When I was 13 and browsing on Tumblr, I found a true definition of bisexuality for the first time and immediately identified with it. I had felt this way for my entire life but never had a word for it. Elated, I began doing further research, reading articles and blog posts of people telling their own stories. I was surprised, however, when in almost every post I found something along the lines of “I’m bisexual, but I’m not a slut” or “I’m bisexual, but I’m not looking for a threesome” and, almost inevitably, “I’m bisexual, but I’m not confused.”
Because I was very much in the closet, I learned what the stereotypes were before they were ever directed at me. I knew what behaviors to avoid even around friends I was “out” to and what explanation to provide every time I did come out. This act of self-policing is known as respectability politics. Unwittingly, the bi-community had already policed my behavior in an attempt to refute these supposedly negative stereotypes.
Respectability politics is when a marginalized group polices their own members’ behaviors and social values to be compatible with the mainstream, rather than challenging conventions to accept their differences, according to a book written by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. It affects racial minorities in huge ways, in that almost all people of color are expected to conform to white standards of beauty, language, and behavior. But the burden shouldn’t fall on the marginalized group itself—those who impose these standards should be held responsible.
As I got more comfortable having casual sex, and began exploring the idea of polyamory, I started to feel isolated. In my mind, I wasn’t being a “good” bisexual—I was living up to all the stereotypes bisexual people had been trying to break down for so long. I felt like I was letting the community down. I struggled to be open about my promiscuity around other queer people, especially when it comes to sleeping with men. And I still rarely bring up the idea of polyamory in fear of being shut out by the bi community.
Dan Savage, author and columnist for The Stranger, an alternative magazine out of Seattle, once said, “When I meet a bisexual teenage boy, for instance, I sometimes think to myself, ‘Yeah, I was too at your age.’” This has deeper consequences: Many people are afraid to come out as bi, in part because they know they will be told to pick a side, and in part because if they do “pick a side,” they know others will say “I told you so.” Though I had always been confident in my sexuality, when Savage and others express and impose their own doubts about bisexuality, it’s bisexual people who bear the weight of this.
Over winter break was the first time I began to wonder if I was bisexual at all. I realized, with fear, that I might be gay. I was hesitant to talk to anyone about it, especially those who had doubts when I first came out. I was scared of the “I told you so” moment. I also felt like I was turning my back on the community I belonged to, and because I had been so out and proud, I felt like I would be taking a step back. But the reality is, everyone questions their sexuality regardless of how they identify. People will go from identifying as straight, to identifying as gay, or from gay to bi, or any other combination. Bisexual people feel additional pressure, however, because they know they are expected to be confused.
Stereotypes run deep, and the struggle to proudly identify as bisexual while also making sure I’m good enough to live up to the name has not been easy. I ultimately still identify as bisexual, because though my levels of attraction have changed, I recognize the legitimacy of my past relationships with men, and the potential to be attracted to men in the future. And even though I am still unsure of my sexuality, I know that I have just as much right to talk about it as anyone else does, and I have as much right to identify as bisexual as anyone of any identity does. I’m not straight and I will never be straight, and I will not compromise my identity to fit into a mold that makes straight people more comfortable.