Oh, By The Way, I Used to Be a Lesbian

My parents said it was a phase. I grew irate, and furiously insisted that it was not a phase. It was totally a phase.

Oct 26, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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According to this new study going around, 60 percent of women have felt some measure of attraction toward another woman.

Which, we all do, right? I mean, have you seen a boob? They're fantastic-looking, as are the rest of women's bodies. Plus we're trained to see women as sexual objects just like men are, not to mention being bombarbed by pop culture messages that lesbianism (the safe kind, performed by gender-normative women for the enjoyment of men) is super-hawt.

I don't mind telling you that I have been intimately aquainted with the inside of a vagina on many occasions. In fact, for about 3 years of my life, I identified as a full-fledged lesbian.

Michelle wasn't my first lesbian experience (My 6th grade best friend and I engaged in elaborate role-playing games which always ended with us exploring each other’s genitals in her parent’s garage and I'd been having Boones Farm-powered makeout sessions with girls at parties for years) but she became my first girlfriend after we met at the all-night diner where the weird teenagers hung out.

I was 15, she was 20 and old enough to drive, as well as flush with cash from her teaching job which she used to ply me with fast food, cigarettes and booze. She was short and stocky with a linebacker’s build and a cleft in the middle of her chin that she charmingly referred to as her “butt chin.” In retrospect I didn't really like her very much, but she was totally infatuated with me, my primary prerequisite for dating someone at that time.

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We stayed together for 3 years, during which time I totally embraced my newfound gayness. I came out to my parents! My mother's first reaction was, "Well, at least you won't get pregnant..." Then my parents said it was a phase. This infuriated me, and I insisted firmly that it was not a phase. It was totally a phase.

But what does it mean to have a lesbian phase? I worry about suggesting that lesbianism is in any way a choice, but for me ... it was a choice to experiment with my sexuality and the way I portrayed myself to the world. I don't think that gay women can choose not to be gay, but straight women can certainly make the choice to have sex with another woman.

I guess it's because of that choice aspect that I feel like I "wasn't really" a lesbian, but I "really" had a sexual and romantic relationship with a woman for 3 years in which I fully identified as a homosexual. I really kissed her and went on dates with her and put my mouth on her vagina and talked about a shared future. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, but its reasons for doing so are sort of complicated, does that mean it's not a duck?

I was never a real lesbian in the sense that I was never exclusively attracted to women, although I presented myself that way. In fact, at that time, I would consider myself more "willing" to have sex with women than actively attracted to them. My sexuality with men functioned similarly -- I didn't learn to stop and think about whether I wanted to have sex with someone or not for another decade. Because so much of my self-esteem hinged on others finding me desirable, I felt flattered by and receptive to all sexual attention.

In a way, my teenage lesbianism functioned like membership in a gang -- it granted me a ready-made community and identity. I learned the lyrics to every Ani Difranco song, began to appreciate lesbian cinema like "The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love" and "Better Than Chocolate," attended Pride, and cut my hair very short. Yes, these things are stereotypes and do not apply to all lesbians. But that identity is still out there, ready to be picked up by a lonely, aimless teenager with a lack of sexual boundaries.

My lesbian phase was also a way for me to rebel, to explicitly mark myself as what everyone around me had already noticed I was -- different. In fact, "gay" and "different" were practically synonymous terms in my high scool -- the second you put on combat boots or black lipstick or in any other way broke the extremely rigid contract of normal appearance and behavior, you were as likely to be called a "dyke" as a "freak."

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It wasn't the cool kind of edgy experimental different that I imagine a Brooklyn lesbian phase might connote, either. As an adolescent in Bible Belt Oklahoma, there is NOTHING cool (or even safe) about being gay. Everybody hated me, anyway; at least as a lesbian I could point to a reason why. "They're homophobic" stings less than "I'm some distasteful mixture of too smart and weird and damaged and it makes your typical teenager uncomfortable."  I enlisted my sexuality in making sense of my inherent understanding that I did not fit in.

After a few years, Michelle and I broke up, and I started to drift back to male partners, eventually having to come out to my parents as straight. (There was a period of in-between time where I milked my lesbian status, once screaming "DOESN'T ANYONE IN THIS FAMILY UNDERSTAND THAT I'M A LESBIAN??" after being caught with a boy in my bedroom.) I may have been the first young girl to go off to college and experiment with heterosexuality.

Today I would consider myself sometimes sexually attracted to women, but not interested in having a relationship with one, which perhaps also means I am not "really" bisexual? Is romantic interest in the same sex a prerequisite for homosexuality?

Even more problematically, I have on more than one occasion engaged in sex with women for the primary purpose of being arousing to men I was also engaging in sex with. In those cases I knew I wasn't engaging in "real lesbianism," although again, that sex happened and was indistinguishable from any other kind of lesbian sex from the outside. (That accusation of this kind of "fake" lesbianism gets thrown at bisexuals so often that I know many who are reluctant to identify as such.) I'm curious -- if I had sex with a man I wasn't attracted or unattracted to in order to arouse a female sex partner, would that also be considered "fake"?

As a woman in a long-term heterosexual relationship, I'm rarely asked to clarify my sexuality, and as a result, I don't spend a ton of time thinking about it. I haven't said the words "I'm straight" or "I'm bisexual" in years, although either could be considered true. I've jokingly referred to this article as being about "when I used to be a lesbian," but as we've seen I'm unclear on two parts of that sentence: the "lesbian" and the "used to be."

I think the term "queer" probably best describes me, if I were the sort of person who feels comfortable saying things like "I'm queer," which I'm not. Mostly I am someone who has had many experiences, and is open to more. And that's real.