Loving Beyond the Gay/Straight Binary – Bisexual Resource Center

By Ellyn Ruthstrom

I was gathering with a group of LGBTQ activists outside the
Trump Hotel in Washington, DC for a dance party on a global-warming-kind-of-day
in January 2018. The action was to thumb our noses at the horror that had taken
over the White House the previous year and to make the statement that no one
can take away our joy and our community spirit despite all of their vile and
inhumane actions. Great tunes, great spirit, and some fully-charged speakers
who encouraged us to dance like our lives depended on it—because they do.

Photo courtesy Ellyn Ruthstrom

A few steps ahead of me, two younger women were standing
side-by-side. The woman on the left had a pansexual pride flag tied around her
neck and the woman on the right had a bisexual pride flag tied around hers. The
way the two flags hung down their backs and the closeness of the two women produced
a beautiful blending together of the flags; the pink of the pan and the pink of
the bi overlapping. The image of the two of them was quite emotional for me and
I snapped a few shots of them. I tweeted the photo and it struck a chord with
many others as well and I’ve seen it pop up in all sorts of places unrelated to
my own bi+ networks.

Why would this juxtaposition of flags evoke such a strong
response within me and within so many others? To me, all bi+ identifying people
are linked. We all understand the power of loving outside the boundaries of the
binary gay/straight sexuality that many others believe to be the only choices. I’ve
been a bi+ organizer and activist for over 25 years and it’s been an important
part of my activism that bi+ community should be a safe space for as many
people as possible to participate within. The Bisexual Resource Center (BRC)
support groups (and most of the other groups I’ve ever heard of in the bi+
community) are not limited only to people who identify as bisexual; in fact,
there are no identity requirements to participate. Along with bi+ folks, our
support spaces have helped many gay and lesbian people come to terms with their
own sexuality.

Over the last ten years or so, there have been occasional
tensions between folks who identify as bisexual and those who identify as
pansexual. The tension, to me, feels unfortunate, misguided, and hung up on prefix
derivation that no longer applies to deeper understandings within the
community. The Bisexual Manifesto, published in the bi national magazine, Anything That Moves, back in 1990,
included this statement: “Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in
nature: that we have “two” sides or
that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human
beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders.” These
understandings have been an integral part of bi+ community for decades and when
others hold on to some archaic prefix definition in order to argue that
bisexual and pansexual people are SOOOO different from one another it is a
waste of energy and ignores our linked realities.

At times, bisexual folks have felt attacked by pansexual
people when a very narrow and binary definition of bisexual is used to
discredit the identity and (directly or indirectly) say that bisexuals are
transphobic. This last point is particularly painful to bi activists who worked
alongside transgender activists in the 80s and 90s to add the B and the T to
the movement acronym. It also ignores the high percentage of transgender folks
who identify as bisexual and the high incidence of bisexual/transgender
romantic partnerships.

As an example of the kinds of actions the two communities
worked on together, see the following quote from a press release in 1997 by the
ad hoc National Coalition of Bisexual and Transgender Activists:

“Bisexual and transgender inclusion in the gay and lesbian
movement has taken center spotlight in recent months. Out, Advocate Magazine and Newsweek
have reported on the debate and activists have urged leaders in gay and
lesbian organizations to be more inclusive.
Most recently bisexual and transgender people have established a
presence on Capitol Hill, and in the larger gay and lesbian movement. For example,
bisexual and transgender activists recently initiated an historic first meeting
with a White House official to articulate the needs of bisexual and transgender
people in federal policy; staged a mass visibility action at NGLTF’s 1996
“Creating Change Conference” and GenderPAC and BiNet USA, two national activist
organizations, recently conducted one of three planned lobbying days in the
U.S. Congress.”

Several years ago, the BRC designed a word cloud t-shirt to
help symbolize and celebrate the multiple identities that people in the bi+
community use for themselves – bisexual, pansexual, fluid, heteroflexible,
AC/DC, omnisexual, queer, switch-hitter, ambisexual, bi-amorous, queer, no
label and more. Even with all those terms, we still had people tell us that
they used other terms to define themselves. Our community understands the
complexity of sexuality and feels a strong need to express that complexity with
these various identifiers. What’s great about the pansexual identifier is that
it emphasizes that complexity, and
other terms emphasize other aspects as well.

There is no need to stifle the creative choices of people’s labels;
however, as a bi+ organizer I also understand that there is a need to unify
around shared terms and concepts. As organizers we use terms differently for
different purposes. A personal identifier that you use within your closest
circles can be different from a community identifier that will be used for
political discussions or organizing purposes. I may use non-monosexual within
the bi+ community to refer to all bi+ identities, but it is not a good primary
term to use to self-identify. Describing yourself by what you are NOT is disempowering
and reinstates monosexuals as the norm.

One of the things that Bisexual Health Awareness Month
always brings to the fore is the harmful physical and mental health disparities
that our community experiences. From what I know, whether you call yourself
bisexual, pansexual, fluid, omnisexual or other terms, those disparities will
affect your life in the same way. These are shared experiences of those of us
who have a wider range of attraction than gay or straight people. Changing the
label won’t make these disparities go away. What endangers our community is if
we spend more time fighting over our personal identifiers and less time
supporting each other and less time advocating for more resources and services
for the entire bi+ community.

Ellyn Ruthstrom is the Executive Director of SpeakOUT Boston, the oldest LGBTQ speakers bureau in the nation. She was the president of the Bisexual Resource Center for ten years.

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