What Being Out Means To Me
Over the last year, I’ve found myself having a similar conversation with many of my friends. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, maybe it’s simply that my peer group is hitting that age, or maybe it’s been on my mind and I’m listening for it. Lately I find that we are talking about degrees of being out, about how we are actively being visible, about how we are sick of folks presuming things about our sexuality or having family treat it like a dirty secret. We are all suddenly feeling a need to be visible, not just out.
I have a friend who finally just put it on Facebook, “just so everyone knows, I am a lesbian.” Her family was devastated. They had known for years, but now it is public. Another friend of mine just married his boyfriend of 10 years. It turns out his mother, who knows he’s bi, has spent the last 10 years hoping he’d meet the right woman. She’s having a very hard time handling the marriage. Separately each of them initiated conversations with me about their needs to be visible and proud, not just out.
I recently watched a movie called “Appropriate Behavior” and the main character is a bi woman. When folks ask her, don’t your parents know, she says “They know I know they know…” This seems like a pretty common state of affairs. We are encouraged to let everything go along unsaid, implied, to not make people uncomfortable by talking about our orientation, our loved ones, our desires.
On National Coming Out Day we talk a lot about how empowering it is to be out, how your outness can change the world, how much better you will feel, but I wish more folks would also discuss what it means to be out, that there are different ways of being out, that what’s right for you will likely change over time. No matter who you are, you don’t just come out once. This is especially true of bi people, who will find themselves correcting total strangers about their orientation over and over again. I like to think of outness, like I think of sexuality, as a spectrum.
For many years I was what I thought of as “low-key” out. I’m a bi poly woman married to a man. When I didn’t want to have a whole big conversation about it (which was most of the time), I would just say “I’m married.” Yeah, I knew everyone was assuming that that means I’m married to a man and that he is my only partner, but that’s not my problem. I told myself, it’s not like I’m lying. I’m being honest, I am married. Sure, if they had prodded further, I would have told them more, but no one ever bothered to prod further and I was secretly thankful. Our society encourages us, pressures us, even forces us to be “low-key” out. “I’m married, but actually…” or “actually, I’m bi…” are statements that often cause eye rolls. They are seen as oversharing, immature, and attention grabbing.
But, really why is it so important to tell everyone who you might want to sleep with? Here are a few reasons. One is that when you are asking me to hide myself, you are telling me that I should be ashamed of who I am, that I have something I should be hiding. You might still love me, but you clearly consider this fundamental aspect of who I am to be a flaw.
Another reason is that there are people who really do need to know my orientation and when we are conditioned to constantly mislead others about our sexuality, it becomes such a habit that we just don’t tell anyone. Here’s a list of people who should know, but don’t or haven’t known until very recently: my doctor, my gynecologist, my therapist, my psychiatrist. These people are supposed to be taking care of my health and they need to know these details of my life. When I say “I’m married,” they quit asking questions about how many partners I’ve had recently, what kind of protection I’m using, etc. Instead every one of them asks, “are you planning on having children?” This is also an important question regarding my health, but not the only one.
The assumptions around that loaded phrase, “I’m married,” make it even harder for me to be honest. People have a very clear idea of what marriage should be, what it is, and I worry that if I try to explain it they won’t understand. Indeed, when I finally did clarify with my psychiatrist that my husband and I are not monogamous, she was literally speechless. She tried to smooth over her shock, but this was clearly new and uncomfortable territory for her. She still doesn’t know that I’m bi. In fact, all she knows is that my husband and I “have some kind of an agreement.” Her words, not mine.
My husband is more assertive. He will often follow up “I’m married” (implicitly to a woman) with “and I have a boyfriend.” Then he deals with the outrage, curiosity, and eye rolls. He finds it easier than me because he is more extroverted, he is more confrontational, and he’s a man. People are sometimes shocked or disgusted or confused, but this revelation is frequently also met with innuendo and admiration. When I try to explain that I’m married and non-monogamous, it is frequently seen as an invitation to proposition me.
We also have very different social circles, albeit with a lot of overlap. Although we have many friends in common, almost all of his friends are bi. I get that. We found a wonderful bi community, and it allowed us to build a group of friends where people just get it. It’s a safe haven when it feels like the rest of the world is trying to deny your very existence. Throughout our relationship he has worked from home and had the freedom to surround himself with like-minded folks, I have not.
I worked in the food and beverage industry. I networked, I had a huge web of contacts and acquaintances that knew 1) Talia likes wine, 2) Talia has a pretty awesome palate, 3) Talia’s actually pretty good with beer, too, 4) Talia sometimes has purple hair (that crazy kid) and 5) Talia is married to some guy that none of us have ever met. That’s about all they knew about me. This network of chance-met people got me jobs, promotions, more contacts, private winery tours, free wine and beer, invited to awesome events, etc. Over time, I felt like I developed two totally different personas. I had my “work life,” “work friends,” “safe work conversation topics,” my “bi life,” and “bi friends.” It sort of worked, but became increasingly stressful and less sustainable. Also, as more of those contacts became friends, it started to feel like I could never be totally honest with them. Would they feel like I’d been lying to them for years when they found out I had a boyfriend and a husband? The whole time I still thought of myself as “low-key” out. I guess I was out in a way, but it’s certainly different from how I’m out now.
In the last year, I’ve left that industry, gotten older, moved, had different adventures, acquired a new dog. I don’t know why, but over the last year, I’ve been less okay with being “low-key” out. I want a badge or a sign that says “This is me, deal with it!” I want to be out and visible, I want to be “shout-it-from-the-rooftops” out.
Now I worry that when I choose the path of least resistance that I am behaving as if my life is shameful and I am making it even harder for another generation. I think I need to take the time to educate my doctor, so when a younger, less privileged person crosses their path, they know that “married” doesn’t mean straight and monogamous. I need to correct people when they assume that I am something I’m not. Then again, I can’t always be the bi ambassador, and I recognize that. Somedays I just need to get from point A to B without going over bi 101 with a total stranger. I don’t have the perfect solution, but I am certainly trying harder to speak up about who I am these days. That is something I can do. I am secure in my job, I have an incredible support system, I am finally paying off those darn student loans. I’m at a point in my life where it is time to quit being “low-key” out and start speaking up.
In honor of Coming Out Day, I challenge everyone to think about what being out means to you and where you are on the spectrum of outness. Who are you out to? Who aren’t you out to? What’s stopping you? Do you see that changing? Do you want it to change?