Struggling with bisexual identity in relation to others coming out

Maggie
asks:
I'm a 22 year-old woman. I came out as a bisexual at 18. At that point I hadn't had any sexual encounters. Since then I have had two one night stands, both with men and very little sexual experience otherwise (not even really kissing on nights out). I have no doubts about my sexuality, but I am really struggling at the moment with the amount of friends who are coming out as bisexual or having a lot of same sex sexual encounters. A lot of these people are friends who would always present as very straight and now have come out as bisexual or have a very casual relationship with sex ("I made out with so many girls last night.... maybe I'm just 93% straight"). While I'm obviously very happy that people are exploring their sexual identity and absolutely believe people should do what feels good for them it's also really stirring up some conflicting feelings for me.
Mo Ranyart replies:

Maggie's question continued:
I'm struggling with the fact that when I talk about being bisexual I mean that I could happily be in a committed relationship or desire to have sex with someone of any gender. I sometimes find that when people (as a way of trying to be supportive, which I am grateful for) say 'oh, but everyone's a little bit gay' I feel like my identity is being erased because when I talk about being bisexual or being attracted to women I'm not just meaning a snog in a club. At the same time, it makes me very aware that I have never even kissed a woman despite being 22 and openly bisexual and have very limited experience with men.

It makes me feel like the difficulty I had in coming out, the struggle I had in understanding my sexuality, and the importance my sexual identity has played is just a bit stupid? Maybe I should have just got drunk and made out with my best friend because that seems what everyone else is doing without any of the stress and more of the sex. This is made especially harder by the fact that so many of best friends from high school, who were supportive when I came out, are now coming out themselves yet no one did that when I was still at school (although I know that coming out is a different process for everyone).

I know there is a lot going on in that question! I guess I'm looking for help in working through how to understand my own sexual identity in light of so many of my friends same sex encounters and perceptions of their sexual identity, especially when I feel so aware that I have such minimal sexual experience.

Here's something I love about bisexuality: within that one identity, there's such a wide range of bisexual experiences, encompassing how people come to understand their sexuality, how (and if) they talk about it with others, and the way they choose to explore and express it.

If you ask a bunch of bisexual people what that identity means to them, you'll probably hear some variation on the theme of feeling attraction to multiple genders but beyond that, they might tell stories that sound quite different from each other. And in my mind, that's great! I think it's fantastic to have so much diversity in one orientation.

What it also means, though, is that it can be harder to see yourself in the experiences of others, especially if the number of other bisexual people -- especially those who do actually identify themselves as bisexual, pansexual or queer -- you know is low. And if you aren't seeing your feelings and experiences reflected in the bisexual people around you, it can be easier to worry that there's something wrong with your experience, or with theirs. It sounds like seeing several other people in your life come out as bisexual, and express that sexuality in a way that doesn't feel really comfortable to or for you, has raised up a lot of big and stressful feelings for you.

How other people choose to feel and express their sexuality might feel alien to you. It's okay to be uncomfortable at the thought of doing those things yourself: it's okay to feel uncomfortable about anything, this included. It's important, though, to remember that your feelings, and your discomfort with ways of doing bisexuality or being bisexual, aren't a sign that they're being bisexual in a "wrong" way. Or, for that matter, that you are. That's because there just isn't a wrong or a right way to be bisexual.

When you're seeing friends and peers expressing their bisexuality in a way that seems really different from how you would choose to do so, their choices and feelings aren't meant to comment on, challenge, or invalidate your own.  If you can keep that in mind, even when it's a challenge, I think that'll do a lot to help how you're feeling here.

It is absolutely untrue, and often harmful, for people to say things like "everyone's a little bit gay" to you (or period). For one thing, bisexuality is an independent identity in itself, not a state of being "a little gay and a little straight."

A bisexual person isn't transitioning from "gay" to "straight" and back again based on who they're dating; they're a bisexual person no matter who they're dating, including when they aren't dating anyone. (I've heard people illustrate this by talking about how a werewolf remains a werewolf whether they're in wolf or human form; this is a bit of a silly and overly-binary simplification but I know a lot of bisexual people who love both being silly and comparing themselves to werewolves, so that might be helpful for you!)

Also, it's just not true that everyone is bisexual. Sexuality study has shown us that it's actually uncommon for people, through a lifetime, to be exclusively attracted to only those who share their gender identity or only those who don't, yes. And there are likely a good number more people in the world who experience feelings of attraction to two or more genders than who outright call themselves bisexual. But that in no way means everyone has those feelings, and to say otherwise is inaccurate and can be disrespectful, as well. Assigning people an orientation they don't themselves claim is a crummy thing to do.

I do think it's often meant well, and not intended to be disrespectful. "Everyone's a little bit gay" can be shorthand for a sentiment like, "Hey, I'm ok with you being bisexual! It's really common!" As you yourself note, though, that doesn't necessarily mean it comes off as supportive or friendly. Other times someone might be projecting their feelings or orientation onto your experience. Whatever the reason, I don't blame you for being frustrated when this happens; while it's often said with good intentions, it's generally a pretty misguided comment and not likely to be affirming or comforting for many people. When you get those comments, it's perfectly fine for you to say something like, "Well, I'm not any bit gay; I'm bisexual," or "I'm pretty sure straight people exist, so I'm not sure what you're getting at here," or just "I think you mean that as a supportive comment, but it's really not helpful."

It sounds like when people around you are talking about bisexuality in a way that doesn't align with your values or desires, it feels like your experience might not "count" or be real. That sucks, for sure! You don't need to kiss women in nightclubs (or have any sexual experience with women in any context) to know you feel attracted to them. You don't have to "prove" your bisexuality in any way, for anybody. There's no minimum sexual experience required to be bisexual, and if people you're talking to start suggesting that there is, it's ok to remind them of that, or ask them to stop making comments about your sexuality altogether. If they keep at it, you might remind them that very few people ask straight people how they can know they're straight before they have any sexual experience!

At the same time, though: exploring your sexuality via casual sex or kissing friends is also a valid way to do it. That doesn't make the women who do these things more or less bisexual than you, it just means they're making different sexual choices than you right now. It's totally fine if this isn't appealing to you; it's appealing to some people, and unappealing to others. But there isn't anything wrong with other people wanting to be sexual in this way. I mention this because I do get a sense, from what you've written here, that you might think that things like kissing in a casual setting might be less authentic or real expressions of sexuality than a committed or emotional relationship. Those things may be different, sure, but I don't think it's helpful to arrange them into a heirarchy of good vs better Acts of Bisexual Expression, or to set yourself and your sexual choices up against anyone else's in a competition.

It's also important to keep in mind that you don't know, unless you've asked directly, how women who have casual sexual experiences with other women in bars or nightclubs feel about casual sex or their own sexual identities.

You could be seeing people who prefer casual sex or other physical intimacy, who haven't found avenues for meeting single women in other environments, or who feel like those social spaces provide a low-key setting in which to explore their sexual feelings safely. They may be so new to understanding their attraction for other women that more serious dates feel too intimidating. It wouldn't be fair for anyone to make assumptions about the sexual experiences you've had and why you have or haven't been sexual in certain ways, and it isn't fair for you to make those assumptions about anyone else's experiences or decisions.

Let's take a little detour to talk about the miasma of gross that is biphobia.

People say some pretty nasty and untrue things about bisexuals: we're more likely to cheat, we'll never be satisfied with one partner, we're straights faking it for attention, we're gay but too chicken to come out "all the way."  One pervasive biphobic myth - that bisexual women are really straight women performing for male attention - has roots in some really lousy ideas about sex or romance between two women being less "real" or important than relationships between men and women (or even two men, to some extent). Some women struggle to see themselves in romantic relationships with other women because of heteronormative narratives they've been presented with, but are able to understand sexual attraction to women a bit easier. For some bisexual women, a bar or party might feel like the most natural place to be sexual with other women because they're still unpacking a lot of heteronormative, biphobic information they've absorbed from outside sources. That same biphobia can also mean it's hard for women who prefer casual sex with other women, or who experiment with kissing friends before settling into deeper intimate relationships with them, to be taken seriously. I think that's all good to keep in mind when you're noting your own reactions to other people's behavior.

I get the idea that you feel a little frustrated or annoyed that you've taken what feels like the harder path of coming out early, and not having casual sex with friends or strangers in bars, but aren't seeing other people around you who've made those same choices. And while I encourage you to remember that you can't always know people's motivations or desires without asking them, and that what you're seeing of the people around you isn't going to tell you the whole story, it probably would be great for you to build a larger community of awesome bisexual people, where you're likely to find a larger range of experiences and some potential overlap with your own. I don't get the sense that you have this kind of community or network right now, but it's certainly something you can cultivate with a little effort. That might mean looking for groups or organizations to get involved with, whether that's at your school, in your local community, or in online spaces, but it could also be taking the time to see if the other bisexual women you already know might be a community that's just waiting to welcome you in.

You say that some of these women are your friends; I don't know just how close to them you are, but presumably you talk about your lives with each other from time to time; what might happen if you decided to ask them what it felt like to come out, or how they realized they were bisexual? They might not realize the struggles you went through when you came out a bit earlier, and sharing your unique perspectives with each other might be helpful all around.

I think, too, that some of the negative feelings you're expressing here about your friends' experiences might be softened a bit if you're able to talk openly with them about their feelings and identities as well. You may find that you have more in common with them than you think, and even if you don't, it's still good to have a better understanding of where your friends are coming from and what their own struggles are. As I said initially, bisexuals are a varied group and that's something to be celebrated; digging into those differences with friends might bring you all closer together and help you understand yourselves, and each other, a bit better. I wish you the best of luck with it.