The BIsexual Life: Coming Out with the “B” Word

Many of us came out to our parents as bisexual at one time, only to go back in (so to speak) a little while later when we returned to what looked like a more heterosexual union. Perhaps we came out again, jumped back in, then out again, and so on. The question isn’t whether to come out at all; the question is what happens in a family after one has—sometimes more than once—and how parent/child relationships will fluctuate and evolve when the child identifies as anything other than the extremes of “straight” and “gay.”

For Zoe, 30, there is no situation in her life now where she’s not out. Eleven years ago, her mother took her coming out harder than her father did. “For my dad I framed it in emotional terms because it’s easier to talk to parents about emotional things than sexual ones…. They thought coming out as bi at 19 was a step toward being queer or gay. Or they thought I was experimenting. I always had pretty valid relationships with guys. So they weren’t sure.” But Zoe adds, “I think they’ve shown amazing progress in being able to deal with queerness.”

In spite of her family being both liberal and Christian, Zoe’s relationship with her parents was strained during her early 20s. She felt they didn’t show interest in her life, or in meeting or bonding with her live-in partner. “At the age of 27,” says Zoe, “I went to my brother’s wedding and I realized my parents knew all of my brother’s friends and were really attached to his fiancée. At the wedding, my mother told someone that I had moved in with my boyfriend [rather than girlfriend]. I had decided I wasn’t going to be selfish, but I called her on it when we got homeand since then they’ve come miles. They’ve met the girls that I date. They know that they’re butch. They understand the complexity to the dynamic even though they don’t have the language for it.”

Heather, also 30, has had a different experience entirely: “I have worked in the queer community for the past seven years, and have considered myself to be a ‘professional queer.’ I’ve done media interviews, public talks, workshops, and TV appearances. I don’t hide my sexuality—except from my parents.”

Like Zoe, Heather first figured out she was attracted to women when she was 18 or 19 and it only took her a couple months to “get comfortable with the idea.” She says, “Having a girlfriend as soon as I figured it out didn’t hurt. I started university in a new city right around that time, so I was basically out [as bi] as soon as I started, although not as extensively as I am now.”

Has she contemplated coming out to her family? “I’ve considered it many, many times,” she confides. “What’s stopped me, mainly, is that my mom is homophobic. We once had a conversation that started with her wondering why queer people had to tell anybody about their sexuality, and ended with her telling me that if I ever introduced her to a same-sex lover I could just say that said lover was a ‘friend’ or ‘roommate.’ Granted, my mom doesn’t really believe that people should talk about—or have—sex much at all, but…she’s fine if I introduce her to a boyfriend.”

Jill Thomas is the program coordinator for the Indiana Youth Group, established in 1987 to serve queer kids between 12-21 years of age. Thomas poses reminders of change in the social atmosphere. “The majority of our youth are out in some capacity,” Thomas states. “It’s not as harsh as 10 years ago, where the majority of our youth wouldn’t be out.” For youth whose parents are not supportive, mentoring programs are one answer. IYG offers this, but also workshops for parents who want to learn to better support their children. “It may not be what you expected,” Thomas says of adjusting parents, “but the parent–child bond is much bigger than that.”

Next year, Tamara, 38, an LGBT civil rights lawyer in California, will celebrate her 20th anniversary of being out as bi. “I’m not at all closeted,” she laughs. “I’m professionally uncloseted.” Since every e-mail she sends appears with her work signature attached, people can’t pretend she is straight and just working at a law firm, even though she is in a committed relationship with a man and has a child.

She echoes Thomas’ view that the parent-child bond is not always shaped by sexuality. “My relationship with my parents has changed dramatically over the years for many reasons. My sexual orientation and their feelings about it is probably a smaller part of that than a lot of other issues.” She admits coming out seemed a bigger issue at the time than she regards it to be in retrospect. Her parents met her female partner while she was in law school, but because her mother and father had split and remarried, Tamara had more than one family to come out to. “I came out to my mom when I was in college, to my step-mom a couple years later…. That was a long time ago,” she reflects, “Them being supportive and we-love-you-whoever-you-are was progressive. Now people expect a lot more when they come out to their parents because society has shifted. At least in urban America.”

Tamara acknowledges some comfort level in her current relationship with her parents comes from the fact that she has a male partner; at the same time her LGBT work is a kind of meeting ground. “They’re very proud of the work I’ve done and very supportive of it. My mom especially has been incredibly helpful. We have a toddler and she came out and spent several months taking care of him when we weren’t ready to send him to daycare. I was working long hours. She said, ‘I’m proud of the work you’re doing and that’s part of the reason I’m willing to do this.’ That’s in some ways separate from my orientation and who I am, but it’s also, in my current life, a piece of my being queer that they can connect to because I have a male partner.”

Ron Jackson Suresha, 47, marvels at the differences—and similarities—between bi kids of today and of his generation. Suresha, who is co-editor of the recently released book Bi Men: Coming Out Every Which Way, says, “In many ways, bisexual children are asking the same questions that bisexual children and adults have always been asking: ‘Do I like boys?’ ‘Do I like girls?’ ‘Is it okay to like both?’ Those kinds of questions will always be very important to queer youth regardless of whether they identify as queer, bi, trans, gay, lesbian…. The coming out process for bisexuals—as I’ve come to realize in editing this book, which is essentially, a collection of coming-out and coming-of-age and coming-to-terms stories—for many men, at least, is a multi-layered process.”

The anthology includes first-person stories of men from ages 19-65, and after working closely with coming out stories, Suresha does have advice for the older generation, “We need to pay attention to the stories of bi youth, and give them a stage, a platform on which they can express themselves. A big part of it—for gay men and lesbians, and parents of bisexuals—is slowing down, really learning to slow down, and listen to what the actual experiences are, what their children’s experiences are.”

Suresha was lucky. His parents weren’t just willing to listen—they took the lead. “They sat me down one day when I was 12 or 13 and asked if I thought I might be a homosexual, and I told them no, and they left it at that for quite a while, although they held on to their suspicions for many years, and eventually those suspicions were confirmed in remarkably dramatic ways,” he recounts. “But at that age, I thought a homosexual was a guy who liked to dress up in girls’ clothes, and cross-dressing held absolutely no interest for me. Now, if my parents had asked if I liked looking at naked men, if I was aroused by the thought of physical contact with men, my answer would have been quite different. My guess is that they pretty much knew very early on, certainly before I did, but only because I hadn’t yet developed the vocabulary to describe my sexual state of being.”

Suresha, who calls himself “your typical Kinsey 5,” says his desire for women was somewhat hidden most of his life. He calls his newfound bisexuality a second coming-out. “Not having the right word for one’s sexuality is very common, I believe, for queers of all ages and stripes. I never considered myself bi until I realized that the term applied to me: I thought it referred to people who liked boys and girls equally, and at the same time. Had I known that there are many valid ways of being bisexual, and that my being a gay man with an occasional desire for women is one way of being bi, I would have come out as bi decades earlier.”

Many parents take time to adjust and adapt. Kristyn came out in her mid-20s. “I find it’s very, very confusing for my parents,” she admits. “They met a lot of boyfriends in high school. They’ve struggled with me having a girlfriend. They’ve struggled with my girlfriends turning into men—transitioning. That really broke them…. At that point it just became very confusing, and ironically after all these years, they really like the partner I have now who’s a woman. They’ve never really been keen on any of the people I dated until now.” She theorizes if she were to start dating a man at this point in time, it would completely baffle them.

“Coming out to them with my first female partner was very difficult,” Kristyn recalls candidly. “I was cut out of the family. My mother didn’t speak to me for at least six months. It was a huge crisis for her. My siblings all pitched in to try to talk with her and help her work through it, but she still won’t tell lots of her friends I have a girlfriend.” Does it bother Kristyn? “Of course. It’s awful. But I also, at this point, feel if they’re her friends, that’s her decision.”

In spite of her reservations, Kristyn’s mom has suggested grandchildren via the sperm bank. The question now for Kristyn becomes how to explain she doesn’t want children, period. “I feel being bi—queer—just doesn’t fit into some of those plans parents have for their kids.”

As I interview her, Kristyn and her current girlfriend are preparing to spend the weekend with the family. “My father’s mellowed with age and his perspective is a lot more humanitarian and benign,” Kristyn says. “He really thinks my girlfriend is smart and charming and all the right things. And I think my mother just likes her because she sucks up to my mom.” She laughs, “She totally plays a game that no one else has ever wanted to play, and I don’t play, so she’s actually the good daughter. When I come back I might be single. I might have had enough. No, you go live with my mother.”

According to Cheri MacLeod of PFLAG, the period immediately following a child’s coming out is the most difficult; at the same time it’s the most important. “In those first six months, the growth process is just incredible,” she says.

At 32, my own coming out process is still in progress. In spite of an open and honest relationship where Mom and Dad have let me make my own mistakes and shared in the pride of my accomplishments, the idea of phoning them up and having a direct adult conversation about the fact that I’m bi still scares the hell right out of me! It is this that I hypocritically contemplate as I conclude this article, where others have been so forthcoming about their parental relationships. Do mine know I’m bi? Unquestionably. Can we talk about it? Uh…theoretically…maybe.