The evolution of the word ‘bisexual’ – and why it is still misunderstood


When Martin Rawlings-Fein, 43, first thought he might be bisexual in the 1990s, he saw the label as limiting. It wasn’t until he met bi people who also identify as transgender and / or outside of the binary gender that he realized that this perception was something he needed to rethink. Rawlings-Fein, a trans man, said at the time that people were “really confused” that a transgender person could be anything other than straight and a bisexual person could be anything other than cisgender.

“At first I was like ‘bi, binary, good duh’, but then I started looking at all these people who were bi at the time, and a lot of them were trans or genderqueer, or d ‘in a way they were against the binary in their life, in their expression, “Rawlings-Fein, the former lead organizer of the Bay Area Bisexual + & Pansexual Network, told NBC News. “I started looking at all these people who were bi at that time. I was like, ‘Wow, this is something I have to rethink and look at, reframe.’ ”

Martin Rawlings-Fein.Kelley Clements

Decades after becoming bisexual, Rawlings-Fein said he and other advocates still face the misconception that the term bisexual means their attraction is limited to binary sex – meaning those who identify with each other. as exclusively male or female. During this year’s bisexual awareness week, which culminates with Bi Visibility Day on September 23, activists and those identified as bisexual told NBC News that this is a pervasive stereotype, despite published material dating from the 1990s that clarifies the expansive meaning of the term and Merriam- Updated the Webster dictionary definition last spring.

Beyond the attraction for “men and women”

The first known use of the word “bisexual” dates back to 1793, although at the time it meant “possessing characteristics of both sexes,” according to his entry Merriam-Webster. The definition has changed and expanded several times over the centuries – including an.

Bisexual + advocate Robyn Ochs, 61, said she accidentally noticed Merriam-Webster changed her definition of ‘bisexual’ during a recent Google search. After the 200-year-old dictionary company named the non-binary pronoun ‘they’ its 2019 word of the year, Ochs said she wrote a letter in conjunction with LGBTQ media organization GLAAD asking an update of the word “bisexual”, as the expanded definition of “they” created “a contradiction in your binary definition of bisexuality”.

Robyn Ochs.Marilyn Humphries

Before the change, Merriam-Webster defined bisexuality as “an attraction to both men and women”. In April, a more inclusive definition was added: “of, related to or characterized by a sexual or romantic attraction to people of one’s own gender identity and other gender identities”. The change was due to a regular update, according to Peter Sokolowski, editor of

Since the 1990s, however, Ochs, the editor of Bi Women Quarterly, has defined bisexuality as “the potential to be attracted – romantically and / or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree. She credits the work of activists in the Bay Area for helping her discover this vast understanding.

From the Kinsey scale to the “bisexual manifesto”

As a “child of the 1940s,” activist ABilly Jones-Hennin, 78, said he first encountered ideas about bisexuality in a book he found in his father’s library which contained information on the Kinsey Scale, a measure of an individual’s sexuality published in 1948 by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Growing up, he said he rarely heard the term “homosexual” and cannot recall ever seeing or hearing the word “bisexual” until he became involved in activism in the 1970s.

Jones-Hennin said he believed misconceptions about bisexuality stemmed from assumptions placed on bisexual people from outside the community.

“People don’t think I’m bisexual because I’m in the same romantic relationship like this, and I’ve been in one for 43 years,” he says. “People define you as they see you at that moment. “

Loraine Hutchins and ABilly Jones-Hennin.Courtesy of Loraine Hutchins

When Loraine Hutchins, 72, became bi in the early 1970s, she said the word ‘bisexual’ was being used ‘in a sensational way’. At the time, Hutchins said activists didn’t have the same terminology that exists today to describe different gender identities – the term ‘gender’ itself was a word she would only encounter. “In an anthropology course”.

When Hutchins co-edited the book “Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out” with activist and writer Lani Ka’ahumanu in the 1980s, she said the research on sexuality on “the B word” was rare. The pair found few researchers who approached bisexuality as more than an “either-or, yes-no, straight binary,” she told NBC News.

Yet in practice, bisexual people have challenged the binary for decades.

“I would say that before the 80s there really wasn’t a word for people dating other genders back then so people dated a lot in the bi community,” Rawlings said- Fein. “There were a lot of people having a lot of interactions with a lot of different genres; they just didn’t have words for it at the time.

In 1990 Anything That Moves – a bisexual literature, art, and media magazine produced by the Bay Area Bisexual Network (now called Bay Area Bisexual + & Pansexual Network) – published the “Bisexual Manifesto”, a document that clarified that bisexuality is a fluid identity.

“Don’t assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature: that we have ‘two’ sides or that we have to be involved with both sexes simultaneously to be successful human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genres, ”the manifesto reads.

‘The alphabet soup explosion’

Since the 2000s, Ochs said he has witnessed an “identity explosion – the alphabet soup explosion”, with the proliferation of words like pansexual and asexual, and the linking of terms, such as “panromantic “. According to a 2019 report by The Trevor Project, a survey of tens of thousands of LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 revealed more than 100 different labels to describe their sexuality.

AC Dumlao.Caitlin Reilly

But even as new terms emerge, the word ‘bisexual’ has continued to evolve, with the emergence of bisexual + and bi + over the past decade as generic terms for people with the capacity to be attracted to. more than one sex, according to Rawlings-Fein.

AC Dumlao, program manager at the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said they “really like bi + as an umbrella”. As stereotypes about bisexuality persist, Dumlao, 29, said it was especially important to be visible.

“I think it’s important for me as a non-binary trans person to be bisexual and to explain and show people that there is no one way to be bisexual,” Dumlao said. . “I just want to claim that little stain of the bisexual umbrella. I think it’s like really looking into the shade and the gray area.

As different terms continue to emerge to describe the “gray area” and bisexual activists look to the future of the movement, Ochs said people can use as many words as they like to describe their identity.

“They are all different words. These are all beautiful words, ”Ochs said. “We can create space for all of us.”

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