By Ellen Davenport-Pleasance
Coming out as bi+ can be difficult—especially when managing biphobia—or the cultural lack of understanding of bisexual identity. Adults—both heterosexual and queer—often fail to understand our bi+ identities, and the burden often falls to us, as bi+ people, to educate them. I often find myself trying to convince people that my own bi identity is valid by explaining, “I am not confused,” or “I am not straight now that I am dating a man,” and “No, I was not a lesbian when I was dating a woman.” Arguing for the legitimacy of bisexuality, or countering invisibility, is exhausting. And what about when one becomes a parent? How does one come out to the children or explain it to them as they age?
Now, full disclosure, I am not yet a mum: I am a bisexual woman, in my twenties, with two dogs. I do plan on having children in the future. I have begun to wonder how I will explain my bi+ identity to them. When adults have a hard time getting their head around my attraction to multiple genders, how am I supposed to explain bisexuality to a child? And when is the right time? As an academic, I turned to the research to try to find answers, but found little on bi+ parenthood.
Because I could not find the answers I was looking for in the existing literature, I decided to interview bi+ mothers about their experiences for my master’s degree thesis research. The interview topics ranged from mental health to media consumption, as well as how they came out to their children. The mums lived in various countries across Europe and North America, used a range of labels to describe their non-monosexual identities (bi, pan, queer), and became parents, and parented, in a wide array of family structures. Mums had taken different routes to parenthood, with some conceiving through unassisted reproduction with a current or ex-partner, and others conceiving through assisted reproduction using donor sperm. Mothers who conceived with donor sperm did so for various reasons, including being in a same-sex relationship, choosing to become a parent alone, or having a trans-male partner. Like other family types, it appeared that many of the families had undergone transitions, such as separation or divorce, and many bi+ mums were now parenting in new relationships. Some bi+ mothers were in monogamous heterosexual-passing relationships, others in monogamous same-gender relationships, some had non-binary partners, and some were in polyamorous constellations.
After analyzing the data from interviews with 29 mums, I was able to draw several conclusions. Like me, it seemed that most bi+ mothers wanted their children to know that they were bi+. They pointed out that their children are some of the most important people in their lives, so they wanted to be honest with them, explaining that it “feels good to live authentically.”
I was surprised to find that, contrary to my expectations, most mums told their children about their bi+ identity through conversations over time, rather than a formal, sit-down, ‘coming-out’ statement, so often depicted in movies. Mums also discussed how they needed to tell their children multiple times, because their children would forget. They would begin the conversation when their children were young, and then continue it over time, adding complexity as their children grew older. The exception to this was when mothers had realized they were bi+ once their children were teenagers. In this case, bi+ mothers did have a more formal conversation where they ‘came out’ to their children.
Like me, bi+ mums pondered when the ‘right time’ was to begin the conversation. Some bi+ mums felt that it was best to tell their children from a young age, or from birth, saying that “if [children] get it from a young enough age, they’re like ‘this is just part of who you are.’” Bi+ mums also discussed their children’s teenage years as a time which lends itself to having conversations about bisexuality+. This is a time when conversations about sex and relationships tend to arise naturally. Some bi+ mums incorporated discussions of their own identity into conversations with their teenagers, in addition to using inclusive sex-ed books. Other mums emphasized that they would wait for their children to ask questions, because they felt that “children will ask the questions when they’re ready to hear the answers.” For others, specific events led to the discussion. For example, one mum explained that their child had come home from school and asked, “Mum, is lesbian a bad word?” The explanations of bisexuality that mothers crafted for their young children generally fell into two camps. Some bi+ mothers opted to talk about attraction, explaining to their children that “mummy likes men and women,” or saying, “I could be attracted to… people of all different genders.” Other mothers explained their bisexuality by talking about their own past or current dating. For instance, one mum explained to their children that “mummy might want a girlfriend, or mummy might want a boyfriend,” in order to signify that they might date people of different genders.
Some mums used children’s books and resources to help explain to their children that they were bi+. Mums discussed the lack of representation of bisexuality+ in children’s books and their ability to use the books creatively. For instance, one mum explained that she pointed out bisexual feminists in a book she read to her toddler to spark conversations about bi+ identity. She said, “We have these little feminist board books and if there’s somebody in them like there’s a page with Josephine Baker and I will say, ‘Oh, Josephine Baker was bisexual, just like mama.’”
In terms of preparing their children for discrimination, bi+ mums, often in visibly queer relationships, explained to their children that they might face negative reactions rooted in biphobia and homophobia. Those in heterosexual-passing relationships tried to shield their children from biphobia and homophobia, by asking their children not to talk about them being bi+ in front of certain homophobic family members. For instance, one mum explained, “One of the things that we would tell [our child] [was] we don’t talk about [my orientation] in front of [Grandad].”
On a more positive note, lots of mums celebrated LGBTQ identities with their children: taking them to pride events, or celebrating at home as a family, or recognizing international celebrations such as Bi Visibility Day. Some children carried banners at pride marches or help to decorate the house with Bi Visibility Day flags. Mothers felt that celebrations were one way they could encourage their children to celebrate diversity, along with educational conversations and books.
Talking to these mothers has given me hope for the future. It seems that there are a multitude of ways to explain bi+ identity to children, and that “coming out” to them can take the form of subtle, ongoing conversations from a young age, rather than a singular, formal coming-out conversation. Such conversations are evidently working, as evidenced by children’s normalization of bisexuality+. In fact, one mother explained that their son “accepts it the same as having baked beans for dinner!”
I am so grateful to the mums for sharing their experiences with me and I look forward to interviewing more families for my dissertation, which will be based on interviews with children and teenagers on their perspective of having a bi+ mother within their family.
Ellen Davenport-Pleasance is a Ph.D. student at University College London, whose research focuses on bi+ mothers and their families.