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She came out...and now I'm questioning myself.

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Amy asks:

My friend came out to me the other day. I've never doubted my sexuality, but in the instant that she told me this, I got this weird feeling. I actually thought to myself in that instant that I could possibly feel more than just friendly towards her. I fantasized or a moment that, if she did come on to me, I wouldn't be too unhappy about it and might actually be with her in that way.

I've become frustrated with men recently. The guy I'd been crushing on after mending a broken heart told me he was gay (which would be the third time in a row this has happened). Could this just be a reaction to that? I doubt that I'm a lesbian, as I think I'd know something like that by now. Could I be bi? Could I be straight but still experiment without being "bi"? Am I taking this teeny thought WAY too seriously?

Heather Corinna replies:

Our sexual orientation is about who we do feel attracted to, sexually and emotionally.

It's not about who we're not frustrated with, who we are not attracted to, who might make do or what someone else's orientation is.

The organization Avert does a really nice job of laying out what sexual orientation is and how to define it really nicely. On that page, they also posit this basic reminder:

The main points to bear in mind when defining heterosexuality or homosexuality are:

  • The three main factors are sexual attraction, sexual behaviour and identity. For most people the factors go together in congruent way. So people tend to behave sexually in line with their sexual feelings. i.e. People tend to be sexually active with people they are attracted to.
  • However, sexual identity and behaviour may be quite fluid over a period of time and they may not always coincide with each other as people's feelings change. For example, a person may have at some point in their life a partner of the opposite sex and then later on someone of the same sex.
  • Applying labels to people is not necessarily a good or accurate way of describing them. There may be phases in a person's life when their sexual feelings and behaviour are very clearly homosexual or heterosexual. However, at other times, labelling them as heterosexual or homosexual does not fit exactly with their sexual behaviour or feelings.

For most of us, whether we are gay, lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual, the light that turns on that gives us clues about what our orientation may be is feelings we have -- not that we feel we could have, but that we do have -- for other people. That'll usually start with a crush or two. Later on, we may have feelings for others who have mutual feelings for us and date or get involved in relationships. (Mind: when we're anything but heterosexual, we may have or pursue fewer same-sex relationships, even if we want them, because we're less socialized to do so and/or more afraid of judgment or being outed before we're ready.) Over time, we'll tend to see patterns of who we feel drawn to -- sexually, emotionally -- and then see how we feel in relationships with those people. We can then interpret those patterns and our overall feelings to determine what our orientation is or seems most likely to be. While some people will say they "just knew" if they were gay, straight or bi early on, others have a longer period of questioning, so orientation is something it makes sense to take time to determine just by observing ourselves and our lives. There are people in their 40's who are still questioning.

By all means, if orientations other than heterosexuality have never seemed real to you, or you never really knew anyone close to you who was gay, lesbian or bisexual, being introduced to that as something real may well result in you asking yourself some questions, considering some things you might not have otherwise. If a given career path never seemed real or valid to me before, and then it's laid out before me by someone who feels solid about it, I might see myself in a slightly different way with other options potentially open to me I didn't see as options before. Too, perhaps this moment with your friend may have been a light bulb for you... or not.

I'd suggest tossing out your feelings of frustration with men right now when it comes to this issue. How you feel about men doesn't tell you anything at all about how you feel about women.

As well, the guys you have had interest in being gay is really not the central issue with your frustration: the fact that they didn't share your interest and were unavailable to you was. It doesn't much matter why they were unavailable. Welcome to dating, gal: often we'll have a lot of strikeouts before we hit upon a love match, for any number of reasons. If you had crushes on three women who all turned out to be uninterested in you or unavailable to you, would that say anything about how you felt about men? Nope. Would that mean you were heterosexual? Nope, because how someone else feels about us or if they reciprocate our feelings doesn't tell us anything about our own identity. Our orientation is about who we are attracted to, not about who is or isn't attracted to us.

You're not likely to walk into good relationships if a big reason you're pursuing them is because you're frustrated with someone else or some other group of people. Good relationships are about the people actually involved in them, not about the people who aren't. So, if you want to look into dating women because you earnestly feel attracted to women, by all means, knock yourself out. However, I'm not hearing that you have actually yet had those feelings: I hear you saying that you had a moment where you thought you possibly could feel that way, rather than actually feeling that way.

If you feel like your more central motivation is that you'd want to do so just to see if that worked out better when it came to having your feelings returned, or because you see women who are available to you and have been finding men are not, I'd say that's a pretty lousy (however understandable) motivation, especially from the vantage point of whoever you'd be dating. It also isn't likely to work out: lesbian or bisexual women aren't automatically interested in all women, just like heterosexual women aren't interested in all men. And no one is going to feel good being anyone's backup plan when what they really want isn't working out. Who, in your heart of hearts, if you got to have exactly who and what you wanted, do you really envision yourself being with?

Might you be lesbian? Well, if all your feelings have been for guys and none for women, that's not likely. Lesbian women are solely or primarily attracted to women, not to men. Might you be bisexual? I don't know, but if you have found, or find in time, that you have sexual and romantic feelings for people of all genders, then that's certainly a possibility.

What I'd suggest is that you just give things some time, and observe your own patterns when it comes to crushes and dating from here on out. Don't expect to discover what your orientation is overnight just because another possibility has been opened up in your mind, or someone potentially available has suddenly shown up on the horizon.

Can you be straight and still experiment with being bi? Well, not really, in the same way that I can't be white and experiment with being black. I am who and what I am: sexual orientation can be fluid, but it isn't something we can just choose to put on and take off like different pairs of shoes. But there are plenty of people who are in periods of questioning, and particularly with younger people, who are just starting their sexual and romantic lives, questioning and experimentation are normal. At this moment, you're questioning. And yes: some people who are heterosexual experiment with dating or having sex with someone same-sex, some people who are homosexual experiment with dating or having sex with someone opposite-sex. Some folks also get surprised: now and then, someone who was sure they were straight all of their lives falls in love with someone same-sex and vice-versa. Love is full of surprises and unpredictability, after all.

If you are going to experiment, be sure you're doing so in a way which takes the feelings of others into account. It can be easy, when you're younger and gay, lesbian or bisexual to start to feel like everyone's personal petrie dish since so many younger people ARE questioning, and since younger people do tend to be more sexually flexible (likely in part because there is such a strong need to feel included, liked and validated) for a while than older people are. And since so many people presume that anything other than heterosexuality is just about sex, the way questioning folks often want to "experiment" with others often tends to be only or primarily sexual, which can really hurt.

So, before branching out, I'd first take some more time to observe and sit with your own feelings. The way that you've crushed on guys: is that also happening with girls? Are your feelings just as strong? Have you met a girl, in particular -- and not just because you know she might be available -- who turns your knees to jelly and makes your heart do a backflip? If and when that happens, and you want to pursue any kind of relationship (and she does as well), be forthright and clear that you are questioning your orientation, and that you're just not sure how you feel yet. That, for the record, may mean that person doesn't really want to get involved with you, which is absolutely valid, even if it's disappointing for you: we all have a right to protect our hearts and only choose to invest them where we feel safe doing so. Sexual orientation isn't just about sex: it's about our hearts and minds, as well.

If that hasn't happened yet -- if you have not really, truly had those feelings -- then give yourself some more time before considering dating (and notice I say dating, not sexual experimenting): for your sake, for the sake of whoever that other person might be.

I hear that you're feeling lonely and rejected, and of course that absolutely sucks. Adolescence is often a really lonely time, and all the more so when your love life isn't going as you'd like it to, moving along as fast as you'd like or you just feel like a loser at love so far. It can also be easy, when we're feeling like that, to figure that being with anyone who will have us is better than being alone, but that doesn't usually work out as better for anyone. Being lonely in a relationship feels a lot worse than being lonely when you're actually alone. I know it's tough, but do try and be patient, and be sure that you're seeing possible relationships as something more than being validated or a balm for being lonely. In time, someone who you have feelings for -- whether their gender may be -- is going to have mutually shared feelings for you and return them. It'll happen, it just can tend to take a while sometimes.

Here are some extra links to help you think through all this:

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