My Invisible Skin

How do I talk to you about something that most people think doesn’t exist?

How can I stand up for a community that doesn’t believe in me?

Sometimes, I feel like an empty chalk-line on bitumen, a once-man forever being filled in by other people’s expectations and ideas. I try to tell them who I am. I try to show them my depth, my range, the texture and colour of my experience but I may as well be a passing gust of wind. They see my outline, the most basic sketched detail, and immediately fill it with their pre-conceived notions.

As a mixed-race bisexual, I cop it both ways (ha, yep, I can joke about it — often, humour is all I have). I’m a half-Lebanese, half-Turkish Australian; I look like your fears. Tall, dusky, and bearded, I get it in the sidelong glances on public transport, in newspaper headlines and politics, and the fact that at every check point, be it police at train stations or airports or anywhere, I’m stopped and questioned. It’s not always by a faceless white authority figure either, but often by men who look just like I do. They’ll hold up their arm with an apologetic grimace, as though saying, “I know. I do. But I have to stop you.”

Because stereotyping is so pervasive, we’re even suspicious of each other. Just a few weeks ago, I was going into work on a cold, rainy day, wearing a nice formal winter coat, and actually thinking to myself, I look so presentable today, so officious (read: white) I don’t think I’ll be stopped. And when I was, it broke me just that little bit more — there’s really nothing I can do, no mask I can wear to hide who I am, no way to change how they think of me.

This is my skin.

Which brings me to bisexuality, my invisible identity. Like it or not, it’s as much a part of me as my colouring, my racial markers. Sadly, my experience with the latter has informed how I express the former — namely, I don’t broadcast it. I’m a big guy, I like watching sport, burgers, girls, and going to the gym. I have a lazy masculine attitude, including a general disdain for cleanliness and fashion. You know, the broad caricaturist strokes of your average straight man. It’s incredibly easy to play to those elements and let people assume what they will without ever having to speak a lie.

Of course, I’m also a geek, writer, poet, lover of all things Disney, musical, and theatre. My loves are numerous, my personality multi-faceted, and yet, there are so few people willing to accept me as such. Even amongst my friends — my progressive, left-wing, heavily pro LGBTQIA friends — I can count on one hand the people who know and love me for all that I am, and not just a part they find acceptable. Bisexuality, I have discovered, is not just an invisibility I’ve chosen, but one actively enforced by society — nowhere more obviously than in the community to which I nominally belong.

I thought, naively it would seem, that nobody would be more sympathetic or sensitive to issues of sexual identity than gay people, but I was vastly mistaken. Who better than they would know how it felt to be told, “Oh, you’re just confused,” or “It’s just a phase,” or any number of clichés outsiders use to enforce their narrow conceptualisation of sexuality onto you? Who better than they to know how it felt to be shamed for who you found attractive, to be told you don’t know yourself? And yet, I’ve faced this and more from gay people, gay friends. I’ve dealt with rolled eyes, and drawled announcements of bi now, gay later, that most casual and insulting of dismissals.

I understand where it comes from. I understand that some gay men and women find it easier to use the term “bisexual” as a stepping stone, a means of getting their homophobic friends or family used to the concept of liking the same sex. They may even use it as a way to consciously get themselves used to the idea, without even realising it. That this is true for some people does not make it true for all, does not make belittling others who identify that way okay. The arrogance in assuming your own experience — your own fear — will be the same for everyone else is staggering. And it’s not an idle assumption I’ve faced, but an aggressive, hostile attack on my personhood by people who may have known me for all of five minutes. Or worse, years.

At a house party once, I had a gay man brazenly declare that I wasn’t bisexual (when asked, as I was, I will always answer truthfully), because, oh, how many men have you had sex with? Just the one? How many blowjobs? How many women? As if sexuality were no more than the amount of penetrations you’ve dealt out, or received, the amount of bodily fluids exchanged. The failure here, on the part of both gay and straight communities, is the inability to remove their gendered lenses — their static sexuality is rooted in the gender they’re attracted to, who they fuck. Mine isn’t. What matters is that I care for the person, that I find them attractive according to the features I like in men and women, that we’re both comfortable and enjoying ourselves. That’s all.

But it’s not only the gay community heedlessly stamping on bisexuality, the straight community is no better — albeit in a different manner. With them, I get lewd drunken grins and exclamations of, “That must be awesome! Any hole’s a goal, eh?” or bluntly, “You’re just a slut.” I’ve had women just start feeling me up on hearing it, as though I suddenly became no more than a block of meat or a toy to test out. And no, just because I’m a guy doesn’t mean I’m okay with being felt up without permission or harassed in any way. That’s the best-case scenario, sadly.

Then there’s the outright homophobia, as directly applicable to me as a bisexual man as it is to gay men. To bigots, there’s no difference. If you like men, you’re a faggot. Period. Or there’s the straight friend who knows, but will never address it, it’s too uncomfortable for them — just ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, or that it’s invisible.

If I struggle this much with my own gay friends, my progressive circle of contacts, can you imagine how I’d fare with my religious Muslim family? From whom I’ve invariably heard, as I’ve grown up, “Gay people should be beheaded,” or “They’re all going to hell,” or that if I should ever turn out gay, I’d be stabbed, maimed, hurt, hated, disowned — sometimes, this was said with a laugh. Sometimes not. It was always an inside joke, see, that because I was a geek and loved reading books, where my brothers and cousins loved “sick cars and hot bitches,” I would turn out gay. “Gay” was the catchall insult used for anything different, odd, out of the norm.

This is why it’s so funny to me when gay men suggest that bisexuality is just fear of coming out of the closet, of having to live with homophobia, as though they’ve gone through things I haven’t. I’ll say it again: bigots don’t see a difference. I’ve lived underneath the word gay my whole life — and not in the good way, with loving connotations, but as homo and fag. I’ve had it branded into my skin so often the letters all run together. I’ve spent countless nights curled up, wishing I were gay, wishing it were that simple. How beautiful to be part of that great rainbow family, increasingly accepted by the majority, increasingly celebrated. And countless nights wishing I just wanted girls, thinking of the family I want to raise, the wife I want to have, how it will all work out.

I’m stuck between (broadly speaking) two collections of concrete identities, all you brittle-edged people, you sound foundations, you with the unchanging ground beneath your feet where mine is fluid, is smoke and cloud. My loves are distinct, they are real, and they need to be acknowledged. I can’t keep fighting in the dark. Just as with my colouring, my features, this is not something I will ever escape. Nor, I think, a fight that I’ll ever win. But that’s not the point — my mistake has been in letting it go uncontested. Letting the arrogance, the faulty assumptions, the endless bigotry wash over me. Taking it out on myself later.

No more.

My family does not know who I am. They may not for some time. They don’t use the internet much — and if they do, it isn’t to read things like this — and I’m too much of a coward to show it to them directly. Coward because, for all their faults, I love them deeply. For all their bigotry, their casual racism, intolerance, superstition and general ignorance — barely a high school diploma amongst them — I love them so much, and I always will, and I want this to last. But I will lose them as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, because their love is conditional. Mine is not.

And so I have stayed silent this long. I am, however, so very tired of my heart feeling like a grenade with the pin-pulled, so sick of feeling as though I have one foot on a landmine, slowly lifting. Let them see, then. They are not the real audience here anyway — you are. You, my educated, progressive friends, my obnoxious (and not-so obnoxious) gay friends, my silent straight friends. You probably have other bisexual friends, or will in future, and you may have said some of the things I’ve mentioned here. Or acted a certain way toward them (or happily not). Either way, this is to let you know that we’re here, we’re real, and so is our struggle. Next time you happen to meet a bisexual, should you feel a sneer, or eye-roll, or cliché coming on, however jokingly put — just stop.

Hell, indulge me in a little wish fulfilment here — stop, smile, and give them a hug instead, would you? (With their consent, naturally.) I think we’d all be much better off, if that were the case. If that’s too much for you, or you happen to somehow not like hugs, just stop and think. Put yourself in their shoes. It’s never as easy or as simple as you believe.

My name is Omar J. Sakr, I’m an Australian writer and poet of Lebanese-Turkish descent, and this is who I am. This is my skin.

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