Passing for straight: parenting with a man as a queer woman

Guest post by Arwyn
By: Free Creative Commons Images for Colorful Souls!CC BY 2.0

I am happily monogamous with a man. I have a child. And I am bisexual. I will say this for passing: it gives one a lot more opportunities for coming out. In fact, I just came out to a new friend from massage school. You’d think the act — a short sentence, one second, two words: “I’m bisexual” — would get easier over time, and with practice. But to the contrary, I find it harder now than it ever was before.

My first coming out as bisexual — to my first crush, as a freshman in high school, just a few weeks after finally hearing the term and recognizing myself in it — was met with an anticlimactic “Well duh, Arwyn.” Two years later, coming out to my first romantic relationship got me an amused “I know.”

You might say I did not do well in the closet. I was — and am, when I feel safe — a voracious flirt. I never adhered to straight female gender roles, and had Ru Paul pinups in my locker instead of the usual… who was usual to crush on? I never kept track.

“Coming out” in adolescence was, contrary to most other QUILTBAGs’s (Queer Undecided/Unlabeled/Unsure/Unidentified Intersex Lesbian Transgender Bisexual Asexual Gay) experience, ridiculously easy — an exercise in stating the obvious to anyone who spent any time with me. With the arrogance of ignorance and unacknowledged privilege, I scoffed (in the safety of my own cranium, at least, even then however dimly recognizing its privileged origins) at those who found it hard, who dithered and postponed and passed rather than come out and say it — or simply live it.

And now, when the moment comes to say it or lie by omission, I find myself hemming and hawing and dithering, and, yes, sometimes shutting up and just plain passing. And I hate it. What happened to “duh?”

“Duh” is no more, after eleven years with a man (Mr. “I know” himself in fact, my first and only), after leaving high school and college and the groups of friends I came out with. And it really vanished after getting pregnant and having a baby, with a man, in the “usual,” heteronormative way. After all, I am, indubitably, a breeder now, and everyone knows “breeder” means “straight.”

It doesn’t seem to matter in the public eye what other signals I send: having a child with a man makes me straight. After all, this is the Pacific Northwest, and I run with a crunchy crowd: unshaven pits, Birkenstocks year round, having a “partner” instead of a “husband,” and being stridently outspoken for “queer rights” merely marks me as yet another crazy white neo-hippie liberal.

Add to that a social network comprised almost entirely of other women-who-spend-the-day-with-their-kids, the fear of losing straight friends to innocent flirting (not an unreasonable fear, I think, in a culture that equates bisexuality with unquenchable nymphomania, and paints us as seductresses and adulterers when it bothers admitting our existence at all), and I find myself being perceived as straight not just by a heterosexist heteronormative society, but by people who know me. For someone who has been explicitly, outspokenly out for so long, it is a decidedly unexpected and uncomfortable experience.

But the hardest part, the part I cannot figure out how to work around, is that I had always relied on “living out” — being obvious, refusing to pass — as my way of dealing with the issue of any children of mine knowing my sexuality. If it were simply a part of my public identity, a fact that anyone who knows me would know, then the Boychick would grow up knowing it, simply and easily and without any fuss. But the very act of his creation has taken my public identity as an out bisexual from hard to maintain (I’ve spent my entire adult life in a monogamous relationship with a man; it hasn’t been exactly easy for a while) to seemingly impossible. To the extent that I “pass,” that I am understood by others however falsely to be straight, I am confronted with a dilemma where the Boychick is concerned. Being closeted (used here as a verb, of which I am the subject and others the actor) means that I would be forced to decide what and when — and indeed, whether — to tell him.

And who wants to hear about their parents’ sexuality? If not a part of one’s (public) identity, one’s sexuality is a matter of what one wants to do to or with whom, which is not information I can see as entirely appropriate to share with my child. If not understood to be a part of my public identity, any outing of myself to him (“Honey, I’m bisexual”), would necessarily be followed by his asking “What does that mean?” What would I tell him? “Oh nothing, just that sometimes I dream of shagging women, and used to chase the hot queer chicks in high school”? I think not.

I hear some of you wondering “Then why bother telling him? If you’re monogamous with a man, aren’t you basically straight anyway? What does it matter what other people think?” All I can tell you is, it does matter. We are talking about no less than who I am, at my very foundation. I may pass, in this heteronormative society that is so fond of stuffing us in to boxes whether we like them or not, but rather than make my life easy as some may think, passing is excruciatingly painful. It is being forced to agree to a lie I know to be false, a lie about myself. It may seem “unimportant,” or that my sexuality is a mere technicality, but in a thousand ways every day, unseen by those blinkered by straightness, even a monogamous woman is expected to assert her heterosexuality. The straight world surrounds me with its memes, its jokes, its assumptions, its understanding of the world and of female/male relationships: each is just a tiny little prick to my psyche, but they do add up.

I live with enormous heaps of straight-appearing and male-partner privilege. Many queer folk have straight-appearing privilege; consider the femme who is read by all as “straight,” except when out with her girlfriend or at a queer bar. This part fluctuates for me, depending on the day and whether I am with The Man or the Boychick. Male-partner privilege is more about institutional access and social recognition, and is one I always exist with, because my partner is always male.

In Motion

The fact that I can pass when needed, that I could when my unmarried partner was on death’s door in a rural hospital in the Midwest proclaim myself his fiancée and thus claim access to his bedside and his medical information, is a huge privilege that humbles me, for I know how many do not have it. I do not pretend that the pain of being invisible holds a candle to the daily risks of a life lived as a queer woman with a female partner, or multiple partners, or no partner at all. I do not claim that merely as an also-queer woman that I know what it is to live as a woman in a relationship with a woman. To lay claim to that status is a hubris I strive to avoid — sometimes at the cost of disassociating from my queer identity altogether.

I can speak with lived authority only of my own pains, my own risks, my own queernesses: the pain of being invisible, the risk of either alienating others or dishonoring myself, the queerness of a sexuality half lived… the dilemma of what to do about the Boychick.

The only solution I see, if I cannot live my life obviously (as I once did unthinkingly, without knowing how sweet I had it) — if I cannot not pass — is to come out again, and again, and again. Only now am I seeing the value of practices like National Coming Out Day, for if there is one thing I might claim to know better than my woman-partnered sisters, it is invisibility. I may pass for straight, be seen as a breeder and thereby shoved into a closet again and again every moment of my child’s life, but I don’t have to quietly stay there.

Comments on Passing for straight: parenting with a man as a queer woman

  1. Thank you! I myself am a bi woman who is married to a man. I was never bi to titillate men, I just was, and am, and still sometimes struggle with desire for women and a sense of loss that I never had a real “relationship” with a woman. I truly appreciate your articulate description of how it is a core part of you, and something you value in your family and life.

    • This is my life as well. I am a bisexual woman who is marrying a straight man, and I have never had a romantic relationship with a women (many sexual experiences though).

      I definitely relish any opportunity I have to celebrate my sexuality and I’m honored to have a very understanding fiance, family and friends. I also try to come out to new friends and acquaintances when appropriate. It’s a great way of opening discussions and hopefully minds about the smorgasbord of sexuality out there, regardless of outward appearances!

    • Yep. Me too. I recently “came out” to my neighbours during a book club discussion and had that moment of pause about using a gender specific pronoun, but went for it anyway. It is an ongoing process for sure.

    • Me too! Even down to the 11 years with my husband and the frequent coming out of the closet every time I make a new friend.

      The only difference is that my first bun is still in the oven. When we first started trying for a baby I started to ask myself all of the questions you have asked above. For me, the conclusion I have come to is that it is now more important than ever to be out and proud, to be strong in my identity and I just hope that my children never need to be ‘told’, I just hope they will always know.

  2. I nearly started crying reading this… I don’t yet have children, but am a bi woman living with a man, and assumed by all to be straight and monogamous (we are really somewhere on the poly spectrum). Living in a very small, very rural town where he grew up and where therefore everyone knows him and will report our doings to his parents has forced me, for the time being at least, to pass. But I hate it. Even if I am mostly satisfied (but would someday like to meet a woman), it’s that lie by omission… it’s not living your life honestly… and I very much hope that when we do have children I can teach them that, if nothing else- to always be true to who you are, even if that means the constant, uncomfortable, “coming out”, rather than squirming awkwardly in the shadows. Thanks so much for writing this.

  3. I, too, could have written this. I’m even moving to a very queer/liberal area of the country (Pioneer Valley, MA) where I’ve lived in the past and practically been in the *minority* for having relationships with men.

    I wonder a lot about coming out to my son – when would be appropriate? How would I do it? Would it change the way he thinks of me? He’s only 12 weeks old, so I think I’ve got a bit of time to figure it out, though I don’t know if I’ll ever be totally *prepared* for it!

    • I came out to my son gradually between the ages of 6 and 12. We talked about “gay” in context of sexuality then later in context as a pejorative term. Then we talked about other terms for different kinds of sexual identities. Through my delightfully eclectic group of friends he’s met people who are all kinds of alternately identified so when it came time to tell him about my own identity it was really not that big a deal. I’m married to a straight man (not my son’s father) and my girlfriend is moving in this fall. It has helped a lot that my son thinks my husband and my girlfriend are about the most awesome people ever.

      If you raise your child to be open-minded, they are likely to retain that open-mindedness towards everyone in their life, including you. 🙂

  4. I love this, so, so much. As a queer woman married to a man, I can identify with this, hardcore.

    Re: talking about your sexuality with your son: My mother and I often had conversations about sex and sexuality and relationships. It was very important to her that I know who she really was, what her life was like. On the one hand, I do feel like she got too TMI at times, and I definitely wasn’t always thrilled to be hearing all this personal info about her. On the other hand, in retrospect, I feel honored that my mother loved and respected me enough to reveal so much of herself to me. Now that my mom is gone, I am happy to say that I feel like I really KNEW her…which in all honesty I don’t think most people could say about their parents.

    I think you will undoubtedly have many small opportunities for your child to get to know you for who you really are. I think having discussions about sexuality in general are pretty important, regardless of your child’s gender.

  5. A fellow “bi girl with a guy” sent this article to me, and I cried when I read what will basically be my future as a married bisexual woman laid before me. Being told I’m “basically straight” breaks my heart, and yet it happens all the time. I constantly have to answer both to the LGBT and straight communities as to why I can’t just “choose a side”, and knowing that someone else out there is in the exact same boat gives me a great deal of comfort. Thank you so much for writing this article.

  6. While I am not bi, or anything really related for that matter, I appreciate the insights, post and comments alike. I have a general, somewhat personal question. Is “breeder” a bad thing? You have a child, or having a child, and it’s bad? Two women or two men can have a baby but not be breeders? I guess I just have an issue with the term. It makes me feel like the decision to have a child, or making love and accidently having a pregnancy result is less beautiful of a process than it really is.

    Or is this just a new way of differentiating ourselves that we came up with a while ago and I am just now hearing about it? (i.e. white vs black)

  7. As a pansexual mother with a male partner, I too feel as if I’m “hiding”. He’s 6 months old,but I dread the day I try to tell him. It’s difficult enough describing my sexuality to adults- “PANsexual? but there’s only two genders!” I get a lot of people who believe I’m simply trying to be “trendy” or that I’m making it all up. Thank you for your story. I found it inspiring.

  8. I know it’s been said before, but labels will only make you sad. I think (hope?) we are moving to a point as a society where we won’t need them. You are not alone with this dilemma. As an astute, 22 yr old male coworker once said “All girls are gay. You haven’t ever kissed a girl?” No hetero-identifying female coworker has yet to deny this! Be open, support LGBT friends and issues, talk about it at the dinner table (because LGBT issues are often in the news) and make sure your child knows it is okay to love who ever they love. Accept that sharing details will gross them out (hetero or not), and things will probably work out ok in the end.

  9. Wow- I feel this way, too (minus the kid part). I married a man, and those people who aren’t familiar with my past always just assume I’m straight. Which on the one hand- whatever, because I’m past the stage where I enjoy discussing my sex life with strangers. But on the other (very serious) hand I just feel really… FAKE, sometimes. It’s the same thing with my religion. Husband is Christian, I’m not. I attend church with him to be supportive, but I always feel like I should run around screaming, “I’m not one of you!”, even tho’ I’ve always been a firm believer that faith is a private thing and whose business is it, anyway? If my orientation or religion doesn’t come up in casual conversation, why should I bring it up? But then I can’t help but feel that’s the coward’s way out, and that a lie of omission is still a LIE. And I’m a notoriously not-prone-to-lying-even-when-I-maybe-should kind of person.

    As for when/how to tell your boychick, that’s a tricky one. I agree with the vague sense of “Parents as sexual beings? Bleh,” in regards to children, but on the other hand I DO think it’s a conversation I’ll have with (the theoretical) them at some point, if only so they know that hey- don’t make assumptions about people based on stereotypes. I don’t know. Anyway, thanks for writing this.

  10. Just another voice saying “I hear you!” I’m the co-advisor to my school’s GSA (I’m a high school teacher) and I’ve still not exactly “outed” myself. It’s hard to be in, and yet hard to “out” when you’re not looking for a date or explaining who you’re sleeping with. At least, that’s how I feel. I mean, it’s not like I walk around telling my students that I think David Boreanz is a total hottie either! And for me it’s not so much exactly about “identity” as I’m a woman who sometimes likes to sleep with women. My identity is much more tied into the equal rights, equal access piece, which I can express without being “out.” And yet I am painfully aware of the lie of omission. Anyway, I’m rambling, but just wanted to say thanks for the post.

    But before I go, questions for those bi-ladies who do out themselves – how? Where’s the natural segue? Frankly, I’m much more worried about a wildly awkward conversation (“Oh yeah, the peaches are really good this time of year. You know what else is good? Bisexuality….”) than any kind of rejection based on my sexual orientations.

    • I find myself sneaking it into conversations- my boyfriend has actually pointed the habit out to me. I have a tendency to insert things like “well my ex girlfriend said this” into random conversations, just because otherwise it feels like this burning secret that needs to get out. Another common (and again, not very effective) technique has been to point out girls that I find attractive, or talk about celebrities that I find attractive… I’m still looking for a better way!

  11. I just got married and am hoping to have children soon, and when people would ask about the “groom”, I couldn’t very well say, “He’s great, but “he” could have been a “she” because I’m bi.” You can’t just work that into conversation. I feel so frustrated sometimes when the general public assumes something and I’ve found MANY flaws with the Wedding Industrial Complex regarding male/female relations.

  12. Thank you for articulating this challenge so well. Another bisexual mom in a heterosexual relationship here (add nonmonogamy to the equation and it’s COMPLICATED).

  13. I found this post very interesting as a bisexual woman who has a child with my female life partner.
    When people ask, I just say lesbian (although – who asks?) because in practice that is essentially my truth. I’ve never really been invested in what to call my sexuality – I’m attracted to and have been in relationships with men and women – so maybe that is why I’m more blase about the whole thing, but I have a hunch part of it might have more to do with the fact that even being lesbian has an inherent queerness about it that allows for wiggle room more than the hetero-norm?

    • I agree with this – I am consistently mis-identified as lesbian (I identify as queer, mostly because “pansexual” is greeted with looks like I’ve just said “unicorn”) but I simply mildly correct the term, with no particular ill feelings, in total contrast to my anger and and snappy (ok, snarky) retorts when I am misidentified as straight – which, as a fairly femme woman, was my constant reality unless out with my wife/a past girlfriend. I even for the sake of simplicity occasionally misidentify myself by referring to us, as a couple, as “lesbians”. I can’t imagine I would be so blaise in erasing my true identity if it were the other way – I think the fact that the primary identification is still queer (i.e., against the heteronormative majority) makes a huge difference in my personal feelings of visibility.

      • I agree – I’ve had a very similar experience. There are people who I *swear* I’ve told that I’m not a lesbian who come back a few days later saying something about how I’m not attracted to men. *sigh*

        But yeah, I find that a lot less offensive than being assumed to be straight, and I think it does have to do with the fact that it’s, well, at least *close*.

        (Now, the former colleague who said to me that bisexuals “just need to make up their minds” because she made some silly, silly assumptions? Yeah, she got a stern talking to.)

  14. I have no sage advice, but I just wanted to thank you for writing this article. Erasure and invisibility are strong forms of oppression, different but not “lesser than” the overt/aggressive oppression faced by obviously out queer woman. This was a brave and moving piece. Your son is lucky to have a mother so invested in teaching and modeling honesty and awareness – I wish you both luck in navigating the shifting waters of true and perceived identity.

  15. Thank you for the post. Like so many above, you’ve put into words something Ive been struggling with since I married my husband. Very eloquent and thoughtful, and much much appreciated. 🙂

  16. I am a queer woman, I am married and have a child. I do date women when it happens organically in real life.
    I don’t come out, I talk about women the way i would talk about men, My daughter can know her mom is gay. shes not going to get details unless she reads my memoirs. i dont feel the need to say I am queer unless someone asks the same way i wouldn’t mention I am straight.
    my daughter has a shirt that says “chick magnet” when other moms see it at the park i don’t know their reactions but it makes me laugh at heterosexuality, and the assumption that we are straight until proven otherwise.
    I don’t feel like a breeder in a negative way, because so many queers are having children and we should be, why not!

    in the words of rupaul “it’s not your bussiness what other people think of you.” I don’t care if people don’t think i’m really queer, I know what I am, i dont believe most people are really straight anyways.

  17. Thank you for this truly brave and beautiful post!
    I’m bisexual too, and it’s never bothered me if people assume I’m gay or straight just because I happen to be dating either a girl or a boy. I must admit that I never really understood why some seemed to struggle with these assumptions, because I’ve felt that sexuality is none of other people’s business. But your story has helped me understand why it can feel like such a torment to others in my position, so thank you again.

  18. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am straight and have female freinds who I assumed were lesbians. Then they surprise me when they say “oh I met this guy.” To me it’s not a big deal, and I just say. “Oh, you date guys, too? cool.” Maybe they are feeling some of the same things you are about realizing that I have been placing them in a little “GAY!” category in my mind. On the other hand, it’s probably just another fun part of getting to know our freinds.

    If it was a coworker I would be less interested if they said they were bi. I’d probably just wonder why they are telling me. Do they want EEO information? Do you need the form for letting HR know who your domestic partner is? People generally only talk about family; not really anything like who they are dating or feelings about it.

  19. Another Bi (actually Pan) woman married to a man with the added complication of living with my two other partners (one male and one female) in a Polyamorous household! We have a three year old daughter and are raising my partners’ six year old daughter and thirteen year old son. To answer your question about how to tell your kids, we talk about BTLG issues all the time. I’m also one of the leaders of our local Bi group and we take the kids to Bi and Poly socials all the time. As they have all asked questions, we have answered them as appropriate for their ages, but I think because it’s just who we all are, they understand it. It’s when they start realizing we are different from their friends’ parents that they get confused. I absolutely ADORE some of the cool conversations we’ve had w/ all 3 of them about our family. Kids are so cool!

  20. This is my future. It’s already happening with my own family. I was with a woman for almost 2 years, we lived together, I called her my wife. We broke up. I’m with a man now, engaged and living together. My aunt is very christian and assumes upon meeting that everyone is straight and christian. Including me, her niece, who lived with her for 3 years, has been an active pagan since I was 15 and stopped dating guys all together at 16. The other day were talking about a cousin of mine who is more or less a a typical butch girl, except she’s straight. I said “looking at us, you’d never guess I was the one who had lesbian tendencies” and she says “That’s over now. You’re with Will.” No. It’s not over just cause I’m with a man. I love women.In general, I love women more then men. It’s and random series of coincidences involving skittles and Alice in wonderland and sex and books and conversation as to why we’re together. A total fluke and we both know it. I think the only reason I can even be with him like this is that he’s more like a girl wrapped in a package of manliness. The relationship he and I have are more the ones I’ve had with girlfriends past than boyfriends past. I’m bi. That’s that. It’s a part of me forever.

    • I chuckled a little bit with this: “I think the only reason I can even be with him like this is that he’s more like a girl wrapped in a package of manliness.”

      When I got divorced, I was pretty sure I was done with dating men at least and wanted to explore my bisexuality for the first time. Then along comes my boyfriend (over 3 years now). I think the way you described your man is exactly how I feel about mine. I’m feminine enough to balance out his masculinity and he is feminine enough to balance out my masculinity. We are a walking mix of boy/girl and seem to fit perfectly together.

  21. As a bi woman with a male partner, I’ve found myself letting it slide when people assume I’m hetero because the alternative has been people assuming that if I’m bi then I MUST be into having threesomes. They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that I can be bisexual and monogamous. I still haven’t come out to my family, because I have this really clear memory of being in the car with my dad when we heard that Freddie Mercury had died. My dad blamed it on Freddie being bi and therefore promiscuous. The two words are synonymous in my dad’s head.

    • Dr Dad had been treating gay people for YEARS, still he thought we were all “sick”. He know it was caveman-mentality but couldn´t help it. “Dad, I´m queer!! 😀 ” Needless to say, he has totally evolved. It wasn´t the same when it was Daddy´s Lil Girl who was saying it. Of course, this is not everyone experience so I wouldn´t recommend coming out of the closet unless your REALLY sure / made up your mind to face all the (bad) consequences.

  22. I wanted to comment on the talking to your kid aspect of your story. My parents separated when I was ten. They both dated, and my siblings and I knew that. My father felt like he had to be “honest” but really just gave too much information. Discussions about who he went home with after the folk singing event and his opinions on the men and women in his life just made me uncomfortable. (Also, they weren’t discussions I could participate in, they were monologues, that came off as bragging.)
    So, be honest with the adults in your life about who you are, but think about what your child really needs to know, like maybe “loving men and women is okay” for a little kid, and save the intricacies of dating/how adult relationships work for later, I mean damn, that stuff is complicated! And try to work on discussions rather than monologues.
    One of best revelations on adult relationships came from my mom. She asked if I thought I’d marry my college boyfriend, and I said: “no I don’t want him to be the only person I ever sleep with.” and she said: “Well, some people make accommodations for that sort of thing.” No lecture, no uncomfortableness just one line that opened my mind up when I was 19.
    Side note, love this: in the words of rupaul “it’s not your bussiness what other people think of you.”

  23. I can really only speak about this from the offspring’s point of view (don’t have any of my own, not planning any soon).
    What sticks out to me is the conversation that I had (twice, once with each parent) after I mentioned that a friend had come out to me as being bi. I always think of it as the “Sexuality is a Contiuum” lecture, with a corollary of “Gender is a Contiuum.” First I had this conversation with my mom, and then about an hour or so later with my dad. Having 10+ years of perspective on it, it was obviously something they’d talked about and decided how to handle. At the time my reaction was more the typical teenager “Daaaaad, I just HAD this conversation with Mom! Do we really need to talk about this again?!”
    I don’t remember exactly when or how I figured out that this conversation applied to a parent as well. I know there was a lot of parental concern about this, I’ve been asked (more recently)by the other parent “it didn’t change the way you thought of them?” And the honest answer is no. They’re still the same person. And I know (for me, in my life) the key was letting the conversation happen naturally. I having trouble articulating this, but being low-key made it more of a non-issue, just something that life picked up along the way, not something to worry about or overthink.

  24. I, too, am a bisexual female with a male partner and child. However, it seems that I am the only one who disagrees. I’ve never considered myself “closeted” or “passing” just because I don’t run around, telling everyone I meet that I am bisexual. I got over that in high school when I realized it didn’t make me some kind of special snowflake. It seems so unnecessary. No heterosexual person has to introduce them selves “Hello, nice to meet you. I’m straight!” I’m not hiding anything or trying to “keep my private life private.” There’s just nothing to tell. I’m not going to assume everyone else assumes I am straight and come out to them all. I’m not in. If someone ever says to me “We straight people need to stick together” I will surely correct them but, until then, I won’t contribute to this need we seem to have to dissect and label ourselves.

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