The Surprisingly Shy Bi

3/20/2018

istock/Janet Rhodes

I am not a shrinking violet.

I flit around at parties, expanding until I glitter and bring out the best in a crowd. I introduce people and sometimes play matchmaker. I’m the first to belt out a song at a karaoke bar (“Barracuda” is my jam). When it comes time to protest, I utilize my diaphragm and start up chants. I become an emcee and barker at nonprofit booths and draw in passersbys with friendly engagement. And no one who knows my social media handles questions whether I am a feminist and everything that that means.

Even in my creative line of work, I strive to be fearless. I was overjoyed to perform a comedic sketch that mimicked sex acts while my mother was in the audience. I do nude modeling for life drawing classes. Hell, last year I even did a nude open mic (and won!) because it scared the bejesus out of me. (Honestly, I was more terrified I’d have a flat five minutes of material than displaying my birthday suit on stage.)

And finally, I’ve become incredibly vocal about the bi experience within and without the community in the last few years.

No one who knows me would conceivably label me as shy. So why am I so damn timid when it comes to asking out anyone other than men?

This quandary came up in a conversation with queer friends. I saw one of their necks push back in surprise, their eyebrows scrunched up in confusion. The contradiction did not compute.  So why would I dig my toe into the dirt?

When I got home that night, I made a cup of tea and got my navel-gazing on. My thought process dredged up examples of my emotional evolution, cultural indoctrination, and memories so strong I could still taste them.

I wasn’t always an extrovert. In fact, I was much more of an introvert as a kid. I read books every night and didn’t have many friends (oh, hi, bullying), so I learned how to entertain myself. But once I hit the stage with school plays, I relished pouring myself into characters, honing my Wicked Witch of the West cackle or the physical imbalance of Humpty Dumpty. I found acceptance in the merry band of theatre geeks, and it helped me settle into my skin.

But I still didn’t feel comfortable talking about my attraction to women. I can remember watching the 90210 intro (this one, in fact – it’s all about the Brenda years, guys) and saying aloud “WOW” about the girl in the red-and-black bikini. Someone in the room gave me the stink eye and, even though I was only eight at the time, I fully absorbed what that gesture meant. Be quiet. That’s weird.

So I didn’t talk about it. My reactions to women didn’t happen as often as they did with men, so I didn’t give them equal time or consideration. I just mooned about Jason Priestley and stared really, really hard Roz from Frasier. But I didn’t talk about Roz and her glossy mountains of hair that I wanted to touch.

I sure got asked about boys a lot, though, as I grew up. Family friends, people in grocery stores, neighbors – they all blended together in asking if I had a boyfriend yet. It was a whole chorus of nosy grown-ups. They crouched down to my eye level and told me what a pretty little girl I was, when all I wanted people to be seen for was being smart.

How is a little girl who scrapes her shoes on the ground to brake her bike supposed to shoulder that kind of societal pressure? And yet we did. Every day. Most of the stories fed to girls pointed towards straight marriage as the ultimate goal. And yes, I had my pink-loving-princess phase, too. But when it comes down to even Looney Tunes having housewives wander around the house in heels and aprons, it’s time to question the narratives fed to us.

I know I always wear my Louboutins when I’m making baked goods.

And yet I came of age in the late 90s, the height of girl power. Daria was on TV, and Spice Girls blared on the radio. Girl power’s feminine assertiveness inserted itself into the zeitgeist that was prepared for young women. I read the suggestion in Seventeen magazines so often that boys loved being asked out (“it took the pressure off,” I was informed) that I started practicing it myself. I still don’t have much problem asking out men I’m attracted to because of those articles.

But women? Nope. That idea never made it into the column inches. Lesbians brayed from TV screens in flannel and boorishness. Portrayed as undesirable. So that path didn’t seem right, either.

As I was exiting high school, it became clear to me I couldn’t deny my attractions – even if the word “bisexual” was a punchline. It was my punchline – I just had to figure out how to make everyone else laugh with me, and have the laughter welcome me like a hug.

I didn’t really start using the word bi to define myself aloud a lot until eight or ten years ago. I just got tired of all the lazy jokes and dismissals. But even though I made sure some circles knew my orientation, I didn’t really know what to do about it, other than keep reading up on everything about that Tina Fey girl on the Weekend Update.

The thought gnawed at me. It seemed safe to assume most men were straight – they usually made it crystal clear if they were interested in me (whether they would actually ask me out was a different question.) Society had culturally indoctrinated me in how to tell men were interested – and my part in that dance.

Plus my bi-fi was awful. I didn’t really feel comfortable in queer spaces because they were usually gay/lesbian dominant spaces. So I had to try to discern in the breeder pool who might be interested and bi like me. Would it be safe to hit on this girl? Was asking out women the same as men? Would I be labeled as a lesbo as soon as I started dating a woman? I didn’t know how to handle that. So even in the rare instances when some girl had the courage to hold my hand after a joke a little longer, or cup my face as we said goodbye, I fled. It was too much to take on, especially in straight-dominant spaces where I would have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

There is, however, a silver lining in all of this soul searching. When I talked to other bi+ folx, they have reflected the same experiences of feeling torn – getting programmed, receiving mixed signals, and deep bouts of shyness. It felt validating to know I wasn’t alone in my experience.

So now that I had traced its path, what did I need to do next? I went through rounds of forgiveness. I forgave my circles and society for my indoctrination (and vowed to help dismantle that programming for future generations). I forgave myself for chickening out of those tender moments because they were all lessons in the making. And I decided to get more proactive.

I searched out bi specific spaces and worked on building a bi community for myself. Not only could I talk openly about my experiences, but I also knew in these spaces – be they bar socials, concerts, or just grabbing a burger – I was among my own people. And now that I knew we shared baseline attractions, if I did ask out a woman or an enby, I wouldn’t be outing myself or risking as much.

I’m still evolving. To this day, I get hesitant when pursuing same-sex relationships. But I know that’s on me, and that I’m a work in progress. And that’s totally okay. I just need to borrow the bravery from another part of my heart until it feels at home.

So hopefully when a woman holds my hand again soon, I can stop holding my breath … and squeeze back.

Jennie Roberson
Jennie Roberson is a comedic actress and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. She just finished her first novel (a bi coming-of-age tale, naturally) and hopes to share it with the world soon. When she's not busy binging on Star Trek or dreaming of her future cat army, you can find her occasional thoughts between mountains of re-tweets at her Twitter handle, @JennieRoberson.