Being A Both/And Binary-Challenging Bi in A Zero-Sum World

2/21/2018

istock/CREATISTA

When I was sixteen years old I was a page for the U.S. House of Representatives, and was privileged to have the amazing experience of living and working on Capitol Hill with 100 other congressional pages.  We attended school in the pre-dawn hours at a tiny school tucked into the attic of the Library of Congress, and then dashed across the street to disseminate Congressional Records to Members of Congress as their legislative days started.  My first day as a page could have been a day of bitter disappointment; I was told that they were short on Republican pages, so, despite my being a devoutly partisan Democrat (so much so that I was voted Most Democratic Page that semester) appointed by a Democratic congressman, I would have to work on the Republican side of the aisle all semester.  Rather than wallow in disappointment, however, I quickly embraced the challenge and dug deep down to find a genuine and open spirit of bipartisanship.  I served the Republican side of Congress with enthusiasm, and to this day remain good friends with my former fellow Republican congressional pages.   That was my first profound experience shedding binaries and learning to dance in the world of the “other,” only to find self/other divisions dissolve into a beautiful harmony of shared humanity.

A few years later (a quarter of a century ago, even! oh, how time flies!) I once again had to challenge some of my deepest binary assumptions, this time when I awakened to my bisexuality.  I had fallen in love with a woman for the first time after years of only dating men (and, in high school, boys).  It was jarring, the realization that I was capable of loving both men and women, after assuming for years because of my attraction to men that I must therefore be heterosexual.  But once I got over the shock of finding myself head-over-heels smitten for a woman, I came out with a feeling of relief at owning my whole self.  I did not experience the tug-of-war that some do, the compulsion to “choose” between being gay and being straight.  It’s not that I didn’t wrestle with questions — including from others — about what it all meant as I came out as bi, but I never framed it in terms of a black-and-white dichotomy: that one must have EITHER same-sex OR different-sex attractions. Even at age twenty, I had no trouble grasping that I could have attractions to men and to women, and that the love I felt for Pam in no way diminished what I’d previously felt for men I’d dated.

Love, after all, is not a zero-sum game. Rather, the more we open up to others, the more there is to open up (assuming one doesn’t get too soul-wounded from bad romantic experiences, but that’s a subject for a different day). And, I learned in my college coming out days, my love for women can make my love for men all the richer, and vice versa.

But too often, I see people around me becoming trapped by a zero-sum game mentality, in which there is only so much room for diverse lives and experiences, and gaining one thing necessarily demands giving up something else.  The zero-sum game mentality demands that we choose between false dichotomies:  Are you driven by emotion or intellect?  Do you put your career first, or your relationships with loved ones?  Are you attracted to men or to women?  To cisgender people or transgender people? Does respecting the lived realities of transgender and gender non-conforming people mean embracing binary gender realities or embracing fluid, non-binary gender realities?

As a bi who stubbornly rejects unnecessary and dangerous false dichotomies, I answer to all of the above questions: YES.  Yes to all.  And why do you ask? And why would you ask in such a way to imply that my embracing one means I must reject the other?

Fifteen years after first coming out as bi, my pie got even more deliciously limitless when I came to recognize that bisexuality is not just about rejecting false sexual orientation dichotomies, but it is intertwined with challenging false gender identity dichotomies as well, even while also embracing the seemingly contradictory truth that to some transgender people, the binary is actually quite important.

The first transgender man I ever fell in love with prided himself on being a binary thinker.  But how can you possibly be a binary thinker?? I challenged him during one of our many discourse-filled nature walks during our courtship.  You’re transgender; isn’t that all about rejecting binaries?  But no, to him, being transgender was about embracing the binary through a triumphant journey of crossing the binary bridge from one side to the next.

Recognizing that his truth didn’t have to be mine, that I could be a binary-skeptic madly in love with a binary-embracing transgender man, was yet another rejection of zero-sum limited thinking.  The irony deepens as I wade through confused internet exchanges framed in terms of simplistic “bisexuality means being stuck in binary thought” and “embracing transgender people means rejecting the binary” formulations that miss the mark.  The truth (or at least one of many valid truths) is that the lived binary-embracing AND binary-challenging realities of the BTs in the LGBT movement can coexist harmoniously together, even though the dissonance may be too much for some to wrap their minds around.  At least for me, that’s how my both/and binary-transcending way of living and loving has been enriched by loving binary transgender people.

Adopting a both/and mindset open to diverse truths, along with a healthy skepticism toward false dichotomies and zero-sum games, can be transformative in how we relate to each other in power dynamics as well as in love and gender relations.  To speak truthful empowerment to power:  One need not have power over another to be empowered.  The most powerful empowerment comes when one is strong enough to not need to, or have any desire to, step on others in order to raise one’s self up.  Those who are the most personally empowered can share the pie without panicking about running out; because true, meaningful (em)power(ment) is not a zero-sum game either.

True strength is about building bridges together, not about building walls out of fear that “others” who come into our world are necessarily a threat to “us” (and related “us/them” fallacies, such as that “they’ll” take away “our” jobs, expose our prejudices and injustices…).

It is both the unifying commonalities, and the diversity among us, that makes for a rich tapestry of humanity.  Intersectionality isn’t about ignoring our diversity in the name of embracing our commonality.  Rather, meaningful intersectionality demands that we celebrate both diversity and our commonalities.

Both/and.

After all, if we all sang the exact same melody from the same score with no variance, we would never move beyond monolithic Gregorian Chant (the beauty of which is profound in its simplicity) to arrive at the harmonious complexities of Beethoven symphonies and Lin Manuel Miranda musicals.  A rich musical repertoire is one filled with both easy melodies and dissonant harmonies, which alternatively evoke both comfort and tension, the contrast making each all the more beautiful.

Both/and.

Today, as a middle-aged woman who has been out as bi for a quarter century, I am often the one at strategy meetings who, when a choice between two things is posed to the group, begins my comments by saying “well, I’m a both/and grrrl…” and then proceeds to propose something that encompasses aspects of both approaches.   Even as a lawyer, working within the adversary system (based on the fiction that when competing truths are presented to a jury or judge the “true truth” will rise to the top), I’m constantly reminded of the validity of multiple sides to an issue.  If the different sides didn’t each have some validity, after all, every lawsuit would be tossed out as frivolous.

In the end, life is not a zero-sum game, and as a bi woman, I’m happy to say, neither is love.

Nancy Marcus
Nancy Marcus is an LGBT-rights lawyer and bi activist. She is a co-founder of BiLaw, the national organization for bi lawyers, law professors, law students, and their allies, and is the author of "Bridging Bisexual Erasure in LGBT-Rights Discourse and Litigation," published by the University of Michigan Law School's Journal of Gender and Law.