Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

Some thoughts on sexuality and 'coming out'

July 27, 2012

The Origin of Love from
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
A friend was recently placed in the situation where he had to come out to his family. In the course of my life I spend a lot of time thinking about sex and gender roles, and heteronormativity (as does anyone who doesn’t fit in neatly within its confines), but I’m often a little wary of talking about it, or of writing about it. There are many reasons why I don’t want to talk about it, why I wish the framework for talking about it were different, and why I wish that no-one had to. But that wish is more idealism than pragmatism, and I can talk (and generally like to), so will.

I’m sure I have little more to say here than has already been said before, but here goes: I find it somewhere between troubling, depressing, and enraging that someone can be in this situation of ‘having to’ come out to a family, to friends*. The world we live in is still the one where being heterosexual and cisgendered is the expected, if not the norm. Why, I ask naively, can’t we just be ourselves and have done with it? Why is it expected that we justify our identity to other people, can’t we just go on living our lives, why do we need to explain what goes on in our pants?

But some time ago, I realised the privileged position I come from: I am, and always have been, bisexual. I didn’t always think of it in these terms, I didn’t always identify with the label, but in recent years I’ve found it helpful, which I’ll get into in a minute.

Most people who know me know that I’m in a relationship with a woman. I have ‘pass privilege’. If I say nothing, it’s assumed I’m heterosexual. If I say nothing, people will refer to my partner as ‘my lady’, ‘my lady-friend’, or ‘my girlfriend’. For sake of expedience, I sometimes say ‘girlfriend’ too, though this bugs me also. Why? Because these terms reinforce the role inherent in a heteronormative relationship, in which I’m a straight-dude and want straight-dude things.

I get it, people aren’t being mean (and they’re not really doing anything wrong), these terms exist so that we can communicate aspects of our lives to those we don’t know very well and convey some sense of what our lives are like. Perhaps for a lot of people (maybe most), this is kind of pleasurable – you get to feel somehow closer for it.

For me, though, it has the effect that I’ve experienced much of my life, which is that I’m being relegated to a certain prescribed set of behaviours, and if I don’t conform to it, then I’ll seem a little weird, or at worst be ostracized . And people (consciously or not) will try to get me to conform to the initial expectation. Basically, I have a choice, a choice that I wouldn’t have if I were gay and in a long-term relationship with a man, to pretend that I’m heterosexual.

The sad part is, I’m good at pretending, I’ve been taught to my whole life. For a long time, my framework for understanding my experiences was a heterosexual one: oh, I’m just attracted to men sometimes, oh my first experiences were with boys my own age because that’s what was safe, oh it’s just experimentation. But it reached a point when I realised that I’d spent so much of my life validating and encouraging one half (if you will) of my sexuality, and relegating all the rest of my experience to silence. Which made everything so much harder. Because in my mind, I was trying to identify part of me with all of me. And the harder you try and do that, the deeper that hole inside grows. And if you’ve ever been in a relationship where you’re trying to make the other person be everything to you in your life, you know it’s bad news.

There are times when I (as we all do) talk about some of this with people I don’t really trust. Here come the invasive questions, as if anyone is entitled to the answer:

• But how do you know?
• But what have you actually ever done with a man?
• Isn’t bisexuality just fence-sitting (bi now, gay later)?
• Isn’t that just a fetish?
• Look that’s fine, but I don’t know why you feel the need to label yourself.

It’s not that I mind talking about it, it’s that I mind feeling like I have to justify myself. So, I don’t like to dignify most of these questions with an answer, but the last is pertinent: I ‘feel the need’ to ‘label’ myself because people keep assuming I’m straight. Labelling has a lot of negative associations, primarily for the pejorative use of labels and history of vilification. But there are very positive uses, also. For my part, the label ‘bisexual’ is a shorthand way of describing what I’ve experienced my whole life: that I’ve been intensely attracted to, desired, enjoyed the company of, and wanted to be with individuals irrespective of their gender. Rather than tiptoeing around other people’s expectations of me, I have on hand a word, a label I can use as a line in the sand. My sexuality isn’t open to debate, this is who I am.

Part of the problem I’ve had when talking to people about this is that for a long time it didn’t make sense to me – and so I didn’t understand – that other people – some other people, anyway – are only attracted to one particular gender, and that there’s a gender that’s ‘off limits ’. To me, there’s never been such a boundary, except for what’s expected of me. (Of course, this is why the term ‘bisexual’ is, in itself, problematic – it reinforces the binary model of gender, by suggesting you can pick ‘one or the other.’ It’s beyond the scope of this post, but that model excludes a whole hell of a lot of people.)

So, I get to live in a world where it’s my choice whether or not I pretend to be ‘normal’, or pass as heterosexual, while my friend is placed in the situation of justifying his existence. I still dislike the concept of ‘coming out’, because of the structure of it all – that it’s even a thing. It’d be nice if there was no default sexuality applied to a person that would then necessitate ‘coming out’. But it is a thing, and will continue to be a thing until our social order changes.

Another friend recently said, “Andy, you’re in a relationship with a woman, cut people some slack, it’s not surprising they think you’re straight.” And, you know, fair enough.

So, as much as I wish we lived in a world where we could just go on living, being ourselves without the interference of sex and gender norms, we don’t. And I’ve finally decided it’s better to speak up than to leave the speaking to those who are forced to.

* I happily acknowledge that ‘coming out’ has both positive and negative connotations, and holds great meaning to a great many people (myself included). This post is focussed on the pressures to do so, the power dynamics and assumptions at play.

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