My sexuality adventure started in middle school, maybe around fifth or sixth grade, when I told my parents that I thought I might be attracted to girls.
I grew up in a very liberal community – or at least, a community that called itself very liberal. I knew one or two kids who were out (gay men, mostly), but me and my friends still joked about people we knew, were-they-or-weren’t-they. Still, I had a language to describe what I was feeling – or what I thought I might be feeling. My parents, when I announced that I thought I might be gay, hastened to tell me that it might just be a phase.
I am sure they had the best of intentions for doing so – in fact, I know they did. Likely they thought I was scared of this development, or worried about it, which indeed on some level I was. I wasn’t sure what it might mean. I wasn’t even sure if it was true. However, the effect of this assurance was mostly to leave me even more uncertain. Was what I was feeling real? If it was a phase, when would it stop? How would I know?
And didn’t the fact that I was at least sort of interested in boys mean I couldn’t be gay?
Move forward a little bit and witness me playing spin the bottle with a group of (all female) friends, or truth-or-dare, where we kissed each other, clumsily, awkwardly, giggling and a little unsure. Experimenting, as the parlance goes. It was fun, and a little thrilling, and thinking back it’s hard to untangle how much of my intense, close friendships with women had a certain element of a crush to them. I assumed everyone felt the same way I did. It was just a phase.
Throughout middle school, I had an intense and unrequited crush on a boy. I desperately wanted him to notice me. I had vague fantasies about dating. I pined – and with my slight flair for the melodramatic, I was damn good at it. I cried when he stopped talking to me after I kind of, sort of, through a third party, admitted I was into him. At the same time, when my friends were swooning over Gerard Butler I found myself more interested in Emmy Rossum’s breasts. I looked at women all the time, and I told myself I wanted to be them but at least some of the time I think I just wanted them. I made out with a female friend of mine in the back of a movie theater – looking back, a number of our interactions were sexually tinged. Were we flirting with each other or just – that word again – experimenting?
Around this time, a guy confronted me in class to claim he knew I was a lesbian. He seemed to expect this to shame me. I laughed him off, mostly amused because the girl he claimed to have seen me kissing wasn’t the one I’d actually made out with.
Later on, in high school, I asked a guy to the Tolo dance (women ask men) and I remember feeling weird – in a good way – when we got to the slow dancing part. I dated a man very briefly in my senior year, though it’s hard to say if I actually liked him or was just flattered by the attention. Sometimes my friends and I talked about women – “she’s hot” or complimenting each others’ asses – which left me even more sure that, and stop me if this phrase is familiar to you, “everyone’s a little bit bisexual.” I was straight. I just sometimes thought women were attractive.
(That makes sense, right?)
I’m not actually sure when I first heard the word “bisexual.” I think I was sort of peripherally aware of it in high school, but it was never really something I thought was real – people were either straight or they were gay. As for what I was – I didn’t know. I couldn’t label it. (There’s another line: “I don’t like labels.”)
It wasn’t until mid-college I started to think: okay, you know what? Why don’t I put a name to this thing and see what happens? I started with queer: nice and ambiguous and blanket, let me admit that I wasn’t really straight but I didn’t really know what to call myself. It was also in college that I first heard discussions of pansexuality and asexuality. That I learned, and acknowledged, that sexuality is a spectrum experienced differently by different people. It was also in college I first heard that bisexuality excludes trans and genderqueer people, because it implies a gender binary of male/female.
I slid toward “bisexual” sideways. I didn’t officially claim the name for myself until maybe three years ago – a year into a relationship with a delightful (gender-nonconforming) woman. Calling myself a lesbian felt dishonest. Calling myself queer didn’t feel quite right either – though I still use it sometimes. Bisexual was right there. Had always been there, but for so many reasons it had never seemed like an option.
Our cultural narrative has started to make room for more of the range of sexuality and gender that is human experience. Still, often sexuality still ends up divided into “straight” and “gay”. Characters that date a man and then a woman tend to end up labeled “straight” or “gay” depending on who they’re with at the time. Orange is the New Black’s nominal protagonist Piper repeatedly responds to claims that she is “a lesbian now” and similar by saying that she doesn’t like labels. The b-word is a taboo. This is bisexual erasure, and it plays into the idea that bisexual people are just confused, or don’t know what they want. Words like “bi-curious” and “heteroflexible” play with this idea, even as they might be useful for those whose sexuality is fluid: the notion that bisexuality is a phase, a transitory state, an experiment.
Then there’s another idea, somewhat related: bisexual people are sluts. The promiscuous bisexual trope is one of the few roles bisexual people have taken in media. Think Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood, or Maureen Johnson in RENT, or Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. The joke goes that bisexual people are greedy – by being attracted to more than one gender, we’re playing the field, willing to have sex with anything on legs. Bisexual characters are also often sexually aggressive, almost predatory.
On top of the negative – or nonexistent – portrayal of bisexual people in media – tropes that carry over into real life – there’s the reception by people in your life, too. In LGBT circles, bisexual people in heterosexual relationships are frequently unwelcome, while bisexual people who were in a heterosexual relationship can be seen as tainted goods. Being bisexual leaves you open to claims of transphobia (bi means two!) despite the fact that the bisexual community has long identified that “two” as meaning “your own and other genders”. Things are a little better if you’re bisexual and in a same-gender relationship, like me: people will just call you a lesbian and laugh it off when you correct them. Or else maybe your wife will think you’re secretly soliciting sex with men. If you’re a woman, there’s the added likelihood that people will assume your interest in women is insincere, or just a phase, or that you’re a “college lesbian” who is just screwing around. If you’re a bisexual man, you’re especially vulnerable to hostility from within the LGBT community and also exposed to homophobia from others. And if you’re trans or nonbinary and bisexual…well, you probably just don’t exist.
Is it any wonder I resisted claiming my identity for so long?
Why write all this, you may ask. Why does this matter? Mostly it matters to me because my bisexuality is a part of me, and a part that I spent an agonizingly long time struggling with. If I had known there was an identity I could claim, a way I could quantify what I felt – what would be different?
Sometimes I’m tired. I don’t want to insist, or I don’t want to talk about it, or I don’t want to try to explain to people that yes, I am in a relationship with a woman; no, I’m not a lesbian. Sometimes I don’t want to deal with accusations of transphobia or discussions of privilege that revolve, at their heart, around erasure. But ultimately, it’s a label I want to claim for myself, and I’m trying to learn to hold onto that.