Building Bridges: Sexual Orientation Shifts

connect & conquerTime for another installment of Building Bridges, where we facilitate, then publish a conversation between two people in different life stages who have something with gender, sexuality and/or relationships in common. This time, our intergenerational pair is two women who have had their sexual orientation and identity shift for them during the course of their lives.

Amy & Candice: Shifting Sexual Orientation

Amy, 24: I came out as a lesbian at 14 and was, as I call it, "a Professional Gay" for a long time. I interned for activist organizations, ran the GSA at my high school, got a scholarship from a local LGBT organization for my activism and went on to a women's college where I eventually became co-chair of the LGBT organization on campus. I was, as a friend once said "her definition of gay."

Looking back, I struggled with liking guys for a long time, which sounds so backwards in the way that people think of sexual orientation transitions. I felt a strong connection and loyalty to the LGBT community that I basically grew up in and was afraid that by liking guys I was betraying them. Eventually I started to wonder - if I was okay with dating people who identified as male, why was I not okay with all people who identified as male? I started "experimenting" with people-with-penises when I was 21 and started actively dating them when I graduated college at 22.  I'm currently involved with a person-with-a-penis and we've been dating for almost a year now.

Candice, 39: I have been in a continuous committed relationship with the same (cis)man since I was 16. We've been legally married for something like 15 years (it all runs together at this point) and have an 8 year old son. Despite my first sexual experiences being with girls and the crushes I had on female friends, until I was in my early 20s I very strongly identified as straight. I think that the when & where of my childhood had a lot to do with that. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in a very Baptist city in the deep south meant that until I was in high school, I honestly wasn't even aware that people had anything other than hetero relationships. Even when I learned about homosexuality, I never considered identifying as gay, partly because I was strongly attracted to boys but also because to do so wouldn't have been safe, socially or physically. The only openly gay student at my high school was beaten up and bullied out of the school - talk about a powerful lesson in staying silent.

My sophomore year in college I started hanging out with a group of people that included most of the non-hetero students at the school. They were generally considered the "freaks" on campus, but they felt like home to me. For the first time I felt able to think of myself as something other than straight but I wasn't sure what exactly I WAS. I loved my boyfriend, I was attracted to girls...I started thinking I was bisexual because that seemed to fit best. Unfortunately, the lesbians I knew (and the gay men, to a lesser extent) were painfully scornful of bisexuality and although I privately identified as bi I was publicly silent on my exact orientation and simply presented myself as being in a relationship with a man.

Who I'm attracted to has changed several times in my adult life...I've had times where I was intensely interested in women and not at all in men (THAT makes a committed relationship with a man a challenge, let me tell you!) and times when I've been very into men and not particularly noticed women. My relationship with my husband has both affected and been affected by this in complicated ways. Currently, I am very much enjoying sex with a man while also "not-dating" a woman I consider my "not-girlfriend" and being very frustrated by the sex we are not having. (And yes, my husband knows this. Like I said, it gets complicated). At this point in my life I'm most comfortable identifying as queer - it's the only orientation that seems to offer enough room for the different ways I feel at different times and it has less personal baggage for me than "bisexual".

Amy: My social group is very hmm "non traditional" (aka not any different from anyone else, just more open about it) in regards to sexuality - kinky people, swingers, polyamorous, queer... the kind of people who go to sex education events for fun and lust a little after Tristan Taormino (whose book, Opening Up, is a fantastic one on open relationships. Minus the attempt at history in the introduction. My background's in history and that intro made me want to scream for proper citations.) I'm also in a non-monogamous relationship, but I know from talking to married folk that nonmonogamy is a different ball game when marriage and children are involved.

You noted your not-girlfriend and ongoing attractions outside of your marriage. Have you and your husband considered any of the various forms of non-monogamy?

Candice: Yes, absolutely. I'd say that at this point, we are tentatively is a long, tricky process renegotiating some of the most basic terms of such a long relationship. I have a much easier time with the idea of nonmonogamy, perhaps because there is no way that any one person can be both male & female & satisfy everything I want. I've also never thought that sex and love were necessarily always bound together...that idea never made sense to me. My husband is naturally monogamous so it's been a real challenge for him. I am incredibly grateful that he is willing to be flexible and work towards ways for both of us to have our needs met.

The not-girlfriend bit is because, although they are a poly couple, her husband isn't comfortable with her starting another relationship right now. Oh, ironic Universe, I shake my fist at you!

I wonder how it feels for you, Amy, to have access now to "heterosexual privilege." I know there are many times when it makes life less superficially complicated for me, even when I feel guilty about sliding through peoples' perceptions because of it. Does it make you mad when that happens? Does it sometimes feel like a relief (even if you don't think it should)? How has having a male partner affected how you move through everyday life?

Amy: On my OkCupid profile, one of the things I note is that I spent a good chunk of my life immersed in the queer community.  That's part of my history and it's shaped how I approach relationships and life in general. I do not think I could date someone who did not have some form of "alternative sexuality literacy." Male, female or somewhere in between, they need to have had some interaction with the queer community and they need to be comfortable with their sexuality.

In my daily life, heterosexual privilege doesn't really come up - as noted, I tend to surround myself with people where sexuality is a very fluid thing and more tied up with actions than identities.  I have noticed that because I no longer actively present as a soft-butch lesbian and because I am presenting as more femme, that the way other people interact with me - from bartenders to people at happy hours to men who hold the doors for me outside of office buildings - is different. Also, I haven't been sir'd in years. But that's more of a presenting thing than a who I'm dating thing. (I think I can provide an entertaining contrast picture somewhere, along with Venn diagrams. THERE COULD BE A FLASH PRESENTATION... only I'm not that motivated).

However, with family, I have embraced the heterosexual privilege of being open about my love life.  My grandparents, who never met any of my girlfriends, will be meeting my boyfriend this fall.  Being able to talk casually about someone who is such a large part of my life without having to filter them out or call them "my friend" is such a relief. It doesn't  make me angry, it just makes me sad.

Do you think that you would have been out as bisexual if the members of the queer community you were exposed to had been more accepting of bisexuals?

Candice: I've thought about this question a LOT. I wish that I could say "Well, of COURSE," because that is who I want to have been. The honest answer, which I like a lot less, is "probably not."

I was painfully uncomfortable with myself on so many fronts back then...I don't think I could have overcome my own fear of being identified as "wrong" or "different" and been open about my sexuality. That said, I think that I would probably have worked through my issues with sexuality a lot faster if I'd been in a more supportive and accepting community. As it was, the community I was in certainly reinforced my belief that it was not safe to fully express who I was.

The first question I had reading your introduction post was how the LGBT community you were originally a part of reacted to you coming out as bisexual. You said that you were afraid that you would be betraying them by dating guys...did they see it that way as well, or was that more your own imagining?

Amy: I think that a lot of it was my own imagining,  but it wasn't unjustified imagining.  The group of lesbians that I used to hang out with in college and I have more or less fallen out of friendship - whether that's because of the natural order of growing up or because we didn't have anything in common besides liking women, I don't know.

I think I've actually had more trouble with the LGBT community about being bisexual and poly. I think that if I was bisexual but dating a woman, I'd still feel more... accepted, than the fact that I'm about to hit the year mark with a man and still open to dating women.

One of the largest fights I've ever gotten into (and this is including the dinner time arguments with my father, who thinks Rush Limbaugh is a liberal) was with a lesbian who informed me that she didn't think poly people should raise children.  Her arguments were such that you could take out "poly" and replace it with "lesbian" and it would be the exact damned argument that is made against gay people raising children.  The hypocrisy of her (and two other lesbians that chimed in) made me unspeakably angry.

How has growing up in a conservative Christian environment influenced your own relationship with religion?

Candice: My own family is very Christian (I swear every other relative I have is a minister) but also quite liberal so even though I was surrounded by churches that condemned anyone different, I was raised in Christianity that was loving and tolerant, if not always affirming. Although I'm not a Christian myself, I have great respect for the teachings of Christ and for the people who follow and live his teachings.

Which isn't to say that I don't carry scars from and bitterness towards the many many people who call themselves "Christian" but practice intolerance and hatred. I choose to think that most do so out of ignorance and indoctrination rather than informed choice (that's cheerier  than thinking that so many people are just hateful), but I still avoid them. I try hard not to pre-judge people, but anyone calling themselves a Christian has some proving to do before I really trust them.

One of the things that is most difficult for me right now as I try to forge more connections in my local queer community is how many people make assumptions about my sexuality based solely on the fact that I am holding a man's hand or (more rarely, but it happens) the fact that I am fairly femme and wearing very traditional engagement & wedding rings. I often feel that if I were alone, or with female friends, or if I were more butch, I might be treated more as "one of us" from the outset, rather than having to explicitly say "I'm-married-to-a-man-but-that-doesn't-mean-I'm-straight" (it's kind of a one breath phrase for me now).

Do you find yourself having to work a little harder to be accepted as a part of the community now that you are partnered with a person-with-a-penis?

Amy: To be honest, I haven't been as active with the mainstream LGBT community so I can't really say that I have to work harder. The more general sex-positive community has been where I've focused things of late - and there's significant overlap with the queer community and the sex positive community. But because I'm not coming at it from a different angle I think that the queer community I interact with has different expectations of me which makes it so much easier for me to be partnered with a person-with-a-penis.

I had a hard time coming to terms with being bisexual - from the gays and lesbians who said that bisexuals were cheating, as it were - they they had it easy - to my own mother who seemed to be (relatively) okay with me being a lesbian but several times said things about bisexuals like, "Why can't they just choose?!"

On a different note, where'd you go to college?  Do you think that if you had gone to a different college your sexuality would have been influenced? I went to a small Southern women's college - Hollins University in Roanoke, VA - that was a little bubble of liberal in a large sea of red. Having been out as a lesbian during the application process, I would not have gone to a particularly conservative institution, but I wonder sometimes if I would have ended up differently if I hadn't attended a liberal women's college. 

Candice: I went to Transylvania University in Kentucky. It's a great school, academically, and I had an scholarship I couldn't say no to. When I was there, the student body was overwhelmingly white and upper/upper-middle class; over 80% of students pledged greek. A lot of my experiences there were great (I don't want to sound like I'm dissing the school) but as a whole it wasn't very tolerant of diversity.

I feel certain that a different school would have influenced my sexuality, or at least my expression of it. I desperately wanted to go to Oberlin University, which is radically liberal, and I have no doubt that had been able to afford it my experience would have been very different, if only because there would have been more than 10 openly queer people on campus.

I love the phrase "Professional Gay!" I know exactly what you mean by that. I'm wondering how you felt your role changed when you changed how you identified yourself. Did your focus in the various activist organizations change (i.e. did bi issues become more apparent or important to you once you identified as bi)? I imagine that if you saw yourself as "Professional Gay" you might have felt a bit lost when you let go of identifying as gay...did you? Or did you feel like letting that identity go freed you up to explore other ways of being in and presenting to the world?

Amy: I think that letting go of that identity freed me up to be more multi-faceted in how I present myself to the world. As I noted, I'm still active with the "sex positive" community (I do things like go to feminist conferences called Sex 2.0, which is an unconference in its third year that covers social media, feminism, and sex positive stuff), though I'm not really an activist any more.  When I say that I mean... I am not in my face about it anymore. I just am who I am and I'm open about it, which is often its own form of activism because that's periodically a very difficult thing to do. Trying to actively change people's minds is too exhausting and generally ineffective. I used to say when I was a leader in the LGBT organization that the most effective form of activism that you can do is to be out and honest about yourself, whomever that is. The more people who know that you're queer [or whatever] the more they make the connection between "this cool person I know  who happens to be queer" and LGBT/queer rights. It personalizes the issue for them, so it's more "If I vote against LGBT rights, that means that my friend Susie can't marry her partner of ten years, Mary" and less of an abstract "other."

Anyway, what I am saying is that I didn't lose anything. I was scared to let go of that identity, but I think that my personal activism just shifted a bit and I got to become a more interesting human being as a result. Because people who are Just Gay or Just Mormon or Just Goth or Just [insert any identity] are kind of boring.

As a queer parent in a heterosexual(ish) relationship, how do you think you'll handle your son's sexuality when he gets older?

Candice: My son and I already have amazingly open discussions about lots of aspects of sexuality. My mother and I still can't talk about sex, and I was determined not to repeat that dynamic with him, so I've talked to him about bodies & sex (at an age-appropriate level, of course) from the beginning. It seems perfectly logical to him that some people like the opposite sex and some like the same and he's very indignant that gay marriage isn't legal (it's adorable to hear him rant about it). He knows that he can ask me anything, and so far is comfortable doing so.

As for my own sexuality, it hasn't come up yet, but I'm sure that at some point it will. I doubt he will explicitly ask me, so sometime in the next couple of years I'll drop it into a conversation. I'm sure he'll have some questions about how it fits into my relationship with his dad, and I'll explain as far as I think is appropriate. I'm a little nervous about coming out to him but honestly I don't think it will be that big a deal to him.

What's Building Bridges All About?

We hear a lot about generational divides. What we hear less about are the bridges: how people of different generations can and do connect; how we can support and help one another and each offer the other things of great value. Just as often as a given experience, or even life as a whole, is different for people of one generation and those of another, there are also some things that are or have been the same, and all have our own wisdom to share, whatever our age may be.

People of different generations are not incapable of connecting or understanding each other, despite the way so much media can often make it sound that way, or the despite day-to-day frustrations and challenges we have probably all experienced with one another when trying to connect. To find out more about the series, or to volunteer to pair up, click here. To see other pieces in the series, click here.