Coming Out Twice: Being Bisexual and Invisibly Disabled
This past October, I had the opportunity to lead a workshop at The Reformation Project‘s annual conference titled Access Denied: The Erasure of LGBTQ, Disabled People in Christian Spaces. Preparing for this workshop, I learned that my own experiences as a bisexual, disabled women were so far from rare. I could have guessed this would be my finding, but the sheer number of raw, painful blog posts, videos, poems, and more from fellow disabled LGBTQ individuals was overwhelming – and reminded me of the importance of sharing stories.
So while much of my writing focuses on illness and disability, it’s time I speak to another core part of my identity. My sexuality is often erased, as is my disability identity, and the intersections of this erasure impact every facet of my personal and professional life.
I am bisexual. My partner and I have been in a loving, strong relationship for almost two years. He is male and, yes even now, I am still fully 100 percent bisexual. The fact that I have to say this pisses me off, but the world has taught me I do need to clarify: bisexuality does not disappear, ever. When I’m dating a male person, I am not straight. When I am dating someone who is female, I am not gay. I experience fluidity within my sexuality, but I am never at one side of the spectrum or another.
Bisexual erasure is a real experience, with deep implications. 15 percent of people refuse to accept bisexuality as a valid sexuality, including both straight and gay individuals. Too often, spaces that are designated as “LGBTQ spaces” marginalize folks who do not fit the “L” or “G” of this acronym – including bisexual people, as well as pansexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals, other sexual or gender minorities, and those who are both sexual and gender minorities. This leaves me asking the question, “what space is for me?” The spaces in which I am supposed to feel the most safe are often dismissive of a core part of who I am, and I have yet to see a space intended to be solely for bisexual or sexually fluid folks.
When I first came out to a gay, male friend of mine, his response stung. “One day you’ll be brave enough to admit you’re a lesbian.” While I am certainly not claiming there should be shame attached to identifying as gay, that is not my identity to claim. My experiences are vastly different from a lesbian woman’s and it would be unfair to both myself and lesbian women to pretend it’s not. In addition, claiming that my coming out is any less brave left me fearful for any future coming out process.
In high school, a guy in my year stood in front of my entire gym class (approximately 50 students, which in my small town is nearly 20 percent of my entire school) and yelled “Zoie Sheets! How do you know you are bisexual if you’ve never had sex with a woman?” I stood up and immediately yelled back “how do you know you’re straight if you’ve never had sex at all?” This was my sassy, immature high school comeback that’s also rooted in some problematic ideas, but my idea rings true – bisexual individuals are asked to prove themselves in absurd ways. I’ve been asked countless times over the years how many women and men I’ve slept with. In reality, neither of these numbers holds any bearing on the validity of my sexuality and my sexual relationships are no one’s business except my own and my partner’s.
This need to prove my experiences extends into my disability identity as well. The majority of my days I do not look disabled, and the invisible nature of my illness leads to unique forms of ableism. Some days I use my cane and even on these days I am not assumed to be disabled. Strangers assume and will readily tell me I “look too young and healthy” and those who do know me guess it’s an injury. It’s not until someone has seen me use my cane two-plus times that they’ll finally inquire about it. Unfortunately, they usually rely on the phrases “what’s wrong?” or “what happened to you?” Explaining it’s a disabling, chronic illness doesn’t make things better, it only results in a pitying “oh, I didn’t know” and I’m forced to do the labor of explaining disability identity, pride and culture.
While I could include hundreds of examples of how my disability identity is erased, I think the intersections of bisexuality and invisible illness are particularly important to explore. When you are queer, but not gay or lesbian, there are a select number of LGBTQ spaces that are actually fully-affirming of your identity. Take those and eliminate those that are not accessible and you are left with… you guessed it, close to nothing. LGBTQ+ culture has always centered on club environments. Club areas like Boystown and “gay bars” as meet up places are notoriously inaccessible. If you go to Boystown in the day time and look through the popular clubs and bars with a critical accessibility focus, it will becoming glaringly obvious that disabled people often aren’t considered in the design.
Why is this? Well, I would argue this idea is the very reason that the intersections of disability and sexuality are so harsh. Disabled people are assumed to not have a sexuality, because we are assumed to not have sex. The idea that disabled people are sexual beings, that you can be interested in sexual relationships if you use a wheelchair or have an intellectual disability, seems absurd to many. Why? Simple. The paternalistic, pitying culture America has created around disability makes it seem acceptable to assume the thoughts, experiences, and identities of disabled folks without ever asking.
These two interlocking parts of who I am inform the ways I interact with the world, how I engage in relationships, and how I view my own self. To erase either of these is to erase a core aspect of my being, a core part of my personhood.
I am fully bisexual, always – no matter who my partner may be.
I am disabled always – no matter what my body may be able to do on that particular day.
And importantly, I am always both simultaneously.