Back in 2002, when I was still in college, I lived in DC for a quarter in a quad dorm room that felt like the set of a queerish Adam Sandler movie. I—a semi-closeted bisexual drunk—lived with a gay guy from Beverly Hills I’ll call Mark; James, a kind-hearted straight stoner with whom I shared a room; and Mark’s best friend, an even straighter dude who looked exactly like Corey Feldman. I had a secret crush on Mark. Sometimes the four of us would stay up late at night watching CNN and drinking. For special occasions, we went to the Cheesecake Factory. Then we’d get up and be interns, whatever that meant, for the people who ran the world because that’s how we thought we could go about saving it.
Mark hit on me the way gay men hit on straight men they’re already comfortable with, the way straight women hit on gay men. He’d go “mmmmm” when I walked by and say, “Why are you straight again?” He could tell it made me a little uncomfortable but not too uncomfortable. He could tell I liked it a little. He was tall and good looking and rich, and he’d tell me all about his trips giving road head to hot flight attendants in the Florida Keys. He might have been telling me the plot of a porn he’d watched or it might have been the truth, but I was enthralled and jealous and disgusted and turned on.
One night, the four of us went out together for drinks. Across from our dorms was a place called The Fox and The Hound where we smoked cigarette after cigarette. For three bucks, you could order a whiskey and Coke, which meant they’d bring you a bucket glass full of well whiskey and a tiny bottle of soda. We drank and gossiped. Mark’s foot brushed my leg. I don’t know if it was on purpose or if he thought it was a table leg, but I let his foot keep brushing mine, over and over, and I lost my breath for a second. He was looking at Corey Feldman, talking about some date he’d just been on. He hated straight places. “I’m bored I’m bored I’m bored,” he said, jumping out of his seat, trying to talk us into going to a gay bar. Corey Feldman wasn’t having it. “Fuck,” I said finally, “Let’s just go back up to the room.”
We stumbled across the street, made it to the apartment and sat down in the living room, all of us on the couch but Mark, who was standing. He still wanted to leave. Someone plopped on CNN.
It had been eating at me. He’d been flirting with me since I moved in. I hadn’t told many people, but this was different. He had to know, or if he found out later, he’d have a right to resent me. I didn’t want that.
“Mark,” I said, and then I mumbled at him for a bit until he rolled his eyes at me.
“Spit it out.”
“You should know that I’m bi.”
This was the part where in my imagination he smiled, maybe gave me a hug, and welcomed me to his club, where the streamers came from the ceiling and the music started blaring. Instead, he took a seat on a chair near the couch. His smile disappeared. Everyone was sober all the sudden. Corey Feldman, who was sitting next to me, said something like, “That’s my cue, bro” and went to bed. James stayed put, his eyes glued to the TV, but not a peep came from him, either.
I sighed and fell back further into the couch.
Mark looked down at the ground for a minute and shook his head. He wanted to say something and stopped himself. He picked his head up and looked me right in the eyes.
“You like men and women?”
“Yep,” I said. I hadn’t told many people yet, but I’d done it enough. I knew that the questions were coming.
“I don’t believe in that.”
I flipped him off, smiling. “I’m sitting right here.”
He recoiled a little and rubbed his hands through his hair. “No no, sorry. What I meant is, well, do you prefer one or the other?”
His whole body was turned towards me now.
“It’s just … the person. I’m attracted to the person,” I said.
He stared at me. The wrong facial expression, just a little something wrong with the curl of my lips, and he would never believe me. He could mark me off as gay but not ready or just out for attention. I had to be just the right amount of angry and the right amount of confident.
He turned the TV down.
“So why aren’t you out?” he asked.
“I want to work in politics,” I said, enunciating now like Peter fucking Jennings. “I’m lucky enough to be attracted to women, too, you know? This business isn’t easy.”
He looked back at the TV, where I’m guessing something or other was blowing up on the other side of the world, and nodded.
“That’s probably pretty smart,” he said, a little bit of edge in his voice. I took another shot and headed off to bed. James asked me if I was okay before he headed into the shower. I said, “Sure.”
Mark sat in the chair, alone now, flipping through the channels.
Two weeks after I came out to Mark, I met a woman named Kate in a course about drug policy we had to take while doing our internships. Our professor ranted every day about the evils of needle exchanges and medical pot. Anytime I disagreed, he’d say, “You must be from Santa Cruz.” He was right. Both Kate and I were students at Santa Cruz, but we hadn’t met until that quarter in DC. After class, I caught her eyes as she was trying to make an exit and asked, “So, do you want to hang out?” She said, “Sure,” and then ran off. But I messed up and forgot to ask for her number. I never ask anyone out, but I couldn’t get her out of my head. I waited for the next week, and then I got in the same elevator she did and asked for her number, in front of everyone, so she had to give it to me. Then—I’d never done this before either—I actually called her. And she said yes. She went out with me on date after date and every fucking second I was around her I wanted to be touching her, somewhere, anywhere, even just her wrist.
After a couple dates, we went to her room. One of her roommates was always out at clubs looking for Navy guys and the other was gone. We had some drinks. I held her hand and said, “Can I kiss you?” like a fucking idiot, because I had no idea how to do this, how to be the one smitten. I kissed her cheek, then her ear, then her mouth, and she kissed back. I started shaking, my back started shaking, and I tried to figure out how to make myself stop, but I couldn’t, so I just went with it. She didn’t say anything, but she moaned back when I kissed her. We eventually made it to her bed, and even though she lived in a crappy dorm, too, it was the coziest place I’d ever been. She told me I smelled bad – getting used to DC’s humidity wasn’t easy after Santa Cruz. Instead of taking it personally and storming off or ignoring her I replaced my deodorant with antiperspirant and started putting it on every single day, which she thought was hilarious. Later, she said, “I like your smell now, but you should keep the antiperspirant on for other people’s sake.” I went around for about a day thinking, “She likes my nasty smell!” and dancing with myself.
A few weeks into it, I told her I was bi—the first time I’d ever told a girlfriend that— and she said, “Does that mean you’ll break up with me for a guy someday?”
“No, of course not,” I said.
I didn’t. Instead, we broke up because I chose to take a job working for a Congresswoman in Palo Alto instead of moving with her to Manhattan.
In the few years I spent working in politics pretending I wasn’t bi, I learned a lot of things, but the most disturbing thing I learned was how to win: What you do is find the simplest possible message that resonates with people — and when I say simple, think, “It’s the economy, Stupid” or in local races just, “Bob for State Senate” — and then you repeat it ad nauseam and get other people to repeat it ad nauseam and then ask them to get other people to repeat it until every front lawn and bulletin board and doorhanger and public space in the place you care about is filled with your message.
Somehow, in the last half century, LGBT activists have pulled off one of the biggest public relations coups in history while dealing with one of the most complex issues. It was less than forty years ago that the American Psychological Association agreed to stop saying non-straight people were sick. Today, I work at a school with a program that’s created just to train therapists to be sensitive to the needs of LGBT people. Ten years ago, in Lawrence v Texas, the Supreme Court stopped thirteen states from prosecuting people for sodomy; today, seventeen states allow gay marriage or domestic partnership.
All still isn’t good. Besides ex-gay camps, which have destroyed countless lives, LGBT people are victims of violent hate crimes at six times the overall rate, it’s legal to fire people for being gay in twenty-nine states, and being gay is illegal in seventy-six countries and punishable by execution in five. That’s the short list. I could go on for pages.
But now that we’ve had some success, now that we have a voice and a foothold, gay rights advocates who are fighting for LGBT rights—for my rights—have to choose between two different talking points:
1) Gays and lesbians are intrinsically attracted to same-sex partners.
2) Gays and lesbians do not have a choice about being attracted to same-sex partners. It is intrinsic to who they are. While no one has a choice about their sexual orientation, sometimes, not always, bisexual people are attracted to more than one gender. So those people who are born with a more fluid sexuality can choose who they sleep with, and sometimes they may be choosing between a man and a woman, but that doesn’t mean they have chosen to be attracted to both men and women.
Which talking point would you rather use?
I started jerking off when I was nine. I remember my favorite fantasy. I pictured everyone in my third grade class, standing at their desks. Everyone took off their clothes because they got in trouble for something. It didn’t matter what. My imagination zoomed in on some boy or girl. I wouldn’t think about sex with them, really. My knowledge of sex at that age came from watching Looks Who’s Talking. I thought you’d kiss someone and then have a baby. I’d just think of them naked, boys and girls, and maybe I’d think of kissing them, and sometimes I’d think about their butts. I’d touch myself, and it made me feel good.
It wasn’t until I’d moved in with my dad up in Boston a couple years later that I let it hit me that anything was different. I was running the mile, in gym class, and our teacher brought us over to the high school for that because there wasn’t a track at my school.
It was 1990 or 1991. My mom wanted me to look cool, but she was from LA, not Boston, so she had me dressing like some kind of weird white preppy surfer member of N.W.A, with terrible neon green shorts that went down to my knees and a bright orange hypercolor shirt that got brighter as I sweated on it. No one would talk to me, obviously, but I kept pace with two kids who would at least let me run near them.
One of their uncles had just died. “He was totally a fag,” said the nephew. The other kid said, “But that’s your uncle you’re talking about.” “Yeah, but he was a fag, and that’s what happens to fags, with AIDS, you know?” They weren’t saying it to be cruel to the uncle—there wasn’t an ounce of cruelty in their voice, even though they were saying fag. It was just the word they knew. They used the same tone I’d heard them use when they told me the story about going into that one overgrown house where there’s supposedly a hunchback inside. And it was then that it hit me, as I was jogging, even though I already knew, really, but I hadn’t let myself think about it.
“Fags like boys, so I’m a fag.”
That day after school I ran up straight into my room. My room had always been filthy, but I threw everything off one little section of carpet near my desk and my dresser with the trap door I would always write stories on, and I kneeled there, and said over and over to myself, “Fags like boys, so I’m a fag,” crying and crying, not once thinking about that page from a magazine hidden in my desk, three feet from my head, with the naked women sprawled in impossible positions, the one I’d been beating off to every night for the last week, and not once thinking about the girl I’d kissed on the lips, my first kiss ever, a few weeks before, when my heart went pitter-patter and did all the things hearts are supposed to do during a first kiss, the girl whose heart I later broke because I thought I was a fag. I didn’t want to bring her down with me because being a fag was this cancer that would grow inside me and eat up the straight part of me until I’d die of AIDS and never be able to do anything with my life.
A year later, I sat at my desk with a knife, poking at my wrist. I had an impossible crush on a boy. Frank Martin and I were on the same basketball team. His locker was two over from mine, and I couldn’t help it—I was twelve or thirteen years old. I had twenty boners a day. It’s just the way it was—so when he changed, I kept sneaking a peek because I just wanted to see, because I could smell him, and it was amazing, and was it too much to smell and see?
And he caught me looking. But when he caught me, he wouldn’t look right back at me. Instead, he looked at the locker in front of him, and said, quiet enough so no one would hear, “I don’t give a fuck if you’re gay. I know it’s not your fault, but you better not fucking look at me like that ever again.”
I decided that day that I would choose to grow the part of me that liked women and kill the part that liked men. I poked at little parts of my wrist until they turned bright red, then I pulled the blade up and watched my skin turn back to its normal color, and then I pressed down again harder. But I couldn’t make myself do it hard enough, because I couldn’t stand blood, because I was too afraid to die right then. I tried to spell out words with the little red dots but they disappeared too quickly. I tried to spell out “Frank.” I tried to spell out “tired.” I took out a pack of stolen Kools and snuck outside and smoked cigarette after cigarette after cigarette.
Thirteen years later, right after quitting the job with the Congresswoman, I was in the shower, jerking off, thinking about women—I’d mostly thought about women, really, since Frank, except for all the men—and then, out of nowhere, I thought about this guy I knew who hit on me all the time. I imagined going up to him and wrapping my arms around his huge bear chest and kissing his ear, nibbling and then blowing a bit on his neck. My breath came quick and fast, and my legs gave out, and I had to lay down in the shower and let the water pass over me, and I wasn’t even jerking off anymore, it was more powerful than that. I was thinking about him and floating and it wasn’t until the water got so cold I couldn’t stand it that I got up and dried off and slept better than I’d slept in thirteen years.
Soon after, I came out on Myspace. There was no coming back from that.
Here’s the thing I want to tell Human Rights Campaign and Equality California and all the gay rights groups who have done such incredible work, who now have their own buildings in Washington and are thinking in terms of talking points and “ramifications” and focus groups and public polling:
The gay rights movement has been so successful because activists like Harvey Milk encouraged people to come out and tell the truth to their families, to their friends, and to their coworkers, to be everything they were, to say “We’re here, we’re queer,” yes, but also, implicitly, to say, “We’re here, it’s complicated, and probably it’d be good if we talked about this over tea.”
Recently, on OKCupid, a woman messaged me: “Are you truly into ladies, and if so, what type? Finding a truly bi man is like finding a unicorn.”
If I’m a unicorn where I live now, in L.A., then I was a unicorn rocky mountain oyster when I moved to the old rustbelt city of Syracuse, New York to go to grad school and live for the first time as a fully out bi man. There was one other mythical bi man in the entire city, but try as I might, I never found him. At the gay bar, I sometimes got called a “half-breeder.” Straight people treated me just as shittily as they treat gay people. Three times, gay men hit me in the back of the head when they saw my head turn for a women. For the most part, straight women wouldn’t date me because, as one said, “You’re just gonna leave me to go suck a dick.” For the first time in my life, frat boys called me fag. My professor said, “The world just isn’t ready for gay marriage.” I emailed him “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Then I went out with friends and my gay friends didn’t know what to do because I got drunk and flirted with a lesbian. A friend said she thought bi people didn’t exist. I said, “I’m sitting right here,” because that was my answer, but I was starting to believe her. I stopped telling people what I was. I let people think what they wanted, which was usually that I was like them.
About a year into being there, I thought, “Why don’t I just call myself gay?” I would see if I could do it before I told people, I thought. I mean, except for the occasional straight porn, and that one girl, and maybe that other one, I was only dating men. I made it a point. No more straight porn. No more thinking of women. No more dating women.
A few months later, I found myself in bed with a guy. I’d been doing well making up for lost time. No women, no women at all, except for a tiny bit of porn. I was almost ready to just say, “I’m gay. You guys were right. That bi thing was bullshit.” I was getting better at the whole blowjob thing. I was tied to the bed because I love being tied to the bed. I couldn’t move. I moaned and screamed and made all the right noises, but then it was time, and he started to expect an end because it was getting late—dogs needed to be fed and teeth brushed and homework finished—but I just couldn’t come. I just couldn’t. He was getting tired and starting to look around but he didn’t stop, thank god, because it would have ruined it, because I was right on the edge. Right there. So I did what no one admits to their lovers they do but that everyone does: I closed my eyes and let my mind wander to other people. I thought about men. I was sitting there forcing myself to think about men, only men, men men men men men men, and then it slipped in there, like when someone says don’t think about rhubarb pie and you think about rhubarb pie. I thought, for a second, about Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because I’d watched an episode earlier that day. Then I fucking erupted. I came so hard I was worried about getting enough air. I hope Alyson Hannigan doesn’t take out a restraining order on me for admitting that, but it’s important. Not because I came like that, and not because it’s ridiculous, which it totally is, but because I’d tried to make a choice to be straight but it wouldn’t work and now I’d tried to be gay and it wouldn’t work.
I wanted to join a team so I wouldn’t have to answer any more questions, so I wouldn’t have to say that I preferred one or the other or whether I exist or if I’m a unicorn or how I can ever hope to be monogamous if I’m attracted to more than one gender. But I failed to choose a side, so now, for once, I’m going to answer all of these questions honestly:
I don’t know. I can’t speak for other bi people, but only for myself. I just don’t know.
I don’t know because I can’t get all the voices out of my head, the ones that ask all the wrong questions. The ones that tell me I must be one thing or the other—for whom, or why, I don’t know. The voices want a neat fit, but I can’t accommodate them. I’ve tried, and I can’t, and I shouldn’t.
No one will ever make this go away. No one will ever make it simple.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s how I win.