During the past few weeks I have had the exquisite pleasure of:
-aggravating a group of middle-aged lesbians.
-confusing gay and straight people alike with my mystifying pansexual/married lifestyle.
-having a close friend refer to me as transgender (I guess she thinks that’s what I came out as?)
-Going to my first several events as an “out” queer woman.
-being told by both my husband therapist to essentially “tone it down.”
They say well-behaved women seldom make history. I’m guessing women who fit neatly into existing movements and social categories probably rarely do either. Having said that, not fitting neatly, or at all, can be lonely.
In more positive news, I’ve discovered that I’m actually not that confused. I actually have quite a bit of clarity at this point, in fact. I’m a queer, pansexual woman in a strong marriage with a man I love. This isn’t rocket science, people! Or is it?
A couple weeks ago I went to an event for the first time as a queer person. It was a group for bisexual/pansexual people (although most didn’t know what pansexual meant, let alone identifying as such). I was terrified to go to this group, and the fight I had with Seth a few nights before in which he warned me that no one wants to hear about how hard and marginalizing it is to be bi/pansexual, didn’t help.
I was terrified the group would look at me with the same why is she talking about this look that I’ve gotten from some well-meaning folks I’ve come out to. The smiles, hugs, and I’m so proud of you’s quickly seem to fade into the expectation that nothing at all has changed other than me having uttered the words “I’m pansexual.” It feels like it’s not being taken seriously, or maybe I’m not doing a good job of expressing that it’s serious. But these group members were the people who were supposed to get it. If they didn’t get it, I would really be screwed!
Well, of course, the group didn’t seem at all perplexed as to why I was there, and no one insinuated I should just go back home to my husband and not speak of such things. (Bi the way (haha), a bit of processing later, and Seth and I both understood where his comments were coming from, and he apologized). As for the group, they listened sportively, validated my experiences, commiserated with feeling out of place with both gay and straight folk alike, and then proceeded to convey in the nicest possible way that my husband needs to let me have sex with women.
So that might be a bit of a hard sell, but at least they got that this is something big! It’s not just some quaint intellectual exercise after which I can go back to living a straight life like nothing happened. I find myself wanting to say I’m queer, people! It’s LGBT, not LGbT – us bi/pan folk aren’t any less queer. I’m queer like all those people who’ve come out to you as gay or lesbian! You didn’t expect them to walk back into the closet and just leave the door ajar, did you? So why would I do that? I want out!
(Disclaimer: This quote “I am queer like all those people who’ve come out to you as gay or lesbian” is not meant to say that I am oppressed like people who are gay or lesbian or that I am AS OUT as they are. I may be less out than some, more out than some. My point is, I believe my coming out should be taken seriously as folks take it seriously when gay and lesbian folk come out).
The group was kind of incredible, actually. I think it was the most diverse group of people I’ve ever been in, racially, socioeconomically, age-range, and sexual preference. There were transfolk, a cis-male who identified as “98% gay,” there were married people, single people, people who’d been “bi” for years and others who were just starting to question, folks who “used to be straight,” “used to be gay,” polyamorous people, monogamous people, kinky folk, and anyone else you can imagine.
Sitting there among that level of diversity and fluidity, hearing each person’s story and how full of complexity, twists and turns, and incredibly unique feelings and preferences it was, it was impossible to imagine how anyone, let alone most of the public, could find it hard to understand being anywhere between totally straight and totally gay.
I have so many patients going through similar struggles in a variety of ways – feeling existing labels, concepts, and spectrums don’t do them justice. How do I help these people? I turn to the best role models a shrink could ask for… kids! High school and college kids know SO MUCH more than any of the rest of us. They ask the right questions and are open to the answers. When someone comes out as… anything, they take their word for it. They are neutrois, demi-sexual, genderqueer, polyromantic, kinky, fluid, queerplatonic, boi, gray-A, bromantic, queer, etc. If they don’t fit into a category they make up a new one – a few tweets and a tumblr page later – and they’ve found a global community.
So I learn as much as I can from my young teachers, and then I do the best I can to point my patients toward a community open and expansive-minded enough to embrace them. And then there’s me – married, suburban, pansexual mom. Where are the folks who are open and expansive-minded enough to embrace me?
Recently, at a meetup group for “lesbian and bisexual women,” I found myself surrounded by five lesbians in their 50s who looked downright pissed when I told them I had a husband. Thus began the skeptical looks, inappropriate questions about my past sexual experiences, the “I had a husband too” stories, the insinuations that I’m a wimpy, closeted lesbian unwilling to suffer the consequences of leaving my marriage, and the rude comments making it painfully clear how annoying it is to meet women who aren’t available. This was not a dating meetup, mind you.
“You know when you meet a woman, and it’s going great, and then she’s like ‘I have a boyfriend’ – what the hell is up with that?” WHY? Why would you say this in front of the terrified, newly-out, pansexual girl who just admitted timidly that she has a husband. No, you don’t understand, I want to shout. I’m one of you! Or am I? The truth is, I’m not. I think my brain is wired differently. If I met a woman, and we hit it off romantically, and she told me she had a boyfriend, I’d probably assume she was bi/pan and poly rather than feel I was being tricked or played with somehow.
Luckily after spending the first half of this meetup literally wishing I could run away, I met a cool lesbian couple who is experimenting with an open relationship. Being in an unusual situation themselves, they seemed much more accepting.
But man, the older you get, the harder is it to find folks you can relate to. Somehow I always end up feeling like I missed the boat, or got on it too soon. Like right now, folks who can relate to marriage and being a mom are just so not on my fluid, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive, radical feminist wavelength. Folks who are more on that wavelength seem to be, well, in high school, or college, at best. I’m cool with hanging out with younger girls, but sometimes I end up feeling like somebody’s hip mom who came out to party with the kids.
It’s just so clear to me how complex and multi-faceted human sexuality and gender expression are. Take a man whose preferred sexual act is mutual masturbation with another man, but only feels romantic interest in women. A couple who have a lovely attachment, share a home, and raise children together, love each other deeply, but get their sexual needs met elsewhere. A female to male transman seeking a 24-7 slave/master relationship. A cis-man who’s realized he’s entirely gay but remains monogamous with his wife, not out of obligation, but because it’s what he truly wants. A man who’s identified as gay his entire life, and in his seventies begins to feel a deep and powerful urge to form a romantic and sexual connection with a woman.
I have so many clients who come to me asking the question “What am I?” I know a lot of folks would respond, who cares, why do you need a label? Labels are the problem. Perhaps, but labels are also empowering. Labels allow us to go to meetup.com and find other people like us. Labels allow one to go to fetlife.com and find someone who wants to play puppy or who excels at rope bondage.
We all want to feel known and understood, and the folks with labels that feel really right, they have got a good thing going! And the folks with labels that have meaning to most people, they have really got a great thing going. They can look out into the world and see representations of who they are reflected back at them. They can organize and advocate. The can be visible.
I’ll probably refer to this Monosexual Privilege list a lot, but this really changed my life. I know I am privileged in many ways. Many, many ways. And it’s very important to recognize that. I can pass as straight, I’m a white, reasonably well-off, educated woman. Still, I believe it’s important and right to say that being invisible is hard. That there are many ways in which falling somewhere in that gray area between gay and straight can result in oppression too. Being threatening to gay and straight people alike, being asked to “prove it” when you come out, or just having it assumed that your sexual orientation is as small a deal as liking both chocolate and vanilla ice cream—these things are discrimination too.
I recently tried to make a chart of some kind to help clients tease out their sexual and gender identities. I have like 10 pages of notes, with scales and diagrams, spectrums, and dialectics. I finally realized I don’t only need more than a gender spectrum and a sexual orientation spectrum, more than a horizontal and a vertical axis, I need some kind of multidimensional digitally-produced hologram. It’s just not that simple, people. It’s not that simple.
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