How as a Gay-Affirmative, Self-Aware Feminist I Still Missed the Fact that I’m Queer for 30+ Years

Finding oneself is an ongoing process...

Senior year in college I fell in love with a boy.  We’ll call him Jack.  Jack and I proceeded to spend the entire year in an ill-defined, heart-wrenching non-“relationship” in which we were “best friends,” (obviously dating) but not having sex or admitting we were more than platonic.

We told each other we loved each other.  We made every excuse to touch each other.  We even slept in the same bed, staying up late having deep conversations.  We made our lives dependent on each other’s as partners do, taking on each others’ struggles and challenges as our own.

Senior year in high school, I had had the same relationship.  Well, ok, I was four years younger, less mature, but everything I stated above was true of this one as well.  There’s one catch, this time it was a girl… let’s say, Jane.

Looking back, the fact that I was in love with my best friend Jane, that we slept in the same bed, snuggled, held hands, were romantically involved in every way one can be, aside from sex, should have tipped me off that I’m not straight.  Amazingly, despite my openness to being gay, despite at times in college wishing I was gay, feeling like I should be, and hanging out with all the gay kids, I still managed to continue to believe I was straight.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that all this time and emotional energy was spent on these non-“relationships,” and I never even got to have sex!  That is for another post.  How could I, feminist and gender-nonconformist since before puberty, gay rights activist, flaming liberal, and eventually trained in psychology have made such a grave error that only now, in my mid 30s am I realizing I’m not straight?

After fully analyzing the question, I have come up with the following reasons:

1)  INVISIBILITY OF SAME-SEX ATTRACTION:

When this “thing” was happening with Jack, everyone saw it.  My friends referred to him as my “boyfriend.”  People were constantly asking what was going on, were we sleeping together, were we dating?

All the feedback I was getting was that you are in love with this boy… romantic love.  With Jane, on the other hand, I barely got any of that feedback.  One very close friend mentioned how physically affectionate we were with each other, and asked me about it.  That’s it.

And let me tell you, thinking back, it was just as obvious.  But girls acting romantic with each other just doesn’t stand out to us the way hetero match-ups do.  When we see a man and a woman, our minds automatically go to are they, have they, will they?

I got no feedback about this girl to make me pause and think hmmm, maybe I should take this seriously, as in I DO LIKE GIRLS.

Of course there is a gender aspect here too.  Physical affection between women stands out way less than in any relationship in which a man is involved, because the male role precludes such affection unless with a romantic partner.

2)      PANSEXUALITY, IN ITS WONDERFUL LACK OF RIGID BOUNDARIES CAN MAKE THINGS TOUGH TO DEFINE:

To me this goes to an aspect of pansexuality that has to do with how one defines relationships.  Not only did I not really see gender as a major defining point in who I was attracted to… I didn’t really see that clear a boundary between romantic and platonic relationships the way others seemed to.

For me, everything bled together, gender was never rigid, sexual attraction was always just somewhere along a range.  There were sensual and erotic aspects to many relationships.  So when I did find myself “attracted” to women on various levels, it didn’t stand out that much to me.  I just didn’t view gender as that big a deal.  And yet, I think I was waiting for some kind of sign, like lightening bolts, telling me YOU DO like girls.

Thing is, there were never any lightening bolts with guys either.  In fact, that boy senior year was the first one I was even strongly attracted to, where I really felt like wow, I want to have sex with this person!

In a way, my experience was very pansexual, in that I didn’t draw such distinct lines between sexual and non-sexual relationships, and even between men and women.  But I think as a result, I was very susceptible to viewing my relationships the way others did, i.e. high school girls just being girls, vs. in love with a man.

Because the boundaries and labels I was aware of didn’t fit, I just accepted the default position… heterosexuality.

3)    “YOU CAN’T BE WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE” – PAN-INVISIBILITY

Being pan is not visible anywhere in our culture, and it certainly wasn’t when I was growing up.  I think if I had even been able to really relate to or feel I was bisexual, things would have been a lot clearer.  In retrospect, I was really searching for a non-straight identity, but there just wasn’t one that fit.

It was like the outfit you see on the rack and you think that’s it, it’s perfect, but when you put it on, it doesn’t fit quite right, and you’re not really sure why.

The first time I even heard the term omni-sexual was a few years ago at a conference of women at my university whose dissertations focused on issues of gender.  I immediately thought, “that’s what I am,” but even then, being I’d never MET anyone who identified this way, I guess I took it as more of an intellectual exercise than an actual sexual orientation.

They say “you can’t be what you can’t see.”  I spent so much time around LGBT etc. folk, I felt comfortable around them, I liked being around them, but I never had a “that’s what I am” moment.  Definitely did not have that feeling around straight people either!

4)    CURSE OF BEING PSYCHOLOGICALLY MINDED

In so many ways other positives in my life ended up clouding my sexual orientation, like my tendency to view everything through a psychological lens.  In the years of college, I came to understand my relationship with Jane as more about family issues I was avoiding dealing with.

Coming from a family with a misogynist father, I had a very difficult time trusting men, so all my closest and most powerful relationships were with women, yes, until Jack – ugh!  Ironically, this ended up actually CLOUDING my attraction to women because I interpreted it as oh men are just scarier for me, so I’m more focused on women.

Turns out, I think, I was scared of men, and it was developmentally important for me to get past that, but I also was actually, really attracted to women. 

The fact that I always “felt different” as other LGBTetc folk often claim, I also (mis)-interpreted as related to my parents problematic parenting style and relationship, and my resulting intimacy issues.  This combined with the invisibility of same-sex relationships, and no pan folks in sight, left me totally missing the fact that I felt different because I really was different.  Ha!  I mean after all, who doesn’t have intimacy issues?

And a note on my attraction to men…  I also used to think I was attracted to more gender flexible men because my father was so sexist.  Yet another way daddy fucked me up… he caused me to miss the fact that I’m actually just attracted to gender flexible folks.  It wasn’t about him, but how was I supposed to know that!

5)HARD TO ADMIT

Ok, so obviously there must have been a part of me that while believing I was open to being gay, was hesitant to take on a minority sexual orientation.  I think if I had been full-out gay, I would have come out, but the fact that things felt very fluid, and I didn’t prefer women over men, there was never that much motivation to admit to myself I was not straight.

After all, it’s hard to plunge into a minority status, giving up one’s privilege as a heterosexual, to take on a seemingly non-existent sexual orientation that doesn’t quite fit with any concept people readily understand because one likes, but doesn’t necessarily prefer women.

And yet, here I am trying to do so.  Props to me.

Copyright 2012, undercoverinthesuburbs.com, All Rights Reserved.

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“If Only You Were Born Now” – Up-and-Coming Identities

Originally Appeared on RoleReboot.org.

I frequently find myself thinking ‘If only you were born now,’ while working with middle-aged gender variant people.  The few times I actually say it out loud, it’s painfully clear how unhelpful it is.   A few days ago I found myself trying to explain the concept “genderqueer” to a married, middle-aged natal male who currently identifies as transgender.  He was saying he feels part male and part female, not female enough to start hormones or have re-assignment surgery and transition, but not male enough to continue to pass as male.  I recall saying something along the lines of “all the college kids are doing it.”

To at least a certain subset of 20 year-olds, this man’s problem wouldn’t be perceived as a problem at all.  Identities including ‘both male and female,’ ‘neither male nor female,’ ‘third gender,’ ‘non-gendered,’ and ‘androgynous’ have become increasingly easy for young people to conceptualize.   “Oh, you’re just genderqueer,” I can imagine them saying.   But how does one come out as genderqueer at fifty?  How does one explain to spouses, colleagues, children and other relatives who have never considered identities outside the gender binary?    There would be very real and potentially serious social consequences to coming out for this person.

Even if I could bring him on a fieldtrip down to a local gender studies department or campus LGBT alliance to see first-hand what a genderqueer identity might look like, his peers would still lack any exposure to this concept.  Many adults are still struggling with the idea homosexuality, and most would have a difficult time really understanding transgender identity.  But at least the ‘one-gender-trapped-in-the-body-of-the-other’ idea fits into the gender binary most people are used do, as does attraction to the opposite gender.  Genderqueer is an identity which demands thinking way outside the box, calling into question the very concept of gender as we know it.

Even for those transgender folks who have transitioned, there is sometimes a level of generational envy.  I have often heard transgender individuals fantasizing about how things might have been different if they were born now, with the availability of hormones, surgical advancements, and the increased awareness of transgender children and teens.  Kids now have the option of intervening early enough that puberty never steals their chances of passing as their identified gender.

College is, after all, the perfect time to formulate one’s identity.  Had this middle-aged man experimented with transgender and genderqueer identities in college and chosen/begun his career and long-term partnership already identifying as such, his life would be very different.  College is a safe place and time in which one’s peers are also, in their own ways, testing out different identities.  But, as a wise supervisor of mine frequently says, “one can only choose from among the culturally available identities.”  For most of the middle-aged people I work with, transgender and genderqueer were not a part of the cultural landscape yet when they were adolescents.

A few months ago I attended an Occupy Wall Street rally in New York City.  A beautiful, confidant young woman took her place at the “human microphone” in order to speak.  She began by saying, “I am a black, pansexual woman.”  I remember distinctly the pang of envy I felt.  Fifteen years ago I was a gender studies major (back when it was still called women’s studies).  I lived in the gay dorm and hung out with the least gender conforming kids on campus.  But I had never heard of “pansexual” until a few years ago.  It might not have taken me until my 30s to solidify my queer identity if I had.

For me, the labels that existed when I was in college didn’t quite fit.  In retrospect, this was because they all fit into that traditional gender binary.  Lucky for me, dating men and passing as straight fit my identity well enough.  I had the privilege of putting the knowledge I was queer on the back burner until an identity that fit me better was imagined by our culture.

For others, the feelings of being gender variant are so profound and all-encompassing that life simply cannot go on, at least not without suffering and struggle.  I believe this is why so many parents are working to open up space for their children to explore minority sexual and gender identities.  Once that stage in life when our identities are naturally in flux has passed, there is no way to get that time back.

I often wonder what my life would look like right now if I had had pansexual Identity on my radar in college.  It might look exactly the same, but have simply feel more authentic for longer.  Despite my envy, I am deeply encouraged by and utterly respectful of the kids that are coming up now.  They are fundamentally re-thinking gender and opening up space for fuller and richer lives for those who don’t fit easily within the gender binary (and really, for everyone).

That said, we always need to be looking forward, making more space, thinking further outside the box.  There are children growing up right now who will live their whole lives in silent desperation because they fit identity categories the culture has yet to offer.

Copyright 2012, undercoverinthesuburbs.com, All Rights Reserved.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Lyla Cicero