Coming out of the liminal closet

Liminal identities present specific challenges to a post-secondary student. These often-invisible identities are perceived as being “between” two more easily recognizable categories. My own bisexual identity exists outside of the gay-straight binary, and my genderqueer identity exists outside of the man-woman binary. And the construction of “betweenness,” so common in discussions of these identity categories, is frustrating. I am not a Frankensteinian monster, bits of this and bits of that mashed together and animated. I am my own thing. My identity is a real thing. I am a real person.

Not that you’d know it, looking at the system I operate within.

There are no genderqueer bathrooms, so I slide myself over into one half of a binary that is false and misleading, denying my identity so that I can pee.

The University of Calgary has the Q Centre, an inclusive space for anyone in the QUILTBAG,* and a space that is now explicitly bi-friendly.** But there is no “bisexual” in GSAs, the Gay-Straight Alliance groups that are doing such good work. I’m assured that I am welcome, but unless I speak up about my liminal identity, I will be assumed to be straight if I mention my boyfriend, or gay if I mention my girlfriend. (People read me as a woman unless I speak up about my genderqueerness – that liminality is even less visible to most people than my bisexuality.)

Dan Savage “tells the truth” about bisexuality, which is that “it’s a fundamental truth … that it is a phase … it is a choice.” After saying that bisexuality is a choice in that clip, he goes on to talk about how gay and straight identities are not a choice, there’s no switch to flip – unless you’re bisexual, and you exist in that liminal space between and outside of the binary.

My bookshelves, full of the books that are cited in my research papers, include writing about “gay and lesbian literature,” “gay and lesbian film,” “gay and lesbian media.”

Class discussions often swing around to “men and women” – their differences, their similarities, their conditioning, their unique intersections of marginalization and oppression – and that’s fine. Men and women do exist. They do have similarities and differences, they are socialized and conditioned in different ways, and they occupy a variety of intersections of privilege and marginalization. Those conversations are not, in themselves, a problem. But those conversations are often the only ones that happen in class. There is no space for non-binary gender identities in those discussions.

Coming out of these liminal closets can be exhausting. And because liminal identities are so often invisible, it is not enough to come out once. Instead, it is an ongoing, constant process of coming out. Or, sometimes, it’s a painful choice to stay in the closet for that class, that conversation. It is not possible to always be the person challenging the binary; none of us have infinite resources, and we should not be expected to always be the ones to speak up. As Dayna pointed out in this space last week, “Just because someone personally relates to something doesn’t mean they are expected to represent that particular issue.” And it is not always just about whether we have the resiliency to be The Bisexual or The Genderqueer in a specific class – coming out as a bisexual is uniquely challenging. AfterEllen has a fantastic piece (with some great links to resources) about how difficult it is to come out as bisexual, and the comments prove the truth of the article.

We live in a world full of binaries, but those binaries fail to account for a huge number of us. It’s hard to see us. It’s hard to understand us (even I have trouble understanding myself!), and it’s hard to remember us because it’s just so easy to talk about things in terms of the binaries that we’re so strongly conditioned to operate within.

But we’re here. We always have been.


*Queer/Questioning, Unidentified, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer

**Huge shout-out to the Q Centre, whose coordinators responded beautifully to community members’ concerns about biphobic comments being made by some Q Centre volunteers. A public meeting was held, a discussion was had, the Q Centre reached out to the bisexual community in Calgary for input, and changes were made. It’s not all invisibility and erasure – there are moments of hope and progress!

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4 thoughts on “Coming out of the liminal closet

  1. We in the queer and trans* community often have trouble accounting for people who are out of the gender and sexuality binaries because we like having simple yes/no categories. “Are you male or female? Are you gay or lesbian or straight?” We absolutely need to be more open-minded about people who have non-binary identities.

    However, to quickly address your point about Dan Savage and his biphobia: if you watch the whole clip and not only read the pull quotes you’ll hear that he’s talking about how many young lesbians and gay men identify as bisexual before they identify as gay or lesbian. I identified briefly as bisexual as part of my coming out process when I was sixteen but I’ve found that gay better describes my sexual attraction to other humans.

    To reiterate I believe that bisexuality and genderqueer identities are valid expressions of the personal self and I encourage other people to acknowledge their existence and am made uncomfortable in classes when discussions come up that erase bisexual people or trans* and genderqueer people. Let’s get more people to talk about and write about all kinds of queer and trans* identities!

    • fliponymous says:

      With Savage, there’s more to it than pull quotes. He’s got a history of being loudly bi- and trans*phobic. He’s not just saying that a lot of lesbians and gay men transition through bisexual, he doesn’t understand that telling bi youth to come back and talk to him when they grow up directly contradicts his message of It Gets Better. He’s blamed the bisexual community for being closeted while lambasting bi activists (who he describes as Angry Bisexuals With Keyboards) for calling him out on the biphobic things he says that stick us into those closets against our efforts.

      A young person who comes out as bi and is patted in the head by Dan Savage and told they’ll get over it because everyone does, and/or finds themselves being labeled a straight Ally or a gay person entirely on the gender of their partner is someone who is being told that it does not get better for them, until, well, until they essentially quit being so queerly queer.

      I am very glad to read your stance that the queer community needs to be more accepting.

      • I’m not gonna say that Savage is perfect but I think their example was a great one for slicing and dicing quotes.

        I agree with you that the queer and trans* community is essentially the non-straight world and should be open to all people who identify as any number of non-straight identities.

        I also agree with Kelci. I love telling people that I’m queer because it often leads to a discussion so my identity can’t always be assumed.

  2. kelciwilford says:

    This might just be a small part of the issue, but I’ve always wished there was a better colloquial term for bisexuality. ‘Bisexual’ sounds simultaneously clinical and overly explicitly sexualized to me (as do homosexual and heterosexual) and there’s no casual, pithy alternative like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ – maybe it’s just me but just saying ‘bi’ rubs me the wrong way, like maybe it won’t seem so bad if you take out the ‘sexual’ part of it. My solution has been to identify as queer, but that’s more of an umbrella term than a precise cognate, and still gets lots of side-eye outside of certain academic circles. I think it’s just another way in which our society tends to forget about those liminal identities (which is now my new favourite term!) – we still struggle to simply name them.

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