unfolding, of belief and being

unfolding, of belief and being

I was 28 years old when I realized I was bi. I think my body and my heart knew this truth all along, but my conscious mind did not. 

Hindsight can be brutal. It seems so obvious now. But back then, growing up in an evangelical Christian community, queerness wasn’t even acknowledged. It wasn’t an option. I often feel regret and grief and anger over that. And when I do, I allow those emotions to pass through me, observe them, welcome them even, and then tell myself: I am here now.

I’m going to repeat that, for me. I am here now.

I.

When I say I grew up within a Christian evangelical community, this is what I mean: a conservative religion informed every decision my family made. It determined the usual things like clothing and music and television. It also informed other more abstract and deeply formative things, like discipline and expectations, ritual and meaning, values and purpose. 

Christianity shaped my entire identity as a kid and young adult. I don’t think I can adequately describe how impenetrable my bubble was. We’re talking Star Trek Level 10 force field. I was vaguely aware of pop music, but my only exposure to Spice Girls and N*Sync was when the neighbor kids blared their CDs across the street. That is just one example.

When it came to sex, I was given the abstinence curriculum in church, and it was assumed that I was going to get married. To a man. Women married men (and then had sex, not before). That was the “natural” order of things. Queerness was never discussed in my family. Not once in my youth do I remember hearing my parents discuss the AIDS pandemic ravaging queer communities in the U.S. I never saw queer relationships depicted in books or movies. (To be fair, we’re only just now seeing better representation that’s intentional and overt.)  I was vaguely aware of drag and even then it was this thing off in the periphery. Something that “freaks” did.

This was the 90s. Before high-speed internet and Google. I literally did not know that queer people existed.

The only time gay people were mentioned was in reference to Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis. And even then, the word “gay” wasn’t used. Obtuse language of “men loving other men” was given as the reason for these cities’ annihilation. Such behavior was the epitome of sin, and anyone who chose that life was destined for hell. I believed that for a long time.

II.

My sexuality was always a given. I was a girl. I, therefore, would like boys. And I did. I did like boys. A lot. I also liked girls. Not in ways I understood at the time. To my 8-year-old self, all I knew was that I was suddenly entranced by the new girl in my second-grade class. Mesmerized by her light brown skin, ink-black hair and confidence. I wanted to know everything about her. I couldn’t get enough time on the playground with her. I felt a strange rush of jealousy whenever she spent time with other kids. 

Other girls called me out on it. Accused me of being disloyal for abandoning them and only wanting to be friends with her because she was pretty and therefore popular. Her popularity had nothing to do with my wanting to be near her. I felt the unfairness of their accusation even then, but I couldn’t explain the magnetism I felt towards her. I moved schools halfway through the year. I don’t even remember her name now.

* * * 

I’ve always felt deeply in my female friendships. More than anything, I dreamed of meeting my bosom friend. Like Anne Shirley and Rachel Barry. During the years in which I had a best friend (their significance noted by the purchasing and subsequent wearing of best friend necklace charms), I often worried that I cared far more about her than she did about me. 

I had one best friend, in particular, whom I loved. My Rachel Barry. She had the warmest brown eyes and the most flawless bangs, curled to perfection with a hot iron, which I watched, once, transfixed, because never could I get mine to look like that. I wanted to spend all our spare time together. I was jealous of her other girl friends. Jealous, even, of the boys who liked her. I felt desperate to be closer to her, to somehow nestle within her skin so we could breathe as one. Her family moved away right before middle school. I was devastated.

* * *

In looking through my old diaries, I appear obsessed with boys. And I was. As a little girl, all my Barbies kissed their Kens. As early as kindergarten, I devised plans to capture the interest of my first crush on the playground (smearing ketchup on my knee to stand in for blood so he’d help me to the nurse’s office). By high school, my bedroom walls had a poster of Orlando Bloom as Legolas; magazine cut-outs of Milo Ventimiglia and Heath Ledger smoldered from my binder. 

But for each boy I liked, I also had moments where I felt something within my body and didn’t know what to do with it. Like the time I was flipping through an old book of fantasy stories at my grandparents’ house and found an illustration of nude, purple fairies, their breasts all different shapes and sizes. My cheeks flushed, my heart surged, and I felt warm between my legs. I couldn’t figure out why boobs made me feel that way. Because of my evangelical upbringing, breasts and nipples were to be covered up at all times. They were not something to be celebrated or seen, save by your married husband. So I felt confusion and shame for wanting to keep looking at that illustration and feeling the way I did.

* * *

I think I fell in love with my college roommate. We lived together for three years and, at first, became best friends. We took classes together, performed in nearly every play, talked about boys, obsessed over the musical Rent, and devoured Harry Potter books. She was intelligent and sarcastic and creative. When she studied abroad for a semester in Australia our junior year, I wrote her lengthy emails. That Christmas, I printed those emails out, bound them together with a handwritten note, and gave our collected correspondence as her gift.

Then we had a falling out. To this day I’m not entirely sure what happened. Some strange mixture of miscommunication, petty jealousies, insecurities, and old traumas asserting upon our adult selves. Despite sharing an apartment our senior year, we barely spent any time together. She was dating a boy; I was flirting with two boys and Skyping the person I’d eventually marry. 

The pain of our separation sliced through bone. It hurt so much I shoved it into a deep drawer and allowed my prior affection to fester into something akin to loathing. It never fully formed into hatred. There was a part of me that still hurt over what we had lost. Over what I had lost. My best friend. The girl who knew my secrets, shared my caustic humor, spent countless hours in rehearsals and performances together. I used to think we simply had a friendship break-up, which is a very real and painful thing. But now, I’m not so sure.

In the final weeks before graduation, she experienced tremendous heartbreak of her own. Her boyfriend broke up with her right before her senior recital–the biggest capstone project for a music major. I was planning to leave our apartment for the night and weekend after my work shift ended. My pain had hollowed out by that point and I simply wanted to move on–from college, from that apartment, from her. 

She noticed my things by the door, her eyes red and swollen from crying, and asked if I would stay that night. Not leave her alone. Anger and indignation swarmed inside my rib cage and then suddenly…left. I remember feeling a kind of resignation. I didn’t necessarily want to return that night, but I agreed I would. Of course I would. I smuggled home a couple pints of gelato from the cafe where I worked, and we binge-watched Lost while eating spoonfuls of sweet iced cream, in silence.

Yes, I think she was my first love, though I didn’t know it at the time.

* * *

Each of these experiences is like a strip of colorful fabric tied to tree branches. As I’ve sifted through my own history as an adult, these strips of fabric have led me a little bit further down the wooded path, encouraging me to keep going, each one a breadcrumb from my older self. It has been an unfolding, or perhaps a remembering, an awakening, of my truth. Affirmation that my sexual identity is real. It’s always been real, even when I didn’t know it.

III.

My spouse, Joe, has always defied categories. Joe identifies as queer, pansexual, and uses he/they. (I use both in this essay per their request.) Peers and parents alike didn’t know how to label him, not for lack of trying. College friends wondered whether he was gay or bi or “metrosexual.” Joe liked and dated girls. He sometimes wore clothing designed for women and jewelry and grew out his hair. Their mannerisms played across gender. They were called effeminate, fey and dandy. Even in childhood, their biological family noticed their unconscious refusal of the gender binary, and, not knowing how else to categorize it, shamed them into hiding their truth.

Joe lived in China for a year and wrote me letters. While he was clearly trying to win over my heart, he also fell in love with an arresting, sharp-witted young man from Belarus. I remember reading stories of this person in letters and feeling intimidated and jealous of someone I’d never met across an ocean and continent, though I couldn’t figure out why. (It took me years to realize I loved Joe.)

Given all this, it never surprised me when Joe would make a comment about the attractiveness of a man we passed by on the street or an actor in a favorite TV show. It was more surprising when they would comment on a woman they found attractive. And then it was something else entirely when I started pointing out women I thought were hot. And not in an objective “she passes the beauty standard and it is expected of me to acknowledge her hotness” way. No, as in physical sexual attraction. Personal and unique to me. It was the most comfortable thing in the world to share that with Joe, and he with me. For years it went unvoiced yet accepted that we both found men and women sexually attractive. 

I don’t know if I had a moment when I suddenly realized, Omg I’m bi. It’s been more of an organic, slow unfolding. Years of noticing and collecting those colorful strips of fabric tied to tree branches as I hiked through the woods. 

One of those strips of fabric, though, was perhaps more pivotal than others. It was a summer evening, warm air and golden sun. Joe and I were waiting outside with our dog for a table to become available at a neighborhood restaurant when two women left the restaurant. They were clearly a couple, and one of them kneeled down to say hello to our dog. When my eyes lifted from my dog to her, my heart thudded a step out of rhythm, then pounded in my chest with an intensity that sent blood rushing to every part of my body. I was utterly magnetized. My lungs felt squeezed of oxygen, and the cityscape around me fell silent. 

Even now I can close my eyes and see her short hair, artfully swooped to the side, her fuschia t-shirt and long board shorts, her toned brown calves that led to sexy ankles tucked into sneakers. My body responded to her, with such erotic ferocity I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and how she made me feel. 

That might have been the moment when my body and emotions finally caught up with my conscious mind. The final vestiges of perceived straightness disintegrated because after that experience I couldn’t deny or ignore my sexuality anymore. I was totally into women. And men. (The only other time I felt a similar sexually magnetic response was over this tall, bearded man in the checkout line at Whole Foods. He looked like Jason Momoa in a motorcycle jacket, helmet tucked under his elbow.) 

So, yeah, I’m firmly in the both/and camp.

IV.

That encounter outside the restaurant happened five years ago. During that time I’ve fallen even more in love with Joe, given birth to our child, and cautiously checked in with my sexual identity every now and then. I’ve been scared to own my bisexuality. I haven’t known what to do with it. 

Learning this vital part of me has been joyous. I want to celebrate it. I want to claim it, own it, live it. But I have had significant hesitation.

Joe and I have a straight-passing relationship and, as such, I feel fraudulent. I want to be seen. I want to belong. And yet I’ve been scared of being accused of simply trying on queerness like a seasonal fashion. Of experimenting. Of being bi-curious. So I kept my identity tucked away. I wasn’t obviously queer. Would the queer community even accept me?

Add to all this my privilege. Because I’m a white woman in a straight-passing relationship, Joe and I won’t ever be targeted, harassed or assaulted by anti-queer individuals. Who am I to take up space in the queer community when there are Black and Brown queer people brutalized and killed regularly?

It took a long while, but I finally realized it’s not either/or. I can be mindful of the space I occupy as a white, straight-passing woman, and still claim my space within my queer family. I can own and lean into and celebrate my bisexuality while being married to Joe.

It is a strange place to find oneself: realizing you’re bi after you’ve already married the person you want to grow old with.

I feel anger over all the experiences I missed. I never had a girlfriend. I never had sex with a woman. Sometimes I’m not attracted to the male body at all. 

A friend of mine recently wrote that being non-binary feels like water. That resonated with me. My sexual attraction moves like water. It ebbs and flows, changes direction and power and strength. Sometimes it’s a handful of water cupped from a stream; sometimes it’s a tidal wave that pulls me under and takes my breath away. Sometimes I’m thirsty for Joe and his body; sometimes I ache to make love and be loved by a woman’s body.

I was terrified to tell Joe this. He is my partner, my best friend, the person I want to be with for the rest of our days. He is my home. And there is also a part of me that feels incomplete. I don’t know what to do with that yet. Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s a bigger “and” than I could have ever thought possible.

When I finally told Joe all this, they listened and validated and accepted. Rather than the fear and defensiveness I anticipated, there was only acceptance and encouragement. Liberation. 

Since then, they have told me they feel closer to me than ever before, and one of their greatest joys is to bear witness to my unfolding, my self-discoveries. I show them my collection of colorful fabric, and they tell me they see a tapestry, a rainbow stitched together with resilience and beauty and courage.

I still don’t have answers to the tension I sometimes feel—of my sexuality colliding with my married, committed relationship. That is okay. I get to explore this in my own time, at my own pace, without the constraints and control of either/or thinking. And I get to do this with my partner, as we nurture a little human—showing him through our own daily lives that we are constantly learning and unlearning, evolving and unfolding. That it’s okay to not have all the answers. It’s okay to reject binaries. To love and accept yourself while loving and accepting those who are different from you.

That is no small thing. Indeed, that feels quite radical.

V.

My story is not unique or uncommon. In reading this, some may even think such personal discovery isn’t a big deal. But it is. 

The dominant narrative still claims that there is one way to be. One way to sexually identify. One way to partner and love. One way to see your body. 

It’s getting better—through our storytelling and art and legislation—but the default, the assumed, the “normal” is still straight, heteronormative, binary, monogamous. One-way thinking upholds patriarchy and toxic masculinity and gender norms. It emboldens homophobia. One-way thinking fuels white supremacy. It fortifies much of American exceptionalism, and most religion.

And the one thing, perhaps the only thing, I’m certain of is that there is no one way.

Even though I attended a private, Christian liberal arts college, I am grateful to a handful of brilliant humans I met there for pushing against the beliefs I brought with me. My drama professor and director, my fellow actors, my biology and humanities instructors—they challenged my views on everything from marriage equality to abortion to evolution, and they did so with warmth and curiosity, in small comments passed along in hallways as we both walked en route to somewhere else. A few words here and there, often posed as questions.

Never underestimate the transformative power of a thoughtful question, of tilting a concept ever so slightly to the side so you’re seeing a part you never knew to exist.

I am indebted to my friend, fellow actor and almost-boyfriend who once asked, at the start of rehearsal, “What is wrong with two women being in love?” He had developed a deep friendship with two lesbians who were committed to one another, loved one another, shared their love with the world. He looked confounded. And angry. Like me, he had grown up understanding queerness to be a sin. Now he knew people who were gay, and queerness ceased to be a vague concept or faceless taboo. Now, all he could see was love.

What is so wrong with that? What is wrong with two women being in love?

That question tilted an old, calcified belief onto its side, cracking it open and exposing rich, new worlds thrumming with verve and color. It demanded an answer from me, and my previous answers, steeped in the beliefs of my upbringing, no longer satisfied. One-way thinking failed at imagining more thrilling and vibrant futures. Futures that focused on healing and curiosity and equity, not harm and control and power.

Once I started asking more questions, I couldn’t stop. I still haven’t stopped. The pursuit becomes practice. How exhilarating it is to not have all the answers, what relief, what freedom. To go through life with relentless curiosity and empathy. As the Quaker Friends say: Consider it possible you may be mistaken. As the witches say: An it harm none, do what ye will.

There is no one way.

We may only have one sun in our solar system, but the sun is also a star. And there are millions of stars. Constellations upon constellations. Solar systems upon solar systems. Entire galaxies and nebulas and filaments.

We get to spend our lives exploring that vastness. Of possibilities, and ways of being. Of loving, and unfolding.

We get to learn, and unlearn. We get to question and discover, denounce and reclaim, unfurl and celebrate.

What a gift that is.