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. I love the offbeat empire. It’s posts like this that are so honest that I love! I come from a conservative, heteronormative perspective and I would have been there asking “what does it matter? Why even bother?” But this:

    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.

    This gives me that valuable insight that stops me from asking. These kinds of posts are the ones that give me a new perspective to think about and stop me from being so narrow minded.

    Slightly related: I went to a baby shower the other day and one woman asked the other if she was planning on breast feeding her child. I was astounded! Based on everything I read here, unless a woman is unable to, of course you’d breastfeed!! Of course she’s going to have a water birth!! Of course she’s going to be into attachment parenting!! LOL! (Recognising that these things aren’t the golden bullets of parenting and different things work for different people and that’s a good thing!) It’s just an example of how hanging around here a lot shapes my beliefs and assumptions.

  2. This post was extremely thought provoking for me, mostly because I didn’t ‘get it’ right away and all the labels threw me off. After re-reading it a couple of times, soaking up all of the fantastic comments (so helpful!) and having a few great conversations, I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot! Thanks for sharing your story Arwyn.

  3. AAAHHHH! Thank you for writing this! I feel like a lot of my friends have just assumed that married to a man = straight, even those who I have come out to. I often feel like part of my identity is missing and I struggle with it.
    I have the same sort of inner struggle regarding coming out to my ultra-orthodox parents. Does it matter? I’m married to a man. But on some level, it does. Because it’s who I am.
    My son is not even two months yet, so I have a few years before I need to decide how/when/if I should tell him. But I’m already struggling with it.

  4. i know *exactly* how you feel! both myself & my husband are bi and i call us ‘queer in cognito’ because we live in a very conservative town & our daughter is in middle school. so we have to kind of put our heads down and act the way people think we should when in public for our daughters sake. middle school is cruel and our cars have been targeted and tampered with for my ‘out’ bumper stickers.

    so since we happen to be in a marriage which passes as straight we try not to rock the boat too much. we are planning on moving to a more urban and accepting area. but for now, we have to play the game.

    we are who we are at home and we’ve raised our daughter to be a tolerant and accepting person. which has made life difficult for her because we don’t live in a tolerant and accepting community. so even though, we’re not even out to our daughter, she is still taunted at school and called names without even knowing why.

    she’s aware of what GLBT is because she’s been raised around our friends, many of whom are out & we’ve never hid anything from her. but we feel like we can’t come out to her yet because of where we live. it was hard enough coming out when i was young, i never knew how hard it would be to come out to my own daughter.

    so lots of hugs to you & you’re not alone in this!

  5. I haven’t read all the comments because I had to write this immediately, so I’m sure this has been said before, but I’ll say it again, and again, and again: Thank you. This made me cry. As an often-overlooked, single, femme lesbian, I always pass. And it kills me every time. I feel like yelling “I’m a lesbian!” and sometimes I do, but it pains me every time a visibly gay girl looks away from me and every time a straight or bisexual man gives me the eye. I’m the (lesbian version of) you, years earlier being out out out. This article made me cry. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am a lesbian, and I’ll say it again, and again, and again. (I also plan to bookmark your blog). Sorry for the Gertrude Stein nature of this comment. I’m also an English teacher. 🙂

  6. Loved this!

    And yes, I’m a bisexual woman monogamously married to my first real romantic partner, who happens to be a man. (The weirdest part about that, to me, is that he was my first REAL romantic partner.) He has stuck by me through thick and thin for over 16 years now and we have a five year old.

    Our son is verbally challenged and autistic, so who knows when he will *get* this kind of theoretical label. (He only gets “mommy and daddy” right now. That there can be a “mommy and mommy” and “daddy and daddy” is also on his radar, but that mommies/ daddies in whatever combination are “together?” That he doesn’t get.)

    • OMG this is SO uncanny… My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter is the same. I fear that we will never really understand each other, but there are a few things I tell her all the time that I hope go in at least in meaning: “mommy and daddy will love baby FOREVER,” and “always listen.”

  7. Thank you! Though I’m a bisexual woman in a partnered-relationship with a woman (for most of my adult life), our identity as sexual beings is SO important. There’s a sort of “invisibility” if you can believe it being in a same sex relationship too – being boxed as a “Lesbian” without question. I have such mixed feelings about it – on the one hand, “Huzzah! People recognize my relationship as equal and important” on the other hand “… but I’m actually bi…” Does it matter? Actually, YES! Great article, thanks!

  8. i just wanted to say thank you for writing this. I have been in a monogamous relationship with the father of my child for some time now and im now starting to realize that most of the world thinks im straight because of this. now im at a loss on how to correct this thinking. it used to be so easy living in a community were every one just knew ive been with more women then men and i never had to explain it because they loved me anyway. but now in a new city with my newish family im lost around these people who assume im straight to the point of being ok with gay bashing infront of me. again thank you because now i dont feel so alone about this

  9. Fabulous! Thank you for writing this. I am very out to my kids. They know bisexuality to mean I “like” boys and girls and, in my case, have had partners of both genders. It doesn’t have to be put in sexual terms. They’ll figure that out on their own when they’re older.

  10. Question: What do monogamous bi-sexual people DO when they marry someone of either sex? Meaning, what do they do with those feelings they have for the opposite of what they’ve married? Is it just like some priestly, I’ve sworn off that because I’m monogamous/married kind of thing? Do folks have open relationships? Are there couples who don’t want to “stray” yet still have a yearning for what they don’t have. I’m genuinely curious.

    • The same thing any one does when they get married. Straight people are attracted to other people of the opposite sex who they aren’t married to. We bisexuals just have a larger (theoretical) pool to draw from (in practical terms I think I’m personally more picky than many people in who I find attractive, at least at this point in my life!).

      Some straight people cheat. Some have open marriages. Some stay faithful. Replace straight with gay and then lesbian and then bi and you have your answer. We’re all just human.

      BTW, if I mistook the tone of this and you were asking a “singular you” question and not the ubiquitous “you” rhetorical question, my personal answer is: I look (and fantasize) but don’t touch. Monogamy is how I personally rock it. Everyone else’s milleage will vary.

      • Yes it was a universal “you” 🙂

        Thanks for answering. I guess I think with straight people, you’d be getting what you’re attracted to with your partner, even though yes straight people have desires, cheat etc. With bisexual folks, I guess I’m more wondering, what does one do when what you have is not the full spectrum of what you’re attracted to? I guess that can go for anything though? (i.e. personality traits, physical attributes etc.) I guess sex/gender just seems like a BIG one.But yeah Missey below seemed to answer that one for me.

    • Casey, generically there is no single answer to that question. Everyone approaches commitment differently.

      Personally I was monogamous for many years until my husband encouraged me to find a girlfriend and we agreed to a limited openness in our marriage. I’m still extremely picky, though.

  11. Finally, I am not alone. Thank you. I live in Portland, OR and am active in the queer community. I identify as queer and am extremely lucky to have a supportive community that supports me although I am together with a cis-gendered man and have a child with him. I appreciate your perspective and coming out as queer after being out for so many years is a strange experience, but we, as queer mommas, need to keep fighting against the assumption that mothers are straight once they dive into motherhood (with a cis-gendered man). Thank you!

  12. Wow! I really related to this post, but I’m also in awe of how many women also relate to it!

    I identify as queer or pansexual and I just married my love, a man. When my ex-best friend, a very gay man, found out recently, his first response is “you’re going to BIRTH? Love it.” Needless to say, it’s very condescending and a bit hurtful. And so what if I do? My child(ren) will be amazing.
    (on top of that, he’s considering adopting with his partner and he gets no snooty comments-? wtf?)

    I have actually marched in more dyke marches and pride parades than I can count. I have always been a part of the LGBT community and I feel like I was born into it. It just always felt right.

    I’m monogamous and I realize that I have been in the shadows and have been “passing” for a long time now. Thanks for this post!

  13. Wow. I have been waiting for something like this to be written. I can’t believe I thought I was the only one. However, I’m a little different. I’m gay and I’m ‘out’ to about 3 people (not even my male partner), totally passing as straight because I’m involved with a man and we live together with a child but my male partner and I haven’t been romantically involved, or physically, or anything really except room mates and ‘business partners’ to our child. Coming out to the world around me would have incredibly negative consequences; my family would disown me and they’re a huge part of my life and they help with my kid so much. So, I’m stuck. I’m stuck until I can finish school to get a good job to make enough money to support myself and my kid so I can separate from my partner and live as a gay woman. This will take at least 2 more years.

    This article is really awesome. Thanks for posting it. 🙂

    • You are more courageous than I… Good luck! I am lucky to say that, although i consider myself a lesbian, I am lucky enough to be able to say that I do care deeply for my husband and wish him no harm.

      Which leaves us in a difficult and sometimes frustrating place. :/

  14. I just want to add to the chorus of thank yous for writing this article! I don’t have any children yet, but I am a queer woman about to marry a man, and I already have to deal with this feeling of invisibility. The worst thing is when I talk about LGBT rights, and people say “Why is this so important to you? You’re straight!” Like because I’m marrying a man, obviously I’m straight, and obviously I shouldn’t care about others. And when I tell people I’m actually bi, they’re like “Well, you don’t have to shove it in people’s faces.” I don’t see why people think that way about it – I just want people to know who I am, and accept it. This article is making me think about my future and my identity as perceived by others, and the choices I will have to make about how to present myself.

  15. OMG! Thank you!! I am bisexual, and I have been in a monogamous relationship with my husband for three years… we’re recently married, and I am already pregnant (honeymoon baby)… and I fear that I will lose myself, and who I am, because I am in this relationship as a monogamous partner in a heterosexual union. I want my daughter to know that she can love whomever she wants, and that while Mommy may be attracted to both genders, she always chooses to be with Daddy, because he is her partner and best friend. But, how do you tell that to a kid?

  16. Now it seems that having what looks like a “hetero-normative” relationship is something to be ashamed of. Jesus. Don’t you love this MAN? Can’t you celebrate being the ying to his yang??

  17. Dude. This could be me. Are you sure you’re not me? In the Pacific Northwest… check. Married to a guy who has never questioned his straightness for almost 5 years now; with him for just over 10. Have a just over 2 year old male (presumably, since he’s still too young to question his gender/sexuality for himself) child. Recently “came out” on facebook (to mostly ‘duh’s,) as panromantic, demisexual, nonbinary. Came out (as bisexual, since I didn’t know as much about the different “boxes” then) to my guy when we first started dating: he said “I know.” I was taken aback – had stressed about it A LOT. Waffled over “coming out” to family/friends for over 10 years before taking the plunge because I get so tired of being dismissed as “straight female, obviously, since you have a kid and husband.” Staunch supporter of LGBTQ+ people/issues/rights/etc. I got tired of passing. I felt like I wasn’t being true to me. I think you’re maybe me from an alternate universe 😉
    THANK YOU for writing this! This is the content I read Offbeat Home & Life for.

    (And, yes, Ariel, I’ll submit a post one of these days. I still haven’t posted about my wedding…)

  18. Thank you for writing this. I too am a bisexual/queer woman married to a heterosexual man, whom I plan to have children with.

    It’s not the first time I’ve been in a “normal” hetero relationship. In the past I was told by my partners that they weren’t comfortable with me continuing to identify or live as a bisexual woman. It hurt, it was hard & it always felt my life was missing pieces.

    Jumping to the present & future I made sure that I was clear to my husband that I wanted to remain bisexual, that I still wanted to have the freedom to date women (I granted him the same option but that’s a different topic). He has never had an issue with my queer identity & it’s fully supportive. Hence the reason I married this amazing man.

    However the challenge I foresee in the future is being out & honest with our families.

  19. Wow — THANKS for this post and all your comments. I married a man in my early 20s, and didn’t acknowledge/realize I was bi until my late 20s. Kids and two+ decades of (happy) marriage later, I’m almost 50 and out only to a couple people. It wasn’t part of my identity before marriage, I’ve never had experiences with a woman, so it didn’t seem relevant. Fast-forward to my teen daughter coming out to us, and I suddenly found myself telling her one day, “I’m with your dad, and I don’t see that ever changing … but I consider myself bi.” Her jaw dropped and she said, “I never knew that!” Suddenly, I questioned everything. Would she have come out to us sooner had she known? (I have gay siblings, so the environment was always favorable, but still …) Would she have struggled less with her own identity? What other opportunities for others’ acceptance/inclusion/advocacy have I inadvertently shut down? Being in the closet means *contributing* to the invisibility and silencing of bi people, and I hate that.
    And yet … and yet … I’m also in the weirdly liberal Pacific Northwest, where outside our bubble people assume anything goes. In reality, people here can be militant about the TYPE of queer or whatever one “ought” to be. Where I work, we’ve lost women because they felt oppressed and excluded *by women* (!) for not being the “right” kind of feminist. Based on how I look (whatever the hell that means) and based on my marital status (my spouse works at the same place, so everyone knows us), no one would guess I’m anything but hetero. I honestly fear that if I came out, I’d be scorned and told to “stay in my lane” because I was somehow impinging on the space of “true” queer people.
    So what to do? I’m equally attracted to men and women. But how/why would I ever reveal that naturally, given my marital status (and no possibility of referring to ex-girlfriends)? And does it even matter/count with no past bi experience AND none likely in my future (which I often feel sad about because I never explored that aspect of myself, and here I am at middle age)? My heart says yes it matters, my brain says maybe, and I feel most of society (including many in the gay and lesbian communities) would roll eyes and firmly tell me NO — just go away with your passing privilege and leave the rainbows to those who really deserve them. 🙁

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