I did not expect to be writing an identity-related post tonight

…but here I am.

I was reading the introduction to a book, a book with stories in it from authors whose work I love, a book I was looking forward to reading.

And there was a reference to “gay, lesbian, and transgender.” Several times, throughout. “Gay, lesbian, and transgender.”

Okay, so I am not the biggest fan of the actual word “bisexual.” I will concede that it has a certain seventies, bow-chicka-bow-wow quality. I prefer the offensive-to-some, inclusive-to-me term queer.

I also have a certain sympathy with my friend Jack, whose version of the seemingly ever-expanding sexual identity acronym, what Nicola Griffith calls the Quiltbag, is GLBTQWTF. But in the context of what appeared to be intended as a careful enumeration of possible identities, the omission of bisexuality felt deliberate, and it was hard not to interpret it as a slight.

Here’s why. People who self-identify as bisexual are very, very familiar with (and tired of) hearing variations on both “Oh, come on, admit it, you’re really gay” and “Poser, you just want to co-opt a queer identity — you’re really straight.” Doubting the existence of bisexuality is common enough, both inside and outside the queer community, that there’s a Wikipedia entry for “bisexual erasure.” A common assumption is that if you have a same-sex partner, clearly you’re really gay, and if you have an opposite-sex partner, obviously you’re really straight — and have been all along, regardless of all your previous experiences, patterns of attraction, etc.

I beg to differ.

There was a time in my life when I’d find a way to announce my sexual identity to any new acquaintance. You could not stop me, no matter how awkward the segue. “Really, you’re a Taurus? That’s so interesting — I’m bisexual!”

I don’t feel the need to do that any more, in part because hey, I’ve written these books that totally have queer characters in them, and you know, that’s really kind of a tip-off! (Leaving aside the deeply problematic nature of assuming that anyone who writes about The Gay must obviously be some version thereof.)

But you know? When fans write me, as they gratifyingly do, and thank me for writing about lesbians, I do not write angrily back to demand that they read Empress again, and notice that Nicola Lancaster doesn’t use that word to define herself. And Battle Hall Davies is lesbian, and that’s very clear in Rules, so, really, I tell myself, it’s not that big a deal that they don’t get that Nic is actually bi. I mean, even though there are, thankfully, more now than there used to be, it’s not like there are gigantic shelves full of books about teenage lesbians. So if readers want to “read” Nic as lesbian, who am I to stand in their way?

Well, evidently, sometimes I am someone who wants to take a stand against bisexual erasure.

Here are some things I believe about sexual identity:

  • It exists on a continuum.
  • Where you are on the continuum today may not be where you are tomorrow, or next year, or ten years from now.
  • There is such a thing as — as a T-shirt I had in the nineties but was rarely brave enough to wear proclaimed — a Kinsey pi.
  • We like to put things, and people, into clear-cut categories. They don’t always fit.

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  • Liz Argall
    February 14, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Lovely article Ms Ryan, with some excellent links to further reading.

    I love the malleable and inclusive term queer – though I can see how some people would not want to be called it if they have a tribal/political/community identity that demands stronger boundaries.

    I think communities that have experienced oppression are often (understandably) more defensive of boundaries, belonging and identity. Hopefully that is changing as oppression is reduced.

  • Shaun
    February 14, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Wonderful article. I clearly identify as gay, yet I hate identifying. I think that people want others to self-identify on a specific place on the spectrum so that they know how to act around you. “Oh, you’re gay? Can you please help me decorate my apartment?” It’s frustrating.

    I think the sooner we realize that labels for gender and sexual orientation are more for the labeler than the labelee, the faster we can stop using them.

    And for the record, I’m not gay, I just sleep with men

  • Katie
    February 15, 2010 at 7:32 am

    Dear Sara Ryan,

    You are my favorite bisexual lady.

    Also, one of my favorite people.

    This post is a damn fine example of why.


  • Belle
    February 16, 2010 at 12:53 am


    I feel ya, man.

  • Traci
    February 16, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post. When I first came out as a queer (bisexual), I always felt the need to correct people when they just assumed I was a lesbian because I am in a relationship with a woman. Now I don’t feel that need, but I do think it is interesting that people don’t really “hear” (or read in the case of your character) anything that contradicts their own assumptions. I’ve never called myself a lesbian, but some people that I’ve known for a long time and fairly well still call me that.

    Thanks for writing this. Can you please write a bisexual positive book–there are so few out there!?

  • Claire
    February 18, 2010 at 3:30 am

    Dear Sara,

    Thank you for writing about bisexuals and lesbians! Especially since Nic’s bisexuality and the way it’s handled is one of the most interesting things about Empress, which is as I have said before one of the shiniest, loveliest books ever. :)


  • Steve
    February 20, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Well put (with appropriate illustrations from your good books). I once got a letter from a very famous novelist who told me he tried never to use adjectives for his characters, only verbs, since we are what we do and think and feel.