By Bri Kerschner
“I don’t mind her as long as she doesn’t come over and try to be a gross lesbian with me.” My aunts and uncles nodded and grunted their agreement with my grandmother’s assessment of her new neighbor, a single older woman whose hair was styled in a short crew-cut. I never really knew Linda’s sexual identity and, frankly, it was none of my business. I remember her as a kind, practical woman whom I rarely saw. My family made her sexual identity their business, and they had endless disgusting commentary about it. I was only ten and was still pretty clueless about my sexuality – at this point I didn’t like anyone. Other kids were annoying, I loved school, and I was desperate to please my emotionally distant parents. But at ten years old, because of my family’s overwhelmingly negative response to same-sex relationships, I trained myself to ignore any feelings I had for women. The suppression of my identity, then, while not natural or comfortable, became second nature even though I didn’t recognize it for what it actually was: bisexuality. To be a part of my family, I knew I had to hide an essential part of my existence. My childish mind declared: “I won’t fall in love with anyone, especially not girls.” Naturally, this became more difficult to maintain as I grew, and I crushed on boys and girls in silence, never mentioning my secret to anyone. It was an isolating and cold experience. While I should have expected support and kindness, I knew that I would receive derision and cruelty from my community if I confessed my true feelings.
“We don’t need to tell the family about this.” My mother didn’t want anyone to know that I was bi. I had finally decided to come out to my mother and father, believing that because they were my parents they would still love and accept me. Unfortunately, my mother insisted on a two hour “discussion” to convince me I wasn’t gay and that this was all a mistake. We settled on my keeping my sexuality to myself and not speaking of it again; the family didn’t need to know that I loved women as well as men. I was dating a woman at the time and was only allowed to refer to her as my “roommate” in their presence. The alienation that began here grew into a chasm that neither side could traverse. Family is supposed to be the keystone to building young identities. For most people, their relatives are their first community. For me the rejection of this vital identity, my bisexuality, by my family only encouraged my eventual departure from them. When I finally left, it wasn’t with sadness or regret but with a cold, seething rage.
“What a quaint little relationship you two have!” My colleague squinted because she had had too much to drink and a little Chardonnay spilled onto the carpet. My “roommate,” Melanie, had brought me to a formal party for work, the invitation highly coveted among the academics we both worked with. Mel introduced me as her “significant other,” making the joke that we’re such great roommates that it’s like we’re married. I cringed, but smiled anyway at the drunken physics instructor who could have made, or destroyed, our early academic careers. Mel had explained quite carefully to me that even though we were “mostly a couple” our conservative coworkers wouldn’t understand and it could hurt our job prospects later in life.
Mel said that “we want to fit in,” but I realized a little too late that she was desperate to belong and so denied her identity. At the time, I echoed this desire; this was the community I wanted. Elegant wing-backed chairs, the discussion of culture and art over a glass of exquisite Scotch, climbing this gilded ladder in the ivory tower until we reached the inner sanctum and declared, “We belong here.” But while we lounged in the overstuffed chairs and drank the overpriced Scotch, the identity I tried to stuff down with flippant dismissal and casual jokes began to waken the rage that had been simmering in my stomach. How could I continue to pretend to be detached while our relationship felt like a filthy skeleton we kept tightly shut away? How could I continue to be complacent while Mel made jokes to hide the fact that we were more than “roommates”? This elite island of academics held all the promises for my future career – to reveal my true identity would be akin to total career destruction. I decided that the price of my membership was too high; I left both the college and Mel, never revealing to either my whole true self.
“So now that you’re married to a man, you’re technically straight, right? I mean, you can’t claim to be bisexual if you’re with a man.” Fast forward a handful of years and I’m sitting in a coffee shop on a bright winter morning with a close friend. I patiently ask, “Did your sexuality change when you got married?” She lets out a surprised “Oh!” in recognition. Over the years I got better at explaining my sexuality and had decided that I didn’t want to belong to a community that couldn’t accept the whole me. Unfortunately, that meant I had quite a few years of being alone; I was getting heartsick by myself, yet I learned to love my own company. The more time I spent single and alone, the more I learned to love whom I was as a whole being. Perhaps for me, not being a part of a community gave me an opportunity to discover and fall in love with myself. And just when I had come to terms with being comfortable in my own skin and sexuality, Fate threw me for a loop and tossed a man in my way. On our third date I confessed my bisexuality, stating it as a challenge. Accept me as I am or get the hell out of my way. He replied, “That’s great! How has that shaped who you are?” I was floored and speechless. No awkward conversation, no rude threesome jokes, no challenge to my identity. Unwavering acceptance and a gentle curiosity defined him and I found myself realizing that this person was different from anyone I’d ever met. He softened my edges, quietly defused me when I was looking for a fight, and offered constant kindness and support. He even persuaded me to marry him, a nigh impossible feat, as I had sworn I would never marry. He also introduced me to people who were as accepting and kind as he was: his friends and family. Suddenly I found myself in a community with people I loved, but because of my past experiences, I was afraid to share the truth about my identity. I couldn’t bear rejection yet again, not with these people who were so warm and wonderful. I felt like I had found home but couldn’t move in, and I so desperately wanted to.
“It must be really hard being in a seemingly straight relationship when you’re bisexual. You need to connect with other people who are bi. It would be a good thing.” This was my husband a year ago. (See how easy it was to fall in love with him?) I had found an article online dispelling the myths about bisexuality and wanted to post it on social media – in the process “outing” myself to my new community. “Just post it. Tell everyone. I think you might be surprised.” He was all encouragement, and I was terrified. But I did. And I announced to my friends and family-in-law I was bisexual (other than the close few who already knew). But instead of rejection, within the first day I received encouragement, support and even some “Me too’s.” A number of our close community friends came out to me and wanted to chat, connect, relate. I had planted my feet and declared my sexuality and instead of rejection, I discovered my own mini-community of bisexual friends among people I knew. It took me years to get here, to be boldly unapologetic about my bisexuality, and to make peace with my past experiences. By prioritizing my own acceptance of my sexuality and vowing to be my authentic self in my relationships, the community I had always wanted coalesced around me like a transparent, warm blanket. And I am more than happy to snuggle in its warmth, at long last.
Bri Kerschner is an English instructor at a two-year community college in Minnesota. In addition to spending time with her dog and husband, she loves spinning fleece into beautiful yarns. She is passionate about eliminating bi-erasure and encouraging LTBTQ+ voices.