Seven Months Out: On Bisexuality, Labels, and Identity

Last February, I was a few weeks into a manic episode when I decided to come out as bisexual, though “decided” feels too generous a verb to use. When I’m manic, I have a tendency to blurt out whatever’s on my mind to any audience that will listen. Because of the internet, that audience has grown much larger, and the speed with which I can blurt is much faster.

I wrote an essay to mark my coming out that I shared on social media and have since deleted. A lot of people read it. Shortly after, when I wasn’t manic anymore, I thought, “What the fuck did I just do?” I’m not exaggerating when I say that I almost immediately regretted publishing it. Apart from me being a fairly private person when I’m not in the midst of a bipolar episode, I think my main problem was that I had some itchiness around the fact I’d committed to a label so quickly. All of a sudden, it felt real that I was claiming this identifier regarding something that felt so private, but my concern had less to do with privacy than it had to do with something more existential.

Labels serve a dual function. On the one hand, they’re communicative. They tell other people something. I say, “I am bisexual” and you understand what I mean and learn something about me that I have communicated to you.

On the other hand, they serve an existential function in that I make sense of myself through the vocabulary I have access to. Within that vocabulary, I have to sort through a barrage of signifiers and choose which do or don’t feel right based on who I think I am, at the same time as those signifiers are themselves forming my identity.

Ideally, these would be two separate steps: identification and formation. In that order, I learn then identify with a signifier and that then forms my identity. But those two steps are always happening at the same time. The identification is the formation. Maybe it isn’t even helpful to think of them as steps so much as parallel processes.

The self that exists prior to language isn’t something we have cognitive access to. Thought as we make sense of it exists in language, so when we think about “who we are,” we’re taking part in a translation of something senseless into a system that literally makes sense, not only to others, but also to ourselves.

It’s an act of self-communication, and I’d taken that step in regard to my bisexuality by thinking of myself as bisexual prior to telling anyone. But the moment it was communicated to an audience, I had committed, and I had committed to something I didn’t even have a say in, which really freaked me out.

It goes without saying that sexuality isn’t a choice, but to defer responsibility for a commitment to something essential sounds like bad faith. It took a lot of work for me to get past this. Identification is something we do freely in the creation of our authentic selves through action. Remember: identification is an act of language, and action is what counts for the existentialist.

For that reason, we are solely responsible for the ways we identify, and to defer that responsibility would clearly be an act of bad faith, especially if the thing we’re deferring to is something resembling an essence.

But to call sexuality an essence feels wrong to me, and to deny oneself the ability to identify with something so personal, true, and beautiful feels like an even worse form of bad faith. It would be bad faith for me not to identify as bisexual because it is a part of who I am, even if not something chosen.

The existential insistence underlying the moral suggestion that everything should be chosen is the belief that everything can be chosen. This is optimistic at best and destructive at worst. Yes, we can choose the language we use to form our identity, but that language is chosen as the result of an intense search. This search is based in a self I believe we implicitly know prior to language, even if we can’t articulate it to others or even ourselves.

In hindsight, I had homosexual feelings prior to being able to identify them as such. That doesn’t mean they weren’t real. Now that I can identify those feelings, I know I’ve had them for years. Language gave me the ability to identify something that was subjective but just out of the reach of the vocabulary I had access to.

That idea of access is so important: people love to complain about “new” sexualities or pronouns, but the fact of the matter is we’re talking about something infinitely complex that we’ll never exhaust by means of language.

I learned this on a super basic scale: all I had known were “gay” and “straight” and no other options. But then a third option opened up what felt even more familiar, and I learned something about myself, not that language formed, but that was already there and then revealed by language.

If I hadn’t known about that third option, I don’t know where I’d be. That’s why I think all awareness of all sexual identities is important. People need to know what’s out there and learn all the ways they could identify to find what fits, not only for the sake of communicating who they are to others (there is no pressure to do so) but to maybe find themselves along the way.

With that, I hope everyone had a merry Bisexual Awareness Week.

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Tommy Kessler

Chicago-based writer and musician. 1970s drug-fueled private investigator.