Ever since puberty I’ve had a voice in my head whispering, “Be loved by men! And don’t forget to have babies!!” But there is another voice that whispers to me, one I tried to ignore for many years. This voice whispers things like “She’s super hot!” and “Wow, that lesbian couple looks amazingly cute and happy!!”
This is the story of me admitting to myself, to my loved ones, and then to other women that I am bisexual. It took me a really long time to come out, and here is why and how I did it.
I grew up in a family where homosexuality was rarely discussed because it was ubiquitous. My single mother had always been a misfit, and she filled her house with society’s outcasts: gays and lesbians, artists, recovering addicts, hippies, and anybody else rejected by mainstream society. Having two moms was as normal as anything else to us. Naturally, the friends we chose as children and teenagers were people who reflected the values we’d learned, so I was a little sheltered from homophobia, racism, and other types of prejudice. Still, it was inevitable that I would be somewhat influenced by mainstream culture and absorb some prejudiced beliefs.
I mention this because at 16-years old I developed a hard-core crush on a woman named Karla and I was unable to even consider doing anything about it because, gasp, I wasn’t gay. Karla had come completely out of the closet by puberty. She was The Dyke of my teenage scene. Popular, pretty (gorgeous, really), and extremely flirtatious, Karla was hard for anyone to resist. At some point when I was 15, and I don’t know how, I caught Karla’s eye and she began a habit of loudly hooting and hollering at me in public. She also confessed to everyone around me, whenever she saw me, that she had a huge crush on me and would one day win me over. At first I was mortified. I thought that Karla’s attention would make everyone think I was a lesbian. So in order to preserve my reputation I ignored her mightily.
But Karla confused me. Her full lips and thick eyelashes confused me. The outline of her shoulders in her sharp blazers confused me. Her wriggly stomach, her elegant hands, her short blonde hair and her kissable neck all confused me. I cowered away from the blazing warmth of her attention. Because, gasp, I wasn’t gay. But there was nothing wrong with being gay, right? I mean, I had gay friends my age. I’d grew up around gay people. No, there was nothing wrong with being gay. Until it came to me. There was something wrong with that.
I was like the parents in the Sidney Poitier film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” where Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play accepting, liberal white people who have always taught racial equality to their daughter until she brings home a black fiancé. I was totally fine with homosexuality until it came too close to home. Of course, at 15 I wasn’t aware of any of this. I just knew, on some desperate level, that the gay kids were first and foremost thought of as gay. Everything else about them came after that most important identity. If I responded positively to Karla, I would no longer be artistic or smart or funny or musical or brave. I would just be gay.
I must have known about bisexuality by then, but for years I didn’t think of bisexuality as a real thing. I thought bisexuals were just confused gay people. In our society, we tend to think of males as the opposite of females. It’s difficult to understand how opposite traits or desires can both be true in somebody, and when a person claims to like two opposite things we assume they are lying about one of them. Here are some synonyms for duality: duplicity, hypocrisy, deceit, chicanery, dishonesty, falsehood. I think the definition of bisexuality would, for many people, silently include one of those words. It did for me.
At the same time that I was trying to ignore Karla, something odd was happening to me: I’d started to become increasingly jealous of other women. By the time my first serious relationship was underway, at age 17, jealousy had become a constant issue for me. Although I hated to feel jealous, I felt powerless to stop it. I was caught between self-loathing, convinced I was hideous and unlovable, and seeing other women as shining, perfect goddesses worthy of worship and infatuation. No amount of reassuring by my boyfriend could convince me that he wasn’t admiring them instead of me.
This went on for years and years. My jealousy became a poisonous cloud that infected my relationships and undermined trust. Believe me, I know the ugliness of jealousy and I felt ashamed that I had so much of it. I was in pain and unhappy. I read article after article and sought advice from many therapists. Nothing helped. I could never believe my boyfriends, even when they swore until they were purple in the face that they hadn’t been looking/flirting/kissing/cheating. I lost out on friendships with many amazing women because they were too fabulous to introduce to my boyfriends. I felt constantly threatened.
I got married, and jealousy infected that relationship too. Finally, relief came in the oddest way, while I was talking to a good friend on the phone. My friend has a doctorate in psychology and we love to analyze ourselves and each other. I described the same scenario I’d been struggling with for twenty years: I’d be at a party (or restaurant or show or hike) with my man, and a beautiful woman would appear. But not just beautiful, she was exceptional in some way, often in many ways. Exceptionally smart or vivacious or creative or even just exceptionally beautiful. I would quickly become convinced that my man was attracted to her because how could he not be? I’d start accusing him of wanting to be with her, and he’d deny it, and I’d accuse him of lying, and it would result in hours of discomfort between us until a fight erupted. Terrible, right? Believe me, I’d tried everything I could think of to stop, and every piece of advice.
But in this conversation with my friend, she pointed out that it really didn’t sound like my husband was doing anything to suggest he liked this woman. “But how could he not?” I replied. “She’s beautiful and does x, y, z. She’s funny and smart…” I went on about her amazing qualities. And then my friend dropped the truth bomb I’d been needing to hear for decades: “It’s almost like YOU want to be with her.”
BAM. You know how truth can be undeniably recognizable? I said, “Yes” without hesitation. Yes without reservation. Yes without shame or guilt or pride or confusion. It was simply so very very true. I did want to be with those women I was so jealous of. And like that, my jealousy evaporated. It would still come back, but all I had to do was remind myself that I was feeling jealous because I was attracted to her. In a flash Jealousy would drop her black robe and there would be Lust underneath, all lacy and sparkly and inviting. BUT NOW WHAT??? Now I was married to a man.
To backtrack a bit, this Truth Bomb didn’t make me realize I was attracted to women. I’d already known that for years. The Truth Bomb revealed the true nature of my jealousy, which consequently freed me to feel the true extent of my lust. I’d actually had a date with a woman several years prior. It had gone like this: I’d been single for a while (post-Gabe, pre-Edward) and thinking that I should probably try doing something about these feelings for women that I’d been mostly ignoring since I was a teenager. My thinking was something like, “Someday I’m going to meet my husband and have kids, and I don’t want to be wondering what it’s like to be with a woman. I should resolve this now, get it out of the way.”
Through an online lesbian forum, I ended up meeting a woman for coffee who was almost as ambiguous about her sexuality as I was. She had never been with a woman, but wanted to try. We talked about our mutual interest in an abstract way, eventually exchanging phone numbers and talking vaguely about getting together again, which we never did. Both of us were in need of a confident captain to pilot us into the Lesbos port. Left with just each other, we would surely flail about on opposite ends of our apathetic raft until some ship of smarmy seamen swooped us up without asking, leaving Lesbos forever unexplored. Disheartened and too shy to try again, I retreated back to the world of dating men.
So flash forward several years. I’ve left my husband and, in my loneliness, have developed a sudden obsession with miniature poodles, especially old and neglected ones that are up for adoption. I’ve fallen into a nighttime routine of scouring poodle rescue websites around the country. When I find some sad, limpy poodle, I post pictures of it on Facebook and try to guilt my friends into adopting it. This is how I’m dealing with divorce so far. A friend who has already adopted a sad, limpy dog of her own suggests that I adopt my latest obsession, a particularly beat-up older poodle named Chancy. I’m explaining to her that I can’t get a dog just now, and I suddenly see my loneliness in sharp detail. I don’t need a dog. I need a lover.
I immediately close down the dog rescue page and open the Okcupid page (really not all that different…). It’s not even a question of whether I’m seeking men or women. Without hesitation I click on “both.” I don’t tell anyone in my life. For one thing, I’m not sure that my attraction to women means I am bi. It could be that when it comes down to kissing and having sex, I get scared or grossed out, or just lose interest. For another, I’ve been attracted to females since at least puberty. Why would I start saying something now? Best to wait until I’ve seen if my feelings mean what I think they mean, and then it will just be normal, right?
Anyone who has tried online dating can tell you that the first few weeks after you join a new site are completely insane, especially for women. You are barraged with messages and “likes” because you are new, and it’s hard to tell the good from the bad because you’re out of practice. So I mucked around for a couple of weeks, having good and bad experiences, and then I met a woman for coffee one morning, near the bridge as the sun was rising up, and we fell in love. I mean, not right away, but it feels that way looking back.
Her name was Emma. I want to tell our story in detail, because it is beautiful and funny and sad, so I’ll save most of it for another post. Being with Emma was like losing my virginity all over again. And it felt like I was finishing my development as a woman, and as a person. It was finding this long lost part of myself, a very real and important part of myself. A part that, once discovered, unlocked chambers of emotional intimacy and sexual fulfillment that were deeper than I’d ever thought I could go.
My family and friends took the news of Emma in many different ways. In general, my female friends moved quickly from shock to surprise to curiosity to delight. One friend said, “Cool!” and then opened up this whole ongoing conversation about her own attraction to women and how she is probably bi. My straight male friends took it very differently. Many of them became immediately defensive of their own sexuality, even though I never brought it up as a topic. News that I had a girlfriend made them want to explain to me how they could never ever ever ever ever sleep with a man. My gay and queer friends seemed to think one of two things: that I had already told them and they’d forgotten, so no big deal; or that I was doing a little normal experimentation and would go back to being straight, hopefully without breaking any lesbian’s hearts on the way.
My family didn’t take it quite as easily. Though they were accepting, I think they just didn’t know what to make of it. After all, I was 39 and suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed, interested in women? When I talked to them about Emma, in the same way I would talk about any relationship, I was met with silence, eye rolls, head shaking, embarrassed giggling, and statements like, “I don’t understand!” During one conversation with my mom on the phone, while trying to explain to her the feeling that nothing was missing for the first time in a relationship, she suddenly yelled, “Enough with the lesbian stuff!!” After Emma and I broke up and I started dating a man, my father said, “So you’re back on men now.” The only relatives who took it totally in stride were my teenage nieces, who seemed thrilled for several moments, and then acted like I’d always been bi, which was exactly true.
I really don’t blame them. I think it was as if I’d come to them and said I’m changing my name to Flossie now. They don’t have anything against the name Flossie, and they feel that people are entitled to change their own name, but they couldn’t understand why I was doing it. More than that, I was asking them to change the way they thought of me, and that’s hard to do when you’ve known someone for almost 40 years. The piece my family couldn’t seem to grasp was that nothing about me had changed. I was simply sharing a part of myself with them that I never had before.
What other people think doesn’t usually matter, but Emma had fears that I would miss being with men and leave her for one someday. Our compromise, since she was also bi, was that we would find men we both liked and invite them to share our bed sometimes. We never did that, but I still like the fantasy. Being bisexual presents me with a bit of a dilemma in that regard. My relationship with Emma was the only time I didn’t feel like something essential and ineffable was missing. And yet most of my crushes are on men.
I recently made out with a male/female couple for the first time, and the experience of kissing a man, then turning and kissing a woman, was disconcerting. I was surprised to discover that I kiss from quite different parts of myself depending on the other person’s gender, and bouncing back and forth was difficult! I don’t really know what most of this means. I’m usually interacting wholly with whomever I’m with, so I don’t necessarily feel bisexual most of the time. I’m either feeling attracted to a man, or attracted to a woman. Not both at the same time. I feel like my partner’s gender is not the most important piece for me…
Bisexuality is confusing to many people, and I get it. I remember listening to an interview with the actress Jane Lynch speaking about coming out as a lesbian. The interviewer asked Lynch why she waited until her 30s to come out, and Lynch said, “I had to get over my own homophobia.” That answer stunned me, and it made so much sense. We live in such a homophobic society, even homosexuals can grow up thinking it’s wrong. They know what they are up against before they come out, if they come out, and that’s after confronting their own inner prejudice. Why on earth would somebody choose to come out if they had a choice? And I think that bisexuals are often viewed as having a choice. “Just be with men,” or “Just be with women.”
I have more questions than answers about being bi and coming out as bi. The attitude I’d had when I was young, that bisexuality isn’t a “real” thing, is one I encounter all the time in other people. I think many people assume I’m either a lesbian who is too afraid to come out all the way, or a straight person who is eccentric. When I was with Emma I would field questions like, “Wait, so you’re a lesbian now?” And when I’m with a man, or mostly dating men, people seem to think I “got over that phase” of liking girls.
Remember Karla, my teenage crush? I used to think that I was attracted to her because she looked like a boy. I’d tell people that she confused me. I even convinced myself of that for a long time. But Emma was very feminine and I loved it. I loved her dresses and her flirty giggle. I loved her curvy body and all her parts. I wasn’t confused by Karla, I was confused by myself. I thought that liking girls was ruled out because I liked boys. I’m so happy I was wrong.