Adult-Onset Bisexuality and the Passing Dilemma
Being a baby bi at 35 and wrestling with unintentional passing
I’m a woman in my late 30s who only began to realize I’m not straight a few years ago, and only felt solid enough in that realization to claim bisexuality as part of my identity about a year and a half ago. For the vast majority of my life, I ignored or dismissed or misunderstood truths about my attraction to women sufficiently to not only “pass” as straight to others, but to myself as well.
Now I’m in a completely new and confusing space — one that looks suspiciously like a closet — excited to know this new old thing about myself, confused about what it actually means for my life, and conflicted about the fact that I am now officially and knowingly passing as straight to almost everyone.
Before I had this realization, I never felt like I was passing, of course. It’s not passing if it’s who you are — it’s just being straight. And I really believed I was. Had no inkling I wasn’t. Somehow I — a self-reflective, cerebral, open-minded, and open-hearted person — simply accepted the societally imposed default sexual orientation for decades. Despite how often in sixth grade I marveled at how beautiful Kerri was. Despite how enchanted I was by that Christy Turlington Calvin Klein ad in high school. Despite how regularly throughout my twenties I wondered about that look from that girl walking toward me, how often my lips twitched or my heart rate increased over this woman next to me.
Yes, I noticed girls as well as boys, women as well as men, and almost certainly people who don’t identify as either. I had always noticed. But I’d never realized the way I noticed amounted to attraction. Didn’t realize it was possible I might be attracted to women, not just aware of their attractiveness. I’d always known I was attracted to boys and men, so I wasn’t a lesbian.
So that was that.
You’re straight unless you realize you’re not, right?
Growing up, I didn’t know being attracted to boys and girls — you know, like liking both — was an option. And the idea that some people might be both or neither? There wasn’t even a whisper of that in the ’80s or ’90s. At least not any that reached Texas suburbia.
Bisexuality itself was a vague notion at best. A myth. A precursor to coming to terms with your homosexuality. Or a cover for your nymphomania. Not a valid sexual orientation.
Not a real identity.
Even the B in LGBT isn’t loud enough to overcome the entrenched straight identity you’ve cultivated over years of living in a world where straight is the assumption. Where your crushes on boys (well documented in diary entries and at slumber parties) made it easy for you to accept that assumption as truth without even noticing you’d thereby selected an identity.
Even the way you’re drawn to the queer community (though you’d never use that word back then) isn’t strong enough to break down your proud identity as an ally.
As just an ally.
Even your history of finding girls so pretty and then women so beautiful — sexy even — isn’t enough to warrant your notice. Each instance filed away with all the other fleeting, irrelevant moments of your life.
Moments that don’t add up to anything. Aren’t given the chance to.
Moments tucked behind the early teenage obsession with Leonardo DiCaprio, burned deeper into your consciousness with every picture you added to the collage on your bedroom wall.
Fleeting thoughts and feelings buried beneath the memories of your first kiss and your first love and your first sexual encounter and all the love and sex and heartbreak you’ve experienced since then.
All with boys and men.
All combining to obscure those other moments and thoughts and feelings about people who are neither. Outweighing the overlooked part of your sexual identity to such a degree that it stays hidden.
Until it doesn’t.
Until you start noticing.
It’s a bizarre thing to realize you’re bisexual in your mid-30s, particularly if you’re in a long-term and monogamous and satisfying heterosexual romantic relationship.
Not bizarre in the sense of unusual — I imagine a decent percentage of the not-straight but also not-gay women who were born and experienced their first crushes in the ’80s can relate. But bizarre in the sense of, “Ok so what the fuck do I do now?”
Bizarre because the answer can so easily be: nothing at all.
It was really exciting to figure out this fundamental thing about myself. A relief, too. At least after I had (mostly) swatted away doubts over whether I’m really bisexual or just a straight girl finally trying to prove she’s just like all the cool queer people she’d always been inexplicably drawn to but whose community she’d always respected wasn’t hers to claim. Finally desperate enough to convince herself the fact she can recognize the appeal of breasts is enough to overcome a lifetime of heterosexual attraction and relationships.
But even once those doubts had shrunk from prominent to merely lingering , the excitement and relief didn’t have much time to enjoy themselves before they were joined by confusion. Confusion over what this revelation actually meant for me and my life. And not too much longer after that, by a cloying sense of embarrassment at not having figured it out sooner. And finally, by a soft but persistent tug of guilt at not being more open about it.
Not being out enough.
No one passes for straight quite as seamlessly as a cisgender femme-presenting woman who’s exclusively dated men and whose partner is a cisgender masc-presenting heterosexual man.
It’s so easy, when the switch flips from passing to your own self to just passing to everyone else, to just…keep passing. It’s so easy not to tell people. So easy not to signal — what even does bisexual signaling look like anyway, when even wrapping yourself in a bi pride flag wouldn’t register for most people?
It’s so easy to keep portraying the identity you’ve assumed for decades. For things to remain exactly the same. At least outside of your own thoughts.
It’s easy to let the voice in your head who occasionally and politely wonders if maybe this is as big of a deal as it sometimes feels to concede to the other, louder and more practiced voice who casually but pointedly asks in response what difference it actually makes though.
You can keep passing without even trying. So you do.
Even as you confide in a few friends and family members. And refrain from actively hiding your bisexuality in very particular situations. And occasionally accessorize with bi pride colors or a rainbow, wondering with a simmering, hopeful excitement whether anyone might notice — maybe even offer a knowing glance or a smile of solidarity. Even as you do those things, you still pass basically everywhere to basically everyone.
And it is easier.
Not easier in the sense that it feels right, or even the same as it did before. Not even in the sense that it’s effortless, because it no longer is.
But passing is easier in the sense that you know how to do it. The bits of you that now require hiding are still used to not being seen. They still feel safe out of view. Antsy maybe, and occasionally frustrated. But safe, at least.
Not passing would require far more effort, wouldn’t it? Decisions you don’t quite know how to make about who to tell and how to behave. Conversations you don’t quite know how to have about how you know and why now and so what.
Passing requires none of that. Just the occasional catching of your tongue.
And it even allows for little bits of truth to slip out here and there. Secret, slightly thrilling checking of boxes on forms. Outwardly casual statements of your new identity to people who haven’t known you well or long enough to know it’s new. Even public appreciation of the beauty and sex appeal of feminine and androgynous faces and bodies. Because even still no one suspects anything but straight or gay. Not really. And you’ve demonstrated your straightness well enough and long enough to evade suspicion.
Yes, passing is easier in the sense that not passing would take intentional and constant work. Work I don’t feel qualified to do.
But even so, I don’t want to pass anymore.
I don’t want to pass because I’m excited about finally understanding who I am and I’m pissed that it took this long — resentful that I wasted so much time.
I don’t want to pass because it feels like lying. And the longer I wait, the more it shifts from feeling like “just” lies of omission to outright lies of commission.
I don’t want to pass because I feel guilty exercising that option when so many people can’t. Or are just brave enough not to.
I don’t want to pass because it feels cowardly. Shameful.
I don’t want to pass because it contributes to the continued invisibility of bisexuality. And I don’t want to participate in the same culture that kept me from truly knowing myself for 35 years and from fully sharing myself for 38.
I want young people growing up now to be utterly baffled at the idea that a person could take this long to realize something so basic about herself.
I don’t want to keep passing.
But thinking about coming out more broadly feels dramatic or attention-seeking or both.
And it will almost certainly be never-ending.
And sometimes it might be humiliating.
And some people might not believe me.
And some might be cruel about it.
I don’t want to keep passing, but sometimes I find myself in places where I realize I’d feel less safe if I didn’t pass, and I’m grateful that I do.
I think I don’t want to keep passing, but is that even what I’m doing? Or does it seem so easy to pass as straight because that’s what I am? I’ve only ever been with men, so what even makes me so sure I’m not straight?
What right do I have to call myself bisexual? What proof do I have that I’m not a fraud?
I don’t really believe I’m a fraud though, do I?
Maybe it’s just easier to think that than focus on how I missed exploring this part of myself when I was younger, when you’re supposed to explore these kinds of feelings. Or even when I was older and single, before I was in this relationship that is lovely and fun and feels final with a man who is thoughtful and supportive and kind. What did I miss when the possibilities were all still there?
What am I missing now?
Maybe it’s easier to question whether I’m making this up than it is to beat myself up over somehow never realizing my curiosity about women was more than just curiosity. That there was a reason I enjoyed those “joke” kisses with other young women so much.
Am I just too angry about limiting myself to men all these years? Too sad about the lost chances to flirt and kiss and touch and share my life romantically with people I’d never even let myself consider? Am I just worried that I’ll focus more and more on what I’ve missed and end up ruining the relationship I have?
If I’m not actually bisexual — if I’ve just constructed this identity because being straight feels too easy or too boring — then I don’t have anything to mourn. Then I haven’t lost anything by taking so long to realize.
And I don’t risk losing more.
Is it just easier to stay comfortably in this walk-in closet with the door ajar than have to face the simultaneously infuriating and heartbreaking truth that I’m a bisexual woman who never has and maybe never will experience a sexual or romantic relationship with someone who isn’t a man?
What the hell do I even know about being bisexual, really?
But I know that I am.
I know I don’t want to keep passing as straight. For a lot of reasons, and in spite of a few.
I know if I want to stop passing, it’s going to require a lot more effort than I’ve ever had to exert to make myself seen.
And I know it’s time.