Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.
I’ve identified as a lesbian for three years now, and this identity makes me happy. Centering my life and interest and energy and focus around women and some NB folks makes me happy. But… I made out with one of my closest male friends whilst drunk, and then again whilst sober, and we’ve talked about it and decided to pursue a friends with benefits situation. So now I feel guilty and like I am betraying lesbiankind by continuing to let people call me a lesbian… but I feel silly calling myself or thinking about “coming out again” as bi because it really is just this one guy; I’m not into “men,” I’m into women (and some NB people) and him, and that’s it. Am I betraying everyone? Am I being biphobic or lesbophobic or something else?
Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether you’re being “biphobic or lesbophobic or something else” or whether you’re “betraying everyone” — I understand your concerns about being accountable and respectful in relation to the larger community, but also it can be very difficult to navigate the internal authentic experience of a situation while looking at it through the lens of what you imagine it will mean for other people. So we’ll return to that in a bit! But until then try to let go of wondering what you “owe” anyone and let’s look at the facts.
What I’m hearing you say is that you want to keep identifying as a lesbian despite hooking up with this dude, and you’re wondering whether that’s something you have permission to do. No one can really give or revoke permission to do that, although I will say (and you are aware of this, which is why you’re asking) that choosing not to sleep with men is generally understood as being pretty fundamental to being a lesbian. At the same time, certainly there are women who have gone on to have relationships with men, including extremely serious ones and/or marriages, and continued to identify as lesbians. EJ Levy wrote this about it in 2014; her central tenet sounds similar to yours:
I know plenty of people who identify as bisexual; I am not. The term simply doesn’t apply. I am not, as a rule, attracted to men. I simply fell in love with this person and didn’t hold his gender against him. That won’t change because of our vows, any more than my eye color will. My fundamental coordinates are unaltered.
Wear Your Voice also ran this piece from a previously-identified dyke who I think afterwards began identifying as queer. She writes:
“I’m still queer. Nothing about me has really changed. Most of my friends are queer, I still move in queer spaces and go to queer events. But the main reasons I frequented queer spaces in the past were to cruise for dates or to feel safe showing affection for my partner.”
I know women who have had relationships with people of varying genders including men and who feel strongly about identifying as bisexual regardless of their relationship status or gender of their current partner because their identity doesn’t change as a function of their relationships; I know women who have had serious relationships with men who are adamant about being lesbians, and for whom not being able to be out (to themselves or the world) previously of course doesn’t invalidate their identity. I know plenty of people in a position like Chirlane McCray, who previously identified as lesbians and are now in a more label-free space and in relationships with men. I know a bunch of women who are clear about the fact that they’re attracted to men in addition to women but have elected to only date women and identify as lesbians for this reason; I know women in a similar space who identify as bisexual even though they’ll never date another man. Personally, I identified as bisexual for a long time and briefly identified as a lesbian because I was convinced that the reason I couldn’t make a relationship work with a man was because I was gay and then later identified as bisexual again and accepted that I couldn’t make those particular relationships work because of men, both as a category and in specific, and because of life and stuff. I bring this range of experiences up to acknowledge the context that yes, definitely, as a community we have a diverse variety of relationships to men individually and as a class, and sometimes that matches up neatly with our identities and sometimes it doesn’t! And I would absolutely encourage you to read and ask around and discuss with other women who have and are navigating this and see if there’s any insight to be gained. However, at the same time, I honestly don’t think that’s where you’re going to find your answer to this question about “what” you “are.”
Speaking super bluntly, a general working definition of bisexual is that you’re attracted to more than one gender, usually understood as your own and other gender/s. Clearly you’re attracted to your own gender, and the fact that you want an ongoing sexual relationship with this guy would indicate that you have some level of attraction to his gender (I hear you that you aren’t attracted to “men” as a “group;” at the same time, this is a man and you are attracted to him! So there’s that. If you say you don’t like tiramisu but also order it every time you’re at this one restaurant, the evidence would suggest you may be someone who does like tiramisu and is picky about it.). If you don’t identify with the label of bisexual, despite the fact that that definition fits the facts of the situation, it suggests to me that it’s because you have a different definition of bisexual that you’re functioning with right now, one that you don’t recognize yourself in.
I want to look more closely at two things you say here — that in your life and identity as a lesbian you’ve been “centering my life and interest and energy and focus around women and some NB folks,” and also that it feels “silly” to call yourself bi because you’re “…not into “men,” I’m into women (and some NB people) and him, and that’s it.” Gently and genuinely without judgement, I’d love to ask you to consider whether you think you could still center your life around women and nonbinary people if you were bisexual, and if you think that’s something that bisexual women in general can do. Why or why not? Do you think it looks fundamentally different than when lesbians do so? How so? What do you think you’re drawing on or from when you form your conclusions about these ideas? In what ways do you imagine that bisexual women are generally attracted to men as a class? Probably you don’t think of them as being uniformly attracted to every man ever, equally, but it seems like you think a bisexual woman’s attraction to men would have to be broader than just one guy. How many men would a woman have to be attracted to, in addition to women and/or nonbinary people, before it would make sense for her to be bisexual? How do you imagine bisexual women’s attraction to men as compared to straight women’s attraction to men? Do you think of them as the same, or different, and if so how? How do you imagine bisexual women’s attraction to men being different from what you’re experiencing now?
There aren’t specific answers I think you’re supposed to arrive at here; I’ve been bisexual my whole life, give or take, and I’m not sure I have firm answers to these questions. I’ll be wrestling with my complicated relationship to men individually and as a group my whole life. The thing is, though, all women will! Regardless of sexual orientation. We all have fathers, brothers, bosses, abusers, landlords, you name it. We don’t have a choice about dealing with men; none of us are unique in taking part in that very broad experience because we all have to live under the heteropatriarchy. What is unique, I think, is that many people — both bisexual and not — believe that navigating a dynamic with men is defining and fundamental to the experience and identity of bisexual women when they do not believe this in the same way about other groups. This manifests in really just countless ways, more than I think is realistic to get into here, but I think it would be helpful to stop for a second and think through it for your sake. I don’t want to put words in your mouth! But the phrasing of where you’re coming from brings to mind a lot of this sort of tacit but fairly common idea that while being a lesbian is defined by your relationship to women and womanhood, bisexuality for women is inevitably defined by your relationship to men. And I very much hear you that you don’t want to intentionally opt into a relationship with Men as a group (me neither, friend!), and so I can see why bisexuality would feel outlandish as a possibility! I’m not gonna tell you my psychic reading of what I think your “true identity” is; that isn’t a real thing and no one can do that for you, and you may find that even for and by yourself it isn’t a productive exercise. What I am gonna invite you to do is to try to experiment with the thinking that you can center and prioritize women regardless of how you identify, and nudge you to start noticing the ways in which women in your life do so regardless of who they’re sleeping with — and also to think about what other touchpoints you have for female bisexuality as an identity and experience outside of Being Into Men.
Coming back, finally, to your questions about whether you’re “betraying” anyone — figuring out what’s going on with you and what you want is a personal process, not a burden on the group. Our community has been through so much for so long — your trying to process what’s happening with a fling isn’t going to be what brings us down, I promise. I would think about, maybe, if there’s anything else at the root of those questions and the guilt you say you feel — what are you afraid of losing? Do you feel like you would deserve to? Looking at the reality of your situation and what you know about your community, are those fears realistic? Are there any possibilities that you might also gain something or grow in some way by considering your identity intentionally right now, regardless of where you end up with it, rather than just risking or losing something?
Most of all, I’m so sad about how guilty you feel! It’s so difficult and maybe actually impossible to have an honest conversation with yourself about anything with the crushing pressure of guilt and shame drowning everything else out. You talk about your lesbian identity as something that makes you happy, and you deserve to be happy! Maybe the way forward is to focus first on that, on what will make you happy, and let the rest fall into place in its time. I wish you the best of luck!