When Bisexual People Marry
How biased language promotes stereotypes and erasure of bisexual people.
By Karen Yin • March 7, 2016
Ed. note: Conscious Style Guide founder Karen Yin persuaded the editors of AP Stylebook to add the terms bisexual and asexual in 2019.
Marriage equality for same-sex couples has become a reality in most of the United States. Continual examination of terminology used in mainstream media to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people has made one thing clear: treating the term gay marriage as synonymous with same-sex marriage results in the erasure of the largest segment of the LGBT community—people who identify as bisexual.
According to Movement Advancement Project’s comprehensive report “Understanding Issues Facing Bisexual Americans” (September 2014), bisexual people represent 52 percent of the LGBT community. Sexual orientation does not change based on partnership; when a bisexual woman marries another woman, she doesn’t become a lesbian, even if the other woman is a lesbian. The best term, then, is simply marriage. However, if orientation is relevant to the story, it is acceptable to say same-sex marriage or marriage for same-sex couples. In addition to being more accurate, these terms reduce bias and make no assumptions about sexual orientation. The Advocate’s “When Bisexual People Get Left Out of Marriage” recounts a personal experience with those biases and assumptions.
The best term, then, is simply marriage.
It is important to note that attraction can exist in the absence of sexual behavior; it’s incorrect to assume that a person who identifies as bisexual, married or otherwise, has more than one partner. Also, some bisexual people do not fit neatly in a familiar gender category. When in doubt, ask.
The word bisexual has not yet joined lesbian, gay, and transgender as entries in The Associated Press Stylebook [Update: I convinced AP Stylebook editors to add bisexual and asexual in 2019], but resources such as GLAAD, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, and Movement Advancement Project can aid understanding of appropriate terminology. Don’t be surprised when they don’t concur taking care in how we treat people through language is an ongoing conversation.
Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.