I Am Woman.

I’m eight years old, playing at my friend’s house. My parents are also there, visiting with my friend’s parents. My dad looks at me and yells, “Go home and put on a bra! I can see your mosquito bites!” I’m horrified that he would say this in front of everyone.

Another time, about the same age, I’m at my grandma’s house. I overhear my dad yell at my teenage sister, “I don’t want to ever catch you riding in cars with boys! They’ll twist your boobies!” I feel uncomfortable, but I don’t know why, because I don’t fully understand what he’s talking about.

I’m in fifth grade, walking home from school. I hear whistles and catcalls from construction workers. I try to ignore them, but I think, “Do they realize I’m only 10?”

I’m in seventh grade. I’ve gone through puberty already. My body is too mature for my age. I walk into a classroom to deliver something from another teacher. A boy whispers under his breath, but loud enough for me to hear, “Thunder thighs! Thunder thighs!” I know I’m not fat; I’m bewildered why he would embarrass me in front of the whole class.

These are just a few examples of my childhood experiences that were common, memorable, and formative. These experiences—that started when my body turned into a woman when I was eight—have stuck with me after all these years.

Is this what it means to be a woman? Defined by your sex as soon as your breasts start to show? I don’t know. I certainly didn’t experience the traumas that a lot of women have. I haven’t been sexually assaulted—although I have a sister and cousins who have. Some women live in countries where they can’t show their face; some women go to prison for being the victim of a rape; and some women have their genitals mutilated as a matter of cultural or religious tradition.

But this is my experience: I was raised by a father who only spoke about women with insults. I was raised by a mother who kept quiet and, when she made her own choice about something, hid that choice from my dad and lied to him about it when confronted. These were my role models.

But I knew better. I knew my dad was a jerk. Even when I was little, I wondered why my mom put up with my dad instead of sticking up for herself. I knew I would be different. I would respect myself. I wouldn’t allow men to bully me or put me down. I would be better.

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You Can’t Tell By Looking

Note: The post below was delivered as a Toastmasters speech in July 2014.

I’m bisexual. That’s a highly charged word. It packs a lot of meaning behind it, and often that meaning is different for everyone. Does it make you see me differently? Does it change anything about your assumptions?

Coming Out of the Closet

I’ve been “out of the closet” for almost 10 years—almost as long as I’ve been at my company. Yet being out of the closet means I have to come out again and again every time I make a new friend or move to a new team.

The first time I came out, it was through email—to friends, family, and co-workers. To me, this was the fastest and easiest way to come out and avoided what I saw as potentially complicated, difficult conversations I really didn’t want to have. My manager was supportive, and when someone approached her asking if it was appropriate for me to come out like that, her response was, “Absolutely.”

Another time when I came out again—a few years later, on another team—a co-worker pulled me aside and asked me why it was necessary to tell people. Isn’t it just something personal that people need to know? I told him, no. It’s a big part of your identity, and it takes a lot of energy to hide. Coming out means you’ve gotten it out of the way, and you no longer have to dwell on it—hopefully.

Think of it this way. Your co-worker often speaks about his daughter, and casually mentions his wife from time to time. You assume he’s straight, and it’s a perfectly ordinary part of everyday life. You don’t give it any further thought.

If I spoke about my family and referred to my partner or my wife, this would tip you off that I’m a lesbian, right? In general, this too has become somewhat ordinary, and most of us don’t give it any further thought. Sexual identity based on one’s partner works for both gay and straight. It’s simple, pretty easy to put your finger on.

But I’m bi. I was married to a man. Maybe I’m dating men, or I’m dating women. Whoever my partner is at the time, is this how I should be identified?

Issues Unique to the Bisexual

When someone is in the closet, this lack of identity weighs on you. It takes up a great deal of your time and energy. Do I need to mention that I’m bi? Will it matter to this friend/co-worker/acquaintance? Will they think differently of me if I tell them? Will it seem like I’m making a big deal out of it? Is this an appropriate time? The psychological toll of being in the closet is great.

In addition, there are very real phenomena experienced by bisexuals—especially in the workplace, where we spend a lot of our time.

A few years ago, I ran into someone I had worked with previously, and I mentioned my work with Pride Alliance here. This man said he really didn’t see a reason for an LGBT group at work. After all, he had worked with several gay people, and there had never been any issue. He felt gay people were welcome and included here. He then segued into the topic of bisexuals. A friend of his was conducting research that showed that bisexuals are sexual predators. Somehow, this seemed like a natural transition in the conversation, and also a reasonable statement to make at work.

In 2011 and 2013, two important research papers were published on bisexuality in the workplace: “Working Bi: Preliminary Findings From a Survey on Workplace Experiences of Bisexual People” by Bruins Green, Payne, and Green, and “Employment Discrimination Against Bisexuals: An Empirical Study” by Tweedy and Yescavage. These papers were important because bisexuality—and bisexuality at work in particular—has rarely been studied. The findings from this research show what many bisexuals already know: that being bisexual—whether you’re in the closet or out of it—is uncomfortable. And here’s why.

  • Bisexuals experience heightened sexual harassment.
  • They aren’t trusted by lesbian and gay co-workers—and they’re seen as a curiosity by straight co-workers.
  • Bisexuals who leave a partner of one sex and then become involved with someone of a different sex are gossiped about much more than gay or straight individuals.
  • Bisexuals in same-sex relationships are made invisible by LGBT groups. (Because they’re seen as gay or lesbian.)
  • Bisexuals in opposite-sex relationships are treated as allies (at best) by LGBT groups. (Because they’re seen as straight.)
  • And they’re often characterized as indecisive, unreliable, and therefore unpromotable. Managers feel, “You can’t make up your mind/can’t make a decision.”

So.

So. Given the psychological toll of being bisexual, and the repercussions at work if you’re out, why come out of the closet?

Because I want to be honest about who I am.

Because being in the closet creates a barrier between me and my friends, my family, and my co-workers.

Because it creates visibility so that others may come out as well.

For Mom

At nine I watched my mother,
small, frail, diminished further by my father,
and the one before him.
She was a stranger to me then,
alien. Weak, complicit,
she was of another time.
Even then, I wondered
why she stayed, why she didn’t get out,
and later, when she did leave,
why she left me behind.

At nineteen I fell in love.
I found my soul mate, believed
that love strengthened me.
I was independent, a woman,
special, empowered, loved.
I was far from home,
far from my mother.
I left her behind.

At twenty-nine I was still so young,
married, ready to have a child,
optimistic that the future was bright,
full of possibilities.
In love, I felt supported,
we were in sync, I had grown
into a woman, a wife, a part
of someone else. I didn’t know
I had left myself behind.

At thirty-nine I left him.
I had lost myself, become weak
from compromising myself.
The woman I had been
was a stranger to me now.
I wondered
why I had stayed, why I didn’t leave
for so long.
Now I understood
the fear, the pain, the frailty
of the future alone.
I went back
to the woman I had been,
and to my mother,
who I had become.
All those years I had lost,
I left them behind.