This column is published in partnership with Scarleteen.
I’m bisexual, and I really would like to tell my friends. I mean, they seem pretty open-minded, being pro-gay rights and generally accepting. The thing is, they’re being open-minded from afar. If they found out that one of their closest friends is bisexual, I’m not sure they’d be too keen on the idea of having a bisexual girl friend. One even has said that she wouldn’t want to have sleepovers at a girl’s house if she liked girls. I’m honestly not attracted to her or any other one of my friends (well, maybe one a little, but I’d never make her uncomfortable or anything) but they don’t get that. I don’t know how to tell them that I like girls but that doesn’t mean I like all girls. I’m not sure they’d believe me. Help, please?
Heather Corinna replies:
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I’m going to tell you a few things you probably already know, but they might be good ways to explain to anyone who doesn’t already know them.
Heterosexual people are usually only or primarily romantically and sexually attracted to people of a different sex or gender than they are. That means that your heterosexual female friends can potentially be attracted to any number of different men. What it does not mean is that they will be attracted to any given guy, or that they are attracted to all men.
Bisexual people are are usually romantically and sexually attracted to either men and women alike, or to a wider range of gender identities (not just people who identify as male or female, but potentially also people who identify their gender outside that binary). That means that you, me and other bisexual people can potentially be attracted to any number of different men, women or people of other gender identities. What it does not mean is that we will be attracted to any given person, or that we are attracted to all people.
For many of us who are bisexual, our experience is that gender is either totally or often a non-issue. In other words, while any given bisexual person may find they have more or less attraction to a given gender group, when it all comes down to it, gender just doesn’t tend to be critical to us in the same way it often is for heterosexual and homosexual people. Plenty of people who aren’t bisexual may experience this in other groups/classifications of people. For example, maybe your friends find that what race someone is doesn’t matter to them in their attractions and relationships; maybe they don’t find themselves only attracted to people with money, only attracted to people of a certain age or only attracted to people of a certain size. Sometimes putting bisexuality into a different context in which someone has a wider sphere of possible attraction can help a person who isn’t getting it to understand it better.
No matter our orientation, we also don’t always pursue feelings that we have for others just because we have them. Maybe some of your friends have either been in or are familiar with situations like one of them having feelings of some kind for a guy another one of them is either dating or has stronger feelings for, where they chose not to do anything about those feelings out of care for that friend. There are a whole bunch of reasons any of us might choose not to take action on romantic or sexual feelings for someone else: they’re taken, we’re just not in the right space, they don’t seem to want what we want, they don’t seem ready for what we are, a distance is too great, they’re on the rebound, or — and these are biggies here — they don’t have the same feelings for us that we do for them or we really like having them as platonic friends. In other words, if you need to, you can make clear that while you really don’t have those kinds of feelings for your straight friends, if you did, you’d not be interested in a relationship or sexual exchange with someone who did not feel the same way about you, and you also like having your friends as your friends.
Just like anyone else, bisexual people have the capacity to make sound choices about what we do with romantic or sexual feelings, and just like anyone else, we generally want relationships that are what everyone involved wants, not just what we might.
One other thing to bring up, which the term “sexual orientation” can sometimes obscure is that our orientation isn’t actually about having sex. The “sex” in “sexual orientation” is a reference to sex per gender — to male, female, etc. — not to screwing. It is about what sex (or gender) we find ourselves oriented to or towards, sexually AND romantically. It’s about who we love just as much as it’s about who we find sexually attractive. Heterosexuals don’t seem to have to remind people of this, but bigotry and bias around gays, lesbians and bisexuals often presents us as being more concerned with sex than love. Biphobia and bias towards bisexuals will sometimes suggest we are just indiscriminate horndogs who say we’re bisexual because we just want to have sex with anything that moves. While there can be people in the world who do want to have lots of sex with lots of people pretty indiscriminately, that’s not limited to any one orientation, nor is it more prevalent with, or specific to, bisexuals.
Even straight allies who are very supportive of LGBT civil liberties can sometimes miss that or not get it: for bisexuals, as for anyone else, our orientation is often largely about who we love. Gay, straight or bi, if we want to have sex with someone and we can’t or they don’t want to, it sucks, but we’ll tend to get over it without a whole lot of fuss. If we love someone and either they don’t love us back, or the world or some circumstance doesn’t allow us to love one another and share or express our love for one another, that’s a lot more painful and a lot tougher to get over. Making sure to talk about strong feelings of love can also help make all of this more clear. While I think it’d be a great world where we all earnestly loved each other deeply, none of us tends to have strong feelings of romantic love, or the desire for long-term or family partnerships, with a ton of people. Your girlfriends probably only have those kinds of feelings for relatively few people, and that is probably also true for you, you just may have more people it’s POSSIBLE for you to have those feelings about, that’s all.
While we’re on love, I’m going to assume you and your best friends love each other, and like who each of you are. Just like with them, your sexual orientation is part of the person you are; part of the person they love and have always loved. And while you recognizing you are bisexual and identifying as bisexual may be new, you being bisexual is probably not new: it’s probably been a developing part of who you are for just as long as their heterosexuality (if, in fact, all of them even are heterosexual) has been a developing part of who they are. Whether or not you or they have known it, they’ve loved and liked bisexual-you for as long as they have loved and liked every other part of you. This isn’t a matter of you suddenly being someone different, it’s just about you discovering something about yourself that was there all along, but you didn’t see, feel or identify clearly until now. You’re still the you they have always known, accepted and trusted.
There’s a certain narcissism with people who have the idea that because someone could be attracted to them, they will be. In other words, a person who says things like that they wouldn’t want to be in locker rooms, slumber parties or any other situation with someone who might be attracted to them seems to be assuming they’re so hot, that person WILL be attracted to them. I probably don’t have to tell you that’s a pretty myopic, self-centered view of the world. This is another one of those places where someone with those kinds of ideas obviously has some growing to do. I don’t suggest you share this with your friend with the sleepover comment, because it’s not something you can really put in a way that someone is going to react to anything but defensively, but I just wanted to share that with you. Now, if she’s worried about her safety — if she has the idea she has to worry about people who are emotionally or sexually attracted to her forcing themselves on her, that’s pretty easy to dismantle: she knows you, which means hopefully she knows she can trust you not to try and hurt her, which is what anyone forcing themselves on someone else is doing. You wouldn’t do that, and that should be all you have to say.
It’s perhaps also good to bear in mind, going back to the first few paragraphs up there, that very few people in the world are 100% homosexual or heterosexual, according to most studies we have on sexuality, relationships and sexual orientation. You might have heard someone say “Most people are bisexual.” That’s a bit of an oversimplification.
Most people who identify as homosexual or heterosexual, at some point, will generally feel or have felt some kind of attraction, be it romantic or sexual, to someone outside that defined sphere of attraction. They may or may not have pursued a relationship based on those feelings, and those feelings may not have even been particularly strong, but it is actually pretty unusual for a person, in the whole of a life time, to ONLY have EVER felt attraction for just men or just women. So, your friend who has the idea, for example, that barring all-girl sleepovers from lesbians or bisexual women will mean there will never be a woman in the room who feels any attraction to other women is operating under a fallacy: that’s just not likely to be true. None of us can somehow live our lives where we are never in potentially vulnerable situations with people who just might find us attractive unless we choose to live those lives alone under a rock.
I make sure you know that when coming out to friends, you don’t have to come out to all of them, or to all of them at once. My suggestion when coming out is always for everyone to kind of move in safe, concentric circles, starting first with the people you know or suspect will be most supportive and accepting, then gradually moving outward as you feel more comfortable and more resilient, but also as you’ve built a stronger and stronger network of support. You can always ask the friends you do feel most safe coming out to first to keep that confidence until you say it’s okay otherwise: no one we love and trust should be outing us to anyone else (no one should be outing us, period, but we should be able to count on our besties not to). So, in your case, maybe the friend you don’t come out to right now is the one who made the slumber party comment. Maybe she’s someone you come out to later, once you have other supportive friends advocating for you who she can look to and see that they’re accepting, or who can help her evaluate her attitudes if need be so that it doesn’t fall only on you. Peer pressure is the big yuck, but people feeling influenced by others around them thinking and being positive and compassionate is nothing but good.
I also want to let you know it’s not your job to try and convince people to accept you or other bisexual people. If someone has bias or bigotry — whether it’s about orientation, gender, race or something else — the onus is on them to work on dumping that. Bias and bigotry are not positive traits or enlightened ways of thinking, nor something that benefit others: they only do harm. If any of us are doing things or believing things that hurt other people, it’s our job to work on stopping that and our job to work on adjusting our beliefs so that they don’t do harm. It’s not the job of whoever our actions or beliefs may be harming to try and make us stop.
By all means, when any of us are members of any group or social class that is being oppressed and discriminated against, if we are in the position to do some educating and awareness-raising, and if we feel up to that, it’s great to do it. But we may not always feel up to it, and that’s okay. Being a member of an oppressed group doesn’t mean we suddenly develop superhuman capabilities or inherit a responsibility to be activists 24/7. There’s also a line we need to draw, especially in situations where people are refusing to accept us very personally. Being in the position where we’re basically begging someone else to accept us who won’t isn’t good for us: at some point, if someone just won’t, to be kind to ourselves — and also not remain in a constant, fruitless battle — we’ve just got to walk away.
Now, hopefully, that won’t happen with any of your friends, but it certainly can. If it does, I hope you can know it’s not about anything being wrong with you, it’s about that other person refusing to grow. For the most part, at any time in our life, in any interpersonal situation, people will either accept us or any part of us or they won’t. It’s always rough to be rejected, unaccepted or turned out, but it is going to happen, and there will simply be people we come across in life who we either just don’t connect with, don’t stay connected with as we all grow and evolve (or don’t), or where there are divides we can’t bridge. In those situations, that’s where our own acceptance comes in: we have to accept how other people are, too, even if we don’t like it or think that’s okay. We just don’t have to stick around when what we’re accepting is that they’re not going to treat us fairly or they’re going to hurt us in some way.
If you find out that you have a friend or some friends who just won’t accept who you are, know there are other people who will. I know that in some areas, especially in high school, that can feel pretty bleak, but remember that your social circle in high school probably won’t be the social circle you will have your whole life: it will expand and you get to make it of whomever you want, which certainly includes only putting people in it who do accept you for who you are, bisexuality and all.
One last thing? While there still can be some temporary growing pains involved, most people who are accepting-from-afar, as you say, will tend to become more accepting when someone they are close to is a member of a larger group they support, not less so. People with very intense bias who outgrow it and evolve often tend to expressly because someone close to them was impacted by their bias; because they suddenly saw, up-close-and-personal, both the real impact of their bias and a real-someone who was a member of a group they broadly generalized about. It’s harder to maintain bias and bigotry when you have no choice but to really look at it: it’s easier to maintain it when you can pull a “those people” all the time about people you don’t actually know. So, I have high hopes for you and your friends, and think you may actually be in for some pleasant surprises, even if their response isn’t unilaterally positive or accepting.
I suggest you walk into this thinking positively and presenting it positively. Many years ago, I taught early childhood education, and had an approach with something I think tends to be helpful with all people. When it came to cleaning up things the kids had taken out, instead of trying to push, pull, plead and force, what I’d usually say to some little one with a pile of stuff it was time to clean up was, “I know you’re going to clean that up in a little bit when you’re finished, you always do such a great job. If you need some help, just let me know,” instead of “Come ON, clean up your stuff already! Why do you have to make such a mess!?!”Jedi mind-trick? Maybe. But what I hoped doing it that way put out there was that I had confidence in them to take care of themselves and our shared space; that I thought them capable and expected them to be capable, but also recognized we all need help sometimes. That approach tended to work and feel a whole lot better than the alternatives, and helped nurture the kind of respectful and supportive relationship I wanted us to have.
I think the same can happen here with your friends. In other words, “I know you care for me and support me, so even though I’m nervous telling you this, I trust I can and trust you’ll be as accepting as I know you to be. If you need some extra support or help in that, I’m happy to talk about it together.” That kind of opening and approach supports the trust and good relationships you already have, reminds them you think the best of them, and also invites them to step up. It also may help make them aware that if they have a hard time doing that, it’s likely about them not being true to the good people they are, so they can better recognize if and when they just have some growing to do. Additionally, you’ve left room for them to not hate on themselves or you if they do have some bias they need to unpack or do need to do some talking to be fully accepting: again, we all need a little help sometimes.
And with that, I’m going to leave you with a few links and my very best wishes: