By Sam Schmitt
I lack the language to encapsulate my gender and sexual identities. I once toyed with the “I am human” mantra in lieu of larger identity claims, but I dislike forgoing words to describe myself. The ability to merely call myself “human” easily eludes my race privilege as well as the areas in which I might be marginalized. Eventually, I concede that I cannot get away from the fact that language is political and bodies are political and we use words to describe bodies, both normative and deviant. Thus, I feel invested in describing myself to locate community and position myself in the landscape of power, oppression, and privilege. I suppose I would describe myself as a white, middle-class, feminist, recovering-Catholic, polyamorous, bisexual, genderqueer, femme transguy who uses gender neutral pronouns, loves radical queer politics, and spent 28 years being socialized as a woman. Likes dogs and long walks on the beach.
I am not plural to the point of oblivion nor do I reject the importance identities play in the lives of queer folk everywhere. However, I want to emphasize that available language (particularly in the English language) to describe the vastness of the human experience is severely lacking. Of all of the identities I shared with you in my introduction, “bi*”/ “bisexual” offers a pliable framework for the complexity of my gender and sexual identities. The boundaries around “bisexual” could be understood as more permeable than any other identities I shared with you. I understand “bi” as an identity with a “both/and” orientation, allowing for greater inclusivity, different definitions, and embodied practice. Here, I offer my own experiences to illustrate how I understand “bi” as a non-linear, “both/and” identity and how this definition interacts with my trans* identity.
I was recently asked to moderate a panel on LGBTQ health care at Texas A&M at College Station. During the first telephone conference call, the planning committee coordinator asked, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand your biography… er, what are you?” His need for certainty was very clear. He needed to grasp onto something certain, something specific. In this case, my fluidity challenged the discreteness of gender and sexual identity categories. This was not what he expected. Only by using multiple—and sometimes conflicting—words can I attempt to describe myself. Consequently, I encounter a lot of pressure to neatly fit those identity categories. I am sometimes asked to explain why I started testosterone. I am usually asked, “Why did you decide to transition?” This question troubles me because the definition of “transition” refers to a process of changing from one state or condition to another; a conversion or changeover. An essence of linearity is attached to the word “transition,” denoting a journey with a specific destination. As I wrote in The Feminist Wire, (1) some trans, genderqueer and gender-outlaws are expected to lean into a larger transnormative narrative or risk invisibility. We are subsumed beneath the “classic transsexual” paradigm where gender and sex are discrete realities: M to F or F to M. The transnormative narrative of gender does not readily recognize categories outside of the proscribed gender binary or genders that may move in and out of those categories. Thus, I feel pressure to adopt certain aspects of transnormativity and submit to categorical control. There is pressure to pack, (2) adopt masculine pronouns, or “pick a side” (gender-wise) coming from both within and outside of the transgender community. I have a complicated and plural relationship with my body and my presentation. Forcing myself to fit a discrete gender box is not an option for me.
The language of transnormativity also poses a problem for me as a person who identifies as bi. However, of all the words I use to describe myself, “bisexual” best describes my gender and sexual identities. People commonly assume that bisexual is defined as “an attraction to both men and women.” [Read: only two rigid gender categories.] To me, this is a mistranslation of the prefix “bi-” interpreted to mean “two.” The tacit reference to opposing poles on the gender binary becomes problematic because it obscures many other genders that exist between and/or beyond masculine or feminine.
I conceptualize “bi-” to also mean “both/and.” Calling myself “bisexual” helps me describe the potential to be attracted to individuals who may not neatly fit into either of the available gender categories. This definition also encapsulates the way that my sexual attractions may shift over time and/ or vary by degree. To quote Robyn Ochs: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” Bisexual as a both/and concept denotes more depth and complexity than other words available to describe my sexuality. A both/and conception of “bi” helps me describe the (delightfully!) messy relationship between my gender and sexuality that other identity labels do not. I am able to harmonize all aspects of myself, even if these elements are seemingly paradoxical.
My fantasies, desires, and attractions are in no way conflicting with other aspects of my identity. My increasingly masculine presentation is not in conflict with my femme behaviors. Thus, I am able to forgive myself for not fitting neatly into the mainstream LGBT-Martha-Stewart vision of what a “real” transgender person is supposed to be like.
Defining “bi-” as a “both/and” concept helps me sort through the toxicity left by a legacy of Western thought, particularly the investment in linearity and chronology. Defining “bi” as a non-linear, inclusive identity helps me understand why many of the typical questions asked of LGBTQ folks feel strange to me:
“When did you first know?”
“How old were you?”
“Did you always know?”
“What will you change your name to when you finish transition?”
“Who do you date if you’re trans and bi?”
“How can you be genderqueer, transgender, and bisexual all at once?” [I want to say: Like this! TA-DA!]
I did not have a precise “Aha!” moment when I knew I was not cisgender or heterosexual. I was not sure that I wanted to take testosterone nor was I certain that testosterone would offer me the kind of changes that I wanted. I do not understand my “transition” (for lack of a better word) as getting from point A to point B, and my “transition” does ot have a discrete beginning or end. I was not always okay with so many vague identity labels. I felt invisible for many years and still do to some degree.
The difference here is between a spiral and a straight line. In non-linear time, we are always looping back and around again, even as we might make some forward motion. Defining “bi” as non-linear helps me understand the fluidity of my identities and the shifts that I made/will probably make over time. Thinking of “bi” as having a cyclic temporality offers me a way to unify all of my histories and reminds me that all of my experiences shape the way I move through the world as a bisexual trans person today. Being able to harmonize past with present is an important part of the work I do as a social justice educator, feminist, and queer radical activist. I teach my students that our past is threaded into the present. “Then” and “now” are artificial terms since colonialism is not “over.” Racism is not “over.” Sexism is not “over.” I, too, must acknowledge that my present is actively influenced by my past. For several years, I understood myself as a femme queer woman who sometimes challenged what it meant to claim that gender by way of drag or genderbending. In high school, I understood myself as a “lesbian” who sometimes dated men, both out of necessity and personal desire. Much of my early social justice work rallied around notions of womanhood and I still strongly identify with feminist histories as grounded in women’s knowledgemaking. After all, I was socialized as one for many years! What do I do with these histories? Do they cease to exist because they are “in the past”? Were they merely transitional identities? I like to think that these experiences continue to shape my life today in ways that are not readily visible.
As a trans* person, “bi” gives me the freedom to welcome changes and paradoxes with open arms. “Bi” as a non-linear identity helps me to remain open to other changes that might happen in my life without losing a sense of who I am, where I have been, and where I might be going.
Sam Schmitt is a former Bostonian living in Denton, TX, studying and teaching at Texas Woman’s University in the women’s studies department. Sam’s academic and research interests include LGBTQIA politics; critical legal theory; law and legal movements; the prison-industrial complex; sex work and sex worker movements; race and labor; epistemologies of whiteness; and arts-based research methods. Sam holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Smith College and a master’s in criminal justice from Washington State University.