Lynch Ingrid | Resisting the gender binary: Possibilities and exclusions in South African bisexual women’s accounts

Abstract

This paper employs poststructuralist theory to explore the potential for bisexual discourse to destabilise the traditional binary logic of gender.  Gender is regulated in part via dominant constructions of sexualities, and in particular through monosexualities. A monosexuality binary positions heterosexuality and homosexuality as the only legitimate categories of sexuality; within such a discursive structure bisexuality is not considered to be a viable sexual identity (Bower, Gurevich & Mathieson, 2002).  Drawing on interviews with a group of self-identified South African bisexual women, I explore the potential for bisexuality to challenge the dichotomous organisation of both sexuality and gender.
In dominant discourse biological sex, gender and sexual desire are automatically linked (Butler, 1990). Heterosexuality has a powerful influence in defining male and female subjectivity, in that the system of heterosexuality exists not only on the level of partner-choice or sexual practice, but involves a more pervasive gendered organisation of social existence (Butler, 1990; Rich, 1993).  Through the hierarchical positioning of the gender binary, heterosexuality produces and regulates what is regarded as ‘acceptable’ male and female subjects (Butler, 1990).  Efforts to reinscribe homosexuality as the privileged term in the heterosexual/homosexual binary do not necessarily disrupt the gender binary.  Normative notions of what constitutes a legitimate gay or lesbian identity can create new fixities and in this sense also imply a strict circumscribing of gendered identity, albeit in terms that differ from a heterosexual norm (Bower et al., 2002).  The feasibility of homosexuality disrupting the gendered binaries of heterosexuality has been called into question, with Namaste (1994) asserting that “perhaps the most effective sites of resistance are those created by people who refuse both options” (p.230).
Bisexual women participating in this study challenge the binary logic of gender through resisting gender as a social marker that constructs different categories of identity.  This is done by reconfiguring sexuality along a bisexual/monosexual binary, instead of the dominant heterosexual/homosexual binary.  Within such a bisexual/monosexual binary, bisexuality is afforded a privileged position and is associated with a less restrictive view of gender.  Monosexualities are associated with strictly proscribed notions of gender, while bisexuality is regarded as enabling a less rule-bound view of gender - an approach that de-emphasises gender in sexual or affective relations. 
Such a disavowal of clearly defined identity categories is partly a consequence of the socio-political context of participants, where a history of oppressive treatment along socially constructed lines of difference in South Africa has contributed to participants’ rejection of such categories.  In this discursive formulation, monosexualities are equated with oppression, where the gender binary is employed to continue differentiation and discrimination.  Participants distance themselves from the identity politics that characterised earlier efforts to secure equal rights for sexual minorities, and instead construct their relationships with others as not requiring shared foundations of identity.  This discursive formulation is constructed in a context still heavily marked by racial discrimination, which sensitises participants to the exclusionary effects of strictly defined identity categories.

An implication of disavowing gender as a social marker and as the basis for sexual attraction is that it destabilises the automatic linking of sexual identity and gender.  If gender is no longer the focus for defining sexuality, new possibilities for sexual and gendered selves are created.  Furthermore, de-coupling gender and sexuality shows up the instability of gender.  This resonates with Butler’s (1990) appeal for deconstructive accounts that subvert the binary logic of gender through adopting a “variable construction of identity” (p.5).  Bisexuality, construed as an ambiguous and fluid identity, provides the potential for such subversion.

References

  • Bower, J., Gurevich, M., & Mathieson, C.  (2002).  (Con)tested identities:  Bisexual women reorient sexuality.  Journal of Bisexuality, 2(2/3), 23-52.
  • Butler, J.  (1990).  Gender trouble:  Feminism and the subversion of identity.  London:  Routledge. 
  • Namaste, K.  (1994).  The politics of inside/out:  Queer theory, poststructuralism, and a sociological approach to sexuality.  Sociological Theory, 12(2), 220-231.
  • Rich, A.  (1993).  Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence.  In B. Charlesworth Gelpi and A. Gelpi (Eds.), Adrienne Rich’s poetry and prose, (pp.203-223).  New York:  W.W. Norton.