Illustration by Sam Nolan 

 

After the release of her song “I Kissed a Girl” in 2008, Katy Perry was dogged by the mainstream music media for donning “gayness” as an easy way to stir up a ruckus and sell her image.  On the one hand her song was critiqued by social conservatives on the grounds that it promotes queer culture—“the gay agenda”—and on the other hand it was called out by progressives for reducing the idea of bisexuality to a drunken hook-up. 

The gamut of reactions exposed several tensions felt both inside and outside queer society, surrounding  bisexuality and those who refuse to identify neatly within the homo/hetero sexual identity binary. Perry’s  bisexuality impinged on mainstream music’s safe heterosexuality, while also cheapening the authenticity of an autonomous and separate homosexual culture. Perry was cast as the Other by both ends of the spectrum, but the song certainly sold records. 

Dismissive and derogatory attitudes toward bisexuality permeate Western culture. One often encounters comments such as, “Bisexuals are just gay people, too afraid to admit it to themselves.” “They’re just indecisive; eventually they’ll pick a side and stick to it.” “Bisexuals are kidding themselves.” “Bisexuality is a myth!” “Bisexuality is a phase that all people go through before affirming a concrete identity.” Too often such remarks are heard.

Despite an arguable progression toward the acceptability and respectability of gays and lesbians since the gay liberation and women’s movements of the 1970s, Western society’s general attitude towards those deemed sexually alternative—bisexual and/or pansexual—has remained stubborn and resistant. 

Identity theorist Steven Angelides posited that the foundation of certain identity categories depends on a polar process of opposition and othering. In essence: we cannot have heterosexuality without its Other, homosexuality. This also means that to embody a non-polar point on the spectrum, to exist in multiple points simultaneously, or to transgress the boundaries of the dichotomy altogether, makes for a very messy picture as far as neat and tidy sexual  identities are concerned. 

It might have sounded strange to the early liberationists 50 years ago to claim that sexuality is fluid, changing, and open. It would have sounded strange 50 years before that, to the early psychoanalysts,  to claim that there are stable and legitimate forms of sexuality other than monogamous heterosexuality. Fifty years before that it would have sounded strange to even talk about “homosexuality,” for the word hadn’t yet been coined. 

The term “homosexual” first appeared in 1869 and emerged before the term “heterosexual,” which came two years later. Same-sex attraction was frowned upon, and often persecuted, for quite some time in the West. Homosexuality, with its etymological origin in 19th century medical discourses—denoting a deviant psychological condition—provided those who felt same-sex attraction with a categorical identity.

Into the 20th century, homosexuality became more allowable as it proved its likeness to heterosexuality. Gays are just like us! They can be monogamous just like us! They are different but equal—a common 20th century sentiment. 

Meanwhile, bisexuality has remained in murky waters. Gay marriage is legal, but some people still speculate as to whether bisexuality is even a real thing. Bisexuality isn’t really like “straight” or “gay” in that it doesn’t require a singular trajectory of attraction. It doesn’t reject one orientation in favour of another; rather, it embraces both homo and heterosexuality while simultaneously rejecting both as well. It is queer and it is subversive

Homosexuality started down the road to heteronormative acceptability when it was first understood as a concrete and stable expression of sexual identity. But within Western society’s understanding of sexuality as a spectrum, bisexuality must remain eternally in a state of unstable flux. There is not, however, necessarily anything wrong with that. I would argue that we are slowly moving past the era of concrete sexual identity labeling, into something more loose, open, and fluid. 

Every day it seems another letter  is added to the ever growing LGBTTIQQ2SA acronym. All the time individuals are forging new unique ways of understanding, describing, and identifying themselves. Perhaps it sounds strange to argue that labels matter less at a time when people are creating more labels than ever, but I would indeed argue that that is the case.

In the future we can only guess how sexual identity will be understood and theorized. Until then we can do no more than remain open-minded, non-judgemental, continue to think critically about the moralizing aspects of discourses on sex, and to consider what functions these identities serve in our society. 

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