I am a chronically anxious person. There have been very few events in my life that have been completely spontaneous - despite my best efforts to be carefree, I am an obsessive public transport coordinator, a maker of lists and agendas, a persistent worrier about all things uncertain. If I am visiting a place I’ve never been before, I’ve already made a multi-page personal guide complete with headings and hyperlinks. My decisions come with a great deal of forethought, for better or for worse, and the people in my life know this about me. So why, when I came out as bisexual, did so many loved ones respond as if I hadn’t thought it through?
“Are you sure?” was a common refrain when I initially put forward that the idea I was bisexual, betraying myself with tentative qualifiers like “might be” and “I think”. Given that I had come of age in circles where many people either already identified as LGBTQ+ or came out as such later on, I hadn’t thought that coming out to the people I knew would be a particularly big deal. While it was true that in outright saying I was bisexual, I was expressing something new to their ears, I had thought that it would be obvious from my earnest awkwardness and prior interests that it wasn’t the first time I was considering the prospect - as all queer people know, there is long and sometimes insurmountable journey between realising something in yourself and allowing the people in your life to share in it. You don’t trot these thoughts out half-formed, like mentioning that you’re thinking of taking up yoga or trying to go vegan for a bit. If you’ve ever asked someone this in their moment of leaving the closet, understand though your intentions may not be bad, it’s insulting to suggest someone might be mistaken about their sexuality. It’s virtually guaranteed that they’ve spent a lot more time thinking about it than you ever have.
“Aren’t we all?” a number of people remarked, some of them straight and some of them not. In alternative circles and elsewhere, there is some social capital to be found in being openly sexually adventurous, but only in particular ways. To be bisexual and monogamous, to specify ‘bisexual’ as a label, to refuse to give details, to want to talk about your sexuality but not your sex - all of these have been taken as signs that I am not radical enough to deserve my orientation. It was frustrating that it seemed straight people into BDSM could be taken more seriously than me in their “queerness”, but not unsurprising - in some minds, there is no real structural difference between people with non-straight sexualities and people who have unusual sexual tastes, a fairly telling lack of distinction.
“When’s the threesome?” my straight male friends smirked, many of them leftists whose self-perceived sexual liberalism generously extended to an enthusiastic tolerance of girl-on-girl action. I suppose they thought they were being funny, too open-minded and revolutionary to consider themselves part of a larger problem, but the fact they read queer theory and had gay friends wasn’t enough to take the sleazy sting out of their words. I let it slide - I already had a reputation for being an uptight feminist killjoy - but there’s a specific sinking feeling to sharing something intimate with a friend and seeing porn credits light up their eyes. Anyone who has ever tried to come out and been met with sexual questioning can attest to that particular humiliation of having a vulnerable confession recontextualised as a titillating peek into your bedroom.
To each of these disappointing responses, I chose the path of least resistance: I compromised myself and didn’t speak up in order to minimise confrontation and keep the relationships intact. No one I had come out to had really made their comments with malice (though the question from one family member about whether my current relationship was a sham felt unnecessarily hurtful), and since I had been anxiously imagining outright rejection or burned bridges, it seemed only right to take what I could get. In some ways, I believed that since I was coming from a fairly privileged position, semi-publicly coming out as bi within the protective framework of a supportive long-term relationship with a man, it would be churlish and ungrateful to push my luck in asking for more. Instead, I smiled, cringed, dodged awkward questions and meekly stuck to my original message - my intention, failing actual acceptance and support, was to not have to have these conversations again. With most of these people, I will never really be able to have constructive, honest discussions about how their reactions and their biphobic implications made me feel, much less explain how admitting my sexuality has allowed me to transition into a more positive place in terms of gender and self-image. It’s not that I don’t want to do the work to make them understand - it’s just that navigating their discomfort and obliviousness comes at too high a price to my personal well being. I cannot explain my sexuality with the chipper detachment of an ally, no matter how privileged I may be; when you tell me you don’t understand bisexuality and disregard my coming out moment, it hurts.
The thing about anxiety is that is colours your world with doubt. I already move through life obsessing about the things I can’t confirm, no matter how ridiculous they seem - did I lock the door, will everybody at this party hate me, is my boyfriend dead or just not responding to texts? It doesn’t take much to knock me off my balance and send me spinning through an nonstop maze of self-questioning and confusion. This in itself was one reason why it took me years of guilty wondering and lurking suspicions to start thinking about perhaps being bisexual. Having been a depressed kid who had already felt variously accused of attention-seeking behavior by peers and authority figures, including medical professionals, I didn’t want to openly explore something that would probably be scorned as yet another histrionic teenage announcement. With anxious thoughts come a rush of nerves and guilt that your worst fears might be true, that you’re a terrible, fraudulent person and everyone around you agrees, and after it took me so long to come to terms with being bi on my own, I wasn’t prepared to have that fragile sense of self shattered by other people’s tactlessness and inability to understand. My energy for combatting bisexual agnosticism was already taken up by my own insecurities, with none leftover for external fights. In failing to stand up for myself in the face of biphobic responses, I felt as if I had been largely unsuccessful in my efforts to make myself heard, but gnawing self-doubt already goes hand-in-hand with bisexuality and anxious tendencies; I didn’t need the people I loved to make it worse.
Imposter syndrome is an age-old problem in the Great Bisexual Experience. People have all kinds of theories to explain their confusion at the unknown, suggesting that you’re a bored straight girl, a closeted gay man, unable to pick a side, inherently promiscuous or simply fictitious, a persistent set of indecisive tropes that Sheri Eisner, author of Bi: Notes on a Bisexual Revolution, puts down to the “social anxiety of identity instability, as well as fear of change.” Eisner largely points to heterosexual society for perpetuating this stereotype, but even the most resilient among us are not immune to internalizing some of these ideas, particularly as they are often replicated in queer circles as well as straight. Throw in an overpowering sense of generalized anxiety and lack of confidence in your identity, and it’s easy to see why so many bisexual people choose to quietly endure varying levels of biphobia from people around them rather than enter into conflict; nobody likes to make themselves the focus of a debate, particularly not one about whether or not you are valid.
In this sense, compromise is a survival technique - not the best one, not the most radical or the most effective for long-term positive interactions, but a means of getting by until you have the strength and confidence to push back on questions regarding your identity. It’s definitely not an option for all queer people, and on the societal level, the benefits of passing as straight undoubtedly remove me from virtually all social and material challenges that other LGBTQ+ people face on a daily basis. But it is still not morally wrong to feel as if being made to rely on an easy, misfitting label of heterosexuality to sustain your interpersonal relationships is an unwanted trade-off. Compromise should be beneficial to both parties, but when you turn to your nearest and dearest to offer a deeper understanding into who you are and are met halfway with biphobia and skeptical inquisitions, it’s hard not to feel like you got a bad deal.
Now that I am older and elsewhere, I’m a little more assertive in my interactions and have access to a large LGBTQ+ community that can offer me some of the specific support and solidarity that I haven’t necessarily been able to find outside of other bi women. I help organize a queer book fair and am extremely vague about it with more conservative members of my family, passing between what the GLBTQ Encyclopedia Project describes as the “uncharted territory between traditional heterosexual society and radical gay culture.” While I am not a believer in a gender binary, there is an ironic poetic symmetry in the double-sided imagery involved in being an anxious bisexual - I frequently feel somewhat half-hearted and between worlds, both in the closet and out, perceived as two-faced and duplicitous in my presentation and attractions.
Not all bisexuals share my precise personal anxieties, but bi people, like all members of the LGBTQ+ community, tend to have particularly high rates of mental health issues compared to the general public. Although it is difficult to compare statistics across LGBTQ+ populations due to different sets of barriers, unclear category groupings and varying ability to collect accurate data, the Open University's bisexuality report to advise UK LGBT policy suggests a strong link between the increased prevalence of mental health problems in the bi community, biphobia and a lack of community. Many people don’t have the freedom or energy to ignore biphobia or homophobia in their interpersonal relationships, and I appreciate that my ability to compromise is a choice made out of a desire to stay comfortable. Still, it is not a bad thing to have gotten to a place where I have the internal assurance that I deserved a warmer reception from some of my friends and family than bemusement or jokes at my expense. It is a problem that straight people simply don’t have to deal with, unaware of how difficult it is to settle for less when it comes to talking about your identity. While I engage with a wider queer community and work on my anxiety, I know that the people who disappointed me won’t necessarily be falling over themselves to read up on bisexuality on my behalf. Though in an ideal world, I might have come out as bisexual to validation and support, I hope that I will get to a place where I feel more comfortable asserting my identity in public, and refuse, anymore, to compromise.
Sheri Eisner, Bi: Notes on a Bisexual Revolution
Tina Gianoulis, 'Passing' from the GLBTQ Encyclopedia Project
Open University, The Bisexuality Report: Bisexual inclusion in LGBT equality and diversity