Saying “the word ‘bi’ is anti-nonbinary” is like saying “the word ‘atom’ is anti-neutron”

Hello. I’m bisexual. I’m also nonbinary. Today I want to address some recurrent arguments that these two groups are somehow in conflict.

Nonbinary gender identities are, for the most part, gender identies other than, between, or combining the binary “male” and “female” gender categories. In my case, I am a transmasculine genderqueer “guy” who isn’t quite a man, but definitely not entirely a woman.

Bisexualities are sexual orientation(s) other than, between, or combining the binary “gay” and “straight” sexual orientations. In my case, I’ve mostly dated men, but I am also attracted to and currently dating a woman, and most of my attraction is to nonbinary and trans people.

To me, that’s always been quite plain. No conflict needed. Yet I keep coming across the question of whether bisexuality, or at least the terms “bisexual” or “bi”, are somehow inherently ant-nonbinary or even anti-trans. The argument that keeps coming up is “bi means two, so bisexuals are only attracted to two genders.” And I’m sure many bisexuals are. I know at least one bisexual who is only attracted to women and to nonbinary transmasculine people, so her bisexuality is certainly not anti-nonbinary. But moreover, not all bisexuals are only attracted to two genders. I’m attracted to people of all kinds of genders, binary and otherwise.

“But why not just say that you’re pansexual?” I could, and I have. It’s an accurate term. However, and maybe this is just because I’m a little bit old-school, I’m just a bit more comfortable calling myself “bi.” And frankly, I see nothing inaccurate about calling myself or anyone else who’s attracted to people of more than one gender “bisexual”.

“But bi means two.”

Yes, bi means two. But that’s etymology. Not every word retains in its current usage the meanings associated with its etymological roots. Take for example the word “atom.”

We get “atom” from a Greek philosopher named Democritus. He theorized that if you cut an object in half, and cut the halves in half, and cut those halves in half, so on and so on and so on, you’d eventually end up with a piece so small that it couldn’t be cut. He went on to reason that everything in the world was made up of these tiny, indivisible particles, which he named after a Greek word that means “uncuttable.” From that word we get “atom,” along with “atomic theory,” and “atomic energy”, and all the associated terminology.

“But in order to get atomic energy, you have to cut the atom! Doesn’t that violate the original theory, that atoms are uncuttable?” Well, technically, yes, Democritus was wrong about that. But we still use his word, because it’s easier than coming up with a new word for everything whenever scientific understanding gets more complex. I don’t think any particle physicists have argued that the term “atom” is somehow anti-neutron.

So it is with the word “bisexual.” The word’s current meaning is distinct from its origin and etymology.

But there’s another layer to all this talk of words and their definitions, especially when applied to gender and sexuality identities that aren’t always as sharply-defined as the definitions we read in dictionaries. A definition doesn’t give a full picture of a word’s meaning. That’s why dictionaries often include example sentences; to understand a word, you can’t just rely on what it denotes, but see how it’s used and in what context. What I like to keep in mind when thinking about words and grammar is that language is a biological process. Our brains process language as organically as our stomachs process food. Following the metaphor a bit further, dictionaries and grammars and Strunk & White are more like cookbooks than absolute authorities, with instructions you’re probably safe following but free to adapt to your own tastes and nutritional needs.

I live in Cleveland. That’s a literal fact, however until recently I lived in Lakewood, a small but distinct municipality in Cleveland’s inner ring. For a while, I stubbornly said that I wasn’t “from Cleveland;” for the sake of out-of-towners who don’t know where Lakewood is I would say something like “I’m from near Cleveland” or “I’m from the Cleveland area.” I own this: I was being needlessly pedantic. I’m a Clevelander, because the word “Cleveland” does not just refer to a municipal entity governing an area of land whose border I lived outside from much of my life, but a community of neighborhoods, a local culture, and a group identity to which I belong.. Lakewood also has a distinct community identity to which I belong, but that exists within a larger community that I can accurately call “Cleveland.”

I think the same can be said for a lot of other words, particularly those that refer to groups, communities, or identities. A lesbian is a woman who’s attracted to women. However, there are trans men who are not women but still belong to the lesbian community and could still accurately be called lesbians. “Lesbians” is not just a word describing a gender and sexuality identity, but a group of people who have found belonging in community with one another, even if not all of them technically fit the strictest definition of the term.

Because language is a biological process, but so is building group identity. So is community. A naturally-forming community with no strictly-defined borders and multiple names embraced to different degrees by individual members is a commonplace phenomenon in our society. We see it in music genres. Religious sects. Political movements. Ethnicities. Technically, I could claim the identity of Latino, although culturally I’m so disconnected from those communities that I don’t even know what the label would mean to me if I did, so I don’t. Yet the definition of “Latino” that refers to me is no less accurate because I do not use the term for myself. I have the name and the blood, and that may be enough for some people. For me, it is more important to ask whether I feel I belong in the Latino community, and when I am honest with myself, I feel I do not.

And that’s what I think gets lost in discussions about what words mean and who is or is not included in their definitions: the subjective feeling of belonging that comes from finding yourself in a word or in a group or in a category that fits. Like how you may think of your family as connected by blood, until you learn that one of your siblings is adopted, and suddenly you realize that blood is not what was holding you together. Many of us in the bisexual community thought that “attraction to two genders” was what connected us — until we realized that there are more than two genders, and many of us are attracted to more than two of them. The definition can change. The community’s loose, subjective borders can shift. And that’s okay, because definitions and distinctions are not what made the word ring so warmly in the hearts of those who use it. That was belonging.

To summarize, there are many ways to understand the significance of a word, especially one that people use to describe identity. Dictionary definitions and specific examples are useful ways to determine how a word is being used, but the word’s truest meaning is the one that lives in the collective minds of the people using it. Unfortunately, I think that means it will never be easy to learn the terminology, especially for those whose linguistic development is mostly complete. Fortunately, it means that we can stop worrying quite so much about exact definitions, especially ones based on etymology, since that’s just silly.

(A word that originally meant “happy,” and thus is totally gay.)

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