It can take a hefty dose of self-cultivated gall and emotional elbow grease to walk around with confidence as a bi+ woman. While our broader societal definitions of what queer looks like are changing rapidly and for the better over time — and with bisexuals making up a staggering 52% of the LGB population — it’s still easy to feel, at times, not gay enough for the gays and not straight enough for the straights, thanks to the sneaky persistence of biphobia. After years of coming out and an oft-painful exploration of and meditation on my identity as a queer or bi-idenitfying woman, I finally felt I’d shed the majority of whatever internalized biphobia I had and settled into who I am — until I began a longterm relationship with a cis, heterosexual man.
On one hand, I reaped all the benefits and privileges of a straight relationship: things like acceptance (perhaps even relief) from my family, comfort talking about the person I love in full transparency whenever to whomever, always feeling safe in public together. But there was also a part of myself — a very real part of myself — to which I started to feel less entitled as my relationship grew. For a while, I stopped going to queer events, withdrew my voice in queer conversations amongst the community of queer friends I’d made, and stopped posting and sharing the gay content I used to post with some regularity online. I felt lost: I still knew who I was and what I liked, but the constant specter of invalidation and confusion I’d worked so hard to vanquish began to follow me around incessantly again.
As I began to acknowledge what was happening, I refused to bury and mourn the loss of that part of me. Whether I’m perceived to be queer or not, my queerness is still very much a vital piece of who I am, and I wanted to honor it. I also knew I wasn’t alone. I found queer spaces, online and in real life, comprised of people in the same situation. Watching others do the same, I made it both a promise and a practice to foster and engage that part of myself. There isn’t exactly a handbook for how to be Bi+ in a straight relationship, so for Bi Awareness week, I talked to other bi and multi-gender attracted women who are or have been in committed relationships with cis, hetero men to find out how they nurture and understand their queerness while they’re in these relationships, and the obstacles they face in doing so.
Jade Gomez, a bi 21-year-old writer, has been with her boyfriend for 7 years. Earlier in their relationship, the couple took a break, during which she dated other people, including a woman, but eventually ended up getting back together. However, over the past year, insecurities about her experience level beyond her relationship — and the ways in which it causes people to question her queerness — have started to arise.
“[Not being able to experiment more is] not necessarily something I’m mad about, but [I’m] realizing I wish I had the chance to kind of explore my queer identity in more emotional and physical ways than I was able to. Which isn’t to say I’m not happy in my relationship, because I definitely am. But other people like to question that, unfortunately, and be like ‘Have you ever done this? Wait, you haven’t?’How can you consider yourself gay if you haven’t done this or that?’” she remembers. “And then it was just me wondering if I’ve missed out on anything? So it’s taken some time to unpack. And working on it with my therapist and talking to some friends of mine made me realize it’s something I need to advocate for myself.”
For Gomez, a condition that she suffers from called vaginismus — which has made her unable to have penetrative sex — limits certain sexual experiences. This added an extra layer of frustration with what she has and hasn’t done and the ways in which it contributes to her sense of identity.
“As I realize I’m unable to do the things I want, it started to feel like basically another blow. Like, not only can you not do anything with your current partner, but you haven’t been able to do anything with anybody in any of your relationships, so are you even valid in that? It’s something that took me a while to work out,” she says. “And it wasn’t until fairly recently — getting on depression medication and opening up the dialogue with other people, including my own partner. Eventually opening up and being like, ‘I feel like as a queer woman, I wish I had that space to explore things and validate it.” She said her partner was understanding and receptive to this concern, and they even began a conversation about the ways she might eventually be able to gain “extra validation or confirmation or experience” while remaining in the relationship.
It’s common to face questioning or feel the need to “prove” or “justify” your bi-ness, especially when faced with criticism or biphobic messaging outside of your relationship. But for Caroline Duran, a 23-year-old barista whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, some of that invalidation actually came from behavior within a previous relationship with a cis man who identified as queer. During the relationship, she began to come to terms her own queer identity, and her partner began to make comments about being fine with her exploring her queer identity sexually with other people.
“I understand his intentions, and I think they were good, but it was also a little invalidating. Because it seemed like he thought that it almost didn’t count. Unless we were poly — which we weren’t — you would never say ‘Well, you can explore your sexuality with another man.’ And for me, my sexuality isn’t something I need to test out. I already know what it is. It’s not like I need to go see if it’s what I really feel.” She also found his implied understanding of her queerness limited to sex. “When people ask, ‘Have you been with a woman?,’ they make it all about sex. Like my last partner, when he said ‘You can go experiment,’ it’s not like I just want to go have sex with women, which you know, it’d be fine if you did. But I would want to be in a relationship with a woman at some point in my life, and that’s not something you can just go test out.”
It was a fear of similar invalidation and misunderstanding from within her relationships that kept Melodie Williams, a bi 24-year-old Creative Producer, from coming out to any of her previous partners before she came out to her husband of 3 years and partner of 6 years a couple years into their relationship.
“Growing up in a conservative family, there was always this questioning of the validity of queer relationships at all. And then there comes into the question of bisexuality and if you’re in a straight-presenting relationship, what does that mean? Why does it matter? Why do you have to identify yourself as bi at all if you’re in that?,” Williams had to ask herself. As she began to come out to her partner and to friendships in her life, she describes feeling more wholly herself when she was able to be open about her queerness to the people in her life — even if it wasn’t something that they noticed on a day-to-day basis.
“I’ve realized how much of myself I’ve been hiding because I haven’t spoken openly about it. And so if I were to say to somebody else that it matters, it’s because that’s a full representation of yourself. And although that may not be necessarily something that you’re presenting to other people, are you able to fully be yourself if you can’t accept that that’s apart of you and that’s really important?” Williams says. “So I think in my processing of it, it’s been being able to validate myself and say that this is fully me and fully myself. Being open about that is just being honest with myself and allowing me to be myself. So I would encourage other people to do the same, because how can you be fully yourself if you can’t feel that that part of you is valid?”
For some bi+ individuals with cisgender, heterosexual partners, the opportunity to engage in and explore queer sex, while being in their relationship, is important, so they turn to open relationships. Arielle Mitchell, a 23-year-old queer researcher, had dated cis hetero men monogamously in the past, but often felt constrained in those relationships. So when she began dating her partner of almost 3 years, it was important for her to establish space for queer sexual experiences.
“The men I was dating always honored and respected me, but I always felt like I wasn’t necessarily able to explore myself in the way that I wanted to. So having an open relationship this time, with my current relationship, has been really enlightening to be able to simultaneously love someone and love him and have him love me, while also being able to date and explore people that have varying gender identities,” says Mitchell. The two foster an environment of mutual openness about their attraction to others. They made tinder profiles together — she set hers to all genders — featured each other on their respective profiles and have open conversations about who they match with. If they’re together and see someone on the street that one of them is attracted to, they share it with one another. Her queerness is something she shares with her partner.
Mitchell says that her partner’s proximity and openness to her queerness has even recently prompted her partner to explore his own sexual and gender identities, something the couple has been discussing together.
“It’s been really eye-opening for my partner to be in a relationship with someone who’s queer. Because throughout our three years of being together, I’ve been really open about renaming my gender identity and using she and they pronouns, and he has come to this realization that feels really similarly — which is maybe something he wouldn’t have come to conclude before our relationship. So we’re both in this process of digesting what ‘she/they’ or ‘he/they’ would mean for us and how we would use them with one another and other people. So I think [me] being queer has been helpful for him in developing an understanding about how he feels about his own gender identity and his own sexuality and things like that,” Mitchell explains.
Regardless of their personal relationship terms or narratives, everyone I talked to regularly finds individual channels to feel comfortable with and connected to their queerness. In fact, there are a multitude of ways we seem to characterize or define bisexuality that are wholly unrelated to dating altogether. While it’s important not to seriously imply there could even be such a thing as one homogenous “bisexual culture,” definitions of bisexuality centered entirely around dating — or even sexual behavior — do begin to feel too narrow when you start to interrogate what makes people feel in touch with their bisexual identity. Conversations about the queer communities, various aspects of culture, and larger shared common understanding of themselves, their bodies, and their sexualities that bisexual groups and individuals have cultivated feels just as vital to our public discourse of what it means to be bisexual as conversations about dating. A simple twitter search of the phrase “bisexual culture” would lead you to believe being too anxious to ask a crush out on a date or the regular use of finger guns as a communication tool or the nature of your childhood cartoon swoonings were more a part of The Bisexual Experience as the gender of your current partner or the extensive variation of your sexual history.
Some bi+ folks I talked to cited playing with their physical presentation — certain hairstyles, makeup, and clothing that they find gender-bending or queer-indicative — as being a validating form of expression. Some said surrounding themselves queer friends who support them unconditionally was key. Others said consuming queer film, television, porn and music helped them feel more in tune with themselves.
“I’m obsessed with this one singer Rina Sawayama — she’s so brilliant, she’s queer, and she’s Asian, which is awesome because I’ve never had that before,” Gomez gushes. “Even my boyfriend sees how happy I am when I listen to her music, and how validated I feel. So he’ll put it on in the car, and he’s like ‘that’s your gay queen!”
Gomez also describes seeking community via sharing her queerness in online with other queer folks — but the feedback hasn’t always been affirming. She used to be active on Tumblr and recalls getting messages like “Don’t you think it’s kind of disrespectful that you’re out here saying that you’re queer when you have a boyfriend?” and “You clearly don’t understand how any of these things work because you’re dating a cis het dude, so how ‘bout you not speak on this.” She joined “sex positive, leftist Facebook groups,” which she describes as “safe spaces for people, a lot of which are queer to talk about these things,” but was faced with tonally similar scrutiny. Within these groups, some members questioned Gomez’ decision to be with a man in the first place and expressed discomfort with her claiming her queer labels.
“I was open about my struggles with trying to explore my identity — but also feeling like I don’t want to betray or cause a rift or seem like it’s anything that it’s not in a cis het relationships, more of just like me understanding with myself that I’m allowed to be curious about certain things, whether I act on it,” she remembers. “A lot of people talk down to me and think my experience level allows them to — whatever that even means, which is still kind of ambiguous and arbitrary — use that as a way to invalidate my feelings, in a hetero relationship, as a queer woman, and everything in between.”
Williams, on the other hand, cites queer online platforms — like queer online personalities, accounts, writers, and publications — as overwhelmingly positive, validating, and a plentiful source of confidence.
“Following people inside the online community that are very open about their queerness has given me a lot of strength to be like ‘I do fit into this story and fit into this space.’ It’s just a matter of surrounding myself with other stories that match mine, maybe don’t match mine, but are just unapologetically queer. And being able to read those stories or experience them second hand — reading them, seeing them, things like that — has made me feel a lot more confident to express that within myself and be confident in that within myself,” Williams says.
There’s clearly a ways to go in combating biphobia — both internalized and in the world around us. But no matter what our relationship narrative or perceived sexuality is, there are stories, people, practices and communities all around us that can encourage us to feel more at home in ourselves, because there certainly isn’t just one way to be queer.