A commenter responding to my blog post Quietly Coming Out as Bisexual said, “I can't imagine why sexuality would have anything to do with anyone other than the person involved. I have no desire to wear a sign saying I'm a non-practicing heterosexual.” I've frequently heard not only straight people, but also bisexuals, wonder why a bisexual should feel any need to make it a point to come out. A bisexual man on twitter so eloquently put it to me (as @BisexualBatman) this way, "Nobody cares who we fuck." While, gays and lesbians usually have a good grasp on the reasons why they should not live a closeted life - for example this would mean never publicly acknowledging the person they love - the issue gets more complex for bisexuals.
No one thinks twice when a man and a woman walk down the street holding hands, or go to an event presenting themselves as partners. When a gay couple does these things, they are automatically announcing their sexual orientation. But someone doing these things, as part of either a same sex-relationship or an opposite-sex relationship, may actually be bisexual, and thus still closeted about their orientation, despite being open about their relationship.
A bisexual woman (let’s call her Margret) may say something like, "I'm thirty-six and I've been in a committed monogamous relationship with my girlfriend, Joan, for eight years. I've self-identified as bisexual since I was sixteen, but aside from a few make-out sessions in college, Joan was the first woman I was with. Joan knows I’m bisexual and she’s totally accepting, but everyone else thinks I’m a lesbian who took a long time to come out. Since I intend to stay monogamous with my girlfriend, I don’t see why I should come out as bisexual. My mother had such a difficult time accepting my relationship with Joan that I didn't want to complicate things at the time by insisting I was bisexual. Now that she’s okay about me and Joan, I don’t want to cause her any more grief, or disrupt our new found harmony. Also, some of our lesbian friends sometimes speak negatively about bisexuals and I don’t want to alienate them. Yet being closeted keeps nagging at me.”
Like Margret, many bisexuals - contrary to stereotypes - are monogamous. For them, once in a committed relationship, it’s easy to pass as gay or straight. Ironically, bisexuals are criticized for both having this “privilege” (as if bisexuals are responsible for creating the social dynamic that makes this possible), and for insisting on “making a big issue” of coming out as bisexual anyway. As far as having the perceived “privilege” of passing as gay or straight, the truth is this is often experienced as a curse by bisexuals. Gays and straights alike are more than happy to tell a bisexual, “You are with Joe/Jane now so you’re gay/straight now.” This, and the tendency by the press to also automatically put bisexuals in a gay or straight box, is what is known as bi-erasure. We bisexuals are repeatedly shoved into these boxes against our will and then criticized for taking advantage of this “privilege,” and then further criticized - as overreacting - when many of us still insist on being defined as bisexual.
So what are some of the reasons why many bisexuals insist on being out as bisexual instead of obediently stewing in our "privileged" closets? (I did a quick review of some reasons on Bi-Visibility Day, but I will elaborate here.) One reason is that when bisexuals remain closeted, there is no opportunity to counteract stereotypes. Ideas that bisexuals always cheat, are always sexually promiscuous, always must have a partner of each sex, are really gay/lesbian and will not admit it, or are just trying to get attention, run rampant and unchecked.
In the case of my hypothetical bisexual above, Margret is in the position to show her lesbian friends that despite living in a proud and open same-sex relationship she still identifies as bisexual. It would be difficult for her friends to continue to believe that all bisexuals are really closeted self-hating-homosexuals. She would also show her friends that the stereotypes that bisexuals can’t or won’t stay monogamous, or will always leave a women to be with a man to have hetero-privileges, is also not true.
As Harvey Milk said during his coming out campaign, “Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets... We are coming out! We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions! We are coming out to tell the truth about gays!” This massive push for gays to be out and proud and visible is hugely responsible for the incredible progress in gay rights since Milk’s assassination in 1978. Once the greater population saw what gay people are really like, how they really live, it was easy for the straight world to see there was nothing wrong with being gay. The fact that many bisexuals are closeted and living openly as gay (or straight) is, I believe, largely why bisexuals are still so heavily shunned or berated while gays and lesbians are becoming more and more accepted.
Like with everyone contemplating coming out, Margret has to assess the full impact of what that would mean for her and her loved-ones. Margret must consider her mother. She may choose to hide in a same-sex relationship, and appear gay, to protect her family. However, the price she may personally have to pay may not be worth it.
What is the price? For one, feeling guilty - guilty for taking advantage of the less complicated and less controversial label of lesbian, feeling guilty about not being a role model for the larger bisexual community, for participating in bi-erasure, bi-invisibility, for not personally being an example that would help fight bi-stereotyping.
However, the major impact to an individual remaining closeted is in the form of self-denial. Keeping a part of one’s identity hidden from the world can be agonizing. Imagine if redheads had to keep their hair dyed black least anyone find out, imagine if sailing enthusiasts had to pretend that their love for skiing is the only activity they've ever had a hankering for, imagine if art-lovers had to read books about famous artists in dark corners of basements. Imagine the hurt, the loss of intimacy, when one keeps a fundamental part of themselves hidden from their loved-ones. Imagine the anxiety over being accidentally “found out.” Imagine the constant battle of reminding oneself over and over again that even though many people are not okay with who they are, they really are not a bad person, not sick, not perverse. As with the main character in my novel, “Love, Sex, and Understanding the Universe,”one ends up asking themselves repeatedly, if there is nothing wrong with who I am, why do I hide? The guilt of further perpetuating the idea that bisexuality is so shameful or embarrassing that one shouldn't openly admit to this part of their personality, can be a heavy burden.
My hypothetical Margret may ask herself, what if my little brother is bi, or my niece, or my girlfriend’s cousin? Wouldn't me coming out make it easier for them? If she and Joan adopt a baby, Margret may wonder: will I be a better mother if I protect my child by hiding this part of myself that is unaccepted and misunderstood by much of society? Or will I be a better mother by being proud and happy and an example of standing up and trying to make a difference?
Sadly, there are often much worse things bisexuals have to consider before coming out – potentially losing a job or a spouse, being a target for a violent hate crime, etc. Certainly these factors may weigh quite heavily.
One of the self-perpetuating problems for bisexuals is that as long as so many of us remain closeted, so many of us will feel isolated, lost, lonely and afraid to come out. Only by being out can we find each other, encourage each other, and support each other. Every person has to decide what’s best for themselves, but one thing is for sure: the more bisexuals are visible and refuse to be re-categorized, marginalized, or mistreated, the sooner society will stop thinking it’s okay to erase us, box us, hate us, and bully us, and a lot happier a lot of individuals will be.