Content warning: This piece includes non-graphic references to sexual assault and emotional abuse, as experienced and witnessed by the author.
There are many labels I could use to describe my sexual identity. I’m queer and technically pan—demisexual with men, and aromantic with women.
Call me bisexual. It’s reductive and limiting and outdated and inaccurate by definition, yes. But I battled internal and external forces for decades to claim it.
I’ll never put it down.
Shame kept me from understanding myself for years
The first time I experienced sexual violence, I was 13 years old. I was so ashamed that I convinced myself I had AIDS. Not HIV—full-blown AIDS. One summer I told my boss I had AIDS. She said, “Have you gone to the doctor?” I hadn’t thought of that. I told my boyfriend I had AIDS. He said, “I will stay with you anyway.” “Wow,” I thought. “What a loser.”
What I really had was shame. There is no pill for that, though for decades I tried to find the exact chemical combination to erase it. The way I felt about myself wasn’t going to kill me. My response to it almost did.
It was shortly after my first assault that I thought about a girl for the first time in that way. It got all caught up in the shame of being abused. The more I suppressed it, the more powerful it became. The black and white thinking I had developed as a response to the emotional abuse in my home and subsequent traumatic reenactment in the world made this so confusing to me for so long. If, then?
It would take until my late thirties to even acquire the language to understand the nuance of being aromantic but sexually attracted to women and being terrified of and demisexual with men. It was so extreme—with men I feared abandonment, and with women I feared engulfment. Above all, I feared that I wasn’t worth anything nor belonged anywhere, with anyone.
Society told me that my sexuality was wrong or fake
The time and place in which I grew up (New England in the nineties) didn’t help. AIDS was still a death sentence and largely pegged on the gay community. Gay remained a punchline well into the early 2000s, and bisexuality was largely considered to be a form of self-delusion.
In season three, episode four of Sex and the City (my favorite show until a pandemic rewatch —YIKES!) bisexuality is not only a punchline, but is completely denied. “Just a layover on the road to gaytown,” says main character (and display of full-on BPD if I ever saw one; no wonder I liked it so much) Carrie Bradshaw. Problematic backup singers Charlotte and Miranda declare, respectively, that people should, “Pick a side and stay there,” because bisexuality is “greedy” and “a problem.” Later in the episode, Carrie goes to a party with her bisexual love and leaves because they play spin the bottle and she lands a girl. She walks out, head held high, shoes nobody with her job could afford clicking down the Manhattan sidewalk, the beat hammering in the message—bisexuality is a choice. A selfish choice, for young people trying too hard to be cool and edgy.
If bisexuality was a choice, then I was the Bartleby the Scrivener of sexuality, in that I would prefer not to. Not one person came out in my middle school or high school. There was just a lot of whispering. Gay was less than. And if you were anything less than gay, you’d keep it quiet. In my home, my toxic parents regularly made derogatory comments about anyone other than straight—using the most revolting terms, dripping with venom. In fact, that coded language was a pejorative applied to anyone that they felt like insulting.
Visiting San Francisco just before their divorce, my sister got angry at me and announced that I was a lesbian inside Bloomingdale’s. She was five.
I wanted to die.
During the divorce, my mom claimed my dad was secretly “a little f**gy,” to anyone who would listen.
And I kept thinking about boys and girls and getting confused and feeling ashamed. I was bad and wrong—if I wasn’t, my parents would be able to love me, right? And bad and wrong meant gay, so I must be fooling myself, even though I loved my boyfriend and the sex we had together senior year of high school.
Exploring my sexuality later didn’t bring me closer to honesty
I told myself that I’d explore my sexuality in college. Just not now. Because I was probably secretly gay and also had AIDS and was bad at parties.
In college, I saw girls make out at parties. There were only two understood reasons for it—you were doing it purely for the male attention or you were lying to yourself. Two girls from my high school were spotted drunk, arguing over their sexual relationship.
“We need to stop doing this, Sally,” said Kelly. “You know I’m not gay!”
And I? I stayed in a relationship. When I was mad at a boyfriend senior year I finally hooked up with a girl. Then when I got into cocaine I did it again, because I would have sex with anyone when I was coming down from that, and like my husband would later say, “Everyone gets gay on cocaine.”
It wasn’t just me—when I did fool around with women, we both pretended we didn’t know what we were doing, that we weren’t really into it, that we’d never done it before.
And then we knew exactly what we were doing and were both really into it and the lies felt like a chasm between us. I ran out the door before the sheets cooled and drank the shame for years.
I finally fought through to accepting myself
It took until I was 35 and living in the West Village of Manhattan that I finally got on board with myself. I lived a stone’s throw from Stonewall and a rainbow crosswalk. One day it hit me—nobody cared that I was bisexual besides me.
I know that gender expression and identity are spectrums and fluid, and that my soul has been both in male and female bodies before, just like yours. But call me bisexual. This understanding of myself was too hard-won for me to identify otherwise.