Welcome to The Single Files, Refinery29's new bi-monthly column. Each installment will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email email@example.com.
Looking back, I don’t think I was ever really bi. I had tried on the label like a new pair of pants four years ago. They looked great but never quite fit right. Now, they’ve shrunk in the wash and faded beyond recognition. It’s not who I am, and it took the end of a serious relationship to see it.
When I was dating my ex-boyfriend, I would publicly take pride in identifying as bi. But internally, part of me loathed it. Proud as I was, like many bi people out there, I would often get hung up on the supposed duality of our sexuality. It always felt like this urgent puzzle I had to solve right then and there: Am I gay or am I straight? I enjoyed being in a couple and I loved my partner, but my obsession over that question — and my label — lasted throughout the entire relationship.
Looking back, I can see that it wasn’t only my sexuality that weighed on me. The different pieces of my identity — bi, South Asian, woman with an anxiety disorder — constantly clashed, and I didn’t know how to reconcile them.
I didn’t think I could be brown and bisexual, for starters, largely due to internalized homophobia; Indian culture doesn’t take too well to anything outside the heteronorm. Being married by a certain age is a common expectation for South Asian women. I internalized that pressure — especially because I was in a straight relationship. If things worked out for us in the fairytale way ‘90s Bollywood movies depicted, I thought I would never have to mention to my conservative parents I was queer. That it would be irrelevant, and I would be more palatable to my extended family and all the aunties and uncles in my community.
My anxiety over the question of my bisexuality, combined with the obvious homophobia in my local Indian community and my own family, eventually spilled into all aspects of my life. I would get triggered easily and even have panic attacks.
But then a few months ago, in the midst of the pandemic, my partner and I realized our lives were heading in different directions — I was about to start grad school and him, his career, each far away from the other — and our relationship came to a natural, though painful, end. Newly single, I felt heavier and lighter at the same time; weighed down by grief over the break-up, yet suddenly freed from my self-imposed ‘bi burden.’
It might sound dramatic, but it kind of felt like that moment when the smoke clears. Thanks to the solitude I gained from being single (and social distancing), I was able to take a clear and close look back on the past few years.
One day, a month or so after the break-up, I was lazily lying in bed, watching YouTube videos. I came across a Buzzfeed video about a bi guy who rehashed his previous relationships with his exes, one who was a woman, the other a man. The video hit me hard. In it, the bi guy realizes he is self-destructive in his relationships because of his internal struggles with his sexuality and society’s expectations of him. This man fought against his ‘bi burden,’ just like I did. That’s when it dawned on me: I’m not bi — nor do I have to be. I don’t need to quantify my queerness for myself or anyone else, especially if all it brings is unnecessary suffering.
This revelation was about more than my sexuality. I finally began to understand how much I had been trying to meet expectations I thought other people had of me in all areas of my life, and how it had been fueling my anxiety. I also realized I didn’t have to live that way anymore.
For example, I had this stereotype in my mind of what a traditional Indian-American woman looks and acts like. Even though I never actually fit that mold, I put so much pressure on myself to conform. But there’s no one standard version of an Indian-American woman anyway! Everyone is different, comes from a different cultural background, and has a different story. I realized I was forcing myself to fit into a box that...doesn’t even exist.
It was the same thing with the bi label. I’d come to believe that most bi people leaned one way or another, toward being more gay or more straight. Hence my constant, anxious assessments of where I fell on the spectrum. Since I was dating a man, I was leaning towards men — right? That I was equally attracted to women became a source of confusion and guilt for me.
Once that relationship ended, though, some of the pressure I put on myself to fit into that particular box lifted, and I could be honest with myself: I never truly leaned either way. And in fact, there’s no law that says all bi people must — or that none can. Yet again, I was trying to live within the confines of a false definition.
Labels can be powerful, but they can also be limiting. The term “bisexual” has actually been under debate for a long time. Some believe it reinforces the gender binary, while others consider it an umbrella term for being “not-straight.” Ultimately, it can mean different things for different people. In my case, the term “bi” oversimplified me as a person. And if there’s one thing almost everyone can agree on, it’s that people are complicated. So while I currently identify as someone who is attracted to anyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation (which some would call pansexual), I’m perfectly happy being labelless for the time being.
I don’t know that I would have come to the same realization if I hadn’t gone through the breakup. Through no fault of my ex-partner, I had grown too comfortable, and fallen out of touch with my sense of self. I needed the time and space to turn inward, so I could re-learn what I care about and who I am.
Thanks to this experience, the next time I am in a relationship — and I’m not in any rush — I think (I hope) that I’ll be less likely to question my identity and try to contort myself into some limited or false definition of who I am. Although difficult and scary, my break-up taught me so much.