For many people, maybe most people, there is a rush of excitement after coming out. There’s nothing so sweet as the pleasure never before tasted, and the pleasure of loving who you are is intoxicating. I lovingly call this time “rainbow phase,” and it typically does include a lot of rainbows, like the one I wear on my wrist and the rather large one the rear bumper of my car I excitedly plastered there the first day of pride month. The rainbow phase is also a welcome emotional lift during a time most of us experience rejection and a shift in social situations that is painful and disorienting.
The rainbow phase provides us with something important, the opportunity to live into our identities in a new way. One delightful aspect of this phase is the reclaiming of the phrase “you look so gay” from insult to compliment. When I was first out (not long ago), I was obsessed with looking gay. But I realized one day that I kept talking about looking gay, but I’m not gay, I’m bisexual. What does it mean to “look so bi”? What is the bi look?
Of course the right answer is that I always look bi because I am bi, therefore bi looks like me. But when I was trying to establish that identity, it would have been easier in many ways to have a more developed cultural sense of what it is to be bisexual. I didn’t have a lane. There was a straight lane. There was a gay lane. There was no bisexual lane. This is also a problem for straight girls who are tomboys, or gay women who are femme, and don’t look the way people expect them to look based on their orientation. There are a lot of problems with the whole idea, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to be seen for who I am, and not knowing how to go about it.
Then there was the gay community. From my first cautious steps into the queer community, dipping my toes into a pool I hoped was swimable, I realized that not everyone wanted the likes of me in their swim space.
Sitting around a table at a social gathering for LGBT+ people, I tried to keep my cool despite the newness of it all, when an older lesbian woman began to dominate the conversation. As I have found to often be the case listening to people who lived through the early days of the Gay Liberation Movement, I was interested in her stories, her history, and her perspective on her life and career.
She talked about working as a teacher in a sometimes hostile environment, about gay cruises, about things that have changed and things that have stayed the same, then she started to veer into different territory. She started to talk about how lesbians aren’t lesbian enough these days, and how too many women she knows have been with men.
Just like that, I went from inside to outside. There is no way I could be lesbian enough, because I’m not lesbian at all. I sat silently, invisible, letting everyone assume I’m gay and not bisexual.
I would handle it differently today. I’ve had other instances like this come up, and I’m learning to speak up, as well as learning to ask questions and listen. I know that this tendency in the gay community to subtly or no-so-subtly distrust or discredit people who are bisexual, and in many ways I understand it. They are afraid that someone who has the option to be in a relationship with heterosexual privilege would never choose a relationship without it. Though I think the real issue is not that they’re dating bisexuals, but they’re dating women who aren’t out, women who haven’t made the decision to openly claim their identity as part of the queer community.
There have also been those who have questioned me from the other side. Am I sure I’m not gay? I seem pretty gay. Was I ever really into guys? I never had a serious relationship with one in all those years. Or, as one person put it, “welcome to being lesbian, because bisexual is just a stop on the lesbian train.”
Sadly, my rainbow phase seems to be waning as I settle into the reality of my new openly-queer existence with new freedoms, new friends, a tremendous sense of the goodness of my existence on this planet, and of course an ever-expanding set of challenges related to living authentically in a world that would prefer I were straight, and a gay community that would sometimes prefer I were gay.
This is more than just an annoyance for me, because the invisibility of the bisexual identity meant that I didn’t know who I was for a very, very long time.
Like most people who are bi, awareness of my attraction for the opposite gender came first. Because I was clearly attracted to men from an early age, the answer to the question, “Am I gay?”, came very easily. The answer was no. Lesbians aren’t attracted to men. Duh.
People thought I was gay, not random people but people who were closest to me and knew me well. I felt deeply misunderstood. I sometimes dreamed of getting married, and when I did it was always a dream of marrying a woman. I was obsessive about particular female friends, sometimes having to intentionally stop myself from talking about a girl because I knew it was weird.
Still, it never occurred to me that I was attracted to them. I just really wanted a super-close lifelong best friend who would be like family. I knew it was possible, because my favorite TV show had such a friendship. Xena and Gabriel were the perfect model of what I wanted. Seriously. This is what my teenage self thought. The subtext went completely over my head.
And for that reason, because I didn’t even know who I was, I put a weird pressure on my female friendships, didn’t know how to evaluate my relationships with men, and in general was angsty and clueless about the whole dating process. Dating felt hopeless. Having romance and a partner felt hopeless.
Then, when I really did fall in love with a woman in a way that was undeniable, I felt really, really confused. How could this be happening? I’m not gay?!
It seems so obvious now, but at the time I didn’t have a word for it. An analogy may be helpful: as I was driving one day, I saw a strange white spot in my vision, moving up and down. It was perfectly white, perfectly round, and perfectly strange. Then suddenly I realized it was an errant golf ball from a nearby course, and I was about to run right into it.
When we don’t have a category for something, it’s hard to make sense of the experiences we are having. When we suddenly realize what to call it, everything makes sense and we know what to do.
People say bisexuals are confused. That’s not true. What’s confusing is being bisexual and not having a word for it or any examples of bi people. Understanding that I was bi made sense of my entire life. It was the Rosetta stone for my history, translating feelings and relationships in a way that finally made sense, helping me realize and accept myself for the first time, helping me understand how to navigate friendships with straight women as well as the wide world of dating.
What I’m learning is this. There is no right or wrong way to be bisexual. It doesn’t mean I have to prove my sexuality with my dating history or my current dating practices. It makes sense of my life. That is all. And I offer you this incredible definition from Robyn Ochs in case your not sure what bisexuality is:
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.
The upside of the waning of the rainbow phase is that I care less and less whether I look gay, straight, or bi. I am bisexual. I’m comfortable saying that these days. It’s not a big deal, it’s just a part of who I am. If someone is threatened by it, that’s okay. I’ll probably ask some questions of that person and try to understand why. If someone questions whether I might be gay or straight instead of bi, I know I don’t need to defend or explain myself, but I might explain if I feel like it.
Right now, I only want to date women, and even if I never date another man, I’m no less bisexual. Bisexual is not a verb. I don’t have to demonstrate it. I don’t think of it as a noun either. It’s one of the adjectives in my life, but it’s an adjective for which I have a particular fondness.
I’m grateful to be bisexual. It’s a gift. I’m so glad I was finally able to receive it.