According to bisexual activist Robyn Ochs, to be bisexual is “to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” It’s a word that applies to about 50% of the LGBT community according to one UCLA estimate.
It’s a word that applies to me.
But a lot of the time, I don’t like to use it.
There are a lot of reasons. To call myself bisexual is to tense up internally, ready to be rejected, ready to be laughed at because “bi girls are supposed to be hot, aren’t they?” Ready to be insulted or argued with or oversexualized.
And for a long time, the thing that I tensed up about the most was the inevitable observation, “I mean, you’re not like a REAL gay person. They don’t have a choice, but you could CHOOSE to be straight if you really wanted to.”
I always hated when people said that because secretly, I thought the same thing. I thought that if I really wanted to, I could ignore all the women I was attracted to and just marry a guy and be perfectly happy. I hated myself because I couldn’t articulate the answer to this question: why couldn’t I just BE STRAIGHT?
Well, now I can. So here is a list for my past self, for my bi siblings, for everyone who isn’t bi and (understandably) doesn’t understand what it’s like to bisexual. Here are five reasons bisexual people CAN’T “pick a side” and why it’s honestly not fair to expect them to.
- They Just Can’t
Okay, that sounds a bit flippant. But this is the first item on the list because it addresses a certain confusion about sexuality that a lot of people have – that sexual preference and sexual behavior are the same thing.
A lot of people think that all it takes to be “straight” is to date or marry a man if you’re a woman or vice versa. But – as the large number of people who’ve come out after getting married can attest – your feelings don’t change based on whom you’re with.
Just like the gay man who marries a woman and discovers that he still likes men as much as ever, a bisexual person who marries a woman isn’t suddenly attracted to women exclusively. They still notice the cute busboy at Tucanos, they still throw down an embarrassing amount of money to see that new Morris Chestnut flick because they “appreciate his talent.”
Some bisexual people do choose, for various reasons, to only date one gender, which is perfectly valid. But no matter whom they date, they can’t stop their feelings and attractions, any more than a straight or gay person can. Bisexuals can’t choose to be anything other than what they are.
“But they can still choose to be with one gender and be just as happy, though! Men and women are the same to bisexuals, right?” Well… no.
- “Bisexual” is an umbrella term
You may have noticed that Robyn Ochs’ definition of bisexuality is a little vague. Or a lot vague. And it is. Because bisexual, like every other label we give ourselves – is a limited and imperfect word.
Many people assume that the word bisexual only applies a person who is attracted to men and women equally and interchangeably. And there are certainly some bisexuals who match that definition. But there are also plenty of people who don’t. I’ve met bisexual people who are sexually attracted to both men and women – but only romantically attracted to one gender. I’ve met bisexual people who are attracted to men and non-binary people, but not women. I’ve known bisexual people who strongly prefer one gender, but like other genders as well.
Every one of them chose the label “bisexual” because it’s the best word available for them to communicate quickly with other people, but what bisexual actually means to them in their day to day life is very different.
I’ll use myself as an example. I consider myself bisexual because I think men’s bodies are beautiful and I think men’s souls are lovely and I could see myself falling in love with a guy and being perfectly happy. I feel the same way about women, and other genders; ergo, bisexual.
But even though I COULD be with a man, the number of men that I do feel that way about are… not a lot.
I find all types of women attractive – feminine and masculine, dark skinned or light, curvy or willowy, tall or short. I don’t really have a “type.” With men, it takes a lot of the right variables falling into place – a certain type of body, personality, way of relating to me – that tells my brain ‘yes, you want to date this man’. And even when a guy has everything I want on paper, there are still times I try to make a relationship work with him and it just… doesn’t. It’s not that I pick it that way; it’s just how my attraction works.
So, for me, deciding to date men exclusively is less like picking chocolate instead of vanilla at 31 Flavors and more like ignoring every opportunity to have any other flavor of ice cream for the rest of my life in order to exclusively eat Belgian double chocolate ice cream from Belgium – when I only like Belgian double chocolate on odd days of the week. Possible, but certainly not easy, and not something someone can just demand that I do.
But even though I prefer women, I can’t choose to be exclusively gay, either. Because…
- There’s not really a “gay” or “straight” side for bisexuals to choose from
I’m going to tell you a secret – to me, gay and straight attraction feel exactly the same.
As a kid it was an enormous head trip. I was taught to be ashamed of my feelings for girls, told to wait for “the right guy,” and I did. I thought that when I really fell in love with a boy, it would blow my homosexual feelings out of the water and I would never have to deal with them again because being with a man – the way I was supposed to – would be so amazing. And then it finally happened; I fell in love with a boy in my class…
And I couldn’t tell the difference.
There were differences in the ways that I expressed how I felt and in how we related to each other. But the raw emotion was exactly the same; it came from the same place inside me, I daydreamed about the same things.
Even though I couldn’t tell the difference, I was determined to make the gay feelings go away. But I quickly found that it was not as simple as cutting a piece of myself out – and isn’t that hard enough? No, removing the parts of me that were attracted to one gender while remaining attracted to the other was like trying to remove the parts of my skin that felt heat and leave the parts that experienced cold.
You try doing that sometime.
- It places unfair pressure on bisexual relationships
When I was trying to make myself straight, the few guys that I found myself attracted to became objects. Rather than enjoying his company and considering whether we were compatible to maybe date down the road, I saw him as a ticket to avoiding judgement and NEEDED to be with him for that reason.
Some bisexual people do choose to date only men or only women through a personal process, balancing their goals and beliefs and needs with their orientation. They see the people they’re attracted to as people, and make a personal choice of which relationships they’ll pursue, and that is fair. But that’s not what I was doing. What I was doing was using the men I liked to avoid dealing with my bisexuality, and I was avoiding dealing with my bisexuality because the people I loved were demanding that I ignore a huge part of who I was.
It wasn’t fair to me or to him. And it’s not fair to try and pressure another bisexual person into using their partner that way.
- Bisexual people need support unique to their own experiences
Whether a bisexual person is in a relationship or not, whether they are in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship, bisexual people face some unique challenges: being kicked out of straight spaces for being “too gay” and queer spaces for being “too straight,” being told that you’re only good for sex or threesomes (this has happened to me: a lot), being held to nasty stereotypes about bisexuals, the fear that if you ever get married or fall in love, your partner’s gender identity will erase your sexual identity. Bisexual people need a place to share these experiences and be understood.
They also need a place to share their triumphs – like learning to like who they are, finding friends who accept them, or maybe finding an awesome article about bisexuality online…
The point of this article isn’t to claim that bisexual people are slaves to their sexual orientation – a bisexual person doesn’t HAVE to date every man or woman they’re attracted to, any more than a straight or gay person does. But bisexuals also aren’t any more in control of how we feel than a gay or straight person is. We’re not immune to homophobia, we aren’t “choosing to be gay” and we aren’t “choosing to be straight”.
We CAN’T choose.
THAT’S the point.