Thursday, April 4, 2013

Schroedinger's Closet

The blogqueen and I have an ongoing discussion about closetedness--we're both bisexual (Erika has apparently made it a life goal to start a flibbertigibbet), which is an interesting mix of privileges and disadvantages.  It's super-easy for us to pass as straight if we want to (I've only dated women so far; she's happily engaged to a dude) but bisexual erasure is a thing and it can come from any side and in many forms.  Women get told they're all basically bisexual and that they should be exhibitionist about it to attract men, men get told that if they ever fail to find other men sexually disgusting for even a moment then they are gaaaaaay.  We all get told that we're in denial about our homosexuality, or that we just want to seem chic and liberated from social norms.  And a lot of the time, people just forget we exist: I've been looking into some online dating stuff recently and found that it's surprisingly uncommon to be able to identify as interested in both men and women.  (eHarmony only supports male/female couples and has a separate-but-obviously-still-equal-I've-never-heard-of-this-Jim-Crow-fella site called Compatible Partners that's only for same-sex couples.  But that's not surprising since this guy Warren who started the place sounds kinda homophobic.)

I clicked to the realisation that I'm bi about a year ago, in a sequence of events that was weirdly understated (nothing happened that would make for a particularly good anecdote) given how abrupt and conclusive it was inside my head.  This post isn't really about that, or the internal debating and rationalisations for years prior to that which had allowed me to continue assuming I was straight.  This post is about what's happened since then.

Erika knows I'm bi (she was the first person I told, but wouldn't it be kind of hilarious if this post was the first place she heard about it?), and for months she was the only one.  The next step was referring to myself as bi on internet forums where I used a screenname and no one there ever had or will meet me personally.  Next was a post on my old personal blog, just a few months ago, which most of my meatspace friends and relations know nothing about.  A couple of days ago I told another friend who lives in another country (our in-person contact has mostly been through globetrotting adventures, because obviously that is the best kind of contact).  And now there's this.

People who still don't know I'm queer: my parents, my brother, my closest friends from school and university, my co-workers, and basically anyone I hang out with on a regular basis.  And this is where I start to get tangled up, because I can't decide whether I want them to know or not.  I can't decide whether I think it's important or necessary or even just more convenient.

No one ever has to come out as straight.  No one ever says "OMG, you never told me you were a hetero!"  That seems fine to me; by the same token, I don't think there should be some kind of obligation on people who aren't straight to just inform others of that particular facet of their identity.  And for a variety of reasons I've hardly ever told my parents about anything going on between me and girls, unless it took the form of "I can't join your plans because I have a date tonight"*, so I don't feel like I should need to just announce that the scope of potential partners now includes guys.

On the other hand--I live in Canada, I easily support myself, and I work and hang out with good people, so in practice I have very little to fear in regards to homophobia.  Certainly a lot less than some people do.  And normalisation is good: the more straight (or straight-identified) people are familiar with queer-identified people, the less they see us as alien, outsider, unreal, invalid.  We're practice--have a queer friend and improve your ability to think compassionately, to support equal rights, to reject harmful stereotypes.**  (And, possibly for some of those straight-identified people, help them figure out their options and their actual identity a bit better.)  There is real value in being 'out', not just for me, but for other people, and if I'm privileged enough that it's not going to cost me anything, I should be trying to help people, right?

(Plus, as friends have observed while helping me cope with Pointless Crushes On Straight Boys, being out makes it easier for those dudes who might be actually be interested to determine whether they should make a  pass at me or not.  This is a reasonable point, although eyebrow waggling can reduce its credibility.)

I filled out a hilariously bad survey for some politically conservative US organization the other day, and when it got to orientation, I was given the options of Straight, Gay, Bisexual, Do Not Wish To Disclose, or In The Closet.  It was great.  'In The Closet' is an orientation now?  (Observation from Erika: "More of a dedication to fashion, really".)  Truly these people are on the cutting edge of social analysis.

Am I closeted?  I don't exactly hide that I'm bi, but I don't volunteer it any more than other people are all "Why yes, I'm very hetero today, thank you for asking".  If I am closeted, when did it happen?  Was it when my brain was all you should go up to that guy and put your mouth on his mouth and I was all "Well, that pretty much settles that question" but I kept it to myself, or was it years earlier, when I first started finding ways to ignore or explain away the less-blatant hints I was giving myself that I liked guys as well as gals?  If I start letting people know more often that I'm bi, at what point will I stop being closeted?  Who needs to know?  Parents are generally a big deal, but if I tell them and no one else, that's not exactly a major life change.  No one I work with knows, but to my knowledge it wouldn't affect anything anyway.  (It was a couple of years before I found out one of our stats guys is gay, and then only because of an offhand reference to going somewhere with his boyfriend.  He is pretty campy, but I try not to assume--for that matter, I still can't be 100% sure he's gay and not bi.  Bisexual erasure: just for the record, we bi folk can make the same foolish assumptions.)

Being in the closet is a weird idea at its root.  It makes sense on the surface, in that it involves people hiding 'themselves', but it also starts from the assumption that other people are entitled, or at least can expect, to know what the thing being hidden is.  (There's a wonderful RiffTrax of a short film on making friends in high school, where the shy (white) hero pauses at the door before a party and they narrate for him "What if they find out I'm black?!")  When I saw a co-worker on the bus reading A Song of Ice and Fire, she surreptitiously joked to me that she is 'a closet nerd'.  Closeting seems to me like if it's not about protecting yourself from harm (and I don't think I'm in danger of harm), it's about hiding something shameful, and I am by no means ashamed to be bisexual.  Some ladies are hot.  Some dudes are hot.  It's not complicated.  I just also don't feel like random strangers have a right to expect that I inform them "By the way, I'm totally going to queer this place up".

So I think I'm in Schroedinger's Closet, in a state of being simultaneously out and closeted until I observe whether there's a particular reason for me to go out of my way to tell the person I'm talking to that I am bisexual and the waveform collapses.  Also there's a zombie cat in here?  It's pretty cool.  But I wonder sometimes if it's enough.


*I don't date much and I've never paid a lot of attention to following gender roles, so I've always kind of wondered if my parents suspect I'm gay.  Part of me wants things to work out so that one day I can go up to them and say "Mom... Dad... I think it's time I told you the truth.  I'm bisexual.  THIS IS MY GIRLFRIEND AND YOU CAN'T TELL ME OUR LOVE ISN'T REAL."  I aspire to be an entertaining son; my track record is pretty solid.

**My favourite stereotype right now is of course that bisexuals are promiscuous sex-mad fiends, because I am feeling quite comfortable here in the exact centre of the Kinsey Scale, and I am so far from promiscuous that the light reflecting off promiscuous won't reach me before the sun expands and consumes the world.


[Edit to add]: Also!  There are only two days left to vote if you have any interest in or opinion on the Book Club's first book.  Candidates were listed in this post here.


  1. That reminds me of a story with my younger sister when she was the athletic trainer in high school. She was cleaning up water bottles in the football locker room when one of the guys came up and said, "Can I ask you a question?" Sister: "Uh, sure."
    Guy: "Are you a lesbian?" Sister: [mentally "whuuut?"] "Ha ha, no." Guy: "Well, I asked because you never look at us when we're changing in here."
    It must run in the family because once I was also assumed to be lesbian because I pretty much never express any sexual leanings in public. I've never seen it necessary to proclaim my sexuality, but I guess that's at least partially because the usual assumption of hetero was correct in my case, despite my a/demisexual leanings. I was still pretty close to forever alone even with that theoretical advantage.

  2. It took me a long time to realize I was bisexual. I eventually "came out" on facebook (though my entire family is blocked from seeing certain posts I make, so it was really just my husband's shipmates and my friends that saw it). My husband went to work the next day and was practically assaulted with all the wannabe-start-to-a-porno comments from the assholes he works with. Do we occasionally have a threesome because we BOTH LIKE THAT?? Yes. But that's not their business; I made it clear I was coming out because it was the anniversary of a friend of mine's coming out (who had just committed suicide). What I mean to say is that it wasn't a Katy Perry moment where I was trying to garner sexual attention. frankly, women are more aesthetically appealing than men. You'd have to be an idiot not to recognize that.
    But there was also my husband's superior. Who is the worst stereotypical texan one can imagine.... who LITERALLY called my husband into his office and suggested that he TRY. TO. BEAT. THE. BI. OUT. OF. ME. (to which my husband laughed in his face and walked out).
    I do hate the women who take the bisexuality thing as an excuse to entice men: "I'm just kissing you to fuck with them." (actual quote). I also hate it when people seem to be confused that MEN may be able to appreciate the beauty of the male form and be attracted to both sexes. So in that respect, I really do feel for you. A female bisexual is normally perceived as being a guaranteed 3-way, a gateway sex, if you will, or something done completely out of manipulation. But as a man, it is "impossible" for you to b bisexual, you MUST be gay. Your fiancee isn't the love of your life, just your beard. And I perceive that as being a lot harder, a LOT more insulting, than someone suggesting that you just need a good beating.

  3. I would actually be very interested to see how/if "out" folks and those "in the closet" differ in their views on orientation-equality-related measures, if only there was a way to reliably tell who was in what category. Somehow, though, I suspect a large percentage of the closeted wouldn't be willing to list themselves as such.

  4. They're both pretty horrifying, so I'm not particularly fussed about trying to decide which one is worse.

    I think that part of the reason I am hesitant to tell my parents is that I wonder if they wouldn't think I was gay and in denial, and I would really rather not have my declaration of identity followed by disbelief and suspicion that I don't know my own mind. (Which may also contribute to why I imagine telling them this while introducing them to a new girlfriend; then it's not so much topical as tangential.)

  5. Part of me wants things to work out so that one day I can go up to them and say "Mom... Dad... I think it's time I told you the truth. I'm bisexual. THIS IS MY GIRLFRIEND AND YOU CAN'T TELL ME OUR LOVE ISN'T REAL." I aspire to be an entertaining son; my track record is pretty solid.

    Aw. Now I'm sad that Husband and I are already married because I would love to do this thing. :D

    I struggle with this, too; one of my nieces is bi and she didn't realize *I* was too until AFTER some family members had been horrible to her about it. It would have been nice if she could have said "oh yeah, well, Aunt Ana" in response, but she couldn't because she didn't know. Sigh. And I have two nephews being raised in a highly conservative environment and if I don't come out as bi they may never be allowed to know an out QUILTBAG person until they are adults. That's not good.

    But I don't know how to announce at the Thanksgiving dinner that, oh by the way, I am sexually attracted to other women, JUST SO YOU KNOW.

  6. My position continues to be that I'm not going to mention it unless I have reason to do so (i.e., I couple up with a dude, or as in that delightful hypothetical, I couple up with a lady and decide to mess with my parents' heads a bit). If I do need to, I plan to first print out cheat sheets for them that read "PRO TIP: The correct way of responding to what I'm about to tell you is to act like I revealed I enjoy Vietnamese foods in addition to Thai."

  7. I've mentioned in the Survivor's Panic post that I've actively not been telling my Mother, but I've been waiting for opportunities for it to come up with other family members and socially. Sometimes I get the chance of a bunch of people are talking about some actress being a babe and someone notices that I seem rather into the discussion (yes, objectifying women=bad but I don't think discussing our attractions should be, so I'm torn on this ethically) which lets me say something like "Oh, you didn't know I went both ways? Yeah, that's a thing". If I act like it's no big deal, neither do they (so far). I've started being more vocal about any attraction to women because it often leads to it coming up more organically in conversation.

    However, that is an option I have because I'm a woman and therefore I'm apparently supposed to be bi, and dudes... Not going to have that same opportunity. This tactic also only works in social situations, and not so well with family because odds of my saying something like "Seriously, she is just stunning. She has incredible (blank)!" in front of my Grandfather, pretty low. He's a dirty old man so not impossible, but he'd have to start it. Still, it gives a fair bit of wiggle room for people who are uncomfortable (they just never confirm and presume me straight because women can look at other ladies and not want to sex them) and lets me still be "out" so I have no guilt about hiding it.

    I think that might be the difference between in and out of the closet (for bisexuals, anyway). It isn't that you stand up and say OH HEY BI THE WAY but that you're just not being secretive about it. If my Mother were to ask me if I was bi for some bizarre reason, I wouldn't lie to her, I just have no intention of ever bringing it up.

  8. The notion of "openness" is an interesting one. I'm gay, and pretty much as out as I know how to be. (I wear a rainbow wristband, for a start, though it's amazing how many people have no idea what that means.) I almost never tell people I'm gay, but I do tend to ensure it comes up in conversation somehow or other. (Mention a visit to a pride parade or something.) I actually find it easier if people I know know I'm gay. When some people do know and some don't, things get confusing.

    I suspect that applying that to bisexuality (even assuming you wanted to) might be tricky.


  9. The cheat sheet approach works, in my experience. I practiced on my brother first, and I prefaced coming out as bi by telling him I was telling him first because he seemed least likely to freak out. (This turned out to be a good assumption.) He said, basically, "Thank you for trusting me with that knowledge." And then I had to call back two minutes later to say, "I didn't mean to deprive you of the option of freaking out, if you feel that's what you need to do." To which he said, "No, seriously. Not freaking out. Just at dinner with friends."

    I'm not out to extended family: they're conservative, we're not close, and it's not worth the drama. OTOH, I had a buzz cut for years; they may have assumed, despite my dating of menfolk.

  10. Here from Shakesville - and damn, I'm nodding along so hard I may need a neck brace. I had my "quarter-life crisis" at 20 (mostly all mental, like yours). I'm a heterosexually-married bi woman and while I consider myself Family, I call myself Extended Family. My day to day life doesn't FEEL like it's part of the local queer community per se (although my friends circle includes at least 3 other bi women, all of whom were or are married to men, with varying degrees of successful relationships with women - somehow, what, we gravitate towards each other? No, not that way.), But since I wear my identity and politics on my sleeve, habitually, I'm out to anyone paying attention with the exception of work (at-will state with no GLBT protections - yay!). Anyone else who's not paying attention assumes I'm an ally, and I don't necessarily correct them unless it comes up. I've been at Equality rallies where it's come up when chatting with people - I mention my spouse and someone wants to give me Ally cookies for standing with them, but I'm quick to say that no, I'm Family. My spouse has been pretty supportive, understanding it as part of my identity, not a party trick.

    My biological family is either in denial or doesn't talk about it, since it's not something they have to deal with. The closest my mother ever got to asking about my sexuality was asking whether I wanted to go to a Hooters on vacation. This was in college, when I was already out to friends and dealing with a couple of related personal issues. So after I picked my jaw up off the sand and stopped laughing, I told her no. Chickened out on the why: insert rant here about comodification of the female body, feminist solidarity with sex workers aside, and crappy-ass fast food I won't eat on vacation, thanks.

    So I'm out as far as I'm concerned, but I'm still in a semi-permeable closet. I can't change people's perceptions of me, I can only be honest and correct them when they voice an erroneous one. I'm used to that on racial/ethnic fronts, as a biracial person who doesn't apparently look like someone's idea of what black/white biracial person is supposed to look like. I get everything else under the sun guessed about my heritage, sometimes out loud, sometimes in public. I'm used to people getting the wrong idea and treating me differently because of it. When I correct someone on some stereotype or bias that personally affects me, the person usually assumes I'm taking a sociopolitical stance, not an identity one. Well, yeah, I'm going to speak out about ANY of it, not just the parts that pertain to me - that's what being an ally means to me. But if it does pertain to me and they don't know it, that's my chance to break out of the pigeonhole THEY put me in. If I don't identify myself, I feel as if I'm lying about who I am. But I'm learning to pick my battles - the potential for backlash is always there like background radiation. Sometimes, I need the protection. So maybe it's not a closet so much as a screen - protective to a certain degree if needed, but ready to be pushed down at any minute on behalf of myself, my friends, my family, or my Family. Right now, at this stage, I'm OK with that.

  11. Fun fact: I live in a community (a certain women's college) where people actually do come out as straight. Which honestly is pretty great, because it makes it so much less of a big deal to come out as queer-- if everyone acknowledges their sexuality that way, it doesn't other you so much to have to do so. As a non-passing trans guy, I feel similarly about cis people offering up their pronouns during introductions. It's a similar sort of am-I-in-the-closet situation: I'm not going to lie about my gender, and I will correct people if I hear them getting it wrong, but if I don't come out immediately upon meeting everyone, most people get the wrong impression. Amusingly, I actually have been (before I read this post) describing the sensation of not knowing if another person is reading me correctly as waiting for the wave function to collapse.

    My girlfriend and I are also both bi, and I had a fun conversation with my grandmother the other month where she straight-up said that bisexuality didn't exist, and how could I be okay with my girlfriend being bi? Which is funny because she knows I've had both girlfriends and boyfriends, so I have no idea what she thinks is going on there. Judging someone's sexuality by their current relationship really doesn't work. Same goes for people from the queer community-- back when I was still IDing as female, a lesbian friend said of course one of my past relationships hadn't worked out, it was with a guy, completely forgetting that I had been quite vocal about my bisexuality. It gets frustrating.

  12. There are definitely moments when I kind of wish that we had a normal method in social situations for just being all 'so, what is everyone?' The closest I've ever seen to this was actually the day I met Erika; we were at a writing event and sat at what, in retrospect, was the queerest table ever: three bisexuals and one lesbian. Neither of us were at all out yet and I still thought I was straight at the time, but it would have been very, very easy to just toss it in there if I wanted to.

  13. I realize I'm late to the party here, but I only recently discovered your blog.

    I go through a variant version of this; I'm a bi man and have been in a monogamous same-sex relationship for 20+ years, so everyone I know assumes I'm gay. This is in general OK with me, but as you say, bisexual invisibility is a thing and I sometimes feel like I ought to do my part.

    Mostly, I satisfy this feeling by posting about it on National Coming Out Day. (Typically, I end up posting a link to that post, because I have nothing new to say on the subject.)

    Every once in a while I'll mention that some woman or other is sexy and someone will (more or less jokingly) challenge that on the grounds that I'm gay, which gives me a chance to correct them. Which was also how I often came out to people as non-straight, in the Before Time when I was single.

    Incidentally, I am liking your blog. I discovered it through your Ender's Game posts, which are reminding me that actually, even leaving aside the Card politics, I don't actually feel any strong desire to see the movie.

  14. Can I just take a second to say that this is the first I've seen of QUILTBAG and I love it?

  15. I've never been sorry to be out before, but now I want to meet the zombie cat in Schroedinger's Closet! :'( No zombie cat for me.