I get a lot of questions from readers about my sexual orientation, which makes sense, considering I run a website for ‘lesbian/bisexual/queer women’ and refer to myself alternately as lesbian, bisexual and queer. Writing about “labeling” one’s sexual orientation online is like jumping into the internet equivalent of “a pit of lions,” so I pretty much never answer those questions.
I actually could write about 100,000 words on this topic and, in fact, I have (mostly on my hard drive, but see also: “When I Knew”). But I’m gonna do my best to sort out the basics here, as briefly as possible, because I want to say something and if I don’t do this now I’ll change my mind and not want to say any of this at all.
In 2006, I hopped into the blogosphere specifically to connect online with potential readers of a book I was writing about bisexuality. But I didn’t think it was my place to talk about LGBT rights, especially marriage rights — I felt that, for as long as I was capable of happily marrying a man, my gory bisexual participation would seem like self-indulgent whining.
Yes, there are very negative and misleading stereotypes about bisexuality that I hated — tropes about it being a phase or about it just meaning “slutty” or “unfaithful” — but I felt that despite dealing with those stereotypes, the challenge of living as a bisexual woman who mostly dated men paled in comparison to what women who only dated women had to deal with.
But here I am!
So how did I get here?
Back in the peak of my bisexual identity (2004-2006ish), my social web was getting queerer and queerer as I added “bi girls met on craigslist” to my social roster of artsy friends from boarding school, feminist sex worker friends and publishing colleagues. By the time I started Autowin, the blog that launched a thousand Autostraddles, I was dating/making out with girls exclusively, but still strongly identifying as bisexual. I hadn’t had an actual girlfriend yet and I hadn’t been with a guy since January of that year, when my ex-boyfriend slept over expecting the traditional meaningless hookup and got, instead, me feeling nauseous when he kissed me and then crying when he got on top of me.
Flashback to college, where I’d lived a hyper-heterosexual life best described as alternately uncomfortable, depressing, and anxiety-inducing. Not because I felt like a gay person in a straight world but because I felt like a crazy person in a sane world.
All my life I didn’t know what made me different, but I knew that I was different. Yet at every new school I attended I’d always best-friend the prettiest (and therefore most popular) girl and gravitate towards a “cool crowd” that mostly embraced me as, I think, a kind of Court Jester. These girls wore their heterosexuality like peacocks. Their excellence made me feel worthless and their acceptance made me feel validated. Girls were always easy for me — to befriend, to get close to.
I somehow couldn’t bear to be unpopular — I didn’t mind being feared or mysterious, but I didn’t want to be disliked or looked down on. Maybe I would’ve been happier being friends with other outsiders but no, I had to be cool. Thus I felt entirely alone in all those crowded rooms but I thought that was just my lot in life: being apart.
But being normal came naturally to those girls, and thus they were permitted quirks and abnormalities, they were allowed to cry publicly about boys or identify as feminists. But I knew I was abnormal and therefore overcompensated by avoiding any hint of anything remotely resembling abnormality, like preferring books to people or having passionate political opinions — thinking this would help me “pass” as someone who fit in. Whatever they did, I would do double.
Boys were a huge part of this. In early adolescence, I’d been gawky and awkward and the boys never let me forget it. So when I grew into a more visually acceptable person with an apparently enviable body, I eagerly began feeding on male desire. Boyfriends or hookups were stamps of approval that greased the wheels of my social ambitions — “I have a boyfriend” meant at least one person wanted me, wholly. Meant I had something to gossip about with other girls, meant my jeans were the right jeans and I was thin but not too thin.
Flirting with/seducing guys felt like a fun game and despite my eventual mastery of that art, winning was still a rush every time. And the way I felt with men was like I was a vampire and they were a human and I thought I needed their blood in my body to make my body exist — to make my body matter.
Don’t get me wrong — I wanted those boys. I liked sex. I loved my boyfriends. I fell in love with a boy who broke my heart and drove me crazy. It was all very real.
At the same time, I was grappling with the gnawing tug of my life-long companion “major depressive disorder,” which had been in especially high gear following my Dad’s death when I was 14. Then in my first year at Michigan I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue syndrome. After boarding school — the only place I’d ever felt like I fit in — I’d descended into a kind of private hell of self-hatred, depression, anxiety and an array of eating disorders. So that was also happening.
A lot of things changed when I graduated from University of Michigan and went back to New York where I stayed for six years. I consented to being put on meds about six months before moving, and honestly I barely even relate to the me I was before meds. She was so scared of losing things that seem absurd in retrospect.
I spent the next five years exactly where so many of you are now — fumbling around for my label, for some absolute biological truth, because, as I once wrote in my diary: we want sexuality to be biological because we want sexuality to be instinctual and natural and out of our control, because choice isn’t nearly as romantic as surrender. Love is about the absence of choice — the irresistible pull of another body. We don’t have faith in the rest of it because we doubt the permanence of anything we are capable of changing with our minds.
I was scared, like maybe many of you are now, that in some unpredictable future I’d pick the wrong gender and then flee my husband/wife for another man/woman, leaving everybody’s soul shattered and, apparently, myself crying in a ravine wailing, “GOD! ‘QUEER’ WAS SUCH A COPOUT”!
There’d always be one of those nights, then — the ones where, feeling uncomfortable about socializing at this or that party, I’d just pick the boy I liked best in the room, decide to seduce him, and then do so. It was a rush, and of course I never went for artsy emo boys who I probably would’ve had lots in common with, I went for jocks and bankers who’d publicly demonstrate my normality by their interest in me, and I’d be their manic pixie slutty dream girl or their complacent housewife, whatever they wanted.
(I don’t really know how to talk about what happened next in my life, and I don’t think I’m ready to, on so many levels. But the rush you get from men changes, I think, when your boundaries are violated, when desire turns violent upon your body, when you nearly choke under the weight of just how much you’re ‘WANTED.’)
Similarly the girls I dated were sort of traditionally attractive femmy girls — and my desire towards them was always lukewarm enough to cement my certainty that “bisexual” was indeed the right label. See, I’d seen The L Word and I was obsessed with Shane. Furthermore, I’d always been a tomboy, I had an androgynous body and I’m not into heels/dresses so I assumed my obsession came from wanting to BE Shane.
Then I met my first girlfriend — she was dominant, wore men’s clothes and “passed” enough to use the guys restroom when the line at the girls was too long — and nothing was lukewarm, everything was on fire so hot I think my heart ended up burning to death later that summer. Which is another story. Needless to say.
I didn’t want to BE Shane. I wanted to DATE Shane!
No wonder I was so fucking scared to be myself all these years — all I’d wanted was a boyish/masculine girl — exactly the kind of girl I would’ve sooner teased than talked to in high school or college. The kind of girl who might scare my grandparents.
The kind of girl everyone pegged me as when I was a kid, when I got teased and called a dyke because I had short hair, looked like a boy and played sports.
I’d been afraid of being gay because I couldn’t give my childhood bullies the pleasure of being right about me and that had just turned into this giant complicated mess of self-loathing and confusion that took 27 years to sort itself out. If it even has.
So, what am I? I identify as bisexual because my relationships with men were not lies and I think that’s what bisexuality means. I loved them/sex. I never felt I was repressing lesbian urges. I didn’t have secret crushes on my female friends. “Lesbian” seems like what I am but “bisexual” honors who I was, too — it wasn’t just a filling station from there to here, it was another highway altogether. I didn’t evolve, I changed. But that girl was real, too.
Because isn’t it murky, back there? My brain is a dark swamp of memory and nomenclature is a heavy book of abstractions. When you ask me to label you I tell you “you do you” because that’s what I tell myself. I’m just me. I have so many stories, so many little lives, that I can throw together a narrative to prove I’m just about anything in the world.
Will I date a man again? No, I REALLY doubt it. Why? Firstly, I have a girlfriend who can manhandle me, I love her and I’ve trapped her in the basement with food/water to assure she never leaves me. Secondly, I don’t think I’m attracted to MEN, I liked boys a lot better when I was younger and they were younger and still looked like girls.
Thirdly, queer culture is so fucking ME. Much to my surprise, considering the internalized homophobia I’d so virulently projected onto lesbians, this feels honest. For the first time I can actually be myself and be liked — even loved! even wanted! — for it. Life used to feel like a lie, though I never consciously identified what lie I was living. Maybe this wasn’t true then.
Back then I thought I was just a total whack job and everything I did wrong and every time I didn’t fit in wasn’t because I was picking the wrong “them” it was because I was always the wrong ME.
When I try to narrow it down my memory starts screaming so loud I can barely feel myself think.
I felt like I needed to pick a label so I’d know what to wear — like I couldn’t go to a lesbian bar unless I had short hair and a gauzy vintage t-shirt and lazy jeans slouching against my hip-bones and I couldn’t go to a straight bar unless I was wearing a dress and boots. Now I know I just need to wear what I want to wear, and let the cards fall as they may. It’s so fucking obvious, I’m not surprised I missed it. It wasn’t my perception of men/women that changed, it was my perception of myself.
I don’t know how to explain this to you but what I’m trying to say is that I think we want labels to tell us who we are because figuring it out ourselves is really fucking scary especially when the lesbian option is kinda loaded and possibly catastrophic to your friends/family.
But — if you dare to let go, if you dare to stop thinking about what box you fit into and just start being who you are and letting yourself want what you want, then I think you’ll wake up one day and find yourself sitting in the right box which might not be a box at all.
The best way for me to pick a label would be to hold a poll on Autostraddle called “what do you want Riese to be?” because that word won’t change anything about who I am. It’s not about me, it’s about you. A label is an abstraction/social construct, not a directive. Desire comes first, naming it comes later. “Bisexual” feels like a lie but so does “lesbian” and so does “pansexual” and so does everything except “queer” which feels true. Because I like girls and because I’m a fucking weirdo, “queer” feels right. Sometimes “gay” feels right too, maybe because I like girls and because I’m happy. [ETA: I now still don’t really care but mostly identify as a lesbian, with the “bisexual by birth, lesbian by choice” caveat. You can read more about that here!]
I know labels are an important social and political construct, which is why I’m genuinely asking you the same thing you always ask me — what am I? What do you want me to be? I trust you. Just tell me what you want and it won’t change a thing.