A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the LGBTQ+ acronym, and the reasons why I think expanding the acronym serves to blur differences amongst identities that are actually quite vital and important. Since then, I’ve been thinking about a story I wish I’d told when I wrote that piece.
You may have noticed, if you read me regularly, that I talk an awful lot about dating men. I have written about at least a couple of ex-boyfriends, and I possess quite a few more than that. And yet, when I identify myself in these pages (and out in the world), I always call myself a “lesbian.” I rarely say “queer,” I occasionally say “gay.” I have never identified as bisexual. Even in the days when I’d begun tentatively dating women, I never once uttered the word “bi”. And the reasons were conscious and important. So I’ve realized that when I talked about identities and acronyms, I failed to address a crucial point – that identities are vital precisely because of what they say about our lives and our histories – and I’m living proof of that.
My early dating years were spent dating men exclusively – because that’s what you did as a girl in my home town. It’s what was available. It’s what the model was. Our lives and stories and televisions were filled with young women dating young men. Our houses were filled with mothers and grandmothers and cousins and aunts who had married men. Our churches and sex ed classes both spoke in exclusively straight terms. I called myself “straight” if I called myself anything at all, because “straight” was literally all I knew.
But when I tell that story now? I say I was “pretending to be straight”. Because when I review my history, that’s what it feels like to me. When I think back to the boys I dated, I remember how quickly I recoiled from them once our relationships turned sexual. When I was in 7th grade, a handsome sandy-haired 8th grader in my microbiology course got himself moved so he could sit at my table at the back of the class. I enjoyed his company at the table. We would play paper football during lecture (a misbehavior I had never previously undertaken) and would do all our labs together. One day, I thought I might have a crush on him. So I asked him if we could go out. It seemed like the correct pattern to follow. He was a cute boy, and I had fun with him. That must be a crush. And if you had a crush, you asked him out! That’s how you got closer to kissing, the ultimate 7th grade dating goal (in my nerdy school).
The boy said yes, but once I had him, I wasn’t sure what to do with him. Paper football didn’t seem as much fun anymore, and suddenly he seemed to expect things from me. He wanted to talk on the phone every night. He wanted me to come to his New Year’s Eve party. He wanted to know when we were going to kiss.
It was with silent discomfort that I realized I didn’t want to go to the NYE party – partly because I didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of 8th graders. I wanted to be with my friends. But also, I realized I didn’t want to kiss this boy. What would that even be like, I wondered. And what was the point, really? I knew I was supposed to want to. I knew I wanted to do something, because I could feel that sweaty, strange tingling that accompanies puberty – that desire to get down to business and figure out what might make that feeling go away. But I didn’t think that kissing the sandy haired boy sounded like anything other than a chore – much like talking on the phone with him when I’d rather be talking to my best friend.
Now, you could chalk all this up to preteen nerdiness. I was awkward and fairly naive. Maybe I just didn’t know how to have a boyfriend. That’s a story you could easily tell, looking at these facts. And at the time, I think that’s what everyone said. You’re too young to be dating anyway, my mom said. And she was probably right. I decided to go with that narrative, because it seemed too confusing to figure out any other reason. I was off the hook for another few years.
I won’t bore you with every story of every boyfriend I ever had. There were several, and below the surface details, the story is basically the same for each of them. Things started to get sexy, and I started to get weird. I would find a reason to break up or, in the case of my summer church camp fling, would simply avoid them for the duration of possible contact.
Again, I knew I wanted something. But none of what I was getting seemed to fit.
When I was in my early twenties, I tested the waters of coming out to my mother. I did this far earlier than I’ve ever told anyone I did. My story says that I came out later in my twenties. But in fact, I thought about it not long after graduating college. I had never so much as considered dating a girl. And yet, I had found myself at the end of yet another relationship that seemed like it should have been ideal. The boy was smart, attractive, confident, and talented. He had a “real” job and loved me very much. He could cook (remember that line about how I couldn’t cook worth a lick?). And yet I’d given up on him swiftly and almost overnight. He’d offered to move to California with me when I left for my graduate program, and I’d realized that this meant he might be following me forever. I couldn’t handle the feeling in my gut – the feeling that I needed to get far far away from this kind and wonderful man.
“Mom,” I said, out of nowhere (because that’s how I talk to my mom about most things), “What if I’m gay?”
I don’t remember whether she seemed shocked, but to be fair, my mother is largely unflappable. I could come home tomorrow with a leg missing, she’d stare at it for a split second, and then say , “well, guess it’s time for you to learn how to live without that leg.” So I don’t remember the face she made because she makes the same face about everything: stoic, mixed with a hint of smirking. I don’t remember her face, but I remember her answer, verbatim: “Well, Sharon, if you’re gay that’s fine. But if you’re gay, wouldn’t you know? It seems like something you’d have fantasized about, or thought about.” And then, she asked me a question I couldn’t answer: “Wouldn’t you know based on what you’ve fantasized?”
My mother was asking me about desire. She was talking to me about something no one around me had ever really discussed. I knew the rules of sex, the biology of it. I knew how to be safe, and how to be responsible. I had been participating at this point for many years. But not once had I ever considered my own desire.
It took me several more years to come out of the closet completely. I would waver in my dedication to the cause, would start dating a woman and then quickly return to the familiar but unsatisfying world of men – because it’s how I’d always pictured myself. It’s what I knew how to do. I was good at the game, even if I didn’t enjoy playing it. But when I retell the story of that time? I always say I was “playing it straight.” I have retroactively negated every single one of those relationships with men – and I don’t feel an ounce of guilt about it. Because I am certain – more certain than I am of the stars in the sky – that nothing ever could have made me stay with those men. They could have been the perfect match for me, and it was still never going to happen. Because I’d still have been gay. In my heart, I’d always been a lesbian. But because I’d never taken the time to think or talk about my own desire – because I’d never named it – I couldn’t claim my identity.
I was raised in a world that still mostly considered women desire-free. Many of the adult women around me seemed dissatisfied with their relationships and their sex lives. My parents were still happy together, I knew. My parents had distinct chemistry, in fact. But she was essentially the only woman I knew who spoke positively about her romantic life. On the whole, the women in real life and on television sounded fed up with men. As far as I could tell, they felt the same way I did. And thus it took me years to identify what I was actually seeking. I had to become a woman who realized she was capable of desire before I could identify what that desire was.
So when someone tells you how they identify, this story is the reason it’s important not to doubt them. It’s important to listen, when a person tells you what term they use to define themselves. Because sometimes, that term is telling you what lens to use when you read a person’s history, when you listen to their story.
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