Bisexuality, Queerness, Labels, Perception: A Conversation Between the EIC and the HBIC

Carmen, a Black woman with glasses, and Nico, a white brunette genderqueer person also with glasses, are smiling for a camera over a table with two laptops open.

Nico, Autostraddle Membership Director and Head Bisexual-in-Charge: Okay, so to intro this, we had the (in my opinion, divine) experience of getting to co-work with each other last week because we were both in the same city at the same time. During this co-working session, we got into a deep discussion about labels and bisexuality and queerness and various politics around expectations and visibility/invisibility with these labels. I’m a bisexual and genderfluid/genderqueer (although I accept the umbrella label of nonbinary) and Carmen identifies as a Black queer woman. And we were like — maybe we can do this for Bi+ Week! Does that sound right?

Also, do you remember at all how we got on the topic? Because I do not.

Carmen, Autostraddle Editor-in-Chief: You were telling me that you’d noticed there were certain ~trends in the responses to your profile on dating apps, and I was flabbergasted.

Nico: But that was in response to something! Wasn’t it?

Carmen: Hmmmm, I think it was us being messy overall? We had a whole discussion on whether or not I would have sex outside in the woods. (And dear reader: I would not.)

Though this is how I learned that tents apparently have floors? That are like, zippered into them? A wild learning experience for me.

Nico: Yes. I remember looking up photos of tent interiors to show you. So glad we could clear that up. Then you were like touching the brick wall and being like “This is like tree bark. we are not leaning against trees [for sex].”

Carmen: I stand by it. It was unyielding and rough and hurt. (no kink shame!)

Nico: No kink shame!… is that like “no homo”?

Carmen: Yes, same exact tone! Glad it came across lol.

Nico: Okay! Well! Somehow we got on it. So I am fully now publicly confessing to being on the dating apps. (Not on the relationship escalator though, don’t worry friends.)

Carmen: I think we went from outside tent sex to your hot date with an outdoorsy person, and that person helped you have a realization about (an ex) who had done something biphobic.

Nico: Oh yes okay!

We can start there.

So. Yeah. Let’s talk biphobia. And this specific story.

So, I was talking with a date (also bisexual), who was telling me about a partner they once had who said some biphobic shit to them. And how they stood up for themselves and were like “absolutely not.”

And I reflected on the fact that I had had a very similar experience in dating a woman who told me she felt unsure about me, because I was bisexual, and at any point I might leave her for a man. At the time, I didn’t push too much back on the general biphobia because I tried that and she doubled down, so I just was like… “I wouldn’t leave you for someone just because they’re a man.”

Which is a mistake because as you pointed out to me, anyone can leave anyone at any time. And also, that conversation is just so dripping with biphobia it’s ridiculous! But this was years ago. I hope I am slightly more secure and able to speak my mind these days.

Anyway, I said to my outdoorsy date, “Similar thing happened to me and I did not stick up for myself because I have no self respect.” And then they just looked at me.

I am now making finger guns at my computer. To diffuse the situation.

Carmen: 🤣

Nico: OH! This came up because while we’re on our date, this person is telling me about a very hot sounding 40-year-old bisexual femme friend of theirs who dates men and is open to dating women, but because she dates men, has trouble finding women to date.

Carmen: Right!! And this is where me being flabbergasted came in. Because I, very ignorantly, was like “this conversation cannot still be happening in sapphic communities. The idea that bisexuals have a hard time finding lesbians to date, because people are afraid of them ‘running back to men’ sounds like a plot from The L Word Season Three.”

Nico: Right! And I was like: no, it’s still going on.

Carmen: For the record and to provide even greater context, I also date and/or have sex with people of a variety of genders, though I have never identified as bisexual (or a lesbian) in explicit terms. I prefer the general umbrella of queer.

Nico: Yes, totally. You are queer. I am bisexual. I also ID as Queer. THEN I was like you know what… I am not dating any cis she/hers. Mostly it’s they/them’s with a dash of he/him’s.

And I suspect it might be because I use the label bisexual. And that’s a turn-off for some people.

Okay… I just opened up the HER app to verify what the layout of my matches looks like. I don’t have any cis she/her lesbians up in here that I know of. I have like, queers, bisexuals, pansexuals. So I don’t think I’m wrong about there being some kind of filtering situation here. I am swiping right on cis she/hers at times and like, cis she/her sapphics have to be more common even than she/they’s, right?

Cis people are more common than nonbinary/genderqueer/genderfluid people? Right? As if I don’t work at Autostraddle. I’m just like. Statistically. This means something. Is it maybe also gender-related? Who knows!

And you were saying that your experience is rather different.

Carmen: Yes! What’s really fascinating to me is that I don’t identify as a lesbian or as bisexual, but I most often have lesbian matches.

Nico: Oh wow!

I feel like those are so rare.

Compared to matching with fellow bisexuals/pansexuals/queer-identified folks.

Carmen: I think… ok now I have also opened up my HER app.

Nico: I’m like — should I pay for the premium so I can look at the 99 people who liked me, enter them into excel, and see how the demographics play out?

That’s a pretty good sample.

Carmen: LMAO statistics, done queerly.

I think it looks like a quick scroll has me at maybe 60/40? But with 60% being lesbians, yeah.

Nico: WOWOW

Carmen: I think part of what I’ve realized and has been sitting with me since our very first conversation… because I don’t know how I ultimately feel about it… is that I think people project onto me what they want to see, ultimately.

Nico: Yes, and so that is something we were talking about, with regards to your chosen label of queer.

As it becomes more and more of an umbrella term, it feels like people could absolutely take it to mean whatever they want it to mean. I am really curious about what your thoughts have been since our conversation.

Carmen: Well, yes, because I feel like — first, it probably helps to take it back. When I first came out, or perhaps even to go back further, before I came out — I was very much a “I’m not queer, but my politics are” type of ally. Which I feel like is a cliché, but also cliché’s have a lot of truths in them!

So once I did come out… for me, my queerness has always been tied to my political identity at least as much as it’s tied to whomever I’m sleeping with. So when I came out, I never felt an urge to drive down into specifics beyond “queer.” And I still don’t.

I identify as a queer Black person, and that puts me in community with pretty much everyone I need to be in community with.

Nico: Totally. There’s “queer” like gay and there’s what I refer to as “Queer with a capital Q” which is about living and acting outside of the bounds of heteronormative society and structuring your life in a way that resists certain assumed structures.

Carmen: Queer with a capital Q. I’m obsessed with that.

But I also realize that I have a lot of intersecting privileges layering in on top of that — namely, I’m cis, right? I’m a cis femme who has an attraction to queer masculinities (largely speaking) and I haven’t had sex with a cis man since I was in college. I’m the EIC of this website, which has historically been tied to lesbian culture. So even if I’m not a lesbian, I think a lot of people seem to project lesbianness onto me?

I think because I usually just identify as “queer” and stop there — there’s a lot of room for people to (perhaps even, unconsciously) slot me into the boxes that make the most sense to them. I love lesbians, and I love bisexuals, so I can’t say I’m ever offended by it! And yes, if filling out a census or something equally official, I will check a bisexual/pansexual box. But mostly I’m just… curiously amused? That “queer” isn’t enough?

However, these intersecting layers are also… I have to believe… shielding me from the types of biphobia in dating that you’ve been encountering.

Nico: It’s also a bit hard for me to suss out if it’s biphobia because I’m like… not even matching, you know? Like I’m never talking to someone. So it’s hard to see where it’s coming from.

There might be very few cis she/her lesbians in Pittsburgh for all I know.

But we’re both in the same age range, so it’s not an age thing. We’re both rust belt.

Carmen: I’m also uncomfortable with the realization, because I hadn’t really thought about it until our recent conversations… that my dates are likely just presuming I’m a lesbian? Or if not that I’m a lesbian (and again, love lesbians!) that I’m not someone they need to ask who I’m fucking in a way that it appears to be similarly policed for people who are having sex with cis men.

Nico: Yes! Like, I’m stuck on the story about my date’s friend, like how touching that boy-dick somehow puts a mark on you.

Oh! And I was talking to a friend about their experiences on FEELD (a dating app with a lot of poly people on it). We were talking about my use of it, and they were like, you’re doing great! And I was like “truly, generally having a good experience on this app.” And then they were talking about how they had a terrible time last time they were on it, because they had a cis-dude partner.

The app lets you choose a partner to add to your profile? Like, you can link your profiles if you’re on there and your partner is also there. And my friend thinks that people maybe stayed away from them because they could see they were dating a dude.

Carmen: That’s the part that was leaving me flabbergasted, because I cannot fathom how it’s anyone’s business.

Nico: Like the men are, presumably, not coming on the other dates, unless that’s explicitly arranged. So why is it an issue?

Carmen: Exactly!

And I think, in fully honesty, I also empathize with…  there is a vulnerability in being a single person dating, right? Look I’ve been single the vast majority of my adult life, so I really do get it. And part of that vulnerability of course is that if you love someone and open your heart to them, they truly might just leave you. So, I get feeling guarded about that! But the reality of course is, if you’re gonna get left… then you’re gonna get left. The gender of the person that might be on the other side of that equation, that’s not going to ultimately change your hurt. That’s a biphobic misdirection.

Nico: I do feel like the concern is that any cis men someone is dating are somehow “in the room.”

I also think that this was one of a series of things that led to my no longer seeing that person… that they were, maybe, more about controlling me and keeping me on the defensive. She maybe just saw a way in using my bisexuality.

Carmen: Right. I think there’s like you know, this perceived stereotype of a manic pixie bisexual.

Nico: I do get that when wanting to live a life that is divested from the patriarchy, how it might be unsettling to be around people who fuck cis men. But also, yes, exactly, there is this idea that bisexuals are perhaps flaky? Or that bisexual people are more likely to align with the patriarchy? Which… I don’t know to be a thing that is inherent or dependent on any particular sexual orientation. That’s more like a way of living and a personal politic one has to arrive at for themselves.

I would also say that, you don’t fit into bisexual stereotypes, Carmen. You’re very put together. Whereas someone takes one look at me and is like “absolutely that is a bisexual goblin.”

Look at me reinforcing bisexual stereotypes. But like, the vibe is that bisexuals are… messier? WHICH IS NOT TRUE. Everyone is equally as messy.

Carmen: Right, and there are a lot of lesbian relationships that — if not aligned with “patriarchy ” per se — are modeled after certain gender norms. Which of course, as a femme attracted to mascs, I run into a lot.

Nico: Oooh, that’s interesting. And also totally a thing.

Carmen: And sometimes I will admit, I also play into! I have more than once in my life looked at Cherelle and Brittney Griner or Jessica Betts and Neicy Nash-Betts and said, “where is my studsband?”

But also, the very idea of a studsband… I mean, it’s in the word, right?

Nico: Listen, who among us has not looked at JB and NNB and been like — goals.

Also, studsband is the new word of the fall. Just in time for cuffing season, may we introduce the concept of the “studsband”?

Carmen: “May we introduce the concept of the ‘studsband'” would be what my group chat calls my entire life’s agenda.

Nico: ahahHAaHaHAHAha

Carmen: But I agree, bisexuals get the bad rep of “holding on to the patriarchy,” and I think that’s because it’s easier to scapegoat than reckon with the difficult reality that if you were raised on this earth, the patriarchy got baked into you young babe.

Nico: Yes. The patriarchy is something we have to divest from in bigger ways than like, who we might be pegging.

Carmen: I choked.

I think you really nailed it.

Nico: “Nailed it.” 🤨

Well, I think we landed on something interesting, which is that there might be this perceived gradient among gender/sexual orientation in the community, where some people — and especially bisexuals and bisexual femmes, as you talked about so beautifully in your piece on “Bongos” — are pinpointed as more aligned with patriarchy when that is not necessarily the truth and you have to take it person by person. Because, without throwing anyone under the bus, truly in my experience, appearance and labels are a very poor predictor of someone’s actual lived politics.

Carmen: I also did think about how gender is playing into this conversation. Because you’re also nonbinary — an enby bisexual, occupying a lot of grey/intermediary spaces — and I wonder how that also impacts dating pools.

Nico: Okay, so at first glance, I think that my gender definitely materially leads to me “swiping left” on any straight men who wander my way, because if they think that they get to call themselves straight while we’re fucking, they do not.

And it gets similarly uncomfortable with people who do the thing of being like —

… god what have I gotten…

The like “I like women and” [insert awkward moment] “people like you.”

Carmen: Oooooof

Nico: Like just say you like my big ass. That’s gender neutral. Jesus.

Carmen: Nico!!! I am screaming.

Nico: So in terms of who I ultimately might see or see again, there’s definitely a comfortability in someone who’s also on the bi+/pan spectrum, and maybe who is also gender nonconforming or nonbinary or trans, you know?

So in that case, I think that I’m not necessarily pre-selecting for fellow bisexuals, but I am finding that getting along/the vibes are easier with them.

Wait… but then also, I mostly only have bisexuals to choose from.

Now I’m caught in a weird loop.

Carmen: (I’m loving watching you work through this in real time! It’s like a circle of doom whirling on your computer when the internet breaks, but it’s actually a circle of brilliance.)

Nico: Yes okay haha I concluded that dating bisexuals is nice, but also that I only have a pool of bisexuals. (Or bi+/pan/queer folks.) That’s where we landed. There is no material value to this analysis along lines of sexual orientation. The sample is too homogenous.

[a moment passes]

Wait okay: I have the best experiences with people who date widely across gender and/or who are nonbinary/ trans/gnc. People who are cis and maybe tend to date a lot of cis women, that’s where I notice there are some issues with how I’m being perceived.

I feel like I had to get in there with a scalpel to separate that out.

Carmen: Yeah, I wondered about that because — I don’t have the stats in front of me to back it up, however! I know I’ve read it before and also I think we as a community have experienced it enough to also know that there’s truth here — there is also overlap between trans and bi folks right, so I think it’s important to always keep that door open.

Nico: Weren’t we just talking about that in a meeting?

Carmen: Yes! It came up in a recent editorial meeting! That might also be why its at the top of my mind.

Nico: There’s an intersection, that even qualitatively, is of interest.

I also don’t want to be down on like, the term lesbian, and its history of being inclusive of bisexual women as well as gender nonconforming and trans people. Because we know from sapphic history that a lot of early lesbian groups were comprised of women who, for example, had husbands! No one cared that these women might also be with men. They were lesbians because they sought romantic and sexual relationships with other women.

BUT today, these days, I think that if people are open to dating multiple genders, they put down queer, pan or bi.

And I think that bisexuality also maybe scoots sideways into an ease and openness to bending gender roles, to being gender expansive as individuals, to welcoming these qualities in a partner.

Carmen: One of your sentences keeps wrapping itself around in my mind, “They were lesbians because they sought romantic and sexual relationships with other women” — because, at its core, that’s the community we’ve all built, right? Those are the shoulders we stand on. And I also get that from where we are sitting in 2023… we have so many options for community! We have so many words to label ourselves to choose from! But sometimes, for lack of a better way to say it, it also bums me out that having all those words and options… the flip side of that is even more in-fighting and policing. It can feel like we’re losing the original recipes.

I also think we’re all trying to find new ways (or revamped old ways) to make those connections! Like how “sapphic” has really come back into style! When I was first coming up and coming out, that word was dated as hell, bordering on comical. Now its everywhere. Because we’re looking for ways to say that we recognize this elusive commonality that bridges across lesbian, bisexual, pan, queer, cis, trans, nonbinary.

I don’t think we’ve nailed it yet, obviously — I mean look at this conversation! — but I’m glad, Nico, that you brought us back down to our roots of it.

Nico: I’m really glad you were so down to talk about all this and to compare experiences. Talking about deep stuff with you is always a reward in itself.

Carmen: I feel the exact same way!


Happy Bi Week 2023 from Autostraddle!

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Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.

Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 712 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. Ahhhh, thank you both so much for sharing this conversation! It was a real joy to read through it and sort of ponder the kind of landscape you’re seeing for the broad umbrella of bi/pan and genderqueer/nb/etc. folks out there. Just, a lovely end to my day online.

    Happy Bi+ Week!

  2. I loved this convo. Ok for context I’m a nonmonog cis lesbian w a trans gf.

    Unfortunately, it does give me pause about dating a bi woman when her partner is a man, because unfortunately my experience has been that I am much more likely to experience transphobic/misogynistic/homophobic ideas from her, such as a ‘one dick policy’ or similar. The bf/husband will ‘allow’ her to only have sex w women because he doesn’t see it as ‘real’ or a threat to their relationship. She is agreeing to this, often explicitly. I’ve had negative (homophobic, misogynistic, transphobic) experiences in this situation (woman coupled to man) about 80% of the time, so I’m very cautious! But I do love bi women in relationships with men, think they’re just as queer as me, am friends with them, and will hook up with them and date them if I know they won’t do that shit.

    So basically what I’m saying is my experience of transphobia and homophobia from bi people is pretty high! But I also know bi people’s experiences of biphobia from lesbians is pretty high. Both of these things suck. Let’s do better by each other.

  3. I do think (online at least) there’s been a shift towards language that’s more inclusive of the idea of nb lesbians and lesbians being attracted to nbs, but talking about dating pools is just kind of a mess sometimes? I’ve seen it more than once in my IRL community (I make this distinction because the online spaces I frequent – including this article – generally seem quite chill about labels as things with nuance attached to them) where a lesbian has started dating someone who later ID’d as nb and was then pressured by their nb partner and broader community to ID as bisexual because still calling themselves a lesbian was invalidating their partner. I know that seeing these experiences scared me off dating nb people for a while as I was in the process of trying to figure out my own identity and I didn’t particularly want to be dating someone who I either “wasn’t supposed to” date if I did come to the conclusion that I’m a lesbian, or who told me what I could and could not call myself, you know?

    Ironically on the other side, I was mostly calling myself bi at the time (I was exclusively dating women and nb people, and I now consider lesbian to be a better, more accurate fit) and I went on so many dates where the person just assumed I was a lesbian and I had to awkwardly come out as bi. It was a bit stressful every time. I never got a bad reaction but this discussion now has me wondering how many of these people wouldn’t have dated me in the first place if I’d listed “bi” in my bio. I guess because I was on the other side for a few years I’ve always been SUPER chill about dating bi people and the idea that other lesbians might not be is still kind of confusing to me.

  4. this was such a fascinating conversation! not that i’d expect anything less from you two. i id’ed as bi when i first came out and i did have a lesbian ask me if i pulled it out like a party trick or wanted to still date men and i had to shut it down quick. it’s so interesting where all of our biases or blindspots come from, and i love getting to see people unpack them in real time. thanks to my favorite eic and hbic!!

  5. Thanks to both of you for this great conversation, really interesting! I must admit it made me think of my perception of bisexuality, which was of course not bad at all, but I never really thought about it beside knowing the basics of what biphobia is. This article dives deeper in the subject, thank you and congrats for that.

    And, Carmen, you made me laugh with “Though this is how I learned that tents apparently have floors? […] A wild learning experience for me.” LOL

  6. As a fellow enby bisexual, I say “I avoid dating monosexuals” because I feel it gets my intention across – I don’t really care who you are or what you’re into, but if you only identify with finding one binary gender attractive, then I will likely always worry that you aren’t seeing me as I truly am.

    And also use the word avoid because that’s true – I still have been interested occasionally. But even the people who identified as straight or monosexually lesbian or gay, there’s been a re I would have been very comfortable dating because I did trust that they saw me as I am, and that they saw me as an asterisk to their label or their attraction to me a new thing they hadn’t considered and needed to explore

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