What Is the Right Way to Come Out as Bisexual at Work?
I’m bisexual (female), and I want to be out at work. I just don’t quite know how to slip it into conversation. It never seems appropriate to say the word “sexual” in a work environment, and it’s simply awkward. If I come out to a straight man, for example, he always seems to take it in a sexual way. Coming out to women I just get scared that they will be uncomfortable or think I’m coming on to them. Also it gets really wordy! I have to spend sentences explaining who I am while someone that is gay can use a single word or two. But, bisexual visibility can only get better if people like me don’t cop out and say we are gay when that’s not true. Any advice on how to make “out bisexual” a little easier? – Erica, East Brunswick, N.J.
Over the years I’ve frequently heard from my bi friends that it’s harder for them to come out than it is for those of us who are gay or lesbian because of the enduring myths about being bisexual. Stereotypes persist, and many people think that identifying as bi means 1) you’re going through a phase, 2) you’re promiscuous or 3) you’re really gay but not telling the truth. In fact, many of those in our generation of L.G.B.T. people did claim to be bisexual, when we were gay or lesbian all along but not yet ready to acknowledge it even to ourselves. That’s not deceitful; it’s part of coming to terms with your sexuality.
For those who are bi, though, I can certainly understand the difficulty in establishing your identity in a simple and honest way. “Bisexuality, arguably, is the least understood sexual orientation,” said Bob Witeck, a founder of one of America’s pioneering L.G.B.T. communications and marketing companies. “And invisible too, given their closets, and the sometimes harsh attitudes of gay and straight counterparts.”
After all, people our age are likely to associate being bi with either Sharon Stone as the murderous bisexual seductress Catherine Tramell in the 1992 film “Basic Instinct” or the flippant Woody Allen joke about how being bi “doubles your chance for a date on Saturday night.” These old stereotypes don’t die easily.
They are so alive and well, in fact, that when I posed your question on my Facebook page I was shocked by some of the venomous responses. It was the first time any topic has caused the Facebook algorithm to hide posts because of the language, and I’ve had to edit the remarks heavily to let even these few appear here:
• "Life must be so tough on you wishy-washy [expletive deleted]”
• "I’ve seen more damage done by ‘bisexuals’ that I care to count”
• "Probably married and sleeping around”
I’d have a hard time coming out, too, if I thought seemingly reasonable people harbored opinions like these.
Still, you’re absolutely correct: If more bi folks come out of course visibility increases. But is work the right place to do this? I can hear the chorus from those who argue that one’s sexual identity (whether straight, gay or bi) is not relevant in a work context. “Why make a declaration,” one Facebooker posted. Another, “It’s nobody’s business in business.”
Point taken, but without making a “declaration,” don’t our straight colleagues routinely discuss how they spent the weekend with their opposite-sex partner, which is a nonchalant way of proclaiming their sexual identity. In recent years, gays and lesbians have joined in, too, acknowledging a same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend by showcasing a desktop photo of the happy couple or dropping a casual reference.
I do think context is key here. If you are in a relationship with a woman and talk with colleagues about your weekend plans with her, then the assumption is that you’re lesbian. If your current partner is a man, they’ll assume you’re straight. In that case, to clarify things with a friendly colleague you could mention a past love, working a simple “I’m bi” or a humorous “I play for both teams” into the conversation (although a friend of mine notes that someone might want to add, “I only play for one team at a time.”)
Two bisexual activists, A.J. Walkley and Lauren Michelle Kinsey, also recommended casual “water cooler” ways of bringing up your sexual identity through current events. “I was thrilled to hear that Clive Davis came out as bisexual, being bisexual myself,” or “Did you hear that same-sex couples will soon be able to marry in Delaware? It means a lot to me since I’m bisexual.”
Context isn’t the only thing that matters here — consider your company and its commitment to diversity and inclusion as well. Many corporations now have L.G.B.T. employee groups; think about getting involved as an out bi person and use that public role to reduce the invisibility of bisexuals in the workplace.
But what’s true for boomers is much less so for millennials, who have grown up with less antipathy toward bi people and are more likely to have been influenced by the well-respected and much-loved bisexual character Dr. Calliope Torres on “Grey’s Anatomy” (who’s had monogamous relationships with male and female characters) than “Basic Instinct.” This younger generation is also generally more accepting of the concept of fluid or pan sexuality, and less likely to use traditional labels to define themselves. Just this week I was told that college-age students are eschewing “lesbian” as “old school” and that the day is fast approaching when “bisexual” will also be considered obsolete. As one young man, who has had intimate relationships with men and women, e-mailed me: “I don’t need to identify. I just am. Me.”
Finally, whether you call yourself bi, fluid, queer or something else, don’t get bogged down in the verbiage; choose instead to embrace your life as it is. I’ve always liked this quote from James Dean who, when asked about his rumored bisexuality, responded: “I’m not willing to go through life with one hand tied behind my back.”
Originally published in The New York Times, May 14, 2013