BECAUSE Keynote 2014: Holding Hands
I was nineteen years old, at a party in college, and this friend of mine, Kira, had just broken up with her live-in boyfriend. I asked her if she needed a place to crash, and she looked at me for a moment, paused, and said, “Only if you know what you’re offering.” I had no idea what she meant, and blinked cluelessly at her — long enough for Kira to sigh, pat me on the head, and say “Never mind,” before going into the kitchen for another drink.
Well, I may be slow, but I’m not entirely dense — I figured it out after a few minutes, and followed her into the kitchen to stammer something about just meaning crash space on my couch. I’d had a boyfriend, after all, and had quite enjoyed the sex — at that point, I assumed I was straight. Kira told me not to worry about it; that might have been that. But I went home that night, and I thought about her. And I couldn’t stop thinking about her. A few days later, I got up all my nerve and called to ask her out. She said ‘yes.’
Kira cooked for me, an Italian eggplant dish, fried slices simmered in a dark tomato sauce, served over pasta. I didn’t tell her I hated eggplant. By the time she was done, I’d found I liked it. I liked it a lot.
The morning after that night we spent together (a night where I was entirely clumsy and she was entirely kind), we walked to campus together, holding hands. I was intensely conscious of Kira’s small hand in mine, of how people might be staring at us, as I tried not to stare back at them. It was scary — and it was scary again when, not long after, I went to my first campus bisexuality group meeting. I stood outside for a minute, before knocking on the closed door, gathering my nerve. And then knocked, and was welcomed into a crowded room full of warmth and laughter. I felt like I’d come home.
Coming out as bi wasn’t my first coming out. My parents are Sri Lankan, born and raised — I was born there myself, though we moved to the States when I was two. They had had an arranged marriage, and found love within it — they planned, expected, the same for me. I had other ideas. As a teen, I fooled around with boys in my neighborhood, though I was too nervous to let it get very far.
I had carefully arranged to go to college halfway across the country, which made it possible to keep my first college boyfriend a secret from my family. But it was terrifying, keeping that secret. I was constantly afraid that I’d be caught; when I held his hand on campus, it was just as scary as holding Kira’s hand. At the end of that year, after we’d broken up, I’d decided that I was done with secrets — that I was going to tell my parents. I did tell them about the next boy I dated. (It took a while before I told them about the girls too.)
Telling them about that second boy went about as badly as you might expect, though it could have been worse. My parents didn’t approve of dating or premarital sex — and the fact that it involved white boys made it twice as bad. There was a lot of yelling, and threats to yank me out of college and send me to a convent in Sri Lanka. They didn’t follow through on those threats, but it was a near thing. In those years, anger simmered in the air, slid down the telephone lines.
It didn’t help that I was also writing erotica — although, admittedly, I didn’t deliberately come out about that. I’d been posting it on the internet, back in 1992, when most people didn’t know what the internet was. I’d used my real name, because I didn’t expect that anyone I knew would ever find it. Perhaps a subconscious coming out, in retrospect. Because, inevitably, obviously, my parents found out.
So there I was, a slutty pornographer, dating boys openly and having sex with them, dating girls too. Sometimes at the same time. My poor parents. And to make matters worse, I realized I didn’t much like monogamy — it was fine for other people, but it wasn’t for me. So I began exploring polyamory, ethical and open non-monogamy, and found it entirely suited me. Despite breaking my heart once or twice along the way, I never really looked back.
In my twenties, I was in a threesome for three years, with a man, Kevin, and a woman, Karina. Karina was a grad student from Australia, and she would come to Philadelphia to live with us for three months of the year — her summer, our winter. One year, she was there when the office Christmas party rolled around. Kevin hates parties, but I wanted to go, and I knew she would want to come with me. I hesitated — it would be hard, given that the other secretaries knew I lived with my boyfriend.
Karina hadn’t come up in conversation, and if I brought her, I would be outing myself as both bisexual and non-monogamous — or worse, they’d think I was brazenly cheating on Kevin. These people weren’t really friends — just acquaintances, people I had to see every workday, people I wanted to be reasonably friendly with. It would be so much easier not to bring her. But in the end, I was too ashamed not to invite her; leaving her home would have felt cowardly. So she came with me, and I introduced her to people as ‘Karina,’ and she might have passed for only a friend — but in the end, I danced with her at that party. And it was scary, but it turned out to be even better than holding hands. And if the other secretaries disapproved, I found I didn’t care. Karina and I broke up, a few years later. Still, I will always be glad I took her to that dance.
Somehow, I managed to keep the polyamory a secret from my parents for years — it helped that they weren’t talking to me much at that point. I was tremendously upset that they were so angry with me — our infrequent phone calls often ended with me in tears. But I coped with their anger and unhappiness somehow. Mostly by not thinking about it. Sometimes people will ask me, usually about the sex writing: “How could you do that to your parents?” And I’ll answer that it never really felt like I had a choice — every time I tried to hide my true self, I felt like I was suffocating, drowning. Every time, eventually, the truth came out. And despite all the tears and fear and shouting, it was so much better, standing in the light.
I started out wanting to speak about community. The communities we lose, the ones we find, the ones we deliberately form. I was so scared that I would lose my parents, my sisters, the larger SriLankan-American community. They mattered to me, deeply. But as soon as I started coming out, I found new people who shared my beliefs, my attitudes, my deepest longings. I received letters from strangers, from relatives, telling me that they were a little queer too, that they missed girls, that they liked writing about sex. That they liked having sex, and were glad to know that was okay. They were so relieved not to be alone.
These various, often overlapping, communities — bisexual, polyamorous, transgender, sex activist — aren’t perfect. We have our share of drama, certainly, and dysfunction too. It turns out that being openly non-normative doesn’t magically solve every romantic or relationship problem. But if we are sometimes a little bit broken, a little wounded, at least those wounds aren’t festering in the dark. They’re out in the open air and sunlight, where they have the chance to heal.
In the end, I was lucky — after some years, my parents came back to me again, and my sisters never really left. Some in the larger Sri Lankan community probably would rather I didn’t spend too much time talking to their impressionable young people — but some are entirely welcoming. That’s enough for me; it’s more than I expected.
Now I’m twenty years older, and the challenges are related, but different. I’m not currently dating any women — and yes, I do miss them. Part of what I miss, oddly enough, is how easy it was to signal ‘queer,’ when I was dating a woman. All I had to do was hold her hand, walking down the street, lean in for a quick kiss on the lips. Just a peck was enough — in America, most people will read that as sexual, romantic. It was scary, but at least it had the benefit of being clear.
Now, without a female romantic partner in my life, I have to actively look for opportunities to let people know that I’m not straight. I could wear my pink triangle earrings, the ones I got in college, or a Lambda pin or rainbow t-shirt, but that’s not really my style these days. Mostly, I try to find a way to slip it into conversation. I mention my ex-girlfriend, and the memoir I’m writing about that relationship. I create bisexual characters in my short stories and novels.
If I don’t keep visibly and verbally reaffirming my bisexuality, I feel like it will be subsumed into the great conformity, the assumptions that people carry around with them. And when I let that happen, when I ‘pass,’ because it is easier for me, my partner, my kids, if I do so, it’s not as harmless as it might seem. Because in that decision to pass, the enjoyment of the privilege that comes with it, I end up contributing to the norming of heterosexuality. I help make it harder for those who can’t pass for straight, cisgendered, monogamous — for what so much of society wants to define as normal.
No wonder some lesbians and gay men resent bisexuals, want to believe that this is just a phase, or that we are just too scared to admit our same-sex attractions. It must be hard, knowing that we might be able to have our loves, and have society’s approval too. If we happen to end up with an opposite-sex partner, that is — a situation for which, of course, there is no guarantee. I could, so easily, have ended up with Karina instead.
At forty-two, I have a male partner of twenty-two years, Kevin — the first person I was openly poly with. I have another male sweetheart of seventeen years, Jed, who lives hundreds of miles away; I don’t see him as often as either of us would like. Jed is ‘uncle’ to Kevin’s and my two small children, and when Jed visits our old house in our peaceful leafy suburb, the kids are thrilled to see him.
It wasn’t easy, at first, having Jed visit. When I had children, the world became a much more approving place. People beamed at me, just because I had these little ones with me. People went out of their way to help me. And I needed the help — it turns out that infants can be incredibly difficult, and in those early years when they were stretching my resources to capacity and beyond, I took all the help I could get. I didn’t have any energy for coming out — I was busy trying to survive. I’m afraid Jed, and all my other bi /poly relationships, including the relationship with my live-in partner, went on a back burner for a few years.
When people asked, I would say my sexual orientation was “tired.”
When the kids were a little older, I tried to reinvest in my adult romantic relationships. And I found that I was hesitant to hold Jed’s hand walking down the street. What if someone I knew saw us? What would the neighbors think? I had had a few years of benign community approval, of pleasant chats at the school bus stop, hand-me-down baby clothes, garden advice from passing neighbors; I was scared of losing all of that. It would be much safer just to stay closeted. As a bisexual woman, living with a man, I could do that easily.
It took me a little while to realize, once again, that it was always better being transparent about my life, my loves. That living with my fear of being ‘caught’ was actually worse than any possible scandal. You would think that after twenty-two years, I would have learned this lesson, but it seems I have to learn it again and again. Every time I meet a new neighbor, a colleague, a casual acquaintance, I have to find the right moment to come out.
Not everyone needs to know all these details of my sex life, my love life, especially in the first five minutes they meet me. But if we’re to have any kind of closer acquaintance, eventually, it all has to come out. Yes, I look like a nice suburban married mom. But I am not actually married, and I am not actually monogamous, and did I mention I sometimes sleep with women, and oh yes, I write, quite often, about sex?
Occasionally, people are a bit shocked. Often, they have questions, though more about the poly than the sex writing, and more about the sex writing than the bisexuality. But given that I live in a liberal suburb and work in a liberal department at a university, more often than not, they’re completely fine with all of it. People surprise me, over and over again.
I won’t tell anyone that they should come out. Often, there’s a tremendous amount on the line — children who might be put at risk, a crucial job that keeps a roof over your head and the heads of those you love. Many people live and work in far more conservative environments than I do; I‘ve been tremendously lucky, being able to be as out as I am. Bisexual people face higher illness rates than the general population; we are more at-risk for depression and suicide. Often, we live in precarious circumstances, and before anything else, I would tell you to take care of yourself, to be safe. Coming out has to be an individual decision, and it’s often terrifying.
But I will also say this — if you come out, it will help other people. Every time you come out, it helps others. You help build the supportive communities that make it safer for others to emerge from their own closets. And if what is stopping you from coming out is fear that the people who loved you will stop when they know who you really are, then I think there’s a good chance that you are underestimating them. That, perhaps with a little time, they will show you how much they do love you.
And if they don’t, or can’t — that is, of course, hard. But perhaps you will find losing them to be worth it, if it comes with the option of being open and honest and free.
If your community of birth won’t have you, at least there is a community here who will welcome you gladly. And a community out there — there may only be a few hundred people in this room, but the communities of bisexuals, of queer and trans and poly and sex-positive folk, are tremendously large. It is getting easier, I hope, for people to admit, to themselves, to the world, that their capacity to love is not as limited as previously imagined.
There are so many people who will be happy to hold your hand, to draw you into this room, this community. You are not alone.
Mary Anne Mohanraj
June 6, 2014, Minneapolis