My Bi-(In)Visibility and Me

Written by Bryna R. Campbell

For the last couple of weeks, my brother has taken the lead in a series of posts we had planned for Pride Month with a set of excellent essays about his intersectional identity as a gay man who grew up in the rural midwest (check them out here and here right now if you haven’t already read them!). Now it’s my turn, and for this post I want to try to begin to process some of my thoughts and feelings around the attack at Pulse Night Club a few weeks ago. You see, although I don’t talk about it much, I am bi-sexual. A long time ago I fell in love with and married a man but I also feel physical and emotional attraction to women. For a long time this was all quite confusing – and because I am happily married, it also seemed immaterial to how I interacted with others, so I kept it to myself until a few years ago. I began to start talking about it with a few close friends and family when issues of marriage equality were on the forefront in the news, for reasons I’ll talk a little bit about in a moment.

But first, I want to speak to this process of coming out as bi when you are married to someone of the opposite sex – because it’s never not awkward, to bring it up in a casual conversation. So I often fail in this endeavor. I find myself fumbling about, looking for ways to turn the discussion in that direction; far too often I just leave it out and talk in a vague way about LGBTQ issues – or defer to discussions around my academic interests or concerns about gender conformity in relation to my kid. Yes, there are more bi public figures out there than there used to be (hurrah to our Oregon governor!), but still not nearly enough role models. There are still too few positive fictional bi-characters (many bi characters fall into objectified or promiscuous stereotypes). I’ve received flippant responses from some to my news, often from those I least expect it. I don’t think they mean to act this way; I’d like to believe, anyway, that the jokes about bisexuality are so ingrained in our culture that they don’t even realize that its problematic. But it is a problem. These stereotypes and myths (“it’s a phase,” “they’re actually gay but don’t realize it yet,” “sure, aren’t we all on a spectrum?”) promulgate bi-phobia and contribute to the ongoing problem of bi-erasure. And for me personally, every time I hear them I begin to doubt myself. I become more guarded and hesitant about who I’ll tell.

For all of these reasons, talking about my bi identity with others has been a fitful, slow, and clunky process.

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Ever since I woke up that Sunday morning and read the news about the Pulse Night club massacre, the very fact that I am not more vocal about my identity has been weighing heavily on me. I have thought a lot about how comparatively open my brother is about his sexuality – and after so many challenges at that, too – and how private I am about mine.

The effect of this silence hurt in a way I couldn’t have anticipated that day. Along with the aching sadness I felt for the victims and their lovers and their families, I also felt incredibly isolated and lonely.

As I began to conceptualize this post, I came across an excellent essay by Elle Dowd that helped me to understand why I felt this way, and how to put words to these feelings. As Dowd notes, one of the challenges for bi women is that they occupy a “weird liminal space” that makes it hard for them to engage fully within the queer community. This is due in part because being bi comes with the double edged sword of “passing.” If in a same sex relationship, a bi person reads to the public as gay. Or if they are like me or Dowd (who is also married to a man), they read as straight. And if the world sees them as straight, they also carry the privileges of that status.

Dowd explains:

“Because I’m married to a man, and because of my high femme gender presentation, most people will assume I am straight. I do not have to worry that when I hold my spouse’s hand in public that someone will beat me. I do not worry about the state refusing to recognize my marriage….But the horrible thing about “passing privilege” is the closeting, the erasure. And never have I felt that so keenly as I feel it today while I mourn Orlando.”

Privilege and erasure: two sides of being bi and being married. Privilege, which as Dowd notes, also carries no small amount of guilt of internalized bi-phobia. If I carry privilege, am I allowed to feel this sad? Am I appropriating the grief of real gay people? Am I allowed to be part of this community? Then there’s the erasure, exasperated by this internalized bi-phobia, and the self-doubt that comes from all the awkward challenges of talking about bi identity that I mentioned earlier.

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Dowd’s essay also helped me to recognize that part of my own hesitancy for too long came out of my own internalized bi-phobia — that maybe I didn’t just think that my identity was irrelevant to conversations….that maybe deep down I didn’t really believe it was real because over and over I had heard the jokes, quips, and stereotypes that reinforced this myth. I knew something was up, though, which I think is part of why I have been so engaged in LGBTQ issues for so long, and have forged many of my closest bonds with friends who are queer. But when I forged these friendships, and rallied for queer rights, I also assumed the privilege of passing, which I still can’t help but feel a little bit guilty about, even if I also know that it came with isolation.

And I hate to admit it, but part of the reason I started to come out when I did was because I felt like a bit of a chicken sh*t watching people fight for the right to marry while I stayed silent. It was all a conflicted mess and even as I started to talk about it with friends, I still carried the feelings that I wasn’t *quite* gay enough. I think that my academic background was an especially convenient closet to navigate the double edged nature of passing, because within academia it’s not unusual for a person to take up an interest in “hot button” issues. To teach a class on art and AIDS (as I’m doing in the fall) just makes logical sense to others because I already have a background in gender and feminist issues.

Luckily, I have good friends in the queer community who connected me with other friends who are bi, and who were more than willing to talk to me about all of this. I am also grateful for an understanding and generally awesome husband. And in the last few weeks in the wake of Orlando, I have been inspired, and so very grateful to another friend in my circle who decided to come out more publicly online to talk about being bi and married (you know who you are, and I thank you so much for that!).

I’m also thankful to my brother for nudging me forward to talk about this more, and inspired by his willingness to share his background, difficult as I know it was for him to get all the words down and make them make sense. My brother’s coming out story is very different from mine. It is intertwined in complicated ways with his own persistent commitment to his faith in a way that also makes it a remarkable challenge to reductive narratives about Christianity. My story is simpler, and perhaps even a little bit dull (still also just a woman who met her future husband in college and now has one kid). But the important thing I now know is, it counts.

All of our stories count.

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3 Comments

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  1. Powerful…honest…refreshing to read. Years ago (in 1991), the University of California system’s Union of Lesbian Gays and Bisexual (as it was called at the time) offered “Anti BiPhobia” workshops…it was then, interestingly…that not unlike you…I realized so much about about myself and others: identities, physical attractions, emotional connections…and sillily dual-ized, bifurcated and binary the whole damn frame of sexuality we’ve created…and slowly deconstructing as the suits just don’t fit often times. Keep it going!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Judith Campbell July 4, 2016 — 1:17 pm

    There are those who wonder why you couldn’t keep this to yourself? Why not stay in the closet where you’re safe? Why say anything at all? Those are people who have never had the experience of being different from those around them. They don’t have to pretend to be like everyone else, because they really are like everyone else. Those people cannot understand how debilitating it can be, internally, for those who are different to constantly have to hide behind a wall of cultural expectations. It is like cutting yourself in half, and that is painful. I am very grateful that you are now whole.

    Like

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