 18 to 34 were twice as likely to identify as bisexual than gay or lesbian, and three times more likely to use bisexual than pansexual.
"Not only are we here to stay, but bisexuality is a vital part of the community and people are identifying with it strongly, and earlier than ever," Bolles says.
Many transgender and non-binary people identify as bisexual, Bolles says, because they understand that the term doesn't exclude non-cis people. Transgender activist Kate Bornstein wrote in 2013 that "bisexual movements don’t get enough credit for breaking the either/or of sexual orientation. And they did it long before gender scholars, activists, and radicals came on the scene."
The world at large, though, has been mostly ignorant of the shift in the definition of "bisexual." Even I — a lesbian woman who's immersed in the LGBTQ+ community and has dated multiple bisexual and queer women — had never heard this definition until a few weeks ago, when my bisexual girlfriend and I were talking about the debate. Maybe, if we all took the time to actually ask bisexual people what the word means to them, there wouldn't be a debate. And that would be a much better use of our time than quibbling over definitions.
"Rather than arguing over which word is better, I believe that bi- and pan-identified folks would be wise to pool our energy and resources to fight, instead, for the right to hold non-binary sexualities," Ochs says. "There are so many people out there who want to erase and hurt us, I don’t think we need to hurt each other."
Advertisement
So, I asked the bi community for their own definitions. Read on to learn what 17 bisexual people really think about the term.
1 of 17

For me personally, saying 'I'm bi' is the simplest way of conveying the fact that I'm not straight.

"The majority of my straight friends are familiar with the term 'bisexual' and understand that it means I'm not exclusively into men or women. But when it comes to terms like 'queer' or 'pansexual,' those same friends have asked me what those words mean because the terms aren't as ingrained in everyone's vocabulary yet. For me personally, saying 'I'm bi' is the simplest way of conveying the fact that I'm not straight without making my sexuality the main focus of a conversation or story." -Ally, 26, bisexual.
2 of 17

I feel more comfortable with 'queer' because the word is revolutionary, individual, and fluid.

"Outside the LGBTQ+ community, I think the commonly known definition of bisexual is seen as being attracted to cis men and cis women. I consider myself bisexual in the sense that I'm sexually attracted to the same gender and other genders, but I don't think that always comes across in casual conversation. I feel more comfortable with 'queer' because the word is revolutionary, individual, and fluid." -Ali, bisexual or queer.
Advertisement
3 of 17

Both 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' also reinforce a gender binary.

"I call myself bisexual in part because it was the term that was of general use when I came into my identity. The pressure to be more inclusive seems to be put most on the word 'bisexual' while forgetting that both 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' also reinforce a gender binary. This isn't to say that we all shouldn't be more mindful of everyone outside the gender binary, but if we're going to critique 'bisexual' then we should also be critiquing other words." -Stephanie, 37, bisexual.
4 of 17

Bi to me means that I'm attracted to people of similar and different genders, which fits me just fine.

"I flip between bi and queer. I don't use pansexual since it wasn't really around when I was figuring myself out, and it would feel weird to switch at this point. Bi to me means that I'm attracted to people of similar and different genders, which fits me just fine. Bisexuals can be attracted to two or more genders, or any gender. It's a fairly broad identity." -Shawna, 30, bisexual.
5 of 17

The way I’m attracted to men and women and everyone else is so different that bi doesn’t really fit in my head.

"Sometimes I feel like the way I’m attracted to men and women and everyone else is so different that bi doesn’t really fit in my head, but queer is a catch all. Still, the argument that the word 'bisexual' is too restrictive is bothersome, and it doesn’t help fix all the other negativity bi peeps get from people in the LGBTQ+ community." -Kristina, 30, bisexual or queer.
6 of 17

It only reinforces the binary if you mis-define the term.

"The historical definition is 'same and different' not 'male and female.' I’m not sure that I'm attracted to people of all genders, but I am sure I'm attracted to members of my own gender and of different gender(s) from my own. I think it only reinforces the binary if you mis-define the term, like the mainstream media largely has." -Kelsey, 22, bisexual.
7 of 17

I feel more of a sense of established community identifying as bisexual.

"Bisexual is generally understood more than alternative terms, and I feel more of a sense of established community identifying with that word. Plenty of bi people define it as attraction to our own gender plus any number of genders that are not our own." -Adele, 26, bisexual.
Advertisement
8 of 17

The people who use it should get to define it.

"My wife is bisexual. It's a word people use, and the people who use it should get to define it. Definitions change over time, and what works at the time may be stale and even offensive in a decade or two, but bisexual isn't an epithet. This kind of definitional nitpicking over prefixes and suffixes and so on wastes energy which could be used more constructively elsewhere." -Kiva, 59, queer trans woman, fond feelings still for "lesbian."
9 of 17

To be frank, I don't know, but spectrum of gender is cool and I'm still bisexual.

"I wouldn't care if someone called me pan or queer, but I still self-identify as bisexual: having attraction to my gender and other genders. I'm wrestling with whether or not this is trans-exclusive. But I'm in a very long-term relationship, so people don't really ask about my sexuality much these days, anyway, so there hasn't been much growth in terms of my sexual identity. To be frank, I don't know, but spectrum of gender is cool and I'm still bisexual." -E, 25, bisexual.
10 of 17

It's not about fitting people in a box at all.

"Personally, I don't think the term has anything to do with gender presentation — it doesn't invalidate one particular gender any more than 'homosexual' or 'heterosexual' does. I'm not rejecting any gender by my attraction to sexes like and unlike mine. In fact, it's not about fitting people in a box at all.

"When people I've dated or have had conversations with tell me they're confused by how I identify, the reason for that in my experience has always felt less about them believing I'm excluding trans people (or anyone else who falls outside the binary) — but rather that I can't 'pick a side.' The discomfort in the label feels related to this idea that being bisexual makes me flippant to one 'group' or the other... which, frankly, is what's really reinforcing the gender binary." -Kelsey, 27, bisexual.
11 of 17

I want people to know I'm not straight, but I don't always want to get more specific than that.

"I prefer 'queer' because it's less specific — I want people to know I'm not straight, but I don't always want to get more specific or personal than that. Otherwise, I identify as bisexual. While I technically am described by the definition of 'pansexual,' it's not a term I have ever used — it's never felt like 'me' the way that bi and queer do." -Rebecca, 22, bisexual or queer.
12 of 17

The attack on 'bisexual' while 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' are not attacked is problematic at best.

"The bi- in bisexual refers to the sexuality being a combination of heterosexual and homosexual attractions, not that one is only attracted to two genders. While I understand people’s concern with the term as a non-binary person, since even my definition tends to group people into their gender presentation, I honestly feel as though the attack on 'bisexual' while 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' are not attacked is problematic at best." -Alex, 24, bisexual or queer.
Advertisement
13 of 17

Love is love and lust is lust. It doesn't matter who it is or how they identify.

"I don't think 'bisexual' is the best descriptor for me, but I think it's more accepted amongst cisgender and straight folks and since a lot of people don't know I'm bisexual as it is (I'm in a 7-year cis-hetero relationship), it's easier for me to say than 'pansexual.' I do identify as pan in queer circles, though. Love is love and lust is lust, as it goes. It doesn't matter who it is or how they identify." -Lindsey, 28, bisexual (usually).
14 of 17

This understanding of the terms allows for attraction to everyone.

"Homosexual: being attracted to the same. Heterosexual: being attracted to the different. Bisexual: being attracted to both the same and the different. This understanding of the terms allows for attraction to everyone, including people who reject gender." -Kaylee, 32, bisexual.
15 of 17

Bi visibility is still a problem and terms like queer or gay make people who date all genders invisible.

"I mix and match which label I use depending on context. But, I still hold on to the term bisexual because my sperm donor was also bi and his sexuality was erased his entire life by the gay community of his generation. Bi visibility is still a problem today and terms like queer or gay (which I also use) make people who actually date all genders invisible. I think we can be bisexual and still date people throughout the gender spectrum. I'm gender-fluid myself and have dated many people across the spectrum and through transitions." -Devin, bisexual or queer or gay.
16 of 17

I don't think the term inherently reinforces the gender binary.

"I don't think the term inherently reinforces the gender binary as it can also just mean 'same' and 'other' attraction. This is the way that I choose to see it, as I am not strictly attracted to cisgender men or women, but do use the term bisexual to describe myself." -Mary, 26, bisexual.
17 of 17

We’re not going away any time soon.

"If people want to label themselves as bisexual, then let them. We’re out here and we’re not going away any time soon." -Sydney, bisexual.
Advertisement