Bisexuality is a sexual orientation characterized by experiencing sexual attraction towards and the desire for sexual relationships with people who share one’s gender as well people whose gender differs from one’s own.
Someone who experiences bisexual attraction is referred to as bisexual or "bi" for short. People of any sex, gender identity, or romantic orientation can be bisexual. The “B” in LGBTQIA2S+ stands for Bisexual or Bisexuality and accounts for the majority of the queer community.
While the terms will often overlap, bisexuality is distinct from pansexuality (i.e. an attraction all genders, regardless of gender) and omnisexuality (i.e. an attraction to all genders, while gender still plays a role in the attraction). People within the community who use these terms to identity may interpret their nuances differently.
Bisexuality and the Sexuality Spectrum
Sexuality is said to exist on a continuous spectrum, meaning that there is a range of how an individual’s sexual orientation can manifest, and that it is nuanced, complex, and cannot be classified under strict binary parameters. Some bisexual people will experience a preference towards one or more genders over others, while others experience attraction equally across genders.
Bisexuality is considered a queer identity and umbrella category that includes any allosexual orientation that lands somewhere on the spectrum between heterosexual (i.e. a sexual attraction that only occurs between men and women) and homosexual (i.e. a sexual attraction that only occurs between people of the same gender).
Bisexual Etymology and History
The word bisexual comes from the Latin root “bi-”, which means “two”.
Bisexuality has long presented itself in nature and has been used as a way to describe biological entities that have both “male” and “female” parts since the early 19th century. However, bisexual did not come into use as a means to describe human sexual orientation until a century later. Prior to the 1950s when “bisexual” became the commonly used word, the term ambisexual was used to describe those who experienced a tendency for attraction towards both men and women.
As such, a common misunderstanding today is that bisexuality refers exclusively to being attracted to “both men and women.” However, the contemporary definition acknowledges the existence of trans and nonbinary people and refers to an attraction to two or more genders.
In 1948, Alfred Kinsey, a mid-twentieth century sex researcher, acknowledged the range of bisexuality when they developed and published the Kinsey Scale. Based on his team’s research, this 7-point scale acknowledged and demonstrated that sexual orientation exists on a spectrum rather than as a binary that only includes the heterosexual and homosexual polarities.
30 years later, Dr. Fritz Klein developed the Klein Grid to further elaborate on the nuances of human sexuality and account for more of the range of experiences observed across individuals. The Klein Grid built and expanded upon the Kinsey Scale, consider social and psychological factors in acknowledgement that sexual identity is not dictated by action alone.
Bisexual Identity versus Behavior
Bisexual identity is not determined solely by one’s sexual behaviors. One does not need to have a certain collection of sexual experiences to “prove” their bisexual orientation. The same way a heterosexual person can know that they are heterosexual prior to having a partner sex experience, bisexual people can know that they are bisexual without having a partner sex experience with someone of every gender.
Similarly, one can explore sexually with people of other genders while not considering themselves bisexual or queer.
Sexual Orientation versus Romantic Orientation
Since they can and do often overlap, sexual and romantic orientation are often mixed up or used interchangeably. However, they are two distinctly different terms and concepts. This conflation is especially apparent in contemporary literature on bisexuality.
Sexual orientation indicates the sex or gender of the person one is likely to feel sexual attraction or desire towards. Romantic orientation indicates the sex or gender of the person with whom someone is most likely to have a romantic attraction, develop feelings of romantic love, or want to pursue a romantic relationship.
Many definitions of bisexuality will stipulate that it also indicates the tendencies of one’s romantic attractions. Some bisexuals may use it in this way, but it is important to also note that distinct terms already exist for this. Someone who experiences romantic attraction or the desire to form romantic relationships with people of more than one gender could be considered biromantic, panromantic, or omniromantic. A bisexual person is not necessarily romantically attracted to the same people they are attracted to sexually. For example, a person could also be both bisexual and aromantic.
Bisexual Erasure and Biphobia
Bisexual erasure is the tendency to uphold the bias against the existence of bisexuality, especially in media, history, and academia. It can manifest as ignoring or manipulating the evidence that a historical figure was likely or known to be bisexual, re-imagining a story to represent a canonically bisexual character as heterosexual, or completely eliminating bisexual characters from the narrative, historical and fictional alike.
It can also include the quite literal belief that bisexuality does not exist and general biphobia, the overt or unconscious aversion towards bisexuality and bisexual people. Bisexual erasure therefore perpetuates the discrimination against bisexual people based on the myth that bisexuality is not a real orientation but rather a phase of experimentation or staggered “coming out” and that eventually the person will choose a side (i.e. heterosexual or homosexual).
When bisexual representation does occur in media, it’s often as grossly exaggerated stereotypes that present them as hypersexual, unfaithful, fickle, and untrustworthy which further undermines the validity of bisexual existence and reaffirms the stigma bisexual people experience in real life.
Bisexual Pride and Symbols
Bisexual Pride celebrations date back to 1999 when American bisexual activists Wendy Curry, Gigi Raven Wilbur, and Michael Page joined together to raise awareness of bisexuality.
The year prior, Michael Page created a bisexual pride flag for the bisexual community to rally around and promote visibility of the bisexual community. The flag consists of three horizontal stripes in pink, purple, and blue. In Page’s own words, “the pink color represents sexual attraction to the same sex only (gay and lesbian). The blue represents sexual attraction to the opposite sex only (straight) and the resultant overlap color purple represents sexual attraction to both sexes (bi).”
Bisexual Awareness Week is observed annually from September 16 to 23 to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and champion the bi+ (including bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, fluid, no label, and queer) community.