From the Closet to the Stage

By Robyn Ochs

This essay was published in Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out. eds. Loraine Hutchins and Lani Ka’ahumanu, Alison, 1991, pp. 210-213.

I was a self-avowed heterosexual for the first eighteen years of my life. Then in November of 1976, during my first year at the State University of New York, one of my roommates broke up with her boyfriend and began seeing a woman. I was surprised, intrigued, fascinated. The implications were staggering to me. If beautiful Ellen could be attracted to a woman, what about me? This possibility had never before entered my consciousness. I had always had boyfriends and had not felt dissatisfied with these relationships. I enjoyed making love with men, or at least with some men. Over the next months, I watched Ellen and her new sweetheart carefully. I developed a full-blown crush on Ellen, and a smaller one on her sweetheart and on most of the women-loving women who had become Ellen’s new social circle. I bravely wrote in my journal that I was bisexual. I read Rubyfruit Jungle and Patience and Sarah in my women’s studies class. One of my professors was an out lesbian. All in all, I had a very auspicious start for my budding bisexuality.

Then I got stuck. I was terrified. I was afraid I would lose all of my friends. I felt that I couldn’t talk to anyone, not even to Ellen or the three gay men who had become my constant companions. I kept my silence for the rest of that year. And again the next.

In my second year at college I was involved for several months with a male theater student. That relationship ended, and the following fall I fell for Daniel, a campus activist who was the object of many crushes. I pursued him relentlessly. We were involved for two and a half years and lived together for about half of that time. I loved him but felt very confused about who I was and what I wanted. He seemed much more certain of who I really was than I myself was. I held back, and he pursued me. Finally he grew tired of the pursuit and began to leave. I was twenty-one, sad, and relieved.

In the meantime, Ellen came back into my life. I had watched her from a distance since freshman year and followed her activities. I watched how the lesbian clique on campus had teased her for being pink and fluffy, for not following the unwritten rules of the community. She had always held her own and was in fact quite popular despite her “shortcomings.” My crush on her had ebbed and flowed over the years, but was still intact.

I invited Ellen to stay with me in my apartment near the campus for a few weeks while she finished writing her thesis. She accepted the invitation and moved in. We were on completely different schedules. I would work evenings and then come home and go to sleep, while she was up all night writing. She was sleeping on a cot in my room. After a while, I invited her to share my bed, explaining that we were hardly ever asleep at the same time. We curled up next to each other, and she went to sleep. I don’t think I slept for a single minute that night. I was so excited to feel Ellen next to me that I could hardly breathe. By early morning I had worked up enough courage to put my arm around her and finally I fell asleep. This went on for days.

About a week later we watched a Bette Davis movie and drank an excess quantity of White Russians. At some point Ellen kissed me. I was so terrified – of responding, of not responding, of doing the wrong thing, of doing the right thing, of not knowing what to do at all – that I froze. After a couple of tries she gave up and never tried again. We never talked about it. Ellen moved back to her parents’ home, and we remained friends.

I was starting to come out as bisexual to a few select friends. I had a lightweight relationship with a man all the next year. Then, on Valentine’s Day of my twenty-fourth year, I met Chris, a new co-worker. Something had changed inside me, and I acted quickly and decisively for the first time. I was ready. I flirted and initiated conversation. After her second night at work I asked her out on a date. Within a week we had become lovers. She moved to my town, just a few blocks from my apartment.

While I was very comfortable when I was alone with Chris, I was still terrified of how the rest of the world would react. When leaving my house to go over to her apartment, I’d close my bedroom door in the hope that my roommate would think I was home in my own bed. I’d rush home in the morning in order to be in my own bed when my roommate woke up. During my seven-month relationship with Chris, despite the fact that we saw each other daily, I did not once tell my roommate that she and I were lovers. I found out after we had broken up that my roommate had known about us all along, and the she and Chris had discussed our relationship in great detail!

While Chris was very kind and thoughtful to me at home, she could be rather abrasive to people at work and on the street. She was one of those women who fit mainstream society’s stereotype of a lesbian, and she had encountered a lot of homophobia and harassment. As a result, she had adopted an “I don’t really give a damn” attitude toward those who were not close to her. This was very hard for me, as I most certainly did care what other people thought. Walking with Chris around our small Connecticut city was to me like walking around with a billboard stating that we were lesbians. I was nowhere near ready to do this. I also felt not completely welcomed by the local lesbian social circle. I suspect that some of their reaction had to do with the fact that I was just coming out and was very unsure of myself, and part had to do with the fact that I identified as bisexual.

During my time with Chris, I began to really apply academic learning about lesbianism and feminism to my own life. Why was I so afraid of coming out? What was I afraid of? I began to understand the systematic oppression of gay people. I began to question my own assumptions. I had always accepted that I would eventually find a male partner and have at least one child. What if I didn’t? Why would that be so upsetting to people? What if Mr. Right were a woman? Why were so many people threatened by Chris’s being butch?

Monogamy and commitment were major recurring themes in my relationship with Chris. We were most definitely in a monogamous relationship, which suited me jus fine as I have always been most comfortable with monogamy. Chris also preferred this situation. The problem was that Chris was convinced that I would leave her as soon as a man came along. She mentioned this repeatedly, and I repeatedly said that I wouldn’t. My bisexuality was very threatening to her, as she felt that I could and would choose men at any point. At other times she would take the opposite approach, discounting my bisexuality by telling me that I was really a lesbian who just hadn’t finished coming out yet.

I did end up leaving Chris, but not for a man. I left her for a new city and a new life. On Labor Day of 1982, I moved to the Boston area. During my second week in town, I went to a discussion on bisexuality at the Women’s Center in Cambridge. There were about twenty women in the room identifying as bisexual, and I was ecstatic. So many bisexuals in Cambridge! At the end of this meeting, a woman stood up and invited those interested to form a support group. I was one of eight women who joined.

Our group, which we named the BiVocals, consisted of eight very different women. We held conflicting opinions on almost every issue-sadomasochism, the raging debate over the proposed anti-pornography ordinance, monogamy. A couple of us were involved with men, a couple with women, a couple were celibate, and a couple were single and dating various people. We were secretaries, graduate students, social workers, writers, musicians, administrators, real estate developers, and various combinations of the aforementioned. One member was married and gave birth to two children during the seven-year life of our group. We argued, cried, and talked about our lives.

During its first year of existence, member of the BiVocals assisted in the formation of two more support groups. In June, we decided to hold a social event for bisexual women. We expected that twenty women, the total number of women in the three support groups, would attend. Instead twice that number showed up. We realized that there must be a lot more of us hidden out there. In September of 1983, we held the first official meeting of the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network. We expected about thirty women. Instead, over eighty women attended. We filled the largest meeting room in the Women’s Center and overflowed into the street and into the hallway and even up the staircase. The general mood was ecstatic. So many bisexual women! It was a powerful contradiction to the isolation that most if not all of us had been feeling. I grinned so continuously all evening that my cheeks ached. The Boston Bisexual Women’s Network was born.

In my personal life I’ve grown and moved in new directions. I’ve become quite comfortable with my bisexuality and am completely out of the closet-at work, at home, and sometimes even in print, on stages, and on television. I’ve been in a series of monogamous relationships since I moved to Boston, about half with women. At one point during this time, I went through a period of feeling that I must really be heterosexual and wondered why I bothered to identify as bisexual. That was just before I fell in love with a woman. A couple of years later I went through a period of feeling that I must really be a lesbian, so why was I bothering to call myself bisexual? Not too long afterward I got involved with a man. I then resolved to accept my bisexuality fully, with all of its myriad twists and turns. At present I’m single and learning for the first time how to date (the time spent between meeting someone and getting “married”). I’m still not sure whether “Person Right” will be a Ms. or a Mr., though I kind of hope that the person I fall in love with will be a Ms. I’m quite happy to be me, and very fortunate to be a bisexual woman.

 

This article is dedicated to the BiVocals and the women of the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network (BBWN), and especially to my friends Marcia Deihl and Angela Gillem, who were THERE.

 

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