This is the first in a series of posts about writing bisexual characters.
Edit: 15/4/2017 a lot of links are broken. I’ve removed some definitions as a result.
I’m bisexual. I didn’t figure that out about myself until I was nearly twenty. Far From You was the first book I’ve read with a bisexual protagonist. I’d welcome recommendations for more, provided they’re YA (I prefer fantasy/paranormal, but will read other genres including contemporary). I will also read YA with other types of LGBT characters.
If you’re here, I assume you’re interested in writing a bisexual character, either soon or at some point in the future. Good on you. There’s plenty of room for more. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m going to do my best to give you a good running start on how not to suck at it.
A Note on the Gender Binary
First of all, we need to establish a definition of bisexuality. It’s not as simple as you might think. Toss out the preconceived notions that bisexuals are only attracted to two genders, because there are, in fact, more genders than that. The male/female binary leaves out the people who don’t fall into either group, e.g. non-binary (often a catch-all term), genderqueer (also used as a catch-all by some people), bigender, agender, genderfluid. Some non-binary people also define themselves as transgender, but not all. That’s only the tip of the iceberg regarding gender that doesn’t fit into the strict binary we’re raised to believe in.
There are a number of definitions for bisexuality beyond the assumption that every single one of us is attracted to two, and only two, genders. Some bisexuals may identify as such, but they don’t speak for everyone within the community. I’m going to include several definitions below.
The Bisexual Resource Centre has a case study that includes a personal definition of bisexuality, which has become quite popular:
“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge in myself the potential to be attracted, romantically and/or sexually, to people of more than one sex, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
The Bisexual Index defines it as “attraction to more than one gender.”
Bialogue’s definition is a little longer:
Bisexuals are people with the (some include “inborn” or “innate”) capacity to form enduring physical, romantic,(some include “spiritual”) and/or emotional attractions to:
(1) those of the same gender as themselves
(2) those of different genders/gender presentations from themselves.
There may be an individual attraction for one gender or gender presentation which can also be fluid and changeable over time.
*Note that some bisexuals don’t experience same-gender attraction at all, so not all bisexuals will use the above definition.*
The Bisexuality Report does include some bi means two ideas of bisexuality, but only as a part of a number of potential definitions:
Bisexuality generally refers to having attraction to more than one gender. It is a broad term which may include the following groups and more:
- People who see themselves as attracted to ‘both men and women’.
- People who are mostly attracted to one gender but recognise this is not exclusive.
- People who experience their sexual identities as fluid and changeable over time.
- People who see their attraction as ‘regardless of gender’ (other aspects are more important in determining who they are attracted to).
- People who dispute the idea that there are only two genders and that people are attracted to one, the other, or both.
Thanks to fandomsandfeminism for collecting all those links so I didn’t have to go hunting. Be aware there’s some rather rude people arguing with her through the link about the definition of bisexuality, including a whole lot of bi means two and can only mean two nonsense.
Edit 14/6/2017: In addition, bisexuality is often defined as an “attraction to two or more genders.” This is a fairly popular definition because it’s completely inclusive.
So What Do I Do with All This?
As you can see, there are a variety of definitions applied to bisexuality. Many bisexuals choose their own definitions. However, while writing a character who, at this point in time due to a lack of representation, will possibly be seen as a representative of bisexuality regardless of your intentions, it’s probably best to stay away from any kind of bi means two mentality.
I would advise using definitions from the bisexual community itself, such as the definitions from the Bisexual Resource Centre, The Bisexual Index and Bialogue websites as noted above. Their definitions tend to be more inclusive than those created by people outside the community, so you’re less likely to screw up if you go with them. It’s unlikely you’ll need to actually define bisexuality within your manuscript in any case, but being aware of the differences between the definitions created inside the community and outside the community will help you better understand bisexuality in general.
Edit 20/6/2017: I’d advise using the most broad definitions of bisexuality, such as “more than one” or “two or more” to avoid excluding anyone.
Note that it is possible for a bisexual to not be attracted to one or both of the binary genders (men/women). This can be a point of contention, but, honestly, we should respect how everyone identifies rather than be a huge asshole and try to invalidate how they feel. Just don’t do it. They know themselves better than you know them. On paper, it seems like common sense, but you would honestly be surprised.
There are also other labels people attracted to multiple genders may use, such as pansexual, which is probably the best known aside from bisexual.
An Independent article written by a pansexual woman defines pansexuality:
Pansexual people are attracted to all kinds of people, regardless of their gender, sex or presentation.
Minus18‘s definition of pansexuality:
PANSEXUAL however, means attracted to (or has the ability to be attracted to, rather), people of all genders. Binary or not.
Like bisexuality, there can be variations in how pansexuals define themselves, but a common thread is the use of the word all or any. The way people from both communities conceptualise the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality can get a little messy.
Pansexuals can be attracted to a person of any gender. This can also be the case for bisexuals, but it’s not a requirement to fit the definition of bisexuality. As hinted in the Independent quote above, many pansexuals define their sexuality as being attracted to people regardless of gender, while many bisexuals do believe that gender does play a role in their attraction. This is not necessarily a universal thing, however, and there can be some crossover between the terms. It’s often up to each individual to decide how they’d prefer to identify. Bisexual is often used as an umbrella term in any case, though feelings on that will vary.
Biphobia and Bisexual Erasure
My next post will be about bisexual stereotypes, in which I will also be addressing biphobia and bisexual erasure, which are two more terms that a person writing a bisexual character should be aware of.
Freedom.org is one of the few LGBT websites I was able to locate that has a basic definition of biphobia:
An individual’s or society’s misunderstanding, fear, ignorance of, or prejudice against bisexual and/or pansexual people.
The Bisexual Index jumps right into the discussion of particular examples of biphobia, namely bisexual erasure:
Bisexual erasure is rampant. We’re gay when we have same-gender partners, straight when we have different-gender ones. (Yet, oddly, neither gay nor straight people become asexual when single). As soon as a previously thought-of as “straight” celebrity has come out as bi and they’re then seen with someone of the same gender, it’s described as a “gay fling” or they’ve got a “lesbian crush”.
I’ll deal with biphobia and bisexual erasure in more detail in the next post, since a lot of biphobia and bisexual erasure is tied up in stereotypes about bisexuality.