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 a Jewish lesbian and the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key 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 2620 articles for us.

84 Comments

    • I’m taking advantage of your comment to say something I keep thinking, so sorry for that. But whenever I see anyone say this- usually on lgtbq Facebook pages (or straight people who can’t keep track of terminology), it irks me. Labels are not for everyone, sure. But i *like* my labels. They are important to me and I’m proud of them. Statements like “why do we need labels, why can’t we just all be people?’ or “labels are for soup cans” bother me because they’re dismissive. Labels are not for you, that’s fine. But I am a gay liberal Jew and I like that I get to use those identifiers to communicate the parts of my identity that are most important to me.

    • What Riese said about clinging to the word “lesbian” is exactly how I feel about it. I am a lesbian. I do not consider it a label, I consider it an identity. Lesbian history is my history. Lesbian community, art, and culture are important to me. I’m married to a lesbian. While not using an identifier may be right for you, queer people across the spectrum have fought and died for our identities and communities to be recognized. And so people who choose to be a part of a community unified by a “label” should be respected as much as we, at least we on Autostraddle, respect people who don’t. And I know that your comment was meant to be light-hearted and positive to help ease the asker’s mind. I really do. But as Abby said, this sort of thing is something I’ve been seeing around a lot in social media, and I just want people to think about the feelings and the lives of other before they put down our labels. Living without labels on your sexuality and/or gender is a radical act in our society, but I still believe identifying and living as a lesbian is radical. Respecting people of all sexual orientations, labeled or not, is pretty damn radical too.

    • I think labels are great! Also, I just really like it when words mean things. Not everybody fits into a label or likes labels, but they work for many people and can be sources of strength, empowerment, identity, etc. I’d just curl up and scream and cry and die if I couldn’t find a lesbian soup can at whole foods.

      Like, I don’t care what people call me as long as it’s not “straight,” ’cause that’s not accurate (just like it wouldn’t be accurate to call myself a “lesbian” if i was still dating men), but I also do really like having a word that says “i am exclusively interested in women.” i love so much about that concept in general, I suppose. love it. like korrina said. and abby!

      Anyhow, I know you meant well (also I AM EXCITED TO SEE YOU AT CAMP IN LESS THAN TWO WEEKS) by it, though, so! Thank you for wanting to spread good cheer. <3

  1. “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 spoke straight to my heart! Thank you for this You Need Help.

  2. Love this! I am really happy to see a post about how we come up short when we try to use labels to define or prescribe our lives and behavior.

    I came out as queer last year and I’m in a committed relationship with a guy right now, but last night I had this dream where I was running through the snow with this girl and long story short, I am worried that while people tend to assume that bisexuals will always end up going back to men, I’m going to be one of those people who always, in the end, have to go back to dating women. Which is great, except that I love my BF.

    Anyway, that’s all neither here nor there, but I wish you luck!

  3. I was trying to think of a flattering way to say sexuality is fluid even when it’s a solid without implying folks with great sense of self are made of ice BUT THEN I REMEMBERED THERE ARE PLANETS WHERE IT RAINS DIAMONDS!

    I am trying way too hard at metaphors, I guess is what I’m saying.

  4. RIESE, this is some of the best advice re: feels about labels/orientations I’ve come across.

    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!

    This in particular. I’m so afraid of this. I guess I just have to trust that whoever enters my life whenever they enter my life is going to be right for me.

    Thanks for writing this and best of luck to the asker <3

  5. This is so good. SO FREAKING GOOD. Granted I feel like I could have written it, it’s so close to my life. After being single for a while I realized I was way more into women than I thought I was and started freaking out about my label, but there was a point last year (after A Camp actually) that I just relaxed which was like a huge weight lifting.

    “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.” is exactly it. And now it’s kind of tough because I’m head over heels in love with my girlfriend and I don’t really feel attraction to other humans when in a relationship so it’s hard to gauge my feelings in any sort of expansive definite way.

    “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” This is why I’ve taken to use bisexual when people I don’t know well start shitting on bi people, even if lesbian is probably more accurate now. I’ve also started using it if I’m in a conversation and I mention an ex boyfriend because people will straight up ask “I thought you were gay” when I do.

    I guess I’m rambling, but I really love this piece and it feels really good to know other’s feel this way too.

  6. “Remain consistent with the truth as it reveals itself to you.” YES. This kind of reminds me of something Maya Angelou once said “I did then what I knew how to do. Now I know better- I do better” – it kind of allows me to let go of guilt over past actions or decisions because I’m just living my life (/truth) right now, the best way I know how.

  7. Great advice!

    I don’t know how much this is relevant, but I think there’s a strong (and wrong) pressure on bisexual people to be completely sure about their sexuality. You know, like we always try to defend ourselves saying for example “I’m not confused, you’re confused”? Well, the truth is that we CAN be confused (even after years spent identifying a certain way). And that’s ok.

    And speaking of labels (but it’s valid also in general) I think that after some time you just realize that what feels right for you today, may not feel right for you in a year. And that’s ok, too. The best advice I can give you is to stop worrying about it, and just do what you think is good right now.

    • Definitely! And I also feel like because of that pressure to get things figured out, I am always doing things backwards. Like Riese says in the post, I’ve definitely tried to pick a label and then stick to its black-and-white confines, instead of listening to what my heart was doing and then picking the label that best described it.

      Let’s face it: we are complicated creatures. The moment you stop learning and evolving is the moment you die. So why try to pin it all down once and for all? I’m confused. Love is confusing. Let’s own that.

    • YES!!!!!!

      We can be confused!!!— I am very critical of the “born this way” idea because it was what made me feel like I needed to have it all figured it out all the time. I think that accepting that sexuality can be fluid for some people and that ‘labels’ can change is a radical way of rethinking love and how we relate to other people. I identify as bisexual and this is very important for me, however, when I had my very first same-sex relationship I did not even know that bisexual people existed, so yeah, labels have changed for me.

      • Yes to all of this! I get that it is super frustrating to be told that you are confused/unsure/experimenting when you are very sure of your sexuality. On the other hand, I think a lot of why it is frustrating is that such comments are usually made in a dismissive or negative tone. However, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with being unsure! After all, questioning can be a pretty essential and difficult part of figuring out that one is bi/lesbian/gay/etc., so I 100% support questioning!

  8. Just read this:

    ““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.”

    Good lord, Riese. You’re smart.

    • Word. I was thinking about this earlier this year (love and whether it should be/ whether I want it to be more instinctual or a choice) and hey, here we are and Riese put it in more beautiful and succinct words than I have been able to. (This is a pattern in my life and I’m not mad about it. Please keep writing forever, Riese)

    • I am saving this quote forever. I have never heard a more coherent and articulate point about sexual fluidity or bisexuality.

      I’m believe I’m very much a lesbian but I do see that choosing love is distinctly different than surrender.

  9. I was reluctant to write this, but I’m really thinking about it and I needed to write it. Hope I am in the good place. Also sorry if my english sucks.

    THis is the thing. I am lesbian, but I hate the word. I don’t feel part of the lesbian community. I don’t like/I’m not interested in lesbian culture. I only read Autostraddle for the PLL stuff and fanfiction advice ;). I am a very classic, catholic, reserved girl, I don’t like things clothes-related, etc… Every time I tried to participate in lesbian stuff (bar, association, etc…), I felt so uncomfortable. All the girls were well-dressed and it was important for them (I dream of a world where we would all wear the same uniform), there was a whole new language (femme ??? Butch ???). Around the same time, I felt in love, so I did not feel the need to meet other women. I doesn’t mean I despised them, my girlfriend is lesbian and very involved in lesbian stuff (she write YA lesbian novel that rocks), and I am happy that other people than me are fighting on this.
    Usually, when people ask me what I am, I answer “a woman attracted to woman”, because it’s what I am. “A lesbian ?” “No, a woman attracted to woman.” “it is the definition of lesbian.” (etc, etc…)
    Until the last month/week, I was confortable with it. Except there is the whole “internalized homophobia”. While I was raised by very open-minded parent, I am from an homophobic country, in an homophobic society, in an homophobic church (even if I love my church), you see the thing. It is impossible not to have little homophobic things in your head. And now, I wonder if my refusal to be called “lesbian” come from this. My girlfriend say I can be whatever I want if I don’t hurt other people. Except that if I don’t like to be called lesbian because of internalized homophobia, I am hurting other people.

    I read this article when I saw “label”. I strongly identify with the : “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.” except I don’t want a label, I reject my label, and I don’t know if it is right. But I also fit in another label.

    If someone has feel the same way… say hi.

    • My girlfriend TOTALLY identifies with you and I write on her behalf because she doesn’t have an account. We rarely hang out with lesbians because, like women generally do, they are all cliquey and well dressed and think they are oh so cool and don’t want to let anyone else in. She’s had tons of lesbian ‘bar’ friends who ditched her the moment she started settling down. It’s unfortunate that the community hasn’t been more welcoming, and we live in a big and gay friendly town. She doesn’t like to hang out with lesbians and doesn’t feel she needs to just befause she likes women. I don’t know what I’m even trying to say but she feels similar to you and you aren’t alone.

    • I had this feeling for the longest time and I still struggle with my own homophobia sometimes. For example: I obsess about not dressing the same/having the same hair cut/being the same as my girlfried for fear of people thinking I just want to date myself (an idea about homosexuality that my parents gave me).

      I really do not want to be associated with the word lesbian and would prefer queer or bisexual. I often correct people when they refer to me/my relationship as lesbian. Not sure what to do with these feelings P., just saying hi & I feel you.

    • Hey, it’s absolutely okay if you don’t relate to lesbian culture or want to be a part of it. The internalized homophobia thing comes in when LGBTQ people who don’t take part in the community act like they’re superior to people who do take part in the community, often in ways that tie into gross and awful stereotypes about gay people (like, if you’re judging effeminate gay men for not acting like how men are supposed to act, and being glad that you’re not part of a community with effeminate gay men in it, you’re positioning gay people who can sorta sometimes fit into straight society as the only acceptable kind of gay people, and you’re also saying that people who can fit into their assigned gender role are the only acceptable kind of people in general.) It might be a good idea to think it over and make sure you’re not being judgmental of these people, but it honestly sounds like you’re doing okay. You haven’t found common ground with the community and you’d rather hang out with people who like the stuff you like, and who aren’t super into stuff that bores you. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.

      Like, internalized homophobia is a very, very real thing, but it’s also a problem that LGBTQ communities are only for LGBTQ people who like the right things and run with the right cliques and socialize the way the right people do, and I think there are quite a few people who use the concept of internalized homophobia to brush off criticism for that – like, that the LGBTQ people who don’t fit in only like the wrong things and aren’t part of the right cliques and socialize the way the wrong people do because of internalized homophobia, and if they didn’t have internalized homophobia, they would be the right sort of LGBTQ people and they’d totally fit in. Which is stupid and wrong, and as long as you’re trying to respect other people the way they are, you deserve to be respected the way you are, too.

      As for the word “lesbian,” it’s up to you how you want to identify, and it seems like it’s less about you feeling like there’s something wrong with the way people who call themselves “lesbians” are, and more about feeling like you lack common ground with those people. I used to feel the same way. I don’t particularly enjoy politics and social justice discussions (I keep up with it because I want to know how to treat people well, but I just… can’t really approach it as an enjoyable thing I do because I like doing it, because it just isn’t that way for me), the entertainment I like runs very nerd garbage and not literary at all, and I’m not very up on music and fashion. I felt like most “lesbians” weren’t just gay women, but gay women who also belonged to a particular subculture that wasn’t very open to people like me. For years, I called myself a gay woman rather than a lesbian, and I’ve only started using “lesbian” recently – and it’s not even because I feel more connected to the lesbian community in general, but because I’ve met more lesbians who were more like me. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because by virtue of only having interest in women, I am a lesbian whether or not I’m a typical lesbian, but I think it’s perfectly normal to not want to come across like you’re part of a subculture you’re not part of.

      There are other women who like women who are like you, though, even if you’re not a typical lesbian either. I met my lesbian friends through the intersection of our mutual interests and being lesbians, so maybe if you’re looking to feel more connected to other people with your orientation, you can try to meet some other gay/lesbian/women who like women people who are into the same stuff as you? Of course, if that isn’t something you care about, you don’t need to feel obligated, either. It really is okay to identify as whatever you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone, and I don’t think what you’re doing is hurting anyone at all.

      • Took me 2 days to found the “show replies” buttons x) and it’s so so so good to read things like this ! Thanks 🙂 It came really at the good time, you can’t imagine.

        Remy, I feel you so much on “not looking like your gf”. Finally, my girlfriend is like me on a lot of things, and I can’t count the number of time I heard “so, you sleep with yourself ?”. Me I know she is very different from me on a lot of point, and it’s enough.

        Alice, tbh, I try to not be judgemental, but it’s more because I’m a very judgemental girl with everyone. I am thankfull that other people were/are part of the community, because now, I can get married and all. Like, I am thankfull that other people in wheelchair fought for my rights, but I don’t feel part of a “wheelchair community”. you say “I felt like most “lesbians” weren’t just gay women, but gay women who also belonged to a particular subculture that wasn’t very open to people like me.” and it’s that. I have nothing against their subculture, I am not into. And about thr word to use, I’m French, and “gay” is really for men here, and “queer” just sound really strange, so I stick with “attracted to woman”. Well, I am interested in meeting other woman like me, but my city is not big, and the lesbian community little – centered around one bar and one association, + when you say you’re gay, everyone will told you “Oh, you have to meet my friend X, Y and Z”, so you soon feel like knowing/having heard of every gay women in the city. I go to a lot of concert (opera and jazz), and I speak with people around, and then… wait & see 😉

  10. “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.”

    This so perfectly expresses a feeling I have felt my whole life. Thanks for ripping my guts out again, boss <3

  11. This ambiguity is inherent in all labels, because everyone has different conceptions of what each label means…. minor or major.
    I will state that these same ambiguities about sexuality are also happening in gender identity. I think those will become more apparent as more and more people feel safe in coming out as non binary without fearing disrespect and abuse.

  12. Wow. I needed to read this so, so badly. I “came out” about a year ago as bisexual/queer and lately have felt much more towards the lez end of the spectrum. I also have a semi-traumatic history of dating men and generally don’t connect with men the way that I do with women. Yet, I’ve been happily romantically involved with men in the past (and have feelings for one right now) even though now I mostly prefer women.

    Recently, after a series of crises and giant changes in my life (death in the family, move to a new city, new job, quit drinking, new friend circle, etc) I have been feeling the urge to find a label that fits my sexuality so I can have some sense of stability. But this piece reminded me that it isn’t necessary to manufacture a label to be happy, secure, nor to build a community. So I’ll stick with “queer” and will keep exploring what that means to me day by day 🙂 thanks for this.

  13. Thank you Riese! This really speaks to the confusion I feel about who I am and who I’m with. You’d think after living with that confusion through lots of years and multiple relationships it would be easier to figure out, but I haven’t so I think I’ll give myself a break and try that relaxing thing…

  14. Aw honey! You have had a hard-ass year!

    And yes to this advice. It sounds like many things are being shuffled but contemplating the specifics of your sexuality are a more finite question than “my life, what the fuck.”

    I don’t know any better than you but I wish really good things for you and ease for your heart and worries.

  15. This was awesome, thank you for this post. The part about not wanting a heterosexual life was good to read because sometimes I feel that way, not because I’m never attracted to men, but because even though all relationships have baggage, the male privilege baggage is not one I really want to get married to.

  16. I’m a huge language person. Like, if I can’t put words to a moment or object, I’m a bit lost. I love to think that there is the perfect set of words out there, in some language, to express every thought.

    But then, especially this last year, I’ve felt labels shifting as I got more of a sense of the politics and community (and colonization and privilege) around LGBT labels.

    Sometimes calling myself bisexual is an act of revolution.
    Sometimes calling myself queer is an act of privilege.
    Sometimes calling myself of a lesbian is an act of sisterhood.

    I like sexual orientation labels. I use about a half dozen of them. I think the truth, for me at least, exists somewhere in the spaces in between those great words that people smarter than me came up with to bind us together.

    • “Sometimes calling myself bisexual is an act of revolution.
      Sometimes calling myself queer is an act of privilege.
      Sometimes calling myself of a lesbian is an act of sisterhood.”

      I really like this, a lot. If I wanted to quote you somewhere (on a blog? on social media?) would that be ok, and if so, who should I attribute it to?

  17. So, I just read this, and then I cried, because I identified with it that much. Thank you Riese. What you have made here on Autostraddle, and what you continue to make every day (like this piece of writing) continue to make me feel less broken, like I belong somewhere, and I’m just so eternally grateful for that. Thank you.

  18. So… it’s pretty common for someone in a long-term relationship to suddenly get a raging crush on a person that isn’t their partner, and have to figure out what to do about it. This includes completely straight and completely gay people, too. You’re not necessarily not bi just because you’re dating a dude and now you’re suddenly head over heels for a woman… but you’re not necessarily not a lesbian, either. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what we don’t like as much as what we do like, especially if it’s a lesser depth of feeling rather than a sense of revulsion… or it might be, if it’s that instead of just a big, new, exciting crush on a big, new, exciting person.

    Figuring out your label, if you’re not one of those people who’s got a really obvious no-brainer of an orientation, is probably not going to be a quick and easy process. It’s more about patterns than this person/that person. You’ll have to be honest with yourself about the way attraction and affection work for you, and that’s not always going to be fun. You might not figure out how you feel for a little while. You might not get an exact and perfect TOTALLY LESBIAN! or PERFECT KINSEY 3 BI! It’s definitely okay to want a label, and if you feel like having a label is worth the effort of finding one, it probably will be. But even if you don’t know exactly what you are, your attractions are valid. You can be attracted to X human and super turned off by Y human and not sure how you feel about Z human, and it gets to be real and valid because your feelings are real and valid even without a big, overarching theory explaining why they’re like that.

    It does sound like maybe you’re having some doubts about continuing to stay with your boyfriend. Doing the math, you’ve been with him since you were 19, so you probably haven’t had much in the way of serious adult relationships apart from him, and you’re ALSO questioning whether or not you like boys at all. Are you taking the bi/lesbian question as a matter of whether you should stay with your boyfriend, where if you’re bi, you really do want to be with him and should stay, and where if you’re lesbian, you have no choice but to leave? Because whether or not you should stay really doesn’t depend on your orientation. You can be a bi woman who feels more connected to the idea of being with women and really needs to get to experience that, or a bi woman who’s realizing her relationship to this man would be better as a friendship, or a bi woman who’s having some LTR anxiety. You can be a woman with a general preference for women who still wants to be with this man. Or maybe it’s not a binary choice, either. Maybe you want to be with him, but not monogamously. Maybe you don’t exactly want to break up with him, but you’re worried that because you’ve been with him so long, you have to keep being with him unless you have a big reason not to.

    No matter how you feel about your boyfriend, your feelings are valid and real, and it’s okay for you to explore your feelings and take action, even if it messes up the status quo. It sounds like it would not be a great idea for you to be with this girl, for all the reasons you’ve listed (I’m guessing age might be one of them) but if you want a relationship where you feel those same sorts of feelings, you have the right to pursue that. Huge crushes on other people can often be a sign that something’s lacking in your actual relationship – we can go along for months or years with a relationship problem, refusing to acknowledge it, and the outside crush can be a reminder of what was wrong for a long time. Maybe the passion’s gone and it’s recoverable if you work for it, or maybe it’s time to move on. What it isn’t time to do is ignore the problem.

    Best of luck.

    • Yess. The crush probably tells you a lot about what is missing from your relationship, and the gender of your crush is not necessarily relevant.

      Funnily enough, the crush that initiated the end of my last heterosexual relationship, and consequently my coming out as a lesbian, was a cis guy. I was crushing on a man who was a very intelligent and a really fun conversationalist, and soon realised that it wasn’t really about this guy, it was about me needing intellectual challenge in a relationship. I left my kind-but-boring long-term boyfriend and after that I’ve only dated women. Life!

    • I’ve been in that raging crush space too, and Alice’s advice is spot on. Also I’d like to say that there is life after crush – if you and your boyfriend decide to stay together, Penelope, you can use your experiences to make your relationship stronger than ever.

      If you want to talk to someone who has been there, feel free to send me a private message!

      • What Dina said. This article and the comments are so great.

        Throwing my own experience into the mix, I’m coming out the other side of my second raging crush in 12 years of being in a very happy opposite sex partnership. The latest was not about dissatisfaction with my relationship (he’s awesome and supportive and generally amazing), but more coming out of a stage where my primary identify was ‘mother’ and I didn’t really have an outlet for ANY other aspects of my identity (plus, being a parent reinforced my lack of visibility as someone bi, as it’s another layer of assumptions for people to make about you…)
        And then as I emerged from that space, all the feelings that hadn’t really had space to be expressed all came at once!! Feeling more sexual, feeling super gay, wanting to feel ‘myself’ again, wanting people to know the real me – ALL THE FEELINGS! And then at the same time meeting someone new while I was just a bag of crazy feels….it was quite intense and there was a mutual spark, but now I’m coming through the other side I’m relieved that we didn’t act on it – I have no doubt it would’ve been hot, but it made me realise a lot of things about what I want (like monogamy) and the things I really love and appreciate about my partner (so many things).
        So am trying to find other outlets/ways to be visible/part of the community and an activist rather than expressing my queerness primarily through who I have sex with…it’s a work in progress but I think a worthwhile one.
        Phew, sorry about the long comment.

  19. This is probably one of my favorite things I have read on this site, and I can relate to so much of it. As far as labels go, sometimes I feel very happy to describe myself as bisexual, but at other moments i just really wish avoiding labels entirely felt like more of an option. I feel like without a label I become even more invisible and erased. Plus, I worry that if I avoid labels, other people are going to label me themselves, and I don’t want to give up that self-determination. :-/

  20. Thank you Riese! Thank you Penelope/anonymous! I went through intense fear as a child that I would turn out to be a lesbian (homophobia, etc). Then a teen I was ecstatic/not-ecstatic that I could hide who I was attracted to. Recently fear that I didn’t get the invitation via absolute certainty that I was gay, therefore I couldn’t “legitimately” sleep with the women I was attracted, and now I think I am trying to focus on my wonderful partner, healthy eating, my career, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc more than defining my sexuality. When people ask what I am, I just say “I’m Katherine.” When I ask myself, I now try to have some self-compassion.

  21. Thought provoking. I’m happy identifying as bi because, to me, it means I never have to question my sexual orientation or labels again. I do question my welcomeness in the queer community, whether I’m “queer enough,” but I don’t question being bisexual. I’ve been with men and women and if I get to a point in my life where I’m feeling focused on one gender I won’t change my identity. I feel I’ll always have the potential to be attracted to any gender tomorrow, even if I’m not feeling it today.

  22. “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.”

    Oh hi are you me. I love this quote. I also like this one by Cynthia Nixon: “I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.”

    SO MUCH BETTER.

  23. “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 am ALLL about this. It took me so long to realize I was lesbian, let me have my lesbian fun in peace! I’m gay as hell and that’s all you need to know.

  24. Dear Riese, thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us. I feel so much more connected to you now.

    This… …“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.”…..

    and most of all, this…..” I cannot be myself and also be with a man.”

    For me, I discovered that “I cannot be myself and also be with a straight woman or a man….”

    And to reflect on your first quote, I think love, sexuality, and gender identity are instinctual…but from our birth, we are taught to be what society wants us to be…..and we wander in the world until we find the truth…hopefully….and for some it is early in life, and others late in life. We battle the prejudices of labels that society has put on us, because our hearts tell us they are wrong. And when we find some other human who creates in our heart …a pathway for our instinctual feelings of love and self to become present in our life….there is our true label and our true love….and both are undeniable.

    I loved this article so much, …so much Riese heart.

  25. I just want to say I am really happy seeing so many of you identify with this! I am feeling at home in the comments section once again after a rough couple of months for some of us for whom sexuality isn’t black and white. That’s all in the past, but I just mean, this feels good. 🙂

  26. Labels are very tricky, in that they are necessary, and yet never satisfying. We need them to structure our experience and to understand ourselves (and each other) better. But they never truly encompass what we are.
    So, it’s best to treat them as an approximation, not the whole and holy truth about ourselves. At least this attitude works for me.

  27. So what is the answer about labels, and ambiguities… and the truth we feel inside, and the way others try to tell us we are full of shit…. and a freak…. when they don’t even know us or try to understand what is in our hearts?

  28. I have lots of labels. I use “gay” and “lesbian” interchangeably. Queer is a bit of a political identity, I suppose, but also describes who I am as a person. I know that there are people who believe “lesbian” isn’t as evolved and that jazz. I used to be one of them, and refused to use the word, but it is what I am, through and through, and probably the one I cling to the most.

  29. To quote a work from one of my favoured comic artists, “Label just help you find people like you, they aren’t perfect descriptions of the human condition.”

    As bisexual person who’s in the woman box cause I can’t find a thing that fits/feels comfy so I just go with my assigned gender I just wanna say, or reiterate, love is love and sexuality is not a mathematic formula. Some people are gunna be a hella more thrilling than others for reasons we can’t comprehend sometimes it doesn’t have to mean what you had with others was nothing.

  30. I felt 110% in my bones that I was a lesbian until I read Lisa Diamond’s ‘Sexual Fluidity’ and the stories of women changing their orientation from lesbian scared the hell out of me.I still feel that I am a lesbian but trying to be compassionate with myself that If I ever desire to be with a man again ( I highly doubt it) it’s ok.Plus,it will be out of my control i’m pretty sure.

    I can definitely relate to feeling so much contentment oveall being with women.Going back would be lack a sacrifice. I choose to live as a lesbian because I deserve to be the happiest I can.

    • I felt 110% in my bones that I was a lesbian until I read Lisa Diamond’s ‘Sexual Fluidity’ and the stories of women changing their orientation from lesbian scared the hell out of me.I still feel that I am a lesbian but trying to be compassionate with myself that If I ever desire to be with a man again ( I highly doubt it) it’s ok.Plus,it will be out of my control i’m pretty sure.

      I can definitely relate to feeling so much contentment overall being with women.Going back would be like a sacrifice. I choose to live as a lesbian because I deserve to be the happiest I can.

  31. This letter reminded me very strongly of the Dear Sugar podcast I listened to last night, which I’d really recommend. I think their advice applies pretty strongly here, too: http://www.wbur.org/2015/05/09/dear-sugar-younger-men

    I love what Reise has written about sexuality and labels. Aside from the beautifully insightful observations about naming our sexualities, I think her most important advice to Penelope is this: questioning your sexuality and getting hung up on your crush are ways of avoiding the really massive complicated crisis that’s shadowing your letter.

    Look at what gets the most attention: a crush that she’s decided not to pursue takes up most of the letter, while rape, a parent’s illness and returning to school are mentioned as if they were incidental. I’m willing to bet that they’re not, though. Fantasising about this hot butch sounds like a way of channeling uncertainty and fear and doubt: you still get to feel all that anxiety and sense of crisis, while being deliciously distracted from the exhausting and sad things that have given you that sense of crisis.

    Just as Penelope’s big, hard life events are mentioned very very briefly, the boyfriend is basically absent. He’s just a timeframe and an obstacle in this letter. Penelope writes as if leaving him is not an option, but then the questioning of her sexuality seems to suggest that maybe she wants leaving him to be an option? If you were to decide you were a lesbian in disguise, would that give you permission to leave this security and love? Do you need permission? It’s striking that the boyfriend doesn’t get any adjectives at all. The relationship isn’t described in any terms at all apart from length. That’s pretty striking, and potentially important. I mean, if the 8 yr relationship isn’t right for Penelope, she should leave, even if Tiny Butch ultimately plays no further role in her life than to have been the catalyst for her realising that she was unfulfilled.

    Penelope knows what’s really going on here, I reckon: she knows she’s stressed and currently dissatisfied with her relationship. It feels good to feel alive, to feel a positive desire rather than exhaustion, sadness, anger, confusion, fear, whatever. The only thing she can do is look after herself and pay attention to herself and her heart and her instincts as her crises unfold and resolve. (And while she does it, try to be honest and try to be kind.)

  32. “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.

  33. 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.

  34. “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.

  35. 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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