TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box

Bisexuality and beyond


About Tania 

Tania Israel is a Professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Arizona State University and a Masters degree in Human Sexuality Education and a B.A. in Psychology and Women’s Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Her scholarship focuses on interventions to support the mental health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals and communities; privilege and oppression; intersections among gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation; and social justice.


This is the first TED Talk on bisexuality. Really, it’s true.

You can go ahead and search the web and you’ll find TED Talks on thousands of topics, including being lesbian and gay and transgender, but not a single one on bisexuality. Which is amazing because there are openly bisexual actors and rock stars and even a bisexual governor.

And increasingly, more young people identify as bisexual than as lesbian or gay. And yet, our public conversation about bisexuality lacks visibility, depth and substance.

I’m going to share with you some of the realities, challenges and possibilities of bisexuality as I take you on my journey to bisexuality and beyond.

Remember your first crush? Their hair, their smile, the flutter when you got paired up for a class project or sat behind them on the bus? How about your first love? The hand-holding, floating, gazing, “we-have-so-much-in-common”? Think of a passionate kiss. Or a night of hot sex. The electricity of touch, the skin-on-skin charge. Do you have a long-term partner? Someone you can nestle into and whose scent makes you feel warm, safe and loved.

What if you’ve had these feelings and experiences with more than one gender? Does that make you bisexual?

Well, it might depend on what we mean by “bisexual”. If we’re talking about identity, that’s about 1 to 5 percent of the U.S. population. There are a thousand people here today, so somewhere between 10 and 50 of us say we’re bisexual.

But if we’re talking about behavior, or people who have had sex with both women and men, that’s more like 8 to 37 percent. Between 80 and 370 of us. That’s either you or one of the people sitting next to you. And if we’re talking about attraction, then that could be as high as 17 to 46 percent. Almost half of us may have been attracted to both women and men.

And bisexuality is not a new phenomenon. It was in the 1940s that sex researcher Alfred Kinsey found that 46 percent of men had either been attracted to or engaged in sexual activity with both men and women.

But really, whether or not you consider yourself bisexual is up to you — because you know yourself best and how you identify is a personal choice.

I am one of those bisexual people, however you define them. I embraced this identity in my twenties and after coming out to family and friends I wrote this article and came out to everyone. Or at least everyone who reads peer-reviewed psychology journals. (Laughter)

I was fortunate that people were generally welcoming of my identity and tried to be equally welcoming of male and female partners. But I discovered that even with a published article, my sexual orientation became invisible.

When I was in a relationship with a man, people assumed I was heterosexual. I could tell by the double take when I would mention my ex-girlfriend. When I was in a relationship with a woman, people assumed I was a lesbian. There would be these awkward moments where someone would say, “Welcome to the lesbian potluck!” and I would chime in, “And bisexual!”

In order to be perceived accurately I needed to voice my sexual orientation vocally and repeatedly. I finally got these cards. [Tania Israel: Biracial Asian American Bisexual Jewish Buddhist Feminist …] (Laughter) As you can see, my sexual orientation was clear, solid, in print even.

I would still need to explain what I meant by bisexuality because it can mean many different things. For some people, bisexuality means: “I see women and men as very different from each other and I’m attracted to both.” For others it means: “I’m attracted to a broad spectrum of gender, including men, women and people who don’t identify with either category.”

For others it means: “I fall in love with women and I like to have sex with men.” Or what it means to me, which is: “Gender is not the most important characteristic on which my attractions are based.”

I don’t care if my partner has ovaries, a beard or a pedicure. What matters to me is that they are bright and kind and feminist and laugh at my jokes. That’s my bisexuality.

People have a lot of assumptions about bisexuals, so when I told you I’m bisexual, you might have wondered, “Is she just in denial and eventually she’ll come out as a lesbian?” “Maybe she’s just confused or indecisive.” “I bet she’s just trying to be cool by calling herself bisexual.” (Laughter) But it turns out I can be uncool, clear-thinking and decisive and my bisexual identity hasn’t wavered in the past 20 years.

So even though a lot of people are attracted to more than one gender, bisexuality remains largely invisible and misunderstood. And because of that, bisexual people experience isolation, because they’re not accepted in either heterosexual or lesbian and gay circles.

I’m fortunate because through my professional networks I was able to find a community of bisexual people. And I’m a researcher, so I could find evidence to combat the negative stereotypes of bisexuality.

Bisexuality has been a largely positive experience for me. But there was this one critique of bisexuality that gave me pause and led me to the next part of my journey.

Some people don’t like the term “bisexual” because “bi” implies that there are only two genders. Bisexuality can be defined as “attraction to both genders” — “both” meaning women and men, meaning those are the only two options.

So why is that a problem? Well, gender can be defined by identity and expression. Think of the box you check off on a form — that’s identity. Now think of how you go through the world in ways that either conform or don’t conform to what people expect of women and men. There are behaviors, ways of appearing and roles that we consider appropriate for each gender. And gender expression is how you demonstrate these.

So what is binary gender, and why is that a problem? Well, the idea of binary gender is that there are only two options — women and men. And that’s defined by identity, but also by these characteristics that we associate with each.

So if you’re a woman, we expect you to like to cook and to smell nice and to want to join a book club. If you’re a man, we expect you to be tall and to open jars and to like sports and to wear ties. If it’s Thanksgiving Day, we expect to find women in the kitchen baking pies and men in the living room watching football.

Obviously, these descriptions do not fit for everyone. For example, they don’t fit for people who don’t identify as either women or men. People who might call themselves genderqueer or a number of other labels.

I heard a third grader interviewed on NPR who stated it well. They said, “I just think I’m really both. I don’t care what people call me. Sometimes I say I’m a boy, sometimes I say I’m a girl. Sometimes I say, ‘Does it really matter?'”

So binary gender erases the experience of this third grader and other people who identify as non-binary. But it doesn’t just hurt people who identify as non-binary. It hurts all of us.

When we say that the only options are women and men and we squish people into these narrow categories, it restricts all of us. Think about a time when you felt constrained by your gender. Were you a sweet little boy who was teased for being a sissy? Were you a confident little girl who was accused of being bossy? As a woman, did you hear that women aren’t good at math or aren’t strong enough to play sports? As a man, did you get the message that it wasn’t an option for you to be the primary caregiver of your children? As a man, are people shocked when you can make a gourmet meal or have a clean bathroom? (Laughter)

As a woman, are people surprised that you can use a drill or have a fantasy football team? I sometimes feel out of place in a group of women when I’m the only one who didn’t have children. Do you sometimes feel like you don’t fit the expectations of people of your gender? Did you ever feel like your job or your safety was at risk because the way you act or dress or speak wasn’t what people expected of your gender?

Underneath all of these experiences is the assumption that gender is binary. That there are women and men and this is how you’re supposed to behave if you’re one or the other, and there are no other options.

If bisexuality implied that gender is binary, did I want my sexual orientation to support these limited notions of gender? Absolutely not. But what was I going to do? Was I going to let go of my bisexual identity that I had worked so hard to make visible? I was pretty attached to it. I mean, I had all these cards! (Laughter)

So, what was I going to do? I searched for a way to reconcile my sexual orientation identity with my views about gender. If “bi” implies that there are only two genders, I needed something that said: “Gender is more than two. It’s infinite. It’s complex.”

But what could say all that? More than two, infinite, complex … Not bi … … but Pi! (Laughter) Yes, Pi! 3.1415 blablabla … More than two, infinite, complex! Not bisexual, but pisexual! (Laughter) (Applause) (Tania Israel chuckles)

But what would it mean to be pisexual? Well, for me, it means that I experience my attractions with an understanding that gender is not binary, that there’s more than just women and men and the characteristics we associate with each. And I don’t even think I need to give up my current identity to be pisexual.

As a bisexual pisexual, I might say, “Gender is not the most important characteristic on which my attractions are based. And: I believe that gender is non-binary.” Pisexuality separates out my attractions from what I believe about gender. It’s a response to people treating bisexuality as if it defines attractions and beliefs about gender. So I think you could even be a heterosexual pisexual.

You might say, “I’m a woman who is attracted only to people who would typically be defined as men. And: I think gender is multidimensional and complex.” Sexual orientation is about who you’re attracted to in terms of gender. Pisexuality is what you believe about gender.

So I put this idea out there by making a Facebook event. For … guess what day? (Laughter) March 14th! 3/14/15 — exactly! And over 200 people attended in that virtual way that we attend Facebook events.

And I discovered that not everyone liked the idea of pisexuality. The mathematicians pointed out that Pi is not an infinite number, it’s an irrational one. And did I really want to say pisexuals are irrational? (Laughter)

In truth, it’s probably not so important that we wear buttons and get T-shirts and we all identify as pisexual and join Facebook groups. But there is a really cool thing about Pi. Remember high school geometry? Circumference = 2 times Pi times r. Area = r squared. Pi helps you to define your circle. Pisexuality helps you to define your circles — the people who are close to you. And ultimately, that became the important thing.

Because I’m bisexual, I was confronted with this challenge that my sexual orientation implied that gender was binary. So I had to really think about what my sexual orientation meant to me.

I promised you a talk on bisexuality. And I talked about invisibility and stereotypes and isolation. But important to my experience of bisexuality has been that it became an avenue for me to explore what gender means to me and how that affects me.

And binary gender constricted my circles. It meant I could view people close to me only in terms of these very limited notions of gender. And that didn’t work for me.

I see gender as having many dimensions and having great variation on all of these dimensions. And that’s who’s in my circle — people with a wide range of gender expressions that don’t necessarily fit societal expectations. Bisexuality became a gift that helped me to see the gender diversity of my circles.

So how do you think about your circles? Because this thing about sexual orientation implying that gender is binary is probably true … for most heterosexual, lesbian and gay people as well. If you’re a heterosexual woman or a gay man, you might say, “I’m attracted only to men.” If you’re a lesbian or a heterosexual man, you might say, “I’m attracted only to women.” In either case, you’re probably thinking about that in binary terms. There are men and women and you’re attracted to one or the other. But is that really how you want to think about gender?

I’m not proposing a new label as much as a new way of thinking. I invite you to explore your sexual orientation in terms of the gender expression of the people who attract you. We have ways of thinking what women and men should be, but are you only attracted to these very narrow ideas of women and men?

Have you ever been attracted to somebody who doesn’t fit these narrow definitions of gender? Was that first crush on a girl who liked sports? On a quiet, gentle boy? On that kid whose gender you couldn’t quite place when you first met him? Was your first love a man who cried at movies? A woman with short hair who didn’t wear make-up? Is your long-term partner a female welder? A male nurse? Have you ever felt electricity touching a woman who’s greasy from an oil change? A man with manicured nails?

If the people in our circles — those who we’re close to, who we’re drawn to, who we surround ourselves with — if they are diverse in their gender expression, might we recognize that we already accept non-binary gender on some level? Maybe we’ll realize we’ve been pisexual all along.

That man you’re attracted to, that woman you’re attracted to, and certainly that genderqueer person you’re attracted to may not fit narrow concepts of women and men. If we can use our sexual orientation as a lens to recognize non-binary gender, maybe we can be more accepting of everyone’s gender.

And if you can embrace the gender diversity in your circles, maybe it will allow you to intervene when you hear a joke about a feminine man — to befriend that butch woman who lives across the street, to support your daughter who refuses to wear a skirt, to allow your son to cry.

And if you can do that — if you can open your heart to people whose gender expressions and identities are non-binary — you haven’t just changed your mind. You’ve changed their world. You’ve changed our world. Thank you.