Terminology Matters

The other day I got a text from a friend asking me if I was single because “a little bird wants to know.” I laughed and shared the text with another friend who was chillin’ with me at my place. Showing her the text led to a discussion, and at some point she said, “… and she knows you’re gay…” This bothered me because she knows that I’m bi. If you know I’m bi, then why use the word “gay” to describe me?

This sort of thing happens to me all the time, and I know I’m not the only bisexual with this problem. Sometimes I let it slide, other times I correct the mistake. And in those instances where I do make a correction, there are some who roll their eyes and add, “yeah, I know you’re bi” in a tone that suggests I’m stating the obvious, as if I were making a mountain out of a molehill. But these things matter. The fact that I was stating the obvious as a direct result of a mistake to which the speaker seems oblivious makes it matter.

“Gay” and “bi” are not synonymous. Yet somehow in our collective consciousness it’s okay to include bisexuals under the umbrella term of gay; people can call you gay in one second and in the next talk about you hooking up with someone of the opposite sex without batting an eyelash. That makes about as much sense to me as saying someone is a vegetarian and then recounting a story about how they devoured a hamburger the night before.

Hearing friends who should know better still fall victim to the use of “gay” as a catchall is all the more frustrating when the friends in question have discussed in detail and respect my sexuality. There may be an underlying acceptance of bisexuality in such cases, but vocabulary nevertheless needs to catch up and reflect that.

I’m reminded of a story a good friend of mine from England told me about the birth of her son in New York City in the 70s. She is white; her then husband is black. After her son was born, while sitting in a room with other new mothers, a nurse came around and asked each mother what the ethnicity of the respective father was. Incredulous, my friend asked why that mattered and at first refused to answer the question. Eventually the nurse won out, and my friend told her that the father was black. The nurse, in turn, marked the child’s race as black, which infuriated my friend.

As a mixed baby myself, I completely understand her distaste for the situation. It bothered me in school that the options on forms were always “black”, “white”, or “other”—though at least I had the option of “other”. In contrast, my friend’s child was lumped into an incorrect category because the stats didn’t care about mixed babies. And bisexuals are subjected to a similar process.

Admittedly, most people aren’t maliciously trying to erase bisexuality—they just use the wrong word. People whose agenda includes erasing bisexuals off of the sexuality map are always going to use whatever terminology suits their purposes. But we have a big problem when people who don’t have an issue with bisexuality – and who even defend its existence – use the wrong terminology.

If you know someone is bi, then for God’s sake, refer to them as such when it is necessary to refer to their sexuality. You may be gay or straight and not entirely understand what makes a bisexual tick, but that doesn’t mean you can shove bisexuals into one group or the other just to simplify—especially since doing so ultimately makes discussion more complicated.

Somehow, someway, we’ve got to break this tendency to refer to bisexuals as something that we are not.

2 thoughts on “Terminology Matters

  1. It always frustrates me when people HAVE to have the right term for everything. I would identify myself as straight but I like to have sex with women when the mood takes me. Does that make me incorrect when describing myself? Similarly there are probably many men out there who identify themselves as Gay but still choose to interact with a vagina on occasion. So what does that make them?

    1. It’s not about having the right term, it’s about respecting the term people apply to themselves. So if you refer to yourself as straight, then I would refer to you as straight. The same would apply to the guy who identifies as gay but still occasionally sleeps with women.

      It’s not necessarily about defining terms that everyone uses – though I think having terms that everyone is familiar with can be helpful in discussion – it’s about respecting other people’s self-identity. And just as you are free to identify as straight and to expect me to respect that, so too can I identify as bi and expect people not to then refer to me as monosexual. I don’t desire to define how others identify themselves; rather I want my own self-identity to be respected in the same way you or the gay guy would expect me to respect yours.

      I’ll add that labels really shouldn’t matter, as everyone should be free to explore without the need for labels. But they certainly can help when it comes to talking about sexuality.

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