Bisexuality and Labels

This is taken from a posting I made to a bi mailing list which started off talking about the case of JoAnn Loulan, a self-identified lesbian, and a self-identified non-bisexual, who has a maleprimary partner.


I have greatly mixed feelings about Loulan's situation.

On one hand, given the definition that I (and many other bisexual people) often use for the 'bisexual', this woman is bisexual. For those of us who prefer a relatively inclusive definition of the term, Loulan's own words immediately qualify her as a bisexual, so her denial reads as biphobic, bigoted and 'in denial.'

On the other hand, for people who tend to see the Kinsey scale as more evenly apportioned between straight, bi and gay/lesbian, there is little question that Loulan is lesbian. In addition, many of these terms, lesbian in particular, have come to mean a great deal more than who one is physically and/or emotionally attracted to, they have (unfortunately, perhaps) become cultural and political descriptors as well.

In general, no two people share the same set of denotations and connotations for the words that they use. In general, what meanings we attribute to words reflect our experience and our values. Experience because we use words to describe the differences and similarities between the things we've experienced. Values because we tend to mentally focus on the definitional divides that help us explain our points of view, that reflect the differences and similarities that we believe are important.

Nowhere are these differences of meaning more evident than in the field of emotions, relationships and sexuality. (Here's a fun experiment: write down your own definition of the word love. Now ask five of your friends to do the same. You'll probably find that all six are different.)

In the end, these differences force me to adopt a descriptivist view of semantics, a view that there isn't a 'right' and a 'wrong' meaning of a word, only a 'more common' and 'less common' meaning. A tiny difference, I'm sure, but an important one when it comes to the use of words and its relationship to identity politics.

That doesn't mean that I am not discomforted by Loulan's words. I share the same emotional reaction that many bisexuals I know have to them, a reaction of disbelief, a presumption of her being in denial. Those are my reactions, however. Reading her entire words I do believe that she believes she is being honest with her words, that she is trying to convey who she is through her choice of words. And to me, denying her the right to use the words she chooses for herself, feels wrong.

In the end, one of the true sadnesses of all of these arguments is that they are by nature arguments of exclusion politics. "You don't qualify as a lesbian." "I don't want to be thought of as a bisexual." In my experience, such politics are always more destructive than beneficial. I personally would like to work towards a more inclusive view of these terms, in addition to working towards personally using these terms more inclusively.

As I've mentioned, people vary widely in their reaction to words. This includes the level of inclusivity that those words convey.

I've been listening to people talk about labels for a while, and I've noticed a few things about how I hear these words, and I'm curious whether other people share my reactions--in part because it is my desire for my words to be interpreted in a relatively inclusive semantic frame.

One thing I've noticed that often makes a big difference in tone is the difference between noun and adjectival uses of labels. For example, I could say "I am bisexual." or "I am a bisexual." Both say something about me, but my perception of tone in the two is somewhat different.

I tend to like the tone of the first better. To my ear, the noun usage conveys connotations that I wouldn't mean for myself.

Let's look at an example, comparing "I am Christian" to "I am a Christian."

When I hear the first, I mostly hear it as telling me something about the religious beliefs of the person. By comparison, the second statement often feels to me as if it carries more baggage verbally. It defines a group of people "Christians" vs. "not-Christians". Most adjectives are analog, you can be "a little Christian" (let's ignore "a little bit pregnant"). Nouns tend to feel more digital, the second statement carries a "There are Christians, and there are non-Christians, and I am one of the first group." tone. And that feels more exclusionary, and sometimes judgemental.

In addition, the noun usage carries a greater sense (to my ear) of implying that it is telling you more about me. To push the point a bit humorously, if I say "I am blond." (which I am) you may not draw any additional conclusions, but if I tell you "I am a blonde." it feels like I'm trying to convey that I fit a lot of the attributes of the whole "blonde" stereotype. (If I tell you "I are a blonde.", the situation is even worse. But I digress.)

Despite the silliness of the previous example, I think that the analogy holds (albeit perhaps less strongly.) for other adjectives. Try it with "straight", "gay", "bi", "lesbian", "black", "white", "green", "Wiccan", etc. and let me know what you think.


Last modified: 22 October 2000