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Visi(bi)lity: Cynthia Nixon and the Politics of Labels

As I've read through the comments on my first two posts (thank you for those, by the way!), I've noticed an interesting trend that relates to what I want to talk about today: A lot of folks seem to have mixed feelings about the word "bisexual." Some are uncomfortable using it because of the way others react to hearing it; some prefer other words to describe non-monosexual attraction, such as pansexual, queer, or fluid. I understand the reasons why "bisexual" doesn't work for everyone (for a long time, it didn't work for me, either), and I'm not interested in dictating language choice or policing identities. Labels are personal, and different people react to words differently. However, I am interested in exploring the reasons why people choose the labels they do and, similarly, the reasons why many people resist the label of "bisexual."

Which brings me to Cynthia Nixon.

In an interview with the New York Times back in January, actress Cynthia Nixon boldly explained that for her, being gay "is a choice. I understand that for many people it's not, but for me it's a choice, and you don't get to define my gayness for me." Many were uncomfortable with her assertion that one's sexual orientation can be chosen, so two days later, she clarified her statement in an interview with The Daily Beast:

I don't pull out the 'bisexual' word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals. ...I just don't like to pull out that word. But I do completely feel that when I was in relationships with men, I was in love and in lust with those men. And then I met Christine and I fell in love and lust with her. I am completely the same person and I was not walking around in some kind of fog. I just responded to the people in front of me the way I truly felt.

But even that explanation was not enough for a large portion of the LGBT community, who seemed to prefer that she just call herself "bisexual" already. A week after that interview, she made the following statement to The Advocate:

... to the extent that anyone wishes to interpret my words in a strictly legal context I would like to clarify: While I don't often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual. I believe bisexuality is not a choice, it is a fact. What I have 'chosen' is to be in a gay relationship.

Finally, this seemed to be a satisfactory response, and the dialogue surrounding Nixon and her comments quieted down. But I'm bringing it up again now, because I believe that much of the coverage surrounding her remarks missed the point.

I am thrilled that Cynthia Nixon is speaking honestly and openly about her choice. The distinction she makes between orientation and identity is an important one, and it's not one talked about often enough. Furthermore, the mainstream LGBT movement's reliance on essentialism has always troubled me. It is as if people believe that queer rights would be less important if sexual identities were chosen. Our focus should be on equal rights, acceptance and respect for all people, regardless of one's sexuality and regardless of whether one's sexuality is innate, chosen, or a combination of both. So I completely support Nixon's gay identity and her statements about it.

However, I am troubled by her statement that "nobody likes the bisexuals." I do not want to label Nixon as "bisexual" if it's a label that doesn't feel true or accurate to her. But that particular statement—"nobody likes the bisexuals"—makes me wonder if bisexual is a label to which she feels some connection, but due to stereotypes and prejudices, she feels uncomfortable using it. If someone rejects a label because they feel pressured not to use it, how much of a choice is it really?

The reasons why Nixon identifies as gay are much less interesting to me than the reasons why she does not identify as bi. I completely understand and support her reasons for identifying as gay, and I think it is radical and exciting for her to challenge the "born this way" status quo. But her reasons for choosing gay over bi seem to be about the negative connotations associated with the word "bisexual." I can't know that for sure, as I don't know her personally, but by saying "I don't pull out the 'bisexual' word because nobody likes the bisexuals," it seems that is what she is implying. And that concerns me.

People should always be free to choose words and labels that fit their experiences and identities. But we need to be aware of the reasons why certain labels are preferred over others. Not every non-monosexual person should feel compelled to identify as bisexual. But in order to make this world a more accepting place for bi people, we have to combat the negative messaging. And the first step towards doing that? Being visible.

Related: My Love, My Choice: On Cynthia Nixon And Why Gay Is (Sometimes) Better, In Defense of Cynthia Nixon: Why 'Born This Way' Doesn't Matter

Previously: Bi the Way and the Realities of Bisexuality, Deconstructing Images of Bisexuality in the Media

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Comments

14 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Yes! This, exactly! I've been

Yes! This, exactly! I've been trying to say this myself. I am a bit upset about the whole thing - I know other people who refuse to call themselves bi even if sometimes they do say that's what they are. Like you, I don't want to judge individual choices but something must be really wrong if people feel this way and it's frustrating. There are bi activists, trying to change this, but it's not easy. A recent report on bi mental health came out recently, apparently bisexual people have worse health than gay people - when people feel like Nixon that isn't very surprising.

Choosing your words

Despite the fact that I don't love her bi-phobic endorsement, I have no qualms with Nixon's stated identity, because I use different words for different situations as well. However, I don't shy away from bi because it's stigmatized; I USE it because it's stigmatized, even if I'm annoyed at the idea of just two genders.

Among folks who don't know me well, I like to play the pronoun game (My partner can't be around tonight; work and such...") and see which assumptions fly, then address each situation individually. For example, right now I live with a man and am often seen in his company, so I am pleased when someone assumes I'm gay; it lends at least a few degrees more to my queer identity than I am given on sight. And because I am new to my city, my queer identity is positively malnourished at the moment!

If I feel like a monosexual person expresses some privilege or bias against queer/pan/bi, AND I feel like it's worth my time and energy, I will use an assumption as a teaching moment. I recall Tori Amos explaining to her child that some princesses want to marry other princesses, and some princes want to marry other princes. That's a great place to start with kids. With straight cis-folk, I often start with, "Hey friend, did you know that gender is a spectrum, and therefore infinitely more complex than either/or?" Which is a short jump to, "And did you know that that many of us are attracted to multiple gender expressions, androgyny, and people who play with or challenge that either/or mandate?"

If I'm at the dinner table with an evangelical family member, "I'm bisexual," might just be enough to make someone choke on a bite of steak, which is a kind of activism in itself, and is sometimes all that is needed or can be accomplished in that moment.

I think that my combination of agoraphobia and bitterness weeds out any "greedy," or "indecisive" comments, but I don't think monogamy is the be-all and end-all of relationships. In fact, I have experienced wonderful examples of family and relationship that, frankly, make monogamy pale in comparison. So when I identify as queer (the label closest to my heart, but relatively interchangeable with "bi" among people who *get* me and who speak my language of gender and desire and identity), I am not only challenging monosexuality and gender norms, but also relationship norms. So I pick my battles based on my teaching moments, my energy levels, and my tools at hand.

Or sometimes I just steal my mother's line from when she came out to my grandmother, who asked, with some consternation, "So do you want to be with a man or a woman?"

"Well," replied my mom, "ideally, one of each."

the word by bisexual can be so difficult...

... i identify as Bi-sexual, I typically lean toward men but have had relations with women and find it that I could easily be with either. It is about the individual.

But, I find actually telling people I am bi is difficult because of the stereotypes associated with it. I have had gay friends say "oh bisexuals are just sluts" and lots of other comments of that nature. It makes it feel overwhelming to tell them because so many people view bisexuals as only into both genders for the sexual part, when in reality it is so much more than it. It does feel like there can be a LOT of judgment in it and I think that makes people nervous about claiming the label.

*chuckles* I find it

*chuckles* I find it entirely frustrating that this comment doesn't have a 'like' button, because I'd be mashing it next to your comment. I wholeheartedly agree.

I myself identify as pansexually homoflexible- I'm a man who orients normally towards men, but also towards ftm transgender, and towards androgynous sorts, and will also make the occasional exception towards women if the chemistry is right. And I don't know why that's so threatening to others, and I don't get why 'bi' is so scary or dangerous, or why it's even a surprise that there are more than two gender expressions in the human race.

But anyway, well written, and I especially liked the activism that you do- I too use nominatives and labels often because they're challenging and offensive to others due to their own stereotypes. *smiles*

There was a fantastic article

There was a fantastic article in the last issue of Bi Community News about Cynthia Nixon's comments which again highlights to bi-erasure that is endemic in the L and G community. *Quotes* 'Perhaps all these years of "oh we don't need to mention the bis" finally bit all those people on the proverbial behinds. If you do keep telling people that "just saying gay is enough" to cover the different strands of LGBT, sooner or later someone's going to start believing you and talking like you're right.'

The latest issue of DIVA (a lesbian and bisexual women's magazine) ran an article on bisexuality. They asked for contributions on their Facebook page (link here - TW biphobia http://www.facebook.com/divamagazine/posts/10150488503505671). The biphobic comments on there are dreadful, ill-informed and based on the myths of bisexuals being greedy, cheating liars! The majority of the posts on there from bisexuals have the disclaimer 'I'm a bisexual and I've never cheated', like we should have to justify our sexuality!

I can understand why Cynthia Nixon said what she said. I can understand why she doesn't like the bi label. When you are told that your sexuality means that you are a 'lesser' person in the LGBTQI spectrum, when you are told that you are not worthy of taking a 'risk' on a relationship for etc, is it any wonder people play down the bi word?

For me personally, I identify as bisexual using the Bisexual Index's definition (attraction to more than one gender), and I will continue to use the term bisexual for as long as there are people out there that find the community and have the amazing realisation that they are not the only ones!

For me, having just come out

For me, having just come out of my first same-sex relationship after having one serious and a few casual opposite-sex relationships, I worried that friends and family would presume I was using a "bi" label as a stepping stone. I found it suited me at that point to let everyone make their own assumptions, that I was gay, or bi, or smarting from a bad break up with a guy (someone actually said that to me).

Now, I would identify as bi, but now I am secure enough to deal with the variety of reactions that gets in a more detached manner, as it's three years later and I have had the chance to think things through.

I can understand wanting to say you're in a 'gay' relationship too. There's an assumption that bi means 50/50 so this applies to relationships when you're in fact 100% into the person you're with, so in that relationship, I'm fully gay.

the struggleto claim identity

Thank you so much for this article and to all who have posted comments. I relate so much to what has been said! When I came out, it was in a community of women, many of whom regularly made statements about bisexual people being in denial about their homosexuality (which is presumably the only real option) and denying the validity of trans identities. I wish I could say that message wasn't repeated anywhere else, but it was. It's easy for me to fight straight folks and their bullshit, but to be so harshly judged by what I consider to be my core community has been so damaging. I've spent over 10 years struggling to claim my identity, sometimes hiding and denying it, knowing intimately the stereotypes and judgements about bisexuality and other queer identities. The self-denial has been one ofthe most difficult struggles of my life, and I am making a commitment now to fully claim my identity despite the consequences. I don't need the acceptance of a community that doesn't share my values...but I wish I had it.

I don't believe that I was born any particula r way. I think I was socialized to like men and politicized to like women and trans folks. I came out of the womb with no preference, and even if I did, whose to say I can't change my mind or experiment with different choices? I don't want to be limited by some completely uninformed science/psychology that serves the needs of few and limits many more.

There is also the perspective of the dangers of genetically defining an identity. What happens if I don't have the "gay gene" and am in a homosexual relationship? What happens if I do and am in a heterosexual relationship? What if I'm trans or my partner is trans? The duality of the argument is so easily broken down, it makes me wonder why we're still having it as a community. I fear it's because we are letting some outside forces define us.

'bi' is too exclusive

I have often used the term bisexual because I find it is a term that is easier for people to understand than 'queer'. When I call myself queer, people will almost inevitably ask me to explain. At times when I haven grown tired of explaining myself, I have resorted to the more easily comprehensible term 'bisexual'. However, I have never truly identified with it. My problem is that it assumes a dichotomy of genders to which I do not subscribe. I find the term excludes a number of people who do not fit neatly into the gender binary....many of whom have been/are my lovers. I feel much more comfortable using the term 'queer', as it is not as exclusive.

Exactly. As a nonbinary

Exactly. As a nonbinary person, I admit that a fair bit of the time, my reaction to the word "bisexual" is "...what, do I have cooties?" I wish "bisexual" could really be reconfigured to mean "someone who likes two genders" as opposed to "someone who likes men and women, and nobody else."

Cat Anomaly, I think you make

Cat Anomaly, I think you make a really important point. To me, "bisexual" doesn't mean "someone who likes men and women, and nobody else." There are a lot of bisexuals who don't think of bisexuality in terms of a men/women binary (or as a binary at all), and that's the vision of bisexuality I want to promote through this series. But it's a challenge, of course, because there are still people who think of it in a binary context. I hope that can change, and I hope that through dialogues like these, people may start opening their minds to what the term is able to mean. Thank you for your comment!

terminology

I also don't think of my bisexuality as dependent on binary gender, despite the etymology. Personally, my identifying as "bisexual" doesn't mean that cis folks are the only people I am or could ever be attracted to. The main reason I stick with the term is probably because it's familiar to both myself and the general public in ways that lots of QUILTBAG terminology isn't yet.
It may additionally be because I also have a few issues with the proposed alternatives with which I'm currently familiar. "Polysexual" still makes me think of polyamory, even though it’s probably a more semantically accurate term for me than “bisexual”. Somehow "pansexual" seems unnecessarily broad and makes me think of people who are sexually attracted to inanimate objects or non-human beings. Just calling myself “queer”, while I certainly do in some contexts, doesn’t really seem specific to this issue as I usually conceptualize “queer” either as an umbrella term for non-hetero/non-binary or else as short for “genderqueer”.
I live outside the English-speaking world and my connection with the global QUILTBAG community is relatively limited, so I may be slow to adopt developing language. Maybe in the future I'll become more comfortable with these terms and my feelings about them will change, at which point I might adopt new terminology to refer to my sexual orientation and identity.
I suppose something could be said for actively promoting one of these other terms in lieu of “bisexual”. I know that you (Carrie) recognized at the beginning of the series that the term “bisexual” can be taken as cissexist and noted that you’d be using the term in its relatively-recently-broadened sense to mean attraction to more than one sex/gender. But I wonder if you have any plan to talk more about why you prefer to broaden the definition of this term rather than adopt one which perhaps better fits that definition semantically (e.g. polysexual)…

I wonder if there will ever

I wonder if there will ever be a day when heterosexual, monosexual individuals will be viewed as discriminatory, or that it would be seen as "backwards".

Thanks!

These posts and the comments here are so very refreshing and welcome for me. Being white and cisgendered, "bisexual" has always been the easiest descriptor to use out loud, especially amongst my "peers."

As expressed by others, identifying as more flexible or fluid than gay/straight causes social difficulty, judgement and often a lack of belonging to any one community. Not to mention self-censorship, self-segregation and other un-fun situations.

While I live in a gay community, and currently am in a "homosexual relationship," I find that because of my outward appearance and less-alternative lifestyle, it is easier to find a place in the straight community. There's just less bullshit involved-- perhaps because I can pass as straight and/or can identify with their life's paths.

In the last few years, I have been mulling this over, reading more, promising myself to get more involved in the "Community" and yet… there is hesitation knowing my right to be present will probably be questioned. Which leads me to question the worth of belonging or being involved. And then I stall.

So as another poster stated, while I am vigorous in defending myself, educating and conducting diplomatic discussions with straight folk, I have yet to dive into potential drama with what should also be my community, as the "B" or "Q" in LGTBQQI.

I am so excited to have stumbled upon this blog series, to read about people's experiences and unique viewpoints and situations. I love how grey the world can be, that there are few "right" answers that work for everyone. And I love that other people can see, experience and articulated it as well. So excited that I'm actually commenting!

Thank you for this article

Thank you for this article and the whole series. It's making me think about issues I seem to have buried in the back of my mind.

For me, I think the problem with identifying as 'bi' is to do with the person I'm in a relationship with. If you're in a heterosexual relationship and identify as straight or a homosexual relationship and identify as gay then your sexual identity confirms your attraction to your partner. However, as soon as you identify as bi within a relationship, it's often interpreted that you're saying what you have is not enough. It lends a sense of impermanency to your relationship because it sounds like you're saying "I'm currently seeing a man, but in the future I might date women again."

I'm about to marry a man. I intend to spend the rest of my life with him. In the past I've dated women and I am still attracted to women, but I don't go around telling my fiance that I'm attracted to other men too, so identifying as bi is problematic. I still feel I have a queer identity and it's certainly no secret, but my entire life is set up in a very heterosexual way, so to actively pursue that identity feels like saying I'm dissatisfied with my world.