Misty Gedlinske
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Imagine having a superpower. We've talked about that today. If you could choose yours, which one would you pick? Strength? Speed? X-ray vision? Would you want to be able to fly? Travel through time? Or move objects with your mind? Maybe just find your car keys. Suppose your power is invisibility. Maybe you chose it, or maybe it was assigned to you. Either way, this might come in handy. Bullies and villains can't see you. You can go where you want, do pretty much whatever you like, and so long as you take a few precautions, no one will even know that you're there. If they do see you, they won't realize who you really are. They'll only see your mild-mannered alter ego. Your true identity will remain a secret. Sounds pretty cool, right? What if I told you that a certain kind of invisibility is real, and it's less rare that you might think? In fact, I have it myself, and I'm using it right now. Now, some of you are nudging your neighbor, and thinking: "What is she talking about? I'm looking right at her." True, yes. But what are you seeing? Right now, the image I'm projecting is one of the short Caucasian woman approaching middle age. (Laughter) It's true. She has wavy hair and wears glasses. That wavy hair is turning more and more gray. She lives in an old house with a picket fence, in a small Midwestern city. She has three kids, and a dog, and drives a station wagon. People now tend to call her "Ma'am," and she's okay with that. She doesn't drink wine, but she does wear yoga pants, and her fangirl crushes - y'all, let me tell you - on certain British celebrities can be seen from space. "Netflix and chill" - look that up - now sometimes means exactly that because she might fall asleep in front of a TV at around 9 pm. You know her type, or at least you think you do. There are lots of people who have my kind of invisibility. There may be others in this room. Some of us like me also have these nifty rings of power that amplify their invisibility even more. If we take them off, those around us will still only see the version of us they choose to, the one that fits their expectations and perspective. Everything I just shared about my alter ego is true about me. It's just not the whole truth. My invisibility powers come from being bisexual and are reinforced by being committed to an opposite sex partner. My ring of power - and God help if I drop it - is my wedding band. The assumption that people make about folks who have opposite sex partners or are just not open about their orientation is that we're straight, or heterosexual. Some might say this is an advantage, or even a form of privilege. By straight-passing, we can avoid a lot of the negative things that same-sex couples or openly gay or lesbian people experience. For example, we can hold our opposite-sex partner's hand in public without critical or hostile reactions. We can display family photographs in our workplaces without worrying how our co-workers or clients might react. Our anniversaries and other relationship milestones are congratulated and celebrated. If we have children, nobody asks us, "Which one of you is the mom?" We are spared from prying or insulting comments about how we express physical intimacy. In a medical emergency, we have prompt unquestioned access to our partner's or children's location or health status. Our marriage license applications are filed without objection, and nobody gets nervous about which bathroom we use. However, there is a catch. Power comes with a price, and invisibility still has weight. Maintaining the secret can feel like living a lie. This kind of invisibility is a little wonky, and it doesn't like to obey you. It can be very, very difficult to turn your powers off, even when you really want to, because much of what sustains your invisibility is the assumptions of other people. When the power of those assumptions combines with the power of fear, the results are so strong the affected person can become invisible even to themselves. We compartimetalize a portion of our identity so we can better conform to what some might consider normal, or acceptable. We lie by omission and hide in plain sight. We allow our silence to make ourselves complicit in our own disappearance. Not all of us. Some bisexuals choose to actively reject invisibility. They are persistently open and vocal about how their orientation contributes to the complete scope of their identities. Well, I'm done here. I wish. It's not that simple. Because invisibility has a nasty little sidekick, and its name is "erasure." Erasure says that bisexuals are confused, indecisive, going through a phase, or that we just want attention. It depicts us as greedy, untrustworthy, and incapable of monogamy or a long-term commitment. Erasure steals our agency and allows others to define our orientation for us based on the sex or gender of our partner. Erasure is double-sided, and it tells bisexuals, "You are too straight for queer spaces, and not queer enough for gay spaces." Erasure says to bisexual men, "Yeah, you're really gay and just don't want to say so." Erasure expects bisexual women to prove it, usually in performative ways. Keeping erasure at bay means coming out over and over again, answering questions that other people don't get faced with, trying not to sound too defensive, and doing your best not to disappear. Erasure is frustrating and exhausting. So, why fight it? We know who we are, right? Neither "straight" nor "gay" is an insult. It's just not the correct label for us. Why not go back to just letting people assume what they want and spare ourselves the trouble? Because forcing yourself to fit into a false binary means pretending to be something you're not and hiding all of who you really are. It's just another type of closet. It's toxic, and it is slowly killing many of us. Bisexuals are people who experience some degree of romantic or sexual attraction to people of their same sex or gender as well as people of a different sex or gender. We make up 52% of that acronym, but we're often a silent majority. We are six times more likely than gays or lesbians to hide our orientation from even our closest friends or family members. Only 44% of bisexual youth report being able to confide in a trusted adult. Bisexual youth and adults report higher rates of binge drinking, tobacco use, and substance abuse. More than a third of bisexual adults do not disclose their orientation to their medical providers. This contributes to multiple physical and mental health dispairities between us and straight adults. Those include higher rates of heart disease, certain types of cancer, obesity, anxiety, and depression. Many sexual health education programs are presented either from a heterosexual perspective, or focus on abstinence. As a result, bisexuals women may not be aware of certain safe practices needed to prevent STI transmission between female partners. Bisexual men are less likely than gay men to know their HIV status, and some report using condoms less consistently with male partners than with females. Bisexual women experience intimate-partner and sexual violence at a 30% higher rate than their lesbian or straight counterparts. Forty percent of bisexual adults have considered or attempted suicide. Now, bummer: nobody wants to be summed up as a negative statistic or a tragic cliché. Sometimes it starts a little voice in your head that says: "I am just going to stay quiet, because isn't it better to be invisible than to be demonized? I don't mind being mislabeled, if it means I'm not going to be seen as defective or lesser." That voice can get really, really loud. Please don't listen to it. That way lies self-hatred, and it will eat you alive. It's not true, it's not fair, and nobody deserves it. The problem is not being bisexual. The problem is how other people misunderstand it and respond poorly to it. I came out publicly less than two years ago. Yeah. I didn't do it because I was bored or unhappy with my marriage, or because I wanted attention, having some sort of midlife crisis. No. I came out because I started thinking about the difference between private and secret and how that difference affected me and others. Privacy infers a value. Private things are kept to a limited audience because they're special. Secrecy implies fear or shame. I looked back on passed relationships where I had chosen to keep my orientation a secret or had hidden the relationship itself, and I remembered how fear and shame factored into those decisions: fear that my partner would question my commitment to them, fear that they would treat me as a means of acting out certain fantasies, fear that they would leave; shame that I knew I wasn't being entirely honest about myself, shame that my concern about how people might react to my same-sex relationships caused me to only be open about my opposite-sex ones, shame over the hurt those decisions caused others. I shut my mouth, if you can believe that, and presented what I thought was least complicated. I told myself it was better that way, even when it clearly wasn't. I recalled to how I had finally broken out of that cycle, not by continuing to hide things about myself, but by finally taking the risk of being open and honest with someone I trusted. My spouse has been aware of my orientation since the very beginning of our relationship. That was 18 years ago. At that time, he was the only person close to me who knew. We've had our share of challenges as long-term couples do. None of those issues have been caused by either of us expecting the other to hide, or lie, or pretend. Ours is an opposite-sex marriage. It is not a straight marriage. I used the word "spouse" because it means chosen life partner. And it would be equally true for me whether I married a Stephen or a Stephanie. I picked a partner, not a side. I am monogamously married to a heterosexual cisgender man. I am the mother of three children. I'm still bisexual. I've been asked if my children know my orientation, or if I plan to tell them. They all know, in ways that we felt were appropriate to their respective ages, and the reason for that is I wanted them to undestand that orientation is nothing shameful and that identity is not tabu. Queer people are more than caricatures and stereotypes. Our relationships involve emotional connection, affection, patience, and commitment. We are are all, everyone of us, more than the sum of our parts and what we might do with them. If any of the kids ever says, at a family dinner, "Mom, Dad, I'm ..." Fill in the blank - "Please, pass the peas," I want them to know the shocking part of that statement is their willingness to eat a green vegetable. (Laughter) When invisibility becomes toxic, when it is no longer a matter of privacy, but one of secrecy and half-truth, it's time to kick that to the curb. Doing that is never easy. But I'm going to tell you, it is empowering. By choosing to reveal ourselves, we get to set the terms. We can insist on our own legitimacy. When we set that not superpower down, we understand how heavy that invisibility burden was and how much freer we are without it. We stop worrying if we're gay enough or straight enough, and we get to just be enough. This can be that start toward being seen and known as our full selves, toward relationships built on complete truth and shared with the world in whatever way we choose. By living openly, we can help those who need accessible, realistic role models, because now they can see us in that light. Getting to this point may take time, and courage, and small steps. Not all of those steps will be linear or feel like forward progress. Things may get awkward, uncomfortable, or even scary. You may find out the hard way who your true friends and allies really are. Take your time with it, if you need to. There is no deadline or expiration date on your truth. If right now you only feel comfortable or even safe in whispering your truth to yourself, say it anyway. Be visible first and foremost to yourself. Do not trade your invisibility for a hero complex. You don't owe that to anybody. The only person you're obligated to save is you. (Applause)