Long before I realised that I am bisexual, I knew (vaguely) that bisexuality existed. There were one or two girls at my high school who admitted to it outside of school, who listened to t.A.T.u. and made out with other girls when they were drunk at sleepovers. When I was at a party where friends were dared to kiss each other, I hid in my sleeping bag, afraid of being chosen. I saw friends date and after what seems in hindsight like an excruciating amount of time grappling with my more obvious signs of internalised homophobia, I accepted it as normal. And yet I never wanted it for myself.
As I tipped in to puberty and angst about the possibility of being asexual, then gay, the arrival of a boyfriend into my life was something of a godsend. The relationship itself was exciting, I was falling in love for the first time and it was as heady as I had been promised it would be, but it was also final, unquestionable evidence that I wasn't gay. Or so I thought at the time.
Ironically, my then-boyfriend's parents also celebrated my appearance in his life as a symbol of his straightness. It was whispered to me as an aside and exclaimed loudly at parties, from friends and family alike, "he isn't gay!"
It was strange to be confronted with that throughout the relationship, because it felt like a skewed mirror to the secret journey I underwent myself. It made me feel invisible in ways I struggled to articulate. I would meet people years later with whom he was a mutual acquaintance and upon hearing that he was my ex, they would admit with surprise that they “really thought he was gay.” And in seeking to confirm his expression of self as a performance of his sexuality, there was no room within that performance for bisexuality to be even an afterthought.
Once the stereotype was debunked, default heterosexuality set in, the conversation was over. He wasn't interested in continuing that conversation, but some part of me was. It frustrated me that the relationship was used as proof of both our sexualities, even though I hadn't come to terms with mine enough to consider that annoyance in terms of myself. Assumed heteronormativity was imposed upon me, and it hurt, even when I wanted to be heteronormative.
When I finally accepted the label of bisexuality as one that fit me, it was not because I had hit a eureka moment where I heard the word for the first time and thought, "that's me!" It was three years after I first started dating, after I had broken up with my first partner and near when I kissed a girl for the first time. It was casual, at a party, but it also didn't feel casual. It felt like the culmination of years of repression urging me on, looking for ways to be expressed roughly six or seven years after I was first conscious of that feeling.
I was at university, single, surrounded by hook-up culture. As I slowly came to terms with the knowledge that lust, love and attraction could be experienced separately without undermining the others, I could finally, unflinchingly examine once more what I had been feeling all along, what had never gone away despite whatever methods of repression I employed.
The resistance between knowing what bisexuality was and internalising what it meant me was the resistance of homophobia and biphobia. Homophobia within my family and broader society was intimidating enough, who wants to be an outcast? Who wants to have to go through a public performance of coming out and learning what support or opportunities you might lose if you do?
Having heard about the history of failed queer conversion therapies and living in a “progressive” Christian environment, I accepted the taught notion by both straights and LG-positive brochures that being gay was not a choice but something you were born as, and that was part of why it was acceptable. Because you're not trying to upset the natural order of things, because if you could choose to be straight, of course, that's what you'd do. But the ways in which bisexuality interfered with that narrative was a whole other game for which I had no mentor.
The awkward thing about the dating scene, about finding people who are like-minded and getting friends to hook you up, is just how deliberate it can be, especially if you remove the easy template of heteronormativity. At least in those cases you get to relegate some tasks to the background, the tasks of finding someone of the right gender and sexuality who’s interested in you, or communicating those requirements to friends taking up the duty of being your wing-person.
Many people stumble into love with their close friends and never need to ask for anything more than what's right in front of them, but that's no guarantee. While sexuality is ingrained and love can be accidental, for most people falling in love is a process of curation. You curate the environment, the connections, the friendships, the time together, the dates, and sooner or later you find yourself in a relationship that requires constant involvement to maintain.
You even curate yourself and your desires; with every relationship that you are in, you discover traits that you do or do not want in your next relationship. And often unless you actively question the traits that you do want and why you want them and what they look like in different genders, I feel it is very easy at that point to continue dating people in a kind of monosexual pattern, especially if the media depictions of love that you consume are ones of heteromanticism.
I certainly nourished and engaged with heteromanticism from childhood right into my teenage years and my first relationship. I spent months curating crushes, learning to flirt online and at parties, with the enthusiastic assistance of well-meaning friends. I found all the romantic tropes and fit myself into them, and within that template gave myself permission to feel things I had trouble feeling with anyone else.
I could have poured the same energy into curating relationships with people who weren't men, but I didn't, at least not until I realised that men weren't the only ones I enjoyed hooking up with. I didn't want to be that stereotype of flirty bi girls who "love 'em and leave 'em". I didn't want to be anything negative associated with bisexuality. I wanted to be the Good Bisexual™, with the most valid relationships, ones which would be supported, loved and admired. Looking back on all that effort, I can't help but acknowledge the internalised biphobia that shaped that path. I told myself I was accepting myself, but my struggle with non-monogamy and what that said about me indicated otherwise. My attempts to navigate queer spaces were clear attempts to find places in which I fit, but I was always attuned to the dialogue of queer gatekeeping. I know others felt the same, although their paths often looked different.
The chances of falling in love in a non-hetero relationship seems to dramatically decrease when you aren't in the local queer scene. That's to be expected and it's okay, it's hard and not always even necessary. To challenge your patterns and date outside your normal social spheres when you've only followed one path would be to thrust yourself into even more unknowns than the dating scene usually includes, to be forced back into the fumbling teenage awkwardness as you try to work out what flirting looks like from different genders and romantic experiences. And if you fall into the ace spectrum, that can be even more confusing, as your memories of good sex all look like "straight" sex and your feelings towards anything else can be non-existent.
It seems that this is where the difference between knowing about bisexuality and being able to internalise it for yourself can get harder. If you acted as you should have according to the homo- and heteronormative narrative by treating love as a natural guiding force, and yet you and your relationships still don't look or feel queer enough despite trying to follow your heart, does that truly mean that you aren't? Do you somehow “deserve” to be left out and put back into the closet over and over again? Did you never have queer relationships because you never met the right person or questioned yourself enough, or because you didn't want to devalue potential queer relationships by overestimating compatibility according to a desire to be more queer, and so overcompensated in the other direction?
Queer gate-keeping is a large part of the insidious nature of biphobia, it's part of why we call it biphobia and not just homophobia in the first place. When the desire to be considered queer as a bisexual person is demonised by the LG community as a selfish and destructive trait of “appropriation” rather than the truth, how can you possibly participate in queer relationships without internalising yourself as appropriating feelings that aren't your own, and sabotaging your relationships with your own guilt, self-hatred and doubt about your own feelings?
You're forced to constantly question your right to be in a relationship in the first place. Did you stay in an unhealthy or abusive relationship because you were afraid that leaving made you a bad queer, meaning that you could never date queer people again and be forced back into the closet? Did a relationship fail because it was a bad relationship, or because you're not gay enough? When your sexuality is defined by and questioned according to the performance of successful relationships, it threatens to throw your relationships into scrutiny and doubt.
Those are difficult anxieties to quell, especially as you get older and more set in your dating ways. The mythical narrative of the Good Bisexual™ is one of experience and confirmation, but the truth of the matter is that we don't all have the time, inclination or resources to live out the same story over and over again. And frankly, we shouldn't be expected to. If diversity is meant to be the unifying strength of queer communities, the varying experiences of bisexual people should be a rallying point for us, not a divisive one.
There is a sense of both loss and gain as we discover our identities and grapple with what they are “supposed” to mean and what our lives are supposed to look like under that narrative. Lost futures and alternative universes to grieve for, lost opportunities for relationships in the past, in the parts of our lives when we couldn't accept ourselves and when we thought we had to choose, or that the choice had already been made for us. But in the process of all this we gain unique experiences and, most importantly, we gain the power to reject the expectations of heteronormative and monosexual society and build a society in which sexuality is not policed, a process which is at the very heart of queer theory and what it means to be truly queer. And maybe we will gain the power to remove fear from the process, so that when you overcome that fear and finally come out as bisexual to yourself, you don't have to do it more than once.
Nardia Kelly is a queer artist with a particular love for poetry and other forms of literature. You can find them on twitter as @indigodecay.