Should Media Outlets Be Calling Abbi Jacobson Bi?

4/18/2018

Is it right to label someone as bi, when they reveal they are dating guys and girls?

This question has me torn, which is partly why I’m discussing it in detail this week. I want to hear what you have to say (email me at [email protected])!

Here’s what brought up this question: Abbi Jacobson, half of the genius comedic duo from the TV show Broad City, revealed in an interview with Vanity Fair last week that she dates multiple genders.

Here’s what was written in Vanity Fair:

Though she’s busy, Jacobson adds that she’s open to meeting somebody. “I kind of go both ways; I date men and women,” she says. “They have to be funny, doing something they love. I don’t know—I’ve never really been interviewed about this before.” When told that by virtue of this conversation, she’s putting herself out there to be approached by potential matches, she replies good-naturedly, “Yeah, who knows? The world is my oyster.”

I covered the news for Pride.com, where I’m a contributing editor. Initially, I titled the piece, “Broad City Star Abbi Jacobson Discusses Sexuality Saying, ‘I Date Men and Women.’” The title was changed by my editor to, “Our Fav Broad City Star Abbi Comes Out as Bi.” I’m not mad at them for changing the title. In fact, I 100% expected them to do so. Plenty of LGBT (and non-LGBT) sites said Abbi came out as bi in the title, including IntoAutostraddle, and Metro Weekly. (It’s important to note that I’d say about half did not. Half said Abbi “Opens up about her sexuality” or something along those lines.)

I couldn’t help but wonder, when it seems like news outlets were evenly split, if outlets, especially LGBT news outlets, are doing something wrong by using the word bi, when she didn’t use the word herself.

I wish she said, “I am bi. I date men and women.” I think that actually saying the B word would have been huge for visibility. But alas, she did not.

I understand why she might not want to use the B word. The same reason plenty of celebrities (and regular folks) don’t use it. There’s a stigma attached to the word bisexual. It connotes a number of false and vicious stereotypes for many (ignorant) people.

It also may feel somewhat permanent. This is ironic considering that many monosexuals (erroneously) view bisexuality as a transition label, and not a permanent sexual orientation. But it’s much easier to backpedal from the statement, “I’m dating guys and girls,” than, “I am bi.” If Abbi, for one reason or another, wanted to “take it back” she could. She could say she just had a crush on this one woman. Or finds women attractive but actually had no desire to date them. Or anything else.

In short, saying she likes guys and girls, as opposed to I am bi, is a less bold, permanent, and political statement.

Okay, now this is where things get a little confusing, but it’s also the crux of the issue, so please bear with me. In saying that she is dating multiple genders, I believe Abbi is discussing her sexual orientation, and not her sexual identity. I believe bisexuality is a sexual orientation, as well as a sexual identity.

Here’s how I view the two as being different: sexual orientation (SO), means to whom one is sexually oriented. (Great, Zach. That’s really helpful.) In other words, SO means to whom one is attracted. Nothing more. Thus, one’s SO is dependent on one’s relationship (and attraction) to other people.

Sexual identity (SI) is far more complex. It’s inclusive of attractions, absolutely. But that’s just one component. I think one’s SI is more political. It’s about how one perceives his/her/themselves in the context of the heteronormative society in which we live. I also think when you use the B word, you’re now more “officially” a part of the LGBTQ community. You’ve joined these other LGBTQ individuals saying I am one of you. This is who I am. In that way, one is claiming a bisexual SI, not simply a bisexual SO.

I think an accurate parallel is when monosexual, gay, cisgender men identify as queer as opposed to gay.

These men’s sexual orientation is gay. Of course. They are cisgender men who’re exclusively attracted to other men. But their sexual identity is queer. From what I’ve gathered, they claim the queer label for social and political reasons. To be part of the growing, inclusive queer movement.

Okay, so hopefully you’re still with me at this point. The other side of the coin is that since bisexuality is both a sexual orientation and an identity, news outlets could just be referencing her sexual orientation, and not necessarily her sexual identity.

However, as a bi activist who thinks (or rather knows) there’s immense power in a celebrity not shying away from using the word bi, I want to have her say it. I also think there is a reason Abbi didn’t use the word bi, because if she wanted to, she would have. She’s not only an actor, but a brilliant writer. She knows the power of her words.

Perhaps what we need, moving forward, is more direct questioning from the interviewers. Of course, never awkwardly push a celebrity (or anyone else) into a corner where they feel forced to label themselves, but at the same time, I think it would have been completely reasonable for the interviewer, Lisa Liebman, to follow up after Abbi said she dates men and women, with, “So how do you sexually identify?”

I think since there are these nuances when it comes to sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual identity, we should be addressing them. We should clarify. We shouldn’t assume. The best way to do this is to go straight to the horse’s mouth. Ask them, themselves.

In the meantime, however, I’ll try to get less caught up with semantics, and will say, welcome to the family Abbi! Dating both guys and girls is awesome, and we hope you find whoever it is that makes you happy.

Zachary Zane
Zachary Zane a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, speaker, YouTuber, and activist whose work focuses on (bi)sexuality, gender, identity politics, relationships, and culture. He's a contributing editor at The Advocate Magazine, a columnist at Bi.org, and currently writes for The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Out Magazine, and PRIDE.