Straight, Gay and Everything in Between: On Sexual Fluidity

In an episode of the Mtv show 'Faking It', the main character Amy expresses being interested in a boy. Since this comes on the heels of Amy confessing her love for her female best friend at the end of the first season, many viewers felt frustrated and confused. Wasn't Amy a lesbian? Had she not just come out? What was she doing making eyes at that boy?

To some extent, I get that. There are so few relateable representations of lesbians on television, especially when it comes to young women, that we just want to hold on to the few we've got. We don't want Amy to be making eyes at that guy because we really, really need Amy on our team. But by wanting Amy to be on Team Lesbian, we are not only closing the door on other, equally valid identities (bisexuality, pansexuality, queer, etc), but we are also denying the reality for many that sexual orientation is not an on/off switch or something that is static, but that attraction and figuring ourselves out is a long process that is not always linear.

Sexual orientation is often portrayed as something very black-and-white. Culturally, we are pretty invested in the idea of the gay or lesbian person who had same-sex crushes as early as kindergarten, who is not only not into but actually grossed out by the idea of opposite-sex sex, and whose struggles center around when and how to come out, rather than what to come out as. Someone who is heterosexual is 100% heterosexual - and just one moment of same-sex attraction makes you 100% and irreversibly homosexual.

Part of this, I am sure, is the fact that it is always easier to come to terms with something when you have solid answers. It's hard to be okay with who you are if you are not sure who you are, it is hard to find the community of like-minded people if you don't know what that would look like, and most of all it is hard to come out, to stand up for yourself and to deal with adversity if you don't even know what the heck you are standing up for.

When I first started thinking about my sexual orientation, I was 14 and the whole thing simultaneously took my by surprise, and made complete sense. I could actually remember having crushed on a girl in my kindergarten class, but that did not make my current feelings for that nerdy girl in my math class any less confusing. Was I really into her, or did I just want to be like her? And what did I know about attraction, anyway, if the romantic experience I had to draw on at that point consisted of a brief relationship with a boy in summer camp two years prior?

At some point, after weeks of writing angsty poetry and scouring the internet for lesbian pornography to try and figure out if it made me feel anything, my mother noticed how down I was and asked me if I wanted to talk to her about it. Feeling both confused and embarrassed, I tried to explain to her that I thought I might like girls. Was I sure about this? She asked. No. Well, had I ever kissed a girl? No, again. So there you go, my mother said. You are just going through a phase. She suggested I give it some time, and I would probably get over it.

What I heard my mother saying, (aside from the fact that she was not taking me and my feelings seriously), was that there was a Definite Feeling about sexual orientation that I could have - rather than this transitory confused feeling - and that there was a time when I would experience this feeling, and would be able to say with confidence how I identified. Now, as far as my mother was concerned, this would be a feeling of heterosexuality, but I wasn't fussed with what the feeling would be, I just wanted to feel it.

Had I known then what I know now, that conversation would have likely upset me far less. I would have been able to tell my mother that neither the fact that I had never kissed a girl, nor the fact that I was not sure how I identified, did anything to invalidate the feelings I was experiencing for Nerdy Girl. And I have a whole notebook full of poetry to stand witness to the fact that there were feelings.

But I did not know that, and instead of accepting my feelings for what they were and going with it, I agonized over what I felt sure the consequence of these feelings would be. If I was into Nerdy Girl, then that meant I was into women. If I was into women, that meant I was a lesbian. If I was a lesbian, that meant I would have to come out, would be hated by everyone, and die alone. Not surprisingly, I felt overwhelmed, frustrated and upset.

Part of the problem, then as well as now, is clearly a lack of vocabulary to even talk about attraction and orientation in ways that fall outside of the homo/hetero paradigm. What do you call someone who has identified as gay and is now in an opposite-sex marriage? What do you call someone who does not have any clear preferences in terms of gender (identity)? A few years ago, a guy messaged me on OkCupid, asking me why my profile listed me as both 'bisexual' and 'in a relationship.' In the minds of many, bisexuality is not an identity that one settles into, but an identity that has you, by definition, flitting from affair to affair, preferably alternating between men and women to ensure a 50/50 ratio.

Back when I was 15, I eventually decided to come out to a handful of close friends as bisexual. However, when two years later I took stock and realized that I'd had lots of romantic and sexual feelings for women in the meantime, but none for men, I revised my decision. At my prom after party, I came out as lesbian to all of my friends during a game of truth or dare. But this, too, did not feel right for long. A year later, I started a relationship with a man. Some days, I felt comfortable with the road I was on, on other days, I felt like I was giving myself (and those around me!) a case of emotional whiplash. But the harder I tried to define myself and find The One Label That Fit, the further that seemed to slip away.

But I was convinced, then, that there was that One Label That Fits, and that I just needed to find out what it was and then everything would be alright. I could quit questioning, and having to come out over and over again. I could have a Definite Answer, one that made sense. I would have an identity.

Spoiler Alert: I never did find The One Label That Fits. Or any one label that fits me for more than a day at a time. But I am actually doing alright anyway, I feel like my feelings make sense to me, and I definitely feel secure and comfortable in my sexual identity. The further away I got from the bubble that is high school, the more I socialized and dated and just generally was exposed to lots of different new people, the more I realized how very little labels actually mean. They are little more than a shorthand, really - sometimes useful to make a point, but ultimately not very descriptive. Even for people who feel comfortable owning a label, they will often add on qualifiers to explain more fully who they are (top or bottom, lipstick or leather, etc), and things get more specific, and need more words and explanations still, in negotiations with partners or in conversations with close friends.

Think about it - even people who identify as heterosexual can often write novels about the specificities of their attractions and how they like to conduct their relationships and sexual adventures. And that only makes sense, because if there's something that is super individual and personal, and something that we feel our way into slowly and that we understand better and better the more experience we gather, it is sexuality. This stuff is new and often complicated for pretty much all of us when we first start out. No one wakes up at 15 and says to themselves, "I am primarily attracted to curvy, dark-haired women with an interest in environmental justice, and prefer to take a more passive role in sexual activities". And even if you have a very a clear idea early on of who you are attracted to and what you like, it is very unlikely that that will stay the same throughout your lifetme. Each new partner and each new relationship, as well as all sorts of other things that happen to us over the course of a lifetime, slightly change our outlook and expectations and adds a new piece to the puzzle.

I identify as queer now, because I feel that that is a label that leaves enough room for me and my partners, and all of the different things that I find sexy and interesting. And the biggest thing I have learned is that I, generally, do not fall for gender identities/presentations. I fall for people - that cute thing they do with their hair, their quirky laugh, or their interest in 90s Sci-Fi television series. I don't know if there is a label for that, and that is okay.

More on this topic:
Q is for Questioning
The Rainbow Connection: Orientation for Everyone