Yes, I’m in a same-sex relationship. But please don’t call me a lesbian.

ByLindsay King-Miller

When my partner was newly pregnant, we began interviewing midwives and took what has become for us a normal precaution: Before meeting with the one we liked best, we sent her an email introducing ourselves and our relationship. Still, one of the first things she said to us when we sat down was, “Just so you know, I’m very comfortable with lesbians.”

The thing is: we’re not lesbians.

That’s what we’d emailed her about. I’m a bisexual woman and my partner is a genderqueer butch. I opened my mouth to gently redirect her — something else we’ve gotten used to — but she was already two stanzas into a soliloquy about how she used to go on an all-women camping retreat with all her lesbian friends back in the 90s. I gritted my teeth: She was trying so hard to prove that she was Cool With The Gays that she spoke over us and it’s frustrating to tell someone who I am and have them correct me.

In a way, I get it: I am very visibly queer. You can’t miss it. I’m queer in that “I went to Massachusetts to get married when it wasn’t legal in Colorado” kind of way. My queer relationship and my queer family and my queer haircut are front and center, all the time. The number of pairs of Doc Martens I own is only exceeded by the number of Indigo Girls concerts I have been to. I’m, like, so gay, dude.

But that doesn’t make me a lesbian. And when I’m called one — and especially when I’m called one after identifying myself as bi — I’m reminded that how other people perceive me matters more than how I identify myself. By now, it’s difficult to imagine having my relationship and my identity simultaneously treated as valid.

It took me three tries to come out to my mother. I told her I was bisexual when I was twelve, and again when I was seventeen, and then at twenty-one I told her I was dating a woman. The first two times I came out, it seemed to fade from her memory as soon as I got involved with a guy.

Today, I have the opposite problem: Because I’m in a monogamous same-sex relationship, I’m usually perceived as a lesbian. It’s an ongoing struggle to remain visibly bisexual, because as a society, we read people as either gay or straight, depending on the gender of their partner. And when monogamous relationships are treated as the end game, it leads to the assumption that bisexuality is temporary — that when a bisexual person “settles down,” they’ll assume their true form as a straight or gay person.

People talk about bisexuality itself as though it’s a combination of straight and gay, rather than a distinct identity of its own: Bi people are described as having “straight relationships” or “gay relationships,” “straight lives” or “gay lives” (What would it even mean to have a “bisexual life”?). That linguistic quirk might seem trivial, but it’s another way of erasing bisexuality. Everything we have is presumed to be the rightful property of a community to which we do not belong.

Bisexuality is taboo even in circles where being gay is embraced — even though there are actually significantly more bi-identified than lesbian-identified women. The silence around bisexuality as a distinct identity only perpetuates the assumption that it’s wrong and weird and embarrassing to be bi. Young people today are more likely to be open about their queerness than they were a generation ago; however, understanding of and support for the unique issues bisexuals face — like increased risk of intimate partner violence, risky drinking and sexually transmitted infections when compared to both straight and gay people — lags far behind, in part because of the lack of a cohesive and robust bisexual community.

And, for all the times I’ve been referred to (by myself and others) as gay, and for all the solidarity I feel with the lesbian community, it’s hardly a haven of bi acceptance. When I talk about being pushed back into the closet, I’m not just referring to straight people who don’t want to acknowledge my existence. I’m talking about the lesbians who told me that bi women in same-sex relationships “make the rest of us look bad.” I’m talking about the time my friend came out to her gender studies class as bisexual, and was told by her professor that she should “consider identifying as something else.”

Every queer person deserves to be proud and open about who they are, not just those of us whose experiences are most directly analogous to those of straight people – and it’s not just a question of self-esteem. While gay bars and clubs and social circles have been literal lifesavers for gay and lesbian people facing oppression and ostracization, bi invisibility means that those dedicated safe spaces often don’t exist for us. Erasure isn’t just an academic term; I shouldn’t have to give up my identity just because I’m in a relationship.