What I wish I'd known about bisexuality and the truth about love

I'm not straight, but I appear that way to the world. Visibility and belonging can be a struggle

Published June 30, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Woman holding a bisexual pride flag (Getty Images/Wirestock)
Woman holding a bisexual pride flag (Getty Images/Wirestock)

“My mom is a lesbian,” my then-third-grader announced one evening at dinner. We were sitting around the dining room table, and I hadn’t even dug into my salad. My father raised his eyebrows. It was an otherwise unremarkable night during a slow-to-warm spring. 

 “Well, not a lesbian per se,” I countered. I speared a piece of spinach. I didn’t know I was going to be making a speech about my sexuality over takeout. 

“Bisexual. I guess, pansexual? I know that sounds like a breakfast food. It’s like … being attracted to people of various genders. Also, it's not a secret, but I think each person should make their own announcements about this type of thing,” I said.

I had talked many times with my family about my identity (and on and on about accepting each other exactly as we are) so I was surprised by the lesbian label. But I could see how it could be confusing, especially to an elementary schooler. It could be tough for me, and I’ve been in this world for four decades — and as a relationship therapist, I’m used to difficult conversations.

But then again, it isn’t that surprising. In a straight world, I am not straight. But I appear that way. Back in 2010, I married a cisgender male when I could have married anyone — and remain joyfully, monogamously married to him.

Pansexuality, bisexuality — honestly, I don’t care what you call it. There is no perfect name for us, the original patrons of "love is love." Yet so many of my fellow bisexuals are closeted or struggle with visibility. As humans, we often do not know how to hold, and share, this complexity.

What is most misunderstood is that being queer is not just about who you are sleeping with. It is a culture, an identity, a way of seeing the world — without automatically accepting societal expectations for love or gender embodiment. There is beauty in this, a freedom.

In this shimmering universe, why choose boring when you can choose anything?

Back in high school, I came out to my parents for the first time, but not on purpose. My mother asked me about it one summer day as I helped her transplant the hostas underneath the deck. Earlier, a girl had left a message on our answering machine. I’d really like to see you again, she said breathlessly. It was clear this was more than a friendship.

When I looked up from the cool dirt, I saw that my mother’s eyes were wet. Her tears, prompted by the earnest belief that my life would be more difficult — hit me straight in the gut. (Well, not totally straight.) 

My sexuality — or people’s reactions to it — reinforced my fear that I was different, and not in a good way. I know from my years as a psychotherapist that the feeling of not-belonging is widespread. The specifics vary, but the theme is universal: Where do I fit in this world? Who are my people? Will I be accepted as I am?

In my case, I didn’t pursue long-term relationships with women. I didn’t realize it then, but I was afraid. Yet straight culture didn’t feel like home, either. I wasn’t comfortable at proms or rooftop bars. The rigid standards of beauty — coupled with the competition for men — struck me as narrow and boring. In this shimmering universe, why choose boring when you can choose anything?

When I came of age in Minnesota, the majority of my friends were queer and unable to get married legally. It became legal in 2013. The landmark equality was validating, but most my friends did not rush to get hitched — I went to one gorgeous gay wedding. We all danced the hora with our palms pressed together as if our souls were clasped in one another’s hands.

Despite my critique of patriarchy, I married Cedar, who happens to be a man. One who cried with empathy for a buck when his dad took him hunting. I fell in love with Cedar’s warmth and the questions he asked during our unharried conversations. 

I’m grateful I married him. My partner understands me, knows my flaws, and cherishes me anyway. I refer to my husband as the love of my life, and I mean it. But I still grapple sometimes with belonging, although less so these days.

Once I had children — one with significant disabilities, which sparked a move away from the city to be near more support — I felt farther away from my LGBTQ+ community. How much of it was me, self-conscious about my straight-appearing life? How much of it was timing? For years I was in the depths of caregiving for my daughter and had little community — regardless of anyone’s identity.

“And then you feel like you don’t belong anywhere.”

I live in the suburbs now, which I call the cuburbs — the country-suburbs, out at the edge of the county. My neighborhood's vibe is more Ward Cleaver than Harvey Milk. The older I get, the less this affects me. I believe what Brené Brown writes: “True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts.” I found belonging bit by bit, in part by claiming my identity publicly when I wrote a memoir. It was liberating.

It helps to have friends who offer an embracing ethos, too. I first met Jeannie when I was 19; she was dating my dear friend. Over the subsequent decades, I realized I can be my full self with her. When it comes to sexuality or anything else, this is a spectacular way to feel. I’d like to help my friends feel this, too. I hope I do.

Last summer, Jeannie and I watched the waves lap up the shore of Lake Minnetonka, near where we both grew up. Jeannie works in palliative care, which means we can talk about anything, from death to brunch. She married a man, too — a tenderhearted guy who is her match in every way. 

We lounged on Adirondack chairs as the clouds shifted. It seemed as if it might storm terribly, or it might be just fine. We sat under the open sky and talked about what it is like to be bisexual. Jeannie turned to me and said, exhaling, “And then you feel like you don’t belong anywhere.” I saw a flash of light in the reflection of her green cat-like eyes.

I took my own breath in, then out. In that moment, I never felt like I belonged more. Talking with my friend of many years, hearing my experience — finally — reflected in hers made me want to say the things I have been afraid to say.

As I sat with Jeannie near the edge of the lake, the sisterhood I longed for was right there. I looked up again at the rain clouds, and it felt like even if we sat in a downpour together without jackets or umbrellas, we would be OK. We held a rare understanding, an identity, a long history as friends. We both knew the truth about love — that at its core is acceptance, and there is not one right way to do it. We shared a not-belonging belonging. 

I showed a draft of this essay to my mother, now in her mid-70s. I still want to please her (or at least avoid blindsiding her by recounting our past publicly). We sat down on my bed side-by-side; my heart thumped as I watched her read. When she looked at me with those same watery eyes, I thought of the hostas. Instead, she said something I had never considered before, “Maybe instead of belonging nowhere, you belong everywhere?” My mother — who always loved me deeply but did not always know the truth about love — had evolved. And so had I.

By Emma Nadler

Emma Nadler is a psychotherapist and the author of “The Unlikely Village of Eden: A Memoir.” She is working on a book of essays. Follow her at @emmanadlerwrites.

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