Semantic Wars

Oct 1, 2009 | 2009 Fall - Visibility, Articles

By Kim Westrick and Amy Andre

Bisexual friends Kim Westrick and Amy Andre got together to have a conversation about the semantic challenge of “bi” vs. “queer” as identity labels.

Amy: Recently, a friend asked me about my reluctance to identify as queer (as opposed to my standard bisexual identity), in light of the fact that I have trans/genderqueer partners who don’t identify as male or female. The reason is because “queer” is a complicated term with a history of violence for many elders (and some non-elders, too) in our community. I understand the impetus to reclaim the word “queer,” but I’m not especially interested in being part of that movement toward reclamation. And although “queer” works for me as a self-label in certain contexts, “bi,” on the other hand, is always an appropriate self-description.

But my friend’s question got me thinking: given the fact that so many bisexual friends and community members reject the idea that gender has to have a relation to attraction and behavior, why should I reject the bi label? Why did her question even come up? How relevant is gender to the concept of bisexuality? If bisexuals like me don’t care about gender in the way that monosexuals do, why would my identity label exclude my lovers’ gender variations? How queer (unusual) am I?

Kim: It seems like this is a big issue in the community, so I’m glad you brought it up. Like you, I’m a bi person who sees gender as fluid rather than fixed or dichotomous. In addition to bi, I identify as queer because of its theoretical rejection of body hierarchies, its inclusion of multiple genders and sexual expressions and how it connects me to a larger, political community.

I’ve also felt outside pressure to reject my bi identity based on the idea that it perpetuates the gender binary: woman/man. However, this idea reduces bisexual to “bi” and “sexual” and disregards the fact that it represents a history, a community, a substantial body of writing, and the right of the bi community to define “bisexuality” on its own terms. Most importantly, this idea disregards how vital these things are for countless bi people. Identifying as bi doesn’t inherently mean anything, and it definitely doesn’t inherently mean a person only recognizes two genders. However, to assume that bi-identified people exclude transgender, gender nonconforming (GNC), and genderqueer people also assumes they are not trans, GNC, or genderqueer themselves, when in fact, many are.

Of course, there are plenty of cisgender [those whose gender identity matches the behavior or role considered appropriate for their sex] bi people who are transphobic or assume there is little variation in gender expression, just as many gay, lesbian, queer, and straight people do. This is a prevalent and problematic attitude we should all be working against, but not by abandoning the word bisexual and all the good things it represents. What do you think?

Amy: I think I love your point about bisexuals not necessarily believing there are only two genders! Assuming that the “bi” in bisexual means a person thinks there are only two makes as much sense as assuming that monosexual (gay and straight) people think there is only one gender. The prefix doesn’t relate information about how many genders a person thinks exists. At the most, it gives an indication of how many genders a person might be attracted to. But, in the case of bi, I don’t think it even does that. Because, like you, I identify as bi in part to connect to a particular community, and in part because gender is not an overriding factor in my capacity to desire others.

So, let’s take this to a meta-level. What impact do you think these semantic wars have on the development of the bi community?

Kim: I think it’s really good for the community to reject the idea that there are only two genders, and to be proactive about calling out transphobia. A wide open and inclusive perspective of gender should be a permanent part of our work. In fact, I find that by identifying as bi, I have many opportunities to challenge people on their assumptions. The scene:

Q: Are you straight or gay?

A: I’m bi.

Q: Who do you like better, men or women?

Sample Answers: “I like all genders the same.” “I prefer feminine people, but I don’t care what gender they are.” “I prefer butch women, but I also date other genders.” “I like androgynous people of any gender.” “As long as they’ll top me, I don’t care.”

In one sentence you can break down their assumptions and maybe spark a conversation about gender expression and identity.

These semantic wars divide us and distract us from organizing around other important issues. As a white woman, I see that racism and white supremacy are pervasive in queer/LGBT/bi communities and issue prioritization. Yet this glaring problem seems to go mostly ignored. To begin reaching an inclusive movement, white bisexual and queer people should be spending time and energy recognizing white privilege, and calling out racism and white supremacy. Bi people of color (BiPOC) are vastly underrepresented in bi events, and racist and classist comments go unchecked. Semantic wars sidetrack us from this.

Amy: I think you’re right about the sidetracking. To me, the focus on what we should or shouldn’t call ourselves is a product and reflection of internalized biphobia. The right to name oneself – and have that name be respected by others – is so fundamental to the very start of the movement-building that needs to happen. When we get derailed from building this foundation, we lose sight of the bigger picture. And isn’t that just what an oppressive system, a system of classism and racism and sexism, would want us to be doing? In-fighting?

I’m continually fascinated by the interplay of the concepts of love and war. The war around semantics boils down, in part, to us bisexuals and queers finding common (or uncommon) language to describe our capacity to love other human beings. As long as we can love, isn’t that enough? And as long as we are loving, haven’t we already begun to engage in dismantling the system?

As a person of color, one of the things I value about the bisexual community is the fact that, at least historically, it has been led by women and people of color, and often by women of color. Our bi-icons, such as Lani Ka’ahumanu and Loraine Hutchins, have been leading the community for decades now, and are still two of our strongest voices. I feel privileged to be part of a colorful matriarchy. I share your concern about the current under representation of bi people of color at bi events, and/but I’m hopeful for the future, because of the past.

Kim is a recent graduate of the University of California, Davis where she helped start the school’s first bi student group, The Bi Visibility Project. Together with the LGBT Resource Center, Bi Vis put on the campus’ first bi education and community week, Beyond the Binary. She is currently working at Centro de Atención Psicológica, a domestic violence prevention center in Monterrey, Mexico.

Amy is the co-author of Bisexual Health (2007: National Gay & Lesbian Task Force), and the author of over 30 articles and essays on bisexuality, race politics, and social justice issues. With a master’s degree in sexuality studies and an MBA in nonprofit strategy, Amy works in the LGBT nonprofit sector and does public speaking on bisexuality. She has presented to thousands of people at over 100 organizations, conferences, and schools, including Stanford University Medical School, the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association, UCLA, and Brown University. In other words, she’s a professional bisexual (or “pro bi”)! Visit her online at

Featured image: Amy Andre

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