In the BRC online store, we sell buttons and t-shirts that say, “It’s not a phase, it’s my life.” A lot of folks have expressed how comforting this phrase is, amid a world where bisexuality is still seen as an in-between identity, like an interstate rest stop between gay and straight. Too many of us hear that our attractions are “just a phase,” which implies that we’re not only lost on the binary highway of sexual attraction, we don’t even really know how to drive.
So what I’m about to say will probably be a shock to you, especially coming from one of the co-presidents of the Bisexual Resource Center: For some, like me, it could be a phase. And that’s okay.
Now I don’t mean that all those bi-phobics were right when they suggested that you weren’t the best expert on your own orientation. I’m not saying that the Bisexual Resource Center has changed its stance on bisexuality not being a phase. I’m definitely not saying we will stop selling those awesome buttons and t-shirts.
But I am saying that in my case, it’s not a simply matter of my bisexuality being my phase vs. being my life. For me, it’s both.
As members of a community of folks with fluid sexual orientations, whether we call ourselves bi, pan, queer, or don’t use a label at all, we really hate binaries: gender binaries, sexual orientation binaries, cake/pie binaries. We, out of everyone, know our world and dessert choices come in a gradient. We can love cake AND pie, or cake in a pie, or milkshakes, or something else. We don’t have to choose. That’s one of my favorite parts of being bisexual (with a varied dessert palate).
And as members of the world here in 2016, everything changes now, faster than it’s ever changed before. We (mostly) no longer have the luxury of staying at one job our whole adult lives, we rarely live in the same house (or town, or maybe country) all our lives, and there is a definite minority of those of us who keep the same partner(s) our whole adult lives. We shift hobbies, favorite restaurants, hairstyles. So why can’t we change how we personally identify?
I went through a lesbian phase when I was in fifth grade. That’s not to say I identified as a lesbian, but now looking back I wanted to. I wasn’t fantasizing about sex much in general yet, but boy, did I love my middle school gym teacher. Every morning I would wait out by the playground fence, doing flips on the metal bars, waiting for her green Ford Explorer to pull up. I would relish those two minutes I got to walk with her into the building. Gym days were my favorite days.
And the phase went beyond school. My favorite artists at the time were the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge, and every time I saw a woman with masculine features or clothes, I would get a tingle in my chest. For those of you who have seen or heard Fun Home: The Musical, it was pretty much just what Alison describes in the song “Ring of Keys”: Do you feel my heart saying hi?…I know you.
But then I got to high school, and was very, obviously, totally straight. This “straight phase” lasted throughout college, then for years after college, when I married my college boyfriend. Even after I’d left that marriage realizing that monogamy wasn’t for me, I still dated only cis men. I didn’t realize I wanted it any other way.
And then in 2011 I came out to myself after a particularly hard crush on the ex-wife of a partner, and very soon came out to everyone else. I’m bi, I said. And no, it’s not just a phase.
But what would I have called myself before? Would I have said that I was bi as a middle-schooler? Or as a young adult? There are many parts of me, like my preference for non-monogamous relationships, that I can now see glimpses of in the past (I wrote a poem called “Polyandry” in college). But my bisexuality isn’t one of them. I never wanted to kiss my female friends in college, and when I did for laughs, I felt nothing. So does that mean, if bisexuality isn’t a phase, I’m not really bisexual?
Calling what others identify as a “phase” is a form of erasure and can be very emotionally harmful, for sure, but for me, it’s not about the difference between temporary and permanent. I think it’s about the difference between definable and undefinable, black and white. People who say “it’s just a phase” don’t want me to say, “Oh yeah, I know, don’t worry, I’ll be over it in a few years,” they want me to be over it right now. They want me to fit the mold as soon as possible, so that I make sense again. What they mean by “it’s just a phase” is “I hope you will pick a side soon, because this middle-space is terrifying me.”
I don’t think we, as humans, can go through life without phasing into and out of different identities. I went through a Robin Williams phase, a Twister phase, and a phase in my mid-twenties where I wanted to move to Iowa and live on a farm. I had a lesbian phase. A straight phase. And now, a bisexual phase.
And yes, at some point I might decide I want to identify as something else. And that’s okay. Because I’m not “picking a side” just because someone tells me it’s time. I’m following my own attractions, my own identities, my own choices of how to label myself (or not).
The sooner we can all embrace our phases and the fluidity of our attractions over long periods of time, the more we can show naysayers that there are more than two destinations on the highway of sexual attraction, and we are free to move about them whenever – and however – we want. And that desire I have for acceptance and understanding…that is most certainly not a phase.
Kate Estrop is a co-president of the Bisexual Resource Center, artist, and cat mother.