My mom and I disagree about how I came out to her.
We agree I was 18. We remember I was on my way to St. Pete Pride in St. Petersburg, Florida, my first pride ever, and I hadn't explained why I was going. We agree I was dating a boy, but she didn't know I was seeing a girl on the side.
She remembers me walking out the door and saying, "I'm gay." On the other hand, I distinctly remember saying, "I'm bi," and worrying she wouldn't believe me. I was right.
This is not to disparage my mother, a wonderful ally who has loved me unconditionally since before I was born. When I came out, she had no schema whatsoever for bisexuality, and I didn't really, either. That's because while bisexual people have always existed, we've never had the visibility and vocabulary afforded to gay and lesbian communities.
When my mom was growing up, she told me, you were either gay or straight — nobody ever talked about a third checkbox. When I came out to her six years ago, bisexuality was still a footnote in the "gay rights" movement. And even today, with marriage equality, Ellen DeGeneres and Modern Family, bisexuality still isn't taken seriously.
I say that confidently because for a while, I was part of the problem; it took years of self-reassurance before I stopped grasping to be gay or straight. I liked boys before I liked girls, and I didn't know it was possible to like them both. When I posted my first "out" Facebook status, someone from high school commented with the Wikipedia page for LUG — Lesbian Until Graduation. The first time I dated a girl seriously I started to think of myself as a lesbian, and later decided that didn't fit. I've landed comfortably on bisexuality, but not before fluttering between categories, each an important time when I uncovered something new about myself and how I relate to people around me.
People don't choose to be gay, straight or bi, but that doesn't mean we don't sometimes fade out of one identity and into another. Coming out isn't necessarily a pilgrimage with pit stops; for some people, it's more like a trip with multiple destinations. You're not "on your way" somewhere; you are somewhere for as long as you feel like it, and then you're somewhere else. But that space in between gay and straight, where many of us set up camp, is constantly invalidated.
We have to fight harder to establish ourselves as "real" members of the queer community. We're called greedy, confused or attention-seeking. We can't even agree on a common definition of bisexuality, and so our identities take more explaining than the easily digestible "gay" or "lesbian."
One senseless stereotype is that we're not who we say we are — that bisexuality is a sexual purgatory we occupy before coming out as gay or committing to heterosexuality. This perpetuates the harmful innuendo that bisexuality must just be a phase, and the gender of your long-term partner dictates your "real" identity.
But that's not how it works. If by "phase" we mean "the thing you were before you identified as gay," then heterosexuality is a far more common phase than bisexuality. Still, bisexuality is stuck with a bad reputation.
Gary*, 43, came out as "gently bi" at age 35. A part-time stay-at-home dad and part-time security guard, he said he's not out at work, or to most of his friends and family.
He said his heterosexuality may have been a phase, so to speak, but not in the way most people mean the word "phase," and not in a way that dismisses those years of his life.
"I don't think that I was always bisexual and either denied or avoided it, or just didn't realize it," Gary wrote to Mic in an email. "I genuinely think that I was as straight as any other straight person and gradually shifted. Where I am now, I wasn't 'born' here, I migrated to here slowly. I don't think that makes it any less legitimate."
Britta Krabill, a 35-year-old library director in southern Illinois, has identified as bisexual, lesbian and queer at different times in her life since coming out in her 20s.
After coming out as bisexual "all of my friends were lesbians, I didn't spend time around many men. I found that I really wasn't finding myself attracted to men passing by on the street and I didn't really miss having men around," she told Mic. "So I thought, OK, this is a natural progression, I may be a lesbian now."
Eventually Krabill met a man she was attracted to, and then another, who would become her husband. Today, she said, labeling herself as queer or sexually fluid is the clearest way to describe how she experiences attraction. But that doesn't mean being bi or a lesbian wasn't real.
"I don't know if I consider them to be phases as much as I consider them to be different stages in my self-awareness," Krabill said. "The older I've gotten, the more willing and able I've been to question my identity."
Lisa Diamond, a researcher on bisexuality and sexual identity, had a study published in 2008 debunking the myth that bisexual women generally "become" gay or straight later on. Her 10-year study of 79 non-heterosexual women looked at how women's identities changed over time.
At the study's end, 92% of the women who had originally called themselves bisexual still identified as bi or "unlabeled" 10 years later. In fact, the study says, "more women adopted bisexual/unlabeled identities than relinquished these identities; few bisexual/unlabeled women ended up identifying as lesbian or heterosexual."
For Jes Scheinpflug, the director of communications for a Chicago-area nonprofit, identity labels are context-specific. She came out as pansexual when she was 25, recently started using "bisexual" more often, and sometimes uses "gay" or "lesbian" for herself as an umbrella term.
"To me they all mean the same thing," she told Mic. "The way I feel about different genders is constantly evolving."
I asked Scheinpflug, now 27, how we can dismantle the trope of bisexuality as a phase while recognizing that for some people, being bisexual is not a lifelong identity.
"I don't think it's like a path, like you choose one on the way to the other," she said. "You are that until you're not, and then you're something else. [If] I'm fat and then I lose 50 pounds, was I not fat before?"
I get that. Writing off bisexuality as a phase implies a rigidity in sexuality that we know isn't there. We don't think of our past ages, job titles or relationship statuses as phases, but as stages in life that better prepared us for the next great adventure. And while sexual orientation can be more lasting than many of the other identities we embrace, we have to respect the journey we each take to figure it out.
My friends are mostly lesbians and gay men. My girlfriend and I are over-the-moon happy together, and I sometimes forget about the part of me that's still attracted to men. Secretly, I wonder if one day, the word "lesbian" will suit me better. If it does, will it invalidate the work I've done on behalf of bisexual visibility and awareness? Will I be throwing my bisexual brothers and sisters under the bus by acting out a stereotype that hurts us so deeply?
I hope not. Being part of a community means giving each other the space to grow and change, even if that means the identity you once settled into doesn't feel like home anymore. I'm content in my bisexuality, and pretty confident that I always will be, but I can't predict the future. If my own identity ever changes, I hope my bi peers, my queer community and my straight allies will see me as neither the exception nor the rule, but as a person who learned something new about herself. Nothing I will ever be can erase who I am now.
Editor's note: Last name has been omitted to allow the subject to speak more freely.