Welcome to AH&HL’s third annual guest-post series for Bisexual Awareness Week! The “Bisexuals and their Laptops” series aims to share a diverse set of bisexual stories, histories, and celebrations. This post is by German bisexual writer, Andrea Mareike Abel (she/her). Read all identity posts.
Who I am, where I come from
Hi! My name’s Andrea, I’m from Bremen (the one in Germany, not the one in Kentucky), and I just turned 30. I live on my own but with a cat, which is not really alone, and I’m in a long-distance relationship with my girlfriend; we’ve been together for eighteen months. I’m bisexual. As far as I know, I don’t have any gay cousins; I am the gay cousin. And I had no idea for at least 26 of those 30 years.
I came out late in life, and in just turning 30 I’ve thought a lot about how lack of representation meant I was in a strange sort of closet in the 90s and 00s. I’d also like to explore the differences between my attraction to different genders (emotional, physical) and how that influences my identity journey as it’s been and as it may continue. Specific moments that stand out to me are mainly conversations with friends and family, my coming out, as well as random experiences when out in public with my partner, positive and negative.
Realising my identity in my late twenties
Bi rep during my childhood and teens
That’s an easy case to make, really: there were none. As in, I checked Wikipedia and academic sources for this piece to see what I might have missed beyond what I couldn’t remember during my formative years. I watched a lot of TV and movies in the 90s and 00s, listened to a lot of music, and I read a lot of books. And I can remember… squat. Dr. Weaver on ER, a lesbian. Thirteen on House, bisexual. Calliope Torres on Grey’s Anatomy, bisexual. I never watched Buffy when it was originally on. I didn’t watch The L Word, though I was aware of it when it was on. There was so little there, it was easy to miss. As a 90s kid, I guess it’s fair to say that my eventual awakening finds its roots somewhere in Keira Knightley’s filmography, Kick It Like Beckham, and me understanding Darcy’s longing better than Lizzie’s, but that’s just details.
I don’t have a lot of books left on my shelves from when I was in my teens, and there’s certainly a dearth of German-speaking queer YA from that time. Die Mitte der Welt by Andreas Steinhöfel (1998, US: The Center of the World in 2005; UK: Centre of My World in 2006) is one of the only ones I can recall reading multiple times that had a queer protagonist, a 17-year-old boy. And even there, I remember paying as much attention to the protagonist as to his mother’s best friend, a lesbian, who is also the first in the boy’s life to realise he’s gay. No such friend, or aunt, or confidante existed in my life when I was that age, or when I first read the novel in 2003, at thirteen. I still have it, even after multiple book sales during my teens and before I moved, to clear out my shelves, I kept it. It made a big impression on me, and yet I never got to the core of why.
My education in English-speaking literature started in my late teens and then university, and I gravitated towards Modern Literature by dint of my studies. There’s Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, of course, and Maurice. Moving to post-war literature, there was The Price of Salt (Carol), so famously adapted in 2015. Arriving in popular culture, of course we have Lisbeth Salander. But I discovered all of those well beyond my teen years. Well beyond when it would have made a significant difference while I was in middle school and figuring out who I was.
What I lacked, was truly missing, was being surrounded with characters who were like me early on in my life. Being bisexual, even seeing more lesbian and gay characters would have helped me, too, in realising who I was. In my life, in the closet that I lived in, queer characters, queer people were hypothetical. A popular prank among my age group was to call a helpline and pretend to be struggling with being gay. And if they existed in media, they were the punchline, or the villain. They weren’t me. I hardly ever saw women loving women, anywhere. I had no idea that I could be one of them. There’s studies, of course, into the impact of such a lack.
According to social cognitive theory (Bandura, 2001), one important way in which television influences viewers is by providing vicarious experiences on which to model beliefs, attitudes, and behavior when real-life experiences are more limited. A closely related idea is that the media—by depicting sexual scenarios that people might not be able to see anywhere else—provide scripts for enacting various sexual behaviors (Gagnon & Simon, 1973) such as people having sex with a new partner. Reliance on television shows for sexual scripts and television characters as models for behavior may be particularly strong among youth, who may not have much first-hand experience with sexuality, yet are starting to solidify their sexual identities and become interested in sexual relationships (Chapin, 2000). In fact, as many as one in five teens reports that “entertainment” is their most important source of sexual information (Gibbs, 1993 as cited in Brown & Steele, 1995).
And then, there’s adding insult to injury in how bisexual characters, specifically, have been sidelined.
Less than ten pieces of media in twenty years is what we’re calling “increasingly common,” now? Really? Representation isn’t real until it is visible everywhere regardless of favourite genre or tropes. (I’m not into musicals, for example. Until a few years ago, I’d never even heard of Rent.) It has to be visible regardless of where you grow up and where your cultural upbringing takes place. Growing up in Germany (and note: growing up in the 90s and 00s with no Internet connection until I was 16 and needed it for school), there’s a lot of stuff I missed simply because it didn’t end up in our cinemas, or because it only aired on free TV years later. Not realising who I was, I also never really consciously sought out stories that might represent me. I remember being fascinated with stories that held queer characters, though — I figured because they were different. I thought it was because I was interested in stories about people who weren’t like me, seeing as, being a young woman, it could be difficult enough to find interesting characters who were.
Of course, my lack of self-realisation cannot only be blamed on the TV — there was also my upbringing that put me in the closet.
A strange sort of closet
Heterosexuality was high-key modelled for me during my childhood: the compulsory straightness, the house and the two to three kids. I didn’t figure “it” out when I was a teen, not even when I was at university. If you’d asked me four years ago, I’d have told you I’m dead boring hetero without blinking. Casual homophobia was ubiquitous in 90s and 00s classrooms, no matter that our teachers actually eventually managed to stamp it out of the boys when they kept saying ‘gay’ when they meant ‘stupid.’ My parents taught me not to be prejudiced not by explicitly telling me about gay people, but by modelling acceptance, which in my head somehow turned into a touch of throw blindness. For instance, a public figure’s sexuality was acknowledged, their eventual marriages met with a kind word and approval, and then never really brought up again. Sort of in a “Oh, they’re gay? That’s interesting,” way. In a way that taught me that someone’s sexuality isn’t up for discussion, and has no impact on their ability to do their job. Which, to be clear, is good, but it’s only a good start. Because the flip side of that is, “Oh, that’s interesting, but it’s got nothing to do with me.” It also blinds people to when someone’s sexuality informs their politics and how they do their jobs — because even when queer people do get into leading positions, often the only way to stay there is by being publicly silent; silence forced upon them.
That’s where a pattern forms, and I swear I’m meandering towards a point, here: there’s one kid from all my 13 years of school who I’d bet my left hand is gay; and that’s just statistically improbable. It couldn’t only have been the two of us, in hindsight. But if there were others, then I never knew because nobody felt safe to come out. Because it just wasn’t done. I was socialised in a space of heteronormativity by dint of social blindness and comp het. I just… couldn’t possibly be gay, y’all. No-one around me was gay, no-one in my family, no-one in my parents’ vast white middle-class circle of friends. And I didn’t get that moment walking through museums and seeing the marble statues and thinking, “Oh.” I sure liked the look of women in Empire-waist gowns, sure. But, being predictable, I stuck with Darcy and Wentworth and Mr Knightley. Maybe it’s because having a simple box to stick my taste in men into made it easy to stay in that box with them, too, and never crack open the lid. One thing I know, though: I definitely go for leggy brunettes of any gender.😏
Like I said, despite all that, I grew up with open-minded, kind people. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous about first coming out to my family. And it doesn’t mean that I always felt empowered to be queer, evidently.
And so, at least I’m not a spinster, ha. In some ways, I’m sure I’m falling prey to societal expectations in feeling better about turning 30 in part because I am in a relationship — and yet, it still feels like rebellion because it is a queer relationship. But the point is, I’m not alone. I’m not sure whether I’d say my teens and twenties were stolen. Realising I’m queer in school probably just would have made me more miserable. Would I have dated at uni, had I realised my feelings for women earlier; would I have sought out the clusters of queer students that had been previously invisible to me? Would I be a couple steps closer to that house, a wife, and two kids? Maybe. But I much prefer being where I am now.
*Coming* out and *being* out — bisexuality can be invisible
Conversations with friends + coworkers
I think if you asked my best friends what’d done it, then they’d both point to Kate McKinnon in 2016’s Ghostbusters. Again, I had this feeling of “Do I want to be them, or do I want to be the girl that gets them?” that I get around characters with Big Demolition-Man Energy. It kinda snowballed from there. It wasn’t a painful process; more of a glacially slow realisation and thinking, “Oh, my bad.”
At my first job, people knew me as “straight” and then “gay.” At my second job, people only knew me as queer, right from the get-go. I talked about my girlfriend all the time, and many knew I’m bisexual. Someone’s throw-away comment of, “no homo lol” I countered by raising my left fist, cuffs raised to show my rainbow watchband, and saying, “yes, homo!” I’ve left that job since, and at my current office, I’m not yet out of the closet. German is handy that way: “Freundin” can both mean friend-who-is-a-girl and girlfriend. I still wear my rainbow watchband, and perhaps from the hairstyle to the big eyeliner, people who’ve met me since I started there can infer. Perhaps they won’t. I’m not sure yet how I’ll play it.
When I first came out at any office (two jobs ago), I had several very interesting Friday early afternoon conversations with a coworker — we’d often be the last ones in at that time, and liked and knew each other well enough to talk about pretty much anything, including relationships. I remember telling her that I find an emotional dimension lacking in cishet men that I can only imagine finding in someone else; despite my ex-girlfriend at the time being the personification of “emotionally unavailable.” (With some more relationship experience under my belt, I now know that that emotional dimension is called ‘healthy communication.’) Still I knew at that point (late 2018) that, if I sought out another relationship, it would be with someone else rather than a man. I have, quite frankly, no patience left for cishet dudes. However, that does not make me a lesbian, political or otherwise; and I fight the notion of feeling like I have to downplay my attraction to men in favour of talking about my relationship with a woman when interacting with gay people.
Out in public, or the internet
My partner is invisible to many in my daily life — we are in a long-distance relationship. When we are together, we are out and proud. We don’t hide being together, no matter where we go. Often, that yields us smiles; most often from middle-aged or elderly women who send us a smile when we embrace or kiss in public, or when I make a fool of myself while waving her off at the train station. Sometimes we also get the Gay Smile from other young women while out shopping. And then, there are the fuckboys, who see us kissing on the tube and then make rude gestures at us from inside the car as we get off at our stop — they get the finger and nothing else. My girlfriend and I have a running joke that she is often blissfully unaware of these things while I’m keeping my eyes open. But I’m sure that there are microaggressions that I miss every time we’re out together.
Bisexuality is invisible — you cannot tell anyone’s orientation just by looking at them, or their partner.
When mentioning that I have a girlfriend, the assumption tends to be, ‘gay,’ until I correct them. (And I do!) If I were with a man, the assumption would skip to ‘straight.’ Neither give me freedom. Rather, there is pressure from both sides. Gay women don’t want to hear about my attraction to men. Straight women may secretly fear I’ll start hitting on them next. In college, long before I’d realised who I was, a girl genuinely thought she was on the right side of the line when she said she wouldn’t want to share a gym shower with a lesbian, she would feel ‘watched, as if there were a man in there with me.’ Presumably, she’d be the perfect target audience for the current anti-trans resentments being weaponised in much the same way as homophobia and the myth of the predatory lesbian. I didn’t like her, and told her so.
These same myths, and some more, impact bisexual women, too, as soon as we’re queer and out. Promiscuity, “phase,” greedy — words bisexuals all know, because we’ve heard it all before. Treatment of bi characters in media hasn’t helped: being bi is still very often seen as a gateway to one side or the other. But it’s not. It’s real, and actually pretty cool. You want proof?
Here’s a super cool bisexual. It’s me:
Andrea is a bisexual writer, blogger, and creative type. She’s tragically addicted to fresh notebooks, but she’s gotten better at filling them. You can can find her on Twitter, Ko-Fi, and Patreon. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sending Andrea a few bucks on PayPal.