“Why are you so protective of bi/pan boys?”
A good friend of mine asked me this question last month. And surprisingly, I didn’t have an answer ready for them.
Of course, it would be “easy” to say that “Oh, I’m bi too,” so I “get it.” But that’s not even it. Actually, my fierce loyalty to bisexual and pansexual men starts with my own ill-fated relationship with a bisexual cis man in college.
Let’s call him Bruce.
Not that Bruce, but you get me.
Bruce, frankly, was a beautiful man. Striking brown eyes. Facial hair that could do no wrong. Muscles in all the right places. A goofy-ass smile that was enough to derail all of my thoughts. Thick and curly black hair that the nastier parts of me definitely wanted to tug on during “quiet hours.” His only “flaws” were that he was slightly shorter than me (I was more shallow then) and a year younger, but that went out the window when he opened his mouth.
Back in college, I was way more involved in social justice groundwork. And that meant that I was eternally frustrated with the state of things. So one day, I casually said “Fuck white people” in our shared college dorm space within his earshot and voiced my frustrations with what was going on with Ferguson and Baltimore and etc with my two friends (who were Black and Brown women). Bruce looked up from what looked like some complicated Calculus work and agreed. Mind you, Bruce was a white dude. And while I would later find out that he was part Italian, part Jewish, and some other stuff (and that this identity informed his stances on social justice), in my mind, all of that added up to “spicy white” and at the end of the day, there was still this random white dude I had never formally met butting into my conversation with my girls.
He apologized for the intrusion but mentioned that we were actually talking about something interesting for once, unlike my other housemates. I nodded slowly and went about my business.
But this was far from over. I mentioned the story in jest to my play aunt (who worked at the dorm) and she chastised me for not entertaining the conversation—which was fair because it was notoriously hard for me to find friends and dates because most of the UChicago population had its head shoved up its ass and thought any part of Chicago that was not overwhelmingly white was “sketchy.” I rolled my eyes at her advice because white boys were very over-represented at this school, but just so she would give it a rest, I agreed to try to get to know the ol’ dude better.
Goddamn. I’ll go. Shit.
Fast forward to me waiting for Bruce in one of the campus coffee shops some weeks later. Dude was like 20 minutes late and I almost got up to leave until he finally came running in with flowers, huffing and puffing apologies because a class had let out late and he had missed the bus back to our main campus. I side-eyed him, but since I had been there, I sat back down so we could chat.
We had a really great talk. One that spanned our familial backgrounds (we were both first-generation Americans with demanding immigrant parents) and what we were passionate about (my film aspirations and what I wanted to do to fix media representation that was “fucked up” and his concerns about housing and him wanting to someday head the department of housing and urban development to “make things right”). We also got so into talking about some of the social justice things that we were into that the shop basically up and closed on us. But instead of ending things right there, Bruce asked if I wanted to take a walk with him. It was a beautiful day out, so I obliged. We walked a large part of the way in, oddly enough, comfortable silence—which was confusing to me since I had just met him, but not confusing to me because in talking with him, I felt like I had known him for a long time.
After some moments, he finally asked me if I was currently dating anyone. My reflex was to say “That’s none of your goddamn business,” but I merely told him “Nah” and then mentioned my humorous run-in with “Lila Sandiego,” and my short and extremely uneventful dating history with men, women, etc. and how trying to date anyone here was like that: unnecessarily complicated. His eyes lit up during my Lila story and he then interrupted me to ask if I was bi.
Ya girl was sweating BULLETS. How DARE he ask me that???
I hesitated. I had been comfortable enough to let Lila slip, but I didn’t know if he was generally curious or if he was one of those bisexual voyeurist sharks who just wanted to watch me make out with other girls. Against all common sense, I confirmed and this goofy smile slowly crawled across his face. And honestly, I didn’t really get it until he started to tell me his own history and mentioned a boy or two that he dated in high school. I, like him, was pleasantly surprised to hear that and returned his question, asking if he was also bi.
He confirmed and then asked me a question that I haven’t forgotten: “Is that okay?”
I was a little thrown. We weren’t some weird puritan sect. Of course, it was okay. Like, I was bi, too. Why wouldn’t it be okay? Why would it be cool for me to be bi, but weird for him to be?
And I relayed this much to him and my utter confusion at his question. While he breathed a sigh of relief that I had accepted him, he then added “you would be surprised” to my question of who wouldn’t and left it at that. I didn’t understand, but Bruce was trying to clue me into queer and sexual politics and how bisexual (and pansexual) people of different genders were perceived, politicized, and allowed to conduct themselves under this particular banner of queerness.
I didn’t get it. But I would.
After that walk, we started hanging out more often. Our separate study sessions in the dorm turned into a shared one. Our walks got longer. We met in the coffee shop to shoot the shit and share what we were doing in terms of organizing as of late. We also spent a lot of time joking about our mutual crushes and pointed out every person we thought was hot whenever we walked the campus together. He pointed at this dude once and called him “tall, dark, and handsome” and I said “Tall to you.” He told me to shut up and we laughed about it for 10 minutes.
I didn’t really know what to call what we were doing. A situationship? A flirtation? A really intimate friendship?
I’m not sure. But I am sure that the above occurrences were our more casual encounters. Sometimes things would get intimate. On these walks, we would often hold hands and the same went for when we were chilling in the common spaces together. I’d catch him looking at me sometimes with that goofy-ass grin and one time when I asked him about it, he simply said “I’m just casually observing how hot you are. And funny. And smart.” I replied, “Your white ass needs to stop buttering me up,” and he commented that it’s not buttering you up if it’s true.
We loved cuddling together and we often paired that shared love for cuddling with our shared love for movies. Of course, the Netflix and Chill crowd know these were the perfect conditions for…woohooing.
*cue the Sim music*
But we never got that far because we were always interrupted by something. And whenever those interruptions happened, we would laugh and he would kiss my forehead or my cheek or my nose and I would joke that “My lips are down here!”
Of course, I wasn’t gonna quantify our feelings based on what fucking base we got to. We were good where we were at.
But that didn’t last.
And one particular situation insured this would be so: how we both handled him being groped by a gay friend.
Four months later, after grabbing a bite at our favorite coffee spot, we went on one of our walks. But this time, Bruce seemed uncharacteristically quiet and I picked up on it right away. As soon as I asked about it, he told me not to get mad and of course, me being me, I informed him that people always say that right before they tell you something that makes you mad.
He chuckled at my stubbornness and, probably against his better judgment, told me anyway.
He launched into this story about how was hanging out with friends along with his friend Jessie and Jessie had started getting all touchy-feely with him. I felt bile in my throat because I had a sense of where this was going. I picked up right away that this was Bruce’s main (and straight) group of friends and while the group was close and not strangers to being touchy-feely, Jessie had been taking it a bit far. Ignoring boundaries and trying to give him massages without asking and touching his hand. This had been happening for some time, but he dismissed it as a joke.
The final straw came when they were hanging out and Jessie had “accidentally” groped him while passing him by. Bruce checked him and Jessie smugly laughed it off, calling him “confused” at first (which flattered Jessie) and then calling it an accident, but if it was it would be no big deal because he liked…
Jessie didn’t get to finish that sentence because Bruce decked him. Jessie skittered after that but left Bruce to deal with all his confused friends who hadn’t seen what happened. And presumably, because he was too flustered to explain himself, he stormed out and ended up on this walk with me.
I stopped walking immediately. He looked back at me. “What? You asked what was wrong.”
I stared at him for the longest time before I asked, “Besides Jessie, am I the only one who knows?”
Bruce stared at me and when he hesitated to say anything, I knew what the answer was.
I immediately dropped his hand and started to march in the direction of the dorm, saying that I was going to kill Jessie. Bruce yelled for me to stop, but I was seeing so much red that I didn’t hear him. I started to run, but since he was in way better shape, he ran ahead of me and blocked my path. I told him to move. He told me to leave it alone. Me being headstrong, I pushed past him and that’s when the screaming match began.
When I tried to continue walking, he yelled after me, saying that I “didn’t fucking understand” and of course, I took issue with that because I was bi too. I experienced biphobia too. And people’s weird-ass prejudices and entitlements to my body–be they gay or straight. I told him I did understand. Yelled it back at him, too, but he insisted that I didn’t.
And he was right.
Biphobia was slightly different when it came to our genders. Sure, we both weren’t taken seriously because “confusion” (ugh), but the other biphobia that we both experienced tended to rear itself in ugly and specific-ass ways.
As someone femme-presenting, I would never be “gay enough,” but my bisexuality was partly encouraged—mostly because of that voyeurism I spoke about earlier—and mostly because “I’m a girl” and “That’s what girls do.” They follow each other to the bathroom and sit on each other’s laps and hold hands and get to experiment because it’s cute—and by cute, I mean cute to tourists and “hot” to men.
This is still grossly biphobic because our sexuality doesn’t exist to be cute or gawked at, but it’s on a different realm than what Bruce most likely had experienced.
For him, as he informed me during our screaming match, the rules were different. On top of muthafuckas not even being able to do anything—like wipe their asses—without it being “gay,” Bruce had to over-perform everything depending on who he was with. With his normal friend group, he was “super manly, athletic, super bro Bruce.” And even that might not be enough if they were to ever find out he was bisexual. With Jessie (who he thought he could trust), he found that he had to over-perform his queerness so he didn’t seem like a fraud for still being into non-men—which Jessie had shaded him about more than once.
It clicked for me then. The only person he could really be himself around was me.
And that was because of the gross combinations of toxic masculinity, biphobia, and homophobia that he was dealing with. To make matters worse, he was closeted. I, for all intents and purposes, was not as closeted.
He begged me to drop the issue and, honestly, I started crying. He had only seen me cry like once before, so he was instantly worried. And when he asked me what was wrong, I said: “You deserve better. Don’t you think you deserve better?”
To which he replied: “I don’t know.”
It’s safe to say that I did not take it well.
And that’s pretty much the level of uncertainty that our relationship died with. Although Bruce assured me that things would be okay as we walked home, things weren’t okay after that. That incident changed the trajectory of our relationship.
Our walks got shorter. Our study sessions became scarce. Hands touched less. Coffee sessions skipped. All that until we were pretty much strangers again and faded back into our friend groups. He started dating other girls and I figured it was time to date other people, too. We would see each other in passing sometimes and he softly wave at me and that almost pissed me off until I realized that it was his way of checking if we were still okay, from afar at least.
I was still hurt, but I thought I would give him that much.
Fast forward to my final year, and I remember getting a call from him a couple of nights before I was gonna finally walk the stage and leave this hellhole. I had been tempted to screen his call, but my gut told me to pick up.
And just like that, it was like we had never parted ways. He caught me up on all the weird core classes he was being forced to take, his girlfriend of the week, and the latest weird happening in the dorm. I brought him up to speed on all my weird dates—including the improv one—my concerns about graduating with no job, and the latest mishaps with my roommates since I didn’t live in the dorms anymore.
We talked for hours. So much so that I finally had to tell him I needed to go because I had work in the morning. I almost hung up, but then he stopped me, asking me to wait. I sighed and asked him what he had really called about and without missing a beat, he went: “I’m sorry.”
I’m not gonna lie. Part of me was still so upset at the way our relationship had just abruptly stopped. I was heartbroken. I didn’t know what I did to deserve that.
But hearing him on the phone at that moment, in all his vulnerability, I knew him parting ways with me was less about me and more about all the ways he still was not comfortable with himself.
And so I said: “I understand.”
Which was my way of saying this.
There was an audible exhale on the other line and I heard what was probably the beginning of quiet sobs before he finally hung up.
Looking back on it now, it still fucks me up because know that he thought I had judged him over the Jessie situation and how he handled it. He probably thought that I–even with me being bi too (after all bi and lesbian women still can be biphobic towards bi men)–thought he was “confused” and less than a man because he was not yet able to be out in the open.
In reality, I had just wanted justice for him. I wanted to beat Jessie until he was unrecognizable and make him apologize for violating him in such a matter. In reality, I myself wasn’t even all the way ‘out’ because my parents and hometown community had no idea (now? I don’t give a fuck if they care because they’re not as relevant to my lives as they were then). So I would have never judged him for it. I merely just wanted him to be able to live his life on his terms.
The thing is though, while it was nice for me to want those things for him, it was his right to come to all of those conclusions himself. He should have been the one to decide what would happen to Jessie and he should have been the one to decide how exactly he was gonna live on his own terms.
And this is because bi/pan boys rarely get the space to do that because they’re always over-performing for someone. Always over-performing straightness. Or queerness. Or in our case, over-performing the fact that he was “okay” when he really wasn’t. All while shouldering expectations of toxic masculinity. At the expense of themselves.
Not realizing all of this sooner (and not treating Bruce more gently as a result), is one of my biggest regrets.
So, yeah. You’re goddamn right. I am fiercely protective of bi/pan boys.
And I have Bruce to thank for that.