This essay, in which I wrote about my own coming out story, was originally published on April 19, 2009, at AfterEllen.com in my column “Notes and Queeries.” In honor of National Coming Out Day, which is today, I’m reposting it here.
In the midst of the mini brouhaha that erupted after actor Clementine Ford (The L Word, The Young & The Restless) came out, denied coming out, and then came out again (officially), the one fact that jumped out at me was this: Ford was married for four years to a man.
I’m not trying to deny that she came out. Ford told The Advocate, “Look, I am gay, and I just wanted there not to be this big emphasis on it.”
It just struck me that there’s another term for someone who was once in a long-term relationship with a man before identifying as gay: bisexual.
From the little that Ford has said publicly about her sexual orientation, she doesn’t appear to identify as bisexual, and that’s fine. There are probably plenty of reasons for that, and none of them are my business. But her former marriage does make the ambiguity of her statements to Diva and TV Guide make a little more sense — at least to me, because I, too was in a long-term relationship with a man before I identified as a lesbian.
For several years after that relationship ended (well into my late 20s), I was also reluctant to put a label on myself. Whenever anyone asked me about my own sexual orientation, I often gave them answers just as cryptic as those that Ford gave to Diva — and I wasn’t a public figure like she is.
This was partly because I wasn’t ready to be a lesbian, which carries its own set of rights and responsibilities. Nor did I want to align myself with all the stereotypes that fall under the term bisexual. So how could I explain that I had once had a happy relationship with a man for almost five years, and yet was attracted to women?
If only — and I never thought I’d write this — if only I had seen that Oprah episode about sexual fluidity back then.
Though the episode (which originally aired on March 25, 2009) and the April 2009 O Magazine article that inspired it were both dressed up with salacious titles (“Women Leaving Men for Other Women”), the episode and the article explored the spectrum of sexual orientation with more complexity than I’ve seen in the mainstream media in a long time.
On Oprah and in the article, Dr. Lisa Diamond, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, explained that the concept of sexual fluidity — which she and other researchers argue explains the experiences of women like Cynthia Nixon — is not actually about being bisexual. Diamond told O Magazine:
People always ask me if this research means everyone is bisexual. No, it doesn’t. … Fluidity represents a capacity to respond erotically in unexpected ways due to particular situations or relationships. It doesn’t appear to be something a woman can control.
Though I’m sure that Dr. Diamond was doing her best to present the concept as clearly as possible, I’m sure that many will find it difficult to wrap their minds around the idea of sexual fluidity. Even Oprah Winfrey admitted she has always thought that people are born gay or straight, and they mostly stay that way their entire lives.
The women on her show, as well as many of my friends’ experiences, seem to prove the opposite. And I’m pretty sure that my singular heterosexual relationship belongs in this category, too.
Because of that relationship, I think of my own coming-out story as somewhat convoluted, but in reality it’s probably no more complicated than anyone else’s.
I first realized I might not be straight soon after I arrived at Wellesley College, when I began to fall for a female friend of mine. At the time, I had no real understanding of what homosexuality or bisexuality was. I wasn’t even conscious of the possibility of lesbianism until my senior year in high school when a classmate told me derisively that 75 percent of the girls at Wellesley were lesbians.
I can still remember that moment to this day. We were in physics class, surrounded by other students. After she made that statement, I reacted indignantly and defensively, declaring, “That is not true.”
I was right; Wellesley, as far as I could tell, was never more than 10 percent queer — if even that much. But the wave of shock, revulsion, and fear that other people might think I was gay just because I was going to school there — those feelings lingered for years, when I learned to identify them as internalized homophobia.
This was the extent of my experience with lesbianism when I first began to feel myself drawn to my friend. It was both exhilarating and traumatic.
At the end of my first year of college, I went home to Colorado, feeling utterly destroyed. My family could tell something was wrong, and I began therapy with a counselor suggested by my grandmother’s church.
She meant well, but by the end of the summer, I had concluded that my issue wasn’t about being gay — it was an overly intense friendship that had resulted in my losing my identity. I don’t think this therapist intended to de-gay me, but at that time and in that place, I couldn’t have coped with anything else.
It wasn’t until I returned to college and learned that half of my friends had decided they might be bisexual that the truth began to dawn on me. I went back into therapy, this time with a therapist assigned by Wellesley. This woman saved me.
I remember walking from my dorm through the arboretum — a beautifully landscaped portion of the campus — into the town of Wellesley for my appointments. At one point the path crossed a stream that ran down a hillside; it was the kind of place that was so picturesque in its New England charm that it made me stop in the middle of the bridge, each time, to catch my breath.
In the winter, the top of the stream froze into a rippled glass shield, but beneath the surface, the icy water tumbled downhill freely. That’s what I was like that year: frozen on the surface, rushing and changeable within.
The summer after my sophomore year, I went to Beijing to study Chinese. In a co-ed environment for the first time since high school, I was immediately enamored with a male classmate. Yes, I had gained some measure of self-knowledge from therapy as well as my growing group of lesbian and bisexual friends, but slipping back into a heterosexual environment was so easy.
Everyone expected it. All signs in our culture point toward the boy-meets-girl love story, and I wanted that, too.
When I got back to Wellesley, the all-female campus was both suffocating and frightening. I wanted to find a boyfriend, and by the end of my junior year, I did. He was a friend of a friend of mine; we were the same age; and he was wonderful.
I told him that I was bisexual soon after we met, and he didn’t even blink. We dated for almost five years and lived together for a little more than two of them.
All my friends knew him and thought he was consistently great. He was kind and generous; he was one of the best guys I’ve ever met. But our relationship, like many first loves, changed as we became adults. We both knew that we were not meant to stay together. And though the breakup hurt at the time, it was right.
When I first became single again, I tried to date other men. I was certainly attracted to them, and yes, I was emotionally drawn to some of them, too. But none of them were right for me.
It wasn’t until I began a relationship with a woman some three years after breaking up with my ex-boyfriend that things clicked into place: being with a woman was so different — just like the guests on Oprah said. The intensity, the closeness, all of it made me feel vividly alive. This was right.
And yet, what does that mean for my heterosexual relationship? It played a major role in making me who I am today. When I say that I am a lesbian, my ex-boyfriend — my first love, my first adult relationship — is erased from the picture. Yet if I say that I am bisexual, I feel like a liar, because I have only ever been in a straight relationship once.
The concept of sexual fluidity seems to be a fitting way to describe my experience, but even though it may not be the same as bisexuality, it can still carry the same stigma. I can imagine someone thinking: Well, if she’s “sexually fluid,” doesn’t that mean she could still change her mind at any moment? Couldn’t she still leave me for a man?
The possibility of encountering biphobia, I will admit, has sometimes prevented me from telling my whole coming-out story. My friends and family all know about my ex-boyfriend, but as a nominally public persona on AfterEllen.com, I have resisted revealing this personal fact.
To be blunt, I know how deeply distrust of bisexuals runs in the lesbian community. Though the concept of sexual fluidity is useful, I think it will inevitably be reduced to bisexuality in our increasingly abbreviated society.
Like any human being who wishes to be known as a whole person, I am wary of being labeled. I already have a long list of boxes that I can check to describe myself: Asian American, Chinese, biracial, lesbian, queer, woman, liberal, Buddhist, writer. Adding bisexual — with all its stereotypes — has felt like too much.
But seeing that Oprah episode and, oddly, reading about Clementine Ford’s dance with coming out, spoke to me in a way I didn’t expect. It’s too bad her interview with Diva was so poorly fact-checked, because she said something that is very true:
I never wanted to put a label on myself — but knowing that not everyone comes from a liberal place, when something like Prop. 8 comes out, you realize it’s important to stand up and be counted. A little gay kid in some small town is more important than whether or not I want a label.
For the record, in terms of sexual orientation, I identify as a lesbian. But I don’t want to be afraid of the label bisexual anymore.
Ultimately, very few people will know who we are as individuals. I can count the number of friends and lovers who truly know me — my deepest, most complicated self — on one hand. How about you? It’s likely that even some of your best friends might not know about giant swathes of your life.
The fact is, others who don’t know us well will always identify us with labels, and they will rarely be the collection of labels that we would choose ourselves. To some people, I will be seen as an Asian American. To others, a lesbian. After this column is published, some might identify me as bisexual. And I will always see myself as a writer first.
Now I realize I can be all of these things at once. If someone only sees a few of the labels that describe me, that doesn’t negate those that they don’t see.
So instead of resisting labels or keeping parts of ourselves closeted away out of fear, I think it might be a better choice to stop clenching our fists around the categories we agree with and pushing away those we don’t. If the goal is to forge connections with other human beings, it’s best to do it with open hands.