“Congratulations, it’s a boy” or “Congrats, it’s a girl” are probably the first words you’ll ever hear and as such they will come to define the very essence of your being. From the moment of their utterance your mother and father will be making plans and assumptions about your life and how you will live it based on the information they give. How you look and behave, what you like to do, your emotions, behaviours, career, educational ability and … your sexuality. Even the conscientious parent who determines not to bring up their child with gender bias will not be able to escape many of these assumptions and certainly, even if they could, the rest of whatever culture you live in, from school to media and advertising and friends will fill in those gaps.
The boy/girl binary creates us and consumes us . One can easily imagine an alternate world in which the first words uttered are “Congratulations, it’s a blonde” or “Congratulations, a brunette” an how different would the world look? Instead of whether you have a penis or vagina, babies would be divided up on the basis of their hair colour, told what they like and how to behave and what they find attractive. Simply blonde’s fancy brunettes and brunettes are crazy about blondes. It doesn’t matter what’s down below (or out front) it’s their hair colour that’s important to attraction and who their best friends at school are. I can equally imagine someone telling me that this thought experiment is absolute garbage because the difference between boys and girls is innately obvious, whereas there’s no obvious difference in the way people behave according to hair colour (despite the fact that for so many years redheads were considered to be “temperamental, of course) but that just goes to show how much stock we place on the identification of our personalties with gender. “I was born like it – this is me, I can be no other way”
What’s this got to do with why I like to use the term bisexual rather than pansexual, and with what I find attractive after dark? Well, these things have everything to do with binaries and gender and how we perform our gender roles, and if you look at my thought experiment, it’s also about how damn easy it could be to subvert gender norms should we, as a society wish to. How ridiculously arbitrary societies notions of gender are when you put it in black and white terms and how one can slip in and out of gender roles if one understands the simple (yet so complex) nature of their construction.
My understanding of gender and my sexual identity are staggeringly important to me. I’m no Academic expert but I didn’t just make them up overnight, I’ve actually been considering the issue for many years. Just recently, however I’ve come face to face with this issue of Bisexual vs Pansexual on internet forums and through articles and I’ve been repeatedly asked – or should I say, told – to challenge my assumptions. As someone who always thought of herself as bisexual I was suddenly faced with discussions with a tight knit group of people who very strongly believed that if I didn’t actually call myself Pansexual then I wasn’t appreciating that there are more than 2 genders (as if a gender is a real thing?) and that I would therefore be erasing transgendered people and I’d be a bit of a nasty person. As discussions evolved I also began to repeatedly bump into this “cisgender” word and I was also told to use that as an identity. I am no longer a woman, I am a “cis-woman” and talking about myself in any other way suddenly got some very disapproving responses. Not one to run away from a new ideology I considered the issue and ultimately decided that I didn’t agree with using the term cisgender and I politely (but assertively) told a transgendered person why.
“According to the way I understand gender,” I argued “You cannot actually be a different gender from the sex you are born,. I don’t need to state that I was born a woman and I also live my life as a woman. I just am a woman and society dictates to me what that means. It’s not such much as being a gender that exists “man or woman” but gender is a term one uses to explain how one’s identity is constructed from a group of assumptions that are made about a person based on their biological sex (phew!)” I was greeted with angry – and in my opinion ill-considered – responses to the likes of “obviously not because I am a different gender to what I was born and you are trying to erase trans-gendered identities.” And so on. I don’t think that I’m trying to erase anybody. I think of myself as someone that is quite sensitive to the fact that minority groups have a difficult time in terms of both understanding of their situation, and regarding the negative effects of violence and discrimination. (that is, they suck) I’ve always thought of myself as someone who would stand up and fight for the right for transsexuals to live the life that they wish to and not be discriminated against because they choose to change their body to suit their own sense of identity. I don’t claim, however, to understand everything, or even much, about their lives and the way they live them and the pain that they go through.
And yet I also felt angry because I’d presented a philosophical argument about gender and I was being told that if I thought that way I was being discriminatory. So I thought about it some more and I thought about my idol “Simone de Beauvoir” – “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” and I still drew the same conclusion. As a woman, or a man, as I grow up I grow into a role; a role that is out there in society waiting for me to happen. Women are this, women are that, women like pink, dresses, literature (not maths!) and babies. They are emoptional and caring where men are brutish but smart) Of course, it not that simple at all, but you get the idea, we are produced as people by the ideas, assumptions, actions and education of the society and culture that we live in, in a way that’s actually grown more and more complicated over time. My womanhood, like other aspects of my person hood (if one can think to separate them – probably not) are created within me as I grow older and I take on and process information about the world My understanding of who I am develops as I grow to understand concepts of masculinity and femininity and sexuality and how they relate to me and the people I identify with.
And yet, this notion of cisgender tells me the opposite. It says two things. As I am born I am innately something, a man or a woman. As a ciswoman I am a woman whose “gender-identity” matches her biology and that says these two separate things are fundamental to my identity as a person. Secondly, it tells me that there are concepts for masculinity and femininity that are somehow fixed and if the two don’t align then they need somehow to be realigned. And this is all a problem for me because fixing – locking down – gender roles is, in my opinion, dangerous to feminism and dangerous to our ability to existentially define ourselves outside of gender roles.
We are prone to think in binaries. At least, we think in this boy/girl binary. If I, as a girl, choose to wear trousers and play football I am called “a tomboy” I’m a girl gone wrong. I’m a girl who has adopted masculine traits. I’m a girl who isn’t a girl. If I choose to have sex with a woman I am a lesbian and not straight (and I take on a whole bunch of other traits, like butch). What if, I often wonder to myself, we erased this binary concept. What if I liked wearing trousers, had boobs, played football and also liked Barbie. Oh, and I’m good at maths and literature? Do I need to put a descriptor on that – can I? What if, in our thought experiment it wasn’t just blondes and brunettes, but also people with red hair, black hair, grey hair (all sorts of anime hair, blue, pink etc). Who would be attracted to whom? Would there be a compulsion to lock it down and say blondes and black hair like brunettes, red and grey and vice versa. Can you imagine a world in which these different traits could be split up and applied so simply and smoothly? You would probably break down and admit that everyone could be attracted to everyone else … then you’d go away and find another binary to make life a whole lot simpler because, as complex as gender binaries can be, saying “I’m like this because I was born like it is beautifully simple”
I am loathe, ultimately, to define myself in terms of “I might be this, or I might be that” I am me. As far as that goes you’d possibly think that I’d embrace the pansexual label. Only the pansexual label was adopted by a community that has ideas about gender and sexuality that I actually don’t agree with and apparently wants to impose upon me. To reiterate, I support transgendered people with every inch of my body and soul, and I wish them all the best in every way, and I will vocally support their right to live their life as they choose, but I do not personally hold to the ideas that they do. I would not want to see anyone persecuted or harmed or “othered” because of their ideas or creed, whether that’s religious or sexual or otherwise political … but equally I think those people should have the respect to allow me to have my political and philosophical opinions without stating that I can categorically only support them if I agree with them and that my philosophies erase them. OK, I am not a Christian – or religious – and I will philosophically challenge a Christian on any point of doctrine, but I still support them as people. If not being a Christian is an affront, I sincerely cannot help it, and the same is true here since I cannot intellectually call myself a ciswoman.
I carved out my identity as a bisexual when I rejected societies binaries many years ago. For me “bisexual” didn’t ever mean “limited to two”, it referred to the ability to break away from the two options of heterosexuality or homosexuality that I’d been given all of my life (being gay was discussed at school, being bi was not). In a sense it meant “the third way” and it meant embracing everything that fell on the line in-between men and women on the sexual scale. Bisexuality and pan sexuality basically mean the same thing, though bisexuality has always meant ideological freedom to me, whereas pan sexuality has always been represented by people telling me I’m “doing queer/gender/gay wrong”.
And so I call myself bisexual because it remains liberating to me. If you like pansexual though, go for it. If you want to change your biological, sexual, or gender identity in any way, then go for it.
I’m not sure we really need labels for all of this anyway since I’m for a world of many colours; preferably all attracted to one another for their own unique qualities. If anything, I’m an existentialist.