Is My Friend Faking Her Sexual Orientation?

actually bi
asks:
I’m an almost sixteen year old bisexual girl. My sexuality took me a while to come to terms with, but I didn’t fully realize it until this year, after I broke up with my first boyfriend. It’s been quite the ride, from horribly puzzling feelings about my ex best-friend to weird thoughts and dreams that made me feel wrong, especially since I live in a conservative household. I’m still not out to my parents, which is a massive challenge, but I’ve talked to several trusted adults about my feelings. I told my doctor about my thoughts and “weird” desires, and she assured me that it’s highly possible I’m bisexual. My identity is the result of a lot of gut-wrenching self doubt and self-criticism, and it took me a lot of heart-to-heart, confidence restoring conversations to accept that I wasn’t broken or weird for having sexual feelings/fantasy dreams about girls and guys. On the other hand, you have my closest friend. She currently identifies as pansexual/bisexual (it depends on the day), and never stops talking about it. To everyone. (I, on the other hand, don’t really bring it up unless someone I trust asks). I know that everyone values their sexuality differently. While I don’t center my life around it, some people certainly do. However, she also mentions that she’s never felt sexual attraction, and thinks kissing/sex/any sort of non-platonic touching is something she’s not ready for. I understand not being ready for it, and she is a bit younger than I am. However, isn’t sexuality something that depends on who you’re... actually sexually and romantically attracted to? I don’t understand how anyone could know their SEXUAL orientation without an actual desire? Which is why I’m afraid that she’s faking it for attention. She never stops taking about whichever identity she is, she only watches media with LGBT characters and relationships, listens almost exclusively to LGBTQ identifying artists, and constantly hates on “the straights.” She complains when her English books feature straight relationships, and even runs an LGBTQ meme Instagram page. Her entire life seems to revolve around her bisexuality/pansexuality. She acts like her supposed orientation is what makes her truly unique, and I think she just does it to get a response? Is she faking her orientation for attention? Accepting my bisexuality was a massive challenge for me, and it was even challenging for me to tell her about it. It sort of hurts me to see her running around, practically screaming about how “gay” she is and how “cool” she is for being that way. And if she is just faking it for attention, like I think she may be, how do I kindly tell her to stop without losing her friendship? A big part of bisexuality for me is that I’m simply bi and am going to carry on with my life, and not be known for who I love but for what I accomplish with my life. In a way, I think it devalues the LGBT community by reducing us to nothing but our sexualities. Maybe I’m wrong, but is she faking? How do I tell people who are faking to stop?
Sam W replies:

Hoo boy.

You’ve hit on a lot of big questions here. Some are the kind that can (and sometimes do) lead to knock-down, drag-out fights in the queer community. I’m going to do my best to tread lightly.

What’s coming across in your question is that your evaluation of your friends’ identity is more about your feelings about her behaviors rather than the behaviors themselves.

That's understandable: your own coming out has been very difficult and uncomfortable and you’ve been facing some very stressful choices and situations. Your friend, on the other hand, seems to have had no such difficulties, and obviously feels very comfortable declaring her queerness to anyone who will listen. From your description, it sounds like that form of being out wouldn’t appeal to you even if it was an available option for you. Even so, the fact that she can be so loose and open about it while you can’t feels unfair, right?

It is unfair. That's not your friend's fault, though, nor is it yours. That's got everything to do with living in a world where acceptance of queer people is still so precarious and so spotty. It isn’t fair that some queer people have families who love and accept them while others don’t. It isn’t fair that there are still so many adults who aren’t safe to come out to. It isn’t fair that coming out isn't painless for all of us.

In the face of that unfairness, however, I think we have to be very careful about policing other people’s coming out or the way that other people perform or express their own queer identities. I have queer friends for whom realizing their sexual orientation was a long process, with lots of questions, second-guessing and worry. And they have me, who literally realized my queerness while taking a shower one day and integrated that into my general understanding of myself in about the time it took to shampoo my hair. The fact that they struggled with their orientation and I didn't doesn't make my experience less valid.  The same is true of you and your friend; the fact that her coming out was easy compared to yours doesn't mean her identity is less real than your own.

When you ask me if your friend is faking her orientation, it just isn’t a question I can answer, nor one I think you can or should even try to. It’s just not our place to be asking this at all, or to be looking for someone to prove their orientation to us or anyone else. The only person in this I think gets to question, name or validate her orientation -- or deterimine how and if she wants to do any of that -- is her.

Keeping all that in mind, I do want to address some things you point to as “evidence” that your friend is faking. There are some beliefs and misconceptions in them that I think are helpful to unpack no matter what. Some of these things may be driving a wedge between you and this -- or other -- queer friend.  Some of these things may also, now or later, wind up being oppressive or limiting to you as a queer person.

For instance, you feel that her queerness being front and center is a sign that she’s faking. However, adolescence is often a time of big, sometimes loud, identity exploration. A big part of that developmental process for many people is putting different pieces of themselves at the forefront of their identity to see what happens and how they feel. It’s possible that right now your friend is seeing what it’s like to center her sexual orientation. In a few months, it may be that she puts something else entirely at the forefront. Whether this is about sexual identity or it's about other kinds of identity, it's a pretty developmentally normal thing for young people to do.

It’s also common for people who’ve recently realized they’re queer to spend a little time being extremely out loud and proud (assuming it’s safe for them to do so, and how safe it is or isn't does tend to play a big part). For some people realizing their sexual orientation and coming out is exhilarating, and can feel like letting the cap off a biottle of soda that's been shaken up and ready to pop for a long time. The feeling of being able to finally and unabashedly proclaim who they are can make them want to race down the street covered in rainbows and glitter yelling “I’M GAY/BI/PAN/WHATEVER EVERYBODY! THIS IS AWESOME!”

While we’re on the subject of shouting your label at the heavens, I need to point out that her switching between bi and pan to refer to herself also isn’t a sign she’s not for real. It may be that she — like many people — is someone who views those terms as basically interchangeable or is comfortable being referred to by either one. Or she may not be quite sure which term feels right and is switching between them to feel them out. Or there could be another reason entirely.

Then there’s the question of whether someone playing up their queerness is bad for the queer community as a whole. I experience this question as a trap, one mostly laid by people who want queer identities to stay invisible, and one that queer people sometimes, unfortunately, wind up inadvertently internalizing.

When gay or bi men challenge notions of masculinity by being "too feminine," or butch lesbians reject the male gaze, or queer  or gender-nonconforming people just generally make it hard to ignore the diversity of sexualities, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It upsets the simple -- and often highly heterocentric and ciscentric -- categories they use to navigate the world. So, they turn to concern-trolling, pointing out that if only queer people would assimilate and  "tone it down" maybe more people would accept us. They can suggest that if we act “too queer,” we’re making it seem like our identity as people solely revolves around our sexual orientation, so how can we blame people who judge us based only on our orientation? The problem is the definition of “too queer” is constantly changing and trying to avoid that label can cause queer people to shrink their lives down. It also encourages us to police our behaviors and those of other queer people, often without really knowing we’re doing it. Plus, how can anyone really be "too" queer or not queer enough, or "too" straight or not straight enough, in the first place?  Who we all feel we are and what feels right for us in this regard is always exactly right: it has to be, because this is about our own identities, which can't be held to objective or universal standards like that.

It may help to remember that if your friend being very vocal about her orientation causes other people to reduce the queer community down to their sexualities, those people did not have that great a grasp of, or support for, the queer community in the first place. A genuine ally understands that there is no one, correct way for queer people to act or be, and is committed to supporting queer people however how they choose to express that part of themselves. They understand that the queer community is a place where we all meet each other where we are in terms of our identity. I encourage you to move towards a similar understanding when it comes to your friend. There's space for her way of being queer in the community, just as there is space for yours.

You also mention she hasn’t been attracted to anyone yet and that she says she’s not ready for any sort of non-platonic touch. Neither of those things discredit her identity as a queer person. When we think about sexuality, we need to remember that it’s multi-layered, and isn't all about sexual desire. For some people -- like asexual people who also identify as bisexual or pansexual, for example --  it isn't about sexual desire much or at all. A person can still have a sense of what type of partner they’re looking for and not be ready to seek that person out yet. Some queer people knew they were queer since they were very little kids; they often knew the general shape of who they were attracted to before they experienced specifically sexual attraction or desire. It’s also important not to treat sexual attraction as something necessary for a queer identity, since it erases people who are ace from the community. Then there are practical elements to consider. For example, depending on the size of your school or social circles, your friend just may not have yet run across anyone who gives her that “wowzah” feeling yet. Some people have very wide spheres of sexual attraction: others find it much harder to find people they feel attraction to.

Lastly, I sense you feel like her coming out has been too easy and that makes it less real. Our cultural stories -- and sadly, so many people's experiences -- often reinforce the notion that a queer identity or experience is only valid if it involves suffering. That if someone never experiences discrimination, or experiences the minimum amount possible, they haven’t lived the life of a "true" queer person. That’s totally messed-up. Demanding queer people experience pain in order to be considered "real" is an unacceptable, deeply cruel standard to set, whether it's coming from straight people or from other members of the queer community. Sometimes there’s a dash of bitterness coming from older queers who faced serious backlash for their identity when they were young and feel as though kids today are not taking this whole thing seriously. That bitterness is coming from a place of very real hurt, but it doesn’t make it okay to invalidate other people’s identities because they haven’t suffered enough.

When you think about your friend and her coming out, do you feel a bitterness like that? If you do, please know that it doesn’t make you a bad person. It just probably means that the ways in which the world is unfair are getting to you. Acknowledging the feeling is there is the first step in addressing it. It’s okay to feel anger or sorrow or jealousy or envy at an unfair situation; it’s not okay to direct that feeling towards a person who had no part in creating it. If you can recognize those rougher feelings as not being her fault or yours, but a by-product of an unjust world, you might find yourself less inclined to police her identity, and you might also find her identity and the way she's expressing it cause you less pain.

The next time you feel yourself reacting negatively to how your friend is expressing her queerness, how about you pause and ask yourself where those reactions are coming from? Pay attention to the emotions underneath them; are you feeling jealous, or sad, or even just bored with her not wanting to talk about anything else? Because while you should under no circumstances tell your friend you think she’s faking, there may still be some things you can ask her to do. For instance, if there are parts of what she talks about that bring up tough feelings for you about your own coming out, I think it’s totally within bounds to ask her to change topics. If her queerness keeps becoming the sole focus of the conversations between you two, it’s okay to ask to talk about something else, the same way you would if any other topic was dominating a conversation between you and a friend. It's also okay to ask her to be sensitive to the experience that you've been having. If our best friend just had a big, awful breakup, we'd ideally modulate how we talk about our new and intense love interest: it's okay to ask her to do some of that kind of modulation here.

I want to also encourage you to develop a picture of what being out would look like for you in a perfect world, in a better world.

I hear you mostly framing it in terms of what you don’t want, namely, you don’t want to be as out loud and proud as your friend and you don’t want your bisexuality to be your defining feature. But are there things you wish you could have or do want that are linked to your sexual orientation? If you had total freedom to choose, how would your bisexuality fit into your life? How would you want to express it and enact it? Your answer may look any number of ways, from wanting to be an active member in the local queer community to just being able to mention your identity to someone without it feeling like a huge deal. Once you have those ideal images in your head, you can take a look at our decidedly non-perfect world and figure out which ones you can pursue now, and which ones you might pursue in the future. For example, if interacting with the in-person queer community is something you want but can’t do because of your home life, you could look for digital spaces that allow you to connect with other queer people.

Finally, try asking yourself if there are feelings about your identity, or who you can and cannot be out to, that you still need more support around. You’ve taken some huge strides in accepting your identity and finding people you can trust with that information: for that you deserve to be proud. But if, for instance, the fact you’re not out to your parents is causing you stress or unhappiness, it’s okay to keep asking for help or for more people to talk to about that. If you need a starting place for that, you're always welcome on our direct services. I don’t have to tell you that navigating the world as a young queer person can be challenging; you’ve already discovered that. What I can say is that talking about your sexual orientation and whatever challenges, triumphs, and feelings go along with it isn’t the attention-grab some people assume it is. It’s a way of dealing with being part of a marginalized community and one you get to take part in as you see fit.

In the end, I hope you can find ways to nourish all the parts of yourself, including your sexual orientation, that feel right to you. I hope you one day have a space where it’s safe for you to be out to all the important people in your life, just I hope your friend continues to be able to be as out as she is now. And I hope you find a way to let your preferences for coming and being out exist alongside hers, so that the two of you can continue having a loving, supportive friendship.

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