Everybody loves you when you’re bi, but I was learning to love myself
Dear Future Self,
Last year I wrote to you about the day I met Anxiety and Depression, but we’ve never really talked about why all of that happened, have we? To be fair, I haven’t talked to many people at all about it. I’ve certainly never written songs or letters like this about it, mainly because I didn’t want to dwell on ‘the reason’ I suffered from anxiety and depression; I didn’t want it to overshadow the experience itself—to be the only part people remembered. Also, if I’d written to you about it in the past, I would have been seeking acceptance. I’ve certainly fallen into that trap before: telling people my story because I desperately wanted them to like me. It took me years, but when I finally accepted my sexuality, my need for it to be accepted fell away. And I saw, for the first time, why it was so important for me to love every single part of my true self, especially the parts that sometimes I’d have given anything to make disappear. So why am I writing to you about my sexuality now? Because I’ve realised that I don’t need to feel alone in it anymore—and you know what, neither do you.
It all began in 1998: the year I moved out of the family home on the Sunshine Coast to go to university in Brisbane. That was when it dawned on me that I didn’t really know myself very well. I’d hidden parts of me from myself; I’d lied to myself. This sense of self-deception came to a crescendo one night when my first-ever girlfriend looked at me quizzically and said, ‘You’re not like other guys, are you?’ It was more a statement than a question. She’d just broken up with her boyfriend of several years and I was the rebound guy. She was older than me and infinitely more experienced in matters of love and sex. I was a virgin and she was the first girl I’d ever kissed properly. Back then my concept of ‘real’ kissing was based on the pashing I’d seen on Beverly Hills 90210. I knew that a peck on the lips wasn’t real kissing—and that was all I’d done before. Brandon, Dylan, Brenda, Kelly and the rest of the cast had taught me that a real kiss involved a certain amount of frantic devouring: like a Biggest Loser contestant let loose at Sizzler. Basically it had to look like you were trying to clean someone’s tonsils with your tongue. So one night, as we lay together on my single mattress on the floor, kissing, she paused and looked into my eyes. I was touching her, but fairly innocent parts: her stomach, her arms, her hair. I could tell that she was waiting for me to cross the invisible threshold and touch her somewhere that mattered—to ‘be a man’ and initiate sex. But as I lay there, my soaring teenage horniness was met with an equally powerful force: fear and anxiety—I had no idea what I was doing. And as these forces collided, they cancelled each other out; I was paralysed, unable to do anything. And I thought to myself, ‘It’s true; I’m not like other guys—I never have been.’
When I was in preschool, the kids used to play a game at lunchtime. We were a bit young for ‘catch and kiss’, so the boys would just chase the girls and try to grab them—like they were flags in the sand at Nippers—and the girls would run and hide in playground equipment. Most of the girls would squeal and laugh in delight, but some of them didn’t seem to enjoy the game or know how to stop it once they were tired of it. Apparently I didn’t really like the game either. So what did I do? Well, I created a third role in the game: I became ‘the protector’. Whether the girls needed a protector or not, that was the role I assumed and felt comfortable in. So when a boy got close enough to a girl and was about to grab her, I would block the way and protect the girl. Recently when I recounted this story to my wife, she laughed and said, ‘That sounds pretty gay … you wanted the boys to chase you, didn’t you?’ But I didn’t, not really. Or if I did, I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that I wasn’t like the other boys, and I wasn’t like the girls either. It was the first time in my life that I’d felt different.
On one of my first days at university I had a moment that I’d later learn in a film and television screenwriting class was called a ‘turning point’: a major moment in a film’s plot that changed the course of the protagonist’s life forever. I was waiting in the foyer of B Block at QUT’s Gardens Point campus for one of my classes to start. As I gazed out across the lawns towards the botanic gardens I saw someone that made my blood pump a little faster and my senses go into overdrive. At first I didn’t think there was anything strange about it—it was what usually happened when I saw a girl I was attracted to. And then my stomach turned over several times—my brain had only just caught up with the rest of my body. I wasn’t looking at a girl: it was a guy. My heart rate increased and I started panicking. I thought, ‘What? This can’t be happening. I mean, I’m pretty sure I still like girls; so what does this mean?’ In that moment it felt like a door opened in my mind—a door that lead to a room I’d kept closed my entire life. As I opened the door and stared into the pitch-black void, terrified, I had no idea what I was going to find. I was suddenly overwhelmed by fear of the unknown: who the hell was I?
The cause of my anxiety and depression in subsequent years wasn’t my sexuality as such, it was the way I felt about it and the way I dealt with it—or more accurately, didn’t deal with it—that were the real problems. Suddenly there was this thing about me that I didn’t understand, and for the first time in my life I felt completely out of control. Sometimes I hated this new part of me; it was as if something foreign was growing in me, and all I wanted to do was cut it out with a knife. I judged myself more harshly than anyone else did, and for a long time I found it difficult to even like myself.
When I told my parents I was having anxiety attacks because I was attracted to women and men, they were pretty supportive—even if they didn’t understand. Dad said, ‘Well … that’s not so bad is it?’ Mum listened, asked questions, hugged me and told me that she loved me. She also said motherly things to protect me, like, ‘If you can choose, why would you choose to be with a man?’ She wasn’t being homophobic; in her mind that lifestyle was much more difficult in our society—and perhaps she was right. But I wasn’t thinking in those terms, I couldn’t. And I replied with the only thing I knew to be true: ‘You can’t help who you are attracted to, or who you fall in love with’. I’m grateful for how they reacted, because even if they couldn’t really be there for me during that part of my life—or didn’t know how to—I always felt like they loved me, and that was enough.
So from the age of nineteen to twenty-five I dated girls and boys—but mostly I dated no one. As I discovered, though, there was a widely held assumption that if you were capable of being attracted to both sexes, then your life must have been a sexual smorgasbord. And if you actually had a relationship you were probably seeing someone else on the side—as if monogamy and bisexuality were mutually exclusive. Just like the Living Colour song from the early nineties, Bi, intoned, ‘There’s a category if you’re straight or gay. You’re a wild card gambler if you like it both ways. Everybody wants you when you’re bi. Looking at the girls and eyeing all the guys. Everybody loves you when you’re bi. But the tension and the passion’s double amplified.’ This sounded like an orgy at a casino to me, but it wasn’t my experience—not at all. I could only ever date one person at a time; that was complicated enough for me. When I tried to explain it to people, I often likened my love life to playing a game of darts with two target boards: never really knowing which board to throw the dart at.
The other popular assumption I encountered was that I was going through a ‘phase’. Some of my gay friends assumed this was a stepping-stone to becoming a fully-fledged homo, and some of my straight friends thought I was just experimenting and that I’d grow out of it. Whether perceived or real, I felt like everyone was eager for this ‘seesaw’ period of my life to be over so they could hurry up and put me in a clearly labeled box—like a sitcom where everything goes back to normal at the end of the half hour. It seemed almost inconceivable to people that I wouldn’t eventually ‘choose a side’, even if simply for their own peace of mind and ease of understanding me. After all, how could I remain present in two different spaces at once, forever? At this point I started to realise that other people didn’t cope very well with grey areas in life either—especially when those grey areas related to sexuality.
So I watched and listened closely to the people around me, to the media, to anything I could latch on to, as I tried to understand my place in the world. I learned quickly that most people liked to talk about sexuality in absolutes: straight and gay. But I always felt like they were closer to the truth of the matter when they’d talk about a ‘sexual preference’—that people preferred men or women. In other words, if the first preference wasn’t available or that appealing, then perhaps they’d choose the other. For example, if a straight man had to choose between having sex with, say, Gina Rinehart and Ryan Gosling, was the choice really that obvious for him? It wasn’t for me (well actually it was: I was never going to choose Gina just because she had a vagina)—but maybe that’s what made me different. Also, I didn’t know how else to explain what so often happened to ‘straight’ men in environments where there weren’t any women around—like boarding schools, prison, or, you know … the navy. (I admit, Future Self, that some of these encounters were probably violent and non-consensual, but not always. Often a sexual encounter was simply sought with whoever was around.) I even came up with a term to describe it: situational sexuality. The theory being that your sexuality is defined in part by your situation: you might normally identify as straight, but in certain situations your sexual behaviour changes. So if you get stuck on an island, Lord of the Flies style, surrounded only by other men, what do you do? Evidently some straight men seek the company of other men. After all, intimacy is a human act, not a straight or a gay act. We get so bent out of shape and obsessed with labeling all the different kinds of intimate acts between people—and what they ‘mean’ and what label they belong to—that we miss the whole point: that they all mean the same thing. They are all acts of love and intimacy. At a basic human level we all want to be loved and have someone to love, and connect with other people physically. I used to get so confounded and annoyed by the behaviour I’d see in people around me and think, ‘How many same-sex encounters can someone have and still call themselves straight?’ But what I learned is that it didn’t matter, and the answer to my rhetorical question was ‘as many as they want’, because ‘straight’ is just a label, and like most labels it has grey areas. Often it only indicates a preference, and like most things in life it can mean something slightly different to everybody.
I don’t like to use a label to help people understand who I am. I’m not straight, and I’m not gay. I’m Ross. And I’m going to be Ross for the rest of my life—it’s not a phase. I don’t avoid the labels ‘gay’, ‘straight’ or ‘bisexual’ because of any disrespect I have for them, or for any lack of acceptance of myself, but because I feel that they are limiting and somewhat de-humanising. Rather than these three distinct categories (as well as ‘transgender’ and ‘intersex’ in other contexts), to me, sexuality has always been more of a sliding scale: with ‘absolutely gay’ at one end and ‘absolutely straight’ at the other, and with many shades of grey in between. (I won’t say Fifty Shades of Grey because that would be a crime against any sexuality—and erotica, and words.) At some point I realised that if there was any truth to my sliding scale theory, then there had to be other people out there who had struggled, or were still struggling, with the same issues I had—alone and in silence. Many people who were unable to admit the grey areas of their sexuality, even to themselves.
When I first accepted that I existed in some no man’s land between straight and gay, the one thing that made me feel better was this mantra: ‘You can’t be the only person in the world who feels like this; you can’t be completely unique. So you mustn’t be alone.’ For a while, like a camp Sherlock Holmes, I tried to find evidence of gayness in the people around me to make myself feel better. ‘Surely that guy is a bit … you know.’ And then eventually I just stopped; I knew I was being sad and desperate because I felt alone. So I accepted that what other people did wasn’t important, and I focused on myself. Even though I had no one to look up to who had walked this particularly curly life path, I decided I didn’t need anyone. I said to myself that if I didn’t have any role models or leaders—if there was no clear example to follow—then I had to be my own role model; I had to be my own leader. It was time to stop searching for acceptance and time to start leading by example.
Sometimes I think about my eighteen-year-old self, staring across the lawns at QUT, and I want to say to him what I wish someone had said to me at the time: ‘You are exactly how you are meant to be; you are perfect just as you are. I know that your anxiety is almost overwhelming and you’re trying to decide which end of the sexual spectrum you belong to, but you don’t need to decide. Just allow yourself to be. Allow uncertainty and contradictions. Allow grey areas—these are the very nature of life. But most of all, remember that you’re not alone in anything; you’re not alone in trying to be.
In 2010 I married the love of my life: Megan Reeder Hope. And now, in early 2014, we’ve just had our very first child: Ava Adore Hope. I have no idea what people from my past think of me now; perhaps they assume that the young, confused boy they knew grew out of a phase. Maybe they say, with a wink and a smile as they gossip over a cup of tea, ‘Oh he’s straight now: married with kids.’ But the truth is I’m not straight. I’m Ross. I fell in love with an amazing woman, but that could just as easily have been a man. In fact, if Meg were a man, I would have fallen in love with him—because I fell in love with the person. I feel very fortunate to have a partner like Meg who not only accepts my sexuality, but embraces it. She’s just as encouraging of my cheesy celebrity crushes on Miranda Kerr and Zooey Deschanel as she is when we find the same guy hot. Yes, it’s unconventional, but it’s open and honest—and it works for us. For a long time I wondered if people like me even got married or became fathers; I was hardly tripping over examples of people who did. I thought, ‘What happens to that other bit—the bit that finds men attractive—while I’m married to a woman?’ Then one day my therapist pointed out to me that all married men looked at other women, so did it really matter that I looked at other women and men? He was right; it didn’t matter. As with any relationship, it was the integrity of my actions that mattered. And for me that meant always being monogamous.
The greatest lesson I’ve ever learned about love I learned by dealing with my sexuality. It wasn’t Living Colour’s wry assertion that ‘Everybody loves you when you’re bi’—in truth, it had a lot more to do with Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All. (And yes, I know, the only thing gayer than this would have been a Cher song.) As a child I’d never understood the lyrics to the song; back then if you loved yourself you were arrogant—you were a wanker. But once I’d learned what it felt like to really hate myself, the song lyrics started to make a lot more sense. I could see that they were more about self-acceptance-as-transformation and the importance of being your own role model, rather than masturbation: ‘Everybody’s searching for a hero. People need someone to look up to. I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs. A lonely place to be, and so I learned to depend on me … Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all’. Whitney got one thing wrong though: the greatest love of all isn’t ‘easy to achieve’. But as I learned, it is worth all the growing pains. Because when you love yourself, life reflects this back at you and it feels like you’re surrounded by love. But when you don’t love yourself, life reflects this back at you—creating a lot of pain in your life, and making a real, loving relationship with anyone else almost impossible. And even if it’s only one part of yourself that you don’t love, the same message gets reflected. Because if you don’t love all the individual pieces, you can’t truly love the whole.
I never imagined that any good would come from listening to a Whitney Houston song, or from having anxiety attacks about my sexuality. Especially after my first major turning point, back in 1998, when it felt like I was dragged—kicking and screaming—down a dimly-lit path where I had to confront my greatest fear. (I wasn’t afraid of spiders or heights or confined spaces: my greatest fear was myself.) But in facing and overcoming this fear, the very same path then gave me the greatest gift in return: the ability to love myself. Every. Single. Bit.
Yours forever in the here and now,