Rita, who is bisexual, grew up in a conservative Christian household and was a preacher’s daughter. She shares her experiences and challenges in discovering and accepting her sexuality.
It took me a good part of my life to realise I was bisexual. I would look longingly at a girl’s lips or watch in awe at how her hair captured the afternoon sunlight. Instead of acting on my desires, I instead shoved those feelings down, in a place I hoped would never re-emerge.
I would brush off the longing and thoughts as appreciating a good-looking girl or as inspiration for my art. For the longest time, I never confronted the fact that I was bisexual due to years of religious indoctrination and cultural expectations.
My father was a Methodist preacher. As one could imagine, I grew up in a conservative Christian household. I was the Sunday school kid, the preacher’s daughter.
The Sunday school kid and the preacher’s daughter can’t be bisexual.
The church and my father always preached about love and acceptance to your fellow man at the pulpit, singing hymns to God’s glory. But conversations held after service were different. Adults would whisper about how the gays were spreading disease, they were sin incarnate and how they were disgusting would float around. These whispers were loud enough for a curious child to hear, people often forget that children can hear everything.
The church, my family, and the culture I grew up in didn’t believe in bisexuality, let alone homosexuality. It taught me that heterosexuality was the only accepted sexuality – get married to a “nice church-going Korean boy” and make lots of babies.
This mentality wasn’t just echoed by my family, the mainstream media I grew up with only showed me heterosexual relationships. I would see Disney princesses meeting their prince, fall in love and gallop into the sunset happily ever after. Korean drama VHS tapes that my parents rented out as a treat always depicted a beautiful girl and guy falling in love and eventually living happily ever after.
It seemed to me, that even the media didn’t believe in bisexuality either.
With all the above happening in my formative years, there’s no wonder I had been struggling with discussing my identity as a bisexual woman, both with my family and friends.
Despite all this, however, I caught myself having “girl crushes”, only to dismiss them as “I just want to be friends with them” or “I want to be like them”. Thinking about it now, these excuses were probably an escape from confronting my true feelings. Even when I had acknowledged my true feelings, even for a second, I felt ashamed.
All the horrible things my family and their fellow churchgoers said about “those disgusting, unnatural gays” made me push down those feelings. This would go on for years – like a girl, brush feelings off, have nightmares about rejection if they ever found out how I really felt, shame and then push feelings away. Rinse and repeat.
May (not her real name) was a beautiful girl, and everyone in school knew it. I felt so lucky to be her friend from intermediate to high school. We were close enough to hang out after school, on the weekends and then sleep over (always at my place however, mum never liked me sleeping over at a Māori friend’s place).
During these sleepovers where we would discuss crushes (only boy crushes), future dreams, T.V shows, and all the things teenage girls talk about. One time, May wanted to try plucking her eyebrows and wanted me to do it for her. I happily obliged and started plucking. At one point, after her laughter and complaints of this painful treatment subsided, I caught myself looking at her face and then lips.
I didn’t want to, but I imagined myself kissing her. I wanted to hold her face, leave her sweet kisses and have her hold me. But then the thoughts of her going “ew, what are you doing you lesbo?!” and then telling the school that I liked girls surged into my brain.
Shame and fear made me brush off these thoughts and push them down. We never had another sleepover again.
After that, I would have many more girl crushes, even when I was dating guys. By the time I was 17, it was harder and harder to hide my true feelings about other girls, no matter how many guys I threw myself at.
It got to the point where I would fantasise about them in my dreams or if I had enough drinks in me, ask in a guise of a joke, “wouldn’t it be hilarious if we made out?” They would usually laugh at this thinly veiled joke and forget about it as soon as we were sober.
My go-to plan of suppressing and denying my feelings was no longer working.
The first time I ever talked about my sexuality was to my mum. I was sitting in the kitchen with her, prepping vegetables for lunch or sipping cups of tea, I don’t exactly remember, I was probably 19 at the time. I do remember the exchange that followed:
“Hey mum?” “Yeah?” “What if I bought home a girlfriend?” “Like a friend kind of girlfriend?” “No…Like a girlfriend, girlfriend” I said, emphasizing the word girlfriend very strongly.
“Are you gay?” My mum asks.
I pause. This is the first time someone asked me point-blank. Am I gay? I was not prepared for such a direct question; I didn’t know what I expected out of this and ended up shrugging it off.
“Nah, I was just wondering.” My mum gives me a bemused look and gets back to whatever she was doing. But, without looking up, she says:
“Well, I really wouldn’t mind. Whatever floats your boat!”
I wasn’t sure if this was ambivalence or acceptance, but it was the closest I ever came to (sort of) coming out to anyone.
Even after this event, I still cautiously walked around the conversations about my sexuality with others. That is until I moved to Wellington, New Zealand in 2015 to study Fine Arts. Unlike my hometown of Rotorua, Wellington was more accepting of the LGBT community.
People were more open, not just about their sexuality but who they were as people. I saw this when wandering around town, browsing shops, looking through dating profiles and in my classes. This made me feel more at ease with myself and gradually, I was able to confront my feelings, though this was still a slow process.
However, slowly but surely, the people around me and even the mainstream media that came out in recent years wore down the religious indoctrination and cultural expectations that served as walls barring me from acknowledging my true feelings.
I no longer have to hide behind the walls and excuses myself and others had created to suppress my true feelings. Friends and public figures like Korean American comedian Margaret Cho, helped me contextualise what was going on in my formative years and understand what was going on in my mind.
I feel like I am in a better place knowing I don’t have to feel ashamed and hide that I am bi.
For a long time, I skirted around the issue, joked about making out with other girls, and maybe even whispered “hey, I think I might be bi”.
Now, at 28 years old, I can finally scream out, “I am bisexual!”
Illustrations by Aimée Sullivan. Follow her on Instagram: @aimeeisokay
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