Sexual orientation is not sexual identity: celebrating Bisexual Visibility Day

In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight
What is my status? Stray? Or great?
~Vikram Seth

Yesterday, I found out on waking up this morning, was Bisexual Visibility Day. A swathe of other FTBullies, from whose various posts and tweets I discovered this, have this topic covered from a range of angles: Ashley, Jen, Miri, Greta, Kate, Yemisi, Zinnia, perhaps others I’ve missed. The queer Freethought Blogs contingent (whose only male constituent I seem to be – oh, the oppression) tends strongly, it appears, toward bisexuality.

In common with Ashley, I don’t foremost call myself bisexual (adjective), though I might mention bisexuality (noun) being part of me. It’s not my view that sexuality in essential terms is what we are, but moreover I’m suspicious of the unstraight being made a positive value: queer is my term of preference since it names only exception, deviation, departure from a set of norms, and opposing those norms – the only reason I need name my sexuality at all – requires I acknowledge them. A choice between ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’, in any case, is one I’m hesitant to make. Both could conceivably apply, but why the need to quantify my queerness? Would a less predominant interest in men, if ‘bisexual’ denoted that, be more acceptable than little or none in women? On the other hand, might gay identity be more straightforward, in the truest and most troubling sense? More problematically at ease with the idea folk who aren’t straight are all the same, a perverse undifferentiated mass?

I don’t know which identifier, should I adopt it, would play to a more heterosexist gallery. My own orientation’s details – I’m blasé in principle vis partners’ gender, but have cause to favour men in practice – provide me more choice here than many have, but we need to note, I think, the distinctness of the two. Sexual orientation is not sexual identity, and the latter often is in some sense chosen.

Picture for instance seven imaginary men, all of whom describe around 90 percent of their sexual attractions being to other men, and have in the past had sexual encounters with women they found to be somewhat satisfying if not to their preference.

  • Adam identifies as gay. Although he’s occasionally attracted to women, he considers these attractions trivial and unimportant. He strongly prefers sex and relationships with men, to the extent that while he might find a woman attractive, he has no real-world desire to act on it in any way.
  • Brendan identifies as bisexual. He feels that although he isn’t interested primarily in women, his attractions to them are still significant, and not to be swept under the rug. He’s found sex with women somewhat less enjoyable than sex with men to date, but doesn’t consider this a dealbreaker or see sex as central to his relationships, remaining open to seeing women.
  • Connor identities as straight. Strongly religious, he views same gender attractions and encounters as immoral, wishing to ‘maximise his heterosexual potential‘. Although he found his previous experiences with men significantly more enjoyable than those with women, he wishes only to pursue the latter currently and in the future.
  • Daniel identifies as pansexual. Like Brendan, he’s open to sex or relationships with both men and women, and feels past experience needn’t inform his current attitude or sexual and romantic decision-making. Daniel, however, has also been with partners neither male nor female, and while in practice most often interested in men, feels on the whole indifferent gender.
  • Ewan identifies as asexual. He experiences sexual attraction in an abstract way, principally toward men, and has participated previously in sex and relationships due to expectation and social convention, but (while not adversely affected by the experience) didn’t gain enjoyment or fulfilment from this, and feels no desire for sex or romance in future.
  • Fraser identifies as queer. He feels similarly to Daniel, and has some things in common with most members of the group, having had partners with a range of identities. At the same time, he feels suspicious of any perceived need to identify himself positively. He tends to view all sexual and gender identities as somewhat artificial, and views himself simply as non-straight.
  • Graham spurns identifiers altogether, going one step further: he feels a strong sense of what he wants both sexually and romantically, but considers all labels outmoded and irrelevant, pursuing whichever partners he finds attractive without regard to identifying himself in any pre-existing terms.

One basic orientation here, shared by all those listed, finds expression in various distinct sexual identities: there is no categorical sexual ‘difference’ between Adam, Brendan and Chris, except that their attitude to their own desire, how they conceptualise it and how it’s made explicit.

The opposite happens just as much, of course, as single identifiers mean a multitude of things. Adam no doubt knows gay men with somewhat different orientations from his – Adrian, for example, might have more than trivial interest in women but identify as gay rather than bi; Andrew might find seeing a woman inconceivable. Likewise, straight people in Connor’s life might be a mixture of those with zero interest in their own gender and heteroflexible ‘mostly straights’ with a certain, small amount.. Ewan’s asexual best friend Eric, moreover, might not experience sexual attraction, while mutual friend Elliott might be ‘grey A‘, desiring sex only in particular, exceptional circumstances, perhaps primarily with women and not men.

As taxonomising, empirical classifications these identities work far less well, then, than they do as social signifiers. Terms like MSM have been devised to circumvent sexual labels’ ambiguity, but that ambiguity only gets more severe in light of wider factors. How does the relative historic broadness of the term ‘lesbian’ affect identities’ unclearness in female contexts, corresponding to the ones above? How might more complex genders, under the trans* umbrella specifically, muddy the waters? How do historical terms in general play into this scheme – what equivalencies do we draw (if any), for example, between identifiers like those above and now-defunct ones like Uranian or Sodomite? Between them, alternately, and ones outside white-Western conceptions of gender or desire – hijra, Two-spirit, bissu? How do we negotiate identifiers’ different valences today, as they alter across lines of politics, location, age? There comes a point when not much stock can be put in what people call themselves.

This isn’t to say, as the case for universal bisexuality has at times, that what labels people choose to use don’t matter, or aren’t to be acknowledged and respected. (We in polysexual circles ought to know better, identities we don being routinely delegitimised. Sexual identifiers need, I think, the deference we give chosen pronouns.) It is to say, however, that they don’t tell us as much as we might think. Numbers of self-identified bisexuals now are limited in the same way numbers of self-described trans men were limited in 1430 – identities which have no social currency aren’t commonly assumed – but that someone might denote themselves gay, straight or variations thereupon is no assurance, certainly no guarantee, they lack broader potential of any kind. Bisexuals’ visibility matters a lot; bisexuality’s as such matters still more, and this is one way to unearth it.