On Learning that Bisexual is Not a Dirty Word

For the first 20 years of my life, I was a straight girl in a world built for straight people. I never had to question my sexuality; as far as I knew, the world of romance had only one path.

Then, I turned 21. 

I was sitting in my friend’s Toyota Vios one winter’s night when she declared that I was, as a matter of fact, bisexual.

“If you like men and you like women, then obviously you’re bisexual.” Her tone was assured. To her, this was solid, inarguable reasoning; to me, it was a smack across the face. 

There are extraordinarily attractive women in our school, and sometimes I wondered what it would be like to date them. But this was a function of curiosity, not queerness—surely all straight women have been curious?

* * *

I went to a university that existed in a utopic liberal bubble in the middle of the United States. I’d initially wanted to attend a very well-regarded women’s college, but my mom was apprehensive—what if I became… a lesbian?

But life is nothing if not unexpected. And so, 6 months after returning to Malaysia, I revealed to my family that the friend I’d been bringing home for dinner was, in fact, my non-platonic girlfriend.

I was 23.

At the time, my identity as a heterosexual woman was still non-negotiable. I clarified to whoever would listen that I was a straight woman making an exception for another woman—nothing more. This narrative felt safe to me: it allowed me space to explore a same-sex relationship while staying within the familiar, comforting confines of my heterosexual identity.

But this narrative was anything but safe—it was a pot that bubbled with toxicity.

It convinced both of us that this was “not normal” for me, and it undermined the authenticity of our relationship. I turned it into my power card, to be laid out when I felt the relationship wasn’t going the way I wanted it to. If I didn’t feel satisfied, maybe it was because my partner wasn’t a man.

Over the years, we developed comfortable routines: home-cooked dinners after work, grocery runs on the weekends, skin-care routines at bedtime. Even then, I struggled to see our relationship as legitimate and equal to heterosexual partnerships.

It felt like home, but it felt temporary.

And buried just beyond where the introspection of my 24-year-old self could take me—was shame. I didn’t have the clarity to articulate it then, but I had a deep-seated fear of what people would think. Would they think I wasn’t good enough to land a man? Will they see my relationship with a woman as an inferior alternative? Nevermind that this woman was tender, generous, thoughtful—a rainbow in the sea of greys.

In my (at the time) predominantly heterosexual circles, same-sex relationships were radical. A girl I’d known from my younger days dated a woman in her adulthood, and I’d heard the whispers: questions asked in hushed tones that begin with “did you know” and statements that ended with “who would’ve thought”.

To be different was to be gossip fodder, and so I kept it quiet.

* * *

I was 26 when I binged on videos of Ellen DeGeneres on a sweltering weekend afternoon.

Her custom-tailored suits and adoring audience demonstrated the force of her celebrity and power. And yet, there she sat on her cream-coloured couch, looking sheepish. She always gets up to feed the cat the moment I serve dinner, her wife complained. And I always make sure to plate things perfectly too!

It was an entirely mundane domestic squabble, but it felt like validation for me. Here is a powerful lesbian couple demonstrating the entire breadth of a relationship—from expressing their soaring love to tolerating the annoying and uneventful. It was rare among the ocean of heterosexual romance in popular media.

Hungry for more, I eagerly consumed the social media feeds of lesbian couples unapologetically living their lives. Every female celebrity stepping out in public with their girlfriends reaffirmed to me that this was nothing shameful.

Up till then, the word “lesbian” had made me uncomfortable: it felt dirty, too deviant. I had come to understand the word as a genre of mainstream porn—a thing sexualised by straight men for the enjoyment of other straight men. There was no space in that understanding for the warmth and tenderness of a genuine, loving relationship.

Then in 2015, the United States legalized same-sex marriages. Pride videos popped up everywhere, and I lapped them up. I watched video after video of same-sex couples showing unrestrained love for one another, their voices quivering with emotions.

It flooded my heart with happiness, and a switch within me flipped.

* * *

One evening, after dinner with my family, my girlfriend and I sat on a swing on the apartment rooftop. The night air was sweet, almost delicious—perhaps I was just drunk on contentment.

We watched the traffic below us. I said, unthinkingly, the way one would when a truth bubbles up from your gut: “If you asked me to marry you, I would.”

It took a lot of internal work, but I’d finally come to internalize that there was truly nothing wrong with us. We were valid.

* * *

Almost 4 years after our first date, we went our separate ways.

It took a while to heal, but after my heart felt whole again, I returned to dating with the help of dating apps. 

What a world that opened up.

I dated men, and I dated women.

Oh, women. Women are soft—not in a weak way, but in that gloriously tender way that women are. Soft in touch. Soft in words. Soft in heart.

I discovered that I enjoy dating women. I began shedding my identity as a straight woman who had made a one-time exception for another woman.

Along the way, I experimented with calling myself bisexual. The reactions have ranged from intrigue (“I don’t know anyone who’s bisexual!”) to suspicion (“… but, how many women have you dated?”). With straight men, it felt sexualized. I learnt how to read the smirk and upward nod of the head even before they declare how hot that is. Lesbians, on the other hand, often asked about the credentials of my past relationships to decide how authentically queer I was.

Being bisexual felt like occupying a liminal, alternative space that people knew very little about.

* * *

It’s been 10 years since my friend called me out as bisexual in her Toyota Vios. I’d fought the label adamantly then—I can imagine her smugness if she knew my dating preferences now. However, I keep my dating life—and as a result, my sexuality—very private.

Earlier this year, I was seeing a person who is uninhibited and fabulous in expressing their sexuality and gender identity. Their rainbow flag is not confined to their profile on a dating app. This person is younger than I am but has more courage than I do to be authentically, unapologetically themself. It was heartening.

So I’ve decided to take a leaf from their book. This article is my first step.

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Co-edited by Jian and Lyn