Bisexual in a Small Town: How My Family Helped Me Deal
“We need to talk,” said my mom. I was 14, and this could have meant any number of ominous things. We’d had many “talks” over the years, most of them related to my adolescent misbehavior, which arrived at 12 in particularly worrying form.
We sat together at our breakfast counter, she with a mug of Bengal spice tea, me with a glass of OJ. My mother was, and is, a very pretty woman, with bright blue eyes, skyscraper cheekbones, and an easy laugh. She sipped her tea and took a breath.
“Karen and I aren’t just friends, honey.” Her features tightened, but her eyes met mine, clear and steady. “We’re more than friends.”
“Yeah, I figured that out,” I said.
“Of course!” I gulped. “Jessica and me aren’t just friends, either, you know.”
“I had a feeling about that.” She nodded with a faint smile.
Mine was the most amiable coming out story I knew. If only the experience of my early sex life were so breezy.
In our small Cape Cod junior high school, I didn’t know a single openly gay teenager. As a 13-year-old feminist who didn’t shave her legs, I was the closest thing most people got. Before my best friend, Jessica, and I started kissing each other, most of our classmates assumed we already were. In truth, all of my early sexual encounters were with men: thrilling and frightening interactions, marked by my inability to say no. I had the body of a 20-year-old before I even got my first period, and being mistaken for sexually precocious by my peers became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My early exploits with older boys garnered me a reputation as a slut in middle school. Compared to that harassment, it was easier to let people assume I was gay. Being a slut implied an unwieldy desire, an essential vulnerability to sexual need. Whereas being gay just implied a rejection of men. But kissing girls came with its own complications
Bisexuality made sense to me, in theory, before I ever kissed a girl. And this was pre-Madonna kissing Britney Spears, pre-“Girls Gone Wild” (at least in my house, where we watched only PBS). My conception of girls kissing girls was not defined by a male gaze; I grew up with books like “Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism” on the shelves. My mother was a Buddhist therapist, and I had known before our landmark conversation that she not only identified as bisexual but moreover understood that being one was largely unremarkable. It seemed logical to me that people were bisexual until proven otherwise.
My brother and I lived in a house where sexuality was treated with no aura of shame, no tinge of the illicit. There was never any reference to the proverbial “birds and bees,” but our lexicon did include words like “fallopian tubes” and “ovulation.” We were both born at home, and I was even present for my brother’s birth. If I had been a different sort of 4-year-old, I doubt my parents would have allowed this, but in the pictures, I am far from traumatized by my mother’s cries. I am strutting around the birthing room, a toy stethoscope dangling from my neck, and perched between the midwives, attempting to take my mother’s pulse.
Unfortunately, this wholesome experience of the human body couldn’t prevent me from hating my own. By fifth grade, the attention that my precocious figure attracted from men scared me, but it was better than feeling freakish and fat, which was how I’d come to see the C-cup chest I’d exhibited before any other girl my age. And my pulse whirred to the feeling of breath on my neck, hands on my waist; I liked being wanted. Everything that followed those flirtatious entreaties, however, left me numb and ashamed. After a year of crude gestures and loud whispers in school hallways, exploring my nascent attraction to girls seemed a safer path.