Lesbian identities and bi-erasure — why definitions matter
At some point I stopped and asked myself am I really attracted to only women, is my identity so black and white? During my teens, during my education at an all-boys school and subsequent transition at 17 to womanhood my sexuality remained fixed, I was homoromanitically and sexually attracted to only women of all their hues. Thus, I identified post-17 as a lesbian with a capital L.
Until my attraction to men crept up on me. At first I denied it, wrapped up in an evangelical Christian belief that got very much twisted up in gender and sexual politics. In a pea soup of sexual identity, I tried to square away my feelings and attractions, uncertain that any label would or should fit me, though lesbian still felt like the right comfort blanket. My attraction to women, my desire and emotional engagement remained certain, yet by my mid-20s I could not deny that I was also attracted to men and masculine people.
So began my second personal coming out, not so much to the world, but to myself. I had to accept that being lesbian, in whatever form that took, was not my identity. That label was redundant, yet there was no other label that I knew of that perfectly fit my own identity. Of course, with personal education came the understanding that bisexuality was a thing, as were pan and more queer identities, but it was a long process before I understood that I simply liked who I liked. No form has that option, aside from ‘other’, and to fix your identity in such a way breaks even queer convention. These days I am more comfortable with the idea of being a queer woman who is homoromantic and very much sexually pan, so in some respects I am circling back onto my original identity.
Yet, I cannot claim to be a lesbian, nor am I trying to. Lesbian is a term freighted with the understanding that it is for women who love women in their infinite shades and hues. It does not include bi-women or men, it is for women who love women. There is no such thing as a bi-lesbian, as that erases a critical part of both lesbian and bi-women’s identities. Of course, the discussion falls into a grey area when it comes to romantic intention and sexual attraction, with women who exclusive love and date women yet who find men sexually attractive finding room under the lesbian umbrella as one example. On the one hand, this would suggest a muddying of the waters, for all practical purposes this hypothetical woman is bisexual, yet on a practical applied level she self-defines as lesbian. At once complex socially, yet on a personal level not so much.
Labels are very much boxes that simplify complex personal questions, and while for me personally I have always tried to keep an open mind and allow for evolution in my own understanding, society as a whole prefers to keep things within defined lanes. This has the benefit of helping people relate and come together as communities, yet, it brushes aside the complex nature of sexuality. Lesbian is a label of the oppressed, useful and beneficial in helping build communities and identities, allowing women who love women exclusively to find their space. It is both reductive and broad and has a dictionary definition that is settled. It may take decades to come to a personal decision, indeed a woman may marry and have children, yet her identity is hers alone to define.
Conversely, bisexual identities are as complex as the seven billion people alive today. The explosion of the grey area between 100% straight and 100% homosexual over the last twenty years into the mainstream has mainly come about because there is a broader understanding that sexuality is not easily defined within such a binary idea. Personally, it took me a long time to wrap my head around the idea that bisexuality is not just 50/50, it can be 95/5 or 99/1 or even homoromantic/pan-attraction. Each bisexual person has their own identity separate and beyond straight, gay, or lesbian. Bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness exist in this in-between space, yet have different connotations, to the point that to get a clear understanding of a person’s sexuality you need to have a conversation with that person and make no assumptions.
And it is these assumptions that lead to the key problems for bi identities. People assume that sexuality must be a certain way, that just because you identify a certain way you are fixed and certain. Often romantic partnership and sexual desire fluctuate, and it is not unusual for a person’s sexual identity to morph as they grow older. Attraction is not something we have any control over, and who you fall in love with is as much about personal connection, attraction, personality, and timing as it is about how we personally define ourselves. Bi and pan identities cover such a broad spectrum precisely because it is difficult for people to pin down exactly where their personal attractions intersect, and for some, like me, it could take a whole paragraph just to describe where my sexuality is on any given day.
This is why bi and pan erasure are so harmful, because if people are forced into identities that do not fit their inner desires and attractions they are boxed and isolated. It is also harmful for lesbian and gay identities, as these get ringfenced as the acceptable face of queerness and the LGBTQI+ movement. Bi people get pressured, either by themselves or by people around them, to make up their mins about which gender they must partner up with, and once forced into deciding they must stick with it. A woman who only dates women can externally be seen and celebrated as lesbian, yet internally she could be attracted to men, and vice-versa. By forcing a choice onto bi and pan people it harms the whole community, as their indemnities and voices are lost, weakening us all.
Definitions matter because they allow all voices to be heard in equity. Lesbian women have every right to insist that lesbianism is a label for women who love women, cis or trans. Bi, pan, and queer labels in all their panalopy matter because they help those who self-identify to square away their own experiences and identities. While labels do serve as ways of sign posting for the wider world, within queer spaces they are as much about finding oneself as they about helping others navigate your personal sexuality. This is why it is essential to be respectful of lesbian, bi, pan, and queer self-definitions, and to use those terms carefully. Bi and lesbian erasure happen because people casually assume each has a fuzziness that breaks down the hard boundaries between them, and while there is a significant intersectionality within the community, there is a hard boundary. Lesbians are not bisexual, though a bisexual woman may be homoromantic and potentially identify as romantically a lesbian, but that does not erase her overarching bisexual identity.
Yes, sexuality and labels are complicated in ways that the majority of us wish they were not. And yes, when discussing these issues they can get bogged down in semantics. However, definitions are useful for helping people anchor their identities, help others relate, and allow conversation to flow. They also morph and shift over time as society changes, which never makes things as simple as we wish. To overcome bi-erasure there needs to be a broader understanding of the fuzziness that exists between straight and lesbian, which in turn will allow those identities to be ringfenced and better understood. Personally, maybe I will come back full circle one day, but for now I am happy with a queer identity that is as flighty as a butterfly. I know my identity is not erased, but there is a still a lot of work to be done to make sure that societally we are comfortable in the media and in-person with the idea that not all sexual identities are as clear cut as straight and gay.