Like many bisexuals, my coming out was was drawn out and confusing.
The first queer person I ever dated was a transgender man. When we got together, he was nearing the end of a decade spent identifying as a butch lesbian. He had just begun to realize he might be trans, but hadn’t yet taken any outward steps toward transitioning.
I was 22 and had just moved to San Francisco. Until then, I had only ever dated straight, cisgender guys—something my new partner actually liked about me. It made him feel like I was more attracted to the the man he aspired to be than the lesbian he still identified as, but suspected he might one day leave behind.
I liked that dynamic: His masculinity was gentle, androgynous, and subversive, and that’s what drew me to him. It was exactly the same brand of masculinity I’d always been attracted to in cisgender guys.
When I finally told my parents about our relationship, I said, “I’m dating a woman right now, but I’m not gay.”
I didn’t know how else to define myself. I wasn’t yet ready to explain my partner’s in-flux gender identity. (At the time, he was still using his birth name and female pronouns). I didn’t feel like a lesbian, and I definitely didn’t want use the word “bisexual.” I held every conceivable negative connotation to that word: Bisexuals were fakers and attention-seekers, punchlines from bad ’90s movies. They were indecisive at best, and greedy at worst.
I also believed that the “bi” in “bisexual” relied on the theory of a gender binary I was rapidly losing faith in. (In truth, “bi” implies attraction to members of both one’s own and other genders). Ultimately, it felt easier to define my sexuality in terms of what it wasn’t.
But in the long nights I spent telling my partner about all the “gay moments” in my childhood that suddenly made a whole lot more sense—always volunteering to play the groom in playground “weddings,” asking other girls at a slumber party to “practice” making out, romantic friendships with a long line of teenage BFFs—it became increasingly apparent that I really wasn’t straight, either. I was as attracted to the lingering feminine aspects of my partner as I was to the masculine ones.
Luckily, I found a label just flexible enough to fit me like a second skin: “Queer.” And as I explored my new home in San Francisco I made dozens of new friends who also all seemed to be queer.
Eventually, though, my first queer love and I broke up—though we left on good terms. (He later wrote a lovely memoir about his transition and our relationship got a chapter, fittingly titled “The Queer Birds and the Bees.”)
Soon after we parted ways, I began dating another trans guy who was pretty universally perceived as a cisgender dude. In those early years of fumbling through my newfound queerness, I was in dire need of acceptance and support from the LGBT community. But because of how I looked (more straight than femme) and who I was dating (trans men), I felt frustrated over being rendered invisible in queer spaces.
People in gay bars would refer to me and my boyfriend as a straight couple, or to me as a straight woman, which made me feel like an outsider in what was supposed to be my own tribe.
In Castro bars, older gay men winkingly cautioned me that my boyfriend, who they perceived as cisgender, “might be a little bit on the gay side.” I better be “careful,” they’d tease, or one of them just might snatch him away.
During Pride, a drunk woman once told me she loved seeing straight people like us out in solidarity. She added that my boyfriend was really cute, but I didn’t have to worry because she was “super gay.” At the time, I was decked out in rainbow gear from head to toe and my boyfriend was wearing a t-shirt that said “Nobody knows I’m transgender.”
I never outed my trans boyfriend (though he occasionally outed himself in these scenarios), but I didn’t really have the language I needed to out myself, either. Instead, I generally handled these frustrations by silently feeling sorry for myself. Or if I’d had a few drinks, shouting things like, “You have no idea how gay he is—he’s gay for me!” before storming out of the room.
It was strange territory.
On the other hand, I was also well aware that my ability to pass as straight—both on my own and in the context of my relationship—earned me a certain amount of privilege, especially in the world beyond San Francisco. And every time I watched my partner peek into a sketchy men’s room to make sure it was empty before daring to go in, I was aware of how being cisgender gave me privilege, too.
It made me feel like I shouldn’t complain, like I should be content to sweep the complexities of my own identity under the rug.
Now, a decade and many relationships across the gender spectrum later, I’m better equipped to handle these situations. In part, that’s because I have a more effective vocabulary to do so: I am proudly, unapologetically bisexual. And still queer AF, even when dating a straight cisgender man, like I am now.
It’s also thanks to my exposure to the advocacy work of organizations like HRC and BiNetUSA, the increased visibility of bisexual celebrities like Anna Paquin, Alan Cumming, and Evan Rachel Wood, and even bisexual YouTube stars who helped me debunk the myths I’d internalized about bisexuality.
Making a few out and proud bisexual friends didn’t hurt, either.
Now, if someone at a gay bar assumes I’m straight—because of what I look like or what my relationship looks like—I take it as an opportunity to out myself (usually politely, and without as much drunk yelling). I proudly rep the B in LGBT.
In reality, a lot of bisexual women are in relationships that look “straight”: More than 80% of them in committed relationships report having a partner of the opposite sex. (Which, as a reminder, doesn’t make them any less bi.) And a lot of trans people are in queer relationships that may appear heteronormative from the outside, too.
So, the next time you see what appears to be a straight couple at the gay bar, keep in mind that queer couples come in all different combinations. And they deserve to feel safe and welcome in LGBT spaces, no matter what their love looks like.