If and when we’re lucky, we may have a solid few people around us with whom we can honestly share our thoughts and feelings, and in whose company we feel truly seen.
I am eternally grateful for people like this in my life, but I also find this sense of community beyond chosen flesh-and-blood kin, in phrases and pages that connect with the most intimate parts of ourselves. As a writer and a nerd, it’s not surprising that I enjoy the company of people through the distance of words as well as through physical presence. And at the right place, at the right time, these words can be a lifeline.
My story truly begins around age 16 or so, and has simmered gradually just below the surface for the last 12 years (Save the math – I’m now 28). It’s bubbled up for brief moments and stared me right in the face, and dousing the flames as quickly as possible has been a futile task. This irksome question has pulled my eyes sideways, held my gaze longer than I thought it should, stirred questions, doubts, desire, and anxiety . My browser history alone would reveal ample evidence of the times I’ve hunted for answers, and once, I was so bold as to order a previously unheard-of book in to a local bookstore. When I finally picked up that taped-up brown paper bag, I had a sense that this would be more intense than the average literary weekend adventure.
It took one chapter for my world to be turned upside-down, and in the second chapter I found a catharsis so deep that I was left, stunned, staring blankly at the wall for an hour. A good book can be a profound, revelatory experience, of course. The right words at the right time are nothing less than the best form of cataclysmic, and that is what Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, by Shiri Eisner, inspired in me on that day.I’ve been alternately engaging and avoiding questions that circle around desire and identity. Am I gay? Am I bi? Am I queer? How do I know? How does my experience measure up to others who claim those titles? Is it really me?
These questions spread through my days like weeds, feeding on every interaction I had and obstructing my view. I’d retreat into them, study them carefully, and come out with no answers, only a few scratches on my face and a sense of annoyance that they were still there, and they were multiplying.
As I read Eisner’s book, it was as if these weeds were uprooted one bye one and spread out before me. For the first time, I could truly see their dirty little roots; The roots were heteronormativity, they were biphobia, they were misogyny, they were patriarchy. All these sneaky discourses that had crept into my brain, slowly but surely becoming internalized and disguised as my own questions and doubts. A moment of clarity came when I realized that the problem wasn’t (and had never been) who I am. The problem is that there isn’t space in the world I’m living in for my experience to be reflected back to me without some serious distortion.
I’d like to say that this moment of catharsis, clarity, and certainty held fast, but that would be far too simplistic. To sit in my bedroom and know that I’m bi and I’m ok, outside of binary definitions and others’ perceptions of me, was awesome, but I still had to go back into the biphobic world the next day.
And the next day, and on and on. Weeds will do as weeds do – they creep back.
I began to seriously consider the idea of coming out as bi, or queer, hoping something would shift, but I had no idea how to do this. I read that others would subtly refer to their same-gender partner or past partners as a hint or clue that would lead to a larger conversation, but cluing someone into your identity by pointing to a partner (or past partner) and giving them the wink-wink-nudge-nudge has always been, and continues to be, problematic for me.
I dated men (cis-men) in a fairly uninterrupted serial monogamous stream for 12 years, which included a few good people and a strong streak of avoiding being alone. These relationships meant that I didn’t have to answer the bi question – in my denial mind, that was a topic for when I was single.
Even in an open relationship with a man, I was read as straight, and so I reasoned that it would be far too much work to meet anyone else.
I thought I could avoid this question as long as I was defined by a male partner, that I wouldn’t “know” if I was gay or bi until I could prove it through attraction or sexual experience. There’s no need to “come out” as straight; I’d internalized the myth of “straight until proven otherwise.”
I have had a hell of a time finding coming-out stories from people who identify as bi or queer. I respect the courage that it takes for people to come out as gay or lesbian, and read these stories habitually, searching for some hope of being seen. But I still felt invisible, caught between being assumed straight and a newly idealized version of coming out.
Eisner argues that bisexuality destabilizes our concepts of straight and gay because “in order to receive recognition of either homo- or heterosexuality, all one needs to do is prove their attraction either to a member of ‘their own’ gender or to a person of ‘the other’ gender. However, social recognition of bisexuality would render these proofs impossible, since attraction to any single gender would not be considered contradictory to attraction to any other gender(s) –-they could coexist.”
So there I sat, finally single, among a swirling vortex of coexisting attraction to people of multiple and non-binary genders. Eisner’s definition fit, and that stirred me to act, or at least consider acting. Eisner’s words validated my troubled history of sleeping with women. When I was a teenager, my boyfriend responded to my attraction to girls by arranging threesomes, which weren’t what I had in mind – to put it mildly. I found that he was emotionally manipulating other people into having sex with us, and I felt trapped and complicit in a non-consensual arrangement that was supposed to be about my pleasure, but wasn’t at all.
After this, I doubted that my desires were anything more than a fantasy. Aside from the few moments that I was cuddling with another girl while my boyfriend snored, all I remembered was fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame.
I’ve seen how bisexuality is portrayed in the media as performative, girl-on-girl for male pleasure, but this hadn’t quite hit home in relation to my own experience.
I realized that this was an unwelcome interjection into my nascent expressions of desire, not a failure of my own attraction. Apparently this experience is not at all not uncommon.
I also began uprooting the notion that I needed to balance out the heterosexuality with non-hetero sexual or romantic experiences before I could “count” as bi or queer. This has been one of the hardest struggles, and I’d be lying if I said it’s over, or that it’s easy. When I’m up against this particular doubt-weed, I challenge myself by trying to imagine what having “enough” experience would look like, and how I’d know that I’ve arrived; This helps me realize that it’s a futile measurement, that I’m falling into the same trap of defining myself by who I’ve been with.
And then there is the issue of nomenclature, of titles. Eisner offers up a definition given by Robyn Ochs, who says: “‘I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted— romantically, and/or sexually— – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.’”
That quote in itself is also a pretty handy tool when I’m questioning whether my experience is valid or not. Answer: It is all valid. Full stop.
I am drawn to the definition of the word bi as Eisner defines it, but I’m afraid of this distance between how I see it and how it’s seen elsewhere, in both queer and hetero worlds. I have many friends who claim queer, and that feels safer or better understood, but not quite right either. Given my penchant for figuring every detail out out before acting, I know that if I linger on these words for two long, I’ll get stuck. I choose to put them both in my pocket, and try them on as I see fit.
So after a revelation, some soul-searching, some doubts, and the echo of that revelation quelling the doubts every now and then, I found a degree of balance in myself that I hadn’t had before, but I wondered, now what? Do I tell people – friends, co-workers, family – and how?
And again, the big question – Why bother?
I wrote a “Reasons to come out” list, which included personal reasons, political reasons, sharing my story for others, but the answer that finally pushed me to write this is less glamorous.
I’m tired of spinning through this internal dialogue, fighting this mess of weeds and finding the same answer. I’m tired of doubting myself, and of the hold that this internalized biphobia and heteronormative discourse has had on my life.
I’m tired of waiting for something to happen that will mean I’ve definitively arrived, for a title that feels like it fits who I am, for the right opportunity.Perhaps this is the best opportunity of the moment, so I’m going to do something differently, take a chance, share my story and be vulnerable.
For me, reading and becoming aware of the myths that underpin biphobia meant that I finally saw the deep roots of the questions that I’ve been dealing with, and that offered me a bit of relief. I see coming out as a kind of deal with the biphobic devil, but at least it’s a devil I’m getting to know, and I can see that the devil isn’t me.
I hope that in taking this step (not the first and not the last), I can free up some of this questioning energy and put it to another use. To move beyond my story and connect with others, and to see what else I can do to challenge, discredit, and dismantle biphobia, homophobia, and all of the interlocking forces of oppression and discrimination. And above everything else, I believe that this can get better.