How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
I don’t remember consciously recognizing my queerness. It was like a huge, rainbow, punk rock elephant sitting in the room of my soul, but I seemed to always find convenient ways not to think about it. I framed my attractions in the context of an artistic perspective, and smothered myself in layers of religious study that numbed me so entirely to feeling attracted and attractive to other people that I more or less was able to repress it until high school.
Contrary to what some people believe, my experience--the sudden “holy shit I might not be straight” epiphany in high school--is not necessarily the normal experience. The broad network of queer connections I have built around myself have vastly different stories of when they knew what they were, from a friend who identified his same sex attraction the moment he understood what attraction was and has been openly homosexual since kindergarten, to a friend who was engaged to a man in their twenties before they realized that they were performing straightness and became openly gay in their thirties.
Though we all are identified under the umbrella of ‘other’ by the heteronormative world-at-large, the truth is that many of our stories are more different than they are similar, and there is something beautiful in that.
In high school I fell in love with two people at once. Joel* was tall, blonde, tan, with a goofy smile and broad shoulders. I didn’t mind that his palms were always sweaty or that his skin wasn’t the best or that he never knew the right thing to say (like, never).
Shoshanna* was my best friend, a fellow artist, with long willowy limbs and beautiful pouty lips. Anything I could do, she could do better, but instead of feeling jealous and competitive about it I fell deeply in love with her drive and her passion. I was more interested in collaborating than competing with her; I wanted to do and make and see everything with her.
Joel and I started dating and I never told Shoshanna about the way I felt about her until five years later when my crush had petered out (but that’s a different story for another day).
I don’t remember consciously recognizing my queerness, but I do remember realizing that I wasn’t “just artistic,” as I’d always assumed. I do remember realizing that I was going to have to tell Joel at some point. It was less a feeling of obligation than it was the desire to be honest and out to someone.
To his credit, Joel was enormously supportive, and didn’t care who I found attractive as long as I wanted to be with him and only him. We ended up dating for six years.
In the meantime, I struggled to cope with what it meant to be an extremely invisible queer woman. I had a boyfriend who was straight. In a childish bid to keep his love, I adhered to traditionally feminine forms of self-expression even though they never quite seemed to suit me. When I told people about my queerness (at first using the word bisexual because it was the only language I had access to at the time; now I alternate between the words bisexual and queer) I usually received some sort of variation on the, “But don’t you have a boyfriend?” riff. There were questions both spoken and unspoken; aren’t you straight? You don’t look queer? Do you have threesomes all the time? How can you be monogamous if you like boys and girls? How do you know if you’ve never dated a woman? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still trip over these questions, but these days I know the lay of the land a little better.
Being queer and invisible almost killed me. For a long time the only people that knew were myself, my close friends, and Joel. I hesitated on coming out more fully because of fear of the public perception of my queerness. I hated the ribald jokes that “friends” made to Joel about how crazy our sex life must be because I was “okay with extra bodies in the bedroom.” I hated the way my female friends never wanted to change in the same room as me anymore, as if somehow afraid that because I was suddenly out, I was going to come on to them. I hated that, because I “looked straight,” no one believed my queerness and expected me to produce a dating and sexual history, like a bisexual curriculum vitae, to “prove” my identity.
Even worse, however, was feeling strangled by the weight of my own shame and self-repression. I almost took my own life on several occasions, and thank goodness I had Joel around to anchor me, not because I loved him, but because I felt more guilty about what dying would do to him than I did for being alive and queer.
By my senior year of college things between Joel and I had cooled significantly into a close friendship punctuated by regular sex. The romance was gone, but we held on for a few more months just for the sake of comfort.
Realizing that I was going to be around on Earth for a while yet, and that I might as well own the time I had left, I joined a queer performance group at the campus and built an amazing, supportive community with my castmates and facilitators. I told almost no one that I was going to be performing, and the night that I did for the first time (in front of hundreds of people!) I had classmates and friends come up to me afterwards, incredulous that they’d never known.
Joel and I broke up and it felt like the world was wide open; I was out to my family, my peers, and I could start living in a way that was more authentically me.
After a year of casually dating folks from all over the gender binary, including off of it entirely, and learning to express myself (tattoos? check! piercings? check! half shaved, platinum blonde, pixie cut? check! check! check!), I fell in love again.
Travis* is the kindest, funniest, most gentle man I have ever met, while still being able to satisfy the evil little adrenaline goblin that lives in my brain and likes to date “bad people.” Here’s the kicker though: he’s straight, and I am being forced to relearn all over again that I am queer, regardless of who I am dating.
Most days I can tame my mohawk into some semblance of order, put on my favorite cat hat and some sunnies, and face the world like it’s no problem. I love human beings. Period. I think people are magical and wonderful and improbable, and I find (some of) them attractive. The sex or gender (if they choose to identify with any) of a body has no bearing on how attractive I find someone; it matters to me only inasmuch as it is important to the person I care about. These things are a part of me, just as much as I love skiing, and writing music, and tea.
They are parts of my identity, but they aren’t the end-all, be-all of how I see myself. I am many things: I am stubborn, and generous, and creative, and queer. These things are permanent about me, and no one thing is more “me” than any other. I am the sum of many parts and, at the same time, I am more than just the sum of my parts. Just as my queerness doesn’t affect my ability to be monogamous when I want to be, Travis doesn’t automatically negate it just because he’s not a little sexual swirl cone like me.
Usually I try not to assume anything. I hate it when people assume my sexuality. Being perceived as straight or as gay can sometimes feel more comfortable and safe depending on the situation, but these labels also never quite feel authentic. I try to give folks the benefit of humanity--I try never to assume what they are and actively make an effort to never guess at what their personal sexual proclivities might be. If it’s important, they’ll tell me.
Otherwise we’re all just human animals running around on this amazing dynamic planet, falling in love, falling in lust, and trying to find a life that is meaningful and fulfilling. That’s a daunting task without being worried whether or not I’m queer enough.