She's a tomboy, so she likes girls, right?

My friend Chanel is a tomboy but isn't sure she likes girls because she isn't sure of herself what should I tell her or what should I do to make her come out her shell?
Heather Corinna replies:

What if it's not about her coming out of her shell, but about the fact that she is NOT strongly attracted to girls, or attracted to girls at all?

A person's gender identity doesn't determine their sexual orientation. In other words, very "girly" girls can be and are attracted to women (or people of any gender), and "tomboys" or butch women can be and are attracted to men (or people of any gender). Gay men are not always "feminine," and straight men are not always "manly."

It's really typical for people to make those kinds of assumptions, but the truth is that there's little truth in that. Those ideas have more to do with assumptions about what is heternormative -- about what is normal for heterosexual people or couples -- and the fact that anything that doesn't fit those ideas must then be something besides heterosexual; and about what is gendernormative -- about what is "normal" for any one gender, when, in fact, what's normal is a wide diversity. And even people you least expect to make those kinds of assumptions can sometimes. I was once at a women's basketball game with a lesbian woman I was dating who basically presumed that all the basketball players were gay, and all the cheerleaders straight. I was pretty knocked out by that until I reminded myself that none of us are immune from thinking this way sometimes. After all, most of us get these kinds of narrow messages and ideas about gender and orientation from very young ages, very pervasively: even when we're outside those norms ourselves we may surprise ourselves by thinking that way now and then.

How we identify our own gender and how we present that gender is about us, all by ourselves, not about who we're attracted to. Even when we're not attracted to anyone, we have a gender identity that's just about us, and not about romance or sex.

It sounds to me like you might have the idea that because of your friend's gender identity or appearance she should be attracted to women. But some of her uncertainty may be about the fact that she feels, because of these norms, like she should be, but isn't. We're often given strong messages growing up, based on how we appear or behave, by others that we should have this orientation or that one: tomboys are often treated as if they are lesbian, even if and when they're not, just like very femme girls are often treated like they should be straight or bisexual, even when they're not. No matter what side of the fence you're on, it can be pretty confusing to have people expect you to be attracted to any one group of people, especially when you're young and still not sure who you're attracted to at all yet.

Has she talked to you about having any sexual or romantic feeling towards women, or about having them exclusively? If she hasn't, then it's not sage to assume that she has those feelings, for any reason at all, let alone based on how she looks.

In the case that she has expressed those feelings to you, then the best you can do for her is just to be supportive of her as she figures this out for herself over time. If she wants help with that, and you've made clear you've got her back, then she'll ask for it when she wants it. We can't ever shove anyone through a closet door: it's not kind, and it also tends to dismiss that it's still awfully hard a lot of the time in our world to be anything other than heterosexual, especially when you are also not gendernormative, or what people expect from you when it comes to how you present your gender. Being outside what's seen as the norm in that way alone is hard enough, after all. You say she isn't sure of herself, and that may well be part of why: she may already have her hands full dealing with being seen as different in that respect. If she is lesbian or bisexual, coming out in that way, too, when she's still getting her footing with her gender identity, may just be too much for her to grapple with at once.

So, just be the good friend to her that you are. It's normal during adolescence to not be sure of who we're attracted to: part of adolescence is about finding that out. There's no need at all to rush it. Everyone has their own timetable, and everyone is allowed whatever periods of questioning they need, for however long they last, if they are even questioning at all. Just be sure that you aren't making assumptions about her or presuming something about her orientation based on appearances, and that whoever she is -- in gender and orientation -- she can come out of her shell (if she isn't out of it already) around you. :)

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