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He's Queer, I'm Straight, and It's Great Except...

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elinor asks:

Help! I'm in a relationship with a man (I identify as a straight woman) who identifies as queer. He's mostly had sex with men in the past (there might have been 1 woman), but this is first heterosexual relationship. It's also my first relationship with a queer man. I really care for him, but I am struggling with checking my own heteronormative attitudes. For example, I don't know how to get over the fact that he enjoys watching gay porn, and mostly gets off to men. We still have great sex together and I know he is attracted to me, and I try to remind myself of this when I find myself getting bothered by what turns him on. I'm learning to love, not accept, that he is queer and that he has made me shift my thinking about relationships and sexuality so much. However, I still don't know how to get myself out of these moments, sometimes ongoing, of insecurity.

Heather Corinna replies:

elinor's question continued:

I know many people experience different romantic vs sexual attraction, and from talking to him, I feel like he is a little more sexually attracted to men, and a more romantically attracted to women. We also have a very friendly/open sort of relationship (we started off as really good friends) where we talk openly about everything (something that seems to weird out my straight friends, especially when he talks about having sex with men). I love that we have this, but I can't deny there are plenty of moments when he tells me how hot his favorite male porn star is or how horny he is after watching some video and I feel confused. We have talked about this, and he assured me that he wanted to be with me. Yet, I still feel increasingly insecure. I don't want to make him feel like he has to repress a part of himself in order to be with me (and he is the type of person that would hide it from me if he saw it was hurting me). Can you give me some pointers on how to deal with this on my own, or what I should talk to him about?

I'm glad you asked this question. I'm hoping I can give you some helps to evaluate your feelings, explore them some more, and find some things to talk about with your partner and perhaps work through and adjust together. I do suspect this is something where we might do a lot better having a conversation with some back-and-forth, so when you're done reading this, if it doesn't really do it for you, or you want to talk some more, you can hop on over to our message boards here and I'll be glad to talk with you.

Before anything else, I'd be real with yourself about how bothered you are by what, as you say, turns him on. I'm not sure what you mean by that, but if there's a big conflict between what he finds sexually exciting and wants to do, or how he wants to do it, and what you're comfortable with and works for you, I'd start with a step back to make sure that a sexual relationship is really the right one for the two of you, or that it feels best emotionally to be in a sexual relationship with him right now rather than dialing things back to a more gradual place while you figure out what you're really okay with and what you're not, and how you two do and don't mesh in this regard. In doing that, I'd encourage you to let go of worries that you're being heteronormative or heterosexist: figuring out what you're comfortable with or not in your intimate relationships like this truly isn't going to impact someone else's rights and liberties.

One thing I'd say to your questions and issues here, and I say this both as a sex educator, but also as a queer person, is that something that tends to get lost in translation for people who are only attracted to people of one gender when trying to understand those of us attracted to more than one is that gender is often a lot less relevant -- and sometimes even totally irrelevant -- for many of us who are queer and attracted to people of more than one gender.

Now, that can make some people feel more comfortable, while it makes others less so. If you're someone, for instance, for whom gender is a huge part of who you are, then a partner who could care less if you were a man or a woman might feel uncomfortable. You might really want your femininity or womanhood to be something a partner is super-duper into; for whom it is very relevant. I can't speak for you in this regard to know, nor can I say how important or unimportant your gender is to your partner. But, on the whole, gender often is far less important to queer people than it is to straight people.

On the other hand, that gender-whatever-thang can be a very freeing thing for people, especially in a world that puts gender so front-and-center all the damn time. And if you have the idea that the fact that you're a woman somehow makes his feelings for you more iffy because he's had a lot of history with men, and is also attracted to men, seeing that gender probably plays way less of a part for him as a queer person than it does for you as a straight person might give you some breathing room. At the very least, I'm hoping pointing that out might help you recognize that chances are good that gender in this equation is probably a bigger issue for you than it is for him.

I think if you can take some time to think about what role you want your gender -- or gender, period -- to play in your sexual or romantic relationships, and how, ideally, you want a partner to see your gender in that regard, how much focus and weight you like it to have, that could give you some good starts for talking about some of this together.

Something I'd suggest thinking about for yourself with this, too, are your feelings and ideas about male sexuality. When I say "male sexuality," for the record, I'm really talking about however you conceive that yourself. Sexuality is so diverse that while we hear a lot about "male sexuality" and "female sexuality," and our world tends to often have some simplistic ideas about this that we can't help but pick up, in actuality, there are so very many parts of sexuality for every person, and we all differ so much in our sexualities (and the ways we experience, perform and present our gender) that I find those terms to be mostly useless because the diversity is so great even amongst people of one given gender. But where they're not useless is when ideas about those things may be playing a part, as they often are, in our sexualities or sexual relationships: then it makes sense, I think, to explore our feelings about those ideas.

For example, often cultures, media, peers and even partners suggest, claim or present male sexuality as the sexuality that is more powerful than any other. It's easy for women to get the message that their sexuality pales in comparison, is only adjunct to male sexuality (or even only exists when male sexuality is part of it!), or can't possibly compete. Of course, in much of our world men, on the whole do have more power, and sexuality that belongs to men, and is performed by men, thus, is also often given more power and freedom of expression. There's no making those larger inequities just go away in a relationship, but everyone in a relationship can take them into account and be mindful about them, while aiming for equity within the relationship itself. We can also be real with each other about whatever feelings we have about them. It might be that some of your feelings about his sexual history and the porn he likes, and "what turns him on," have something to do with feelings like these.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you aren't women. You're just you, one woman. That's all you have to be.

You're not, and don't have to be, the representative of all women, and I'm sure he's not elected you for that position. What I was talking about up there about gender likely being less relevant to your partner? That plays into this. With someone for whom it doesn't really matter what your gender is, or where you wouldn't have to be a woman for him to have the relationship with you you're having, you've a lot more room to let go of any sense that you have to be The Woman for or with this person. You have more room to just be you, where being a woman is only one of the many parts of who you are. Heck, with a partner like this, you also might have more room to explore your masculinity, or your gender neutrality if you like. After all, no matter how we identify our gender, we're all some mishmosh or another of this stuff, with some parts of all of it.

I think the more you focus on how he feels about women, as a group of billions of people, the more pressure you're probably putting on yourself. However he might feel about women, en masse, really is only so relevant in terms of how he feels about you, the one woman -- and probably more to the point, person -- that you are.

One thing I'd also suggest you think about is how comfortable you are with your partner per hearing him talk about which guys are hot, his previous sexual history (with men or anyone else), and how turned on he is after watching gay porn. We don't all have the same thresholds or feelings about a partner talking about any or all of these things, regardless of anyone's orientation. And it's okay for all of us to be different in that regard, or to need certain things -- be it time, a level of commitment, the way any of this is discussed with us, be that when, with what language, etc. -- in order to feel comfortable with these kinds of comments and conversations. Being thoughtful about how we talk to our partners, and to what degree we share certain things isn't asking someone to engage in repression. Sometimes it's just asking them to remember that there's another person there who is a different person than they are.

I hear you saying that sometimes you like this openness, but that it's also making you feel increasingly insecure, which suggests to me it's not working for you. If you can think about what you might need and want in this regard, I'd suggest talking to him about it, asking for any limits you want, need or think might help you out. It's okay to have limits with these kinds of disclosures. Mind, it may be he doesn't want to have to have them with a partner, so it might turn out that this is an area where you two need to figure out if you're really compatible. But I think both of you being clear with one another about what you each want, need and can deal with in this respect sounds like something it's past time to tend to.

It's also okay to have wants around this. Maybe, for instance, you want him to tell you more often how hot you are, or tell you how horny he feels after interacting with you in some way. I hear you saying you remind yourself of this often; maybe you want him to remind you a little more? Maybe you'd feel better if for as much as he talks about his sexual history, he talked about his sexual present with you, or you talked together about your sexual future? It might be that some of the issue here is that the level of talk about everyone or anyone else feels out of balance with how much he's talking about you, his sexual life with you right now, and his feelings about you. By all means, if and when a sexual partner talks more about their sexual feelings for other people or past partners than they do about you, their partner, I think it's safe to say that most people would find themselves feeling lousy.

And if you have the idea that you have to try and compete with men, that might be a competition based way more in your head than in his. It may be that when he's talking about ex-lovers, or men that are hot or porn that turns him on, you're hearing "Menmenmenmenmenmenmenmen," while he's actually saying or thinking, "I love how much that person wanted me," "Great smiles, legs and shoulders are sexy," and "The way they're so passionate about each other really gets me going."

How do you think you might do, too, if you both made some efforts to connect the dots between men and you, and expressed those, rather than seeing or experiencing this as men and you in some kind of cagematch? In other words, if so much of his talk about sex is about men, it might be that it leaves you feeling a bit like an outsider. But what if the flavor of some of this was a bit different? Chances are that there's something he loves, loved or thought was sexy about men in his past, or men in porn, that he also finds sexy or loveable about you. It might be that unionizing some of this a bit more, rather than having it be so segregated, might leave you feeling less you vs. them.

It might also help to think about something big you two have in common here. I'm betting that as someone who identifies as straight, and probably also grew up identified that way, you probably didn't envision yourself falling in love with a queer man. I'm also going to guess that if that was a surprise, ultimately, it's boiled down to the fact that you just love who you love, and have feelings for who you have feelings for. You're into this person because he's an awesome person who it sounds like you get along famously with, not because he's a dude. That, in a whole lot of ways, is what I think of as one of the essences of being queer, and living a life as a queer person. For many of us, we love who we love, we're into who we're into, and gender, or a specific gender, just isn't a big part of that picture. If you can identify how you're in that spot, it might make understanding how he seems to be with you easier.

You say your friends are freaked out to some degree by this relationship, especially if and when he talks about sex with men. Something else that might help you is to broaden your social circle so that it includes people who are queer or who aren't, but are now or have dated someone queer. Especially if any of your weirded-out friends are the omigawd-he's-gay-gay-gay-run-for-your-life! variety.

-- An attitude which I've never understood as having any sound basis (outside of usually just being based in homophobia or biphobia) whatsoever, and not just because the people they're like that about don't always identify as gay in the first place. After all, relationships can and typically do end or shift for any number of reasons, or turn out not to be a good fit over time for any number of reasons. It's not like the only reason something wouldn't work or stay a fit is because someone in it turned out to only or mostly be attracted to a group of people of which their partner wasn't a member. If people are enjoying the relationship they're in at a given time, the folks in it want to be together in the ways that they are, why run? That is, after all, what people tend to be aiming for in their interpersonal relationships. For sure, maybe this won't turn out to be a for-your-whole-life partnership or romantic or sexual relationship, but any sexual or romantic relationship you're in could wind up, and probably will wind up, being something other than that. And if this one doesn't wind up being something lifelong or lifelong romantic or sexual, it's no more likely to turn out differently because of this person's orientation than it would be based on a thousand other factors. --

Having more friends in the place that you're in or who've been there, or more queer friends, could give you more people in your life who are supportive of this relationship and who get that when it comes to gender and orientation, it's all a lot more murky and a lot less simple than many folks like to think it is, especially for people who aren't on the binary in one way or another. having more people around you who feel comfortable with your relationship would probably increase your own comfort with it. I noticed from your email you're currently in college, and one where you should have no trouble finding some queer community: bonus!

Here's something else, because it gets a bit stuck in my craw, but I also think it's important in conceptualizing the relationship you're in and queer people in general.

He's not in a heterosexual relationship. He can't be, because he's not heterosexual, just like he can't have "heterosexual sex," (whatever that is) because he's not heterosexual. Plus, relationships don't really have orientations: it's people who do. He's in a relationship with a woman, but that doesn't magically make him or the relationship heterosexual, just like if a guy who ID's as straight has sex with a gay guy, that doesn't make him gay.

I think that's an important point to hold in terms of queer visibility, but I also think that it might help you with all this. When you take the idea of a "heterosexual relationship" out of this equation, that might dissolve or dilute what sounds like a sense you have that this queer person is going to be struggling with a heterosexual relationship because they're stepping outside being queer somehow, or trying to be someone they're not. I think some of the discord in situations like this is an idea that a queer person is trying to do this thing -- have a "heterosexual relationship" -- that it doesn't seem like a queer person would do, would want to do, or even could do while still being queer. But when you understand that it's not likely a heterosexual relationship to him at all, and not something outside his orientation or identity, but instead something that totally fits under the umbrella of queer, that a queer person can do without it being somehow in conflict with being queer, it might be at least a little easier to feel more relaxed and better understand that you don't have to carve out a place for yourself: a seat was already open for you at this table.

The last thing I want to say here is that ultimately, you get to feel however you feel in this. If you come to the conclusion, now or later, that you're just not able to feel comfortable or secure in this relationship as a sexual one, you get to feel that way. Feeling that way doesn't mean you're not open-minded, that you're heterosexist, that you're less evolved or any of that crud. All it'd mean is that this just isn't the right relationship for you two, or the right thing for you at this time in your lives. We might all come across awesome people who have a romantic or sexual interest in us, and where we share one or both of those interests; we might both even want the same things in a relationship. But sometimes, even with all of that in common, the timing just isn't right, or something just doesn't make us a sound fit together for a certain kind of relationship.

I find intimate relationships are kind of like finding a pair of jeans that really truly fit: not that fit in most parts of our bodies, but gap or pinch in another, but that super-elusive pair that actually fits all over, without being too tight or too big, too long or too short, and which still fit even after you put them in the dryer. The pair that didn't cost you a fortune, but not only fit beautifully, but don't fall apart after a few washes, and can weather you actually living your life in them.

If you know what I'm talking about when it comes to That Magic Pair of Pants, you can perhaps get what I'm saying about intimate relationships. It can be tough to find a really great fit that works for us even in the short-term, let alone long-term. We're likely to have to do some trial and error, and explore at least several relationships where we find out that they're just not that great a fit, after all, or, where they could be, but we've got to make some alterations. If this turns out to be something you're not comfortable with over time as the kind of relationship it currently is, that says about as much about you or this relationship, I think, as not having a pair of jeans fit just right would say about you or those jeans: it's just not a right match, that's all. And while that can be a bummer, sometimes a huge one, it really is okay.

I'm going to leave you with a few links to look at. I particularly think going through the stocklist at the end might be a great thing for you to do, for him to do, and then for both of you to evaluate together. I'm hearing a lot about his sexuality in all of this, but actually, very little about yours, so I'm wondering if in your relationship, as in this post, more room might need to be made for you in this equation, and if so, working that list might help you figure that out and communicate what you want and need more easily.

written 10 Jan 2013 . updated 11 Jan 2013

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