My sexual identity is pansexual or queer (or both if we’re being extra technical). These terms mean a lot of different things to different people. My mother, for example, comes from a generation where the term “queer” was an offensive slur meant to be mean about homosexuals. She was horrified to hear me use it to describe myself. Anyway, I adopted these labels to help me communicate my own sexual identity to other people. Basically, the romantic and sexual attraction I feel for other adult human beings isn’t limited by their gender expression. All the labels are are helpful tools to help other people compartmentalise me and put me into a little box in their head that makes them feel safe (and to stop me overhearing my new friend Carlos asking my good friend Penny “so, Jezebella, does she fancy the boys or the girls, I can never tell?” – real story that happened, next time just ask me Carlos!).
The problem is, when you have such an inclusive sexual identity, and you’re polyamorous to boot, people really struggle to compartmentalise you the way they would like to. This means they don’t know how to treat you, and some people end up acting like real assholes as a consequence. I once had a new acquaintance, Nickolay, assume a partner I was bringing to a party was a woman. Nickolay had made the assumption (based on my hair cut or something, since he did not actually ask me about it), that I identified as a lesbian. He was actively annoyed at me when that turned out to not be the case.
In less familiar territory, I was assumed straight when I visited a gay bar on holiday in New Orleans. I was used to going to LGBT friendly bars and pubs in the UK, where I normally receive a warm welcome. So when I saw the pride flag I thought it’d be a cool place for a couple of drinks. However, this place was different. I was actively ignored at the bar, then cut off rudely by the bartender when I tried to order a drink. The male friend I was out with was served quickly and with a smile. When I asked for the key to the bathroom I was given a look of complete disgust and told I needed to order something first, despite having painfully ordered three drinks already (hence the urgent need to pee). The awful look of hatred and annoyance towards me in his eyes when I explained I had already made a purchase coupled with the feeling of being in an unfamiliar place lead me to break down in tears once he couldn’t see me. After using the toilet (I really really needed to pee), I fled the place and didn’t enter another bar flying the LGBT flag of pride for the rest of my trip. I made some (tipsy) complaints on Twitter and wrote a long (sober) email to the bar explaining how shit they had made me feel. Both went completely ignored, unsurprisingly really.
In both examples, people in the LGBT community looked at me and read my sexuality wrong. Nickolay assumed I was a lesbian. The New Orleans Gay bar assumed I was straight (or they hated me for another reason, who knows). In both cases, it was their mistake, and in both cases I was the one who lost out and was made to feel like shit. Should I start wearing a fucking explanatory sign or something?
I think the problem is not so much that people “guessed” my sexuality wrong, it is that they changed their behaviour towards me because of their (wrong) assumptions. The most baffling thing here is that none of these people were interested in having sex with me. So why the fucking hostility? I think the gay bar experience upset me so much because I made the assumption it would be a space I would be welcome in, and then it was made so clear to me that I was not welcome there. I’ve never felt so despised by a complete stranger.
Of course, this has happened with people who identify as straight as well, all the time. I told the first person I dated at University I was bi. I identified as bi-sexual for most of my teen years, aside from a brief time when I identified as a lesbian. When I started University at the age of 18 I was suddenly away from everyone I knew and needed to build friendships from scratch again. I was back in the closet with everyone assuming I was straight. My boyfriend was the first person I told. His reaction was one of horror. He told me that it was awful and that it meant there were now twice as many people that I might fancy other than him. Insecure doesn’t even begin to cut it. Another friend I made during those first few months of Uni told me she thought girls pretend to be bi for attention, and that she hates them for it. Needless to say, telling all these people who assumed I was straight that I wasn’t was not a fun and exciting task.
I got the sneaking suspicion that many of them didn’t believe me too. I’d get a look like I was just crying out for attention if I casually brought it up. I like to be private about who I am having sex with, so I didn’t go around shouting about it. I also didn’t feel the need to “prove” my sexuality to anyone, I was becoming more mature and comfortable just being with who I wanted to be with. Fast forward through a three year relationship with a cis man (of which I had multiple partners, both male and female, on the side, but that’s another story), and I’m living in the same city but most of the friends I made at University have moved on. The long term relationship comes to an end and I start dating again.
Suddenly, I’m telling my close friend about a couple of the women I’ve been dating off Okcupid, and I’m getting those confused looks again. I realise I have to come out again. In the three years I’d been in a relationship I forgot that all the new people around me will have assumed I’m straight again, without ever thinking to ask. Those what the fuck expressions confuse the hell out of me, particularly when one friend starts telling me about all the gay people she knows (deep undertones of awkward over-the-top trying to hide how uncomfortable she is by showing me how completely comfortable she is). Anyway, once the confusion has died down I found most of the people I care about still want to hang out with me, and I’m happy. Until things flip on me again (because why the fuck people keep making assumptions without asking is beyond me), and people like Nickolay make the assumption I identify as a lesbian. I also had this assumption from a woman I was dating, who was equally annoyed at me when I corrected her mistake. Needless to say, we weren’t dating for very long.
I then moved across the country to start a new job, and the whole vicious cycle began again. Except I didn’t really have any friends, at least not at first, only colleagues. Given all the bullshit I was used to, I just decided to adopt the opinion that it was none of their business, but if asked I would be honest. No one asked. Then I got caught up in an ethical dilemma. I didn’t want to appear ashamed in any way of my sexual identity. I am not ashamed. I am happy and comfortable in the way I feel about other people. I also didn’t want to be assumed straight yet again due to my male partner. But I didn’t know how to bring it up unless it came up naturally. I was working in a male dominated environment, and I didn’t feel very comfortable talking about anything personal. So I let it be. I still don’t feel comfortable with that decision.
My experiences are similar to what a lot of non-hetero people go through. In particular there’s still a lot of hostility towards bi people from both the straight and the LGTQ+ community. We’re less likely to come out to people in our lives. I fall on the wrong side of that statistic when it comes to work colleagues. However, I am a lot more confident than I used to be. I will never again act apologetic that someone guessed my sexuality wrong. I also always make sure potential romantic and /or sexual partners are fully aware of my sexual identity before we begin a relationship. Although apparently that will make them less likely to want to date me, it’s better for me to know if someone is going to be a judgemental asshole before I have sex with them.
Now I am married (to a cis man), I can look forward to coming out again, and again, and again, as new people assume wrong, and old ‘phobic friends and family members rejoice that I got over my phase (nope, sorry guys, I’m still attracted to so much more than cis straight men). I also have a whole new coming out to do, this time about my lifestyle choice to be polyamorous. I’m not so keen on that one as a label, but the assumption that I am monogamous needs to be addressed. So far I’ve told only a few open minded friends about being in a polyamorous relationship (and all my partners, of course). Even some of the most open minded people I know are not really comfortable with that one. I’ll have to learn how to develop skills to deal with a whole new rain of hostility. But for now, some advice:
However you personally identify, never guess or assume you know someone else’s sexuality or gender without having a conversation with them (not other people who know them) about it. If you do happen to find out someone’s sexuality or gender is different to the one you made up for them in your own head, don’t act surprised, don’t judge them for it, and don’t treat them differently because of it. That’s just basic manners and how not to be an asshole. If you are thinking of dating someone and you find out they are bi or pan sexual or just interested in different genders to your own, don’t let that change how you feel about them. If you’re insecure enough to believe that someone is a greater threat to the security of your relationship if they happen to be attracted to more than one gender expression, you need to sort your shit out.
One of my most devastating moments was when one of my closest friends (seriously, we’d been friends since we were 11), told me she’d find it “horrible” if she found out her husband was bi. The whole concept of potentially finding out he was attracted to men really upset her. She knows my sexual identity, and she shared this information with me. When a person I respect and love can have deep emotional feelings that they distrust bisexuality so much, I don’t know how to approach the rest of the world. I truly hope things will get better though. Perhaps one day no one will have to come out because people will stop assuming everyone is straight until proved otherwise. Complex labels will be made redundant. Having sex and romantic relationships with anyone will be cool and not shocking (seriously annoys me when TV shows have a big reveal that a character you thought was straight actually isn’t. It shouldn’t be considered a fucking plot twist). But for now, if you could all stop being assholes to bi / pan / queer folk that’d be nice too. Thanks.
*The images in this blog post are my own personal scribblings. I’ve not got any skill as an artist, please don’t judge me as such. I’m trying to make sure most of the images on MissJezebella.com are originals. So I got out my sketchbook and some children’s colouring pencils and gave it a whirl. Still queer when I’m sketching.