My first steps as a young bisexual man.
I went through my first big breakup last summer. I had moved to New York, leaving behind my girlfriend of several years in our college town. Although she and I were insanely close, the committed long-distance thing just wasn’t working for either of us after a year. It was a deeply painful and protracted separation, full of long fights, ill-advised make-ups, and bi-weekly ultimatums. We couldn’t help it; we didn’t know how not to talk for hours every day. The only upside for me was the chance to discover what being a single person in New York was like. I suspect that my sudden freedom provided more novelty than a typical rebound period. Because, over the course of our relationship, my ex had helped me to accept the fact that I am actually bisexual.
One of the first people I went out with was a Brooklyn artist who I’ll call “Hal.” Hal was talented and friendly and handsome. I spoke honestly about my situation, and he listened with what seemed like empathy. I eventually decided to go home with him. That night, as soon as Hal finished performing a more skillful blowjob than I had previously thought possible, he smirked at me and smacked my knee. “So, Mister I’m-Not-Gay…still like girls?”
Before I could even process the question, some idling corner of my brain snapped awake and assembled a composite snapshot of many lazy evenings spent with my ex. I could see the two of us curled up in my flannel shirts and her ratty comforters, basking in the glow of a well-worn Time Bandits VHS. I could see a wastebasket full of condom wrappers and take-out containers from our favorite restaurants. I could see books of short stories by George Saunders and Roald Dahl littering the mattress, waiting to be read aloud. I could see our cat’s tiny white paws poke underneath the bedroom door, pleading to be let in. I could see myself feeling safer and more confident than I ever had before or since.
And I was suddenly pissed. I helpfully suggested that Hal should go fuck himself. Although I immediately regretted my outburst (and everything that preceded it), I had to ride out the night. I spent six hours pretending to sleep while sliding away from Hal’s ever-encroaching spoonage. By sunrise, my scrawny body was wedged behind the mattress and splayed against the wall like the peeling label on a beer bottle.
During my subway commute of shame, I acclimated to the sickly loneliness that I didn’t yet know often followed casual sex. I wondered why Hal’s attempt at playful jabbing had bothered me so much. Was it because he was dismissive about something that was still painful for me? Was it because his comment was tinged with sexism? Or was it because he had committed a small act of erasure on my identity? Before I began dating guys in earnest, my feeling was that all stripes of out LGBTQ people were on the same team. Having been marginalized by straight society, mustn’t all queers of my progressive generation loathe any type of orientation-based discrimination? I pictured a disparate group gathered under one colorful, hate-proof tent: an infinitely diverse circus. In retrospect, this was a ludicrous dream.
Pizza and Calzones: My Orientation in Brief
I’ve never really liked the word “bisexual” because it seems to indicate a fixed split in attraction, sort of like how the comic book villain Two-Face is half good and half evil. (I don’t choose my partners by coin toss, honest.) I am using the label in this essay for the sake of expedience and specificity, even though I generally identify with the usefully vague “queer” in my personal life. It’s hard for me to sit with the “b word” because it comes with a lot of baggage.
One common stereotype suggests that bisexuals are greedy time-bombs of infidelity. If a man is capable of having pleasurable experiences with both sexes, why would he ever settle for just one? This assumption does not reflect my experience. I hasten to say that many happy bisexuals are lifelong swingers, or are sexually liberated in other ways. As an orientation, bisexuality opens the door for many lifestyles with subversive potential. But my own emotional needs tend to veer toward monogamy. I like stability, I like deep intimacy, and I will readily admit that my capacity for jealousy is my deepest personal flaw. In fact, I believe that the root of my own inclusive queerness is antithetical to the stereotype of bisexual insatiability.
The thing is, I have always experienced fewer crushes than my peers. If you were to hack off my pinky, I would still (after screaming for a while) be able to count the number of truly dizzying infatuations that I’ve ever felt on the remaining fingers of that hand. Living with loneliness has usually been my status quo. Meanwhile, crushes come like clockwork to my friends. Despite possessing a young man’s sex drive, I usually find it difficult to feel strong attraction to a particular person without an overwhelming amount of intellectual and emotional connection first. I believe that this is linked to my bisexual behavior, and my crippling introversion only compounds the issue.
When mutual attraction happens, I am too busy drowning in my own endorphins and singing in public to care about minutiae like, say, gender. I am typically far more physically stimulated by women than I am by men, but that is just one component to true intimacy. By sight and feel, I also prefer pizza to calzones. But if the calzone is stuffed with five kinds of gourmet cheese, and the pizza is covered with anchovies, I’m gonna go for the calzone. Make sense?
It took until quite recently to figure all this out. Complex emotional variables hadn’t helped. I experimented with a male friend in college, and we both handled the situation with all the grace of Godzilla stomping around a shipyard. I missed the opportunity to learn from the experience. But the main reason that it took me so long to grasp my own orientation was that, growing up, I had no reason to believe that guys like me even existed.
Batman and Broadway: My Origin in Brief
My interests have always walked a strange line between straight and gay elements of geekdom: Batman and Broadway were my dual cultural touchstones at ten, and they still are today. But I never had a template to understand the sexual feelings that went with that dichotomy. In middle school, I participated in the great American tradition of boys who watched whole movies on cable just for fleeting shots of sideboob. But when I was fourteen, my urges shifted so suddenly that I became convinced I was being taken over by gayness, the way the X-Men’s mutations took over during adolescence. So why was I so obsessed with the punk girl at camp who also totally loved Tim Burton flicks? Both sexes failed to prompt the lupine aggression that I was apparently supposed to feel. This was all tremendously confusing, and with a generous amount of Catholic guilt peppered in, I reacted by generally refusing to acknowledge the very few real-world attractions that I did experience. Not to myself, and certainly not outwardly.
The handful of reportedly bisexual men on my radar were exhibitionist performers like David Bowie and Alan Cumming. These glam-kings seemed downright alien in their explosive confidence, and I assumed that they couldn’t belong to the same tribe as a chubby, jort-wearing loser. Even as several of my coolest female friends joyfully announced their sexual fluidity, I couldn’t embrace the obvious. Bisexual girls somehow seemed more possible than bisexual boys.
It’s easy to guess where this attitude came from. Bisexual women are far more visible (and more socially acceptable) than their male counterparts, partially because the notion of hot girl-on-girl action is sophomorically titillating to many men. It’s worth noting, too, that lesbian sex is sometimes not seen as entirely “real;” a lesbian who has never slept with a cisgender man may be unfairly labeled as a virgin in some circles. But I think that the male-punishing side of this double standard also has to do with our culture’s hostility toward all things deemed feminine. It is a twisted and counter-intuitive manifestation of patriarchal attitudes.
When a small girl takes up a typically male interest, particularly in sports, it can be seen as commendable. She must possess a consistent and visible set of masculine traits to qualify as a “tomboy,” and even that term is not typically used in an intentionally derogatory manner. I hasten to note that I am not discussing the terrible tribulations that trans boys commonly face, but rather the space that gender-conforming cis girls are often afforded to be fairly boy-like. Meanwhile, a small boy becomes a “sissy” (or realistically, a “faggot”) the very second that he slips into a feminine behavior. We do not allow for, or even believe in, a gradient. By speaking with the wrong cadence, or gesturing too expressively, or failing to take interest in the right activity, a boy invites immediate physical punishment and social ostracization from his peers. These lessons are not easily forgotten.
The campiest aspects of gay male culture actually embrace this binding binary, as if to say, “Think we’re feminine? We’ll be aggressively goddamn feminine.” Affected kitsch and vampish drag can be politically charged, culturally useful, and a lot of fun. But they don’t leave much more room for subtlety than the hate that they react to. What becomes of the many of us who fall somewhere in the middle?
Dating Men: “Bi Now, Gay Later.”
As I began to date in New York, I was surprised to discover just how common binary thinking and orientation-based prejudice are among many gay men. For starters, there are still countless self-professed “masc/straight-acting” guys lurking anonymously in online equivalents to bathroom stalls, waiting for a foot-tap. Their self-loathing comes from a place of fear that I can easily wrap my head around. I am more mystified by the people I often end up hanging out with: gay hipsters whose idealistic outrage belies intolerance for LGBTQ groups that don’t match their own identities. Keep in mind that these are twenty-somethings in New York; it’s hard to imagine a more obviously liberal setting.
Dubious gay reactions to my bisexuality have ranged from dismissive winks to political anger. Some of these guys, typically a bit older, once identified as bisexual during a transitional phase on the path toward complete self-honesty. “Bi now, gay later,” goes the old saying. This serves as a flimsy justification for their present skepticism. Other men claim that bisexuals possess unfair privilege because they can choose to live passably straight lifestyles. This claim only works if we assume that the bisexual person in question is fine with having his identity implicitly erased…and that a happily committed heterosexual relationship is always available to him. Sometimes, I would really like to pass as gay to avoid hearing any more of this crap. But mendacity is mendacity, no matter your orientation; I am always forthright about my sexual identity with potential dates.
Consequently, I’ve been told over dinner that my floating between straight and gay is inherently dishonest. I’ve even been told that gay protesters going back to Stonewall didn’t fight for me to live in half a closet. (What? This comment also ignores the incredible diversity of the people involved in those riots.) And yet, no sanctimonious attitude ever stops a man from attempting to act sexually aggressive towards me when it looks like I’m ready to leave. I mean, why should your disdain for someone’s basic identity stop you from getting your nut out?
Barring a few instances of physical violence that were directly related to the abusers’ prejudice, it’s actually the mild eye-roll that saddens me the most. There’s a kind of head-petting tolerance, a been-there-done–that condescension, that stings worse than any full-blown conversion attempt ever could. Although it comes from an ostensibly less hateful place, the refusal to engage with me about something important produces a sense of invisibility. That’s a far more helpless feeling than simple anger.
Dating Women: Roles Play
Most of the women I’ve dated have been accepting of my bisexuality, or at least not actively spiteful of it. But I think that most young women wisely perform more of a screening process for potential dates than guys do. I rely largely on dating sites like OkCupid, so it is unlikely for me to end up going out with a woman who won’t accept my orientation. If it’s seen as an issue, I’ve been filtered out in advance. Tellingly, I received far more OkCupid “visits” from women than usual when I set my orientation to “straight” for one week as an experiment. (The truth was still evident in my written profile.)
But if I were truly heterosexual, my introversion would probably have me trapped in a cycle of despicable “nice guy” self-pity. As it is, my happiest intimate and romantic encounters with the opposite sex have involved the woman making a move that I was too damn shy to make. My reluctance to initiate with women goes beyond pathological sheepishness. I know from dating men how it feels to be pressured, and how it feels to question whether I’ve really given my consent. I never want to be that guy, and I probably overcompensate in reserve. Once the door is opened for me, my diffidence happily melts. Some women (thank ever-loving Christ for them) have eschewed their traditional courtship roles once it became clear that I had no interest in living up to mine. It can’t be a coincidence that all of my most positive and eventful “straight” dates have been with bisexual women. The aforementioned long-term girlfriend identified as such long before I did.
With straight women, I feel more explicit pressure to perform the aggressive “guy” role. Predictably, I lock up. I once went out with a straight writer who invited me back to her place at the end of our first (and only) date. We had done a little barhopping, and her speech was slurring noticeably by the time we stepped into her room. Although we talked for hours in bed, and although I slept next to her, and although I found her to be fairly interesting and nice to look at, I felt weird about even kissing her under the circumstances. So, I didn’t. From the bathroom the following morning, I overheard heard her tell a male housemate that I was “sweet, but deffffffinitely just completely gay.” You know, because I hadn’t tried to initiate drunken sex with her mere hours after we had met. My first impulse was to laugh, though this was yet another micro-erasure. My second impulse was to leave immediately. But later, I was chilled by the implication of what she had said: any really interested man should have exploited the situation.
Room for Subtlety
Thanks to incidents like this, I feel as though my orientation has slowly given me a heightened awareness of how gender dynamics and social roles inform every interaction. My sense of self shifts, seemingly of its own volition, depending on who I’m with. Confident men often zero in on my shyness. They like it when I seem docile and boyish, even though I’m not submissive in any practical sense. Am I enhancing those qualities for them, or are they being projected onto me and magnified? Some women seem to like it when I fit a caricature of the brooding twenty-something artist, and I probably play up related qualities without even meaning to. When I don’t feel pressure to be anything at all, it’s a damn good sign that I have met a special person.
Bisexuality has shown me how toxic our dating rituals can be, and how easy it is for desire or expectation to prevent us from seeing other people with real care. I can’t un-think that notion, especially as it pertains to my own heart’s capacity for possessiveness and my human penchant for seeing people as I need them to be. This continues to challenge me. I believe that over the past year, I have become a more compassionate, critical, and loving person because of my orientation. It has been a tremendously constructive force in my development as a man. That, above all, is why dismissive stereotypes and casual doubts hurt.
While movement in the single issue of gay marriage seems to signify total progress to some people, I stand with countless others whose identities are still disbelieved or misunderstood. What we need now is more room for subtlety. As a queer man, this is my greatest complaint. It is time to recognize that personal gender and positive sexuality come in more forms than any of us will ever comprehend. And accepting this, we must also trust that people are who they say they are.
At this stage, that basic trust is far more important than understanding. Shouldn’t we always believe that our friends and loved ones are being honest about the basic tenets of their identities? Shouldn’t we be casually supportive, even if we don’t get it? Even if we suspect that those identities will shift? (Hell, even if they do?) It’s possible for the people in your life to look fairly homogeneous, but there is almost certainly great variety within that group. If you can’t understand some particular shade of that variety, don’t refuse to see it. Don’t make somebody you care about feel invisible.
So Hal, to answer your question: Yes. I do still like girls. Is it so hard to trust me when I say that I just like people?
Photo courtesy of the author.