Coming out to your family is a very brave, potentially traumatic and admirable decision to make but imagine you didn't know exactly what you are yourself...
The worst lie I ever told took place at Christmas 2002, when I was a 22-year-old student. Since October I’d been going out with a gorgeous, funny and ridiculously popular girl called Lola, a psychology student in her final year. When I arrived back at the family home in Belfast, I bottled it and told my parents I’d just started seeing another student named “Lee.” Hands up – I lied partly because I didn’t want to rock the boat. My parents are Christians, and whilst I’m convinced they’d have come to terms with having a gay daughter eventually, it wouldn’t have been easy for them.
But I lied mainly because I was still figuring out what the fuck I “was”. Lola was my second serious girlfriend, but I’d also been really into a boyfriend when I was 17. I was pretty damn sure I wasn’t gay. I also knew, every time I looked at Lola, that I wasn’t straight. I know that lying about your sexuality is a cut-and-dried 21st century sin, and I’m not proud of it, but it seemed heartless to put my parents through this particular wringer until I was 100% sure what exactly it was about my sexuality I had to tell them. Plus I didn’t want to be popping in and out of the closet like a jack-in-the-box. Telling your family that you’re gay remains a very brave, potentially traumatic and admirable decision. Announcing that you are “straight, after all, folks”? That’s just embarrassing.
The main hitch was that I hated the word “bisexual”. Lola and my previous girlfriend, Mia, were both gay, with gay friends, who teased me good-naturedly for being “a bicycle”, as they put it. Without exception, my gay friends thought that bisexuality was nonsense, and that I was either gay or in denial or straight and in denial. Their teasing was good-natured and – I thought at the time – harmless, but I was called a “part-timer” and “half-a-gay”.
I can’t blame them. After all, I went out with Mia in late 1990s Glasgow. Our gay friends had invariably been bullied at school and gone through rough patches with their families. I felt guilty for not being able to sign up as “100% gay and proud!” They sure could have used the support.
So I came up with an uneasy compromise, describing myself as “a lesbian when I’m going out with a girl, straight when I’m going out with a boy”. I desperately wanted to be one or the other. At the age of 21 I held pretty strong opinions, about Blur being better than Oasis, about preferring Fitzgerald to Hemingway, about Glasgow being more fun than Edinburgh. Not being able to have a strong opinion about my own sexuality was a particularly cruel joke.
Whilst some people believed I was a coward in denial, others thought bisexuality equalled gloriously liberated sexual hedonism. Or, as I put it to a gay friend, “People think I’m just <greedy>.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. I’d had a religious upbringing in Belfast, a city which in those pre-Good Friday agreement years was about as progressive as a glacier. I stammered at school, and until the age of 16, when I got my first boyfriend and discovered vodka, I was too cripplingly shy to even phone for a pizza. In all my significant relationships, I’ve been 100% monogamous and embarrassingly starry-eyed. In truth, I don’t find that many people attractive. It’s just that some of the people I do fancy are men, and others women. Unfortunately, to a lot of people, saying “I’m bisexual” is tantamount to announcing, “I’m up for anything, me”. As a self-conscious, hopelessly romantic 19-year old, the “bisexual” label wasn’t one I wanted printed on a t-shirt.
What I hated most about the b-word, however, was the response I got from men who thought I was lezzing it up for their benefit. I never got more attention from men than when I started going out with a woman. (Thank you, global porn industry.) Kissing my girlfriend at a student house party, a red-faced, sweaty engineering student stumbled over to declare, “Woah, you two could make money from this.” My difficulty dealing with this unwelcome attention caused petty disagreements with Mia. Sometimes I’d dodge a kiss on the lips from her at the bus stop, because over her shoulder I could see a trio of drunken businessmen who I knew would leer. She believed we should be out and proud, and took my platonic cuddles in public as a sign I was ashamed of being with another woman. I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to be stared at. I wasn’t used to it, after all. I could snog a boyfriend at the bus stop and nobody would give us a second glance. Mia, in contrast, had been coping with stares, leers and the occasional snide remark since she was 13. She was better at it. I felt well and truly like an amateur gay.
You might imagine that bisexuality somehow broadens your sexual horizons, turning the entire world into your sexy oyster. As Woody Allen once put it, “bisexuality immediately doubles your chances of a date on Saturday night”. That wasn’t how the maths worked for me. I felt like I only had half a sexual identity. I was only half a heterosexual; only half a lesbian.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. I learned a lot about myself, and about human nature, by being romantically involved with both men and women. And in addition to the unhelpful responses I’ve described, I got a lot of support. But people like to put other people in boxes; even if just to save time. I wasn’t straight or gay, and at this time I never managed to get the word “bisexual” out of my mouth. I didn’t know how to tell people “what” I was.
This was still a problem one boyfriend and one girlfriend later, at Christmas in 2002. Hence “Lee”. I politely answered questions about “Lee.” I was honest about Lee’s university course, about where he lived, about where he’d taken me on a first date. (Ice-skating.) I just wasn’t honest about “he” being a “she.”
What made matters worse was that, in a different city, Lola had chosen this Christmas to tell her parents that she was gay. She’d “never really liked boys”, she said, and saw our relationship as the final push she needed to come out. They took it badly. Afterwards she cried down the phone to me, and whilst I felt desperately sorry for her, and guilty about my own cowardice, I also envied her certainty about her sexuality.
When our relationship ended, I remained good friends with Lola, and her group of friends became my group of friends, too. When I graduated and moved to London, I shared a flat with friends I’d met through her. In 2006 I travelled, with Lola, her new girlfriend and some other mates, to Glasgow for a friend’s 30th birthday party. Standing at the bar I met the man who, by 4am that night, I knew I was going to marry. Just about everyone else at the party thought I was a lesbian, since I’d met them through Lola. My husband-to-be was one of the only people in the room not to think I was gay, and it was only later on that our mutual friends thought it was funny that he was “wasting time” talking to me in the corner. On our first date, the next day, I told him. And no, it didn’t bother him one bit. He’d always had a lot in common with Lola.
Strange as it sounds, it’s my marriage which has enabled me to finally make my peace with the word “bisexual”. It’s only now that I’m married to a man that I know I’m not going to marry a woman. If I had married a woman, I would probably be calling myself gay. Because, for all the reasons above, this would be easier. Today, having married a man, I can “pass” as straight. But I don’t want to.
Sure, the word bisexual still has undesirable connotations. But it’s the only label that comes close to describing my romantic history. I realise now that if we don’t name things, we can’t talk about them, and I’d rather we were able to discuss the entire spectrum of human sexuality openly. So I’ve started going to monthly meetings for bisexuals, something I fervently wish I’d done a decade earlier. I’ve started dropping it into exchanges with colleagues, just so they know. I’ve even made that terrifying phone call to my parents. Okay, I know that it’s easy for me to be open about my sexuality from the safe refuge of a supportive and seemingly conventional marriage. I know it would have been far braver to have been honest when I was still confused. But it’s better late than never. And this Christmas, if I get chatting about past relationships with my family, I don’t have to talk about Lee.