Hi there. I’m sure you’ve received questions like this before, and you probably get a ton of asks, but I’d appreciate advice as I’m really struggling. For the past six years, I’ve been questioning my sexuality (I’m in my late 20s now). I grew up in a very conservative, sheltered environment, and I never knew I could even have a female partner; I only saw hetero couples, and assumed that to not be lonely I needed a male partner. But I was never much into dating or sex. Then, when I was 21, a therapist asked if I was gay, and I knew I wasn’t (sexually), but it made me research, and research, and wonder and wonder and wonder. I do believe I’m asexual, or at least don’t care to have sex, but it’s the attraction to women (romantic/sensual) that I’m concerned with.
I may have had strong feelings for two women before I realized I could be not-straight (it’s hard to tell if they were strong platonic feelings or romantic, but there was always an element of wanting to be somewhat exclusive) — possibly other nebulous feelings too, like staring at a girl I thought was really, really pretty and wanting to be near her — but it’s only after my therapist asked if I was gay that I started imagining being in a relationship with a woman. And I don’t know why, but I so, so want that. I have rarely imagined being with a man, certainly not touching a man except hugging/feeling protected, although I like men. But imagining being with a woman, touching a woman, is so wonderful. I’ve become obsessed with historical female pairs, Boston marriages, etc. I also developed a major crush on a woman I met about a year after realizing I could spend my life with a woman, and the desire to touch her is so strong. I’ve never felt anything like that with anyone before. (But she initiated the hug, and I am also touch starved, so maybe this just has to do with that?)
However, aesthetically/physically, I find higher numbers of men attractive than women, which complicates this. Like, on TV, I’ll find many more men cute than women. But I desire to have a relationship with a woman much more, at least right now. I wouldn’t mind being with a man, I don’t think; I’ve certainly had crushes on certain men, mostly intellectually, and I don’t hate the idea of being in a relationship with a man. But it pales in comparison to being with a woman. The main difference I’ve found is that I feel much more sensual with a woman I’m drawn to. With a man, I typically just want to look at him and have him touch me/protect me; with a woman, I want to touch her as well as have her touch me. I feel much more active and willing to take the initiative with a woman.
My question is, how do I know that I’m not just trying to convince myself I’m not-straight to be rebellious, or cool, or something? I’ve always had a tiny rebellious streak when it comes to societal norms, and I’m afraid I’m just trying to convince myself I’m something “different” because I’m sick of heterosexual romance everywhere I look. Not that I hate it all the time, but there’s something about same-sex relationships that excites me. Also, so many of my feelings for women have been in my head; what if this is just fantasy, and in the real world it’s not real? (Except it has been real, a few times. Just a few.)
How do I know I haven’t brainwashed myself into being bi, gay, or otherwise not-straight? Like I said, I do like men; I appreciate them intellectually and personally, and I like how male bodies look. But I don’t necessarily want to touch them. I could see myself with a man… but if I hadn’t tried with a woman first, I would definitely feel like I was missing something. And honestly, the idea of living with a woman forever, sharing a home, a bed, cuddling… is dreamy. A part of me thinks I might miss that, permanently, if I married a man.
Thoughts? Thanks so much!
Follow Up Message 1:
Hi there, I just wanted to clarify my question I submitted a few days ago about whether I’m gay/bi or not. My main concern is, if I never thought about being in a relationship with a woman until my therapist mentioned it, is it possible that she just “planted” the idea in my head (so to speak), and I became obsessed with it, but I’m really actually straight? If I am biromantic (or-sexual, or lesbian), wouldn’t I have figured it out myself without having someone give me the idea?
Also, the friend I have a crush on is married, so she’s unavailable.
Follow Up Message 2:
Hi — I want to clarify my post again, sorry. My therapist asked me if I was gay because of the way I was talking about an old friend I had been hanging out with, saying how cool she was, when I was hesitant to pursue a boy I had a crush on because I didn’t want to spend every weekend with him/didn’t want to lose my personal time (and I thought he didn’t like me romantically — looking back, he might have). When she asked if I would consider living with said friend, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. (We’ve grown apart now.) There were other things after that that made me wonder, too — seeing a former classmate and her girlfriend’s pictures, and without explanation just wanting that so badly for myself — to hold someone (a woman), to look at someone, to live with someone, like they were.
Follow Up Message 3:
Hello dear friend! Let me just say this first: you are not alone.
I think it bears repeating: you are not alone.
You are not alone in having these kinds of conflicting and complicated feelings about queer desire and identity; you are not alone in wondering where your queerness comes from; you are not alone in asking if your queerness is “real,” or to put it another way, if you are queer enough. These feelings, I think, are actually quite common. Darcy wrote in a recent advice column about how the idea of not feeling queer enough is incredibly universal. So many of us have been where you are and so many of us still are!
I want to focus on your main question first: “How do I know I haven’t brainwashed myself into being bi, gay, or otherwise not-straight?” and as you clarified in your second letter “is it possible that [the therapist] just ‘planted’ the idea in my head (so to speak), and I became obsessed with it, but I’m really actually straight?”
If you’ve just spent a lot of time browsing Autostraddle, it can be easy to forget: we live, even in the 21st century, even in progressive cities, in a society deeply entrenched in heteronormativity and homophobia. It is impossible to avoid swimming in this disgusting soup. In the US right now we are seeing a huge backlash to the rights gained and cultural shifts for LGBTQ people (particularly trans folks). The idea that people are “brainwashed” into queer identities or that someone with authority “plants” the idea of being queer in people who would otherwise be straight, is right out of this backlash discourse. It is absolutely NOT your fault for thinking like this about queerness, but I wanted to point out that this way of thinking about queer identity is rooted in homophobia and heteronormativity, because I am suggesting we look at it from a queer perspective instead.
A few of us were discussing your question in the Autostraddle slack, and Nico pointed out that “often we need to encounter the idea that we could be gay in order to begin to accept that we are.” I couldn’t put it better myself so I wanted to quote them! (Allocis)heterosexuality is engrained in us from literally before we are born (fucking gender reveal parties!). It is VERY understandable that we need to be shown or told about options other than the dominant norms of sexuality in order to recognize that we ourselves are queer. How else are we to imagine otherwise when we’ve been told over and over heterosexuality is the only way?
When you really think about it, it’s astounding that despite the enormous pressure to conform to allocisheterosexuality, queer people continue to live their queer lives and flourish. (We rule, obviously). The idea that anyone who identifies as queer is “really straight” in the context of a heteronormative society is statistically nil. Logically, this is where the “born this way” rhetoric makes sense: why would anyone choose to be gay in a world that insists being gay is shameful and that heterosexuality is infinitely superior?
I want to push back on that logic a bit though, even if it is helpful to you. So what if you experience your queer identity and/or queer desire as a choice? Being queer is awesome, so great choice. And what does it mean to “be really actually straight”? Is there some essential being inside you that is eternally queer or straight? Some people experience their sexuality that way; others don’t. Neither way is better, despite the ubiquity of the “born this way” concept. Plenty of people truly know for long periods of their life that they’re straight, only to embrace queer identities in their later years. Some people question their sexuality, try out a queer identity or relationship, and end up identifying as heterosexual. The truth is that for some people sexual orientation remains static throughout their lives and for others it doesn’t.
If you don’t believe me, listen to queer lit icon Carmen Maria Machado, who wrote in her recent essay on Autostraddle:
“How little we know of ourselves at any moment; how distinctly human that is. There is such little grace given to the perfect messiness of desire. Even queers feel pressure to homogenize the experience into catchy slogans. The ‘born this way’ narrative, while politically expedient, has done untold damage to narratives of the queer experience, implying any number of horrible ideas: that you cannot move toward desire without some genetic component urging you to do so, that experimentation is inherently problematic, that you have to know your truest and deepest self to act on something. There were times in my adolescence where people asked me if I was gay and I said no, not out a sense of self-preservation but because I truly believed it to be so. You can be a stranger to yourself; you almost certainly will be, at some point or another. It is inevitable, as inevitable as the moment of rupture that sends you hurtling toward the self you were always going to be.”
Let those wise words wash over you for a minute. Letter writer, I hope you take comfort in Machado sharing with us that she too didn’t understand her own queerness at a certain time in her life! You wrote in your letter “I don’t know why, but I so, so want [a relationship with a woman].” Might I propose that the why is very simple: you are indeed queer! Whether or not you came to the realization all by yourself or by a fortunate suggestion by someone (or multiple someones!) in your life truly does not matter! Being queer is a wonderful gift you are lucky to have received. For what it’s worth, from a queer stranger on the internet: all of your descriptions of wanting to be with a woman, to touch her, to live together, and more — everything you wrote leaves me with zero doubts that you are “one of us” as the gals in A League of Their Own put it. Of course, only you can decide how you want to identify in the end.
To get into the specifics of your questions about desire for different genders: again, I repeat, you are not alone! It is quite common for bi+ people to have different experiences of desire when it comes to gender. Some bi+ people are equally romantically and sexually attracted to all genders. Some bi+ people are interested in sex with men, but relationships only with women and nonbinary people. Some bi+ people are aesthetically attracted to gender expressions they have no romantic or sexual interest in!
There are so many different types of attraction. You mention that “aesthetically/physically” you tend to find men more attractive than women. That’s cool! It doesn’t make you any less queer. Your descriptions of aching to be in a relationship with a woman sound very much like romantic attraction/desire to me. It might be that you’re aesthetically more into men and romantically more into women. This might shift over the course of your life, or it might not.
You mentioned that you think you’re probably ace. Ace communities have been pulling apart and naming different types of desire for decades. So often in allosexual contexts, different types of desire are conflated. Most allosexual people, even queers, assume that romantic and sexual attraction go hand in hand. But the lived experiences of aces shows that aesthetic, romantic, and sexual attraction do not have to align at all. These frameworks are really useful tools to understand own desire and identity for aces and non-aces alike!
If you haven’t already, I recommend doing some reading by and about ace identities and experiences. You can learn all about different types of attraction and how different aces experience their desire and identity. Ace by Angela Chen is an awesome place to start. Some other great book options:
Of course, don’t forget to check out Autostraddle’s asexuality content too!
Good luck friend and welcome to the queer community! We’re glad you’re here.
As you know if you’re familiar with the You Need Help column, we typically run one (1) question every Tuesday with one (1) answer. However, sometimes a question appears in the Advice Box that causes the staff to discuss it emphatically for days and days, and in those cases we sometimes do something special, like our Valentine’s Day roundtable this year. Well, this LW wrote in the original question and then followed up with a total of five (5) clarifications, some of which we printed above, and we all felt so tender toward them that I decided I simply must publish a few more answers from our team. Casey did a fantastic job with her advice above, but sometimes more is more. I hope you’ll indulge me, as everyone really showed up exactly as themselves.
Christina: Oh babe this is actually so gay of you!
Yash: This precious bb. No straight girl needs four multiple-paragraph “clarifications,” pumpkin you’re GAY!
Nico: “I can’t seem to stop writing stories about wlw relationships.” is all I need to hear — it’s great to be gay, congratulations!!!
Dani: I’ve been out for almost 18 years and I still sometimes have the am I really gay?? thought. Then I see a woman and instantly become the Tex Avery wolf! All this to say welcome to the club!
Darcy: I absolutely remember this feeling. Am I crazy? Am I just making this up to complicate my life? The answer is, no, you’re not. You’re not making it up. It’s real, and it’s fine, and it’s gonna be amazing.
Himani: Oh dear friend, I really want you to know that I can relate so, so deeply to what you’re feeling. I am sometimes wary of overstating how strongly I empathize with some of the questions we get, but everything you’ve written has just really reminded me so, so strongly of my own long and on-going journey to come to terms with my queerness. But here I am, on this side of that journey. And maybe you’ll be on this side of it some day too, or maybe you won’t. Maybe, in fact truthfully, there aren’t separate sides here, but it’s just a winding path back and forth and back and forth as we uncover different parts of ourselves by living out different experiences. I, too, have been terrified of exploring possibilities with other women for fear of just being “curious” and hurting them. The irony of this harmful stereotype a lot of lesbians have about bisexual women is that it also hurts… a lot of lesbians, who don’t have a simple, straightforward, coming out story of always knowing they were gay but closeted. But sometimes, to repurpose an analogy I’ve used in my writing previously, we have deeply shut our hearts in a closet from ourselves, because that’s what we have been told to do or forced to do for one reason or another. Opening those doors can be very, very daunting, scary, and certainly confusing. The very first therapist I ever saw, in college, once observed that I never, ever talked about love unless I was talking about music. That was a door that was shut so, so tightly. The second therapist I saw, when I was shopping around for a therapist post-college, asked me if I was ever interested in women, and I never went back and, instead, went with the therapist who told me to just take risks and maybe try to pursue a guy I thought I was obsessed with. I, too, wondered if the idea of being queer had just been “planted” in my mind. Ultimately, you will make your own decisions and determinations. But as I always tell people, focus less on the labels and the “what will people say if I claim xyz” or “what will people think if I do xyz” and just follow wherever your heart, desires, and instincts lead you. Be honest with people along the way — your own confusion is no excuse for recklessly hurting others, either — but most of all, just be honest with yourself in whatever words feel good to you at any given moment in time. I’m sending you all my love and wishing you all the best.
Adrian: The incredible thing about being queer is that if you wanna be you just get to be! There is no governing body, no genetics scan, not even a social litmus test that can prove you are or aren’t. It’s just up to you! And while that can be totally intimidating, the good news is it is very evident from your words that you really really don’t want to be straight and so, congrats! You’re not! You’re one of us, and we already love you.
Laneia: Darling, sweet beautiful creature, please know that this entire situation — from the moment it first occurred to you that it could be a good idea to write into Autostraddle’s advice column, to this very morning when I read your fourth clarifying followup message — is gayer than anything that’s ever happened to me, including the time I sat crying in my best friend’s driveway because I couldn’t understand why I was so heartbroken over the fact that she’d been getting mani-pedis with her new coworkers, the time I told my then-husband that I was so jealous because he knew what it was like to go down on a woman and I never would, the time that same straight best friend told me a funny story about how she’d taught her college roommate how to masturbate for the first time and I downed my margarita slushie and immediately left her house so I could go home and masturbate, the time I left my husband and moved across the country to live with my girlfriend whom I met on the internet, the time I had a one-night stand with someone I met a Pride event and she made us vegan scrambled tofu for breakfast the next day, the time when Heather Hogan and I were still drinking whiskey at 2am and she called me a dyke and I cried and told her she was the only person who’d ever truly seen me for who I was, the time I got gay married and also gay divorced, the time my therapist wondered aloud if it might be possible that my girlfriend and I processed too much, and the entire 13 years I’ve spent working at this gay website. Bless you, I love you.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.