Please, Let’s Stop Arguing About Identity Labels

5/25/2017

In my short three years doing bi advocacy, I have seen many well-meaning people fall into the trap of arguing identity labels. It happens quickly, a conversation about someone identifying as bi using a definition that is inclusive of multiple genders becoming an argument on language and identity labels. Particularly, the conversations are framed around pansexuality versus bisexuality in a which-label-is-better battle.

I’ve learned quickly that these debates, however well intentioned they may be, don’t do anything for our community besides create disunity.

I don’t want to insinuate that having inter-community dialogue, even argument, is bad. Many times inter-community debates, on topics such as racism, sexism, or biphobia and transphobia in the LGBT community, are dismissed as unimportant. People argue that the real threat comes from outside of the community, and we shouldn’t be in fighting. I’m not one of those people; I do think it’s important to have these internal conversations since many of those isms come from within our community. It’s important to have our own house in order before attempting to engage the outside.

Still, I’m not convinced this particular inter-community conversation has, or will ever, bear anything productive.

Bisexuality isn’t binary. It means attraction that isn’t limited to one gender. If that sounds very similar to the definition of pansexual, that’s because it is. Bisexuality isn’t binary, so all this bi vs pan arguing is much ado about nothing.

There are different reasons individuals choose one label over the other. As I’ve said before, I personally identify as bi to honor our history, to be counted in data collection, and for visibility. It’s important for me to say bi for political reasons. Bisexuality is a label that has been hard fought for and it’s not one I’m willing to throw away so easily. It’s also a scientific term, which describes a set of attractions and behaviors – not only an identity label.

People who identify as pansexual may choose that label in order to quickly communicate they’re attracted to all genders and not to be forced to do the education that the “bi” in bisexuality isn’t binary (it refers to a combination of homo “same” and hetero “different” attractions – same and different can in principle include everyone).

Bisexuality is inherently inclusive of pansexuality. They aren’t mutually exclusive labels. There are many individuals who use bisexuality and pansexuality interchangeably depending on the context. Similarly, bisexual organizations include pansexual — as well as omnisexual, polysexual, multisexual, fluid, and queer — among the different identity labels under the Bi+ or non-monosexual umbrella.

A common misconception is that younger people prefer pansexual to bi. In reality, bisexuality is the most popular non-monosexual term among millenials – just as it is in the general population. The largest survey done on LGBT youth, done by the Human Rights Campaign, shows that among LGBT youth, 38% identify as bi, while only 7% identify as pan and 4% as queer. A majority of individuals who identify as non-monosexual, still claim bisexuality as their label.

There are over thirty different identity labels in the Bi+ umbrella. At national events like the Bisexual Community Briefing at the White House, the vast majority of those labels are represented. It would be surprising to many who get into these identity label arguments that some of our bi leaders identify as pansexual, queer, or fluid in their day to day but understand the importance of coming together as a non-monosexual community under the Bi+ Umbrella.

This is why I don’t engage in these arguments. My work as an activist centers our community and the disparities we face. Arguing labels isn’t productive and doesn’t do anything that tangibly benefits our community. What we can focus on is the unique reasons why we choose our identity labels, how as a community we face the same struggles, and ways we can work together.

Eliel Cruz

Eliel Cruz is a speaker and writer on religion, (bi)sexuality, media, and culture at Bisexual.org, The Advocate, Mic, and Religion News Service. His work has also been published in the Huffington Post, Everyday Feminism, Washington Post, Soujourners, DETAILS Magazine, Quartz, Rolling Stone, and various other international platforms.