Why Coming Out As Bi Was So Complicated For Me

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
This essay was originally published on 29th April 29th 2016.
I’ve come out three times in my life.
When I was 18, I shaved my head. I was away at college, of course, and when I came home for spring break, my mother gave me a long appraisal and asked, "Are you a lesbian?"
This was a question I’d asked myself many times over the years. Most people I know from my generation spent time questioning their sexuality, and I did my fair share of this as I was coming of age in the late ‘90s. I’d always felt like there was something different about me, dating back to all the intense "friend crushes" I’d develop on girls, but I also had crushes on boys all the time, so I decided I couldn’t be gay.
She asked me again a few days later. We are not, nor were we ever, in the habit of having these types of personal conversations. Again, I said no. Finally, right before I left, she asked once more.
"Are you a lesbian?"
"No you’re not!" she said.
"Then stop asking."
I went back to college, and my time there was interspersed with several experiences with women that were too intense to be written off. I’d reflect on these events with curiosity, but I also had a boyfriend in college whom I loved dearly, so I filed the other experiences away to be considered at a later date.
We broke up after college (kindly, in the best breakup of all time), and it was the first time I guessed that I might be bisexual. Part of this came from knowing myself better as I got older, and paradoxically, part of it came from my now-ended relationship, which had given me the support and confidence to explore myself in an honest and loving way. I still hesitated to label myself because I hadn’t "figured it out" or "decided." I also wasn’t sure what bisexuality looked like in practice, or what it was supposed to feel like, because I didn’t have any bisexual role models to look up to. My feelings felt amorphous, which drove me crazy, because I wanted to pin myself down — to know myself fully. I also wanted a convenient way to declare and market myself.

My feelings felt amorphous, which drove me crazy, because I wanted to pin myself down, to know myself fully.

After I graduated college, I moved to a big city and dated men with whom I didn't really connect. So I went and drank at a lesbian bar and kept to myself. I had no idea what my next step was.
I was lucky that I met the right woman at that time. I had been trying to make friends in my new city, and someone mentioned that she’d met a lot of smart and fun people on the local women’s rugby team. This turned out to be true for me, too, and one of the friends I made became more than a friend. She made it easy to fall in love with her, and easy to start a relationship.
I had thought it might be very different to really be with a woman, but after an initial learning curve, it all fell into place. When you’re waking up next to the same person every morning, the novelty that she’s a woman rapidly wears off. And it’s not that you stop noticing that she's a woman; it’s that she becomes your partner, and all her qualities become just the qualities of the partner that you know intimately. So it wasn’t that different — except it was actually much better than I had expected. A lot of things clicked in places where before there had been only confusion. I felt like I might have finally figured it out.
Once things became serious with my girlfriend, I knew I couldn’t be secretive about it and feel good about myself. I called my parents with the aim of telling them as soon as it came up. By way of making conversation, my father asked if I had a beau (seriously, this is how he talks).
"I have a beau-ette."
He was silent for a few moments and repeated: "A beau-ette?"
In the background, I heard my mother wresting the phone away from him, and then her breathless "Hello?"
I repeated myself, followed by another silence, and then her response: "There was a time when I would have had a problem with this, but not now. I always knew you would date lots of different types of people."
To this day, I’ve never asked her what she meant by that. The best I can guess is that it stems from when I was in high school and dated one of the few non-white boys in town. In her mind, I was always going after "the other." This was just an extension of that.
My girlfriend and I dated for two and a half years, which included moving in together, an extended backpacking trip abroad, and the most impossible test a couple can face: moving to New York City together. We eventually broke up for the same reasons most couples do: growing incompatibility, money, stress, time.

My relationship with my ex had felt so real and so right. That, coupled with a total disinterest in men at the time, made me conclude after much reflection that I must be gay.

The path for dating now seemed clearer than it ever had before. My relationship with my ex had felt so real and so right. That, coupled with a total disinterest in men at the time, made me conclude after much reflection that I must be gay. I had never figured it out before because I’d just assumed I was starting at straight — until I found out (through trial and error) that I wasn’t. It felt real; I felt gay.
I dated a lot over the next few years, and it was both great and terrible, in the way all dating in New York City is both great and terrible. I dated several women, but I resisted settling back down into a relationship, because my life still felt unsettled. Being in your late 20s in New York still feels in many ways like being a teenager, and I didn’t want to have a third years-spanning relationship in just under a decade.
Then, my friend Harris came along. Or rather, he’d been around for awhile. We met when I first moved to the city. He was a friend of my sister’s, and he gradually became a friend of mine, too. I admired him greatly for all his good qualities, including intelligence, patience, wit, and compassion, and he became one of my favourite friends. But for years, that’s all he was. He showed a genuine respect for my professed sexual preference, and I didn’t view him as a romantic prospect, because he was a man. It took years, but by the time I started to change my mind about him, I had also started to change my mind about my sexuality.
Things happened slowly for me, and then seemingly all at once: a mild flirtation with a friend of a friend, a drunken make-out, a strong reaction to a rom-com. Taken individually, it was easy to dismiss, but as a growing pattern, I started to rethink how I thought of myself. With Harris, I wasn’t sure how to proceed or announce myself. Luckily, one night we had too much to drink and let nature (or Four Loko, your choice) take its course and override any intellectual opposition I may have had.
Several months later, my mother asked me if I was "seeing anyone special" — her way of allowing for any option she thought me capable of. She’d heard of my friend Harris before, and when I told her that we were dating, she asked in exasperation,"So, does this mean you’re bisexual?!"
I laughed and said: "Yeah, I guess I am."
This is as much as I’ve ever discussed with her about my sexuality, but I think now that she knows this, there’s nothing left to know. She knows it all. I live with my boyfriend, I used to live with my girlfriend, and before that I had a different boyfriend who is now just a friend.
When she asked if I was bisexual, at the time, I confirmed because it was the quickest way to end the conversation. But it also ended up being the best way I’ve found to describe myself. The label is fraught with stereotypes — ones that I don’t necessarily want to be associated with: that I’m doing it for attention (not true), that I’m slutty (sort of true), and that I will end up with a man (actually true).

Calling myself bisexual felt like a betrayal of the sum of all my relationships — the real feelings I’d shared with women.

Dating a man is a great way to figure out that you aren’t gay. But it still took me a long time to fully come to terms with bisexuality. At no point did I think I was straight again. I was dating a man, but my feelings for women had been too strong for me to be straight. It didn’t feel like I aligned with the popular version of bisexuality, which for many women means fooling around with other women for fun and then marrying a man. Calling myself bisexual felt like a betrayal of the sum of all my relationships — the real feelings I’d shared with women.
I continued to struggle with this, but as my relationship with Harris passed the one-year mark, and then two years, I started to make my peace with bisexuality.
I realised that I had hesitated to use the word "bisexual" because of all its negative connotations, but that seemed both unfair and like a symptom of an internalised bias I wanted to eradicate in myself. I considered calling myself "queer" to make space for the multitude of sexual and gender expressions present in my social circle. But despite recognising the limitations of the gender and sexuality binary, I decided to make "bisexual" work for me. Language is constantly shifting to reflect society, so I’m just co-opting and accepting the word to reflect me.
The truth is that I believe bisexual expression is as varied as the people who claim it as an identity. In my case, I tend to prefer women as sexual and romantic partners, but I happen to be happily dating a man. Some bisexual people I know go straight down the middle, and some only fall in love with one gender but can sleep with anyone. I also happen to know a unicorn in the LGBTQ world: a bisexual man, currently involved in a serious relationship with a woman, whose own bold declaration of his complicated sexuality helped me feel more secure in my own.
In my everyday life, I make a point of coming out when I can. I don’t want to take part in bi-erasure, and I never want others to assume I’m straight. But I also recognise all the straight privileges I carry with me. When I used to walk down the street with my girlfriend, I’d look around nervously before holding her hand or showing any affection. This was to avoid any uncomfortable stares or lewd comments, both of which we were quite used to receiving. When we rented a hotel room while on trips, we’d more often than not be offered two twin beds, rather than a queen. At the time, gay marriage wasn’t legal, and workplace discrimination was (and still is) permissible by law.
With my boyfriend, I was surprised to notice that I felt no hesitation about holding his hand, even kissing him, in public. When we go out into the world, I don’t have to worry about encountering someone who disapproves of our relationship. It’s just expected, normalised. I can travel anywhere with him, whereas with my girlfriend, I’d have to consider the region, or the country, and whether homosexuality was taboo or even illegal. Those are huge quality-of-life issues, and I got to shake it all off when I took up with my boyfriend. That will never be fair.
It’s likely that I’ll stay with my boyfriend, because he’s the kind of person I can see myself sharing a life with. But that doesn’t change my orientation. I struggled so much to come to terms with what felt like a constant uncertainty, but I finally got there. I had to accept what I once thought was just ambiguity. I’m not straight or gay. I never picked a side, because it was neither one nor the other. It’s become cliché at this point, but people often really do fall in love with the person, and not their gender. I’ve just had a lot more options in my life than most.
Ed note: Per the writer's request, this post has been updated to include the writer's real name, rather than a pseudonym.
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