It’s been a few years of a lot of cultural progress in some ways around queer & trans people; in a lot of ways it’s also been one of intense and concerning backlash, with a rising right-wing white supremacist movement and a very active companion TERF community, both of whom have a deep investment in a very regressive and dangerous ideology of gender & sexuality. In discussion about the sometimes-overlapping experiences we’ve had as bi and trans folks with these kinds of ideologies, we realized we wanted to take that conversation about what shared experiences & insights we have to a more public forum so we could hear from others too! This conversation features the following people:
KaeLyn: I’m a Korean-American cis bi woman and writer at Autostraddle slash nonprofit leader slash a few other hats/gigs/projects. I’m thrilled to connect with other bi folks to talk about the “B” and the “T.”
Heron: I’m the Senior Research Analyst for LGBTQI Justice at Political Research Associates where I monitor and write about anti-LGBTQI rhetoric, advocacy, communities, and leadership. That means I spend a LOT of time thinking about the whys and hows of anti-trans advocacy specifically.
Rachel: I’m managing editor at Autostraddle and a bi cis woman.
Xoai: Xin chào! I’m Xoài. I grew up on land that was cared for by the Tongva people before Spanish invaders arrived. I grew up knowing this land to be called Orange County, California. As waves of Vietnamese refugees made their way to the United States due to the war in Vietnam, so came my parents. My neighborhood was called Little Saigon, where the largest concentration of Vietnamese American people currently live. My upbringing in what I call “the brown part of OC” was vastly different from what people see on TV about white families in beachside mansions. I was involved in narrative strategy, community organizing, and digital storytelling since 2014. I have worked on a national scale to lift up the voices of trans people of color and sex workers. I’ve facilitated workshops and given keynotes around interpersonal violence, imperialism, and even dating.
Rachel: I think we’re all interested in talking about overlaps and points of connection or solidarity between bisexual and trans experience (especially by and as observed by bi trans folks), and related, points of overlap between how bi and trans people are similarly targeted, stigmatized, fetishized or experience unique impacts of othering, whether at the hands of the state, mainstream cultural values, TERFs and more.
I’m really honored & empowered by the overlap between bi & trans communities; I’ve also historically felt really aware of the ways that non-bi folks’ anxieties or baggage with me as a bi person is often linked to their transphobia, or anxiety about gender that gets mapped onto trans folks, and I feel a lot of kinship with the experiences my trans friends have had dating cis queers and called to be in solidarity with trans folks in specific ways around that. It feels to me like there’s a lot of power and connection in talking about how all of us disrupt a lot of fixed narratives about sexuality or gender, and that the way both cis bi folks and trans folks (and especially bi trans folks) are subject to marginalization from a lot of the same groups really speaks to how much potential there is!
KaeLyn: There are a lot of shared experiences in terms of invisibility/hypervisibility, questions about the authenticity of self-defined identity, and exclusionary politics. There’s also a lot of joy and badassery implicit in approaching all binaries as fully optional and disrupting gendered norms. I’m especially interested to articulate the ways cis bi folks could be better building power with trans bi folks and just trans folks in general for our collective liberation.
Heron: Personally, I am an agender bisexual person with a LOT of bi+ friends and family. I guess I’m part of the bi+ advocacy community that blossomed in the early 2010s, and I went to the White House three times to talk with federal agency officials about how they can remedy the discrimination that bi+ communites face through administrative advocacy. I’m also the author of the Invisible Majority report that came out of that work, and the companion report on the lives of bi+ trans people. Since bi+ people face such start disparities in specific areas compared to our gay and lesbian peers, I was sure that bi+ trans people would as well, compared to gay, lesbian, and straight trans people. Though there’s little data, we were able to look at some of the data from the US Trans Survey to find that yes indeed, bi+ trans people face very distinct disparities in the areas of economic security, health, and violence.
In my current work, I think and write a lot about how the Left’s silence on sexual and gender fluidity allows the Right to dominate the conversation, particularly around conversion therapy. For example, the Right’s use of “detransitioned” people to illustrate that the trans medical establishment is somehow providing “too much care” for trans people. Instead of inviting people on every step of their gender journey to help us illustrate the incredible depth and breadth of the queer experiene. Imagine if gender fluid and sexually fluid people were invited by their community, their loved ones, and their health providers to just be THEMSELVES at any / every moment, instead of feeling like they had to perform a specific version of themselves or be kicked out of queer community.
As someone who is constantly in doubt over whether I’m bi ENOUGH or agender ENOUGH, I can’t imagine how it feels for someone whose gender journey evolves that significantly to be “kicked out” of queer community and then embraced by the anti-LGBT Right as a token of the failure of queerness.
KaeLyn: I really enjoyed reading the LGBT MAP report on bi+ trans people, Heron! Thanks for sharing it with us. I used to be a sexuality educator and I think in that space we too often talk about “B” and “T” as separate groups of people, or at least get really focused on helping people understand that sexual orientation and gender are very different things. We don’t talk about the actual people who are both trans and bi+, though, just that their existence is possible. I wasn’t surprised to learn that many trans people identify as bi or pan and I’m assuming some queer trans folks would also identify as non-monosexual. It’s also not surprising that bi+ trans people are experiencing the very same issues that cis bi people are in terms of sexual violence, poverty, and racist disparate impact. It’s disappointing, but not surprising and I think it’s something that’s not talked about much at all.
At the cultural level, in the US at least, when you say someone is bisexual, the image that automatically generates is of a cis bisexual person. The double erasure of bi+ trans people is something that really hurts and also makes a lot of sense.
How do you think we could shift the collective consciousness around cisnormativity within bisexual dialogue?
Rachel: That’s such a good question, KaeLyn, thank you for bringing it up! I think from my experience and instinct, a lot of that cultural imagination of a cis bi person is compounded by the fact that they’re often imagined to be a cis bi person who dates cis men and cis women, often in some perfect 50/50 ratio – I think about that cover image from the controversial NYT story “The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists,” a cis person perfectly centered between two other cis people of different genders. I guess what I’m saying is that it feels like the way bisexuality has been culturally made legible is as a sort of cipher for fixed, binary gender essentialism — these are people who date Men with a capital M and Women with a capital W, and we can take bisexual folks’ attraction to those genders as confirmation of what those genders categorically Are. Which obviously is wrong, both in the sense of being incorrect and being objectionable!
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think there’s a lot of potential for bi folks (especially cis bi folks taking advantage of the power of our positionality in that respect) to disrupt narratives of gender a bit. I think there’s obviously a responsibility to reject gender essentialism and the cissexism of assuming bisexuality exists in reference only to cis men and women, but to also specifically name and push back on the baggage about gender that a lot of cis people are externalizing when they bring up these questions, which is an engine of transphobia also. I’d love to push cis bi folks (myself v much included) to work on recognizing the transphobia often inherent when someone is biphobic toward me; when someone expresses, for instance, concern about “men in queer spaces” with the pretext of bi women’s partners, this can impact transfeminine and nonbinary people and people impacted by transmisogyny in ways that are more violent than the way they impact me, making them unwelcome or unsafe in queer spaces. I think it’s important that as cis bisexuals we see that and name when it happens – not because it provides a bolster to our own issues or we can bring up transmisogyny as a disingenuous gotcha, but because gender essentialism hurts us all, and trans people uniquely.
I think that doesn’t totally address your question, KaeLyn, and I’d love to hear more about it from others – what would it look like for bi+ trans people to be more successfully & meaningfully centered in bi community?
Heron: KaeLyn and Rachel, your questions intersect for me. I have two major groups of bi+ friends/family: one which is comprised mostly of cis bi-identified women who are looking for community outside of their core friend and family groups, and the other of which is comprised of SUPER QUEER BEYOND-GENDER friends who truly don’t see gender when it comes to their relationships. The former group was so important to me when I was first coming out as bi+, when I didn’t have anyone to turn to. And the second group has become so important to me now, as I come into my own BEYOND-GENDER-NESS.
What I’m trying to say is, I think that bi+ trans people and bi+ agender people like me, and bi+ gender queer people ARE out there and they are providing such an important space for people figuring out their shit, but they’re just not getting put in front of mainstream advocacy movements, like Rachel said.
There’s the added invisibility of bi+ people of color of all gender identities and gender presentations. Like, that Time cover is two white people. But in fact people of color are more likely to identify as bi+ (and are more likely to identify as LGBT in general), probably related to white, religious settler colonialism that erased complex indigenous understandings of gender and sexual orientation in order to promote white supremacy. There’s some analysis of the 2018 General Social Survey that really blew my mind. It found that the group of people *leading* the increase in LGBT identification in the US was young, bisexual, Black, less-than-high school educated girls. These young Black bisexual girls led the increase in identification for the ENTIRE COMMUNITY.
Rachel: Ah Heron that’s so amazing to hear about the youth! I’m really interested in that especially in light of how many other major global movements right now are youth-led, like the incredible energy around climate change, or the youth organizing against gun violence and the Sunrise Movement. I feel like from the overall discourse and coverage of those movements it’s always been kind of a given that a lot of those youth are queer (as there are always queer folks leading social movements!). I’m interested in the idea that youth are IDing intentionally as bisexual, as I guess I always wonder where Gen Z lands on that specific label; as a millennial, it sometimes feels like Gen Z both embraces labels more than my generation did and is less interested in policing them. This is also the generation that I think we’re seeing have a really different experience of trans identity in some ways than ours did; obviously it’s not uniformly great or even mostly okay, but thinking about the Atlantic story that was bringing up ideas of ‘trans teens’ in 2018 and is now only two years later a public example of journalistic malpractice for trans teens, it feels very much like this microgeneration is being made the lightning rod for a lot of America’s anxieties about what trans identity and living life as a trans person means. I’m curious to hear from everyone who feels like they have any insight into it — what feels like it might be possible for this generation around these intersecting identities? Are there horizons or kinds of experience or community they might be able to build beyond what we had or have?
Xoai: What immediately comes to mind when we talk about sexuality is that it’s flawed — it’s flawed because it operates at least in the US as an offshoot of one’s gender. As in, who are you and who do you like? It’s the relationship between one person’s gender and the gender of the object of their attraction.
A less clinical understanding of gender and sexuality feels most prevalent among both bi folks and trans folks, more so than cis gay and lesbian peers. I think bi and trans folks are leading the way in terms of our sexuality operating more expansively — we see attraction as less anchored in the gender-to-gender relationship. I myself find that it feels easiest to just say I’m attracted to masculine energy, because that energy can show up in all kinds of people with all kinds of bodies. And yet, masculinity is gendered because people only perceive of masculine and feminine energy as it’s contained within the gender binary of male versus female. I think it we named masc and femme as blue and green, it’s easier to see that this energy doesn’t have to exist as two opposites. Gender and the energy/aesthetics/experiences we associate with it can be fashioned with new language. It’s not a coincidence that so much new language on gender that has entered the mainstream has been created by trans people.
I think the American project to pinkwash its imperialism and pretend that it’s the leading voice on trans issues erases the Indigenous knowledge that rests in our bodies and our instincts. American clinical understandings of sex, sexuality, and gender overshadow the knowledge that we as humans have always thought about gender and sexuality more expansively — our souls are capable of so much more than boring cis, heterosexuality! It makes sense that young Black girls who haven’t been indoctrinated by American education are the ones who are returning to the roots of that knowledge.
KaeLyn: I love the imagery of masc and femme energies as blue and green, Xoai. That’s such a clear visual example of how limited and irrelevant a binary, opposite view of gender is and I’m definitely going to quote you in the future.
As we wrap up this conversation, I’d love to hear your final thoughts on how we move forward together, or if that feels too squishy and undefined, what your vision is for a world where bi and trans people and especially bi trans people are fully liberated. How do we get there? What do you think are the most important next steps?
Heron: My gratitude for spaces like this makes me think of the folks who DON’T have spaces like this–folks who live at other intersections of marginalized identities, like asexual bi folks, asexual trans folks. And as a white well-educated person, I think of the privilege I have that *didn’t* put up barriers to my accessing this space here today.
So as an agender bisexual person, I commit to being loud and proud and using my loud pride to lift the voices of those who aren’t here today. I really recommend you check out AS’s ace* resources like this list of books and Jessica Vazquez’s piece about coming out as ace.
KaeLyn: I am so grateful for all that y’all contributed to this conversation. I’m absolutely awed by how dang smart and generous and badass you all are. I’m just happy to be here! I commit as a cis bi person to be a better ally to trans people (regardless of sexual orientation) and to make sure any bi space I’m welcomed into is also welcoming to trans and nonbinary bi folks. Bi and trans folks and bi trans folks are what make the LGBTQ movement strong and we’re the ones pushing our own LGBTQ communities to expand, grow, make space, be better. And that’s exhausting work. My wish for y’all is that you have the time and resources to take care of yourself, that you have community with folks who love and embrace you, and that you give yourself grace and space to experience joy more often than you experience rage.
Rachel: Thank you all for letting me be part of this; I’ve learned so much! I’m rereading what we’ve talked about and am thinking about what Xoai’s observation about bi & trans communities as examples of places where sexuality & gender are both spaces of possibility, and also Heron’s observation that the far right is clearly fixated on questions of fluidity and change in both gender & sexuality. One of the reasons I was so interested in this conversation was because I wanted to think about why both trans & bi folks (but especially and very violently trans people) are being so pointedly targeted by the Right right now – obviously transphobia is hardwired into conservatism in general, but I think there’s something key about how necessary colonial ideas of gender essentialism are to right-wing ideology and the state violence associated with it. In what ways can the ideology of the colonial state be destabilized by embracing the expansive experiences and values of bi & trans communities? And most critically in building material ways forward based on trans leadership? The most powerful vision I think I can imagine around bi & trans liberation (which is of course linked to everyone’s liberation) is one where we continue to support each other in advocating for the needs of our communities and talking honestly about our lived experiences, even and especially when these run counter to established narratives about gender and suffer backlash; I feel strongly that there wouldn’t be so much right-wing fear and anxiety around us talking openly about these complex experiences, and enormous amounts of resources trying to block our communities from getting the resources we need, if it didn’t hold a lot of potential and constitute a major threat to the institutions of power when we’re able to do so.
Xoai: What I want to emphasize: FUN! I think one myth about politics and movement work is that it has to be dreary, that changing lives can’t be pleasurable. Surely, there are moments where I want to unsubscribe from everybody, but I take so much pleasure in conversations that excavate our culture and us as individual.
I also am very pleased thinking about the idea tomorrow, everything we just said could change! We are a part of nature. We evolve like the trees, the whales, the hummingbirds. If anything, trans people have shown us just that. That we don’t have to have it figured out, and changing our minds doesn’t mean our prior states of being aren’t true.
When I listen to my pleasure as a compass, it feels so much easier to exist as an expansive divine force, in connection with my people and natural surroundings. I want us to be guided by that natural instinct in our bodies. That compass was taken away from us as young people. It’s time to return to that.