As a woman who dated both women and men before marrying my husband, I encountered many inconsistent beliefs and attitudes about my non-binary sexuality. I wasn’t straight enough to hang out with straight girls – they were afraid I might come on to them or steal their boyfriends. I couldn’t be in the cool lesbian grrl club unless I denounced my interest in men. Men thought I wasn’t monogamous – or that my interest in women included them in the picture as well. And lesbians thought I was just experimenting, and not really interested in a relationship. Then who are my people? Where do I belong? How do I find love and acceptance?
Conversations around sex, gender, sexuality, and health are often layered, and frequently contentious. Just last month, there was a recent uproar in the midwifery community about transphobia. Here’s what happened: The Midwives Alliance of North America revised their standard language to include birthing parents who did not identify as women. A group of prominent midwives protested this change on the basis that it erased the female identity and woman-centered history of the midwifery approach.
Then the internet exploded, and once again illuminated the many inconsistent beliefs and attitudes that people across the political and sexuality spectrum have about transpeople, and other identities that challenge our binary thinking around gender and sexuality. Even highly educated people can have trouble with identities that were in-between. As a part of my research for my senior thesis on lesbian invisibility in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I learned that lesbians were classified by the Center for Disease Control, a major government agency, as women who had sex exclusively with women since 1977 (this was in the mid-1980s) while gay men were men who had sex with a man at any point.
Seeing this issue play out in yet another context helped me articulate how we confuse and contradict ourselves in the face of a non-binary identity. The objections to bisexual and transgender identities from the feminist and LGBT communities are usually grounded in one of the following (false) beliefs:
- You can’t possibly understand me. How could a transwoman ever really understand what it’s like to be a woman? How could a bisexual woman ever really understand what it’s like to be a lesbian? Well, yes, that’s possibly true, but it doesn’t need to keep us from being part of the same community.
- My oppression is worse than your oppression. Who is more oppressed? A gay cis-woman or a straight transwoman? A woman or a transman? Unpacking privilege isn’t quite this black and white (pun intended). There are lots of different kinds of privilege and oppression that overlap within and between communities (favorite video here). Shutting someone out because they are more privileged than you is also not kind.
- You get to pass, and I don’t. Transmen sometimes get to occupy male, privileged places. Bisexual women can pass as straight. This is not a reason to hate them or call them a sell-out.
- Your freedom is my ball and chain. Some feminists I respect quite a bit – especially older ones – were not fully supportive of the public celebration of Caitlyn Jenner’s feminine look and style. The same attitude existed in the lesbian community on my college campus. If I like heels and lipstick, does that mean I’ve been co-opted by the patriarchy or just that I prefer a femme identity? And why is my personal style any of your business?
- You reject something I celebrate about myself/You embrace something I reject. Maybe I love my breasts, and you decided you don’t want them anymore. Or you thought you HAD to have sex with women to be a man, and finally feel free coming out as a gay man. If I hated bananas, and you loved them, we could still be friends, right?
These issues are by no means straightforward, and they bring up a lot of shame, stigma, and emotion. But when those feelings are used to justify the oppression or rejection of others, this is a problem. I don’t care who you are – you don’t own my expression of gender or sexuality. I do. Identities are complex, and conversations about them need to be too. Take a moment to ask questions, learn more, and understand before you judge someone’s choices, behavior, or expression of who they are.
Happy Bi Week!