Last week, on National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11), countless LGBT people across the country took the opportunity "come out" as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Although we celebrate our LGBT identities on this day, many people outside the LGBT community may not realize that, in reality, we are in a constant process of coming out to co-workers, friends, family members, acquaintances, neighbors, employers, teachers, and anyone else involved in our lives. I have been coming out as bisexual since age 15, and like all members of the LGBT community, I will continue to do so for the rest of my life.
If this sounds like a tiring process, believe me, it is. Despite the critiques that LGBT people shouldn't "shove it in people's faces," wearing a rainbow pin or pride shirt may be the easiest way to visually come out without telling strangers our personal coming-out stories. As a bisexual person, however, I have to go a step further if I want to come out, because a simple rainbow is not enough. It's a "damned if I do, damned if I don't" situation: If I wear a rainbow pin, people are most likely to assume that I am a lesbian. On the other hand, if I'm marching in a pride parade with no identifying label, people are likely to assume that I am a straight ally, because I may not look like the stereotypical "butch" woman who identifies as queer.
While I am now out and proud as bisexual, I was not always as confident about who I am. At age 15, when I admitted to myself that I am attracted to women, I felt ashamed. Like many LGBT youth, I wanted to be "normal" and just like other kids my age. Not only was I ashamed of having crushes on women, but being bisexual felt like a sort of purgatory between being gay and being straight as I struggled to find people who accepted and understood me.
Thanks to a lack of awareness and knowledge about bisexuality, I received little wisdom or positive affirmation from friends, family, or mentors. I was told by loved ones that "bi people don't exist," and I was advised not to date women until I knew "for sure" what I am. In high school I was told by a trusted mental health professional (a mentor I had known since I was 13) that I would "have to choose" between dating men and dating women. Even well-intentioned friends pressured me to label myself as a lesbian because it would be "easier for people to understand."
As a kid who was extremely self-aware and also a people pleaser, I found that the advice of friends and family left me torn: I could do as I was told and respect their opinions, but this would mean living a lie. It was the 1990s, when being gay and lesbian was still regarded as a "lifestyle choice" and there was even less knowledge or sympathy toward bisexuality. What saved me from self-hatred for being bi was reading books and articles about being LGBT, which explained that sexuality could fall anywhere along a spectrum, and that you didn't need to choose between being gay and being straight. Thus I survived high school through my nerdy coping mechanism: I was reassured by books, rather than by people, that there was nothing wrong with me.
Looking back, I now understand how much my struggle to come out as bisexual influenced my decision to become a gender studies major in college and pursue a career in LGBT activism. With few representation of bisexuals in the media, politics, and most other realms of civil society, I am grateful to have found bisexual role models who have supported my professional development. In college I was inspired and mentored by Ninah Harris, an out bi employee at our campus' LGBT center. After graduation I had the privilege of being supervised by an out bisexual psychotherapist, Dr. Linda Hawkins, during the years that I worked for an adolescent HIV clinic in Philadelphia.
What may surprise most of the people whom I come out to is that the most difficult criticism I face for identifying as bisexual comes from within the LGBT community itself.
Many bisexual people can relate to my experience of finding that many of my gay and lesbian friends harbor a lot of biphobic beliefs, consciously or subconsciously, and make hurtful statements about the "B" in "LGBT." Finding the LGBT community was like joining a new club that I (technically) belonged to, but when I arrived to pick up my towel and complimentary gym pass, my membership was called into question.
Many bisexuals are actually "in the closet" within the LGBT community, claiming that they are gay or lesbian for fear of being ostracized by the people who are supposed to embrace them. Bisexual people tend to come out later in life than gays and lesbians do, thanks to many factors, including the unique stigmatization of bisexuality. Many fear being shunned by their lesbian and gay friends if they come out as bi or have a relationship with someone of the opposite sex.
This "double coming out" is why National Coming Out Day is sometimes more complicated for bisexuals than for other members of the LGBT community. A few months ago, when I posted about being bisexual on my Facebook page, I got a comment from a gay friend of mine who wrote, "I thought you were straight!" Maybe this is because my most recent relationship had been with a man, but regardless, I was amazed that even some of my good friends and colleagues didn't know I am bisexual. In college, when I was dating a woman for two years, I faced the opposite assumption, even though I had never called myself a lesbian.
As I've become more involved as an activist in the LGBT movement, I see it as increasingly necessary to challenge assumptions about bisexuality within our communities. Some may think that we have it easier because we can "pass" as straight if we're in a heterosexual relationship, or that we have the privilege of being able to "choose" whom we end up loving. But just like someone who is gay or lesbian, I have never been able to choose whom I fall in love with.
Additionally, there are many negative stereotypes associated with being bisexual that need to be addressed: Bisexuals are perceived as greedy, promiscuous, indecisive, and incapable of long-term relationships. As someone who prefers long-term, monogamous relationships, I constantly have to challenge the stereotypes that are associated with my identity as bi. Despite Woody Allen's quip that bisexuality "immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night," I would argue that dating is harder, not easier, for bisexuals than it is for straight and gay people. Despite the progress we've made in the LGBT movement, many people lack the education and confidence to understand, let alone date, someone who identifies as bisexual.
In the past couple of months, my commitment to bi-specific activism has been reinvigorated by learning more about how the stigma against bisexual people impacts our health and well-being. Last month I attended the White House Office of LGBT Affairs' first-ever roundtable discussion on bisexuality, where we discussed how bi men and women (and LGBT people in general) have disproportionately fewer health resources and worse health outcomes compared with straight people. Reports like a recent one out of the William Institute indicate that LGBT individuals have "poorer general health, increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes" compared with the non-LGBT population.
We need more research that specifically looks at bisexuals compared with lesbian and gay participants, but the data we do have is shocking. According to a January 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bisexual women are at the highest risk of sexual violence: A staggering 61 percent of bisexual women experience "rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner," while 35 percent of heterosexual women and 43 percent of lesbian women reported this type of violence. Bisexual and gay men are at the highest risk for transmission of HIV, especially those who are teenagers and adolescents: According to a CDC report from 2010, bisexual and gay men between the ages of 13 and 24 accounted for 72 percent of new HIV infections in the U.S.
After last week's National Coming Out Day, many people's lives have been irreversibly changed by their decision to come out for the first time as LGB or T. For most of us, however, it was another opportunity to celebrate being out and educate others about what it is like to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or any type of sexual orientation or gender identity one can have. Being bisexual is part of the beautiful diversity and complexity of being human; it represents the fluidity that comes with an emotion as universal and mysterious as love, and it compels the utmost understanding from others. I hope for a day when any degree of coming out will be respected, supported, and accepted by all of us who are lucky enough to feel love in life.