Bisexual Identity: A Roundtable

Bi flag, image from glaad.org

September 19th through the 26th marks Bisexual Awareness Week during which BiNet USA, GLAAD, and other organizations place a spotlight on issues unique to the bisexual community. WWAC is no stranger to discussing these issues; whether it’s calling out bisexual erasure in Deadpool, highlighting bi characters we love, or pointing out the gaping holes in representation offered by the big two, we are invested in positive and realistic bisexual representation in comics and other media. This year, several of our bisexual, queer, pansexual, or sexually fluid writers decided to take a step back and discuss what our identities mean for us and how they inform our work.

I considered rolling out some dictionary definitions to kick off this roundtable, but the terms we use to describe being attracted to multiple genders–bisexual, pansexual, queer, fluid, etc.–are more complex than what Merriam Webster offers. Perhaps this is a better way to start: How do you understand and define your chosen identity term in relation to your understanding of your own sexuality?

Prodigy/David Alleyne from Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Young Avengers.
Prodigy/David Alleyne from Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers.

Ray: When I was in high school, I put some pieces together and realized I was attracted to ciswomen as well as cismen. Thus, I started identifying as bisexual at 17. As I got older and met more people, I discovered that I’m attracted to people who are not cis as well, but I seem to like similar qualities and particular expressions of masculinity and femininity. So the duality that comes with the bi in bisexual still exists, only under a more gendered definition nowadays. I love the term “bisexual” more than any other term, so that’s how I know it’s me for sure. But “queer” makes me feel warm and fuzzy too, because it connects me to the larger queer community and my queer comics family.

Amanda: I really like calling myself queer. I like using one term that, to me, covers both my sexuality and gender identity. To me, queer connotes something outside of the binary cis–and hetero–norm. And, like Ray, the term really does give me the warm fuzzies. If I’m being specific, I would say “pansexual,” because I know I’m attracted to folks all along the gender spectrum. Actually, funny story: My wife and I had to come out to our families twice. First, when we announced we were together. Second, on the day of our wedding, we found ourselves standing with both sets of parents in a quiet moment and trying to explain what it means to be attracted to individual humans of any gender rather than a specific gender set. I laugh when I describe this situation, but it actually meant a lot to me that our parents would take an interest and ask thoughtful questions.

Cathryn: I’ve not used the term “queer” for myself until very recently. I don’t feel ownership of it really, mostly because I am assumed as heterosexual and cisgender due to my current relationship: Marriage to a man, as a woman. As such, no one really acknowledged me as anything other than that. I know how I feel though, and that is best described as pansexual. I won’t say gender isn’t important, because it is important to that person’s identity, but for me it is an aspect of the person as a whole and not a gateway criterion in my attraction to them.

Marissa: I don’t understand it. I think I fall under questioning right now; I’m not sure I’ll ever get answers, and I think that is okay. We are culturally predisposed to categorizing everything, but some things have more complex answers. I am confident that I am attracted to trans men, trans women, cis men, and cis women. But I am not sure how much of my attraction to women is, because we are so constantly packaged for sexual consumption. I had always assumed it was rooted in that. I am not confident I have the ability to parse that.

Alenka: I identify as queer/bi. Marissa, I wanted to note that several years ago, when I was sitting with questions about my identity, but not exploring it any way, I identified as “questioning” on an anonymous survey, and that was a really important moment for me. About four years ago, I started to acknowledge that I was experiencing harshly ingrained internalized biphobia; I would write off feelings as lies because I’d been attracted to men, so how could those feelings possibly be real? At times I have felt frustrated, dishonest, and totally unable to cope with my queerness. How do you come out to people when your identity is so confusing, even for yourself? (Side note: This essay Stef wrote for Autostraddle a million years ago was a big fucking deal for me when I decided to face my biphobia head on and come out to my parents.) Queer has always felt right to me, because it best communicates the messiness that is me, but bi has become important to me since recognizing how bi erasure played a role in my own turmoil surrounding my identity. I still have trouble claiming it, but it does describe me, and I hope someday I can use “bisexual” without feeling all the weight of biphobia that comes with it.

Rosie: I never used to identify as anything. I was lucky enough to grow up in an area and community that never really made me question the fact that I was into all genders. It wasn’t that there was an all around acceptance, but more that people didn’t really seem to care. As I grew up and got really into alternative culture and clubbing I found that side of myself much easier to express, though I never had to “come out” as I left home early and now have a very relaxed relationship with my family as an adult. In the last few years I finally started to identify as queer. Twitter and the queer comics community were a huge part of me feeling comfortable and not like an imposter, getting over the idea that my lack of outward “queerness” somehow meant that I wasn’t queer enough. I recently married a cis guy, which I would never have imagined happening, but my husband is so supportive that I feel far more comfortable in my Queerness than ever before. Not only does “queer” feel like my identity, but just like Amanda and Ray it gives me a severe case the warm and fuzzies.

Kate: When I was growing up, I never questioned if I liked boys or not, but when I was in college (so clichéd, I know), I started questioning if I liked girls. It was never a question for me of girls instead of boys or only girls, so bisexuality seemed to fit and make sense to me. I do also use queer when referring to myself, but I consider queer to be the umbrella term that bisexuality falls under. Queer > Bisexual.

Jo: This sounds like a sitcom answer, but when I was 12 (in the pre-Google era!), I decided to do an AskJeeves.com search for “pornography.” “Search engine optimization” and personalized search results weren’t a thing back then, so I got what the majority of porn was: Nude women. “This makes sense,” I thought, and I came out as bi to my mom in junior year of high school. In both senses, I think I was socialized to be sexual. As a kid, I daydreamed about handsome princes, and as a teen, about kissing girls. Thanks, porn!

How do you feel about the identity terms that you do not use? Are there terms that you feel could describe you, but you still avoid? Do you use some terms in certain situations, but not in others?

Renee Montoya, from Batman: The Animated Series.
Renee Montoya, from Batman: The Animated Series.

Amanda: Well, it depends on who I’m talking to, to some extent. If I’m not emotionally up for an extended conversation on the subject I’ll use bisexual over queer or pansexual, because the term is more widely understood. I’m often misidentified as a lesbian because my partner is female, and I do correct that when I run into it.

Ray: I am more ambivalent toward it than I used to be, but I still don’t like the term pansexual. The implication that it was created because the term “bisexual” wasn’t inclusive enough–and therefore people who identify as bisexual are closed-minded or bigoted–bothers me. If you identify as pan that’s fine, but if someone tried to apply the word to me I wouldn’t react positively. I am very proud of being bisexual, and there seems a slightly different mindset between people who call themselves bi and pan. As for other terms, I call myself queer almost as often as I call myself bi, because belonging to the queer community means a lot to me.

Alenka: Like Ray, I never use “pan,” but I’ve really never considered it. I spent so much time wrestling with “queer” and “bi” that I think when I learned another term my reaction was, “ohhh gosh. Can’t do this again, sorry!” I probably fit the definition of pansexual (or do some days) and saying I don’t have the energy to use it might be a bullshit cop out. However, queer is the term that I feel most comfortable and enthusiastic about, and bisexual is an identity I feel compelled to fight for, but pansexual seems pretty clear-cut and clear-cut is not me.

A month and a half or so ago my now-roommate told me about how his coworker warned him that the neighborhood he was moving to was full of gays. He responded that he was aware, and his roommate was gay. I was genuinely surprised by how much it bothered me; I understood that he wanted to call out his coworker’s bigotry, but I am not gay. If I want to use a term that I feel others might understand or find familiar, I will use bi. If I feel comfortable and safe, I will use queer and am willing to explain why it’s my chosen term.

Rosie: The only term I’ve ever used to identify is Queer. I was just never really comfortable with the term bisexual, though as a teen I thought of myself that way for a short time. I just think labels in general scared me and made me feel like I was stating that I was something I could never live up to or fit into.

Marissa: Since I’m not using any terms right now I can pretty easily speak to why. People tend to thrust certain labels on me and I don’t particularly care to adopt what people shove onto me. I lean away from bi because I don’t like the erasure of fluidity implied in it. I shy away from pan because (at least in Portland) it has some additional associations. I don’t say I’m queer because I feel like I haven’t earned that right. I’m happy sitting in questioning ally right now.

Kate: Yeah, I don’t consider gay to be the same kind of umbrella term as queer, so I avoid it. And like Ray, I don’t like the fact that pan is often used as the opposite of bisexual–I don’t like the implications that bisexuality is outdated or limiting. I stick with bisexuality as my default because I feel like that’s sexuality–which is distinct from gender.

Cathryn: As I mentioned before, I’ve not used “queer” until very recently, because most people don’t believe I am. I’ve also used “bi” instead of pan for some people, because trying to explain the difference is just exhausting sometimes.

Jo: Nah, I’m old as hell, and if I spend time stressing about what I call myself or what other people call me, that’s a genuine waste of time for me at this point.

Are there notable comics, TV shows, films, or other media that offered bi representation and meant a lot to you? Or, have you found a total absence of any representation that would have meaning?

A panel from Erika Moen's final DAR comic. Image from darcomic.com
A panel from Erika Moen’s final DAR comic.

Alenka: I have been talking about this a lot lately, but I distinctly remember watching Kissing Jessica Stein when I was very young and feeling a twinge of recognition. However, that and other films or TV I saw in my adolescent and teen years also involved women becoming, realizing, or being forced into the label “gay” as soon as they dated another woman. It wasn’t until I read Erika Moen’s Dar that I felt something really click in my head, like there was a little inner me jumping up and down in my brain and shouting, YES! THIS! THIS IS IT! Her openness about her confusion surrounding her sexuality and the clear way she communicates her feelings visually was deeply important for me. I will never forget that moment of resonance.

Ray: Ummmm, does Angelina Jolie count? I could attribute lack of representation as a very significant reason why I never even considered that I might be bisexual until I was 17. It took yet another year of getting deep into comics to find characters who I felt represented me. Kate Kane (Batwoman) is part me, part everything I want to be: Jewish queer lady, tough, and kicking ass. Then there’s Wildcat’s Zealot, who I think counts as bisexual, who is like all of my flaws, but presented as better. But it took a very long time until I recognized that I don’t have platonic “girl crushes,” which I also find a very annoying term! I had absolutely no exposure to even lesbian characters until I reached adulthood. It seems even harder to find bisexual characters, because straight writers can’t seem to wrap their heads around the concept.

Rosie: Discovering Love and Rockets was a huge moment for me. The women in the book looked more like me, and the Maggie and Hopey storyline was the first time I’d seen a normalised relationship between two women who, more than anything, seemed to be friends first and lovers second. That was a revelation. Especially as Maggie also dates men, which suddenly made me feel far less of an anomaly. I’d never seen cool, alternative women kissing and laughing and crying together. Later on in my life I found a lot of joy with books, like Gillen & McKelvie’s Young Avengers and Lumberjanes. Seeing queer representation becoming more visible in the medium I love has been pretty special.

Kate: I grew up in the ’90s, so we barely had any gay or lesbian people on TV, much less bisexual people! And I haven’t found any representation specifically for people of my generation.

Cathryn: I was excited to know that though he is stated to be bisexual on some sources, Iron Bull from Dragon Age: Inquisition is really pan. Past that, there is not a lot of mainstream media that’s delved into it for me.

Jo: Renee Montoya was my hero in Batman: the Animated Series, and I was super moved by the “Half a Life” run of Gotham Central. I kind of appreciated the fact that her lesbianism was altered and stressed by the fact that her family wants her to have a cis-man-husband and children. It really locked in for me that your sexuality is part of your lifestyle, but so is your culture, and those two things can come into conflict.

As a critic of pop culture, how does your identity contribute or alter your analysis of the stories that you consume/interact with?

snotgirlcRay: Well, everything certainly seems gayer. HA! I read Snotgirl #1 a month or two ago and the “Cool Girl” character is my physical type. Match that with how Lottie was full on checking her out and how they went to a bar together, I was chanting at the two of them to hook up. But my straight friends go, as straight friends frustratingly often do, “Oh I don’t think they were on a date, she just thought she was cool!” Yeah, no. I’ve had friendships and I’ve had crushes. And based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s queer track record, I’m betting the price of Snotgirl’s first trade that Lottie turns out queer.

Within our society, the demand for queer representation is stronger than ever before, and more and more kids are discovering their queerness at earlier ages. I find the lack of inclusion of queer characters entirely unacceptable because in creating stories like that, you are willfully denying a sizeable part of our society that exists. My comics reading list has improved considerably since queer comics took it over because there’s sooo many talented queer cartoonists out there.

Kate: I think that some people would say that being a bisexual person means that I can identify with “both” kinds of media–queer media and straight media. And I think that’s true to some extent, because yes, I’ve had relationships with boys and relationships with girls. But I think that what I find more often is that I find myself isolated by those stories too, and so when I see that there’s a bisexual character, and especially a bisexual woman, it makes me pay attention to those stories when I might not otherwise. I never watched The 100, but I pay attention to what happens with it simply because the main character is a bi woman.

Rosie: Well, as a creator it definitely makes me write more queer characters. Haha. From a critical perspective I definitely seek out more inclusive representation, which tbh has always been my way. Growing up and hailing from a poor area that was massively diverse and being a queer, disabled woman shaped who I am and means that positive representation has always been something that I’ve looked for. That’s also definitely become my main focus in my writing as I’ve gotten older. I really feel a responsibility on a critical level to seek out inclusive storytelling and call out problematic stuff that I see, and boy, in comics do we see a lot of that. I agree with Ray that everything seems gayer. Also, LOTTIE IS DEFINITELY QUEER <3 <3. It is a seriously exciting feeling to start to see a little more of that side of myself in the things that I love.

Cathryn: I’ve noticed a large difference in the narratives presented in straight versus queer media in terms of tone. I’ve also found that I’m not willing to tolerate problematic straight media just because it’s more readily available. There are other options, and I find myself drawn more to queer narratives, particularly for romance, in that respect.

Jo: Hmm, not really. Though who knows! I’ve known I was bi longer than I’ve known I was a culture critic, so I probably have a few more years of criticism before I get cozy with what that means.

Alenka: Erika Moen’s comics had such an impact on me that I began to seek out more queer (mostly web) comics, and I’ve never really looked back. I love the indie/alternative comics scene, because there are a plethora of comics featuring characters that we rarely seen in the mainstream, and being a critic of indie work means a lot to me because I’ve benefited enormously from the existence of such work. I obviously will call out and discuss mainstream media when I want to, but ultimately I will continue to immerse myself in work where I see myself, because a) it’s SO GOOD and, b) I get to continue to break down the internalized biphobia that plagued me for so long.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.

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