I’ve spent the majority of my life as a straight-presenting girl and woman, and I’m currently in a relationship with a straight man. Because of the split and often invisible identity bisexual people like me tend to inhabit, I’ve come out a handful of times over the years — and it’s rarely gone well.
About six years ago, I told my parents I was bisexual for the first time in an argument over discrimination against LGBTQ people. My dad didn’t think refusing to make a wedding cake for someone whose “lifestyle” went against your religion was that big of a deal.
Obviously, there was a lot to unpack there — about the history of discrimination in the United States, the additional civil rights the same groups were also attacking, the many assumptions he made, the outright oppression of others he could so easily ignore as a white, straight man.
But after running through these, I appealed to his heart. I told him his daughter and many of her friends — people he’d eaten dinner with, taken prom photos of — could one day be subject to this same mistreatment.
“I’m bisexual, Dad.”
The response was confusion and discomfort. One, my parents weren’t convinced I was bi. You’ve always dated guys! (I just didn’t tell them about the girls). Two, they simply didn’t want to talk about it.
The conversation ended shortly after my confession, and I was left feeling deflated but not surprised. I’d never planned to come out to them because I’d suspected it wouldn’t go well. Now that it was over, I felt like I’d revealed something deeply personal for nothing.
In the whitewashed, majority-Christian suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee, people often tell you sexuality is private. Telling my parents I was into guys and girls? Inappropriate, unnecessary. (But of course, they’d never had any trouble teasing me about relationships, PDA, and even sexual relations with boys and men over the years. In reality, privacy only mattered if you didn’t fit the status quo).
But my struggle with coming out — over and over again — didn’t end there. A handful of years later, when I let some friends in the LGBTQ community know I identified somewhere in between straight and lesbian, one encouraged me to figure myself out that weekend — by having sex with them.
They seemed to believe they were doing me a favor, and they repeatedly invited me to go to dance parties for queer women to “explore” my sexuality with them almost every time I saw them, even after I made it clear that I wasn’t trying to figure anything out. These offers made me feel uncomfortable, and as hard as I had worked to accept myself over the years, pressure and assumptions from this person made part of me wish I’d just stuck with my original identifier: ally.
Coming out to my current partner was an exception. It was easy. He’d been raised with queer family members and had dated numerous bi women in the past. He accepted me automatically, and he said if I ever wanted to be with a woman, that was something we could pursue or I could explore on my own — with his consent. We’d be monogamous with a door open.
He understood I’d spent over a decade unable to fully be myself, and he didn’t want to deprive me of any experiences I wanted to have. So, we agreed to navigate that territory together.
But with nearly everyone else, coming out meant that I had to stand for and explain all bisexual people. I had to insist that we actually existed with overtly personal examples — like how my sexual response to men and women was exactly the same.
“I want bi+ people like me, those who may still be partially invisible or unsure of who they need to tell in order to fully accept themselves, that there are no hard and fast rules for the right time, place or people to tell.”
Sometimes, taking the time to have tough conversations paid off. My mom asked a lot of questions about monogamy in particular, as did my aunt, and I told them it was the same for me as it was for straight people: a choice shared between loving partners. While there are still moments of confusion or misunderstanding, I know that they love me and accept me for who I am, my sexuality included.
When I first realized I wasn’t 100% straight, I was a terrified 11-year-old who’d just seen two girls kissing in a Youtube video. For years after that, my bisexuality was private, solely mine, or acted out only when I was too drunk to stop myself. In a world where it seemed like I had to choose between straight and gay, it seemed easier, even preferable, to hide one side of myself for the rest of my life.
After a while, though, I felt like I owed it to other LGBTQ people to be honest about myself. When others who couldn’t hide their sexuality were under attack, it seemed like mine had to become public in order to be meaningful and political.
But since then, I’ve come to a more nuanced stance. There are some people in my life who may never know I’m bisexual (unless they stumble upon this article.) They’re people who have made biphobic remarks. They’re people who haven’t done any work on their own to get to know or understand LGBTQ folks and who have given me no indication they have any interest in doing so. They’re doctors, employers and acquaintances who just don’t need to know right now.
I understand that as a bisexual person, this lack of self-disclosure is sometimes viewed as a privilege, but I also know it as pain. I want bi+ people like me, those who may still be partially invisible or unsure of who they need to tell in order to fully accept themselves, that there are no hard and fast rules for the right time, place or people to tell.
Sometimes, keeping your invisibility cloak on means less stress, emotional labor, prejudice and discrimination — all potential triggers for the many health disparties bi+ people face, from depression and anxiety to problems with substance use and increased suicidality.
While a lot of relief can come from being seen and accepted by loved ones in safe spaces, it’s OK and even self-protective to decide whether or not to share that you’re bi on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, there’s no impetus for any queer person to disclose their sexuality, especially considering the danger it could put them in.
At the end of the day, I know I’m bisexual and always will be. Despite the fact that we’re less likely to be out compared to our gay and lesbian peers, I also know that bi+ people account for the largest portion of the LGBTQ community.
And even though I can hardly name a handful of people in my own life who have come out to me, I still feel connected to a sea of beautiful, complex people living in the spaces so many others still believe are impossible to inhabit. Whether or not others can see us, here we are — everywhere.