The day after my 31st birthday, I came out as bisexual…
…but not to my husband, family or friends. That would happen later. First, I had to come out to myself.
Growing up in a socially conservative religion, I was taught that sex was reserved for monogamously married men and women. “Same-sex attraction” was contrary to God’s plan. I didn’t know any openly LGBTQ people until I was in my teens, and even then, I only knew gay men. I didn’t have any models for what to do with my fascination with women and girls, so I tried to explain my feelings away.
I’m a girl, I told myself, of course I’m curious about other girls! And if I liked looking at them, if I was sometimes mesmerized by breasts and hips, the small of one woman’s back, another woman’s collarbones? Well, I could chalk that up to appraisal, not desire. Women check each other out all the time, I told myself. I want to be like them, not with them. And sure, I thought about kissing my best friend, but that was just hormones misfiring (I blamed a lot on hormones misfiring).
I was convincing. But I couldn’t always drown out the quiet voice in my head that whispered there might be more to this story, that there was something shameful about the way I thought about women. I started having panic attacks in elementary school. Something was wrong with me, and somehow it was my fault.
Boys pushed these anxieties to the back of my mind. I told myself I couldn’t be gay if I liked boys, and I did like them — their mysterious bodies, the ease with which they moved through the world, the bizarre things that fascinated them. I liked how being with them made me think about sex. And I liked being liked by boys, how dating them meant participating in a narrative that everyone in my world could understand, including me. In my early twenties, I married the best of the boys, an attractive engineer with a dry wit who made me laugh until I cried and saved all the receipts from our first year of dating. My feelings for women never went anywhere, but I got better and better at explaining them away.
As I got older, my world expanded. I went to college and graduate school, and I made lots of openly LGBTQ friends. Little by little, I unlearned the homophobic lessons I had been brought up with — at least as they applied to other people. But bisexuality didn’t feel like an identity that was available to me as a newlywed in a heterosexual marriage. Instead, I told myself that my attraction to women was just a side effect of growing more comfortable with my (straight) sexuality — basically a grown-up version of the hormones misfiring story. I was a sexual, progressive person with an open worldview, but I wasn’t bi.
And then I met a girl.
I was traveling solo in England for my friend Liam’s wedding. Before the trip, I had been surprisingly anxious about meeting Liam’s stylish best friend, Miriam. The day of the wedding arrived, and so did Miriam, devastatingly beautiful in a rainbow jumpsuit. I spent the day torn between wanting to talk to her and wanting to hide. Over the next few days I lost my fear, but not my fascination. Miriam was funny and easy to talk to, and I told myself that my intense interest in her was just friendly, just a “girl crush.”
My 31st birthday happened to fall that weekend, and to celebrate, Liam, his new husband, Miriam, and I all drove out to the White Spring, an ancient well with supposed mystical properties in Glastonbury. Visitors are allowed to swim, so we all jumped into the icy water.
Maybe it’s because I was in England for a gay wedding, or because a growing number of my friends — including Miriam — identified as bisexual. Maybe the White Spring really is magical, and I was blessed by that strange, old place. Or maybe I was just sick of lying to myself. Whatever the reason, all at once I couldn’t ignore it anymore: I have an actual crush on Miriam, I thought, because I’m bisexual.
I spent the rest of the day in a haze. I couldn’t take back the thought once I’d had it, but I realized I no longer wanted to. I knew this revelation wouldn’t change some things — it didn’t give me a sudden desire to leave my marriage, for instance. But my sense of myself had changed, and even though I wasn’t sure what that would mean for my life yet, when I looked at my three friends, I knew it would be okay. None of these three beloved people were straight, and they were all happy and confident in their sexualities. I could be like them. I could be myself.
A door cracked open in me that day in Glastonbury, and it’s been letting sunshine into my life ever since. After years of tying myself into knots, I’m trying hard to approach my sexuality with curiosity. I’ve been revisiting movies and TV shows that I loved: all those times I saw Titanic in the theater, was I really just there for Leo, or was I there for Kate? (It was both.) When I find myself interested in someone, whether in real life or on a screen, I pay attention to how I’m feeling: Am I attracted to this person? Do I have a type? It’s like I discovered a whole new color, and now I see it everywhere.
So far, the deepest joy of coming out has been learning to trust that the things that make me me — what I want, who I want — are valuable. And yet I still second guess myself sometimes; after all, I’ve never even kissed a girl. But why should that matter? No one asks straight people to prove that they’re straight — no one would say to a teenage boy, well, you’ve never kissed a girl, so how do you know you like them?
I’m not the only bisexual person who feels this way. Part of the problem is that for a long time the media has dealt with bisexuality exclusively as a joke and a phase — a “layover on the way to Gaytown,” as Carrie Bradshaw said. This is when bisexuality is represented at all, which it usually isn’t (the term for this is bi-erasure, and it contributes to the disproportionately high rates of depression that bi people experience). Thankfully, this is changing as more and more shows introduce bi characters who are at ease with their own sexuality. Two of my favorite shows, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin, each have more than one bisexual character. Darryl even gets a song!
I want to stress that I’m very lucky. I’ve been able to come out slowly — a privilege of being married to a man; no one would know I’m not straight unless I told them — and family members have been supportive, as have my friends. Even coming out to my husband was surprisingly easy. We’ve always been able to talk about crushes, even though we’re monogamous, and his biggest concern was whether I would want to change that. But I don’t: being bisexual doesn’t mean I have to date both men and women, although this is a common misconception.
Instead, I identify with bisexual activist Robyn Ochs’s definition: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge in myself the potential to be attracted, romantically and/or sexually, to people of more than one sex, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
This isn’t to say I don’t long for what else could be. Don’t we all wonder sometimes about the lives we could be living, the choices we don’t make? But the lingering regrets I have are less about my present, and more about my past. I wish that my childhood self hadn’t internalized all that shame. I wish that I could’ve danced to “This Kiss” with a girl at prom. I wish I’d had first kisses, and first everythings, with both men and women in college. I wish I’d known that what I wanted — all of the things I wanted — mattered.
Dr. Haylie Swenson is a writer, educator and cool aunt living in Austin, with her husband and two cats. She’s currently working on a novel about 19th century Iceland.
(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow.)