On being the 'B'

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Please prove me right

A version of this article appeared as an editorial in the November 3, 2010 issue of The Polytechnic

I like girls.

I like guys, too, but that’s not the controversial part.

You might say I’m “bisexual.” Or you could go for the more obscure “pansexual” or the all-encompassing “queer” or “LGBT.” Alternatively, you might prefer “sinner” or “confused” or “unnatural” or some more derogatory phrases I won’t bother writing here.

Normally I wouldn’t reveal something so personal in the college newspaper. But I watched the news over the past few months, and I read with increasing despair about young gay people committing suicide. When an administrator asked me my opinion on the circumstances of 19-year-old Tyler Clementi’s death at Rutgers University, I didn’t think before responding that it was a tragedy, but “I couldn’t ever see something like that happening here.”

Upon further reflection, though, I’m sure students at Rutgers would have said the same thing. And the truth is that it could happen here. As unpleasant as it is to imagine any of my peers behaving as cruelly as those that harassed Clementi, it's entirely possible that a similar situation could occur at RPI.

And it doesn’t always take an exceptionally harsh circumstance like the one Clementi faced to make someone miserable. Those news stories reminded me, in an unpleasant rush, of how I felt not too many years ago.

I remember high school. I remember being surrounded by a gaggle of girls asking who I “liked,” and I remember lying. I remember the poor guy I dated (but had no interest in) in order to mollify said girls. I remember the confusion, and I remember the guilt. I remember Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 being quoted into oblivion by Jerry Falwell, who lived in the next town over, and his followers. I remember praying and asking God to help me overcome my feelings toward women. I remember listening to a member of my church testifying about his previous “gay lifestyle” and how Jesus was helping him overcome it. I remember everyone in church crying, and how I cried too, and no one thought to ask why.

Nothing much happened. No one bullied or harassed me; no one even knew that I was different. But I managed to make myself miserable all the same.

All this left me thinking about the gay community at RPI, and how students here could be struggling with the same feelings I had in high school. I know a couple open LGBT students, a few more who are in the closet, and several more I strongly suspect are in the closet. But I can think of very few times I’ve witnessed any sort of dialogue about what it’s like to be queer at this school.

The decision to come out is a very personal one, and not without its risks. But those who feel comfortable being honest about their sexual orientation shouldn't hesitate to do so. The more openly queer people in a given community, the more the accepting that community will likely become — people tend to leave prejudice behind when they encounter different people and discover that they're, well, not so different after all. And seeing other LGBT people able to openly embrace their identities and continue to lead happy and productive lives also helps those struggling with their identity feel more comfortable and confident with who they are.

That’s why I chose to come out so publicly: In a bit of a desperate attempt to promote discussion and ward off homophobia. Lofty goals, and I’m sure this won’t make any significant difference, but you can’t blame me for trying.

I remember how hard it was to come out for the first time. The response — and ensuing discussion — was remarkably supportive, but mustering up those words ranks up there with one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Coming out as bi, as opposed to gay or lesbian, has a unique set of challenges. Sometimes bisexuals feel excluded from both the gay and straight communities; they don’t quite fit into either one. And there are so many bizarre misconceptions about bisexuality — most commonly, that being bisexual means your relationships aren’t monogamous or that all bisexuals are “sluts.” This never ceases to half-baffle, half-amuse me. Most bisexuals, like most people in society, are monogamous; just because we could potentially be attracted to someone of either gender doesn’t mean that we mess around with both at once. (Although some people do, and that's fine, too.)

Another common belief is that there is "no such thing as bisexuality," and that someone coming out as bisexual is either "confused" or easing his/her way into announcing that he/she is gay/lesbian. And while that might happen occasionally, bisexuality certainly does exist. I think it’s difficult for some people to grasp the lack of an either/or that’s inherent in bisexuality, but my recommendation to those people is to just be trusting. If someone comes to you and says, “I like [this kind of person],” just take his word for it. He knows better than you how he feels.

Regardless of what label you prefer, I encourage you to consider coming out, if you feel comfortable doing so. So far, I’ve gotten nothing but understanding from people at RPI. Sure, there were a couple religious people who let me know they thought it was a sin — but one of those was a close friend, and she remains a close friend even though she’s known my sexual orientation for 3 years now.

If you’re not comfortable, or are having difficulty sorting through how you feel, don’t wrestle with your feelings alone. There are many resources available at RPI, including the counselling center and the Safe Zone Program. The Rensselaer Pride Alliance is a also great social resource; they hold weekly meetings of LGBT students and their allies. If you prefer something off campus, their website (rpa.union.rpi.edu) can point you to some capital district resources. Or simply gather the courage to confide in a close friend or family member — the reaction will probably be much more positive than you think.

On that note, I’m hoping that the most negative response I get to this is “Uh, so you’re bi? Who cares?”

Please prove me right, RPI.

 

 

Notes from June 26, 2015

Eight years ago, I had just graduated from high school in Virginia and was desperate to leave the state — in part because my fellow residents had recently voted in favor of a ban on gay marriage in a state that did nothing to protect LGBT employees from discrimination in the workplace. It did not feel like a welcoming place.

That was a few years after I sat in the audience at Blue Ridge Community Church and listened to powerful testimony from a man who admitted he was attracted to other men. It was a speech that at first gave me a glimmer of hope, but eventually left me with a dull pain in the pit of my stomach as he began to explain how he was working on overcoming his “sinful” impulses and repenting for his past relationships.

At that time, I couldn’t imagine the events of today. I’m overcome with emotion, but it’s complicated, because I feel like it’s not my victory to celebrate. I’m bisexual, and I’m married to a man — a privilege that means I’ve never had to worry about where my marriage would be recognized and that allows me to be selective about when, where, and to whom I reveal my orientation.

But I’m still bi, and it’s a part of my identity that I spent years coming to terms with. Today feels like a momentous part of that journey, and I’m also filled with joy for my many LGBT friends who are more directly impacted by today’s ruling.

It’s overwhelming to look back on how things have changed since I went to college in 2007. At the time, same-sex marriage was only legal in Massachusetts. And I was in my senior year when Tyler Clementi’s heartbreaking suicide dominated the news.

It was conversations with RPI administrators and a gay friend about Clementi’s death that led to my decision to come out in the school newspaper. There are things I would change about how exactly I did that, but I don’t regret the decision or the liberation I felt afterward.

And somewhere along the way, society was changing. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. Gay marriage became legal in, of all places, Iowa. Clementi’s death resulted in the It Gets Better campaign. Obama became the first sitting president to announce his support of same-sex marriage.

I was reporting as an intern in Washington, D.C., when voters brought marriage equality to Maryland, Maine, and Washington in the 2012 election. Then the Supreme Court extended federal benefits to same-sex couples. And I was sitting in the Utah statehouse when the Mormon church announced a compromise on LGBT rights — by no means a perfect law, but progress. I saw Mormon legislators cry on the Utah Senate floor, recalling meetings with gay and transgender constituents and admitting that they don’t believe being gay is a choice.

And then I woke up this morning to the latest SCOTUS decision.

We still have a long way to go. But this feels like a huge change in momentum. LGBT issues are starting to feel less divisive and less political. Even a majority of Republicans under 30 support same-sex marriage.

I’m proud of my generation today. Let’s keep this up, guys.