You Need Help: How Do I Know if I’m Bisexual or a Lesbian and Find Community?

Q:

I’m obviously attracted to people who don’t identify with the gender binary, and I’m increasingly questioning my own alignment with the heteronormative status-quo (this is new to me since I’m a woman in my 40s who passes as cis, and it’s only in the last three years I’ve realized I’ve probably been queer since my late teens).

Where I’m really finding difficulty moving forward is in knowing whether I’m bisexual or a lesbian. I’m very clearly not straight, and I find I’m far more attracted to femmes and trans folx, and even to some cis women. I’m not often attracted to people who present as cis males, and the idea of sex with a man grosses me out at the moment. I’m also not at all interested in another relationship with a man. Where do I fall on the spectrum? I feel this is important in being able to find my community of like-minded folx.

A:

Hello friend,

I don’t want to invalidate your very real anxiety about not having a label that seems to fit, because that can be very stressful, and so much of our society — and especially LGBTQ culture — seems to revolve around them. But I also believe that sexual identity labels are, in my opinion, a bit overrated? It’s rare that any label actually describes anyone with 100% accuracy. Since you’re still somewhat new to the community, it can feel very important to find your “place,” and I totally get that! But it might not be as necessary as you think.

There’s who you’re physically/romantically attracted to, and then there’s who you want to date, and then there’s who you want to sleep with — and all of these can be different things, all of which can also change! Yet we’re expected to align under a single label. Most labels are also non-inclusive of non-binary and trans people to different degrees. All of this makes finding the “right” label tough.

You mention that finding the label that works for you is important to find community, and I want to very gently push back on that idea. If you’re in community with other queer women and non-binary folks, it might not actually matter much whether you’re lesbian, bi, pan, or whatever! I’m struggling to think of a scenario where whether you identify as lesbian, bi, or pan would matter significantly, except to gold stars, TERFs, or biphobic radical feminists. But do you want to be in community with people like that anyway?

To actually attempt to answer your question, though, we have to discuss what “lesbian” and “bisexual” actually mean. Women who exclusively date other women identify as lesbians, but there are lesbians who date trans men and non-binary people (note that some trans men and non-binary people feel this is problematic), non-binary people who identify as lesbians, and a variety of other configurations. Lots of people believe that bisexuals are people who date people of the “opposite” gender, but others believe bisexual means dating people of your same and another gender. Lots of people believe that pansexuals date people regardless of gender, and that it’s the only “true” orientation that’s inclusive of non-binary and trans people, while trans and non-binary-inclusive bi people disagree.

It’s so tricky! I think that, if you had to land on a label, “bisexual” would probably be the worst fit, since you’re not interested in men, and most people who hear bisexual assume it includes men. (Of course, not all bisexuals date men or are attracted to them; assumptions don’t dictate identity, etc!)

All of this is why a lot of people gravitate toward “queer” (or, increasingly, “gay”) as a catch-all term to say that they’re “not heterosexual,” and the rest is just details. If there were a label to signify that someone was interested in dating everyone except cis men, I imagine it’d be very popular – but as far as I know, that label doesn’t yet exist.

To find community with like-minded people, your best bet is to look for LGBTQ spaces, particularly queer women’s spaces (like Autostraddle!), and just meet people. I promise you’ll have commonality and find friends and lovers even if you don’t have the exact same label. And even if you do, the diversity of folks who fit under a single label means you might have more in common with some folks who doesn’t share your label than with others who do!

Here’s the tea: lots of lesbians are terrible. Lots of bisexuals are terrible. Lots of trans people are terrible. And lots are amazing beautiful people! You’re going to have to connect with real ones regardless of how they identify. And you’ll hopefully find dope people of a variety of different identity labels!

You might also find it helpful to check out other things we’ve written on bisexuality, which get into some of the questions you’re asking here. Good luck finding a label that works for you, but if you don’t, it’s totally OK!


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA. Follow her art on Instagram @abeni.jones or check out her website at abenijones.net. Got a music recommendation, a positive trans woman story/news item, or wanna book me for something? e-mail me by clicking here!

Abeni has written 59 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. I would also like to add that it is okay to use multiple words or labels to describe yourself! I use bisexual, queer, sapphic, and gay interchangeably or depending on the situation. Queer is sort of my ideal “label”, but bi can be handy, since even most heterosexual people have a general idea what that means. Sapphic and gay help me emphasize my attraction and centering of non-men. My interests lie with queer women, non-binary people, and sometimes queer men. How I describe that doesn’t fit into one perfect term, and that’s okay.

    • Yes to this! I haven’t personally used sapphic all that much so far, but the rest of what you’ve written here is exactly the constellation of words I self-describe with. There are so many shades of meaning that you can get across if you’re okay with using different words when they seem the most correct.

    • I hope sapphic catches on more! I usually call myself queer, and will use lesbian or gay as close-enough descriptors in some contexts, but sapphic is really the best term for encompassing who I’m open to dating. (Sadly I have already seen some people trying to claim it as an exact synonym for lesbian, but I choose to ignore those people.)

  2. 40s queer lady here to say you are not alone! I identify as queer. Sometimes I’ll say bisexual to either make it easier for straights to understand OR to push back against biphobia in lesbian spaces. And bi was my first identity and it still feels like it fits, in a way. But for me, queer just works really well to encompass my broad but specific attractions.

    And as far as community, I’ve generally found that kink/BDSM and poly communities tend to be the most welcoming, respectful, and understanding of a wide variety of gender and sexual identities. Of course, asshats are everywhere and an explicitly straight kink or poly group won’t be the same, but in those spaces, my experience has been that no one bats an eye at who you love or fuck or how your gender presents. So if either of those are part of your identity or if you’re interested/open to exploring, that could be a good fit.

  3. I definitely agree with Abeni and Elizabeth. Also, I think that your process of increasingly questioning your alignment if you have the experience of realizing you’re queer is pretty common. It can seem like it’s necessary to have one single word to encompass the vast well that is your sexuality, especially because there is a lot of information on the internet regarding different orientations and all of those “25 ways to tell if you’re a lesbian” etc articles/tumblrs/ tweets what have you. All of those are great but, as Abeni pointed out, can be interpreted differently by literally everyone and can sometimes lead to a prescriptive mentally where “you read it, therefor you are it and now must act accordingly.” And then ten days later when you find yourself experiencing attraction outside of that label, you’re down the questioning rabbit hole again.
    This process of questioning looks very different to everyone. Sometimes people are in a state of questioning for a few days, months, even years or maybe have one experience or thought or something and are enlightened to the nature of their sexual being immediately.

  4. “I feel this is important in being able to find my community of like-minded folx.”

    I think you can find community without being 100% clear on labels. Honestly, each search will inform the other.

    I re-came out as bi in my 40s (after unintentionally bi-erasing my identity by marrying a man). I knew I wanted to find queer community and I tried a lot of things – honestly it’s not that different from dating.

    In my quest for community, I’ve tried broad orgs like my city LGBTQ+ community center and more niche groups like a couple bi+ groups. Some attempts were more fun than others. The first bi discussion group I went to ended up being (happily married) me and a bunch of 20 somethings sitting around complaining about how hard it is to date while bi+. I’ve gone to several queer book groups and haven’t found one that I gel with yet. But the Queer Hygge holiday gift and cookie exchange (where we watched holiday cartoons and played with the hosts’ cat) was a lot of fun. As was volunteering for the queer youth program at the LGBTQ+ center.

  5. The other thing I’ll say is that I’ve figured out through trial and error how I’m most comfortable identifying in different contexts.

    In more straight identified circles I will use umbrella terms like queer or LGBTQ or gay if I don’t want to deal with other people’s feelings about bisexuality. When I’m going into a queer / LGBTQ+ space for the first time, I tend to be really proactive about identifying as bi+ so I don’t feel weird and waste time worrying about if I mention my husband will someone assume I’m straight?

  6. Hard relate! I wonder if for those of us who are a little older (or at least, not “Tumblr native”) the need for labels feels more essential than it might for people who’ve grown up with more access to conversations around fluidity and spectrums of identity and attraction? Certainly in my own questioning I’ve had moments of “but what _AM_ I??”, and also sometimes a label feels like it would be a helpful tool in terms of explaining shifting sands (lol) of identity to others. While we’re on the topic, the more diversity of “definition” in the bi+ community the better – there are still many people out there who think it can only ever mean you “equally” like cis men and cis women (which is of course itself a totally valid expression of bisexuality if that’s how you feel, it’s just not, y’know, the only one!)

  7. “Here’s the tea: lots of lesbians are terrible. Lots of bisexuals are terrible. Lots of trans people are terrible. And lots are amazing beautiful people!”

    So true and not often remarked upon. We’re used to heteronormativity and patriarchy terrible-ness, but no community is exempt. I will say it’s much more painful to see queer folks being terrible tho. I will never forget the white lesbians in FL with a rainbow and a Blue Lives Matter bumper sticker. So sad.

    • Ugh. I’ll never forget the formerly lesbian trans woman I met at a support group who joined a church and went “straight for Jesus” because her pastor said that’s how women are supposed to be, then tried to get me to do the same…

  8. Thank you, Abeni!! Bookmarking this page to re-read indefinitely as it feels written for me hah! I struggle with labels so hard. Even while thinking they’re dumb- I still want one that fits nicely. I use queer, because I want people to know I am not straight. Though that term tends to confuse the straights. I’m not sure if my aversion to the bi label is because it doesn’t fit or some internalized self biphobia due to seeing/experiencing so much hate towards them during a formative time. As someone who has been on a lot of first dates that went nowhere, I can’t help but notice it tends to fizzle out after they inevitably ask “Do you identify as a lesbian?”

  9. Thank you for this question! When I first realized my attraction to women in my early 20s, I figured I automatically must be bi because I’d dated and had crushes on males. But now I wonder? I’m in my 40s now and trying to reckon with orientation and identity as I am coming out. I have the need to find the right label but I realize that a more general “gay” or “queer” fits me best.

  10. “(this is new to me since I’m a woman in my 40s who passes as cis, and it’s only in the last three years I’ve realized I’ve probably been queer since my late teens).”

    Funny, I don’t remember writing this! But seriously, I relate so much to this! Thank you all so much for sharing this question and comments. As a woman in her 40s, married to a cis man, I struggle mightily with how to identify myself. Honestly, I am not out to anyone but like 3 people (including my partner, so at least there’s that).I do have some online spaces, but nothing f2f (even pre-corona)

    I *thought* I’d found a gay friend irl who might, I don’t know, be a tour guide for all things queer. I’ve spent 3 years trying to work up the nerve to tell her. Unfortunately, after hearing for the 3rd time that bisexuals aren’t real, I decided probably not a good person to come out to. For now, I guess, I’ll just continue to read/watch all the things!

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