Or, Why You Can’t Tell Me How to Perform My Identity
I’m a bisexual cisgender woman. (GASP.) I don’t precisely make a secret of this, although I’m not the type of person who is out here waving a flag or decorating myself in rainbows every June.
For a while, I was pretty quiet. I’ve even felt that I’m not “queer” enough to count. Yet there are many, many different ways to perform identity. Not all of them fit the “script” that media wants to use. Queer and queer-coded characters are often bright, loud, out and proud.
I, on the other hand, have worked to a theory I like to call quietly queer. I am queer and I am not ashamed nor closeted. But I merely exist as a queer person in your space, refusing to “fit” the stereotyped queerness presented on TV. I refuse to “prove” my queerness—I simply am.
Coming to Terms with “Quietly Queer”
Being “quietly queer” is a privileged position. I, for all intents and purposes, pass. I am also involved in a hetero-presenting relationship at the moment, so, at surface level, I “look” straight.
Not every queer person has the option to perform “quiet queerness” the way I do. Some queers who are quiet must be quiet to stay alive. That is not a choice; that is oppression. Having the freedom to choose to perform my queerness quietly is a privilege.
Some queer people are loud for the same reasons—they must make noise to continue surviving. They are out, loud, and proud because they must be. Again, choosing to perform the way I do is privilege that many queer people simply do not have.
I see my performance of my queerness as not one of assimilation but one of extreme subversion. I perform (almost) as a heterosexual person. In doing so, I am able to slide by into spaces that are hetero-dominated or even not queer friendly. I am subversive merely by existing in those spaces. I challenge the underlying assumption that even “het-presenting” people, people who appear “normal” are indeed so. My existence also challenges the notion that there is any such thing as normal. It asks if we are not, perhaps, all queer on some level. Assumption becomes dangerous; homogeneity, normality, a myth.
Of course, we can note there’s an inherent danger in this. If no one asks, then I’m not necessarily going to disabuse them of the notion that I am heterosexual. Thus, by not being out and loud and proud, I might be merely assimilating, allowing straight people to float along unchallenged.
The Challenge of Assumption
Being assumed to be heteronormative is precisely why we demand the script we do. Queer people are tired of being queer-baited. We do not want the heteronormative machine to “absorb” characters who might be queer.
When queer characters do not “prove” their queerness, it’s easier for the dominant heteronormative culture to reabsorb these characters. In the process, it overwrites their (subtle, nuanced) queerness.
When a character follows the script, it’s more difficult for “the straights” to reclaim them as one of their own. In essence, the script we ask queer characters to follow makes them impossible to “rewrite” into the heteronormative script. This happens in real life as well—my own performance of queerness is prime example. Unless I am specifically asked to state my queerness, I do not. I am, for all intents and purposes, straight until proven queer.
That is true of our queer characters as well. Thus, we want our characters to perform in a very particular way, one then makes them undoubtedly queer.
How Do You Perform Bi/Pansexuality?
And that is precisely where bisexuality (and, by extension, pansexuality) becomes an enormous problem. Being bisexual has made very clear the performative nature of queerness—and why it’s such a big problem.
It is clear to me that my bisexuality is couched in my own internal experiences of desire and attraction. Inwardly, I perceive both men and women as attractive. I experience sexual desire for both male and female bodies.
The issue, of course, is that I experience this desire simultaneously. I currently have a cisgender male partner; my relationship is hetero-presenting. Yet, even within the context of this relationship, my attraction to female bodies is ongoing. It does not abate merely because I have shacked up with a dude.
The same would be true in the inverse situation. If I were dating another woman, my sexual desire/attraction to men would not “disappear.” It exists simultaneously.
This brings us to the crux of the issue: to be “proven” queer, bisexuals must perform both sexual attractions/desires simultaneously. And most often, we ask that desire/attraction be played out in the context of a relationship. Yet, for the most part, we demand “romance” as monogamous relationships; thus, the bisexual can only perform either/or at any given time.
Desire and Attraction Are Private Experiences
The very obvious problem here is that only I can experience my attraction/desire. Thus, the only option anyone has when I say I am bisexual is to simply believe me. I am the only person who can know whether I experience attraction/desire to people of multiple genders/sexes. No one else can know or experience that for me.
Thus, when I am asked to “prove” my queerness, I end up in a quandary. I know, upon the basis of my own internal experiences, who I am attracted to. Yet to perform those attractions in order to “prove” my queerness is highly problematic.
If I perform them simultaneously, then I am some sort of slut. I must be “cheating” on a partner. I form a throuple or another polyam sort of arrangement in order to showcase my own ongoing simultaneous desires. That is obviously a threat to the ideal of monogamous romance.
To perform desire sequentially is also highly problematic. First, it does not accurately reflect my experience of attraction/desire as simultaneous. My sexual orientation does not flip on/off like a light switch whenever I switch partners. Yet, because of the rules of performance, outsiders will make this assumption. If I am with a male partner, then I am “straight”; if I am with another female, I am a lesbian.
Outward Action Fails to Capture Inward Feeling
This is obviously where the idea of the bisexual as “confused” arises. People see bisexual individuals “switching” back and forth between partners of various gender/sex identities. They then assume, based upon the performance, that the bisexual individual’s sexuality is changing. This speaks to the limitations of using outward measuring sticks. They do not reflect the simultaneous, ongoing nature of the desire/attraction the bisexual individual experiences.
Thus, people say bisexuals are actually just indecisive or unsure. If a bi/pansexual person ends up with someone of the same sex, they are actually gay. If they end up with someone of the opposite sex, they are then “straight.”
When we give over to this narrative, we prioritize outward performance, versus taking someone’s word about what they, personally, experience. We make ourselves into judge and jury about a thing that we cannot possibly know.
External Judges Cast Doubt on All Queer Identities
This extends beyond bi/pansexuality, of course, in an attempt to invalidate many queer identities. Trans people will have outsiders doubt that they truly “feel” their identity. Asexual people who have sex or engage with sexualized materials get the nth degree. People who revise and refine identity encounter doubt, thoughts that they’re merely following a trend.
The biphobic “you’re just confused” argument has been visible for a long period. We can see it as blueprint or mold. People use all of these arguments to invalidate queer identities and attempt to herd us back to the oppressive heteronormative model.
This is clearest examples are stories about cisgender AFAB people who “experimented” in college. These women solidly maintain that they are nothing but straight because they are in heterosexual relationships. For some of these people, their same-sex experimentation was indeed just a “phase” on the road to identity. For others, though, same-sex attraction persists. They rechannel it into appropriate forms—jealousy, rivalry, friendship—once the person becomes involved in a “straight” relationship. Thus, the prevalent heteronormative paradigm overrides queerness. In essence, we discount queerness and rewrite it into “scripts” that are less threatening to the overarching power structure.
Bi/Pansexuality Threatens the Myth of Heteronormativity
The hope, from the heteronormative viewpoint, is that those who do “experiment” will eventually reject a queer identity. These individuals come back to the fold and identify as straight. This works to uphold the myth that most of the population is exclusively straight.
If we look at the number of college-educated women who report having had same-sex relations at some point, we might wonder if something else is at work. Specifically, most of us are actually some kind of queer. There’s certainly a good deal of support for bi/pansexual orientation among bonobos—one of humanity’s closest relatives. (We often don’t talk about them, preferring to focus on the violent chimpanzee versus the sex-loving bonobo.)
Or consider the prevalence of bisexual behavior in the animal kingdom at large. It thus stands to reason that many of us experience a wider set of attractions/desires than the myth of the exclusively-heterosexual-majority would like to admit.
A Theory of Numbers and Degrees
That is not to say there are not exclusively heterosexual individuals, just the same as there are exclusively gay individuals. But using Kinsey’s spectrum theory, we see “exclusivity” is actually not the dominant mode. Rather, we fall along a spectrum, with the majority of us experiencing something more like bi/pansexual attraction and desire.
At any given “degree” of bi/pansexuality, of course, you have a finite number of people. Thus, the number of people who are “truly” bisexual or “pansexual,” exhibiting no preference at all, is smaller than the sum of all degrees together.
When we take all the “degrees” together, bi/pansexuality actually begins to look like the normative experience of human beings. Exclusive heterosexuality is thus the minority, the exception to the rule rather than the norm.
Why Heteronormative Society Views Queerness as a Threat
If queers are actually the majority, then being queer is normal and being exclusively heterosexual is actually the anomaly. That does not bode well for an identity that exerts itself as normative, the standard against which everyone else must compare.
The question is about why queerness is such a threat in the first place. The majority of humanity may be “at least a little queer.” But many of us engage in heterosexual relations. Those in the “exclusive heterosexual” crowd are not the only ones reproducing here. Queerness, as such, does not pose an existential threat to the species.
In fact, some scientists think queerness might support populations in a few different ways. Asexual individuals, for example, remain childless but perhaps form close relations with a reproductive “friend” or sibling. The asexual individual can then care for infants, lifting the burden on parents. The asexual individual contributes to the survival of the next generation. And the infant receives more care. In short, everybody wins.
In another scenario, same-sex couples may take over the care of an orphaned or abandoned infant. They thus ensure it reaches adulthood—something we can see happening in gay penguin couples. Among albatrosses, lesbian couples raise chicks with the same degree of success as heterosexual couples.)
Creating Queerness as a Threat
Queerness is a problem because it is a threat to patriarchal-capitalistic control of reproductive bodies. This is why heteronormativity pushes with such vigor. It’s why we assume babies still in utero are heterosexual, but never assume they’re queer. It’s why we proudly give male infants “funny” onesies that proclaim them as “boob guys.”
The aggressive push is how the “myth” of heteronormative humanity is upheld. Children are indoctrinated into it even before they are born. Adults rarely question it, even as they begin sexualizing their unborn children. Yet they will draw the line at LGBTQ+ characters in books. A character with two moms or two dads is somehow a problem; showing children a trans character is somehow akin to showing toddlers hardcore pornography.
Because exclusive heteronormativity is a minority, it must be aggressive to maintain its dominance over the larger (queer/queerish) population. This is how we end up with the assumption about the “inherently sexual” nature of queerness. It is such a threat that society must make it into something harmful. We cannot present it for what it actually is: a normal and natural part of human experience.
That brings us back to the question of why heteronormativity so badly wishes to maintain its dominance. If a majority-queer population reproduces at a similar rate as a heterosexual-only one, what’s the issue? Preservation of the species cannot be the concern.
Control of Reproduction Is the Goal
The reason heteronormativity dominates is that it supports the patriarchal-capitalistic complex. It tells AMAB individuals that they have a “right” to sex and power over AFAB individuals. It presents virility as resting on the number of children one fathers. AMAB individuals learn to desire these things—sexual conquests, dominion over the AFAB individual, fatherhood—as signs of masculine success.
By contrast, we see AFAB individuals as asexual creatures coerced into sexual relations. Motherhood becomes a kind of cult, linked to “pleasing” the man and providing him with as many children as he desires. The AFAB individual loses control of their own body.
How Patriarchy Teaches Men to Desire Control of Reproduction
Patriarchy can only maintain control so long as AMAB individuals believe this is their right. They are forcibly turned away from queerness by the suggestion they will be emasculated by engaging sexually with other men. Men thus fear becoming a “sissy.” No one wants to be an effeminate man who cooks and cleans and allows women to dominate him. This is indeed evident in revulsion to the idea of men getting pegged by their female partners (which extends into fear of trans women). It’s also found in the fear of “mama’s boys,” men dominated by their mothers to the point of emasculation. The domination of men by women is, patriarchal society says, unnatural.
As patriarchy flows through the male bloodline, a male must ensure his heirs are truly his. Should he wish to pass on his wealth, land, or anything else he has, the focus is on blood. To ensure that only his blood relatives receive a share of his riches beyond DNA, the AMAB individual must closely control female reproductive behavior.
Thus, this dominating behavior becomes intrinsically tied with “masculinity”; real men control their sexual partners, dominating them and penetrating them. Anyone who does otherwise is thus less than “masculine” and worthy of mockery.
Intersecting Capitalism’s Interest in Reproductive Capacity
Patriarchy intersects with capitalism in the quest for reproductive control. Capitalism seeks not so much to ensure bloodlines but to ensure reproductive coercion. Control here focuses on ensuring masses of people reproduce in miserable conditions.
Capitalism seeks to isolate us into nuclear families—dominated by the patriarchal male—which make the AFAB individual a captive ovary. This isolationist aspect severs socioemotional networks of care (often delivered through the AFAB line). AFAB individuals lose control of their reproductive capacity, as well as their networks of care.
In turn, most of humanity ends up reproducing in conditions that also reproduce poverty. This allows for some children to receive poorer nutrition, poorer educational opportunities, and exposes them to higher levels of stress. We know about the detrimental effects of poverty upon development. Make no mistake, then: capitalism desires those outcomes. Such children become the next generation of desperate workers. They will be willing to do whatever shit jobs at whatever shit wages.
What If We Actually Cared about Families?
All the hand-wringing about the falling birth rate is predicated on this concern. If there were true concern that many people are not fulfilling their desire to become parents due to poverty, we would see a host of solutions:
- generous parental leaves
- increased wages and benefits
- jobs with increased flexibility to allow for caregiving
- job security
- a focus on alternate caregiving arrangements
- the veneration of childless individuals and elderly adults as potential caregivers and support
- a focus on education, nutrition, and alleviating poverty
- improved care for would-be mothers and mothers
- housing opportunities
Instead, we see business owners crying about an increased wage. Legislators fail to push through higher wages and relief from student debt. The business sector decries remote work and pushes for a return to the male-dominated and controlled office, to ensure everyone is hitting “peak productivity” for their capitalist overlords rather than attending to the actual tasks of living.
Clearly, this is not concern about people. This is capitalistic concern that people are now able to delay or circumvent the necessity of reproducing in miserable, unsustainable situations. Capitalism cannot ensure it will have more desperate workers to exploit in the future.
Queerness (and Bi/Pansexuality) Offers Alternatives
And this is where aggressive heteronormativity intersects with the goals of the patriarchal-capitalistic society. It tells people that they will grow up, marry, and reproduce. That is the ideal. That is the goal—particularly for AFAB people. It’s little wonder “feminine” things focus on such goals. We give little girls baby dolls to play with, cradles and strollers, and encourage them to mimic nurturing behavior. This is all in preparation for their own predestined roles as wives and mothers.
Queerness threatens this because it allows for different possibilities to emerge. As noted, an asexual person becomes free of the reproductive burden, but can still contribute to the success of the next generation. Under the patriarchal-capitalist paradigm, there is no room for this person. The reproductive machine needs to capture them so that their offspring can be ground up and used as fuel to keep profit flowing.
The same is true of gay couples, who, in previous generations, lacked reproductive capacity. With advancing reproductive technologies, the capitalistic machine has become more accepting and lenient. Gay couples may adopt or practice surrogacy. It’s no surprise that increasing support for gay/lesbian rights and gay marriage have emerged at the same time. The increasing availability of “reproductive capacity” makes gay couples more acceptable to a society hyper-focused on heteronormative reproduction, and extending rights to them brings them into the heteronormative fold.
Heteronormativity’s Love/Hate Relationship with the Bi/Pansexuality
Until reproductive assistance is available, however, queerness faces oppression and repression. Thus the gay individual is hated. The asexual person is rewritten as not being queer at all.
But heteronormativity always holds out hope for the bi/pan individual. They still exhibit, to some degree, “heteronormative” attraction. Thus heteronormativity asks us to dismiss the simultaneous nature of desire/attraction. It suggests these individuals must be confused or they need to make a choice. By presenting these arguments, the heteronormative machine hopes bi/pan individuals might be brought back to the fold and enter into reproductive relationships for the gain of patriarchal-capitalist society.
If, however, the bi/pan individual “chooses” to be gay, then they may be demonized. Until they “commit” to such a path, the hope that they might yet turn out straight persists. Heteronormative society thus exerts incredible pressure on bi/pan individuals to “pick a side.”
In some ways, then, bi/pan queerness is one of the least tolerable forms of queerness. It looks so much like heteronormativity, yet behaves too much like queerness. In doing so, it exposes heteronormativity for precisely what it is.
Bi/Pansexuality Is Still Queer
The end of this is that bi/pansexuality is still queer. Very queer. Even when someone “performs” or “presents” as straight. The very idea that your choice of partner determines your sexuality is a pervasive myth. And it’s one heteronormativity has aggressively pushed for ages.
By discounting bi/pan people as “being confused,” by asking us to “pick a side,” heteronormativity hopes to bring us back to the fold. It hopes to “keep quiet” the reality that exclusive heterosexuality is not the majority nor even the default setting.
Continued arguments about whether bi/pan people in opposite-sex relationships are “really” queer is an extension of this. It’s heteronormativity at work, trying to undermine queerness. It asks us to second-guess people who are queer. It asks us to gatekeep. In turn, heteronormativity can keep up its optical illusion. It can make us believe “queer” is abnormal.
As demonstrated, that’s pretty far from the truth. Heteronormativity finds that threatening. If bi/pan people in het-presenting relationships are unquestionably queer, then how many other people are also queer?
This is why heteronormativity demands performance. It wants queer people to perform queerness in particular ways. Thus lesbians are strictly women into women, and gay men are into other dudes. Trans people must cleave to either side of the divide.
Bi/pan identities, much like nonbinary and genderfluid identities, threaten because they refuse the either/or. Like asexual and aromantic identities, they challenge the assumption that every oppsite-sex pairing must be heteronormative.
In short, being bi/pan is a very dangerous kind of queer to be. And, in turn, exploring other ways of performing bi/pansexuality makes it even more dangerous.