Queer lit: a most binary pandemonium

I wrote an annoyed short post on my Tumblr after reading several comments in a cis m/m romance novel that left my skin crawling. There’s nothing like biphobia or bisexual erasure to drag me out of a story, these days. Well, save for transphobia and non-binary erasure, of course. Or misogyny and slut shaming. Or … well, there’s an awful lot of things that drag me out of a story, but of late it feels as though biphobia lurks everywhere I turn, and one post on Tumblr isn’t enough for me to feel I’ve done my frustration justice – not when bi and pan representation means as much to me as a non-binary reader as it does to me as a pansexual one.

That’s right. I, as a non-binary reader, need bi and pan heroes.

What, you think I exist in gay and lesbian literature?

(I’m going to need a minute to stop laughing. Maybe two. Or ten. How about you come back in half an hour?)

Even if the author avoids stupid comments about how monosexual queerness is more queer than any other forms of queerness or fucking somebody of the same gender therefore means one is gay/lesbian instead of bi/pan, I am still forced to read about men who only love men and women who only love women as if these things alone encapsulate what it is to be queer. I just finished rereading a book whose main cast included three lesbians, a straight woman, a straight man and a gay man, and while I love that author’s writing, I couldn’t fail to miss the lack of bi or pan characters, binary trans and non-binary trans characters. The inclusion of a feminist-styled character who discussed everything in terms of binary masculine and feminine didn’t help much, but at the end of the day this very-queer book, quite clearly written in response to the comparative lack of lesbian literature and lesbian characters when compared to gay literature and characters, failed to be queer in ways that include me. I didn’t even merit a side character.

(Said book also included the line that one’s sexuality isn’t defined unless one has had sex, which … no, nope, never.)

Believe it or not, I don’t have a whole lot in common with cis lesbians. I don’t feel comfortable in that community, and for good reason: I’m not lesbian. I’m not a woman. I’m a DFAB person who doesn’t pass as a man, so I have a whole lot of experiences in common with women, and I’m attracted to women (and people of non-binary genders and some men), but I’m not a queer woman. I’m a queer, end of, full stop. Sure, I know there are plenty of gender-non-conforming lesbians and queer women, but the woman part is kind of a prerequisite for that community, and I don’t identify with that. I’m not a gender-non-conforming woman. I don’t even like the phrase ‘gender-non-conforming’ with regard to myself, because I conform to my lack of gender plenty fine, if you ask me. I just don’t have a gender, and I don’t like operating in the world as though my sex makes me female. I get enough of that in cishet society; why would I pursue it amongst queers?

There is no reason, none at all, that one of those three lesbian characters couldn’t have been a bi or pansexual woman who fell in love with a woman but is open about her non-monosexual history, experiences, crushes, daydreams or perspective. It wouldn’t have changed anything about the plot or the message. It would have included a broader image of queer lady sexuality – something closer to a depiction of queerness that meshes with my own.

Here’s the thing: it’s only recently that I’ve decided that I am, in fact, pansexual. I used the word ‘queer’ because it meant I didn’t have to define anything about my sexuality, as a non-binary person without gender attracted to women, people of non-binary genders, gender-non-conforming people and the occasional dude (usually femme-ish, pretty-boy dudes). The thing that kept me from the idea of pansexuality, for so long, was the illusion that I needed to have an equal attraction to men to qualify – when in fact many men, certainly hyper-masculine men, occupy my never going to hit that list. I thought that pansexuality meant an equal attraction to anyone human and adult (not kitchenware, aliens or animals, thank you former co-workers from old job of hell). Nor did I know that ‘bisexuality’ could mean ‘ladies and non-binary people’ as opposed to ‘men and women’. I’ve said that some of definitions of ‘bisexuality’ still assume a gender in me, and for this reason I feel pansexuality indicates both my gender and sex without confusion or assumption, but I didn’t know bisexuality could be (and is) a perfectly accurate signifier of my sexuality. ‘Queer’ was easier and accurate … although the downside, of course, is that it doesn’t link me to a community or say anything about me, and sometimes I need to make a specific statement about my brand of queerness. Do you know how many times people have assumed me to be lesbian just because I say I’m queer?

(Of course, that too is bisexual erasure in action, not to mention gender essentialism and non-binary erasure. If one isn’t heterosexual, one is gay or lesbian. The idea that I might be a pansexual agender person, not a butch lesbian woman, just doesn’t occur to the majority of cishet folk. I don’t exist in their understanding of the world.)

This is how damaging these misconceptions, which are themselves examples of biphobia in action, are to the bi/pan community: they kept me from identifying with words that do in fact describe my sexuality. They isolated me from people who experience queerness the way I do. I didn’t have enough access to bi and pan protagonists in the books I read to know better. I didn’t know I should start reading works by bi and pan bloggers to find out. I surely didn’t find enough information to debunk my misconceptions on the generalist queer/GSRM websites and blogs I read. I didn’t find much discussion, at the time, about bi and pansexuality as sexualities that include non-binary identities on the many non-binary/genderqueer blogs and websites I read. For years I just used the word ‘queer’ because I didn’t know that I had words that could legitimately and specifically describe my sexual orientation and expression.

(There are non-mainstream words too, like skoliosexual and polysexual, and we need to promote the usage of said words, but I didn’t know they existed, and, as it turns out, polysexual doesn’t apply to my experience of sexual orientation.)

It is damaging that a bi or pan person be unable to label their sexuality, but it is damaging on a whole other level that a non-binary person be unable to label an attraction that includes non-binary people who possess and express a vast array of genders and gender identities, most of which aren’t the same as my gender and experience of gender. Non-binary people are forced to operate in a world that doesn’t acknowledge us or provide words that include us: it is important that we are able to label something others can and do label (if we decide that labels have meaning for us). It is important that we know that sexualities that encompass us do exist, because there is a power in the possession of such words. They tell us we do, in fact, belong.

(And, yes, we need to promote the usage of words to describe the experience of sexual attraction for people of non-binary genders that aren’t bisexuality and pansexuality.)

I wrote my characters in this sexuality-non-specific way. Not because I didn’t want to define their sexuality, but because I didn’t know I could. A non-defined sexuality, broader than gay or lesbian, definitely not het yet absolutely queer, was all I knew about myself. Look at Oscar and Sydney in Asylum: I never state, at any point, the kinds of people to whom either is attracted besides each other. Grandmamma is meant to be bisexual in its broadest sense of being attracted to her gender and other genders (the word appears in the second book, and knowing what I know now I’d have popped it into the first book: the usage of words like ‘bisexual’ and ‘pansexual’ matters) but the bigender Oscar and the gender-never-actually-specified-but-gender-non-conforming-by-choice Sydney don’t have sexualities that fit into the binary notion of hetero/homosexuality. What is Oscar’s sexuality? I don’t know because she doesn’t know. She’s not gay. She’s not straight. (Sydney, on the other hand, is probably closer to ‘pansexual’ in its broadest sense of ‘gender doesn’t matter’ but this is still never specified). ‘Queer’ works nicely. Fucking somebody who is also non-binary must make one queer, right? In a society where sex very much defines gender that’s both dangerous and a statement of war, and for the moment that’s good enough.

Except it’s not, because this is the sort of thing that left me in ignorance of my own words.

Today, I’d just say that Oscar’s fucking bisexual, end of, full stop. Women, people of non-binary genders. Not men. Simple.

To contrast, I give you Steve Nakamura, who pretty much proclaims nir pansexuality from the rooftops, although ney is a little cagey on declaring pansexuality over bisexuality when it comes to nir friends, but that’s because there’s bets placed on nir word of choice and like fuck is ney letting Jack win money on that bet. Nir friends, however, use both words in discussions about nem, because everybody knows Steve is no more gay than ney is straight. Steve in all nir versions was always pansexual (and irritated by nir boyfriend’s frowns when it came to referencing past girlfriends), but deciding that ‘pansexual’ is a word that does describe me made it easier to connect with that side of nir character, such that it became a word that needed specifying and saying: ney isn’t ‘whatever’ about people to whom ney is attracted. Ney is queer, but ney is also pansexual, and I have had so much fun writing nir joyful and enthusiastic appreciation for people and the way ney deals with being seen as gay while in a relationship with a man.

Choosing that word to describe myself has been quite liberating. It means I can acknowledge the fact I find some men pretty damn hot without worrying about how this fits into my sexual identity. It means I can have Sorin, Solemn Visitor as my desktop background, because smoking hot undead dude. It means I don’t have to conjure reasons about wanting to steal a pretty cis dude’s skin in order to justify my appreciation (although I would gladly inhabit Aiden Turner’s body) because that appreciation doesn’t mesh with my notion that I don’t like men enough to be pansexual (but like men and not-women people too much to be gynesexual). It means that I don’t have to deny or pretend, and I didn’t notice how oppressive that was until I was freed of the need.

I love being pansexual in much the same way I love being non-binary: it’s a non-prescriptive way of going about sexuality (note: bisexuality is also non-prescriptive, but my personal choice is that I am pansexual), and, even better, it includes my gender as one of the many genders I find attractive. I can like whoever I like without worrying about rules or what to call myself or being whatever-with-exceptions. Pansexuality covers everything, and now I know that pansexuality or bisexuality are not necessarily ‘attracted to everybody’ or ‘attracted to all genders with equivalent intensity’ but can also include ‘many women, just about any non-binary person, some men’, well, I haven’t looked back. This is who I am, and the fact that it’s not easy to be non-monosexual, in a way, tells me it’s just as right for me as being non-binary – I feel like it’s a running joke with the universe that I need to do everything the hard way.

(I like to say I’m not binary in sexuality or gender. I’m not sure I’m binary in anything.)

This is new for me, this exultation in non-monosexuality, but the downside is the unfortunate awareness of the biphobia and bisexual erasure present in a horrific majority of queer works.

My god, is it everywhere.

Books I used to read and enjoy contain ghosts leaping out to strangle me with declarations about queerness that ignore the existence of non-monosexual identities.

Of course, my patience for books that don’t contain characters like me has diminished over the years. Five years ago I was thrilled to get my hands on anything that even contained queerness. Gay cis dudes were awesome. Lesbian cis women, who are so much harder to find than their gay male counterparts, were even better. Queerness, in a book! Characters who weren’t straight! Those characters, though, are still not me. I am forced to take my queer representation through the lens of characters with gender and sexual identities different to mine. Their queer experience, in fact, bears almost no relation to mine, yet these are the characters that define queer; these are the characters that have categories on Smashwords and Amazon. (Yes, I know queer ebook retailers with better categories, but why shouldn’t I have a category on Amazon? Why should I have to label Asylum as lesbian fiction when it is in fact bisexual, pansexual and non-binary/transgender fiction – with lesbian coming in fourth?) While I now have no patience for cishet protagonists (unless very feminist fantasy novels), I’m rapidly approaching a point where I don’t care to read about monosexual gender-conforming cis characters at all. (Unless feminist fantasy leads.) I want trans leads. I want non-binary leads. I want bi and pansexual leads. I want trans, non-binary, non-monosexual leads in books that aren’t erotica novels containing a three-person sex scene (or multiple sex scenes with different partners because a bisexual person isn’t bi unless they’re on-screen fucking people of different genders) because these are the protagonists that speak most to my experience of queer.

(Death is Only a Theoretical Concept dwells in the ‘gay’ category, despite it being gay and pansexual fiction; its sequel is gay, pansexual and non-binary/transgender fiction. In order to sell it I need to define the protagonist by nir assigned sex and a binary category of sexual orientation: gay/lesbian or heterosexuality, except that ‘heterosexual’ doesn’t even have a label. Heterosexuality is the default, remember. Isn’t this a glorious reminder of the fact I don’t exist? I don’t even merit proper fucking categories. I can say that Steve is pansexual until I’m blue in the face and it functionally doesn’t matter because nir book, at the end of the day, needs must be categorised as ‘gay’, and nir relationship with Abe needs must be a gay, not queer, relationship. If this isn’t biphobia and non-binary erasure, I don’t know what is. Don’t get me started on the pain of forcibly gendering a character whose story is about the process of chucking binary gender out the door!)

Gay and lesbian does not specifically include someone like me. Sure, there are plenty of gay and lesbian people in books and real life who date gender-non-conforming or even non-binary people and consider themselves gay and lesbian, but those terms function in a binary construct of gender. Sure, there are non-binary people who consider themselves gay or lesbian, but not all of us fit under those labels. Hell, I don’t want to be included: I’m not a woman. Inclusion, the way I feel it (and this doesn’t apply for every non-binary person: we’ll all have our individual relationships to this experience) is a subtle form of gendering, and I’m done to death with being gendered. Thankfully, this isn’t actually necessary as the sole form of including non-binary characters, because we do have sexualities that encompass people who are not male or female! We can create books, if we must keep on writing about cis folk, with cis bi and pan leads. However, this is problematic if the author writes bi and pansexuality to mean attraction to men and women without acknowledging the existence of non-binary folk. Too many people, even some queer people, don’t know about or understand the existence of non-binary genders and identities. They don’t know the words we have include us. Again, we’re coming back to that horrific, insidious combination of biphobia and non-binary erasure: we’re told misapprehensions about the bisexual experience that contribute to the ongoing belief that non-binary genders don’t exist (and if we are known to exist, bisexuality by definition does not include us).

(I mean, we have a word, bisexuality, whose in-community definition actually includes us, but then people go around saying it doesn’t. Quite aside from the biphobia, exactly what is gained by (presumably non-bisexual) people saying no, you non-binary people aren’t included other than the reality that I now have one fucking less word that includes an attraction to people like me?)

This is why bi and pan representation matters to me as a non-binary person. I could be an androsexual non-binary person, entirely monosexual, and it would still matter to me. These sexualities have space for us in a way that is not assumed with words like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’. (We might exist there, but we are shoehorned in. The space is not there waiting for us.) We exist, even if only in theory, even if the author forgets or doesn’t know there’s more to gender than male and female. Our potential inclusion still exists. That cis bisexual lead character could, potentially, fall in love with someone like me. The problem is that, right now, there’s not enough bi and pan representation extant, and the broader world still works on the misapprehension that bi and pansexuality only include men and women (or treat trans men and trans women as separate categories of gender, which … no). Bi and pan readers can’t be sure that they will pick up one of the few books that features a bi or pan protagonist and see that character written in a positive, supportive way that doesn’t try and shove a non-monosexual expression and identity into a monosexual box. There are precious few bi or pan protagonists that are explicit about their non-monosexuality (I’m guilty of this), even if they live in a world or setting where ‘bisexual’ or ‘pansexual’ is an applicable word. (If I can’t use the words ‘bisexual’ or ‘pansexual’, I need to find a way to make said sexuality clear to the reader. That kind of representation matters.) To find books about bi and pan protagonists we need to hunt through gay and lesbian categories, and if we want non-literary genre stories – hero narratives – that aren’t YA or erotica, that aren’t defining bi and pan identities through romance, the pickings are pretty slim.

We need to do something about this, because I’m tired of queer narratives being about sexual orientations that don’t have specified space for my gender (non-gender). I want books about bi and pan characters. Bi and pan characters who express attraction for people of non-binary genders in addition to binary ones, specifically, but I’ll take any form of non-monosexuality I can get.

At least then I can pretend that, just maybe, I exist in the expanse of the protagonist’s sexuality.