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Non-binary identities in binary times: What does it mean to identify as queer, bisexual or pansexual

By Bridget Woods

Illustration by Lydia Ortiz

“Are you, like, a real bisexual, though?” I cannot count how many times I have had to hear this question – a completely serious inquiry on behalf of the asker, I might add. For those of you who also identify as bisexual, I’d love to know how you answer this, because I have never found a response that lets me exit the conversation as quickly as possible. I think there’s a common misconception that bisexual individuals are the least visible group flying under the LGBTQ+ flag, that because we have an “unlimited supply” of options when it comes to partners, our romantic and sexual experiences occur without issue.

I don’t think I have to tell you how so not the case this is.

Now, I could go on a tangent about how bisexual individuals make up a vast majority of the LGBTQ+ community, but are significantly less likely to come out. I could explain how the majority of folks who identity as bisexual are trans and/or folks of color, and thus their negative experiences are easily compounded, stereotyped, and fetishized. Or I could speak about how bisexual youth are more likely to have less access to mental health resources, and suffer because of it.

Instead, though, I want to talk about bisexuality as what it could be: a shift towards queer liberation. In 2014, a researcher traveled to Kentucky to interview and observe individuals who identified as bisexual, pansexual, queer, heteroflexible – many different ways to describe their sexual identities outside of the dichotomy we’ve become so accustomed to (either straight or gay/lesbian).[1] What she found was that youth had various feelings about labels and their usage. Some found terms like “bisexual” and “queer” incredibly useful in wanting to understand themselves better and siphon out a section of the LGBTQ+ community for themselves. Others, though, found labels stifling or utilized their nuance and variability to move between or around different labels. All of these labels, however, became sites of negotiation when queer folks all over Kentucky would come together at Pride/LGBTQIA+ friendly events. It was here, the researcher noted, that the significance of labels began to become malleable: not to detract from an individual’s identity or claim about themselves, but rather to challenge the categories that perpetuated boundaries between individuals.

What does it mean to identify as “bisexual” or as “pansexual” or as “queer”? What does it mean to be queer, bisexual, pansexual, or non-binary in a society so invested in maintaining boxes? All of these terms have contentious histories (some more than others), but all exist in a sort of in-between space. We’ve seen a vast and dynamic shift in how mainstream media speaks about gender and sexuality, finally acknowledging the validity of identities and lives outside – or rather in spite of – the binaries we’ve been so obsessed with. Queerness is a powerful identity; it forces us to come face to face with the unknown, with the undefined. Phil Hammack speaks about the reclamation of the term queer as “an affirmative usage that views notions of normativity and the ‘naturalness’ of gender and sexual categories as suspect and recognizes the value of queer identities and practices to critique the status quo.” [2] To me, queerness allows us to live in this in-between space; to exist how we are, counter to the rules that say we should be this way or that. Most importantly, however, queerness forces us to acknowledge entitlement and our pervasive want to always be in other people’s business! Defining “queerness” is counterintuitive to its very nature: it is simultaneously undefinable and subject to multiple definitions. It exists in its essence, rather than in its defined construct.

Bisexuality, pansexuality, queerness – all non-binary sexualities skew our views of gender and sexuality, of the ways in which folks can exist in a society intent on holding us in little boxes. Non-binary sexualities challenge spectrum, challenge binary, challenge our black and white thinking. They challenge, quite literally, everything we have internalized as “normal” and “natural.”

So let me tell you something, friends. There is no such thing as being a “real” bisexual. There is no right way or wrong way to practice your sexuality, especially if you exist with me in this in-between space. As queer folks, we are already pushing back against the rigid categories we have been told to place ourselves in. These boxes can’t hold us. Our identities – vast, innumerable, and diverse – provide us a place to exist together, to form a community that holds all of us. Most importantly, however, they provide us freedom. A beautiful mosaic of existence in which sexual possibility is endless.  

[1] Callis, A.S. (2014). Bisexual, pansexual, queer: Non-binary identities and the sexual borderlands. Sexualities, 17(1/2), 63-80.

[2] Hammack, P. K., Frost, D.M., & Hughes, S.D. (2018). Queer intimacies: A new paradigm for the study of relationship diversity. The Journal of Sex Research, 1-37.

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