I’ve identified as straight, I’ve identified as gay, and I’ve identified—and still identify—as bi. My sexual identity is something of a shapeshifting mass that I can never quite firmly grasp. In the minds of many, I’m confused. But I don’t see it that way. I’ve always been confident in my sexual orientation; it’s just changed over time. For the majority of my life, I was solely romantically and sexually linked to women. But in my late 20s, I started to experiment with men (something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time) and really liked it. Now, I’m far more attracted to men than women, but who’s to say my sexual preference won’t sway again?
“It’s not uncommon for people’s sexual identities to change,” sex educator Erica Smith, M.Ed, tells NewNowNext. “I know this as a sexuality educator and because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’ve identified as bisexual, lesbian, queer, and straight (when I was very young). It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I relaxed into the knowledge that my sexual attractions are probably going to keep changing and shifting my whole life.”
According to Alisa Swindell, Ph.D. candidate and bisexual activist, it is not always our sexuality that changes. Usually, it’s our understanding of our sexuality that evolves when we explore what feels right to us. “Our understanding of gender and how it is expressed has been evolving at a rate that has not previously been known (or studied) and that is changing how we understand our own desires and responses to others,” she says.
Many outside factors can influence our sexuality. For instance, Swindell thinks many bisexuals are playing against a numbers game. “There are more people with other gender attractions than same-gender, so more often bisexual people end up in relationships with people of another gender and find it easier to pursue those relationships,” she says.
In her opinion, this sentiment is especially true for women, as there is still a lot of stigma toward bi women within lesbian communities. Men, however, experience a different set of challenges.
“Once [men] start dating [other] men, they often find themselves in social situations that are almost exclusively male and so meeting women becomes harder,” she adds, effectively summarizing my lived experience as a sexually active bisexual man. “Also, those men, like all of us, were socialized to respond to heterosexual norms. So many men who enjoy the queerness of the male spaces are still often attracted to heteronormative women who do not always respond to male bisexuality due to continuing stigma.”
The continuing stigma often pressures bisexuals to adopt a monosexual identity. Take Leslie, a “not super out” bisexual, as an example. Leslie dated a woman from her late teens to early 20s, keeping her sexual orientation a secret because her parents were conservative and she didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. As she revisits her past same-sex relationship with me, she has a realization: “In reflecting on all of that, I think deep down I thought that being with a man would just be easier.”
Now married to a man, Leslie feels like she’s lost her bi identity, though she’s still attracted to different genders. “When I see people I follow online and find out they are bisexual I usually reach out and say, ‘I am, too!’ so I can collect sisters and brothers where I can,” she adds. “Otherwise, as I am cisgender-presenting I often feel like I don’t really have a say but I offer my support.”
This loss of identity is all too common. “Maintaining a recognized bisexual identity can be difficult as monosexuality is still the assumed norm,” Swindell says, noting that showing support—whether that looks like keeping up with issues that affect bisexuals, correcting people who mistakenly call bisexuals gay or straight, or encouraging our partners to not let that slide when it comes up with friends and family are all important for maintaining an identity—as Leslie has, is important to maintaining a bi identity. Smith adds this loss of identity may be attributed to a person’s own internalized biphobia, too.
“When it comes to sexuality in particular, there is rightfully a lot of autonomy given to people to self-identify. If someone self-identifies as queer or bisexual, none of their sexual or relational behavior, in of itself, alters that,” psychotherapist Daniel Olavarria, LCSW, tells NewNowNext. “Of course, there is also a recognition that by marrying someone of the opposite sex, for example, that this queer person is exercising a level of privilege that may alter their external experience in the world. As a result, this may have implications for how that person is perceived among queer and non-queer communities.”
Jodi’s experience as a bisexual person is more reflective of my own: She shares that she’s gone through stages where she only dates men, and others where she only dates women. Available studies suggest that only a minority of bisexuals maintain simultaneous relationships with both genders. In one report, self-identified bisexuals were asked if they had been sexually involved with both men and women in the past 12 months. Two-thirds said yes, and only one-third has been simultaneously involved with both genders.
As for a possible explanation? “It can be really difficult for us to find partners who are comfortable with us dating other genders at the same time,” Smith offers up as a theory.
“If I’m in a situation where I have to be exhibiting a lot of ‘masculine’ energy (running projects, being very in charge of things at work, etc.), then I tend to want to be able to be in more ‘feminine’ energy at home,” Jodi adds, clarifying that people of any gender identity can boast masculine and feminine energy. “Likewise, if my work life looks quieter and focused on more ‘feminine’ aspects such as nurturing and caregiving, I tend to want to exhibit a stronger more masculine presence while at home.”
Bisexuality is, in many ways, a label that can accommodate one’s experience on a sexuality spectrum. This allows for shifts based on a person’s needs or interests at any given point in their life. Perhaps “The Bisexual Manifesto,” published in 1990 from the Bay Area Bisexual Network, says it best:
Bisexuality is a whole, fluid identity. Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature: that we have “two” sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders.
Sexuality is complicated, and how we experience it throughout our lives is informed by a multitude of different factors—the exploration of power dynamics, craving certain types of sexual experiences, and social expectations can all influence our gender preferences at any given time, to name just a few. Much like our own bodies, our understanding of our sexual orientation will continue to grow.
I’ve come to accept this ongoing evolution as a wonderful and inevitable thing. Imagine having a completely static sexual orientation your entire life? Boring! Being able to explore your sexuality with wonderful people of all genders is intensely satisfying and uniquely insightful, no matter how many others try to denounce what you feel in your heart or your loins.
I didn’t choose the bi life; the bi life chose me. And I am grateful.