• A.r. Rutter

Hand In Your Punch Card 2.0

In 2013, I wrote an article for Bi Women Quarterly's fall issue. The topic was "Bisexual Enough?" -- essentially, they wanted people to discuss whether they've ever struggled with feeling bisexual enough, and what that meant to them. My essay took up a whole page; it's listed below (with alt text.)

Though I have identified as bisexual for ten years, I still find myself sitting and wondering if I'm not actually heterosexual after all. I sit and I think in my room, or on the train, or in a long shower, "What if I'm just keeping this label because I've had it so long, and not because it actually applies anymore?" After all, I've only ever dated one woman seriously. "But my anxiety disorder makes it difficult to approach other ladies even for friendship, let alone asking if they're interested romantically in women," I reason. Yes, but. There's always some "but" lingering. There's always a small amount of doubt festering in the back of mind that sometimes surfaces in uncomfortable ways. Especially since there are many in the community who don't want different-gender bisexual couples to be included in safe spaces, or who categorize those relationships as "heterosexual" despite one or both of those individuals identifying as bisexual. So it feels as though if I want to be included in the community, I must be dating women; otherwise, I'm a traitor for dating men, or I'm not "allowed" to utilize the label for myself, and will be exiled for the duration of my undesirable different-gender relationship. The complex nature of bisexual relationships is sometimes overlooked by others in the wider LGBT* community, and certainly by those outside of it. I see arguments that it's inappropriate to label bisexuals "straight" or "gay" depending on their current relationship - as if it's Schrödinger's sexuality - but still there is that discomfort at allowing someone whose relationship appears straight to come to an LGBT* event or venue, because it is flaunting a passing privilege (or coercive closeting, in some opinions) over those who have no interest in pairing outside of their own gender, which would make them feel unsafe in what should be a safe space. "Is this right? Do I have to take into account the fact that I might be privileged over bisexual women in same-sex relationships because I'm dating a man?" I ask myself. Well, in some ways, yes, but I need to remind myself that this attitude turns my relationships into political battlefields that I have no interest in navigating. I don't choose my partners based on how political it makes me seem; I choose them based on mutual attraction, shared interests, and availability. I don't want to date women only because I want to be revolutionary enough for the bisexual community, or visibly queer enough to the rest of the LGBT* groups. It puts just as much emphasis on what I am doing romantically (and especially sexually) with any partner I choose as the bigoted heterosexuals who home in on our activities in the bedroom to demonize the LGBT* community as a whole. Thus, I am constantly re-evaluating my sexual history, my fantasies, judging how interested I am in pinups featuring women versus fashion shoots of shirtless men in increments of whatever unit arousal is measure in, and weighing the consequences of exactly what everything means. Was it just a phase? I wonder. Is this just some cliché high school and college experimentation? I cling onto examples of homo- and biphobia I have faced as an anchor, proving to myself and to others that I deserve to use this label, and that I have felt the stomach-clenching horror of facing those judgements from friends, family, and strangers alike. However, I convince myself that feeling - that tight, icy punch to the gut - at hearing some casual biphobic comment means that my claim to this sexuality is real and valid, I still struggle with accepting that it doesn't matter who I have slept with or who I haven't; there's no punch card to give my partners as proof: once you get ten stamps, you get a free admission to the Queer Club. But even if that were true, if I looked at a man within that safe space, would I be kicked out and have my membership revoked? Would I have to stick with women, even if there's a guy over there I'm really interested in more than any of the women in the place? It feels sometimes like I must calculate my partnerships to create a performance, to please both heterosexual skeptics and members of my own community equally. My sexuality is not performance art; it's not political because I choose not to make it so - except for when I do. At times it seems like it would just be simpler to adopt celibacy or shuck off the label and all of its connotations together. Despite all of this, however, "bisexual" is still my label; it describes my affinity for genders same and other, regardless of how loudly others may gnash their teeth and try to strip it from me. It's mine, and however I sculpt it to suit me through the doubts and the pressures, it's staying. In italics: A. Rutter is a recent graduate from Temple University with a degree in English. She plans to spend her adulthood singing pop songs to her cats and writing novels.

First: it's a coincidence that this is coming on the heel of some discourse on Twitter about biphobia in books & the community; I don't want to bring up the Twitter discourse because this is just a personal essay about my experience of not feeling bisexual enough to be...something. Just enough. I'm not inviting discourse over what is or is not biphobia or what the community is or isn't or should/shouldn't be; I'm talking about my experiences, which might look nothing like yours. I don't have answers or even meaningful suggestions. I have lived experience and where I'm coming from, presented anxiously. I want to revisit my thoughts on my experiences and on my identity (my identity) now that I've had more time to digest certain things and understand my identity more fully.


Second: I don't identify as queer anymore. When I did, I wanted to be outwardly political about my identity; I was learning about LGBTQ history and resistance and learning more about how I wanted to express myself. I was like 21 and had known I was bisexual since 14, but I wasn't out to my family. I was out to my friends, but I was selective because open (if usually casual) homophobia was the norm in my high school. Our school newspaper reported that not an insignificant amount of students polled had heard their teachers using "gay" as derogatory; the SGA club was seen as a joke. I had a lot of internalized homophobia, including what was taught to me by my liberal family. So claiming queer even when I was still selective about when I came out and to whom made it feel like a more purposeful shedding of those old ideals, of learning new ones. I started taking feminist courses and engaging more in LGBTQ discourse. I also started triggering myself in order to be more ~enlightened~ and aware, thinking that being triggered was the price to pay for being a better feminist.


But now, using bisexual carries that power for me. There's community pressure to accept "queer" even passively when at the same time it's still used against the community have really soured its viability as something I can use for myself. Using "the queer community" & "queers" without an option for people who don't identify with it, even people who have trauma associated with that word, means either 1. you exclude the people who don't or can't accept queer for themselves or 2. you force them to accept it to be a part of the conversation. Maybe some people are making that choice knowingly. You're free to keep on keepin on, but be aware that it's happening, I guess.


It's a slur, but it's being reclaimed; I recognize the importance of it, but the expectation or even default assumption that everyone has accepted it and reclaimed it has robbed it of that power -- if you are called queer without having actively claimed it for yourself, how can that feel defiant? How can that feel revolutionary? For me, it doesn't; having the label assigned to me when I know it's not right has turned it from a mild annoyance to a source of real gut-wrenching anxiety. "Queer" doesn't meet my needs; for me, it's meaningless. For others, that meaninglessness is the whole point. It doesn't feel any different to me when it's another LGBTQ person pinning the label on me as it does when cishets pin it on me, even if it's used generally and not about me, a bear, specifically. It's not mine, I didn't order this, please take it back. Largely, however, people are respectful when you say don't call me this, please, even when they identify proudly as queer. And, like, sincerely: thank you.


Queer's nebulousness and its refusal to explain itself is something I really vibe with even now. Cishets are never expected to explain their gender or their sexuality in detail; LGBTQ people, however, have come up with microlabels to categorize every aspect of their identities. (I'm not passing judgement on microlabels because I've found a few that I like/identify with. I don't identify AS those things, but I don't care if others do.) Cishet people are never pressured to examine their gender identities or their sexuality; they can just say they are straight and cis and people will believe them for the most part outside of some fandom spaces. But "queer" says no, I will not explain further, and fuck you for asking. I've given you all you need to know.


However, bisexual is that for me. Bisexuality isn't a black and white "men/women" -- it's full of nuance. The pink/purple/blue of the flag inherently accounts for trans identities that fall outside of the pink/blue binary, which includes binary trans people. "Attraction to genders same/similar and other" is so vague. It's allowing for a lot of possibilities in your attraction. And "queer" has been adopted in so many mainstream areas; queer studies, queer theory; it's academic, it's the word that ties the community together; cishets use it freely. But "bisexual" is still treated as a dirty word.


Some results for "bisexual is a dirty word" on Google:

Sure, smaller creators (whom we should prioritize anyway for LGBT content) are openly bi and happily use the label all over. But it's still seen as...lesser or undesirable; bi people are not trusted by other members of the community. Gay men and lesbians are not required to date bi people, but equating them with traitors is maybe a problem; maybe it's a problem if gay men and lesbians refuse to date bi people just because they're bi? Proven Innocent is the only media I can think of that has a character openly say "I'm bisexual" in those words off the top of my head. It was cancelled after one season.


From the SYFY article:

Bisexual is a beautiful, powerful, and important word that describes the sexual identities of many, many people who are consistently maligned by or excluded from both straight and lesbian and gay communities. This “double discrimination” has significant impacts on the mental health of bisexual+ people.

I mentioned "bihet" being A Thing in the 2013 essay, and coincidently the Twitter discourse essentially dragged it from its grave to beat it. Sure, I am safer when I appear straight when I'm with a partner -- but that's a result of heterosexism and coercive closeting. It erases my experiences and my identities based on the assumptions and comforts of other people.


I've gone on dates with a girlfriend and been told not to hold her hand because she was afraid of being seen even in our liberal Philly suburb. But I've also held hands with my cishet best girl friend in the mall, not on a date, and no one cared. Often, wlw relationships especially are reimagined as friendship even when you're explicit about being in a romantic/sexual relationship; maybe that was protecting me. Maybe it was just that I'm lucky to have grown up in the right suburb of the right city so I'm not assaulted when I'm out with other women. Maybe it's both and maybe it's even more than that.


I don't know. But it feels a little like bi people aren't enough for not being beaten in the streets like that's the end-all-be-all of homophobia -- it's not revolutionary for me to date a man. But it's also not the same as a straight m/f relationship. It's a fully neutral act that doesn't strip me of the wholeness of my bisexuality so I'm Barely Bi anymore, just like when I date a woman, I don't expect to be held up as Almost A Lesbian or anything; they're just relationships. I can't be revolutionary in choosing my partners based on what the community wants from me because I need first and foremost to not be abused anymore.


As for straight-passing privilege, being beaten isn't the only way to experience homophobia; having your identity denied by heteropatriarchal assumptions isn't a privilege. But it might also protect me. Almost any LGBTQ person walking in public outside of Pride is probably assumed to be cishet; it's not unique to bi people to be wrongly perceived as being cishet, and while it protects us in some ways, it does real harm in others. It's fair to acknowledge both of those things, and it's still something I wrestle with.


I don't know how useful the discussion is, though; it seems like it's targeting bi people to keep us in our places in the community as lesser, a step away from being cishet. What does it accomplish, ufm? How does the knowledge that being in a (perceived in some cases) m/f relationship protects people from violence in the streets serve anyone in the community? Saying "bi people in m/f relationships are not heterosexual" doesn't discount that there is protection in m/f relationships -- that's why lesbians and gay men often fall prey to compulsory heterosexuality; it doesn't make them straight, it makes them closeted; the fact that bisexual people are more likely to be interested in being in m/f relationships (and not all bi people are attracted to men and women; some are attracted to women and nby people for example) doesn't take away from it being far more complex.


I'm not a brave person; I'm anxious and can't approach people easily. I didn't date girls until college because the few out bi/lesbian people I knew in high school weren't interested in me, and I was afraid of being outed if I tried to find another person outside of my friend group. Why is it on bi people to be called privileged if we're closeted and date to protect our safety? It felt like I wasn't enough for the community because I was afraid and closeted in many circles of my life; I considered so many times whether I should just give up pretending I was bi/attracted to women and just accept I'm straight. Is that privilege? Is it because bi people can still potentially enjoy fulfilling relationships when they're closeted or unable to date another person of the same gender that makes it a privilege over other closeted people? What does it mean for nby bi people? Am I still included in the conversation because I'm agender and none of my relationships are m/f? Is it privilege to be excluded from this conversation while my cis bi siblings have to hear it every day?


I don't have a solution for this. It's just...something I have to be faced with in the community and just sitting by myself. And it's very difficult to have this discussion even with myself because it's like those moments when I triggered myself reading discourse thinking it was the price I had to pay; is this the price I have to pay? Is having gay men and lesbians remind us about straight-passing privilege the price I and other bisexual people have to pay in order to be better...members of the community? Better allies to our siblings? To just step foot in communal spaces at all? I don't know. I really fucking don't.


Bringing this back to my experience, it very much does feel like you're not enough if you aren't in a visibly same-gender relationship. I will not go into details, but I have trauma around sex; I don't have a normal relationship with attraction. I detail trying to measure attraction to men and women in the 2013 essay, but since then I've come out as nonbinary/agender; I still associate mildly with girl because I'm afab and gender is just not a thing. But because people perceive me as A Woman, because I lived so long thinking I was just a super casual lady, I never had to assess my attraction to men. It was expected. It was the default.


So every time I look at women/nby people, I have to go back to when I was 23 or 24, just out of college in 2013, and do the same assessing. I have to second-guess what I'm experiencing; to prove I'm bisexual, I have to prove I'm attracted to women, but I never have to prove I'm attracted to men. I have to make my attraction active, which is also a part of why I choose to call myself bisexual. I don't have convenient markers of attraction to go by, no physical reaction to trust. So I choose it. Being agender already makes it more nebulous and weird than when I thought I was cis but casual.


But it also means that even if I am attracted to men, it's not a het relationship; if people perceive my relationship as m/f, will people defend it because I've been misgendered, or will it hold that I still have [cis] straight-passing privilege? My bisexuality and my gender inform my life. How I interact with and view the world. So which part do I have to compromise on?


This eternal internal monologue upsets me the most, but it's also the thing that feels the most real. In the absence of experience with other girls, I felt like the only reliable way I had of knowing for sure that I was bi and attracted to women was my reaction to biphobia. (Cue flashbacks to my father finding out I called myself bi on Facebook as a teen and asking, "How do you know? Have you ever been with another girl?" He never asked if I'd ever been with a boy because if I had, he'd have threatened to lock me in my room until I was 21 -- no such threat when it came to other girls.)


Like how I felt when my grandmother said how much she wished I wasn't gay (she didn't know that I am; I have never come out to her because of this) because being gay is hard and she didn't want me to suffer -- without ever doing anything to actually make things less awful for LGBTQ people; how I felt when the discourse hit me in the gut; how it felt when friends, supposed allies, showed their homo-/biphobia, and how all that just meant that the real experience of confirming my bisexuality was one of suffering and pain, not of joy.


And being "valid" isn't the most important thing here -- safety, community, knowing the violence and hatred will not be something you have to face alone are. It feels like bi people are looked at and judged to see whether they're enough to get those things; if they're in a m/f relationship, they're practically straight and don't need protection, right? That's often how I feel; maybe that's a personal problem. Maybe it's a community problem. I don't know. But I have felt like I do need to prove myself worthy. I don't want to be in conflict with my siblings.


Ironically, just accepting that I'm agender has made my sexuality easier to deal with; all the attraction I experience is not The Straight Experience. It's one of the millions of unique bisexual experiences. I'm not choosing who I want to date because I get a little punch card to mark off how many men or women I sleep with, and if I don't keep it perfectly balanced I'm Bad, Actually -- I date and experience attraction to people based on who can give me what I'm looking for in a relationship and to whom I can give something in return.


In other words, if I'm looking to date someone of a particular gender, it's because I think they'll have some experiences or insights that will be more compatible with me; another woman (or woman-aligned person) will navigate life differently than a man, and that's what I'm interested in right now For Reasons that no one is obligated to know.


When I first posted something revisiting this essay in 2018, I was starting a relationship with another nby person, also bi; I'm the most comfortable I've ever been because it's not just theory or a relationship from a decade ago that lets me know it's real -- it's finding comfort and joy and excitement in this relationship (now approaching 3 years) and being able to have the thing I've wanted for years without coming attached the promise of abuse as the price of admission; it's for once being able to see having a future.


It's hard to feel bisexual enough when the focus is so often on discourse, on coming up with reasons why bisexuals should be scrutinized; it feels like I've had more biphobia come my way than welcome. It feels like I run in to more "Remember, Bis, You Are Privileged" messages than I run into stories celebrating bi relationships and happiness. And I'm torn, because on one hand, I can find community that will be that for me; on the other, I shouldn't have to risk more of the same to not feel like I'm not allowed because I have Too Much Privilege (including increased rates of domestic violence compared to the rest of the LGBT community I guess; including the mental health issues linked in articles above). Instead of joining in larger communities, I made my own small one that I know is safe and where I can have these discussions and trust that the responses are ones I can trust.


So I'm trying to show my pride and make my community by writing sapphic & nonbinary romances. I don't want to be perceived; my trauma and my sex life are no one's business, so I write. I deal with things I don't understand in myself in my novels and short stories. Recognizing and recovering from trauma; depression; the pressure to be with a man even if they treat me like shit because that was socially preferable to being with a woman (straight-passing privilege ig -- The Longevity of an Acorn deals with this); sometimes it still doesn't feel like enough. Is this the latest way that I prove that I'm bisexual enough? Maybe! But I'm coming out with two more short stories for pride month on Buy Me a Coffee. That's how I show my pride -- not by marching in parades or protests and getting sweaty and miserable, but by writing relationships I wish I had or that reflect the one I'm in now. It might not be enough for everyone. But it's all I have.


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