Recently I went to visit my parents while nearby on a business trip. I see them a few times a year, which is not enough and wanted to spend some time with them. I also went there with the intent of coming out to them as bisexual.
I have read many coming out stories. They are touching, often heart-breaking and sometimes liberating. They are nearly always from the perspective of someone gay or lesbian identified, usually in their teens or early twenties with a need to face the people they love as they begin to date looking for a loving relationship. As an adult married man there was no reason why I needed to come out to my parents about my recently accepted bisexuality. I have not lived with my parents for many years. I will not be bringing home a same-sex partner for Christmas. I do not require acceptance as I have found it with my wife. I decided to come out to my parents out of a desire to share more of myself with them. I wanted to allow them to know me more fully and better understand the issues that I have struggled with that I have previously spoken to only in vague terms.
On my way to see them I was nervous about the intended conversation and made it through the first day avoiding the topic entirely. While I feared sharing that part of myself with them, I truly had nothing to fear. I am fortunate to have been raised without religious conservatism. My parents are socially liberal and have had numerous gay friends. I have smoked marijuana with my parents, spoke with them about their days as swingers in the 70’s and shared selective details of my wife and my recent experiences in non-monogamy unknowingly following in their footsteps. My mother has even shared with me that one of her closest friends is bisexual and that through experience, discovered that she is not. I had no reason to fear the hatred or judgment that so many face when opening up to loved ones. With nothing requiring that I share this, and nothing truly to fear; I was nervous nonetheless.
In talking with my mother recently she mentioned writing about me as a young child who was more sensitive than my peers and more interested in reading or creative endeavors than roughhousing with the boys. While I can barely recall this version of myself, it was soon after that I remember what may be a defining moment of the years to come. It was being repeatedly told not to cry, that I should act like a man, to be tough, to keep my emotions in check. I learned those lessons well and grew into a man unable to cry, a man who hid all emotion and adapted to patterns of small talk to avoid conversations that may reveal myself. In a TED talk titled The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown explained that the path to overcome shame is to make oneself vulnerable, though for men shame often comes from the very idea of vulnerability.
Over the years the dichotomy created between who I was inside my head and how I allowed myself to be seen continued to grow. Living with shame creates pain, and years of repression does not stop thoughts from returning; desire is greater than pain, greater than shame. As a result, I had difficulty connecting with people, which included my wife. Over the years a mutual-resentment grew and I eventually tackled my issues, crawled out of the ‘act-like-a-man box’ and shared all of myself with my wife. I was an emotionally complex person and I learned to accept myself.
I had no issue with my gender identity; I am a man, just not the man that others would have me be. I had no issue with my sexuality, I now accepted that I was to-some-degree bisexual; and I say ‘to-some-degree’ as I have not yet had the opportunity to explore this side of myself. I was always attracted to women romantically and sexually and was left with nothing but confusion and shame from stray thoughts of men. While I see myself as a hetero-romantic bisexual who could comfortably identify as bicurious, heteroflexible, or ‘round up to straight’ as many do, I choose the label bisexual as it is the invisibility of male bisexuality that contributed to so much pain and confusion.
One reasons I feared sharing that I was bisexual, first with my wife, and then with my parents was the concern that they would assume I was gay. My fear of being seen as gay does not have roots in homophobia; if I was gay I would like to believe that I would be out and I would be proud. My discomfort of being seen as gay comes from the perception that sexuality; particularly male sexuality exists as a binary and that identifying as bisexual is the first step towards an inevitable second revelation of coming out as gay. This is the perception of many in both the hetero and gay communities, it is taught in gay studies classes, suggested by professionals, and reinforced by the reality that this is true for some. For me, my concern was the idea that someone I love may hear my words and assume that I was not honest with them, or not honest with myself. Even more so, it was the idea that through the confusion about bisexuality they would think my attraction to my wife, my love for her romantically, spiritually and sexually as a lie.
This misunderstanding of bisexuality helps to keep bisexuals invisible and people like me from coming out. Ultimately I did come out to my mother on the second day, and in a subsequent conversation with my father shared much though I am not sure whether I succeeded it sharing this detail. What I did share was that I grew up with much shame associated with traits that did not conform to the narrow model of masculinity I was raised with. One of the reasons it was important for me to have this conversation was to let him know that his words to me as a child caused me pain though I did not hold him responsible for that pain. I have known that he felt deep regret over his actions and shares similar pain over his own childhood and subsequent inability to cry or express emotion. As a young father he reinforced what he had experienced, yelling at me that “boys don’t cry”, or that “if you’re going to cry, I’ll give you a reason to cry.” As for a man, physical pain is the only acceptable form of pain and the threat of violence is motivation to conform. He said these things, just as his father had said them to him. He said these things, modeling attitudes reinforced by popular culture and embedded throughout society. While it was his voice that drilled this into me, they were not his ideas.
It took me into my late 30’s to understand the truths about sex, sexuality, and gender. It took years wasted in shame and repression before I accepted myself and several more years before I worked up the courage to share this with my wife and begin to ask for what I want. I was 40 before I began to accept who I was and despite the privilege I have as a cis-gendered male raised in an upper-middle class family, free of religious conservatism; I had self-inflected so much pain wile realizing that so many have it so much worse. I now understand how this is all due to a lack of information that gender does not dictate character traits. That there is no right way to be a man or a woman, and that gender itself is not a binary with people identifying between gender lines or with neither. That sexuality is a continuum and that bisexuality does not require an equal attraction to male and female; and that romantic, sexual and physical attraction can occur on different planes at different times. That monogamy is not ‘how it’s always been’ and is not the only way to have a loving and committed relationship. That we have a right to sexual satisfaction and that seeing sex as important does not make you a bad person or unworthy of happiness and fulfillment.
It is the degree of misinformation; intentional and used to control, to cripple and destroy us that I increasingly chose to be out as bisexual and non-monogamous. Not everywhere, and not to everyone as I am not yet able to do so; but if we all did our part to live openly and honestly, together we can help to end the needless shame that prevents us from loving ourselves and being loved for who we truly are.