In this week’s episode of The Cut, to commemorate Bisexual Awareness Week, co-host Jazmín Aguilera discusses her feelings about the term “bisexual.” She and filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, creator of the comedy series The Bisexual, discuss whether bisexuality reinforces a gender binary without meaning to. And what does Gen Z have to say about it? Through conversations with Akhavan, executive producer Hanna Rosin, and her friend’s teenage daughter, Jazmín seeks answers.
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JAZMÍN: All right, so I’m gonna do something a little unconventional with you because I don’t want to take up this whole interview talking about myself.
DESIREE AKHAVAN: No please, I’m curious.
JAZMÍN: So I was at a party and another friend of mine who I know is a woman and has dated both women and men, referred to herself as queer rather than bisexual. And when I said, “Oh, I thought you were bisexual.” She said, “No, no, no, I don’t use that term. I prefer to call myself queer,” and I said, “Oh, okay, well, why is that?” And she said, “Well, because ‘bisexual’ enforces the gender binary. And I don’t do that.” And I was like, “Oh, uh, okay.”
And I just kind of felt like, Wait, does that mean that I do? Like, what are you saying about me? Cause I’d already said that I was bisexual. So it was a really awkward moment. And I just felt like I had to have a judgment on that term in that moment and in that context and it made me feel very weird. So having told you that story, I want to know how you feel about the term bisexual. And if you feel like it accurately describes you.
JAZMÍN: How’s that for a big pile of rocks?
Okay, I’ve asked this question to quite a few people and I never get a good reaction. Like ever. And that kinda sucks for me because I’ve been calling myself bisexual for more than a decade. I’m attached to that word. So I thought maybe I can find someone who feels like I do. So I reached out to Desiree Akhavan, She’s a filmmaker and very notable bisexual — and I’m not doing the thing where you minimize someone’s entire personality to their orientation, either. She literally wrote, starred in, and directed a show out on Hulu right now called The Bisexual. So I figured, if anyone is gonna be attached to that word, it would probably be her.
DESIREE: I do identify as bisexual, and I do identify as queer. I think both describe me. I think that queer is an umbrella term. I mean, first off, I think everyone has a different understanding and that this is all, like, semiotics.
JAZMÍN: Okay, so, don’t judge me, but I actually had to look up what semiotics means. It’s the study of symbols and signs and their use and interpretation.
DESIREE: Before it was, like, taboo gauche. And now it’s lame gauche, like, come on, been there, done that. Now I’m in a throuple. Like who are you to think that that was something wild. Get over yourself. And so then you’re just standing there, with your dick in your hand being like, Oh shit, sorry. I was fighting for this term that’s no longer relevant.
JAZMÍN: Exactly. In that moment, I was just like, Oh, well fuck me, then. I guess I’m the asshole.
DESIREE: Exactly. And you’re like, Of course I don’t want to exclude anyone’s gender identity. That’s never been on the plate for me, but I understand where people are coming from when they say shit like that. But I also do feel a sense of ownership of this term simply because of how negative it was when I was coming of age. It just was the sense of flakiness. It was like someone goes through a phase and they call themselves bisexual. They’re cute and slutty, hooking up with your girlfriend on the dance floor. It’s classified into the same terms as “girl crush.” I felt really cringy about saying the word bisexual, but it described myself. And a lot of calling the show that I made “The Bisexual” was about playing and reappropriating this word that felt so icky.
JAZMÍN: There’s this scene where you’re kinda just joking around and it’s like you’re kinda hiding that you’re a little bit different from the lesbians. Seems like when I talk about bisexuality, I had to fight for that term. When I came out to my parents, they were like, If you can just be bi, then just be straight. Bisexual is a very specific term, and I fought for it. Do you feel that way?
DESIREE: A hundred percent. I felt that way. Especially when you’re coming out in hostile territory, you’re facing that question of, if you could choose, why would you choose this?
DESIREE: And that’s a really hard thing to answer.
JAZMÍN: There is no answer. Why would you choose? Because you don’t choose.
DESIREE: Precisely, because you love the way you love. And I think it’s funny. I always feel like I’m living in the messy, gray in-between area, and I’m sure a lot of other children of immigrants feel this way. When I’m surrounded by Iranians who were raised there, I always feel like they see me as American. And when I’m around Americans, I’m like, oh, they don’t see me as American. I’m not white. Not to say that white is synonymous with American.
JAZMÍN: I get it, yeah.
DESIREE: Not just American. When I’m in brown spaces and all the spaces that have a really clear-cut identity, I’ve always felt on the periphery and neither here nor there.
JAZMÍN: Like you’re the center of the Venn diagram, but you’re not your own circle.
JAZMÍN: So as I talked to more people about this, one thing became increasingly clear: this topic has generational divides. So I talked to my EP Hanna Rosin, a Gen-Xer from Queens who started dating a woman later in life, and her best friend’s daughter Frances, a teenager from D.C.
FRANCES: I don’t think I personally fit into any of the labels that I know of. That’s something about our generation. Where it doesn’t really matter what label you are, but you can just usually use the word queer even though it’s broader. Because I don’t really have to know who I am attracted to. Labels don’t really matter at the moment in our time.
HANNA: It’s been so fun for me to watch because in my life, being with a woman has been such a big deal, but I know a lot of teenagers and they’re like, it’s whatever. At least that’s what it looks like from the outside. People are not saying “Oh my God. She’s gay. What? I didn’t know she was gay! Did she tell her mom?” I feel like when I went to high school, if somebody was suddenly dating a person of the same gender, it would be a huge deal. You’d be like, did they come out? What happened? Did they always know? Now it’s not even a moment.
Hanna: Do you know anyone who’s ever very formally come out? Like “Oh my God, Frannie, I have something to tell you,” or “I had a big talk with my mom.” Do people come out that way?
FRANCES: Yeah, that happened to me once or twice. It’s never that official, but it does happen.
JAZMÍN: Here’s an example as a thought prompt for you. Let’s just say that we are all in these spaces where it’s safe to be any kind of alphabet soup. Do you think that in those spaces that coming out is a thing of the past? It sounds like you don’t need to come out anymore in that kind of space.
FRANCES: If we are living in the society that you just created, I think people wouldn’t have to come out.
JAZMÍN: Why I’m looking into this whole situation is that I’ve called myself bisexual for so long because I had to. I did come out in a really traumatic way to my parents. And they had an issue with me being bi specifically. My dad was upset with me.
JAZMÍN: I constantly try to figure this out. And I think for my dad specifically, it gave him a way to be homophobic without compromising his liberalness. He could say things like “well if you’re gay, that’s fine. I’m totally fine with gay people. But bisexual people are greedy.” That’s what he kept saying. “They’re so greedy. Pick a lane. If I have to pick a lane, you have to pick a lane.” And he tried to couch it in this kind of jokey term. I couldn’t really tell if he was joking. And then it became clear that he wasn’t joking.
And then on my mom’s side, she’s very much on that, like, “I accept you, but like, if you could pick a man pick a man, it’s easier for everybody” level. So I really had to drag my heels about this bisexuality thing to them. And now that I’ve done that, I have a sunk-cost thing. I need this term because I’ve tattooed that on my heart and now everybody’s telling me it’s wrong.
HANNA: That’s so funny that he used the word greedy. I always think of bisexuality as the opposite, like, it’s picky. It’s like you’re looking for some perfect soul thing or you’re looking for some sort of special thing that is outside the usual script.
FRANCES: I’ve heard some people say, “I wish I was bisexual then I’d have way more options” and stuff like that. And that is kind of like low-level homophobic.
HANNA: That’s so stupid. It’s not like you’re attracted to every man and every woman any more than anybody else. You’re not like, Oh, I’ll sleep with anybody. It’s not quite like that.
JAZMÍN: Also it’s the women who will also sleep with other women. It’s not like you have every woman available to you as a bisexual woman.
JAZMÍN: Hanna, have you ever referred to yourself as bisexual?
HANNA: No. It’s awkward for me because how would I know what I was like? I don’t. I couldn’t. I don’t know. I don’t even understand how other people know. Do you just wake up and declare it? Is it based on what’s in your head or is it based on your experience? I would say I don’t have enough actual experience. It’s way easier to be like, “Okay, guys, I’m gay now.” But is that true? No. What does it mean to be gay? It’s the problem with losing the coming-out story because now what are the rites of passage? What are the things that have to happen, that you have to experience, that you have to enjoy to call yourself gay?
I feel like I just walked into a world where things are a lot easier. There’s a lot less shame in a big city — hallelujah. And thank you to all the gay people who came before. So it’s very easy to just step to the left and there you are. But I don’t think therefore you get to just say “I’m gay.” I feel like Franny disagrees with me.
FRANCES: No, I agree with you. I agree with that. I just think in my generation, like Gen Z, or at least for me, I don’t think I need to call myself bisexual or call myself gay or call myself straight because it doesn’t actually matter.
HANNA: But it seems to matter. If you look on Twitter, most people’s bio’s are so specific. It’s like, “I’m pansexual or I’m queer; I’m this, or I’m that.” People care a lot about the particularity of labels. And I suppose if I found one that fit like a glove, I might advertise it. But I don’t have one.
JAZMÍN: Do you remember back when we did that bonfire party for the Cut?
HANNA: And you wore your thigh-high boots? I do remember. Yeah.
JAZMÍN: Yes, I had my thigh high moment. You and I didn’t know each other and we were doing that rapid-fire question back and forth, trying to learn things about each other.
HANNA: Which we’re both very good at.
JAZMÍN: Well, I had known that you’d come with Lauren, and I had assumed about you because I didn’t know anything about you, was that you were gay. And so then you had said something about a strange relationship with somebody and I had asked, “Oh, is it because you’re gay?” and you looked at me and you’re like, “I’m not gay.” And I said, “Well, queer, then.” And then you were like, “No, I don’t think about myself that way. I don’t have labels,” and I just sat there and I’m thinking to myself, how am I supposed to frame this question to ask if it had anything to do with Lauren?
HANNA: That’s so funny.
JAZMÍN: I don’t know, I need a word for this.
FRANCES: You could just say I like this girl. It doesn’t mean you like all girls. I feel like when someone’s asking you about their sexuality, it could be like, “Do you like girls? Do you like boys? What don’t you like?” But I feel like it doesn’t actually have to be put into a construct or a binary.
HANNA: I think I have that “I’m not gay” reaction because it feels rude or entitled or something. It feels presumptuous to be like, “I’m gay.” I feel like gay is a thing where you went through a lot with your parents and you went through this and you went through that. And I went through a lot, but I don’t think it’s from being gay.
JAZMÍN: What if we just refer to all people that aren’t straight as queer and we just lose specificity altogether —
HANNA: Oh my God. That’s so hard for me because queer seems extremely generationally specific. When you say to me, “call yourself queer,” I just have an image of myself in a crop top and it seems age inappropriate.
JAZMÍN: What if that’s what the people want, Hanna?
HANNA: I would feel ridiculous saying I’m queer. I guess I am queer. I mean, Frannie, tell me what a queer person is.
FRANCES: My definition of queer is just like, sort of part of the LGBTQ+ community in some way.
HANNA: That’s it? I would say that there is a feeling that I have encountered most strongly among lesbians that there is an erasure if you submit to the giant wash of queer. You erase a lot of very specific things about lesbian history, Franny.
FRANCES: I feel like no matter the sexuality you feel you identify with, there’s always going to be a feeling that you’re not doing it right.
HANNA: Why did this question come up for you again? Had you just given up on it for a while and then it came back?
JAZMÍN: I guess the real reason it’s come up for me is that I’m dating a girl right now. It’s been a reality in a way that I have to confront, but as I was thinking about this and thinking about how chaotic my life is because of that bisexuality, even the term bisexuality felt embarrassing and shameful. And this is me trying to figure out if I’m ashamed of that term because of how I grew up in the center of diagram feeling where I’m disappointing two groups of people, or if it’s because this is a term that exists in transience and therefore we’ll always feel like it doesn’t fit, will always feel confusing like Franny said.
HANNA: I think it just missed its moment of respect and it just got trampled by queer. It went from being not respectable for one reason to being not respectable for a whole different set of reasons. I’m so sorry.
JAZMÍN: Oh, you don’t have to be sorry. I’m just trying to figure out what the solution is here for me. I need to let it go now because I don’t want to offend people or make people feel like I’m transphobic or nonbinary-phobic. I don’t want to say that either, but I haven’t even begun to consider what that looks like for my sexuality. It feels like a whole new coming out to even go in that direction.
HANNA: I feel like you should commit to being a dinosaur because it’s that same thing about whether you deserve a certain label?
You have a very specific history with the word bisexual. You have a specific set of experiences, a specific coming-out story, a specific thing to say about your father and mother. There’s a historical groove in there with bisexuality that’s specific and feels a particular way on your skin and I think everything else will feel phony, will feel like you’re faking it or you’re just doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s just like, unfortunately, that’s your word? You didn’t get the best word. I feel like you’re a little screwed.
JAZMÍN: But what about you, then? What are you going to do?
HANNA: Eh …
JAZMÍN: Are you just going to dance around it? You’re going to be the artist formerly known as bisexual?
HANNA: That’s a good one. You should do that. You should be “Jazz: The artist formerly known as bisexual.”
JAZMÍN: Since you’re the artist formerly known as gay.
HANNA: Futurely known as gay.
JAZMÍN: Futurely, sorry, futurely known as gay. Like gay in beta testing.
HANNA: Yes. “Beta gay.” That’s good.