"One or the other is easier for people to comprehend. A lot of people disregard bisexual people because they think that it is almost unfair and that we just want to have all the options," said Connor Riley, recent college graduate of West Chester University. We at PA Parent and Family Alliance sat down with Riley to gain some insight on how his mental health was impacted by coming out to his loved ones, how he has grown into self-acceptance, what the term "bi erasure" means, and how to combat it. He also had advice to share with bisexual youth who are having a hard time understanding themselves, and for the parents of those children to ensure the happiness and mental wellbeing of their child.
"My family has a history with bipolar disorder, as well as anxiety and depression. I personally have social anxiety, I also get depressed but I wouldn't say I am depressed. Instead of shutting down I overwork. I am a people pleaser, I am a huge worrier," said Riley about his personal history with mental health. Riley's parents got divorced when he was 2 years old. He looks back on the divorce and "the aftermath" as a hardship for his family, and his own mental health. While the divorce, twenty years later, remains "messy" at times it has given him the opportunity to gain more loved ones. Both of his parents have since remarried and he has step-siblings on both sides.
For tips on how parents can handle divorce to ensure their children's mental wellness check out our recent blog post, "My Family is not "Broken" and Neither is Yours."
While having a large extended family is, of course, a blessing, it also can put pressure on a young person who is struggling to accept and share their sexual identity. "As a kid, in grade school I hated myself for it. I was raised in a very religious family so I think that has a lot to do with it, " said Riley. He came out to a select number of very close friends at the age of 17 and at 18 he came out to his family. "I never did a big social media post or anything. I do not want it to be my defining personality trait, it is just a part of the person that I am."
Riley remembers that his mom was the person who he felt like he had his "big coming out moment" with. She was very accepting and Riley described her reaction as very cute and humorous. He felt supported by her and discussed how after he told her she would run into his room periodically with different articles she had read about the bisexual community. While things with his mother went well it was not exactly the case with his entire family.
"I felt like a spectacle. As I told more of my family it felt less about me and more about who I came out to first and the fact that they now had this LGBTQ son. It was like I was almost "tokenized".
While a majority of Riley's family knows about his bisexuality, and they are accepting; some are not as okay with it. "There are some family members I never told they just found out from other people. If they have any questions they ask my mom and not me directly," said Riley. His coming out was not perfect, but he does feel a lot closer to his loved ones after it and feels much more authentic to himself.
"The thing about being bipolar is that for a lot of people it isn't 50/50. I can't say half the time I'm happy and half the time I'm sad. My sexuality is similar. I am attracted to both men and women but it is not completely even. At this point in my life I feel more intrigued by men," said Riley. At the time of his coming out, Riley had a girlfriend who also was confused about her sexuality. He to this day is friends with his ex girlfriend but knew that he needed to end the relationship in order to fully understand who he was and what he wanted at such a transformative time in his life.
The concept of bi erasure is one that is very near and dear to Riley's heart but is also one that is not incredibly well known. The term refers to the fact that many people often view bisexuality as a phase, over sexualize it, or question the legitimacy of it. "Many people see bisexuality as a stepping stone into being gay or a lesbian. Some people think that it would be easier to come out as liking both before coming out "fully".
Riley mentions that this phenomenon is not unique to people who don't understand the LGBTQ+ community, but sometimes the community themselves. He remembers many instances where people even in the community have made remarks like "come on you are gay." He went on to explain that this happens a lot when someone in the bisexual community starts to date someone of the same gender.
Another aspect of this concept is that people that are bisexual are often overly sexualized. Their sexual orientation can be seen as them being simply promiscuous and wanting to have as many sexual partners as possible. Riley mentioned that many people do not think bisexual people want or are capable of being monogamous and that is obviously false. "These judgements have often made me feel like I should just chose a side because it would be so much easier but I am not going to do that. I want to be myself and I am not boxing myself in just so it is easier for others to understand," said Riley.
As for his advice about coming out he wanted bisexual youth to know, "As long as you don't fear for your life and you have accepted it for yourself, tell the people you think deserve to know. If they love you they will eventually accept you." He had slightly more to say to parents about making sure they are there for their children during this incredibly stressful time. "Don't assume that you know what they are going through, every coming out is different every person who is not heterosexual deals with different things in their own way. Be patient with them it could be possible that they might be gay or it could be this is them and its not a phase. Listen to them. The best way you can help them is to listen to them. If they want advice or a soundboard, be it. Don't pressure them, don't over-analyze what they are going through, be supportive and listen."
PA Parent and Family Alliance wants to make sure all families are accepted and understood in all aspects of planning mental health services and representation across the state and in local communities. If you're interested in learning more about how you can become involved to represent families like yours across the state contact us at https://www.paparentandfamilyalliance.org/be-supported or Share Your Voice by becoming an Alliance Member