I Gave Up Trying to Define My Sexuality With Labels

The amount of time I spent trying to determine whether I was gay, straight, or bisexual was starting to make me feel like an imposter.
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Publish date:
June 23, 2015
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Tags:
bisexuality, sexual orientation, queer identity

For years, I’ve been an excavator. I’ve poured over my memories for hours and hours, looking for clues, any tiny indicator that would tip the scales of my undefinable sexuality one way or another. I’ve scoured my relationships (both sexual and platonic) for answers, racking my brain to try to determine whether my attractions to men were stronger than to women, whether I enjoyed sex with women or men more, and whether I even knew how to answer those questions. What is the barometer for desire? Why did everyone but me seem to understand the definable limits of their sexual orientation?

I was the girl that lied during Truth or Dare, picking a boy’s name at random from our group of peers to tell the other girls I liked. I awkwardly agreed with my friends that Heath Ledger was hot in 10 Things I Hate About You when I shamefully felt nothing but passive curiosity about his hair. I ogled Drew Barrymore in almost documentarian fashion throughout the ‘90s and achieved sexual sentience after seeing Heather Graham’s performance in the "American Woman" music video. Clearly I was a little lesbian, right?

But I had crushes on boys all throughout middle school. They were little pockets of infatuation that I never had the courage to act on, but I couldn’t deny that they existed. By the time I was in high school, I had no interest in dating anybody, probably because I was confused about who I would even want to date. (Besides, it was 2005 and being openly queer in high school was still pretty unchill.) My romantic interest in women and sexual interest in men left me in such conflict that I chose not to think about it at all, hoping that I’d go off to college, have some sex and figure out what the hell was going on.

If only there was a word to describe a person who felt attraction to people of both genders! Despite being practically tethered to my laptop during high school, I managed to remain woefully ignorant about the realities of sexuality. I even insisted to one of my close friends that bisexuality wasn’t real.

As I’ve gotten older, I unfortunately see the idea that bisexuality is the refuge of the indecisive and/or closeted being echoed by both LGBT and straight-identifying people. ‘“Bisexuals” are greedy, needy and not to be trusted. Step right up and place your bets – when will the bisexual finally figure out their "real" sexuality?

So, identifying as a bisexual seemed completely out of the question to me. I only knew that something was different, and that the label “straight” felt like a lie. Imagine my bewilderment when I finally did go off to college and have some sex (with people of both genders), only to come up empty-handed. Oh wait, sorry, that’s not entirely true. I did get something out of those experiences – even more confusion.

A good experience with a woman seemed to me confirmation that I belonged in the sapphic sisterhood. I would sort through my memories to find information that could corroborate my identity as a lesbian. How often did I dream of women? I tried to prise data from the length of my stares at women on the street and analyzed myself when I checked them out: was I comparing myself to her, or was I into her? Or both? I’d run the numbers and come to a conclusion – my hypothesis was accepted sometimes and rejected others. But then I’d meet a man who was interesting in some way or another and all that research became tainted by this new experience, whose every angle I would have to examine in order to see how it fit into the overall picture.

This went on for a while.

If my sexuality had been a funded research project I would’ve been out on my ass long, long ago. So when I was 23, I decided that the ‘bisexual’ label was my way out. If I couldn’t explain how I felt, then offering other people this simple answer was a solid way for me to not have to worry about it any more.

But ‘bisexual’ never really seemed to fit me; like all the other identifiers I had tried on, it felt like a shitty, itchy sweater that shrank in the dryer. I felt uncomfortable in it and it prickled, always nagging at me as if to say: "If you were really sure, you wouldn't still think about it so much."

The label shouldn’t matter – I get that. But confidently and cogently being able to describe this aspect of your identity to another person is really important. Not being able to comprehend what should be a clear, immutable piece of my identity made me feel defective. The inconsistency of my romantic feelings and sexual urges seemed so different from those of my gay and straight friends. I didn’t experience a stable state of attraction to both sexes like bisexuals do by definition. I could identify specific periods during which I felt significantly more attracted to one gender versus another. Changes to sexual orientation aren't supposed to happen due to outside factors, so why did mine always feel like it was oscillating?

For about a year, I wore the itchy sweater of bisexuality. As time passed and I stopped feeling like I needed to explain myself to all of the important people in my life, I was able to just live my sexuality instead of analyze it. I stopped searching for clues to explain my feelings and I stopped excavating my memory. The period of time during which I gave up trying to define my sexuality was the moment that finally gave me some clarity.

One night, I happened to come across a 2013 article about Chirlane McCray. In 1979, McCray wrote an article for Essence titled “I Am A Lesbian.” Today, she is the wife of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. The 2013 article featured an interview in which McCray was asked how she went from identifying as a lesbian to being married to a man. She answered: “By putting aside the assumptions I had about the form and package my love would come in.” When I read that sentence, it was like a door in my brain exploded open.

Suddenly, the shifting variables that seemed to prevent me from confidently identifying didn’t feel like puzzle pieces that needed to be moved around until they fit together. The answer was simply that my sexuality is fluid. Like McCray, I’ve seen my attractions shift over time. My only constant has been that I’ve always felt in flux.

Researchers and scientists have known since the introduction of the Kinsey Scale in 1948 that sexuality is a continuum. A recent study by Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams (Professor of Developmental Psychology at Cornell University) soon to be published in The Journal of Sex Research comes to the conclusion that “heterosexual, bisexual, and gay/lesbian individuals do not constitute the universe of sexual orientations.” Just as in any other branch of the human experience, a huge range of diversity exists within the spectrum of sexual orientation.

It turns out, I was no more of an imposter than anyone else. I just happen to inhabit an extremely gray area.