I am bisexual. It still feels a little strange to say, but I suppose this realization has been sneaking up on me for years. I said it out loud for the first time less than three months ago. Although I’ve told my family and close friends I don’t have much of a “coming out” story, perhaps because I never really felt like I was inside something. I don’t remember ever being closeted or consciously denying my sexuality. By the time this part of my identity beat its way to the front of my consciousness, I was at least comfortable enough with it to own it proudly. None of my close friends or family members were surprised, which was convenient. I, however, was a bit shaken by my own lack of self-awareness, and the way I came face-to-face with sexuality has been emotionally taxing. You see, I fell in love.
The short version (calculated to maintain everyone’s privacy, including my own) goes approximately like this: Last winter I met a kind, beautiful, talented woman and we became friends. One night, over drinks, I told her I was bisexual, and we confessed to having feelings for one another. Given our relational circumstances (we both have loving partners), we are trying to learn how to remain friends. This learning process includes being open and honest with one another and with our mates, who have been supportive and understanding of us and the situation.
This experience raised many questions for me about my identity and current values. The resultant struggle reminds me that relational values I was raised with as a result of my Christian upbringing–specifically heteronormativity, sexual monogamy, emotional monogamy, “purity,” and marital completion–continue to affect my thinking today.
Wikipedia defines heteronormativity as, “the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between people of opposite sexes.” In other words, to be heterosexual is to be normal, and any other orientation is abnormal, strange, or deviant. I have always felt normal.
Despite having several same-sex attractions throughout my childhood and adolescence, it never occurred to me that I was bisexual until I left my home town for Public College. As someone who greatly values introspection, the efficiency with which I suppressed this part of myself unsettles me. I wonder now if this personal unawareness (at best) or self-deception (at worst), was the result of growing up in an environment so steeped in heteronormativity that I subconsciously internalized its attendant attitudes before I even hit puberty.
Heteronormativity invalidates same sex attractions, and this may be why I so readily shrugged off my feelings for girls at ages six, ten, fourteen, and seventeen, in favor of my “normal” boy crushes at ages five, eleven, thirteen, and sixteen. I only acknowledged my feelings half the time, even to myself.
My denominational school and home church had little to say about sexual orientation. However, the idea still pervaded my academy peer group that gay men were anomalous little people, defined by the quirk of their childhood, abuse, or spiritual cross which made them crave other men, and could only be managed through deep spirituality, heterosexual marriage, or celibacy. Lesbians,
bisexuals, and gender queer individuals were only rarely acknowledged as practitioners of “the gay lifestyle’s” many deviant subsets.
During my late high school and early college years I began to criticize the greater Adventist establishment for its homophobia, but my own bi-phobic attitudes persisted. I privately believed the women were confused by too much experimentation, the men in denial of their homosexuality, and that for the sake of everyone else’s love-life and in the interest of public health, these so-called ‘bisexuals’ needed to ‘pick a team.’
Not me, of course. I liked men.
I have been in the same monogamous relationship since my senior year in academy. Until recently I assumed that unless and until it ended, it would be my only romantic and sexual relationship. You could say I had a “married mindset” or “relationship blinders.” I suspect this long term relationship, combined with my heteronormative attitudes, enabled me to further suppress or disregard my same-sex attractions.
Once I transferred to Public College, my blinders were severely challenged by interaction with members of the polyamorous community. There’s a great crash course in polyamory available here, but essentially polyamory is the practice of maintaining more than one romantic relationship with the informed consent of everyone involved. It differs from swinging in that it focuses on relationships, not sex. It differs from polygamy in that poly relationships may have any configuration of men and women, any of whom may have multiple partners (visually, imagine the difference between a spoked wheel and a branching tree or polygon). The unconventional nature of poly relationships has encouraged the development of strong communication values within poly culture, such that open communication, honesty, the informed consent of everyone involved, and fidelity to the agreements made within the relationship are cornerstones of poly-ethics.
My exposure to members of the poly community led me to change my definition of “cheating.” “Cheating” is usually shorthand for “having sex with someone else,” or indicates somehow acting on sexual or romantic feelings for someone other than one’s partner. However, a more inclusive definition is “breaching the terms of the relationship,” because it acknowledges the boundaries of relationships which do not emphasize sexuality as an exclusive property. Under this definition, as with games and trade, cheating is simply breaking the rules. In an adult relationship, the rules are defined by the people involved and are subject to change as they see fit.
Without a religious framework, and in the absence of conclusive research, there seems no reason to regard hetero monogamy as the only legitimate relationship model (at least when comparing ideals). Furthermore, the apparently healthy dating and marriage relationships of people like my friend Lark stand in stark contrast to everything I was conditioned to expect of people who deviate from that model. I only know four polyamorous couples and two other poly individuals, but none of them are disease ridden, they do not seem emotionally unstable, only one (to my knowledge) was a victim of abuse, and their relationships—far from being consumed by contempt or jealousy—appear quite loving.
When I saw for myself that alternative relationship models could yield functional, happy romances, I also realized that my partner and I could renegotiate the terms of our relationship, and it was therefore possible that I could yet have another sexual partner. I am quite satisfied with David, but the possibility did change the way I looked at the attractive and interesting people around me.
I was raised to believe that it is the emotions indicated by extramarital romantic behavior which defines that behavior as “cheating.” This reasoning carries three implicit assumptions:
- Every action traditionally associated with romance—be it hand-holding or sexual intercourse—is precipitated by romantic emotions.
- Nursing or acting upon romantic emotions outside your relationship constitutes infidelity because…
- Fidelity is defined by monogamy.
In other words, relationships are for two, and people’s hearts stray before their bodies do, so the best way to avoid sexual infidelity (i.e. maintain sexual monogamy) is to enforce stringent emotional boundaries with anyone you could realistically be attracted to, thus adopting a “married mindset” or “relationship blinders.”
Some people take the notion of emotional monogamy a step farther. They argue that blinders are a natural side effect of a truly healthy relationship. In other words, truly happy couples do not even notice the romantic potential of attractive and interesting people outside their relationship, but instead are wholly focused on one another.
This vision of emotional monogamy as an indicator of relational health seems unrealistic to me now for a few reasons. Firstly, all relationships go through warming and cooling cycles, meaning sometimes, either or both parties will be less attracted to their partner than at other times. During a cooling cycle it is natural to notice the romantic potential in others. (Note: There is an important
distinction between attraction and intent to pursue.) A second reason this notion is unrealistic ties into what I call the myth of…
Nowhere is the myth of marital completion more iconically portrayed than in the rom-com classic Jerry Maguire (1996). People still long for a romance in which they are completed; where a firecracker sex life continuously explodes from a well of deep-seated passion which is supported by an almost spiritual sense of companionship. To say nothing of the intellectual challenge and monetary stability provided by this ideal partner. I think these are all wonderful qualities to look for in a mate, but realistically speaking, no one person can fulfill all of another person’s desires. And expecting complete fulfillment from another human being is not romantic, it’s codependent.
This is why we have friends, and the fact that people simultaneously maintain friendships and romances demonstrates that complete emotional monogamy is unnecessary to a healthy romance, perhaps even detrimental. My partner is a wonderful man, but it would be unfair of me to expect him to engage me in lively political discussions, like my friend Aiden; enjoy thrift shopping, like my friend Martina; and be a great performing artist, like my friend Keiko. These friends fulfill different desires, and my love for any one of them does not threaten my love for the others or my partner. However, the myth of marital completion tells people they shouldn’t need other sources of companionship. This notion has been updated in the last twenty-odd years to allow men to have their “boys” and women to have “girl friends,” but is still so steeped in heteronormativity that it does not acknowledge how extramarital companionship may be valuable across genders, even amongst heterosexual men and women. As a result, the male best friend is looked upon with suspicion unless he’s gay, and the woman who is “like a sister to him” is assumed to be a secret rival. Furthermore, if an individual is romantically drawn to someone other than their mate, they’re encouraged to examine their relationship to see what “missing” element they’re subconsciously searching for. In the Adventist community I was raised in, couples were conditioned to see extramarital attractions as a sign of marital fracture, which are only fully healed by praying together for god to strengthen their commitment. Notions of polyamory are anathema to most of American evangelicalism, and the practice of maintaining multiple sexual or romantic relationships flies in the face of purity culture. But if I’ve learned anything in the last few months, I have learned that it is possible to be drawn into another person even when your first relationship is going well, even when the sex is good, and the housework is done, and there’s time to talk before bed. It is possible to love two people at once. ♦