To my straight and gay friends: Your kid doesn’t have to pick a team.
By Donna Kirschner, PhD.
So October 11 is National Coming Out Day. Should your child/student/any kid in your life be brave coming out to you, here are some things to consider.
I picked a partner, not a team. And here’s why that matters for your kid.
I don’t have much to gain by coming out at as bisexual at this point in my life. I could easily ride out the rest of my life on the straight privilege that comes from passing in a largely heterosexual community and never bat an eyelash. I doubt that anything I share about being Bi will much change my world, because I’m pretty privileged. I am a white, Jewish, middle class, doctorate-holding, self-employed, able-bodied cis-gendered woman, happily married to a wonderfully supportive, straight, cis-gendered man. (To his credit, he has never once in our 23-year relationship asked “Can I watch?”) I live in a relatively progressive community. I’m mostly secure in my own skin. Coming out will likely fluster my wonderful mother-in-law and help us shed the few remaining bigots in our lives. It will also help me allay some vestigial guilt about “passing” in a world that has been pretty rotten to my LGBTQ sisters and brothers. But I doubt it will rock my world that much.
So why the (YAWN) reveal?
Generally, I don’t have much need to be out and proud and loud every day of the week. But I also know that hiding and staying silent might imply shame. It doesn’t. And I’ve passed so long without even thinking about it that I had almost forgotten the value of visibility: creating space for others to breathe. For you. For your kid, your students, your neighbors.
And I don’t want to sustain a very dangerous quiet.
As I said, for most of the people in my world, this is a big yawn. Maybe it gives someone hipster creds to have a bi friend. Lucky them. Still, I believe that one more seemingly -straight person coming out may alleviate some suffering on the part of young people in our world. And here’s why:
Last fall, I worked as a writing coach with a student who wrote a poem about coming out to herself as bisexual. It was filled with self-loathing and frustration, and revealed that she had struggled with a good deal of self-harm. She only identified her poem as autobiographical after I shared a bit about myself. It was probably the first time I had come out in years, because that’s how my world rolls these days. But I felt that it would help her to hear it. And when she did, she exhaled deeply and fully. Everything about her lightened: her face, her shoulders, her demeanor. By sharing, I had given her the room to breathe. And then I listened.
After that first, deep, healing breath, the problems associated with being bisexual tumbled out: Her school had an LGBT alliance, “But nobody there talks about the Bi part of the LGBT.” She believed she would have little support at home or even among her friends. People in her world “wanted her to pick a team.” She was only out to her therapist (and now, to me) and explained that it took her a very long time to sort through her complicated feelings, crushes, and relationships. She didn’t think that the people in her life were up for the ride. “What’s the point of going through all that work of coming out to my parents as a lesbian and then maybe bringing a boy home at some point? They would treat me like I was crazy. Or that they had somehow won. They just don’t get it.”
Most people still don’t get it with bisexuality. “Bi Invisibility” (aka “Bi-erasure’) is a thing. Not only an Identity Politics thing, but also a serious visibility issue with public health consequences. (See, for example) A recent JAMA Internal Medicine article, which compares Health and Health Risk Factors between Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults and Heterosexual Adults in the US, affirms that Bi people suffer higher rates of depression, substance abuse, partner abuse and suicide than gay or straight folk. (JAMA Internal Medicine, September 2016, Vol 176, No.9). Bi people are often dismissed in both the straight and gay communities as inauthentic (s/he just needs the “right man/woman”). They are often invisible.
We live in a world where most people like to know which team everyone plays on. Maybe that helps people to know where they stand. Yet even classic rubrics to understand sexuality, sexual identity and orientation have evolved beyond the Kinsey Scale. (See for example, the Southampton Multidimensional Scale of sexuality). And sexual identity and orientation are far more complex than attraction and sexual activity with regard to same-sex and opposite-sexes. In addition, our understandings of multiple (non-binary) sexual identities have expanded in recent years. Bisexuality (or non-mono sexuality) and for that matter, pansexuality, etc. disrupt easy categorization, which can unsettle people.
Ask any Bi person if they were ever dismissed as confused, fickle, or promiscuous. It’s likely they have been. I don’t ever remember picking a team, just a partner, who happened to be my opposite sex. And how did it feel when my folks rejoiced that I “finally got over that phase?” It felt like crap. It not only denied who I was, I also felt like a sell-out. My choice elided visibility. And that matters. Not just for me, but also for your kid.
So here’s my National Coming out day blessing /prayer for our kids and communities:
Most of us enlightened folk have thought through how to respond were our kids to approach us –very bravely — and come out as gay. If you haven’t, give it some thought. We’ll wait.
Okay. Nice job.
But here’s where it gets tricky: Could you open your mind and heart a bit wider to the idea that your kid might be bisexual? Or Pansexual? And they may not have the language to express it? And that even your most enthusiastically supportive response to them coming out as gay may shut down other less-fixed possibilities? If they come out, can you respond with support for who they are, but not fixate on the language they use to convey it?
If a kid braves to come out to you tomorrow or ever, consider these actions:
Let her know that you appreciate that it might not be easy to talk about her sexuality.
React in a simple, loving, accepting, and perhaps, subtle way. Mirror whatever language he uses.
Remind her that you love her unconditionally.
SHOW him (don’t tell him, that’s weird) that you understand sexual fluidity -that people’s sexuality sometimes transforms over time, which is why labels become straightjackets.
Accept that whatever she tells you is how she feels. Right now. But don’t let the “right now” discount other possibilities or her previous experiences. Bear in mind that while jumping on one label might cause more harm than good, you don’t have the right to discount what your kid is saying now. Or what they said last month. Or will say next year.
I invite you to say what a dear friend of mine told her daughter. “I love you. You be you. You don’t have to label yourself, and don’t let anyone else label you either.”
And for goodness sake, be the kind of parent that sets the tone for love and acceptance. Be the kind of parent that your kid could come out to.
Happy coming out day!
While I am no expert in this area, I will gladly field questions and suggestions as best as I can.
Please feel free to circulate this piece to audiences of teachers, parent communities, coaches, public health groups, clergy and anyone else who wants to support young people as they figure out and assert their identities and health needs.
Here are some links to articles and resources on coming out and bisexuality, which you might find helpful:
When Your Child Comes out, Six Pieces of Advice
5 Ways That Bi Erasure Hurts More Than Just Bisexual People
Here’s What Happens When We Erase Bisexuality — And How You Can Be a Better Ally
TED Talks on having difficult conversations and coming out:
On the range of LGBTQ identities: