By Akiva Steinmetz-Silber
On our first date my ex, a straight trans woman, asked me what dating is like as a bisexual person. “It’s interesting.” I said, describing the challenge of not conforming to other people’s preconceptions about sexuality and gender. She nodded and said she could relate—it sounded a lot like being trans. We had found common ground in a place I hadn’t expected.
I was struck that despite our differences, we faced similar challenges in navigating others’ assumptions about gender and sexuality (though in very different ways). Over the past few years, I’ve given a lot of thought to bi+ identity and the importance of community. In the process, I’ve also reflected on my relationship to gender, and come to embrace a gender non-conforming identity.
For years, I was used to my sexuality setting me apart and making me feel isolated, making me feel “other.” I used to define my sexuality in terms of what I’m not (gay or straight). But it was much harder to express who I am in positive terms. (I like the plus sign in “bi+” because it seems to acknowledge the diversity of our identities and how we represent ourselves.)
Today, many of my close friends are also bi+; I’ve found myself gravitating toward other bi+ people in my intimate relationships as well. There’s less to explain, and less fear of being misunderstood. And after some very affirming intimate encounters, I began to realize that my bi identity is actually a gift, presenting unique opportunities for connection and empathy with others.
When I was younger, especially in high school, I struggled with deep insecurities about my attractiveness to women (before I consciously thought of myself as bisexual). I never felt masculine enough; I was constantly afraid that I would never live up to what I assumed was the sexual ideal. When I did meet women who made their sexual attraction clear, I still felt uneasy—as if my identity didn’t really fit with the object of their desires.
When I became sexually active with men, “not fitting in” meant something a little bit different. I didn’t have as much doubt about my attractiveness to men, but I was met with assumptions I hadn’t expected. I learned, for example, that bottoming is often linked with femininity and submission. The term “power bottom” implies that the bottom being the one in power is the exception, not the rule.
I found that men tended to assume that I was a bottom (although I never explicitly identified as such), perhaps because my gender presentation is not particularly masculine. This shaped my sexual interactions with men in a way that felt very gendered. Although my experiences with men were liberating because they affirmed what I already felt—that I enjoyed sex with more than one gender—I struggled again with the feeling of not fitting in, and being forced to “pick a side.”
The ability to be intimate with people of different genders is something I consider a gift, but it can also be a challenge when it comes to finding partners. Like many other bi+ and gender non-conforming people, this hasn’t always been easy for me. Without really thinking about it, I tended toward conventional forms of dating with women while engaging in casual sex with men, even though neither of these was really what I wanted. I found that I needed to be much more deliberate about connecting with people in the way that was right for me. But I hadn’t found the right community to provide the space or the right tools to do so.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to connect with people in the BDSM (Bondage, Discipline/Dominance, submission/Sadism, and Masochism) community. It turned out to be a powerful and unexpected source of support for my social and emotional health. While not everyone in this community lives up to its ideals, what I have appreciated most is its emphasis on leaving assumptions at the door and its celebration of non-conformity. It has proved to be a place where I don’t feel self-conscious about my sexual orientation, my approach to relationships, or my experience of gender.
At best, this community can be a place of sanctuary where, as a friend told me at the first event I attended, you can express yourself freely. It’s not only led to deeper and more fulfilling experiences of intimacy, but also provided tools I’ve found useful in other social contexts as well. Explicit consent, setting boundaries, and clear communication of needs and desires have all led to increased feelings of safety, security, and confidence throughout all my relationships.
It’s taken time to put these principles into practice, and I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’m still adjusting to the idea that I don’t have to apologize for who I am or accommodate myself to others’ expectations when they don’t feel right.
Last summer, someone I was seeing briefly respected some boundaries but not others. For instance, she valued the use of safewords when playing, but got angry when I insisted that she not smoke cigarettes in my apartment. At first, I struggled to assert my boundaries, until it occurred to me that this situation, too, called for something like a safeword. If boundary violations weren’t okay in bed, why would they be okay anywhere else? I realized it wasn’t working out and said so.
When I think about my evolving approach to relationships, I can’t express strongly enough how important it has been to build my own community, which includes people with many different kinds of identities. In doing so, I’ve learned that by embracing who I am, I can better understand what I want and need in my relationships and express myself much more confidently. When I’m true to what I want, I don’t worry so much about “fitting in.”
In fact, I’ve begun to embrace not fitting in, and this has helped me develop a broader and more diverse community. I hope that what readers will take away from all this is that you really don’t have to “fit in” at all, as long as you feel safe and embrace being yourself. You’re already perfect the way you are.
Akiva is a writer, creative thinker, and nonprofit administrator who lives and works in New York City. He also DJs, makes music, and practices goju-ryu karate. Major interests include gender, religion, politics, and culture, to name just a few. His favorite drinks are coffee and single malt whiskey. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.