When I was a child in elementary school, a friend turned to me and said one day, “Hey, what color is that crayon?”

“Blue,” I said.

“What does it look like to you?” he pressed.

“Um. It looks blue,” I said.

“What if it looks green to somebody else?”

Hmm. Now here was an interesting thought I had not previously pondered. How would I describe what this blue crayon looks like to someone to whom this crayon looked green. I first thought that I could use the word “green” to describe “blue” but quickly realized that method of color-swapping would fall apart when I needed to explain what green looked like to me. (Would I call it blue? We’d be back in square one, only with the terms reversed—even if it “worked” to avoid a situation wherein I was handed a green crayon when I wanted a blue one, the colors would still look “reversed” to the other person.)

This elementary thought experiment is not just relevant to recess periods in schools. It’s something everyone grows up trying to figure out and is an example of the budding awareness in children that different people think about things in different ways.

The exposure to this thought started me thinking about how to use words to convey meaning. Eventually, after this question had been percolating on the back burner of my mind for literally years, I came to an ever-evolving (for lack of a better word, pun intended) conclusion that the only way to convey meaning perfectly and be assured that my meaning had been understood perfectly—that is, understood in exactly the way it was intended—was only possible through some kind of Vulcan-esque mind-meld telepathy communication mechanism that I’m probably never going to get the chance to experience in real life. That’s a pity, really, because the fact of the matter is that verbal communication is a pretty pathetic substitute for mind-melds.

The problem of trying to figure out whether or not someone really understood you is very hard to solve. In computing, guaranteed-delivery protocols like TCP have built-in methods for acknowledging the receipt and integrity of a message (TCP uses flow control algorithms and checksums for this). That is to say that when the sender transmits a message, it waits for an acknowledgment from the receiver that says it has been saved correctly. (Technically, this is still not guaranteed to be perfect but it is extremely reliable.)

However, human communications are not always so simply verified. There is no checksum I can calculate for my message, for instance. People do often use similar protocols to that which computers use for the purpose of acknowledging receipt of a message. Sharing a telephone number is a pretty good example: “My number is 555-5555. Did you get that?” “Yeah, you said 555-5555, right?” “Yes, that’s right.” “Great.” See how much back-and-forth there is? That’s all a (social) verification protocol.

However, the more abstract or emotional the payload of your message gets, the greater the uncertainty of successful verification becomes. Little wonder couples fight about “not being understood” over and over and over again. Communication isn’t just a matter of transmitting a message, it’s about receiving (and believing) an acknowledgment that states the message was understood as it was intended. That’s quite a tall order, especially when you consider how difficult it is to express your own emotions accurately in the first place. (It is for me, anyway.)

So what can you do to help mitigate this situation? I strive for precision. I say what I mean (transmission) using the most accurate words (payload) that are most likely to reproduce the originally intended meaning (checksum) in the listener (receiver). Yes; precision such as this is actually a learned skill.

But there’s still a problem here. What if the person I’m talking to thinks of green when I say blue? (Even this is not so abstract a question when you consider I am partially colorblind in reality.) Clearly, we have a miscommunication. That fact might not even make itself evident immediately, but it probably will at one point or another if we keep interacting.

More to the point, what if they think of binary gender ideals when I say I’m bisexual? (After all, that’s what my blog’s tagline labels me as—a submissive and bisexual man. More people read that tagline than have read this far into this particular entry.) Do I use another word, such as pansexual, to try and get readers thinking about gender fluidity and try to steer them away from making an assumption about gender that I think isn’t true?

I’ve chosen not to do that for this simple reason: when I say I’m bisexual, I’m not talking about gender fluidity, I’m talking about my own sexual orientation.

The claim that the word bisexual implies two binary genders isn’t one that is actually a part of the word’s literal definition (though it has become so engrained in today’s understanding of the word that you’ll find this assumption even in most dictionaries). People will tell me that “bi” means two and therefore bisexual means “one of two sexes” (like bicycle, literally “two wheels”) but this definition still assumes that the “bi” in bisexual is talking about two singular points—man and woman.

Instead, possibly because I never liked riding bicycles and while still a child I was diagnosed as bipolar (a medical condition that causes one’s emotional state to swing wildly between euphoria and depression), I have always understood the word bisexual to refer to the range between two points, and not just two points, and, even more to the point not just a range of gender identity but of sexual identity and gender role and a whole lot of other things, too.

Gender theorists such as the estimable Kate Bornstein talk a lot about the existence of many different axes of various qualities that, together, make up a person’s gender identity. However, at their fundamental level, these axes all have this in common: they are a range between two points. That’s what the “bi” in bisexual means to me.

That’s the only thing that makes any logical sense for the “bi” to refer to that doesn’t also have some kind of assumption concocted from cultural subtext. After all, sexuality is generally accepted even in the mainstream to refer to psychological, spiritual, physiological, social, and emotional makeup of an individual.

That’s why I don’t like the word pansexual, by the way. I don’t think it’s quite as precise.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to use the word pansexual to describe oneself or to use it for the purpose of raising awareness of issues relating to gender identity (in fact, I encourage raising awareness of gender identity issues in whatever way people want, as long as they’re nice to each other about it). It does mean, however, that using the term pansexual (like its near-synonyms polysexual and omnisexual and a slew of others) validate its use for a more ambiguous meaning. It makes the term obtuse. I don’t like that.

Overloading terminology in that way causes problems for people who wish to be precise in their use of English to maintain accurate communications.

It is not my fault that people are ignorant of gender fluidity, even though it is occasionally problematic for me that they are. However, I don’t see why I should have to dull my communication tools (the English language in this case) in order to accomodate their ignorance. Instead, would it not be more mutually beneficial to simply educate these people about the gradations of gender identity that exist? And would it not be more effective to do this by specifically discussing gender fluidity rather than overloading a perfectly acceptable term used to describe a perfectly legitimate sexual orientation (namely, pansexual) for this secondary purpose?

Is this love of precision too idealistic to work? In a casual sense, yeah, probably; I consistently have to define the words I use to remind people to take me with utter literal understanding, for the most part. (Even the word literal, by the way, has its etymological roots in scripture—in literature and writing.) But then again, I’ve found that this works exceedingly well once people learn that what I say is what I mean and what I mean is all that I’ve said.

It also makes people aware of just how much subtext they assume is present in their communications with other people after they start seeing how often and to what extent they have added it to conversations with me. Communicating with subtext is all fine and well (really), but it is dangerous to do so without intending to or without an awareness of what part of the message was subtext and what part was not.

Today, I believe two things. First, that precision in the use of language is fundamental to the communication of complex ideas, particularly abstract ones like sexuality and second, that the vagueness of language can be used to powerful, positive effect and is especially important in specifically social arenas that involve perceived risk such as, for instance, flirting. Proof is right here.

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