Why Should I Define My Sexuality for Others?

Just because you can label yourself doesn't mean you have to.

When I was 17, I became close friends with a talented, beautiful, and whip-smart girl at my summer theatre camp. We were in the same play, took similar classes, and had bunks right next to one another, which resulted in us spending the majority of our structured and free time in each other’s company.

One night during evening recreation, we sat in the mess hall eating powdered hot chocolate with our fingers (a summer camp snack favorite) when she mentioned her ex-girlfriend. I lowered my packet of Swiss Miss in surprise. Prior to this moment, my friend had disclosed having a crush on one of the boys in our cast. She and I even swapped opinions over who would be the better kisser. 

“But wait,” I said. I remember hesitating on my next sentence with the words still coming out blind and immature. “Don’t you like boys?” 

My friend looked at me amused, and then perplexed, and then a little annoyed. 

“Well, you just don’t date someone for a year and stop being attracted to girls,” she said. She then quickly changed the subject, and we left to go meet up with some friends, but this conversation planted a seed in my head: You could like both.

Our relationship changed after that. I’m not sure if it was because I admired her, I was crushing on her, or I simply wanted to be her—but, in any case, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Other things began to make sense, too. As a child, my first celebrity crushes were Frankie Muniz and the little girl in Hocus Pocus. I didn’t hang posters of Mary-Kate Olsen just because I loved Holiday in the Sun; I thought she was cute. 

Over the next few years, I dated men—but my interest in women lay dormant in the back of my mind, just waiting for the right opportunity to crop back up. When I was in a relationship, I tried to persuade my boyfriends to have threesomes, and when I was single, I filled my Tinder feed with women (even though I was always too scared to actually make a move).

Though the evidence was there, I felt undeserving of the label of “bisexual” since I had never actually dated a woman. 

As I was growing, the world grew alongside me. A special January 2017 issue of National Geographic featured a picture of a child clad all in pink with the title “The Gender Revolution.” Underneath the image was a quote, presumably from the child, stating, “The best thing about being a girl is that I no longer have to pretend to be a boy.”

Though gender fluidity was nothing new (people have defied traditional gender conventions for centuries), it was finally being given the spotlight it deserved. Around this time, I started crushing on a trans woman and felt my world expand once again. I didn’t even need to limit my world to two genders. Another seed was planted.

Two years ago, after a particularly bad breakup with an ex-boyfriend, I decided to start actively exploring my sexuality. Instead of just admiring girls on dating apps, I actually connected with them and started to see what it might be like to flirt with another woman. I also ventured into the World Wide Web of threesomes and had sex with a girl. Experimenting was much easier than I could have imagined it. I loved our sameness, the way we folded into one another like wine in a glass. It didn’t lessen my appreciation for men—it was just a different experience. 

And then, a few months later, I met and fell in love with a cis man. At the time, I was still carrying some of the trauma from my previous relationship and hesitated to negotiate any sort of official commitment. But I loved the way he supported me, his patience, our shared appreciation for adventure and whimsy. I let myself fall.

Again, I wondered if my queerness was valid. Surely I was straight. I had historically and routinely dated men. My time with women was limited to crushes, sex, and fantasy. I didn’t know how to balance those experiences with the fact that I had a track record of dating dudes and was very much into this one particular man. Even the LGBTQ+ community, which is wonderful, seemed to want me to pick a side. I felt out of place with my gay friends and out of place with the straights. 

But then, about nine months into our relationship, I was approached to write a story about what it was like to be queer in a relationship with a cis man. The editor had reached out to me personally, and though it was strictly a professional opportunity, I felt seen and validated. 

I sometimes think about why I needed that external validation to trust something I had always known to be true. In my formative years, conversations about gender and sexuality were limited. I couldn’t even fathom the possibility of liking multiple genders, let alone choosing to date a man and still feeling attraction to women. 

But being asked to write that article proved that there were other queer people dating cis folks. It wasn’t uncommon, and I wasn’t alone.

In the dictionary of my brain, the phrases “queer” and “in a relationship with a straight, cis man” were no longer mutually exclusive. I could be both. Today, I identify as sexually fluid.

Still, I know I am not the only person to feel the pressure to define their sexuality.  I spoke to Lindsey Cooper, an associate marriage and family therapist who works with several clients in the LGBTQ+ space and had to navigate her own journey toward understanding her sexuality. 

“The word lesbian never felt right to me, so I tend to stick with fluid or queer,” Cooper tells HelloGiggles. Like me, she also felt the pressure of having to pick a label in order to appease the LGBTQ+ community. 

“As incredible as the queer community is, they can also be very divisive,” she says. Cooper elaborates that, of course, this is not true of all queer folks but is still common. The LGBTQ+ community has historically been labeled as a minority and has overcome quite a bit of strife. It makes sense that they would want to protect their identities. 

“The pressure to ‘pick a side’ prevents many individuals from exploring the full depth of their sexuality, when, in actuality, sexuality isn’t necessarily this black-and-white thing,” she explains.

I certainly understood this. Prior to coming to terms with my own queerness, I often felt ostracized when hanging out with my lesbian friends. Which, to an extent, I understood; my perceived straightness and history of dating men made my experience entirely different than theirs. I never told them about my queer fantasies, mostly because I was afraid they would write me off as “experimenting.” I had enough conversations with my lesbian friends to know that straight girls “just wanting to explore” was annoying. Some of my friends had been burned by these girls, by their indecision and their lack of commitment to one gender.  

But that’s not to say that struggling with the in-between, or the sexual gray area, doesn’t come with its own slew of challenges.

It’s hard to live in a world that loves labels when you feel as though a label doesn’t exist. It’s like going to a store and realizing that none of the clothes are your size, so you end up wearing something that doesn’t fit because you feel like you have to. 

The thing is, our society favors binaries. You’re a boy or a girl, straight or gay, black or white. Anything that goes against the binary strays into foreign territory and is thereby perceived as a threat. My therapist speculates this is because we like certainty. Fear of the unknown, or xenophobia, runs rampant in our society and often coincides with racism and homophobia. But for many, for people like me, binaries don’t work. 

Recently, I read the book Untamed by author Glennon Doyle. Formerly a Christian mommy blogger, Doyle stunned her followers when she left her husband to pursue a relationship with Olympian Abby Wambach. Like me, Doyle struggled to label her sexual orientation. Below she mentions how society depicts sexuality to be an either/or thing when it shouldn’t be.

“We took wild sexuality—the mysterious undefinable evershifting flow between human beings—and we packaged it into sexual identities,” she writes. “It’s like water in a glass. Sexuality is water. Sexual identity is a glass.” 

In other words, sexuality is fluid, nuanced, and formless. In some cases, we might find the perfect glass to contain our sexuality—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pan, etc. But in other cases, we spend months, maybe even years, scrounging the cabinets for the perfect glass. What Doyle is suggesting, and what I find so deeply comforting, is that we don’t need a label to define us or to make our sexuality valid. 

I am not against labels. I like to call myself “fluid” or “queer” because it helps me better understand my identity. But labels are by no means necessary. They’re simply a tool to help us further connect to the complex nature of the “self.” I would not force anyone to pick one nor would I discourage a person from labeling themself. I think we should do whatever feels true and right, and that looks different for everyone. 

I think about what my world might have looked like if I had grown up in an environment where sexual fluidity had been naturally on my radar, a world where I hadn’t been shocked to find out that my summer camp best friend liked both girls and boys. I wonder what would have happened if I too felt safe to like all genders at a young age—and then I think about how I feel grateful to have the opportunity to do that right now. I ask Cooper what she might have told someone in my shoes. 

“It’s okay for a person to try on different hats in order to find their authentic voice,” she says. “There’s no timeline. And that it’s more than okay not to know.” 

Sometimes I get scared thinking about the fluid nature of my sexuality, but Cooper’s words give me comfort. It takes some of the pressure off of me having to know everything right now. So instead, I focus on what being true to myself looks like today. I tell my boyfriend about my fantasies with women, and we talk about how we can weave that into our relationship. We agree that monogamy may look different for us. 

At the end of the day, I love people—and my boyfriend is a loving, patient, caring person whom I am extremely attracted to; we’re compatible. The fact that he is a man is secondary to all of that. I’ve learned that I am not the sort of person who enjoys feeling boxed into anything. I choose how to label my sexuality. It’s mine. 

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