Bisexuality and Labels – A Rose by any Other Name is Still a Rose

            Feeling sexually attracted to both men and women has garnered many different labels – bisexuality, sexual binary, pansexuality, sexually fluid, queer, and non-labeled. Then we seem to have to identify our gender to help explain our sexual preferences including the labels cisgender, bi-gender, and gender queer. We may even want to identify ourselves at the soul level by calling ourselves two-spirit people. Why do we do this?

I wonder, do we become our labels?

                There is certainly a danger in that. In one of the best articles I have found on the topic, Lauren Restivo [1] identified Self-Stigma as one of the problems with labeling. According to Restivo individuals may have a tendency to internalize labels resulting in negative perceptions and beliefs about themselves. I believe that when we identify ourselves as being different with a different genetic predisposition it can affect our belief systems. We may perceive ourselves as not being ‘normal’; we may never be ‘normal’, and not being ‘normal’ automatically makes us ‘different’ from significant others such as parents and siblings. If we lose our bonds with others or even live in fear of losing our bonds, it can make us vulnerable to mental pressures. The label can then lead to low self-esteem and feelings of helplessness.

                On the positive side, it can also help us identify with a specific group and therefore form a shield against discrimination from everyone else in the ‘other’ group. However, unlike ‘other’ groups within the LGBQT communities, we tend to go it alone often feeling further isolated. Case in point, I tried to form a friendship group for bisexuals with shared activities. We had over 60 members sign up but only two of us showed up for the scheduled events. When it comes to forming group bonds, on-line does not cut it. We have to be willing to dance and hug together. Finally, a bisexual label can also become a reason or perhaps an excuse to withdraw from living a life of mental and sexual freedom and the subsequent responsibility for honesty to ourselves and others that goes with it.

Is one kind of label more challenging than another kind?

Let’s have a quick look at the labels, what they mean, and why we choose them. If we are going to have a label, I think bisexuality is the best one. In other words we accept that we have sexual attractions to both men and women. We are NOT bisexuals (a noun) but we have bisexual desires (a verb phrase). Sexual binary is simply an attempt to sound and feel scientific which somehow justifies a behavior that does not need to be justified. Ditto for ‘sexually fluid’. Pansexual to me is getting close to the absurd. It suggests that we are free spirits constantly engaging in sex with anyone and anything (a bias we are already fighting against from some groups in society). We are just like everyone else. We are simply engaging in sex for the purpose of seeking intimate connection with other human beings. I do not like the term queer. I am not queer. I and my behaviors are natural and totally comprehensible within my own mind. I do not have to justify them or be in the face of others by playing on their negative terms for us.

                What about gender? Again, there is no need to try to explain or justify our sexual behavior by claiming it is somehow part of our genetic being. This may apply to submissive gays and dominant lesbians but it does not apply to us. There are some of us that feel we may be more comfortable in our ‘other’ gender but I would argue that this would make us transgender rather than bisexual. Transgender is not about sexual behavior; it is about being psychologically more comfortable in our gender feelings rather than our biological bodies. Being bisexual we are more concerned about the expression of our sexuality rather than the characteristics of our being. Some of us like to play either dominant or submissive roles. We like the feel of things like clothing and mannerisms that go along with these roles; they enhance our sexual experiences. Finally, it gets absurd when we have to give a label like cisgender to describe our physical reality. As bisexuals, as opposed to other members of the LGBQT community, we are (or should be) equally comfortable with our heterosexual, gay or lesbian masculine, or gay or lesbian feminine roles. As a conscious human being who happens to be bisexual, I see myself as having whole and complete access to all so called feminine and masculine traits.

                Finally regarding two spirit, I think this applies more to indigenous people. I sympathize with their desires to understand their sexuality within the parameters of their cultural experiences. I also sympathize with their historical and cultural openness to embracing the softer feminine traits that I believe are common to all but particularly shunned by our white culture as being a sign of masculine weakness, a problem that female bisexuals do not have to deal with.  Again I think we have to look at whether this is a transgender issue rather than our bisexual need to explain and justify our sexual desires and behavior. As bisexuals we all share our humanity, and the nature of our sexual desires and sexual identities are common to all of us. We need to accept ourselves based on our similarities rather than our cultural differences. Personally, I feel I have one spirit. That spirit is not sexual. It is the ‘me’ in me beyond my sexual physical desires and beyond the nature of my masculine and feminine characteristics.

Can labels be harmful within society?

                I believe labels can all have the same impact and results when it comes to Self-Stigma; however, different labels certainly create different responses when it comes to how they are perceived by society. Restivo identified another issue that she refers to as Public-Stigma. She states that the public in general has a tendency to engage in stereotypes (which I believe also applies to sexual behavior). She also believes that Public-Stigma can be unintentionally propagated by government and public institutions in the process of trying to define, help, and support people in need (which, again, I think applies to the LGBQT community) resulting in a lot of negative and mostly unfounded public attention.  In my opinion it is better to simply enjoy our sexuality without drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves by seeking some label for some form of justification through group identity. If there are legal issues then by all means we should stand up for our rights. Discrimination and abuse based on our sexuality should never be tolerated. But for the most part, why kick the dog when it is sleeping? By its nature, when aroused, society will react when it feels threatened by people to whom they have been assigned negative stereotypes.

                Then there is the tendency in the social sciences to try to form correlations with sexual behavior and personality disorders such as borderline, histrionic, avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and perhaps bipolar disorder. These attempts to explain why we seem to be so uncomfortable with our sexuality create a double label linking our bisexuality with mental disorders which can cause a public reaction. For example, people with bi-polar and borderline personality disorders are often viewed as having wild mood swings resulting in sex binges and engagement in extremely high risk behavior. This association of our sexuality with some kind of abnormal behavior can result is discrimination in the workforce and even in the process of finding life partners.

If I am diagnosed with cancer, am I “my cancer?” Am I diabetic and not human? Small-minded, rich, poor, black, alien, alienated?

No, you are not your negative label. Why limit ourselves? We are beautiful and powerful spirit beings.

Are there good labels? “Health-conscious”?  Loving? Curious? Interested? BFF (best friend forever)? Spiritual? 

Yes. Not all labels are bad. In fact, even labels dealing with our sexuality can be positive. Some of these labels help us understand our feelings and our thinking and behavior patterns. Once we recognize and accept them, we can take steps to live with them and even turn them into positive aspects of our being. The key is to not view the labels as something permanent leading to helplessness, but something temporary that leads to greater self-awareness and understanding. The goal is always to eventually lead more powerful and productive lives.

My Recommendations

1.     Do not wear your labels proudly or with shame. Recognize them for what they are, verbs not nouns, evolving not static. They are thought patterns and behavior patterns that can be changed. Do not overthink your sexuality. Just enjoy and find others who also like to enjoy their sexuality in ways that complement your desires.

2. Words do matter. health care providers, educators, and people in entertainment who have a tremendous influence on the minds of the general population should work to try and choose their words more carefully and avoid inadvertent labels and potential negative terminology. And please no jokes. This is not funny.

3. Avoid Self-Stigma by focusing on building your self-esteem and gaining self-control. The goal is to take control of your own sexual behaviors and the thought processes that go along with them. Sex is sex. Enjoy it without self-judgement.

4. If you are having mental issues, it probably is because of your mental issues, not your sexuality. It is what it is. If you need help getting to the root of why you are having trouble with your sexuality deal with the mental issues behind that feeling.

5. If you feel you need to use a label to help others, by all means do so. Just remember that you do not need a label for yourself to justify your sexual preferences. If you feel you have something to contribute to your fellow human beings who are struggling with their sexuality, then by all means knock yourself out and go for it. Just be sure that you are part of the solution and not part of the problem.

[1] Restivo, Lauren. Words Matter: The Effect of Stigma and Labeling on Mental Health Care in the MilitaryPsychological Health Center of Excellence. March 19, 2018.