You Need Help: Three Classic Bisexual Questions, Now with Bisexual Answers

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.

Today we look at a panoply of questions, which, while the situations of their querents are specific and concrete, encompass three of the most common questions we hear in relation to bisexuality: Am I actually bisexual or not? Am I pansexual or something else within the bi+ spectrum? How the fuck do I let people know I’m not straight?

Q:

So I’m bisexual but I’m TERRIBLE at bringing it into conversation because I don’t know how to bring it up casually. I’m not currently dating anyone, I rarely if ever find celebrities attractive, and bringing up my exes rarely applies to the conversation at hand. (Those are the three suggestions I tend to get and none have worked for me.) I tend to present as straight or I like to think occasionally gay in the right circumstances. (ie. I have longer hair and I guess I’m a casual/comfy femme look?) I don’t like feeling like I’m in the closet (especially if there’s a cute girl around). I also don’t like feeling like I’m lying to newer friends who I wish they knew, but they probably assume I’m straight? Any help on how to bring up being bi into general conversation without making a big deal of it? I just want to be me.

Or if there was a general clothing option or something we could all agree on? Pins don’t tend to fit my style. But it would be great if there were a way to signal that I was bisexual in my appearance without having to say anything at all.

A:

This is a great question! The good and bad news is that it’s not just you and not even just bisexuals; this is a widely shared gay experience! So the cute girl you’re trying to be out in front of in this scenario is likely in a similar situation. More than that, we all really want to be around more gay people; gay people you meet are probably actively on the lookout for people around them to ping as not-straight, and ready to meet you halfway on this. I hear you about not necessarily being able to work in exes or celebrity crushes (although those are good suggestions in general)! In lieu of that, here are some things gay and bisexual women talk about and do a lot, and which to another gay person will feel like an oasis in the desert.

– Have you seen [show]? I started watching it recently because of [gay character/ship/representation]!
– Did you see [celebrity] came out? It’s great, I’m so excited for her.
– Oh I love [lgbt author/musician/artist]! I really relate to a lot of their work.

These are very pop-culture focused, I realize, but more than that the theme I want you to notice is that in these examples you’re… reacting to and engaging with the world around you as a queer person, which is instantly recognizable to other queer people. Nothing makes it more obvious to me that someone is straight when they say something like “I just think it was so brave of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara to do Carol. So courageous.” Similarly, nothing makes me more certain that someone else is gay than when I can see them make the exact same look of exasperation and disgust that I’m making when someone says something homophobic in a meeting. It’s true that in like, the line at Starbucks on a random Tuesday morning, people probably won’t be able to tell you’re bisexual; that’s part of the inherent disconnect of the human condition unfortch! We just aren’t able to really know or see each other in those scenarios, not in any kind of real way. But, with people that you’re building an actual relationship of some kind with, engaging authentically and fully and sharing your experiences and worldview without self-censoring will inevitably reveal that you’re bisexual, because being bisexual is part of who you are!

Also! Have you seen these shirts we have, they’re great and feel relevant.


Q:

I’ve identified as bi for nearly four years and at first it really felt like the right label for me. But lately I find myself wondering if I’m actually a lesbian. I have journal entries about it from 2015 and 2016, text conversations with a friend from last year, and I’m going through one now. I see pictures of women and in my head are fireworks that spell out “I’m a lesbian.” Or I talk to a woman and I feel all tingly. I have no interest in dating or sleeping with men again. When I was dating a guy I cheated on him by kissing girls and preferred kissing those girls to having sex with him. My issue is that I’ve never dated or slept with a woman so I don’t have equal experiences to compare how i feel. I think I might be a lesbian but without that experience how can I know? Can I really call myself a lesbian if I’ve never done more than kissed a woman?

A:

Friend, I have news for you: I think you are a lesbian. Normally I would use less directive language, but you said “in my head are fireworks that spell out ‘I’m a lesbian'” and I think you’ve answered your own question. To be clear, it would be perfectly possible and valid for someone to be in this situation and be bisexual — wanting to date or sleep with men is not a prerequisite for being bisexual; being a bisexual woman or nonbinary person isn’t defined by an attraction to men! Bisexuality is being attracted to your own and other genders, and there are more genders than “woman” and “man,” etc. Many bisexuals also get all tingly when they talk to women! However, you seem pretty sure that you are only attracted to women; in fact, I think your actual question here is less “am I only attracted to women” and more “am I allowed to think that, given my experience.” Yes! Yes, you are. As to your question of “can I really call myself a lesbian if I’ve never done more than kissed a woman” — what, I wonder, would you think was enough experience? What would be enough that you would feel confident in it? Would you hold another person to the same standard, or refuse to think of them as a lesbian until they had done X thing? Why or why not? Sexual orientation is about attraction, not experience — being a lesbian isn’t about what you’ve done with women, but what you want to do, and it sounds like you know what you want! Which is women. Congratulations, I’m so happy for you, friend! Being a lesbian is wonderful and so are you.

To recap: things which would indicate that you are not a lesbian, and are in fact bisexual, are feeling noticeable attraction and wanting to date/sleep with to people of more than one gender, which given that you are are a woman would include women, but does not have to include men. (I don’t mean to oversimplify or make this sound easy when it’s not; it’s so hard for women especially to know what we want or desire, which is why it’s so important to allow ourselves to compassionately notice and honor it!) Things which would indicate that you are a lesbian are noticing that you only feel these feelings of attraction and butterflies with women, and also, again, having the specific thought “I am a lesbian” is very telling! You aren’t harming bi women or doing anything inappropriate by coming out as a lesbian, regardless of how you’ve previously identified; you’re living authentically and that’s great!


Q:

I’ve identified as pansexual for a long time. I have never found a gender that I’m unattracted to. For a long time it was as simple as that, but recently I’ve been hearing the same definition of “pansexual” over and over both online and from people I’ve met in person.

Everyone keeps insisting that pansexuals take no notice of gender and just enjoy the personalities or even the “auras” of other people. This bothers me. I’m very much aware of other people’s genders and there are many reasons for me to have a strong preference for trans feminine people (I am non-binary). I am also aware that straight, cis men are more likely to be shitty to me and/or not understand my experiences. I have countless examples of this. I can still be sexually and romantically attracted to someone of any gender, but to say I take no notice and just float around from aura to aura sounds both unbearably passive and impossibly detached from society. I’ve been pansexual for years, but does having agency mean I’ll have to change my identity?

A:

The short answer is no! There is no sexual orientation, as far as I’m aware, that is defined by being attracted to EVERYONE of a specific gender and EQUALLY. We don’t generally expect straight women to be attracted to all men and to be attracted to the men they’re attracted to in the same way; etc etc. Neither yourself nor anyone else should have that expectation of you either!

A longer answer involves a few things. I haven’t heard this particular take on pansexuality phrased in this exact way before, that it involves a sort of gender blindness, but the idea that pansexuality is open-minded about gender whereas other sexual orientations are limited or close-minded about gender is not necessarily a new one, and you are correct in thinking that that is not the case. There’s a lot to unpack there, but it’s important to remember first that sexual orientation is about who you’re attracted to, not why or how you’re attracted to them. That may sound like a silly hair-splitting distinction, but it’s an important one that gets at the difference between communities of solidarity organized around marginalized identity as opposed to political affiliations organized around ideology — there are plenty of straight women who also hate men or feel reservations about them, but that does not make them lesbians! Anyone can have a personal philosophy of gender as it relates to yourself or who you want to date, but that isn’t the same thing as a sexual orientation, pansexual or otherwise — it’s something that you can embody in addition to or in relationship with a sexual orientation.

Also, as I think your question suggests you’re already aware of, it isn’t necessarily a particularly progressive or affirming stance to say “I take no notice of gender” — many people’s gender is very important to them and hard-won, something they want to have seen, acknowledged and affirmed; and as you’ve noted, flattening the ways in which gender affects relationship and power dynamics seems counterproductive. It’s one thing to say “gender isn’t the most important factor to me when it comes to partners;” it’s another to say “I don’t see gender.” Again, the latter is an ideology, not a sexual orientation, and no sexual orientation requires you to feel that way!

It sounds like identifying as pansexual has been good for you and you don’t want to change it; I don’t think you have to! It’s worth noting for other readers that it’s also definitely possible to identify as bisexual while feeling the same range of attraction that you do; bisexual is being attracted to your own and other genders, which can certainly be inclusive of being attracted to your own and also all other genders; it’s possible to identify both as pansexual and bisexual, and many people do! Both identifiers come with the unfortunate reality that some people will probably make incorrect assumptions at one point or another, whether erring on the side of assuming that you’re rigidly binarist or that your sexual orientation is a sort of gender-nihilist political project. Unfortunately, there isn’t an identifier you can go with that will keep flawed assumptions from happening, full stop. But you can honor your experiences and the genders and experiences of your partners, and the right people who are willing to listen and take you seriously will understand that!


Do you have thoughts for these fine people? Share them in the comments!

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1077 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. Q1 – hi! I’m also bi and terrible at coming out. (I’m also married to a man, which adds on a whole ‘nother layer of bi invisibility.)

    Here are a few strategies I’ve used to get slightly less bad at coming out and to be more visible.

    – getting involved in queer community online and irl. I didn’t expect this when sought out queer community but I’ve found that talking about my queer book group, volunteering at the LGBTQ+ Center or what I read in AS etc. works the same as casually mentioning an ex girlfriend (and is more comfortable for me).

    – I’m not a big pin person but I wear two pride pins on my purse – a little rainbow heart and a little bi pride heart. For the most part no one says anything, but occasionally someone (usually a barista) will say “I like your pins” in that “I see you” tone queer folk use. And I love it because I don’t usually get that.

    – it turns out that in some situations I’m actually more comfortable blurting it out once to a group rather than coming out one on one. I came out to my church when I spoke to recruit people to march in the Pride Parade. I wasn’t sure I was going to mention my identity, but once I ended up talking about how great it is that I, a queer person, found a church home where I can be completely accepted. And it’s great, because now everyone knows and I don’t have to keep coming out at church.

    • I totally agree with your first suggestion! I have slooowwly increased the amount of queer activities in my life, so it’s gone from like “how will I ever mention that I’m queer to these people oh god this is awkward” to just casually listing genuine plans I have like “well tomorrow I’m going to a queer soup night and this weekend there’s an LGBT film festival and my gay book club.” It’s totally win-win, because you get to do fun queer things and also you have a chill way of coming out. PLUS, sometimes you even see coworkers there — like when I first started this job I saw one of our IT people from afar at Flamecon and didn’t get a chance to say hi there because I was in line for something and she was across the floor, but that Monday I got to be like, “hey were you at Flamecon by any chance?” And then we got to gush about Steven Universe for like 45 min. So great!

  2. My faulty wifi ate my comment BUT to Q3:
    I like the word bisexual because of its history and because it feels like home, like it fits. I don’t find anything inherently binary about it, though I understand that some people do. But if we don’t think of gay and lesbian as inherently trans and nb exclusionary, why would bisexual suddenly become it?

    I’m not asexual, so I don’t like the whole “hearts, not parts”. I like both hearts and parts! In all sorts of combinations! I would love to abolish gender and live in a post gender society, but in the meantime, I most definitely see my partner’s gender and if they choose to, I see their parts and enjoy sharing their bodies. People’s genders are not definitive in whether or not I like them, but they’re definitely not an afterthought!

    I guess I can be called pan, and I take no offense to it, but I choose to define myself as bi. And I stand by it, no matter how many people may try to “well, actually” me about it. And that’s why I think you should stick to the label that speaks to you, even if other people try to redefine it. As long as it rings true to you, your partners, your experiences and your feelings, make it your own.

    Yay for non monosexuals!

  3. I love these all, but especially #3. Rachel, you are so good at the empathetic-yet-slightly-salty answer. So good!!

    I totally agree that people are gonna make dumb assumptions, and there is no “perfect label” that will keep them from doing so. Also, I’d never really seen a good description of why the “I don’t care about gender” type of line made me feel sort of weird, but the question-asker and you in your answer have done such a great job of articulating it. Thank you!

  4. This is a lovely column and I’m glad that all these bi and pan questions are being discussed!

    I do have one thought about the definition of bisexuality that you’re using. Rather than saying “same and other,” I really prefer to define bi as “two or more.” I don’t think that bi people necessarily have to be attracted to their own gender–speaking as a nonbinary bi person, some of us don’t even really have a “same” gender to be attracted to! Plus, a woman might be attracted to men and nonbinary people and consider herself bi. After all, “straight” isn’t exactly an nb inclusive orientation.

  5. These questions kinda got at why I don’t fully feel comfortable identifying as bi even though I very much used to. When I was younger, bi felt like it fit me because it was the only word I knew that fit with not everyone I’d ever been interested being all the same gender. Then, as I exposed myself more to queer community and was out to more people, I realized that how other queer people define/understand bisexuality often doesn’t resonate with me because I’m not “gender blind” or attracted to everyone or all genders! I’ve been struggling with this for years and I don’t think there’s an easy answer, but I feel a little less alone reading question 3.

  6. Question 2 was mine!! Thank you for your kind and thorough and thoughtful answer Rachel. In the time since I submitted my question I’ve actually come to the same conclusion: I’m a lesbian. The uh brain fireworks were kind of a dead giveaway. lol I think I was just making it harder on myself out of fear and insecurity when the answer was right under my nose. I’m a lesbian!!

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