I internalized that bisexuality for male entertainment was the only way that it was acceptable.
By Gabrielle Noel
I wish I’d had genuine bisexual characters in books or bisexual stories in the media to take cues from while growing up. Instead, I experienced my teenage years exposed to, “I Kissed A Girl” by Katy Perry, Madonna’s three-way kiss with Britney and Christina, and the pop culture phenomena that was “Girls Gone Wild”.
Those are all sad caricatures of femme queerness – fetishizations that I mistook for celebrations – and the only ways I saw bisexuality portrayed. Otherwise, I understood that same-sex interactions were a cultural taboo.
I was eleven when I realized that I liked both men and women and I treated that preference like a disturbing kink, akin to bestiality or pedophilia. I hated myself for my own desires. To avoid social stigma, I was committed to remaining closeted indefinitely.
It was hard to grasp the existence of a stigma when female bisexuality was also trendy. I saw femme queer women fetishized in pop culture but rejected in real life, unless they were performing their sexuality for men. Even my high school boyfriend was adamantly against homosexuality but spoke hopefully about the possibility of a threesome.
In observing these discrepancies of attitude and behavior, I internalized that bisexuality for male entertainment was the only way that it was acceptable. In fact, since other people refused to see it as a distinct sexuality I, too, believed that it wasn’t. I believed in a constructed, performed additive to heterosexuality that involved women erotically but never romantically.
I chose an empty way of stepping into my sexuality. At a party shortly after I’d turned eighteen, my best friend asked my boyfriend if she could make out with me. He was eager when he told her yes but I was eager too because I’d always wanted to kiss her. She was the only openly bisexual woman I knew and her fluidity made her seem older than me, braver.
I kissed her from the safety of my heterosexual relationship and with open mouths, my boyfriend and his friends watched. I would have kissed her longer if I could. Instead, I felt the insatiable need to prove that our kiss had been solely in service of my boyfriend’s desires, rather than my own. I broke away and gestured for him to kiss her, too, even though watching it made my eyes water. The party erupted with applause and I was drunk, both off booze and the feeling of her mouth.
As I navigated college, I noticed that women wore the costume of bisexuality regardless of actual identity. It reinforced the belief that bisexuality wasn’t genuine, which I welcomed since it allowed my behavior to lack significance. For years, I was the willowy party girl who encompassed society’s understanding of femme queerness – I was doing it for attention. I was “just going through a phase.” I confirmed the stereotype, over and over.
I turned twenty-one and I was still adamantly straight-passing. At a guest bartending gig, the manager offered shots to the entire bar if my friends and I made out. The transaction felt familiar – I’d traded public kisses for alcohol more times than I could count, at that point. I stood on the bar, my best friend grabbed my face, and we kissed while the crowd cheered beneath us.
The next morning, there were photos of our kiss all over social media. There were men posing by the bar, gesturing towards us like a zoo display. Some of them were my friends. I went back to recall some of their captions and one still reads, “Bitches will do anything for free shots.”
That was one of the first times I felt disgusted by my performative behavior. I had enjoyed participating in the kiss, but hearing the conversations surrounding it made me uncomfortable. I reflected on other times men had hovered over me, plying me with alcohol and prodding me into kissing women. Something shifted in the way I saw those interactions.
I stopped performing bisexuality at bars, although I still caught myself requiring men to explore my sexual desires. Instead, I privatized my sexuality, but it remained a performance. I had threesomes but I never pursued women outside of them.
Sometimes, I selected threesomes where the men were simply voyeurs. Other times, I was so excited to sleep with a woman that I left the man visibly ignored. I was asked, “Do you even like men?” because it was so apparent that I was chasing threesomes in lieu of the one-on-one experiences with women I actually wanted. I kept mirroring the only type of bisexuality I’d ever seen and I grew so used to hiding, that I started diminishing my own emotions. I convinced myself that my sexuality was a delusion, a mask I wore but not an identity that actually belonged to me.
My relationship with one couple ended suddenly, dramatically, after an argument with the boyfriend. He accused me of treating his girlfriend like she belonged to me and perhaps, this was a fair assumption considering my bias for women during threesomes. I also became a more informed feminist around the same time and started to see how the male gaze shaped my social interactions.
The distance from three-way dating that followed gave me more clarity on my own desires. I started dating a woman – slowly, cautiously – and I learned how much more fulfilling that could be. I didn’t need someone else’s presence, or permission, to be who I was. Slowly, the voice inside of my head that claimed bisexuality wasn’t shut up.
I wonder what it would’ve been like to grow up bisexual in a culture that validated my emotions. I wish I’d seen bisexuality as it is, instead of a tool for enticing men. Mostly, I’m glad I can see my identity accurately in the present, although unlearning old beliefs is a process. I notice that I see PDA as inherently sexual, because of all the ways I allowed myself to be sexualized before. When a woman leans in to kiss me, I catch myself hesitating.
There are also a significant number of people, both gay and straight, who still view my sexuality as a phase. I see where I contributed to that understanding, but I’m not ashamed of the route I took to get here any longer. I reflect on the social factors that were involved and I learn from them. I push forward now, confidently bisexual, refusing to ever undermine myself again. When I stopped performing, I started living, and that was both terrifying and a relief.