Is bisexuality inherently transphobic by denying non-binary genders?
Short answer: no.
The reason this question exists starts with the history of bisexuality as an identity (as opposed to as a practice). When Alfred Kinsey interviewed thousands of American adults and created the Kinsey scale in the 1940s, people with Kinsey scores of between 1 and 5 had had sexual experiences with both men and women. In assigning scores, he did not take into account sexual attraction, desire or fantasies. Subsequent models like the Klein Grid (1987) measured attraction, not just behavior, giving researchers a more nuanced view of sexual orientation (as many people feel an attraction to people of a particular gender, but don’t always have the opportunity to have sex with people of that gender). People had obviously been bisexual before the research came out, but there wasn’t language for it – suddenly, there was scientific evidence for bisexuality, and people began to visibly adopt bisexuality as a label and an identity and a movement.
While this research was going on and bisexuality began emerging as an identity, transgender identities were not far behind. Though being trans as an identity (not a practice) had not become common in the 1960s and early 1970s, when bisexuality became a more visible orientation. What do I mean by that? Most visibly trans people (as we have no way to measure people who were closeted, or “passed” as their gender and kept their assigned sex at birth a secret) at that time identified as drag queens and butch lesbians. They dressed and acted as the gender they felt they were, but didn’t yet have a global vocabulary around transition. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a conversation about gender really showed up mainstream United States, and people became more able to transition in their everyday life, and not just when out in gay bars or with friends.
How do these two historical concepts line up with our original question? Well originally, bisexuality did mean being attracted to “both men and women,” and some people don’t identify as either men or women. Does bisexuality ignore those other genders, or discriminate against them? If so, what’s a better alternative?
So, some people identify as neither a man or a woman. They feel like they’re a mix of both, or they feel like they’re neither a man nor a woman. They might not feel connected to any gender at all, or they might have a strong identification with several different genders. In an effort to find a term to explain “sexual attraction regardless of gender,” the word “pansexual” sprung up. Pansexuality arose in response to the historical definition of bisexual, and instead of claiming attraction to “both men and women,” specifically took gender out of the equation. People who identify as pansexual frequently say things like “I like people, not parts,” or “someone’s gender doesn’t play into my attraction.”
Now for a period of time (early 2000s), it looked like bisexuality and pansexuality were pitted against each other. Bisexuals were attracted to only men and women, and pansexuals were attracted to anyone they liked. Did this mean that bisexuals were never attracted to people with non-binary genders? Did bisexuals invalidate the non-binary genders of the people that they dated?
No. Innumerable bisexual people dated non-binary folks before “pansexual” became a common term, and they respected their partners’ genders. They didn’t have a better word to describe their orientation, but just because the classical definition of bisexual only called out attraction to men and women, that didn’t mean that individual people who identified as bisexual refused attraction to or recognition of other genders.
Once pansexual became a common term, a lot of bisexual people changed the way they described their orientation, and began calling themselves pansexual, but a lot of people still had strong political attachment to the identity of being bisexual. They didn’t want to change their orientation – which had always worked for them and their partners – just because a new word showed up on the scene.
In the last 5-10 years, the definition of bisexual has actually shifted, from “attraction to men and women” to “attraction to the same and other genders.” The prefix “bi” just means two – it doesn’t have to mean “two genders,” it can mean “the same and other,” like it does in some chemical contexts.
Bisexuality and pansexuality are a Venn diagram of identities that overlap pretty hard. There are a few differences, though. Many (not all) pansexual folks are very clear that their orientation is *regardless* of gender. Many (not all) bisexual folks feel attraction in ways that *are* influenced by gender. For example, some bisexual folks (remember, attracted to the same and other genders) say things like “I’m attracted to my gender, and these three other genders, but not that one gender,” or “I’m very attracted to masculinity and femininity – gender expression plays a big part in how I feel attraction.”
So no, bisexuality is not inherently transphobic, and not everyone who is pansexual automatically has a more “ethical” sexual orientation. Both orientations can be very respectful of multiple genders, and both have the opportunity to be invalidating towards other genders*. Pick your orientation as it suits you, and don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t count.
*Ways that bisexual people can be transphobic: “I’m only attracted to two genders: cis men and cis women.” Ways that pansexual people can be transphobic: “I don’t see gender, it’s the person inside that matters.”
Future topics include: the change of labels and language in the queer community, bi-visibility