The first time I came out, it was 2001, and I, like so many twenty-one-year-olds who just gained the right to buy booze, was drinking Long Islands in my favorite red velvet-lined bar. A group of friends I loved—burgeoning do-gooders all of us—were sloshing drinks, hugging, and singing along to the Cramps on the jukebox.
The song ended and a hush came over everyone. In that moment of quiet, I screamed, as loud as I could, “I’m bisexual.” This shocked me more than it shocked anyone else. I’d long ago decided this was a fact about myself no one could know.
I’d been raised in privilege—white-boy-going-to-good-schools-in-the-suburbs privilege. My father, who’d been raised in the German slums of Baltimore and fought his way into the upper echelons of academia, reminded me often how fortunate I was. He was right, certainly. He also reminded me that this meant it was my responsibility to do good in the world.
Unfortunately, he never clarified what he meant by doing good, so by the time I was in my preteens, I’d convinced myself that doing good meant something having to do with single-handedly stopping people from being cruel to one another and destroying the earth, like some sort of green Mr. Rogers-Flash Gordon. In fifth grade, when all the other kids said they wanted to be doctors, cops, and starters for the Boston Red Sox, I announced I wanted to be a computer programmer for Greenpeace.
Either way, it was the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I knew from reading the newspapers that being out would be, if not a death sentence, at least an end to my ability to be politically powerful enough to do what I thought I needed to do. When I read the newspaper, I read the obituaries, too. When I saw how many young people were dying, I knew that embracing my sexuality would be my end.
It did not get better as I got older. By the time I finished high school, a friend had been forced to apologize in front of the whole football team for reporting he was sexually assaulted by other boys (it was the fact they were boys that everyone saw as the most repellant), and a student who’d put up a rainbow sticker on his car had his belongings vandalized over and over and over again. I heard the word “fag” maybe twelve times a day, and the person being referred to was rarely in a position to make the world less cruel. I did not know a single person who was out. How could I accomplish what I needed to, I figured, if I was afraid and in danger all the time? In order to be able to stop all this cruelty, I thought, I needed to kill the part of me that liked boys and grow the part of me that liked girls.
But now, years later, in this velvety college bar, my self-erasing plan wasn’t working out. I looked around the bar, terrified, but my friends were shrieking with glee, and everyone started making out. I kissed a friend with a giant beard, and it felt fantastic against my hairless face, and I kissed an Alaskan anarchist, and the hot bartender woman, and her boyfriend, and of course—because why not fulfill the full college student fantasy?—my TA. They heard me, and they’d decided to help me live up to every stereotype they’d heard about bi people.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little fun.
The next morning, I woke in a panic, terrified I’d ruined my future. I called my bearded friend and asked him how he was feeling.
He said, “Wanna get breakfast?” At breakfast, it never came up. The next time we hung out, at the bar, it didn’t come up. No one who was there tonight mentioned the word bisexual again to me until I came out (more soberly) years later. I don’t know if every one of them had blacked out or if they didn’t believe me, or if they just thought I was saying things when I was drunk for shock effect. Whatever it was, it was like it had never happened.
The second time I came out was in 2002, and I was living in DC and interning for the ACLU. I liked the ACLU because they seemed to be fans of stopping cruelty, at least usually. I was also smitten with a woman I’d met in class. It was the first time I’d felt this sort of chemistry. It was impossible for us to be in the same room without hooking up. She had these dimples and this dorky laugh and a perfect, clean fabric softener smell.
But at the ACLU office, there were rainbow flags everywhere, and these flags nagged at me. They reminded me every day that I maybe should tell the truth to the people close to me. It is important to be in a safe place when you come out—one reason I will never regret staying closeted in high school—but could I be in a safer place than the ACLU? And if I was pretty sure I was falling in love, wasn’t it the right thing to do to tell her the truth?
So one night, while snuggling in her dorm room, I told her.
She shuffled away from me towards the other side of the bed, but then she forced herself to relax and moved back into my arms.
“Does that mean you’re going to cheat on me?” she asked.
“Absolutely not,” I said.
“No cheating,” she said. “But whatever, it’s fine.”
And just like before, that was the last we spoke of it.
On the day of the eighth time I came out, it was 2004 and the woman in DC had just broken my heart by cheating on me. I was driving towards SFO with a US congresswoman in my passenger seat. I’d taken a job with her out of college working on, among other things, environmental and veterans issues. On NPR, Gavin Newsom had just announced he was granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and Michelle Norris and Richard Gonzales were talking about how this would affect the upcoming presidential election.
The congresswoman shook her head sadly. “We’re walking right off a cliff.”
I flinched, but also, I knew where she was coming from. In Abu Ghraib, American soldiers were beating prisoners’ genitals with sticks, and we’d just come from a hospital where we’d seen dozens of men missing parts of their brain because of a war that never needed to happen. In her mind, pushing too hard on gay marriage meant four more years of that sort of evil.
I said her name, and I started to tell her I was bi. But instead I said, “You think so?”
That night, I asked a friend of mine, the office manager, if he’d go get a drink with me across the street. He sat across the table, drinking a beer. I was shaking. If I told him, and he told everyone else, would I lose my job? The congresswoman was liberal, sure, but not everyone in the district was. Bi men were near-uniformly loathed back then, ranked higher than only drug users in polls that asked people to rank groups using a number from one to one hundred. In the culture at large, I’d only seen bi people portrayed as monsters or people whose sexuality was a disaster for them, like Catherine Trammel in Basic Instinct or Alyssa Jones in Chasing Amy. I remembered how we’d been seen as vectors for HIV in the newspapers of the ’80s and ’90s.
In other words, if I came out, I figured I’d become a strategic liability.
I told him anyway.
He nodded, thanked me for telling him.
“I can’t tell them, can I?” I said.
He smiled at me, and then sighed. “That’s tough, man,” he said. “I’ve got your back, whatever you need.”
“I need to get a new fucking job,” I said.
I never did tell them.
The twenty-somethingth time I came out, it was Halloween night of 2005 in Syracuse, New York, and I was being beckoned to bed by a really hot guy in a Mario Brothers costume.
I’d just moved for a PhD program and I didn’t have many friends yet, but I had switched from being a congressional field representative to a doctoral student because I figured at least I could be out that way. He patted the pillow. I regretted my old Elvis costume, which wasn’t sexy in the least. He had a Roman nose, which really did something for me, and when I kissed him, we clanked teeth. We took off each other’s shirts.
Before it went further, I thought, I had to tell him the whole truth, if for no other reason than I didn’t know how to sleep with a guy.
When he reached for my underwear, I said. “Just so you know, I’ve only slept with women before.”
He pulled away from me, and he tilted his head, frowned, and sighed. He put his shirt back on.
“I guess I’m a half-breeder,” I said, trying to lean in for another kiss. I thought maybe if I could make him laugh, he’d take his shirt off again. I’d heard this joke plenty of times before in gay bars, and it usually was a hit.
He put his hand up to stop me. Then, he blinked slowly and gave me a sad smile. “Let’s get some sleep, okay?” He patted the bed again, but in a very different way. I rolled away from him and pretended to pass out.
The next morning, I vowed I would never let this happen again. What had I done? All I’d done was tell the truth. What bothered him? Was it that I was bi? That I was new to men? I turned on my computer. The problem, I figured, is that I had waited too long to tell him. But how was I supposed to keep track of who knew and who didn’t? There would be no more confusion. No one would be surprised again. I told Myspace I was bi. I put it on Friendster. I even put it on this new Facebook thing. I told people in my program. I told everyone: people I might want to sleep with and people I had no interest in sleeping with.
I had no idea what to expect afterward. In the two years I lived in Syracuse, I was the only out bi man I knew in the entire city. There was no model to look to. I was terrified I’d be totally alone. And it was true that almost no one was interested in hooking up with me anymore. But, to my surprise, when I came out, no one stopped being my friend, either.
Also, people talked to me. Gay men approached me to tell me about this woman they were hooking up with. Straight people told me about every time they’ve hooked up with people of the same gender. The world, it was turning out, was a lot more bisexual than I thought, but it didn’t want anyone but me to know. Telling the truth brought realness and authenticity to me, even if it wasn’t bringing me love.
The hundred-somethingth time I come out, it was 2006, and a man approached me at the gay bar in Syracuse. His shoulders were up around his ears, he had adorable glasses, and he was shaking he was so nervous.
He bought me a drink, a vodka tonic. I offered to buy him a drink.
“You wanna go somewhere else? For dinner?” he asked.
“You should probably know first,” I said, “that I’m bi.” I did what I considered by now to be the right thing, telling him up front.
He smiled. “I know,” he said. “I like bi guys.”
We went to dinner that night, and then we dated until I moved away from Syracuse much later.
The ten-thousand-somethingth time I came out, it was 2016, and I was waiting in the security line outside the Obama White House, wondering what in the name of God I had done to deserve to be here. I had long ago given up my career in politics to become a writer, teacher, and editor—jobs that did not come with the same self-erasing requirements I believed my political work demanded. With it, I’d mostly given up the childish belief that I could somehow single-handedly make people stop being cruel to each other, or that I might end up in the White House, saving the world in some superhero-like way. What I had done is write a couple essays about being bisexual. Then, somehow, while on a quick break after a horrible deadline, helping an author get their book ready to publish, I’d gotten a call out of the blue, asking if I wanted to go to the White House.
There, I was surrounded by dozens of bisexuals, some wearing butterfly wings and others in traditional dress and others in full-on suits and ties. We were waiting to go in for the bi+ community briefing. Bi+, I’d learned since I started writing about bisexuality, was an umbrella term for anyone who identified as being attracted to more than one gender. At the meeting, though Obama himself could not be there due to the upcoming election, hundreds of bi+ folks from around the world were coming to celebrate and livestream a presentation about the needs of our community.
I took a picture and posted it on the internet. The response was overwhelming. One friend shared my picture, said that she’d decided for once to tell the whole world she was bi. A friend I hadn’t heard from in seven years wrote me to tell me he’d spent the whole night crying good tears, just from seeing me there. My university published an article on the visit, and students approached me, thanking me, saying that for the first time, they felt seen. They used words like “real,” “solid,” and “whole.”
There’s a reason you hear these words so often when queer people come out, and it is not usually, like so many coming out narratives would have you believe, that everyone comes out once and then lives happily ever after. Hell, after my White House visit, Trump won the election. I’ve come out a bazillion more times, and I’ve gotten to see more than my share of the dark side of queer organizing.
For me, that day at the White House, I saw that my lifetime of thinking strategically had not just exhausted me; it was also counterproductive. During this trip, my job was not to think about how to frame my message or debate whether advocating for my sexuality would cause harm elsewhere. It was not, even though I was in the White House, about knowing the right talking points. No, my job was simple: to exist, not as part of a strategy or as a strategic liability, but as a person who filled a chair. Who took a picture. Who had told the world who I was so many times that I finally believed in that moment that the world might listen.
Rumpus original art by Cowboy Rocky.