I met my friend Paul in a novel-writing workshop; we liked each other's work and hit it off right away, so soon he invited me to grab coffee with him and another gay guy from our workshop. Eventually the conversation turned to our personal lives, and Paul asked me for clarification on my sexuality. I was writing a novel about, among other things, two women in their twenties falling in love. But also, my look is most often a straight girl aesthetic and I might've mentioned the guy I was dating at the time. So he asked me.
"I'm bisexual," I said.
Paul smiled warmly at me and asked, "How old are you?"
"23," I said.
"You're young," he said, "You'll get over it."
"I'm bisexual," I said to a guy on the third date, as our conversation turned to past relationships. It was an awkward and abrupt coming out, as are most of my coming outs. I have to come out over and over again, to just about everyone I meet, but I haven't gotten any better at it — probably because I'm in a constant state of anxious anticipation about their response. It's a terrible buzzkill when I'm really liking someone and then they say something like "I don't believe bisexuality really exists."
With Third Date Guy, I came out timidly and awkwardly, trying to preempt any bad conversation that would make me dislike him. I said, "People always ask me the same two questions. First—"
He cut me off: "Stop acting like you're the only queer girl I've ever hung out with."
On our fourth date, he asked me the questions.
This is the first question: "OK, you're bisexual, but who have you dated more of?"
Meaning: Should I think of you as straight or gay?
I came out to all my high school friends after we'd all left for college, but while we were still reading each other's Live Journals every day. A friend wrote a post coming out as bisexual without using that word, something like: "For me, it's guys and girls, both." We were all young as hell about it, squirming, trying to find the right language. This was of course pre-Tumblr and before going to college, none of us had our own computers. For most of us, to self-explore on a desktop that our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters would later log on to was too risky.
All of my friends at college already knew I was bi, and they agreed that now that someone else had declared herself, I had to as well. It was my moment, they said.
My friends climbed onto my narrow twin bed and cuddled me closely. I spoke out loud every word I typed, and they helped me rearrange and restructure, coercing into shape a quiet little blog post in a narrow corner of the internet. This was the only coming out I've ever had that was anything like how it is in books and movies and TV shows. It's supposed to be a big declaration of self that creates a boundary between before (closed, faking it) and after (open, truthful). That solid, real boundary exists for some people, I think, but it doesn't exist for me, not really.
In my blog post, I can't remember if I used the word "bisexual."
After the post went live, my very sweet, very well-meaning friend Ellie commented: "I think it's wonderful you are bisexual, but I have to say, I never would have guessed! You don't look like a gay person."
I never use the word "gay" to describe myself, as I feel like it implies same-sex attraction only. I sometimes call myself "queer," but most often I like to identify as "bisexual," even though that word has been made toxic with controversy. I personally believe that the meaning of the word has moved away from its etymological origins — that, basically, even though there's a "bi" in bisexual, the word itself doesn't imply attraction to "a man or a woman," but a person "regardless of gender." I like identifying as bisexual not despite the baggage that comes with, but in spite of it. I already feel like I'm struggling to express the truth of my identity all the time, fighting to be understood, so a label I have to argue about feels right, like the form matching the content.
After someone asks me the first question, I say something like "I don't really feel like saying which gender I've dated more of really gets at how I feel," or if I'm feeling really punchy: "I'm the type of person who believes that gender is a construct and a spectrum, and this question sort of makes me uncomfortable."
Sometimes I lie and say, "I've dated more men but have had sex with more women." Up until I was about 23, I only ever masturbated about women. For a while, I wondered if my attraction to men was something that had been socialized into me.
Even though I've been mostly certain about my bisexuality since I was 15, I've occasionally questioned it. I now have the force of my convictions that only comes once that faith has been thoroughly interrogated.
The first time I heard the word bisexual, my friends Nikki and Bari were saying it about Leonardo Dicaprio. This was during the Man in the Iron Mask era, a terrible flop of a movie that came out a year after Titanic. At the time, there was a tabloid rumor that Leo was bisexual, Nikki and Bari told me.
"What is bisexual?" I asked.
"It means you are into guys and girls, both," they told me.
Both was a revelation. In the very core of me, I exhaled — but not in the cliché way of "I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding." I had been very aware that I wasn't breathing. I was very aware that even with the first exhale, I'd have to learn a new way to breathe.
The definition of bisexuality I see most often is: "attracted to men and women." I don't think this works for bisexuality in general and for my sexuality specifically. I like Robin Ochs's definition: "I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree."
Another way to say it is, "I have the potential to be attracted to people regardless of their gender."
The second question is: "How will your romantic life culminate, with a man or a woman?" which is an impossible question to answer, and another trap.
The second question has the same intention as the first, to try to figure out if I'm "more gay" or "more straight." I try to make it as hard as possible for the questioner to figure it out, but sometimes it's impossible for me to swim against their strong tide. At my old job, I was friends with two women in their forties. The straight one was sure that I would end up marrying a guy. The lesbian was sure I would end up marrying a girl.
The lesbian in her forties, Jen, was always openly dismissive of my bisexuality. Our relationship included a lot of banter back and forth; she would tease me, and I would send her links to essays about bisexuality from other writers, demanding she read them. I thought I could change her mind.
One day, when I was hanging out in her office, all the joking fell away and she told me that, honestly, the reason she was uncomfortable was because she felt bisexuality implied that lesbians like her could choose between gay and straight. She was very invested in the "born this way" narrative, that gay people might be able to choose how they act, but they can't choose to not have same-sex attraction.
I tried to explain that just as she didn't choose to be attracted to women instead of men, I didn't choose to be attracted to people regardless of their gender. "We're the same," I remember saying. I could tell she didn't like that at all.
The hardest part about being bisexual is that I can't figure out what to say to everyone who loves me to make them completely comfortable with it. I don't know what words to use, what conversations to have. "Rational" explanations, depleted of emotion, fall flat; anger and frustration alienate the listener; joking about it actually makes me sound hurt and upset. A counternarrative of bisexual "phases," I kissed a girl just to try it/Hope my boyfriend don't mind it is so strong, is so prevalent that trying to explain my bisexuality is often like trying to build a house on loose sand. Everything slides away.
Catie Disabato's first novel, The Ghost Network, was published in May 2015 by Melville House. She is a columnist for Full Stop. She's written criticism and commentary for This Recording, The Millions, and The Rumpus, and her short fiction was featured on Joyland. After growing up in Chicago and graduating from Oberlin College, she now lives in L.A. and works in public relations.
To learn more about The Ghost Network, click here.