"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.
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so many people becoming more aware that "man" and "woman" aren't the only two genders, is the word "bisexual" becoming outdated?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Bisexual isn't an outdated term, because it doesn't actually reinforce the gender binary at all, and much of the confusion around the term is rooted in misunderstanding.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.
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."
So, I asked the bi community for their own definitions. Read on to learn what 17 bisexual people really think about the term.

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