Labels: the bisexual-chronic illness connection

January 13, 2016

Society likes labels. It likes to put us into boxes. Sometimes those boxes overlap like a rectangular Venn diagram. Sometimes they’re similar to someone else’s array of boxes.

A lot of us have complicated relationships with our labels, and I think a lot of that has to 1-13-2016 4-32-57 PMdo with where the labels come from. I was working on a project recently where someone asked, “I have ____. Does that count as a chronic illness?” I was horrified. Why should anyone else define your condition? If you feel you have a chronic illness, isn’t that enough? And yet, I have seen it happen over and over again. Someone is told they don’t really “belong” in a group.

But labels can also be empowering. They can help us quickly convey something about ourselves to others. They can help us learn about the group that we belong to. And one of the things I find most important: they help us find community.

You’re a queer bisexual woman with a chronic illness too!?! Awesome!!

Yes, I’ve heard myself utter those words. It’s so great to talk to someone I can relate to in multiple ways. I love using certain labels because it helps me find my peeps. Totally cool.

What’s not so cool is when other people choose to label me or anyone else. It’s also not cool when they choose to redefine my labels. I’ve heard people say, “Bisexuals are only interested in threesomes.” When I say that’s not true, they disagree. Um, wouldn’t I, as a bisexual, know that better than you, a monosexual?

I’ve heard people say that if you’re not in a wheelchair then you don’t need to use a ramp. When I try to explain why that’s not true, they don’t want to hear it. They’d rather hold on to their preconceived notions than actually learn they might not be 100% correct about something.

It can be infuriating, that’s for sure. And as someone who has a chronic illness and is bi, I’ve been amazed at how much overlap I have seen in these two communities. Both chronic illnesses and bisexuality are often (though not always) invisible to the casual observer. Often, people pretend we don’t exist, either individually (“you’re dating a man so you must be straight now”) or as a group (“there’s no such thing as fibromyalgia, it’s just a made up condition so the pharmaceutical companies can sell more drugs.”)

People like to throw their labels onto us. As if I don’t know if I have chronic illnesses or not. As if I shouldn’t be allowed to define my own sexual orientation.

We both have our labels misunderstood often. Who hasn’t heard some version of “it’s not like that will kill you” when it really could, or “bisexuals aren’t capable of monogamy because when you’re with someone of one gender you’ll always be missing the other gender”? (This last one has the added bonus of marginalizing anyone who doesn’t fit into the gender binary.)

And let’s not forget the joy of having someone condescendingly explain who we are to us. I won’t even bother with a sample quote because it’s just so heinous.

There’s discrimination, and sometimes it’s based on labels that don’t apply to us but that someone assumes describe us.

Then there’s the joy of having someone argue that the label we choose isn’t “right” in some way. Like being told your condition isn’t really a chronic illness. Or the ever-popular, “I don’t think you’re really bisexual, you’re pansexual.”

But wait! Don’t despair! Because having these labels is also truly awesome!

If I didn’t use the term “chronic illness” how would I have found all of you? We all have such different diagnoses, symptoms, and life situations. I could write a blog about having Hashimoto’s Disease, but I wouldn’t get to talk about Celiac. I could write about Celiac, but what about PCOS? Anyone with a different diagnoses probably wouldn’t bother to read or comment. Using “chronic illness” allows us to all connect, and that’s magical.

I feel the same way about calling myself bi. Sure, it means that sometimes I’m shunned in lesbian spaces. But it also helps me to find other bi folks. It means people don’t look at me askance when I mention that cute girl over there, even though they knew I was dating a guy last year. We can share stories and music and movies and books. We can simply find each other.

And don’t forget the research. The health research around chronic illnesses is probably somewhat familiar to you. But did you know about Bisexual Health Awareness Month? The research around health disparities for bisexual folks is super important, but how could anyone conduct that research unless people self-labeled as bi?

I could go on for days about the similarities in the way labels affect both the CI and bi communities so for now I’ll just say, thank goodness for our labels. Despite all of the problems with them, they’ve help me to find some incredible people, and I’m so grateful for that.

Now, it’s time to go fight some more of those damn stereotypes!

How do you feel about labels? What are some of the labels you apply to yourself? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

We won! Celebrating while sick

June 27, 2015

Yesterday was a big day here in the U.S. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a ruling that makes same-sex marriages legal throughout the country!!!!!

Are you done dancing your jig yet? Ok, let’s continue. This is huge news. SCOTUS also issued a big ruling for health

Equal Marriage Celebration Rally

Equal Marriage Celebration Rally

insurance coverage in this country several days ago. That’s huge too, but it doesn’t have the same kind of emotional impact for me. There weren’t celebrations all over the country for that (at least, not as far as I know.) So today I’m writing about the equal marriage ruling.

This is a good thing for our entire country. Many of my heterosexual family members and friends are saying that, too. But as a bisexual woman, that feels very personal. I’m currently single. Maybe one day I’ll get married, and when I do, it might be to a man or it might be to a woman, but whoever I marry, that marriage will be recognized throughout the country!

I have many friends who woke up yesterday knowing that their marriages were only recognized in some states. A few hours later, those marriages were recognized in every state! This has a lot of legal, financial, and logistical implications. I won’t get into hospital visitation rights, adoption, travel, or taxes right now. And there’s still a lot of work to do to gain housing rights, end LGBT youth homelessness, end employment discrimination, etc. You can see a good partial list here. So yes, next week we need to continue to fight, but right now we need to celebrate!

I spent the morning on Facebook. I hated to be alone – I just wanted to hug someone! I was bouncing up and down in 11535803_10152997661181169_4394317502946977616_nmy chair, crying and laughing at the same time. I’d stop crying, then read something like “Love wins!” and start crying tears of joy all over again. We finally had marriage equality!

This wasn’t quite a surprise. I knew this ruling was coming. I was watching the SCOTUS blog, and was disappointed each day when they didn’t rule on this important case. I expected a win. But when it came, the emotions were shocking and overwhelming. I could hardly believe it! We won!

So there was no question I had to celebrate. A large group of organizations had gathered together to host a rally and a celebration on whatever evening the ruling was issued, so obviously it was going to be yesterday. But here’s the thing about adrenal problems: any stress is a problem. That includes good stress. As I told my dad a few weeks ago, winning the lottery right now could leave me bedridden. So while this was a fantastic day with glorious news, the emotional excitement of the morning at worn me out. I could feel the chest congestion, the difficulty breathing at times, the roughness in my throat. My body had started to rebel.

I debated. I debated a lot. I knew that going to the celebrations could have really bad results, but how could I not go? I was protesting at the State House here in Massachusetts in 2004 when the legislature tried to work around the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling to make same-sex marriage legal in this state. I was there when they finally delivered the vote that would lead to the first marriages in May 2004. But in May 2004, I didn’t feel well enough to go to City Hall and see the first marriages taking place. I was there, though, in 2012 when we celebrated the SCOTUS ruling that invalidated DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. This meant that the federal government would recognized all same-sex marriages, an enormous victory! So even if your state didn’t recognize your marriage, the federal government would.

And here we were in 2015 and I wanted to celebrate. First things first, I sat on the tv with some knitting and a movie and I forced myself to relax. It was tough not to go online, but I knew I needed to calm my emotions. After I rested, I made a 6-27-2015 1-09-45 PMsimple plan: I would get takeout for dinner, then go to the first rally. I would skip the more boisterous celebrations. As much as I wanted to go to them, I knew it would be more than I could handle. And if at any point on the way to the rally it felt like too much, I would come home, because celebrating on my own, or on the phone with loved ones, or any other way, would be good enough. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was the right choice.

In the end, I made it to the rally. Where I once saw opponents holding truly hateful posters, I now saw waving rainbow flags. There was a huge rainbow flag on the gate to the State House! I almost cried all over again. I heard amazing speeches, saw the cheers, and felt fantastic, though tired. So I found a place to sit. I didn’t cheer out loud, only in my head, and I took it easy. It was a necessary compromise, and one that I don’t regret at all.

I can’t begin to explain how meaningful yesterday’s decision was to me. Everything I write here is woefully inadequate. But the energy yesterday was perfect. We all understood each other. Strangers hugged and cheered together. I hugged my friends, simply saying, “Can you believe it?” and “What a day!” and we all understood. No explanations were necessary.

And now, as I type this, there is a rainbow stripe at the top of my screen, because apparently WordPress is in on the celebration. My Facebook feed is filled with celebratory notes, excited words, memes, articles, videos. Profile pictures are rainbow-colored or bi-colored (I went with bi colors.) My straight friends and family are celebrating just as much as the queer ones. Just as it should be. Because yesterday, we all won. And in my own way, I got to celebrate that, despite my illness.

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