Shelly is a queer writer, disabled Jew and non-profit professional. I am so excited for their #BigQueerFuneralHomeNovel to be a thing one day and even more thrilled to share this post they wrote with all of you today. You can find Shelly on Twitter.
I come out as bi to my dad in a moving car, on a rainy day in 2003. The station wagon smells like the cigarettes my mother no longer pretends not to know about and the stale salt of fast food. I watch the blurred lights of the road pass by as I say the words.
This is what I remember: We are sitting side-by-side in the front seat, not making eye contact. We come to an intersection. I am acutely aware of the hum of other cars around us. I have my fingers on the handle of the door. I am not fast, but I am, in that moment, at thirteen, in some primal way, aware that there may be a need to escape.
My father’s response is so noncommittal that it has faded from memory, as if what I have told him (worldchanging, a shift in identity and personhood and a realization of self) is as insignificant as a reminder about a homework assignment, an extra rehearsal. I take my hand off the door.
The light turns green. We drive.
When I talk to other bisexuals about what it means to be bi, the most common thing we share is not how we define our attraction but that feeling of existing on the fringes of communities: included, but just-slightly-unwanted, just-slightly-other. Too straight to be properly queer, too queer to be properly straight, too trendy to be genuine, too flightly to be monogamous, too sexualized to be respectable, too privileged to be marginalized.
If we are loud, we are trying too hard. If we are silent, fading into the background, then we are straight-passing, invisible.
One month, in college, I keep a count of the times I come out in a single month: through references to past partners, entrances to queer spaces, to the doctor who asked about my sexual history, in classes, at parties. I still have the notebook.
Twenty-four times in a month. An average of just under once per day.
“Shelly considers herself part of that community,” my mother-in-law says at a Passover seder, after I have read a passage from the Stonewall Seder haggaddah, integrating it into our ritual discussion, when one of the other guests asks a question about why I’ve used the word queer instead of “a more politically correct term.”
I don’t think she sees me flinch. My husband does, and he puts his hand on my leg. Peacekeeping. Respectable.
My mother is supportive. She sends me links to novels she thinks I’ll like, written by queer authors. She sends me links to events during Pride month. She sends me articles about queer culture that her friends send to her that she thinks I’ll find interesting.
I have never heard her say the word bisexual out loud.
I meet the boy who will become my husband when I am twelve years old. At first glance, I think he’s a girl, with his long hair and his big eyes and the features he hasn’t yet grown into, ears and nose still too big for the rest of his face.
Then he dives across seven feet of grass to catch a frisbee. Boy, I think, and, still set in the gender divides of childhood, I dismiss him. He and I will be summer camp acquaintances, orbiting in vague awareness of each other for another seven years. Friendly, but not friends.
(My strongest memory of him, in these years: The end of summer banquet, 2004. He comes down to dinner in a borrowed denim skirt, a spaghetti-strap top, flip-flops, the height of camp fashion. His hair out of its usual ponytail. The camp director makes him change, and he goes up to his bunk and returns in an orange prison jumpsuit.
“Why did you have that?” I hear someone ask.
He shrugs, unrepentant. “It’s a protest,” he says. “I’m a rebel.”
I give him a high five at dinner. My reputation at camp: one of the gay anime girls. In those years, at Jewish camp, that was enough to make you an outsider. An inadvertent rebel. Maybe it’s solidarity.
We share a grin.)
Studies have shown that bi people report twice the rate of depression as straight adults. We have higher rates of binge drinking. Compared to both lesbians and heterosexual women, bisexual women report high rates of emotional stress as teenagers, higher rates of drug use, and low levels of emotional well-being.
Bisexual adults are three times more likely to report thoughts of suicide than heterosexual adults. According to the Bisexual Resource Center, over 40 percent of bisexuals have considered or attempted suicide.
It is comforting to know that my experience is within a standard deviation of the norm.
Identity comes in layers, and I drape mine on, one after another. Disability is a marker and Judaism is another, both just another step away from the norm, but both just invisible enough to go unnoticed.
But does marginalization count, asks the queer community, like a barb, if you can pass on the street? If you can walk hand-in-hand with your partner, or kiss them or smile at them or marry them, and no one wants to spit in your face? Why even say you’re bi, when you might as well just be straight?
(How many times can you ask, what’s the difference between passing and hiding, before it’s too tiring to bother?)
The second time I meet the boy who will become my husband, we are eighteen and in the same summer camp dining hall. I have grown past the defensive first bloom of queerness, of throwing up walls at the slightest hint of any desire that might threaten my credibility in the community. Grown into a sense of bisexuality that acknowledges the fluidity of attraction.
He has grown into his features, and into his smile.
I greet the flutter in my chest with open arms.
The questions I have to wonder about, but never ask out loud:
Would my parents have helped pay for this wedding if I hadn’t married a man?
Would my family have come?
Would my grandmother have made that speech that made everyone cry?
“I don’t get why you drive yourself crazy like this,” my straight, cis husband says, when I tell him I still wonder these things, years after the ketubah has been framed. “It’s all hypothetical, right? So does it even matter?”
How do I say, it matters to me?
My sexuality is never a secret in our relationship. I wear it on my sleeve, but I make it clear that it is a part of me to be loved, not fetishized. The girls in my past will not be reduced to anonymous sexual encounters, to be whispered about in bed as a spice. They are my first crush, the first girl whose hand I had to convince myself to hold, terrified and sweaty-palmed, the first girl I kissed and the sticky-sweet taste of Smackers lip gloss.
Each of them real and whole.
I meet the girl who will become our girlfriend through an online writing group, and like my husband, she is my friend first. We exchange Tumblr messages and then Snapchats and then texts until I finally admit that the whole queerplatonic thing isn’t quite so platonic, and bring it up to my husband.
He’s known about her as a friend. He doesn’t, to my surprise, object to the idea of putting the word girl first. We have talked circles around polyamory for years. It’s never actually clicked into place like this.
“Dating your friends is queer culture,” she and I say, a running joke, and my husband will make a face, just to the left of excluded.
One of us will ruffle his hair, then, comforting. “You’re queer-adjacent,” I’ll remind him. “With your nonbinary bi wife and your bi girlfriend. No one would kick you out of Pride.”
“You can go without me,” he says, a little bit joking, but mostly not.
Over his head, she looks at me, and I look back. A moment of eye contact, a scrunched-up nose, and we move on.
I have forgotten, in the years with my straight husband, what it is like to be with another queer person–specifically, another bi person. The shared experiences, the tiny jokes, coming together into a sensation like a weighted blanket, comforting and safe.
(“Are you a flannel bi or a hoodie bi or a leather jacket bi?”
“Stop trying to make me choose things!”)
My marriage is a blessing but parts of the queer community has made me feel like it comes with barbed wire–aren’t you straight now and you might be bi but you’re in a straight relationship, and bi hets don’t belong in queer spaces, a thousand papercuts that sink into the skin. I shout like a champion for the other married bi people I know and dissolve into a molten pool of internalized biphobia when it comes to myself.
It hurts that I feel more valid now, with her hand in mine on the New York sidewalk or her head on my shoulder as we read on the couch, than I did a year ago. Why can I apply this loud and proud bisexuality, this open-hearted it’s who you love, not who you’re dating, this your bisexuality isn’t invalidated by the gender of your partner soulfulness to anyone but myself?
I huff. She looks at me. Her hair gets in my nose, and I move it away. “What?” she says.
“Internalized biphobia,” I say, “is a bitch.”
“Oh, yeah,” she agrees. “Mood.”
She puts her head back on my shoulder. A few minutes later, my husband comes back from walking the dogs, face wind-kissed. He grins at us like we’re made of sunshine, and my heart feels too big for my chest.
“It’s Aesop’s Bat,” my friend Jaime says.
We are in Bryant Park, sharing a bowl of mac and cheese. I have just finished telling her about this essay, about boiling what being bisexual means to me down into words, when it is so many layers of love and sex and attraction and frustration and teaching and hate and trauma. She has a cup of coffee. I have had three of those already, and have moved onto bourbon.
“Say more,” I say.
We have just wrapped up a somewhat furious, somewhat intellectual conversation about gatekeeping in queer communities. I don’t think the people around us enjoyed it.
“I wrote a song about it,” she says. “The bi metaphor of it. In the war between the Birds and the Beasts, the Bat doesn’t know who to join. He has fur, so he could join the Beasts, but he also has wings, so he could join the Birds. At first they both want him, but then they see what he has in common with the other side, so they both push him away. So finally he’s like, oh, shit, I’m my own thing, and he flies off alone.”
“That,” I say, “is grim as fuck.” I consider the saturated cherry at the bottom of my drink. “Presumably, somewhere,” I say, “there are other bats.”
“Oh, sure,” she says. The afternoon sunlight glints off the ruby in her engagement ring. Like me, she is married; like me, to a man. She knows, as well as I do, what it feels like to be erased. “But you’ve gotta find them.”
What does it mean to me, then, to be bisexual? It’s a crowded room of strangers, uninterested in talking. Some of them glaring, some of them with closed fists, armed with brass knuckles. Some of them reaching out to touch, careless of any no. Some of them smiling, open hands concealing sharp tongues.
And then, across the room, sudden and unexpected and delightful–eye contact. A sense of being seen. Known. Shared. Of a common history, of community, of humor and connection and shame and love.
A flock of bats, in a room of birds and beasts.