Category Archives: Tiffany Sostar

Welcoming Non-Binary Gender in the Learning Environment

What does it mean to include non-binary gender in the learning environment? It’s a question without easy answers, because of the constant presence of the gender binary in social spaces. Gender segregated bathrooms (with no non-binary option!) are one of the most obvious binary-enforcers, but statements like the ubiquitous “men and women” also contribute. There is a constant undercurrent of binarization, made more visible in moments like this, when we see the public clamouring to know the gender of the new royal baby (we know the baby’s assigned sex, and we know how the baby will be socialized and conditioned as a result of that assigned sex, but I would argue that we don’t actually know the baby’s gender yet and we won’t for a while!).

I recently presented a talk on non-binary gender in digital humanities at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference. Part of my presentation, co-created with Milena Radzikowska and Stan Ruecker, focused on welcoming non-binary gender into the digital humanities learning environment.

The gender binary, and the call for the inclusion of non-binary gender, is a significant concern in the digital humanities, where scholars are working to digitize and encode data sets and collections of humanities information, including literary collections in projects such as Orlando. This question of tagging, encoding, sorting and designing databases is a complex and challenging one. The question of welcoming non-binary gender into the learning environment – in front of the screen rather than in the code behind it – is a little bit easier.

Here are six steps towards gender inclusivity in the learning environment, a space that encompasses the physical classroom, the extra-curricular physical space of office hours and chance meetings, the digital spaces where students and professors interact – Blackboard, Zotero, Twitter, etc. – as well as transactional spaces such as assignments and tests.

This list is not comprehensive, and I would love to engage all parts of the academic body in this ongoing discussion. Join the twitter conversation with hashtag #NonBinaryDH or comment here. This post will be cross-posted over at SexTexts, my own academic blog.

1 – Challenge assumptions of gender in your learning environment by disclosing your preferred gender pronouns in classroom introductions and online bios.

Not only does this challenge the assumption of binary gender, it sets an example and opens the door for discussions of both gender identity and the validity of preferred gender pronouns. This applies to cisgender individuals as much (or more!) than to trans* or non-binary individuals because it makes it clear that even if a person is cisgender, they have a preferred gender pronoun – it’s just invisible that this is a preference because it is assumed to be the “natural” order of things. Cisgender identity is often invisible because it is the default. This invisibility means that every other gender performance is othered, and making cisgender identity visible contributes to an inclusive environment where every individual has a legitimate gender identity and preferred pronouns, and nobody is othered. By stating your preferred gender pronouns up front, you set the stage in the learning environment for gender to be questioned and critiqued.

2 – Ask your colleagues their preferred gender pronouns.

Not only will this create a safe space for trans* and non-binary individuals to be visible and acknowledged, it also gives cisgender individuals an opportunity to reflect on their gender identity and also to be visible and acknowledged.

3 – Use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in the learning environment.

Gender-neutral language, such as speaking about “people” rather than “men and women” allows non-binary listeners to see ourselves reflected. Gender-inclusive language, such as “men, women and everyone else” allows everyone to see us. Gender-inclusive language is bulkier and can be jarring, but that slight discomfort has the potential to open up space for conversation and reflection on the fact that gender is a spectrum, and does not fit into the binary model.

4 – Discuss gendered material in terms of being “masculine” or “feminine” rather than being “men’s” or “women’s.”

It is sometimes easier to grasp the concept of masculinity and femininity existing on a spectrum, a stepping stone towards understanding that gender itself exists on a spectrum (men, women, and others). Images of butch women and femme men are a common staple in our media culture. These images often conflate sexual orientation with gender, problematically representing all butch women as lesbians, and all femme men as gay. (While we’re busy breaking binaries, let’s remember that bisexuality is a real thing!) However, this spectrum of gender performance does provide an opening for us to begin speaking about gender identity as also being on a spectrum. Simple linguistic changes that challenge the binary in bite-size pieces can provide space for non-binary individuals in learning environments that otherwise would rarely discuss the topic of gender. (This point came up in a discussion about design classes, for example.)

5 – Recognize, and talk about, the differences between sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The conflation of sex and gender is pervasive and reinforces the gender binary. In many areas it is impossible to change your ID as a trans* person unless you can prove that you’ve had SRS (sex reassignment surgery). In this situation, non-binary gender is erased and although trans* identities are validated, it is only binary trans* identities that are acceptable or even visible. Gender identity is distinct from biological sex, which is also not a clear-cut binary. The male/female binary is complicated by chromosomal variances and the reality of intersex, which is much more common than we often believe. According to Mira Hird in Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary, “one in every 100 births shows some morphological ‘anomaly’, which is observable enough in one in every 1000 births to initiate questions about a child’s sex” (Hird 350).

Further, gender identity is separate from sexual orientation, which again exists on a spectrum rather than sitting comfortably as a gay/straight binary. Recognizing these differences and challenging our own habitual mashing up of unrelated identity categories goes a long way to normalizing non-binary gender and allowing non-binary individuals (as well as binary cis and trans* individuals!) to see the wide range of possibilities open to them.

When sex is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals have few options, because there is no culturally acknowledged template for non-binary sex despite the frequency of intersex – our bodies become policed into sex categories that are then assumed to dictate our gender and our gender becomes difficult to perform because our bodies don’t conform. When sexual orientation is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals again see few options for themselves (especially when bisexuality or other non-monosexual orientations remain invisible). Sex, sexual orientation and gender – three separate, distinct, interrelated but not interdependent categories!

6 – Include non-binary authors in curriculums and reading lists.

This is a challenging prospect because non-binary gender is so often invisible. However, anthologies such as Mattilda (a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore)’s Nobody Passes (2006, Seal Press), and Nestle, Howell and Wilchin’s GenderQueer (2002, Alyson Books), as well as Kate Bornstein’s books, Jiz Lee’s blog (NSFW) and their contributions to various anthologies (including The Feminist Porn Book), and dozens of chapters scattered throughout anthologies dealing with gender, sexuality, and various other feminist issues. It takes a bit of digging, but there is a wealth of material being produced by the non-binary community. Canadian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon is non-binary, and has put out multiple albums and a book. There are also a wide range of blogs and twitter accounts run by non-binary individuals, offering insight into the community and our identities and struggles. Including non-binary authors provides an opportunity to normalize gender-neutral pronouns such as Jiz Lee’s use of “they,” and also demonstrates that being non-binary does not mean being excluded from cultural production. The work that we do has value.

Hird, Mira J. “Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary.” Feminist Theory 1.3 (2000): 347-364. Web.

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Being (white, queer, polyamorous, kinky, with neurodivergence and an invisible disability) Genderqueer

Graffiti on an outdoor wall that says "Gender Queer"

Photo by nicole wilkins (un_cola), under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial license.

“I find that I fail miserably at being a guy, whether it’s with butches or transmen or any other masculine-identified people. I feel more comfortable with femmes of any gender, but I don’t quite present or feel feminine enough to call myself a femme.” (Nico Dacumos from the essay “All Mixed Up With No Place to Go: Inhabiting Mixed Consciousness On The Margins” in Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity ed. Mattilda.)

My five-year-old niece is sitting on my bed as I pack for a trip. The topic of gender comes up when I pull out a skirt and fold it onto the stack of clothes coming with me.

“You’re a girl,” she says.

“Sometimes,” I reply. “Well, not really. I’m genderqueer.”

“Are you a boy?”

“No… I’m genderqueer.”

“What’s that?”

“It means I’m not a girl or a boy. Sometimes I’m more like a girl or more like a boy, but I’m not either of them.”

“But do you have private parts like a girl?”


“Then you’re a girl?”


“Then what are you?”

“I’m genderqueer … ”

The conversation trails off. She’s confused, and I’m not sure what to say. I’m just genderqueer, and that’s the only word I have for it. It’s not the right word for a five-year-old, though. It doesn’t mean anything to her. And I can’t explain it because, like Nico Dacumos in the quote above, I don’t really fit into either category and I’m not sure what language to use to describe myself. I just am this weird mixed thing, and it feels wrong to deny it but it doesn’t really feel right when I describe it because I don’t really know what it is.

Dacumos writes, “The problem with being everything is that it mostly gets me a whole lot of nothing. In theory I should be able to claim all the identities and related spaces … but we all know that’s not true. Instead I find myself isolated. And a liar.”

Although I know that I do not share all of Dacumos’ identity categories (most relevantly in trying to relate to the essay, I am not mixed-race), the essay eloquently articulates my own struggle with mixedness. Dacumos does not claim a genderqueer identity, but writes about being mixed-gender in a way that resonates with my own performance and experience of gender.

Writing about the experience of being mixed in a post-secondary institution, Dacumos describes the loneliness of not fitting into non-mixed spaces, and the difficulty of interacting with others in ways that are true to the mixed identity but still comprehensible to someone who is not mixed. Where are the elders and the mentors, where are the spaces that do not demand some form of passing? It is lonely and exhausting.

I have been lucky to find elders such as genderqueer porn performer, activist and performance artist Jiz Lee, and in writing like the anthology Dacumos’ essay is in. I am also lucky enough to have friends who are equally mixed and mixed-up, and to be part of a community (in Possibilities) that is gender-inclusive. I still sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time talking about what it means to be genderqueer, struggling to find language that articulates what I am – my mixedness that does not cross the gender binary to land me on the other side, but also does not stay fixed to my biological sex.

For the most part, these points of connection and experiences of community happen outside of my academic life. Although I am out as genderqueer in my classes and with my colleagues and professors, I don’t find much community in academic spaces. This may be because, as Dacumos writes, “[m]ost transgender scholarship leaves little room for groups of people or ways of being that do not fit a narrow definition of what is scholarly enough or trans-gressive enough. Transgender masculine politic also shuts out transgender women from these queer and feminist academic circles: Misogyny among privileged gay and/or straight male academics actively excludes transgender women; transphobia among feminist academics casts transgender women as wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Transmisogyny is an issue that seems to be ignored in many academic spaces. While transmasculinity is often praised, transfemininity is ignored or vilified. I want my performance of gender to be part of my anti-oppressive activism, but I find myself wary of performing any kind of femmeness – I am afraid that a skirt invalidates my genderqueer identity because it aligns too easily with my biological sex. This fear of femme identification seems, to me, to be an elephant in the room in many queer and feminist spaces.

Last year at the first annual Possibilities BiBQ, both of my niephlings* wore “proud of my genderqueer aunt” shirts that my sibling made them. And they both have an amazing acceptance of the fact that sometimes girls have penises and sometimes boys have vaginas. That’s a long step further than a lot of adults I know! But how do I talk with them about my gender, which is not simply a reverse of the expected but is this other, more amorphous thing? How do I describe my mixedness?

Never mind description, I don’t even know how to dress as a genderqueer person. And clothes are important, I think. They reflect who you are, or at least they can. I land on jeans and t-shirts most of the time (my t-shirt collection is nerdy and awesome, if I do say so myself). It’s a gender-neutral look, and one that reflects my nerdy self, and often my queer and feminist self also. But it’s not really genderqueer. And because my face is quite feminine, people read me as a woman, even in my gender-neutral attire.

So I don’t have the right clothes to signal my gender identity, and I don’t have the right language, and I just don’t know what to do about it. Like Dacumos, “I will continue to search for alliances with those who foreground the concerns of femmes and feminine-identified people while also creating new options for enacting masculinities.” And I will continue to inhabit this strange mixed space that includes my femme days and my own soft masculinity.

I’m out, but it’s a constant and frustrating process of being and coming out. Bathrooms, forms, confused five-year-olds …

I don’t have an answer for this. Genderqueer is the word for what I am, but it’s not common enough yet for people to be able to understand it. And honestly, even I am confused about what it means. I don’t have a template for the performance of genderqueerness, and I’m not a trailblazer. I just am what I am, but I don’t really know what that means.

Four years ago I went to San Francisco on my own. I walked into the Good Vibrations store on Valencia, and I tried on a couple harnesses over my pants. I bought the one that fit the best, and I bought a pack-and-play dildo to wear with it. I felt like my gender identity was shifting – something was happening that I had no words for and no understanding of. The discomfort I had always felt with some aspects of myself as a “woman” was intensifying, and when I dressed in drag, something just… shifted. Fell into place. It took years to figure out that I wasn’t transgender, and I wasn’t cisgender, I was this other thing.

Dacumos writes, “I find myself doing activism and making radical change in the world in the ways I have always wanted. I find myself becoming the elder that I always hoped to find.”

My goal is to also become the elder I had hoped to find. As an academic, I want to figure out how to break open space for mixedness in academic settings, to bring the community that I have found outside of the institution in with me.

As the anthology says, nobody passes. Nobody actually fits into the tidy binaries. We just have to figure out how to be okay with that, and how to talk about it in ways that are clear, inclusive and understandable.

*There is no gender-neutral term of the children of your sibling, so I have coined “neiphling.” Although both my niece and my nephew seem, at this point in their lives, to be cisgender, I don’t see the benefit of constantly reinforcing their assumed gender identity, and constantly reinforcing that they are different – niece/nephew, girl/boy – in every single reference to them. This is my own attempt to break open some space for non-normativity in my language. Also, it’s cute.

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Bisexuality and mental health

Did you know? Over 40% of bisexual people have considered suicide

Graphic by Shiri Eisner (blog, tumblr).

This was a difficult post to write. The subject matter and my real life circumstances were just a little too closely matched for comfort!

I submitted this to the editors at uni(di)versity a full week late, because I was dealing with significant anxiety and the brain fog and unproductivity that often accompany an extended period of acute, generalized anxiety for me. Every time this happens, despite my personal politics of openness about neurodivergence and accepting help when I need it, I feel ashamed and weak and vulnerable. When my neurodivergences impact my ability to be productive, I feel like I’ve failed. I haven’t been strong enough to keep myself fully functional, I haven’t been disciplined enough to produce work despite the anxiety, and I haven’t been self-aware enough to prevent the anxiety from spiraling out of control.

This is relevant because I know how frustrating it is to read posts full of information about how to make things better when you are stuck in the quicksand of things not getting better. As much as this post is meant to be an encouragement for all of us to be aware of the issues around mental health (particularly as they differentially impact members of the bisexual, pansexual, fluid, and otherwise non-monosexual community), I also want to acknowledge that you might read this and feel completely discouraged at the end because you can’t do anything about the bad situation, because you are experiencing your own convergence of circumstance and neurodivergence, or because you’re barely keeping your head above water. If that’s the case, I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not a freak, you are not weak, and you are not broken.

I suspect that many readers of this blog experience some form of mental health concern. A blog devoted to issues of diversity in post-secondary institutions is likely, I suspect, to have a readership of immigrant, queer, racialized, disabled, fat, non-binary and otherwise non-normative folks, and we are a vulnerable bunch. (As an example, The Straight recently ran a piece focusing on the vicious circle of depression that many immigrants experience.)

It can be particularly difficult to seek help or accommodations as a member of a marginalized group in a post-secondary setting. Seeking help requires outing ourselves as members of yet another marginalized group – the neurodivergent, often referred to as the “mentally ill” or those “having mental health issues.”

In academia, especially, this can be extremely challenging. We’re academics, right? We’re here to use our minds. And when our minds seem to be functioning in ways that society has declared are not normal, or when our minds stop functioning in the way we know they should (like when I slide into a depression, or a long period of anxiety), it seems to call our whole lives into question.

We may already be facing challenges in the classroom from teachers and colleagues who perceive us as less intelligent or less capable because of our identities. Asking for accommodations, or even talking openly about our neurodivergences, can be extremely challenging.

And yet, talking about mental health – being open with our own struggles and looking for help when we need it – is one of the best ways to improve the situation. (Though I say this, and say it with conviction, I also want to be clear that if you cannot or do not want to talk about your mental health, there is nothing wrong with that. It is not your job to fix the context you’re in!)

Mental health has been a hot topic in many places around the internet lately. The Frogman wrote an excellent piece on depression, focusing on teens and how they can access resources. Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half wrote the long-awaited “Depression Part Two,” which sparked conversations all over the internet. When I read Part Two, I felt sick – it hit far too close to home. The Belle Jar wrote another hit-me-in-the-gut piece about self-loathing that touched on some really important (and rarely talked about) pieces of the mental health puzzle for a lot of people, such as the intense feelings of shame and anxiety that can come with neurodivergence.

The piece that sparked the idea for this post was Miri at Brute Reason, who recently wrote about “small things almost anyone can do to help build a community where mental illness is taken seriously and where mental health is valued.”*

As a mental health advocate, and a person with an anxiety disorder and a history of depression that includes self-harm and suicidality, I am very interested in building these kinds of communities for myself, and for the people around me. I am also a bisexual activist, and am deeply aware that the bisexual community is at a disproportionately high risk of mental health concerns. More than 40 per cent of bisexual individuals report having considered suicide (in contrast to 8.5 per cent of straight people and 27 per cent of gay people).

Some of the societal factors that increase our vulnerability can be exacerbated in post-secondary situations, where active “Gay-Straight Alliances” do great work but linguistically exclude us, and where classroom discussions often ignore or overlook liminal identities in discussions of orientation. It is rare to find a course devoted to bisexual (or other non-monosexual) orientations, though I’ve seen multiple courses on lesbian literature, gay literature, and gay and lesbian film come through my student centre. These courses are great, and I’d like to see more of them! But I’d also like to see something like Margaret Robinson’s Intro to Bisexual Theory taught more often and in more institutions.

Although each of Miri’s five points about valuing mental health ring true for me, the differential risk faced by the bisexual community means that I want to focus on her final point:

 5. Understand how social structures – culture, laws, business, politics, the media, etc. – influence mental health.

If you learned what you know about mental health through psychology classes, your understanding of it is probably very individualistic: poor mental health is caused by a malfunctioning brain, or at most by a difficult childhood or poor coping skills. However, the larger society we live in affects who has mental health problems, who gets treatment, what kind of treatment they get, and how they are treated by others. Learn about the barriers certain groups – the poor, people of color, etc. – face in getting treatment. Learn about how certain groups – women, queer people, etc. – have been mistreated by the mental healthcare system. Find out what laws are being passed concerning mental healthcare, both in your state and in the federal government. Learn how insurance companies influence what kind of treatment people are able to get (medication vs. talk therapy, for instance) and what sorts of problems you must typically have in order for insurance to cover your treatment (diagnosable DSM disorders, usually). Pay attention to how mental illness is portrayed in the media – which problems are considered legitimate, which are made fun of, which get no mention at all.

It’s tempting to view mental health as an individual trait, and mental illness as an individual problem. But in order to help build a community in which mental health matters, you have to learn to think about it structurally. That’s the only way to really understand why things are the way they are and how to make them change.

One structural element that we need to start thinking seriously about is how bisexual erasure, invisibility, and monosexism impact the bisexual and non-monosexual communities. The bisexual community is already at increased risk of mental health issues, including the aforementioned disproportionately high risk of suicidality.

Shiri Eisner shared an excerpt from her book “Bi: Notes For A Bisexual Revolution” on her blog. This section is an analysis of the 2011 Bisexuality Invisibility Report and addresses, among other things, the differential risk of mental health concerns (including suicidality) for the bisexual and otherwise non-monosexual community. Her analysis provides an accessible look at a complex and often-overlooked series of issues. Regarding mental health she notes that:

whereas “[i]n nonurban areas, lesbians and bisexual women experience similar levels of frequent mental distress, the odds of frequent mental distress decrease significantly for lesbians in urban areas, while [becoming] nearly double for bisexual women” (emphasis in original). The researchers theorize that the reason for this is that gay and lesbian communities are more well-organized in urban areas, contributing to the isolation of bisexual people who experience rejection while seeking support, once outside of their home communities.

This is critical in understanding the situation faced by bisexual, pansexual, fluid and other non-monosexual individuals in post-secondary settings. Feelings of isolation and rejection can exacerbate emotional and mental distress, and it can be particularly challenging to be surrounded by groups and events that do not seem to have a space for you.

Classmates of mine have reported skepticism from university-employed psychologists and doctors regarding their sexual orientation (both as non-monosexual individuals and a polyamorous individuals – another under-supported identity group). One of my friends was recently asked by a doctor whether he has “homosexual or heterosexual sex” – in order to be recognized as a non-monosexual queer, he had to insert himself into that binary forcibly, and if he had been low on resources or feeling vulnerable, he may not have been able to take that risk.

These moments of erasure can have serious side-effects for individuals who then remain unseen and unrecognized as non-monosexual, and don’t receive the information and support that they need.

Eisner’s analysis offers further information that should make us, as academics, sit up and take notice. Not only are bisexual individuals at increased risk of mental health concerns across the board, we are also likely to have lower levels of education, and bisexual support services are significantly underfunded. In fact, Eisner notes that:

“in years 2008 and 2009, out of over 200 million dollars given by US foundations to LGBT organizations as grants, not a single dollar in all the country went towards funding bisexual-specific organizations or projects.” This “LGBT” money did not “trickle down” to bisexuals, either: a survey conducted by the editors of the report, found that of the LGBT organizations in San Francisco willing to reply to a survey about bisexuality, most do not offer content that is targeted specifically towards bisexuals.

This is reinforced by another finding: whereas bisexual people make up the single largest group among LGBT’s, “only 3-20% of the people accessing LGBT-focused services are bisexual.”**

I believe that the systemic oppression faced by bisexual, pansexual, fluid and otherwise non-monosexual individuals is something that can be changed. We can encourage bisexual youth in high school so that they feel confident entering post-secondary, and we can support them once they get here. We can become aware of (and advocate for) the support groups that do exist in our communities. In Calgary, Possibilities hosts a monthly discussion group, a monthly coffeeshop social night, and a monthly Community Cafè (in collaboration with Calgary Outlink) and at the University of Calgary, the Q Centre is explicitly bi-friendly. PFLAG Canada offers a list of resources for bisexual individuals. Acknowledging our existence in your everyday language, and welcoming our inclusion in your spaces and events goes a long way to changing those feelings of isolation and rejection that Eisner cites.

It’s always difficult to make space. The things that are supposed to be secrets – unacceptable or incomprehensible identities, circumstances or struggles – are much easier to keep quiet about than to speak openly. But if you have the time, and the privilege, and the resources to be vocal – consider doing it. You could make a huge difference in your own or somebody else’s life.

And even if you will never be vocal, be informed. For example, discussions of “bisexual privilege” that fail to recognize the incredible cost of “passing” as straight are damaging and contribute to the monosexist dominant culture – know it, so that you don’t contribute to it!

Wrapping up this post, I find myself struggling with the strong desire to write “5 ways to make things better for the neurodivergent bisexuals around you!” I want to end on a positive note and provide a road map to a better place. I think that those kinds of didactic posts, while useful, can also be frustrating to read and limiting.

Instead, I will just admit that I have a pretty big horse in this race. I want things to change, but I don’t actually have the solutions. I am one of the neurodivergent bisexuals that Eisner writes about. Miri offers a good starting point for changing the culture around mental health, but I’d love to hear your suggestions. How do you think bisexual folks find the post-secondary experience where you are? How about the culture at your post-sec regarding mental health? What would you like to see change? How do you think we can make that change happen? What have your own experiences of neurodivergence and/or bisexuality been?

*Although I think that the language of “mental illness” can be problematic, and is often used to inaccurately frame neurodivergence as uniformly “ill” (for example, many people with ADHD, a learning disability, or an Autism spectrum “disorder” may not view themselves as disordered or ill), I do agree with Miri’s call for communities with space for neurodivergence and mental health issues of all flavours, from the unusual but delightful (such as a neurodivergent individual who does not experience their neurodivergence as a problem) to the bitter and harmful (neurodivergences that are experienced as illness or disorderings, which is how I would categorize my own depressive tendencies when I become self-harming or suicidal).

**Edited to more accurately attribute this quote.

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New politics, old tensions: the invisibility of bisexual identities in research

I was at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria from June 5-10, attending “Multimedia Design for Research Creation, Community Engagement, and Knowledge Mobilization,” taught by Aimée Morrison.

I love both the course and the set-up of the DHSI as a whole. I love the diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, disciplines and interests in my class. I love the professor, and the collaborative approach to learning. There’s a lot to love.

Refreshingly, there also seems to be an undercurrent of privilege-aware, feminist thought, at least in the course that I’m attending. We’ve talked about a variety of feminist issues, including the ethical treatment of marginalized research collaborators, and some of my classmates are vocal advocates for challenging the privileging of academic knowledge over other forms of knowledge. It’s been a very engaging, exciting week so far.

One reason that there is a different “feel” to this event, even though it is still clearly academic, is that none of us will receive credit for the work, the professors are volunteering their time, and the courses have a feeling of flattened hierarchy – as Aimée put it, “autodidactic communalism.” This is learning for the love of learning, sharing skills for the love of the skills and of the sharing, and professional development growing out of a passion for this new and developing interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Basically – DHSI: I would recommend it.

While there, I had an interesting conversation with one of my classmates, Elise Chenier, and it highlighted one of the struggles that the bisexual community faces in being recognized and legitimized. This struggle is found in the tendency of many academic scholars to assume or read homosexuality into historical accounts of non-heterosexual behaviour, either missing or glossing over the potential for bisexuality.

Elise has worked with A LOT: Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony, and is currently working on research regarding mixed-ethnicity marriages between Asian men and white women in the 1950s and 60s.

She described the genesis of this project as being found in a story that she heard during her research for A LOT. The story was of a woman who was living with a Chinese man, whose male partner and butch lover had an altercation. This made my bi activist ears perk up, since this seemed like a situation that might be described as bisexual. I wondered if other women were in similar situations and asked if there were any mentions of bisexual women and their stories in her work.

It turns out, there are not.

None of the women self-identified as bisexual, and I nodded and said that it can be dangerous or difficult for bisexual women to come out in lesbian communities, especially if those communities are critical to their social support networks. Elise felt that this was inserting contemporary politics into a historical moment where they were not an issue. Bisexuality was simply not recognized as an identity category in the same way that it is now: none of the women self-identified as bisexual, and that’s that.

In this instance I think that Elise has a point about reading contemporary politics into historical moments where they don’t apply, where the women being interviewed are describing experiences that happened before the gay rights movement, before we had a cultural understanding of heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality as they exist in the cultural consciousness now.

And yet, is it possible that none of the women self-identified as bisexual not only because they may not have had the language at the time, but also because they did not see space for a bisexual identity in the current research?

So often we assume that these “contemporary political issues” are still not relevant. The issue of bisexuality is regularly ignored or erased, subsumed into the more easily understood gay or lesbian movements. I’d like to push a little bit on the assumption that bisexuality doesn’t need to be actively pursued or acknowledged by scholars engaging with queer histories.

As Elise mentioned in our conversation, it is possible that assumptions underpinning the formation of questions might lead to possible bisexual identifications being overlooked, or not given space for acknowledgment. Questions that imply an expected answer, or interpretations that are coloured by assumptions or misconceptions happen easily, and often without any malicious intent. But they are still problematic, and they still make it incredibly difficult for bisexuals to see themselves situated in a history that seems entirely monosexual, where even queer histories are often written as gay and lesbian histories.

Bisexual activists like Brenda Howard have, from the very beginning, been instrumental in the Pride movement that now so often ignores or erases us. Despite these early activists – Howard was openly bisexual and also the founder of pride parades as we know them today – bisexuality has been and often still is viewed as “dangerous and contrary to gay liberation” (Rust[1]).

These beliefs can be tricky, sneaking into our interpretations of historical figures and making it hard to recognize bisexuality in instances where it may exist. Although I do not believe that we can ever tell a person who claims one identity (gay or straight, for instance) that they are bisexual because of their behaviours, which may be influenced by all kinds of factors, I do believe that we should not assign a label (gay or straight, for instance!) when a person’s behaviours may indicate a bisexual, pansexual or fluid orientation and when they have not claimed that label for themselves.

We should be careful not to coercively assign bisexual labels in our efforts for visibility, but we should make every effort to carve out space for bisexual readings of historical events and people. It should be possible to encounter a bisexual history, because it is absolutely true that this bisexual history exists. We just have to stop pushing everyone to one side or the other of the gay/straight binary.

This is one reason why the bisexual pride movement, which did not exist so visibly in previous decades, is so important. We have Faith Cheltenham now, for instance, taking up the work of early bisexual activists like Brenda Howard. There is a tension between bisexual women and some lesbians who view us, at best, as simply incomprehensible. This tension is not new, and it will not go away unless we continue to confront and explore the ways in which bisexual history and identity is overlooked and erased.

I am optimistic about this endeavour. Elise and I had a fantastic conversation about bisexual invisibility, identity politics, Jack Halberstam, trans* invisibility within the historical lesbian movement, internalized biphobia and research ethics. This kind of collaboration can only lead to better understanding and more visibility. At least, that’s my hope. When I look at rates of suicidality and mental health concerns among bisexual individuals (the topic of my next post), I know that something has to change. Maybe this is part of that change. Fingers crossed!

[1] Rust, Paula C. “Neutralizing the Political Threat of the Marginal Woman: Lesbians’ Beliefs about Bisexual Women.” The Journal of Sex Research , Vol. 30, No. 3 (Aug., 1993), pp. 214-228

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Coming out of the liminal closet

Liminal identities present specific challenges to a post-secondary student. These often-invisible identities are perceived as being “between” two more easily recognizable categories. My own bisexual identity exists outside of the gay-straight binary, and my genderqueer identity exists outside of the man-woman binary. And the construction of “betweenness,” so common in discussions of these identity categories, is frustrating. I am not a Frankensteinian monster, bits of this and bits of that mashed together and animated. I am my own thing. My identity is a real thing. I am a real person.

Not that you’d know it, looking at the system I operate within.

There are no genderqueer bathrooms, so I slide myself over into one half of a binary that is false and misleading, denying my identity so that I can pee.

The University of Calgary has the Q Centre, an inclusive space for anyone in the QUILTBAG,* and a space that is now explicitly bi-friendly.** But there is no “bisexual” in GSAs, the Gay-Straight Alliance groups that are doing such good work. I’m assured that I am welcome, but unless I speak up about my liminal identity, I will be assumed to be straight if I mention my boyfriend, or gay if I mention my girlfriend. (People read me as a woman unless I speak up about my genderqueerness – that liminality is even less visible to most people than my bisexuality.)

Dan Savage “tells the truth” about bisexuality, which is that “it’s a fundamental truth … that it is a phase … it is a choice.” After saying that bisexuality is a choice in that clip, he goes on to talk about how gay and straight identities are not a choice, there’s no switch to flip – unless you’re bisexual, and you exist in that liminal space between and outside of the binary.

My bookshelves, full of the books that are cited in my research papers, include writing about “gay and lesbian literature,” “gay and lesbian film,” “gay and lesbian media.”

Class discussions often swing around to “men and women” – their differences, their similarities, their conditioning, their unique intersections of marginalization and oppression – and that’s fine. Men and women do exist. They do have similarities and differences, they are socialized and conditioned in different ways, and they occupy a variety of intersections of privilege and marginalization. Those conversations are not, in themselves, a problem. But those conversations are often the only ones that happen in class. There is no space for non-binary gender identities in those discussions.

Coming out of these liminal closets can be exhausting. And because liminal identities are so often invisible, it is not enough to come out once. Instead, it is an ongoing, constant process of coming out. Or, sometimes, it’s a painful choice to stay in the closet for that class, that conversation. It is not possible to always be the person challenging the binary; none of us have infinite resources, and we should not be expected to always be the ones to speak up. As Dayna pointed out in this space last week, “Just because someone personally relates to something doesn’t mean they are expected to represent that particular issue.” And it is not always just about whether we have the resiliency to be The Bisexual or The Genderqueer in a specific class – coming out as a bisexual is uniquely challenging. AfterEllen has a fantastic piece (with some great links to resources) about how difficult it is to come out as bisexual, and the comments prove the truth of the article.

We live in a world full of binaries, but those binaries fail to account for a huge number of us. It’s hard to see us. It’s hard to understand us (even I have trouble understanding myself!), and it’s hard to remember us because it’s just so easy to talk about things in terms of the binaries that we’re so strongly conditioned to operate within.

But we’re here. We always have been.


*Queer/Questioning, Unidentified, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer

**Huge shout-out to the Q Centre, whose coordinators responded beautifully to community members’ concerns about biphobic comments being made by some Q Centre volunteers. A public meeting was held, a discussion was had, the Q Centre reached out to the bisexual community in Calgary for input, and changes were made. It’s not all invisibility and erasure – there are moments of hope and progress!

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