A year after a girlfriend of mine married a woman, we were having a conversation about sexual orientation during which I offhandedly referred to her as gay.
“I don’t identify as a lesbian,” she said, somewhat defiantly.
I paused, my head running through thousands of thoughts that contradicted what she said. She was in denial. She must be. Had she not noticed she had married a woman? And speaking of which, how hurt would her wife feel if she heard her say that?
I didn’t press on the topic much more than that — in truth, I didn’t really know what to say — but internally, I refused to accept her identity.
It was a couple of years later that I started dating my current girlfriend. At this point, I still struggled somewhat with my bisexual identity.
One day, my girlfriend and I were talking and I happened to bring up that conversation I had had some years before. At this point, I vehemently opposed my friend’s declaration that she was not, in fact, a lesbian. And I said as much to my girlfriend: “if we were to get married,” I said decisively, “I would tell people I was gay, not bi.”
For both of us, this felt right.
I held this belief for many months. I believed I was being loyal and showing my partner respect. I believed she would do the same for me.
Over time, though, I came to scrutinize my own belief.
My sexual identity may be fluid — but only I get to define it
I struggled with my sexual identity for two decades. I refused to acknowledge my bisexuality for years, instead waiting patiently for the day when I would ask myself, “am I gay or straight?”, and my subconscious would reply with a confident, binary answer.
I had only recently come to acknowledge and accept my sexual orientation. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize something pretty fundamental.
No one should ever ask you to give up your identity. No matter what.
An identity that clashes with the heteronormative standard can be threatening. It can scare people. I experience this fear weekly:
- When I walk down the street holding hands with my girlfriend and we get spit, yelled at, or told we need to “find God.”
- When I’m talking about my girlfriend with my friends’ parents, and they exchange meaningful looks before telling me I “just haven’t met the right guy yet.”
- When I’m talking to extended family and they ask me if, as a bisexual woman, “so you’re just attracted to everyone? All the time?”
Many of us don’t know how to approach people with an identity that feels foreign to us. An identity we don’t know how to empathize with. And this other-ness — it can scare people.
In some ways, my identity scared my partner.
Being bisexual — and maintaining that identity, regardless on our status as a couple — was understandably threatening to her. More than that, it felt disrespectful.
“How can you say you’re bisexual if you’re married to a woman?” she’d ask.
In her mind, if I maintained that I was bi after we’d tied the knot, I was signaling to the world that I was attracted to her and men alike. I was saying to the world that I might switch back at any time. The way she saw it, my sexuality invited the risk that I’d be unfaithful and that I’d hurt her.
But forcing someone to adopt an inauthentic identity is like putting them on a restricted diet. Telling someone they can’t have something may only make them want it more. It splits the world into “good” and “bad.” And often, may lead them to do or eat or say that thing they so desperately want in private.
Whether the world wanted me to adopt a veil of lesbianism or not, I will never truly be a lesbian.
For the first time, I understood my friend, all of those months before.
You are who you are, and you can tell — or not tell — whoever you like
One day, I broached the topic again with my girlfriend. And she said something that made me realize her true fear.
“It would just hurt me so bad if you introduced yourself to someone and said, ‘This is my wife, but I’m not gay,” she said.
I couldn’t help myself; I laughed. I’m a reserved person, and appearances matter to me. I would never say something like that, let alone something that could disrespect my partner that immensely.
I pulled my girlfriend close, holding her around the shoulders. “Think about who I would tell. Think about where these conversations would come up! They’d be in safe spaces, with our friends, who already know my dating past. And they’d probably find it weird if I said I was anything but bi.”
She paused. I could see her working to come up with a counter. But, in that moment, she realized it was true.
Maintaining my identity is important for me. It’s the knowledge that I accept myself. The knowledge that I matter. That I know and love the way I was born.
I love that I’m attracted to people, regardless of gender. And as a human, that’s the identity I want to share with others. Not one that says I’m afraid to be who I am. Not one that says I’ll do the easy thing and adopt a persona to make myself more palatable to the world. Because…fuck being palatable. I am who I am. And it’s as important for me to know it as it is for everyone else. And if that makes people uncomfortable…well, that’s for them to figure out.