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Last month, something that was kind of huge (for me) happened. Without even really thinking about it, in the context of a random conversation on facebook, I uttered the words, “I identify as bi.”
It was huge, because up until that moment, it wasn’t true.
I have never in my life, even in my own mind, identified as bisexual. I have always identified as straight. And “identity” is more than just what you say out loud. I am talking about my internal, mentally anchoring, world-defining sense of self. I’m white. I’m cisgender. I’m Jewish. I’m American. I’m a mom. I’m allergic to salmon. I’m addicted to coffee. I’m straight.
It’s not that I didn’t know I’m attracted to both women and men. I knew that. I kind of thought that all–or at least most–straight women were. I thought straight was a choice, and that by dating men, and by marrying a man, I’d made it.
I’m perfectly happy being married to a man. I like men. I like monogamy. And I love my husband.
But I’m not straight. And realizing that this was something not everyone feels, and that it had a name, was actually a really self-affirming and worldview-shifting experience for me. Like dropping the last piece into a puzzle. Yes, you knew exactly what the picture looked like before you put that last piece in. The picture isn’t different with the piece in there. But now it’s complete. And you can finally see how beautiful it is, instead of just knowing it.
So…that was cool.
I also really didn’t think it would matter to anyone except me. Because let’s be honest, nothing is different–past, present, or future–because of this revelation. It hasn’t affected how I’ve lived my life up to now, and I don’t really see it changing how I live my life going forward. At least, not romantically.
I mean, okay, if god forbid anything ever happens to my husband, the kids are just as likely to wind up with a new step-mom as a new step-dad. (After a mandatory three-day mourning period, of course. I’m not a monster.) But even that isn’t actually different. Just newly acknowledged.
Other than that…nothing, functionally, is different. At all.
The only change is in how I feel, and the things it’s made me think about. And that’s exactly the sort of thing that I write about in this blog. Invisible things. Worldview-altering experiences. Deep thoughts. The fact that even moms have sexuality, and a sense of identity that includes that sexuality. And that even moms might still have things to learn about themselves, and uncertainty about where they belong. That’s just as relevant to the daily life of this Stark Raving Mom as runny noses and parent-teacher conferences and dirty dishes. Life’s a tapestry, and this is the thread that got tugged on this week.
So I wrote about it.
But then I had second thoughts about sharing it.
Not because I’m ashamed, and certainly not because I’m shy. But because I don’t often label myself. I try to make my blog an inviting space, someplace where everyone feels equally comfortable. Kind of like how when you’re staging a house for sale, you paint the walls a neutral color. I want people to focus on my words and ideas, rather than on the person saying them. I suddenly worried that walking over to the LGBTQ+ side of the room–and just in time for Pride Month!–would alienate people. The choice was personal, the timing was coincidental, and it wasn’t intended to be political. But of course it was going to look political. So I worried.
And once I started worrying, the floodgates opened.
What would it mean to be openly bisexual? Sure, I just decided I’m not going to be shy about it, but I still get to decide when and with whom I share it. Once I publish, I give up that control. It’s out there and I’ll never know exactly who sees it, or when, or in what context.
My blog is not anonymous. A good chunk of my following is local. Did that mean this decision was going to have real-life consequences for my family? For my business, for my husband’s career? For our kids at school?
Was it really that big a deal? Was I being paranoid?
I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I couldn’t reconcile this sense that this was Very Important with my assertion that it was No Big Deal, and I wasn’t sure how either of those fit with this new thought, could this be dangerous? I decided I needed to bring my husband in on the decision. (No, my sexuality was not news to him).
He shared my concerns about publishing. We couldn’t come to a decision. We decided we needed more heads in this huddle. And at that point, I decided to do something that I realize, in hindsight, was a mistake.
I put it up to a vote. I invited other people to judge the value of my newfound truth. My sense of self. My identity, and my desire to express my identity.
And then I was surprised that it hurt when they did.
Coming out to the people closest to me was almost incidental. I took for granted that they’d be accepting, and assumed (perhaps wrongly) that they wouldn’t be surprised. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I thought that when a person comes out, there is only one right way to respond (Cool. We love you no matter what), and only one wrong way to respond (That’s Wrong, you’re dead to me). I know my family, and my friends, and they’re amazing. I knew which way that was going to go. (I was 100% right).
What I didn’t realize was that there are so, so many other wrong ways to respond. Well-meaning wrong ways. Tone-deaf wrong ways. Unintentionally hurtful wrong ways. I didn’t know how vulnerable coming out was going to make me feel. I didn’t anticipate that in the 48 hours after starting this conversation, I’d sleep maybe four, write for like twelve, and run out of wine.
I didn’t know how important this was to me until other people told me it wasn’t.
And the worst part is that if someone a had come out to me, a month or a year or even a week ago, I might’ve said some of the same things. Truth be told, I have said, or encouraged others to say, the same things. Not because I’m a bad person. But because I didn’t get it.
I didn’t understand what coming out really meant. What it felt like. Its significance to the person doing it. Why it mattered.
I get it now. And, me being me, I’ve taken my newfound perspective and made it into a handy dandy list for you.
5 Things NOT To Say When Someone Comes Out To You. (Even if they ask).
1: “I don’t care.”
Along with this one, “no big deal,” “it doesn’t matter,” or “I don’t get it.”
You guys. It always matters. It’s a huge deal. And you don’t have to get it.
If someone is coming out to you, it is because they have just made an emotionally intense, worldview-altering, life-changing decision. It doesn’t matter whether they’re coming out as bisexual, gay, trans, pansexual, non-binary, gender-neutral, or a unicorn trapped in a human body. It doesn’t matter whether you understand its significance. It doesn’t matter whether it’s significant to you.
It’s significant to them. Impossibly, ridiculously, earth-shatteringly, soul-achingly significant. And they chose to share it with you, personally.
Care. Whatever else you do, CARE.
If you’re truly confused about why this matters and feel the need to express it, a more validating thing to say would be, “I don’t really understand why this is a big deal. But I recognize that it is a big deal for you. I know it took courage to say, and I’m proud of you for saying it. Thank you for sharing it with me.”
2: “Don’t tell.”
Yes, I specifically asked people whether I should tell. I asked some of them permission to tell. I asked because I was still reeling. I asked because I was uncertain. I asked because I was scared. I asked because I didn’t even realize yet that this thing is mine, and only mine, no matter how many other people it might affect. I asked because I didn’t know what I needed. I asked the wrong questions.
I got plenty of answers. Some I’d asked for, some I hadn’t. All of them were well-meaning. All came from a place of genuine love and concern.
None of them were okay.
- Don’t talk about this with your kids. Kids don’t want to hear about their parents’ sexuality.
- Don’t come out to anyone else, because if people find out they might boycott your business, and it’s not worth it.
- Don’ come out to anyone else, because if people find out it might hurt your husband’s career, and it’s not worth it.
- Don’t come out to anyone else, because if people find out they might pick on your kids, and it’s not worth it.
- Don’t come out to anyone else, because you look normal, so you don’t have to.
- Don’t come out to anyone else, because it doesn’t matter anyway.
- Don’t come out to anyone else, because it’s private. Nobody wants to hear it and nobody needs to know.
So, what’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is that these answers dictate the value of my identity. These answers value other people’s comfort over my own right to exist without shame. These answers focus on the risk, and dismiss the reward. These answers, without saying it in so many words, paint my desire to come out as selfish, attention-seeking, and incomprehensible.
Here’s the thing…and I wish I’d realized it when I began this conversation, because I would’ve framed things differently:
When someone asks for your opinion about coming out, they don’t actually need your opinion. They need you to help them figure out their own.
And there’s only one right way to do that. Make them answer their own questions. “Do you think you should tell? Why do you want to? Why are you worried you shouldn’t? How likely is the thing you’re afraid of? How bad would it be if it happened? Which is more important TO YOU – avoiding the risk, or being out?”
Beyond that, it is not yours. If you don’t understand why a person wants to say something, it is not for you to determine, or even suggest, when or to whom they should say it. There is absolutely no facet of a person’s identity that is only okay to talk about on other people’s terms.
When a person asks you about coming out to other people, help them find their own answers.
Then, seriously, shut up.
3: “It’s all right.”
Along with this one, “I love you anyway,” “I’m not offended,” “no big deal,” or “whatever.” Don’t forgive something that does not require forgiveness, because that implies it is wrong. Don’t dismiss something someone has chosen to show you, because that implies it is ugly, or unworthy of attention.
The experience of coming out to oneself is incredible. It’s seeing something that’s always been there, but for the first time. It’s looking back at your entire life up until that moment and having it all suddenly make sense. It’s realizing that you are something different than you thought you were. It’s realizing that you finally understand your whole self, and your whole self is beautiful. It’s terrifying and life-affirming and belly-dropping and painful and wonderful, all at the same time.
When you share with someone that you’ve had this experience, you don’t want forgiveness. You don’t want to be tolerated. You sure as hell don’t want to be blown off.
You want validation. You want to be celebrated, because until someone else does it you’re not sure it’s okay to feel like you want to. You want a damn hug.
So instead of “I love you anyway,” say, “I love you”–or better yet, “I love you even more.” Instead of “it’s all right,” say, “I’m proud of you.”
And please, and I mean this: say “congratulations.”
This is a milestone. You don’t have to understand it to acknowledge it. There is a reason people have coming out parties and I, for one, didn’t get it until I came out. If you are straight, you might never get it.
Just take my word for it. “Congratulations” is the appropriate sentiment.
4: “Are you sure?”
Along with this, “don’t come out if you aren’t sure, because you can’t take it back.”
This one was NOT said to me. But remember how I said I’ve been guilty of saying some of these things myself? This one. Guilty. Recently. I didn’t say it, but I encouraged a friend to say it. To her child.
And that was the first thing that sprung to my mind when I saw things from the other side. I reached out to my friend, and we had a long, long talk.
“Are you sure?” plays right into the vulnerability of a person who may not even realize yet–as I didn’t–how vulnerable they are. Not everyone who comes out is sure. You are what you are and it doesn’t change, but the extent to which you recognize it, and what you choose to call it, does. Sexuality and gender identity are freaking confusing, there’s a LOT of labels to choose from, and it can take a lifetime to figure it out.
Case in point: I’m 39 and I literally just figured it out. And I’m not even 100% sure I’ve chosen the right label. It just feels right for now.
Coming out is a huge step in self-discovery, self-acceptance, and figuring out where you fit. You can be unsure of your identity, but sure that you need one. You can be sure that you’re ready to commit to a label, whether or not it’s the right one, because you need to see what happens when you do.
Yes, that decision has consequences. IF ASKED, it’s okay to warn people about those consequences. Gently and without advice or judgement. (Have you considered…? Are you prepared for…?)
It is NOT okay to make the decision for them. It is NOT okay to question a decision they’ve already made. It is NOT okay to tell someone you know them better than they know themselves. And it is NOT okay to encourage someone to question their own mind.
Believe me, no one needs encouragement to do that. The thing we need support for is the decision to stop questioning it.
So please, don’t ask a person coming out, “are you sure?” If you must ask a question, ask, “are you happy?” It’s the only question that matters, and the only answer either of you should worry about.
5: “Have you even considered how this is going to affect ME?”
Not said to me in so many words. But an underlying sentiment worth exploring.
Because, no. Just no.
Yes, of course this is something that affects other people. Just like getting married affects other people, and having a baby affects other people, and taking a job affects other people, and going on a diet affects other people.
And just as with all those things, the fact that it affects other people doesn’t mean it goes up to committee. It doesn’t mean everyone gets a vote. It doesn’t mean consideration for other people counts more than the experience of the person it’s actually happening to.
And really, I shouldn’t even have to say this: it doesn’t make this question okay. Ever. In any context. Period.
So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about–and obsessing about, and losing sleep over–for the past week. All this, over my decision to acknowledge that I am a bisexual woman in an opposite-sex marriage, and that I might maybe want to talk about what that’s like once in a while.
Can you imagine how intense this would’ve been if I were making a lifestyle change too? Because damn. I’m drained just from this. Realizing I was ready to identify as bisexual was the mouth of a rabbit hole, and things got trippy after that way faster than I ever thought they would. My initiation into the world of being anything-other-than-straight has been more emotionally intense than I ever expected it to be. It’s been brutal and it’s been beautiful. It’s broken me and redefined me and left me sore but stronger. I’ve barely begun…but even just the past few days have given me a newfound appreciation for what LESS invisible LGBTQ+ people must go through.
I also want to say that my family and friends are awesome, and in spite of any unintentional insensitivity, there have also been a lot of truly wonderful, supportive things said to me, by the same people, since I started this conversation.
Whether they fully understood me, or handled things in the best possible way, my family got the most important things exactly right.
They said, “you do you, boo.”
They said, “you are who you are and we love who you are.”
They said, “this is what we think, but we can’t tell you what to do. And we’ll love you no matter what.”
And when I pushed back against their advice, they said, “you’re going to do what you want anyway. You always do. So do it. We support you.”
They were right.
I am out.
It feels good.
Also, I’m not publishing that one blog post I wrote about it.
I’m publishing four. That one, this one, one about Pride month, and one about coming out to my kids (yup, that happened). Because I just realized I’ve got a whole lot more to say about this than I thought I did.
And you know what?
I’m pretty confident everything’s going to be okay.