You Need Help: What’s My Label?

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.


Q:

I am a 27-year-old bisexual in an 8 year opposite-sex relationship. I’ve felt sure of my label until this past year. After reconciling some issues regarding my rape, dealing with an ill parent and returning to school (all girls!), my personal life has left me feeling like I’ve gone 12 rounds and I’m barely standing.

Enter HER. This little butch girl was an instant KO to my heart. I never gave any credence to those stories of men who claimed they saw a woman and immediately wanted to marry her, until I met this girl. I can’t get her out of my mind and I function like a laptop tossed into a pool when I’m around her. Not very charming, I know. The biggest problem though, is that while I may be able to dismiss a raging crush for what it is (a mixture of stress, chemistry, and the 8 year itch), I can’t dismiss the doubt that these feelings have cast onto the hetero side of my nature.

Honestly, there are about 16 different reasons (boyfriend withstanding) why I can’t pursue this woman, so that’s resolved for the most part. But how can I put to rest the confusion I’m having over my sexuality? Am I a repressed lesbian, or just a bored (and exhausted) bisexual? I can’t seem to find any guidance on how to determine this for myself.

 

A:

I think if I could make an app where you could just insert all the facts of a person’s life into it, like pictures of everybody you’ve ever wanted to fuck and a list from your middle school diary of all your best best girlfriends and a portfolio of every celebrity you ever google image searched and a gender analysis of every person who’s ever charmed you and then the app would print out a sexual orientation label for you, I would be a billionaire and we could all live on a big queer commune together. I’m sure you agree, Penelope. Can I call you Penelope? Okay, good, ’cause I’m going to.

The thing is, Penelope, that often the conversation about labels is just a distraction from the actual meat of the thing, from how your heart actually feels and what your body actually wants. Like we want the label to tell us who to like, when really, the only thing that can tell us who we like is who we like. I can’t tell you how to “put to rest” the confusion you have over your sexuality, unfortunately. For so many human beings, their label is something they know and feel in their bones, something they are so absolutely sure of. For other human beings, it’s not that clear. Neither way is better than the other!

I certainly can relate, Penelope. I wrote about this extensively, in fact. So now I’m gonna do that thing where I talk about myself a lot in hopes that it helps you, and paraphrase/repeat, for some minutes, what I said in that essay I linked to. I spent so many years fumbling around for my label, Penelope. I was scared that in some unpredictable future I’d pick the wrong gender to settle down with and then flee my husband/wife for another man/woman, leaving everybody broken-hearted while I cried on my bathroom floor, wailing GOD, “QUEER” WAS SUCH A COPOUT!

As Michel Foucault observed, “We demand that sex speak the truth […] and we demand that it tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness.” It’s been so long since I transcribed that quote onto a sticky note on my desktop that I’m not sure if I’m even using it in the right context anymore, but that spoke to me, as a person who once wrote in her 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.”

We want these labels to tell us who we are and what we want because figuring out who we are and what we want in a big expansive lawless space is HARD. Not for everybody, of course, like I said above. The majority of society knows who they are and what they want (in bed) in an absolute way. You’re just not part of that majority, unfortunately.

Penelope, let me tell you something about myself: I am not entirely certain of my actual sexual orientation, and I don’t think I’ll ever be. But it doesn’t really matter. I want to live a lesbian life and that’s the life I’m living. I’m in love with this girl, nobody’s ever made me this happy, we plan on spending our lives together, my entire life is about queer culture, I’m a raging misandrist, and I have zero desire to live a heterosexual life.

However, I used to date men. A lot of men, actually. I slept with a lot of guys, too, and felt genuine attraction towards them and, often, real romantic love. I’ve also had some borderline traumatic experiences with men and I know that has contributed to how I feel about men now. (But I’ve also had traumatic experiences with women that didn’t impact how I feel about women! WHAT DOES THAT MEAN, PENELOPE??!! WAS I A REPRESSED LESBIAN ALL THIS TIME?) I also had some serious self-esteem issues that tempt me to write off that whole heterosexual phase as a result of my insecurity and desire to prove my self-worth through being desired by men. WHO KNOWS? At this point, I cannot be myself and also be with a man. Is that a choice I’ve made after living the life I’ve lived? Or is it a reflection of an innate absolute biological preference of women over men? I’ll never know, I guess, but I think that’s fine.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying that all sexuality is fluid and you should break free of boxes and not stress out about it because labels are for jelly! Sexuality is fluid… for some people. (Maybe you! Maybe not!) Being label-free is ideal… for some people. (Maybe you! Maybe not!) But not for everybody, and no way is better than the other. Your sexuality might be fluid because your sexuality might be fluid, not everybody’s. I usually say I’m queer, but I also love the word “lesbian,” and I cling to it ever harder every time a fellow LGBTQ treats it like an offensive term that isn’t nearly as “evolved” as more expansive identities. I feel a connection to lesbian history and feel a strong obligation towards keeping that word and that culture alive with a new generation. For me, “lesbian” is 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. So “queer” works, but people can call me whatever they want, I don’t care, it doesn’t change who I am. The nice thing about “queer” is that it’s used by women who only date women but also by women who also date men and/or non-binary folks, so it can pretty much describe whatever you want it to. So, Penelope, if having a label is important to you then I suggest that one.

There’s a Gandhi quote I’m probably using out of its accurate context (yes, this is a pattern for me), but it really speaks to me, in which he said, “My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with the truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment.” I just looked that quote up to tell you about it, which has lead me to believe I’ve been remembering it wrong this whole time, ’cause in my head, it was always “I want to remain consistent with the truth as it reveals itself to me.” Either way, that’s what I would tell you to do.

You might be bisexual. You might have been a repressed lesbian all this time!!! Those things are both possible, but right now, it sounds like you lack a significant pile of evidence one way or the other. Falling for this girl might just mean that you like this girl better than any boy you’ve ever met, and it might mean that you like girls, period, better than any boy you’ll ever meet.

The fact that you mention feeling bored and exhausted by your relationship, though, leads me to wonder if maybe it’s just easier to frame a problem with your relationship as one of sexual orientation? If you feel exhausted and bored with your boyfriend, then maybe the relationship has run its course regardless of which gender you date next. As the great Rachel Kincaid once said, “I think that’s one of the hardest/easiest/weirdest things about being bi, is if you put enough effort into it you can make any issue involving attraction to anyone ultimately a quorum on your sexual orientation.”

Remain consistent with the truth as it reveals itself to you, Penelope. Would be my advice.

xoxo

Riese

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2843 articles for us.

84 Comments

  1. “I am not entirely certain of my actual sexual orientation, and I don’t think I’ll ever be.”
    This was very affirming to read. As are all of the comments above.

    I’ll add my story to the pile – I also have had genuine, fervent attractions to men in the past, but since acknowledging a few years ago that my frequent “girl crushes” were not as platonic as I told myself, I have felt basically nothing more for any dudes and have had LOTS OF BIG FEELS for lots of women. I am not at all interested in ever again being a part of a hetero relationship if it entails the usual patriarchal dynamics. But… is it possible I might one day fall for a cis man again? There is a remote possibility, I suppose. I have never settled on a label because I don’t feel like any of them accurately encompass my feelings, experiences, and sense of self. “Queer” is the closest I get.

    And to add to the mix… I don’t even know how to accurately pin down my libido, either. Sometimes I feel like I can be very sexual under the right circumstances. Other times I feel nearly asexual. Sometimes I feel positively lascivious. Other times I feel totally weirded out or even a bit disgusted by the mere thought. Sometimes I think I need some dominant, confident, sex-positive person to help me come out of my sexual shell. Other times I think maybe someone gentle and sensual would be better. Overall, most of the time I wonder if there is some inherent malfunction or unexplored trauma for me in that arena. As a person in my late 30s who would like to one day find someone to spend my life with, the fact that I am still in a place of such confusion about this topic is far, far more distressing to me than not being able to name my orientation.

    • Hi there,

      Bit late to comment but I understand the swing in libido thing. Do you think it could be related to stress ( as mine is )? I think you might get something out of ‘Come as You Are ‘ by Emily Nagoski. It takes a really wide view of female sexuality and what effects libido.Just a thought.

  2. I share everyone’s sentiment that this is a great article. Anecdotally and practically speaking, I have witnessed people who identify as bisexual eventually decide to be non-monogamous, in one case just having one male and one female partner. Just throwing that possibility out there.

  3. “For me, “lesbian” is 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. So “queer” works, but people can call me whatever they want, I don’t care, it doesn’t change who I am.”- this quote spoke to me in a way not much else ever has. I’m reading this article at work and tearing up because, YES! I have been in such turmoil over who I am lately. Am I gay, am I bi, am I bored?! I know I am sexually attracted to women but I’ve never been in an actual romantic relationship with one. I’ve lived my life as a straight woman for so long I’m not sure who I am anymore. I know I’m not happy. I know I’ve felt like something is missing for a long time and the more I immerse myself in lesbian culture the more at home I feel within myself. I’m one of those people that likes labels. Labels help me know where I stand, they include me in a group of other people and give me common ground. But what is my label? Can I call myself a lesbian if I’ve only ever slept with men? Can I label myself bisexual if I don’t enjoy sex with men but still find them attractive? I’m in such a confusing head space right now, but reading this has helped a lot. Knowing others are out there that understand is a wonderful thing.

  4. I’m 38, and within the last year I went from “definitely bisexual” to “Fuck, I might just be gay??”

    And yeah, I was with a dude at the time (had been for several years), and that relationship was on its way out, and I kinda knew that.

    But I also found I wasn’t attracted to dudes I used to be attracted to–like, *hardcore* attracted to. I wasn’t attracted to male coworkers who, once upon a time, I definitely would have flirted with. And at the same time, my already-existing attraction to women skyrocketed! It was strange and surreal. I told a close friend it was like looking in the mirror and having a facial feature look different suddenly. The way I saw myself had changed so much, and it felt so weird.

    Will I be “just gay” forever? I don’t know. I haven’t taken the bisexual flag sticker off my laptop just yet. But for now I only want to date women, and that’s enough.

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