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Self Perception: It’s All in the Family

Bisexuality, pansexuality, and why my identity is just as valid as yours

This personal perspective has been a long time coming, yet in sitting down to write it, I realized I didn’t know where to begin. I’ve spent so many hours arguing in my head or even under my breath, worn my thumbs out composing angry texts to friends, talked as fast as I drove down I-485, my girlfriend in the seat beside me, always on my team. Why, then, when I’d finally sought and been granted a wider audience, did words escape me? Had I been full of sound and fury all along?

Before I share where I landed on that, let’s go over a few words that may signify more than you think. It should be noted that what follows is only a small sampling of the true diversity of sexual, romantic and gender identities each of us is likely to have encountered, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Bisexual: experiencing sexual and/or romantic attraction to two or more genders.

A common misconception is that people who identify as bisexual necessarily subscribe to the idea of the gender binary — that is, all bisexual people are of the opinion that male and female are the sole valid genders, and that gender identity is static. Some who assert the legitimacy of the binary acknowledge that a person may be transgender, but with the caveat that their “true” gender can be only male or female. In reality, many bisexuals reject this as a false dichotomy, and bisexuality does not imply attraction to men and women. A person who identifies as bisexual may, for instance, experience attraction to women and nonbinary people, but not to men.

The bisexual Pride flag features horizontal pink and blue fields of equal width placed respectively above and below a purple stripe whose width is half that of either the pink or blue. Designer Michael Page, who introduced the flag in 1998, has stated that the pink color represents exclusively same-sex attraction, the blue different-sex attraction, and the purple bisexual attraction.

Pansexual: experiencing sexual and/or romantic attraction to people of all gender identities, emphasizing recognition of those outside the male-female binary (although people who identify as bisexual may also reject the gender binary).

Some who choose to describe themselves as pansexual or bisexual use the terms interchangeably, while some do not. When describing their orientation, a pansexual person may choose to use the word “bisexual” in certain circumstances in order to avoid the possible necessity of defining pansexuality for an audience unfamiliar with the term — because they suspect the audience in question will be less than receptive, because they wish to avoid the tedium of the task, or both, or neither. As in all things, each individual’s reasons are their own.

The pansexual Pride flag consists of three horizontal stripes of equal width. From top to bottom, the colors are pink (representing female-gendered people), yellow (nonbinary people) and blue (male-gendered people). No designer has been identified, but the flag’s first appearance is believed to have been in 2010.

Asexual: experiencing no sexual attraction. Asexuality lies at one end of the ace spectrum, a model which includes varying degrees of sexual attraction, including demisexuality. People whose orientations are considered part of the ace spectrum may experience romantic attraction without sexual desire.

The asexual Pride flag consists of horizontal stripes of black, gray, white and purple. The black stripe represents asexuality; the gray, demisexuality and intermediate degrees of attraction; the white, sexuality and non-ace allies; and the purple, community. Members of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) initiated a campaign in 2010 to choose a Pride flag by popular vote.

Demisexual: experiencing sexual attraction only after having formed a strong emotional bond. Demisexuality is typically categorized as an ace spectrum orientation.

The demisexual Pride flag arose in the course of the 2010 AVEN contest. Its design utilizes the same colors as that of the asexual Pride flag, with wide horizontal bars of white and gray at the top and bottom, a narrower purple stripe in the center, and a black triangle extending from the left side.

Genderqueer: one of many terms used to denote a person whose gender identity falls outside the male-female binary.

The genderqueer Pride flag is credited to Marilyn Roxie, who developed the design over the course of several drafts between 2010 and 2011. It consists of three horizontal stripes of equal width. The topmost, lavender, connotes androgyny and was chosen in part for its traditional association with queerness and queer culture. The bottom, a chartreuse green which is precisely the inverse of the top lavender shade, represents non-binary identities. The central white stripe represents agender identity. The artist has specified that these categories are not to be considered inherently opposed or exclusive of one another.

Genderfluid: indicates a dynamic gender identity in which a person may identify at a given time as male, female, both male and female (in any proportion), and/or any other, nonbinary gender.

The genderfluid Pride flag features horizontal stripes of pink, white, purple, black and blue. Pink and blue represent femininity and masculinity respectively, while purple indicates a mixture of the two. Black represents the whole of all gender identities, and white represents the lack of gender.

The creator of the genderfluid Pride flag has not been identified with certainty; some sources have reported that the design was in use as early as 2005, while others claim that it did not appear until 2012.

Agender: term sometimes indicating a lack of gender identity, sometimes a neutral identity; i.e., a person who is agender may identify themselves as having no gender, or may have a gender identity which is itself neutral.

The agender Pride flag is horizontally rather than vertically symmetrical, with black, white, and the intermediate gray representing the absence of gender, and the central green stripe chosen as the inverse of gendered purple. It is believed to have appeared in 2014.

Got that? Okay. Back to my sound and fury.

Was I initially lost for words because it turned out I had nothing to say? Of course not. The problem lay in the shift from expression to explanation. Not explanation of those labels we’ve just discussed, though there’s an inherent limit on the authority with which any person can define another’s identity — no, explanation of the fact that the next time the phrase “there’s a flag for everything these days” is uttered within earshot of me, I will not be responsible for my actions.

I’ve heard that easily half a dozen times in as many months, and I hate to generalize, but hey, I’ll power through: it’s almost always gay men who say it. Not always. But almost. It’s almost always people who are monosexual — simply put, those who are romantically and/or sexually attracted to only one sex or gender. It’s people who have a certain kind of privilege I’m not sure there’s a name for. It’s people who get to go through lives with the knowledge that, when they share who they are, other people will know what they mean. More importantly, that the overwhelming majority of fellow queers will take for granted that their identity is a real thing. That what they are is real.

“There’s a flag for everything these days.”

And so what if there is? Don’t ever ask me what a certain flag means and then, when I tell you, look at me and use those words and laugh like you expect me to be in on the joke. I can promise you’ll be laughing alone.

I’ve tried to address this as it occurs. Despite my aversion to confrontation, I’ve tried saying to perpetrators I know relatively well, “that’s actually kind of disrespectful” — it’s substantially more than “kind of,” but my hope has been that restraint on my part will lead to greater receptiveness on theirs — only for them to make the same offhand remark a few weeks later. I’m offended on behalf of myself, my partner, my friends and every other individual crammed into that oft-omitted catchall plus sign in LGBTQ+ and, more often than not, grateful to be included at all. I don’t mind having to explain my pansexuality. I mind being chuckled at when I do. Don’t ask the question if you’re not prepared to pretend to respect the answer. Don’t initiate the exchange if you’re not prepared to loosen your hold on the conviction that you already know everything worth knowing. And if you do insist on dragging us both into this exercise in futility, for your own sake be aware that you’re about to make your insecurity pathetically apparent.
Maybe you take issue with the concept of Pride flags as an extension of what you perceive to be a destructively label-obsessed culture. I’m cool with that. I’m sympathetic. I can see where you’re coming from and, while I happen to be at a place in my life wherein I choose to embrace my label, I consider your view no less valid than mine.

It’s the people who react with amused contempt to the suggestion that the rainbow is not the be-all and end-all of queer patriotism with whom I take issue. Those of us in the “plus” category have proudly displayed that symbol for decades, and we’re not about to stop. There’s no need to worry that you’ll be deprived of pansexuals’ participation or demisexuals’ dollars. You are not now, nor have you ever been, under threat. Not from us.

This is no generational schism. My argument is not that my identity is more than a fad. I’m not saying it’s arrived and is in the world to stay. My assertion is rather that it’s never not been around. Human beings who had penises fell in love with other human beings who also had penises long before the birth of “gay” as either a word or a concept. Those human beings felt pride in their humanity and their love long before Gilbert Baker flew his flag in 1978. The existence of panromantics and skoliosexuals is dependent to no greater degree on the existence of terms or symbols. Repeat after me: we’ve always been here. We’ve always been queer. There’s nothing to get used to.

As is so frequently the case when it comes to anger, any vitriol I exhibit now is deeply rooted in hurt. It hurts to be told that I am not real. It hurts more to be told that by you, who should know better. A part of me is still hurt. A bigger part of me is angry.

So for those of you with the audacity to use the word “family” in reference to queerdom — “I think he’s family,” always in a conspiratorial time — and act as though I need to give thanks for an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner: you are no gatekeeper. There is no gate.

Keep on laughing if you and your buddies in the clubhouse are really that desperate to justify yourselves. Keep insisting that you’re all about defending and celebrating those relegated to the margins of mainstream society, willfully blind to the reality that you’ve created a mainstream society of your own. But take a page from “our” book. Start working on a brand new flag to fly at the next parade.

We’ll call it Hypocrite Pride.

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