Published on September 23rd, 2021 | by Diana Whitney1
I Came Out to My Kids By Accident
There’s no manual for explaining your sexuality to your children, especially if you’re a bi woman married to a straight cis man. As a parent, my own conflicted relationship to my queerness has shaped the halting nature of the conversation with my kids. In the Baby Cave of early motherhood, I was too exhausted to consider my identity. Later I felt ashamed of how I’d sheltered in the straight world and afraid I didn’t deserve the support of the LGBTQ community. Was I still bi if I hadn’t kissed a woman since Y2K?
Then our first family “talk” occurred—by accident—at the dinner table during the 2015 presidential primary.
Ten-year-old Ava was an avid Bernie supporter and liked to accuse Hillary of flip-flopping. She’d had a fifth-grade political awakening and wanted to discuss her new knowledge. Eight-year-old Carmen loved to stir the pot, wearing an oversized Hillary tee-shirt just to bug her big sister. She didn’t understand the issues at stake or the campaign process, but there we were, discussing gay marriage over organic chicken enchiladas and roasted broccoli.
I got passionate when I told them that Vermont had been the first state to legalize civil unions back in 2000. Perhaps my pride made them uncomfortable, because Ava uttered a declaration:
“It’s just not a lifestyle I’d choose for myself.”
“What?” I thought I detected a tone of condescension. I stared at my slim blonde daughter, coolly picking at her vegetables.
“Yeah, my friends and I have talked about it,” she said. “It’s fine—people can do what they want. But it’s not for me.”
“How can you know that? You’re only ten!” I demanded.
“Oh, I know.”
“And I know too,” Carmen piped up.
“You guys sound really narrow-minded! You don’t know anything yet!” I tried to keep my voice down, but it rose unbidden, shaking with indignation as I launched into a speech about love making a family and all the great people we know who are gay parents (in truth, not many), all the amazing queer artists and change-makers throughout history, how we shouldn’t judge anyone because they’re different, how it doesn’t matter who you love but…
“Stop it, Mommy!” shrieked Carmen, hands over her ears. “Stop lecturing us!” Her face flushed beet-red, eyes glaring like a cornered animal’s.
“They don’t want a lecture, Diana,” said my husband Tim, across the table.
This was the last straw—he was taking their side. Did he find the topic inappropriate? I took a breath and felt their communal discomfort, their desire for me to stop talking or at least change the subject. I was shaking with suppressed rage and hurt. I thought of my new poet-friend, a queer millennial who’d told me kindly, “You’ve felt invisible in your queerness.”
She was right. I still did.
Dinner continued with clinks and chewing. But I would not be silenced by my family.
“No,” I said. “I will not ‘stop it.’ If you’re disturbed by this conversation, then that’s homophobia and we need to talk more, not less. I care about this not just politically but personally, because… that’s who I was and that’s who I am. I had girlfriends and boyfriends before I met Daddy. I loved women as well as men. There’s a word for people like that—bisexual—it means you can love anyone, it doesn’t matter about their gender. We need to accept all people for their differences.”
I gazed defiantly around the table. My children stared down at their plates, fidgeting with their forks, stirring rice and sauce and broccoli into a homogenous stew.
“Whoa,” said Tim. “I wasn’t expecting that.” He’d always known and accepted that I was bi, but we’d never discussed it in the context of our parenting, or considered when it might be appropriate to share the information with our kids.
“Sorry to spring it on you guys,” I said.
“Actually, I already knew,” said Ava. “I read that chapter when you taped your book up on the wall.”
“Can we PLEASE just stop talking now?” begged Carmen.
I stood up and started clearing the table, plates rattling in the sink. Pitch-dark January loomed at the windows, trapping us in the house together till bedtime. I’d been sick and depressed all winter, marooned on an island of chronic pelvic pain. The neurologist had just told us my mother’s Alzheimer’s was “advancing rapidly.” The fact of her illness lived in my body, inseparable from any conversation.
Grief welled up in me like a rogue wave. After the girls were in bed and Tim had settled on the couch watching hockey, I curled up on a yoga mat, weeping in self-pity. I was motherless, wracked with pain, and rejected by those I loved most. I cried in child’s pose for twenty minutes then dragged myself up into the bath to read Pema Chodron.
The next day I called my friend Michelle.
“You came out to your family!” she said, full of good cheer.
“Yes, but it was horrible. No one gave me a hug or said they accepted me. I just…upset them.”
“But you spoke up.”
“I almost didn’t. I almost just sat there.”
“But you did it. You had to. I’m proud of you.”
When I told Michelle about the crying she said, “You must have felt so lonely,” and I loved her then for knowing my shame without my having to explain it.
“Children are famously conservative,” wrote Claire Dederer in her brilliant memoir, Poser. “Given the choice, they would go nowhere at all. They would choose to change nothing, ever.”
With time, this notion of childhood conservatism helped me frame my kids’ reaction as developmental, and I started to detach it from my narrative. I stopped looking for meaning in the scene at the dinner table and looked towards my own past instead.
I wondered if my shame was a Gen-X phenomenon, a byproduct of growing up in a small town in the toxic ‘80s, where no one in my high school was out and we used the word “gay” to disparage anything we thought was stupid. Gen-X women in particular tend to suffer a sense of inadequacy and perpetual guilt, according to Ada Calhoun, author of Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis. Maybe the origin of my apologetic sexuality was generational, not personal, and inextricable from the larger inherited shame of living in a female body with its softness, blood, and secrets.
But that wasn’t the whole story. The first relationship I had was with my seventh-grade best friend, a year of locked-door sleepovers and silent exploration, twisted manipulations and self-inflicted cutting alternating with declarations of love.
After my parents caught us the summer I was thirteen, the girl’s name was never uttered in our house again. Still, we had to co-exist in our rural town and attend the same school for five more years. My mind blanked out the details of our seventh-grade secret. That early sex remains vague as snow, a black and white TV screen staticky with shame. A few details burn through the noise: her dark eyes reproaching me for not loving her enough, the satin edge of her sleeping bag unzipped over us, desire mingled with disgust as her hand crept down between my legs.
I’d always told my girls about the full spectrum of sexuality, starting in preschool when their Disney princess obsession hit—Belle could marry Aurora, you know, or Cinderella could marry Tiana. A girl can love a girl or a boy can love a boy. It doesn’t have to be a prince and a princess. They’d look up at me wide-eyed, baffled but accepting. I sang the praises of their classmates who had two mommies, showed them photos of the handsome men in tuxes exchanging vows in the Sunday Times after same-sex marriage was legalized in New York, repeated that love makes a family. But it took me years to share the truth of my bisexual past.
Even coming out over dinner, which felt momentous to me, was something my kids seemed to forget. Maybe they saw me daily with their dad, living in the heteronormative bubble of our nuclear foursome. Maybe they didn’t want to remember their mom was different.
Several years later, when I mentioned an old college girlfriend, Carmen’s eyes widened: “You had a girlfriend?!”
“Actually, I had a lot of girlfriends in the ‘90s. I already told you,” I said. But she seemed to have no memory of the conversation.
What helped us break through was television. When I finally gave in and let the girls watch Glee, I found new role models in Brittney and Santana, the high school cheerleaders who get their “sweet lady kisses” on, confessing their feelings through Stevie Nicks’ ballads. Sitting beside my daughters, watching that queer relationship unfold, became a kind of healing. I told them that Santana was my favorite character, and they agreed she was cool. Santana’s closeted, hyper-sexual persona reminded me a bit of my high school self (without the cheerleader miniskirt and hot-girl clout); her arc towards self-acceptance and coming out offered vicarious joy.
I held my breath as Brittney attempted a tentative relationship talk in season two and Santana shut her down with typical defensive irony:
Brittney: I don’t know, I guess. I don’t know about I feel about. . .us.
Santana: Let’s be clear here. I’m not interested in any labels—unless it’s on something I shoplift.
But in Glee’s later seasons, the two girls end up dating openly and eventually get married in white gowns and veils. While the show received criticism for casting straight actors in LGBTQ roles (Naya Rivera, who played Santana, was straight), the representation was still groundbreaking for the era and opened a door for me to talk about my identity with my children.
I didn’t learn the word bi-erasure until I was 45, when I went on the local queer radio show to discuss my sexuality and my love of The L Word and the Indigo Girls. I shared the interview on social media, along with a sassy photo of myself in a rainbow tank top and the hashtags #bivisibility and #outandproud. This post garnered many likes and supportive comments, but it didn’t transform the internal struggle.
According to GLAAD, “Bisexual erasure is a pervasive problem in which the existence or legitimacy of bisexuality is questioned or denied outright.” Back in college, I cut my hair short and pierced my nose, trying to make the lesbians on campus take me seriously. I still feel I need to prove my queerness, make up for the fact of my heterosexual privilege and the ways I’m afraid I’ve let down the queer community. My femme presentation and tall “manly” husband don’t help matters.
I realize that carrying this kind of privilege guilt is helpful to no one. Rather than apologizing for the years I’ve passed as straight — and the ease with which I can still do so — I try to lift up the voices of queer people whenever possible, especially other poets and writers. I also know the flip side of passing is invisibility, and try to find ways to be seen. I keep looking for external markers, like the tee-shirt I bought online that read: I Put the B in LGBTQ. I wore it out running on back roads, then around town. I wore it to a community social justice rally and a pink-haired teenager told me “I like your shirt.” I blushed with happiness but also feared I didn’t merit the compliment. That’s the insidious voice of shame—the suspicion that you’re never enough.
My shame voice whispers that I’m just riding the rainbow wave, jumping on the bi bandwagon now that queerness is increasingly visible and accepted. A new Gallup poll shows that more Americans than ever identify as LGBTQ+, and a majority of that group identify as bisexual. I don’t question their legitimacy, but I question my own.
But my sexuality is not a trend. It’s been part of me since childhood, when I first sneak-watched the original Charlie’s Angels, enthralled with their beauty and power. It hasn’t disappeared during my years of marriage and motherhood. In some ways, my bi identity and desires have strengthened with age, along with a political awakening sparked by queer activists, whose work has made it possible for me to be out and proud.
And a beautiful thing has happened with my children. It turns out what we needed was time. I couldn’t force a meaningful conversation when they were in elementary school, at an age when most kids don’t want to hear about their parents’ sexuality (whether straight or queer). One psychotherapist friend reassures me that my girls’ initial discomfort was developmentally appropriate, that I’ve done them a favor by being open, letting them know they’ll always be accepted at home.
By the time the girls are in middle school, we’ve communicated through several TV shows. During our Jane the Virgin phase, cunning hotelier Petra starts dating a woman and we discuss the relationship like any other romantic storyline. When lovable Darryl on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend comes out to his law firm in a jubilant, ‘80s-inspired musical number, “Gettin’ Bi,” we laugh together and I sing along:
I don’t know how, I don’t know why
But I like ladies and I like guys.
I realize it’s a surprise
But now I see that that’s just me
It’s not like I even try
The best part of the performance is the contrast between Darryl’s fist-pumping bi pride and his employees’ boredom. They roll their eyes and tap their fingers on the table, wishing he’d get over himself and get back to work. The scene reminds me of my own kids, underwhelmed by their mother’s dramatic revelations. If only I could stop centering myself and set down the shame I’ve carried for decades. One in six adults in Generation Z now identify as something other than heterosexual. To them, my identity is really not a big deal.
Sometime in seventh grade, Ava becomes obsessed with the girl-band Fifth Harmony. Her favorite member of the pop quintet is the sultry brunette Lauren Jauregui, a powerhouse vocalist and activist. Trying to connect to my daughter’s new fandom, I ask what Lauren is like.
“She’s biracial and bisexual,” Ava says, breezily tossing off the word. I manage not to comment and am rewarded for my restraint with occasional future mentions of Lauren. I learn when she collaborates with Halsey, who’s also bi and out, in the explicitly queer song “Strangers.” Watching two pop stars express their bisexuality in a music video would have blown my mind back in junior high.
Inspired by Fifth Harmony lyrics, Ava makes a homemade rainbow sign with the slogan “Build Bridges Not Walls.” She brings it to the 2018 Women’s March in Northampton and we surge down Main Street in a crowd of hundreds of activists. The location is fitting. My college LGBT women’s group took road trips down to Northampton, a mecca we called “lesbian-occupied territory.” We wandered the downtown like kids in a candy shop, holding hands, browsing feminist bookstores, buying pink triangle trinkets and gazing at the locals.
Now I march with my daughter beneath the rainbow she’s made. Surrounded by women and queers, bright signs and joyful chanting, all our inadequate conversations fade away. I couldn’t have planned for this. Somehow my invisible selves have become seen and today, I am enough.