GAY NOW, BI LATER
Bisexual identity’s not just a stop on the way to gay
It was 1998, I was 14 and as far as I could work out, I was a lesbian. I came out to my family, came out at school (not fun) and bought all the appropriate badges and paraphernalia I could find. I had lost my virginity to a boy quite uncomfortably not long before and decided that sexual involvement with the male species was just not for me. I spent the whole time looking over his shoulder at a Shirley Manson poster and pretending it was her who was panting above me. Draped in rainbow scarves a few weeks afterwards, it seemed as if my sexuality was all mapped out…
To be honest, I don’t even think I knew bisexuality existed back then. I was vaguely aware that I felt twinges for men as well as women but assumed it was all in my imagination. At my single-sex grammar school, I continuously fell (unrequitedly) for sixth-form girls and female teachers, read my Jeanette Winterson novels and sat tight. I figured that if I fancied other women, a lesbian must be what I was. It didn’t help that Kent still had a version of Section 28 – the law preventing schools from discussing LGBT issues. The only dialogue around homosexual feelings was the odd bit of graffiti in the loos and insults hurled in corridors.
At 16, I got my first insane crush on a man. I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, but it was there and it was fiercely real. It wasn’t until after he’d found a new girlfriend that I discovered from a mutual friend he’d fancied me too all along. And now it was too late! But fast-forward two years and he’s broken up with her and we have a small fling. It all goes wrong, for reasons unattached to my sexuality, yet once I arrive at university in bustling central London I realise I am surrounded by cute alternative blokes and I am definitely bisexual. It’s just taken me years to work it out.
I am not alone in having come out as lesbian before coming out as bi. I asked Libby, the editor of bi women’s website Biscuit, about her experiences. “I came out when I was 14 – it was totally because of Ellen coming out,” she explains. “I called myself gay even though I had a vague idea that I might be bi. I used to find men attractive, but they were always the feminine ones. My big teen man-crushes were Eddie Izzard and Brian Molko. So, you can sort of see where I convinced myself that fancying them was an aberration.”
Like me, Libby was terrified to confess to her bisexuality for years, in part because of a fear of people’s reactions. “I knew I was definitely bi by the time I was 18,” she recalls. “I didn’t tell anyone until I was 21 or 22. It was awful. I had a friendship group that was all gay women and they completely abandoned me. I took a lot of that resentment into my activism if I’m honest. They say bisexual is the transitional identity, but for so many women I know bi is where they’ve ended up after going through a lesbian ‘phase’.”
I can identify with this so strongly. I once, not soon after realising I was bi, went to a party with a group of lesbian so-called friends and we did the infamous L Word chart (is it me or has everyone played that game?). I racked up a pitiful four or five connections whilst everyone else was really going to town. I remarked jokingly that if I could include men my quotient might be a bit higher, and the girl I’d been chatting up said something along the lines of “Ew, bisexuals are slags”. She had about 100 connections. I would defend to the death everyone’s right to have as many lovers as they want if nobody is getting hurt, but the comment struck me as particularly stinging and ironic.
Lisa (not her real name) still hasn’t told anyone she’s bi. “I have a long-term girlfriend and we are due to get married soon,” she reveals. “I feel as if everyone would assume I wanted to cheat if I came out as bi. I don’t. I am just capable of attraction to more than one gender. I am denying my identity when I deny that. It hurts me that I can’t discuss my experiences properly.” Lisa, just like myself and Libby, took a while to realise what she really was. “I saw a friend getting abused for ‘going off’ with a man and I think that was when it really hit me. I thought, ‘That could be me. I like men too, and I have for years’.”
Coming out as bisexual is hard. You’re often faced with accusations of “straight privilege”, greed, inability to form monogamous relationships, confusion… The list goes on. With that in mind, it’s no wonder some of us are frightened to tell anyone. Especially if we’ve committed the cardinal sin of appearing to shift our sexuality over time. The sad reality is that people often “get” being a lesbian more easily than they understand bisexuality. The idea of someone straddling two worlds (so to speak!) is too much for a lot of them. Who are we? Where do we belong?
After the 50th time a woman in a bar tells you that she’d “never trust a bisexual”, it’s tempting to stay safe in your faux-lesbian identity. The shame thrown upon us by people who don’t understand is immense. But my rallying cry is: “Please don’t stay in the bi closet, if you can help it!” There are events and websites and publications waiting for you. The bi community is out there and it’s full of brilliant people ready to lend you an ear if you need it. Even if you aren’t ready to come out to everyone, please consider coming out to someone.
BISEXUALITY IS OFTEN SEEN AS A “PHASE”, A HALF-WAY POINT ON THE WAY TO GAY. BUT MANY WOMEN TRAVEL IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION WORDS CHARLOTTE DINGLE I figured that if I fancied other women, a lesbian must be what I was