The Vagenda

No, I Wasn’t Just a ‘Lesbian Until Graduation’: Why Everyone Except Me Wants To Define My Sexuality


Once upon a time in middle school, I came out to my mother as bisexual. Like many girls that age who have non-hetero tendencies, I had a mother who didn’t buy it. It’s normal to experiment with other girls, she told me. She clearly thought I was having make-out sessions with my girlfriends and was just confused, too young to get that this was just practice before the boys arrived. I should’ve been so lucky to have friends who would make out with me! Instead, my experience ledger was all but a blank slate till late into high school. Still, I knew that there was something different about me, virginal or not.

Research on human sexuality is pretty limited. The evidence we do have suggests women are “sexually fluid” creatures, which sounds like some kind of secretion issue but actually refers to a mix and match approach when it comes to the sex of our lovers, and not necessarily in equal proportion. I’m a member of this group. My sexual timeline can be clearly broken into “gay” and “not-so-gay” sections. Among my friends, many of whom are feminists who also attended liberal arts colleges like mine, which had naked Love Your Body marches and anal sex workshops, this is not so unusual. I’ve known a lot of women who once identified as lesbians, who fell in love with other women and had long-term relationships with them and still maintain a passing interest in the fairer sex, but now primarily have relationships with—or are married to—men. Others are open to dating members of either sex, but lean towards one or the other. Then there are those who spend many years in relationships with men, only to develop a partnership with a woman. You can call these women bi if that’s convenient for you. You can call them defectors or confused, but ultimately those terms will probably say more about you than the women you’re trying to categorise.

In high school, my label shifted to lesbian. Though I felt a rush of nervousness around my friend’s Goth guy pals, in addition to an embarrassing crush on one of my older sister’s hockey-and-football-playing friends, I wanted a relationship with a girl. Eventually, I found one. I fell in love immediately and almost as immediately got my heart broken. Well, “stomped on” would be a more appropriate description. I was undeterred, however, and when I arrived at the uber-liberal college I’d chosen a year later, I promptly threw myself down the love stairs all over again.

My state of monogamous lesbianism persisted through college. Though I developed crushes on a guy or two in my fiction workshops and painting classes, I also kept my eye on other girls, including a platinum blond who shared my name. Yet I was faithful to my girlfriend and the lesbian label. I was what you call a “gold star lesbian,” meaning I’d never been touched by a man.

That all changed around the time I graduated. My girlfriend had broken up with me and was already in love with someone else, a married man. I was heading off to grad school in the fall, which was both an exciting and terrifying prospect. It was time for a change. So, I decided to start dating men, despite knowing virtually nothing about how to go about that. My straight friends filled me in on the basics and unleashed me on the local watering hole near campus.

Once I started seeing guys, I decided to put the “lesbian” label back in the drawer. For a time, I called myself “queer,” which is a catch-all for any non-hetero behavior. Over time, though, as I continued dating men, sticking with this label started to feel dishonest. Labels are designed to sort us out, to distinguish between the deviants and the non. (Sexual deviants have more fun!) They’re also a means of empowerment through visibility. Yet, if I was no longer living a lifestyle that could be viewed as deviant, wasn’t I appropriating a category that I didn’t really belong to and was doing nothing to actively support? So, I peeled that label off, too, and began making my way through the world label-less.

The secret I uncovered is that if you’re engaging in straight person behavior, such as dating a man, you don’t need a label because everyone just assumes you’re straight, which is fine by them. When I tried to assert my more complicated identity by, for example, pointing out in mixed company which female celebs I was attracted to (if you haven’t seen Gina Gershawn in “Bound,” you need to drop everything and do so immediately) I was met with awkward silence. I quickly learned to shut up about my history, especially around straight dudes who thought it was “cool” or “sexy” that I’d been with women. To them, I was “bi,” which was another way of saying “open to a three-way.” But I wasn’t looking for a ménage a trois or a ménage a-anything and I never thought of myself as bisexual, since my interest in the men and women was not exactly 50/50.

My first ever boyfriend at the age of twenty-two was also my first experience openly dating someone. Though my ex-girlfriend and I were together for a total of three years, my extended family never knew of her existence and my immediate family sometimes pretended that they didn’t, either. Suddenly, strangers and family alike not only knew about my relationship, they were approving of it. It was fine for my boyfriend and I to walk around holding hands or even kiss in public. I could stop looking over my shoulder and worrying about harassment or violence. I could let my guard down. The experience of this stark contrast left me incredibly angry. Furious, in fact. Now I knew first-hand what I’d been missing out on, what many of my friends were still being denied.

Ten years later, I’m living in San Francisco and married to a man. My existence is still label-free, but my story is a hard one to explain to those who haven’t experienced any fluidity in their sexual identity. When called upon to discuss my romantic history with people I don’t know that well, I often play the pronoun game and resist revealing whom I loved in the past for fear of raised eyebrows and comments on how I must’ve been “confused” or one of those LUGs—Lesbian Until Graduation. In reality, the truth about my identity is far more complicated than this limited system of categorisation.

I believe I always had the capacity to be attracted to and fall in love with both men and women. How that potential manifested probably had a lot to do with my options, how accepting—or not accepting—my community was, and also the lifestyle I was living at that time. In other words, I guess I’m a kind of sexual chameleon who adapts to her circumstances, which can make it seem like I was too cowardly to stay on the lesbian path, but that view politicizes intensely personal choices and feelings. As the old adage goes, the heart wants what the heart wants.

Things have changed quite a bit since I was a brave eighth grader trying to talk frankly about sexuality with my mother. Today, there are people who admit to same sex attraction but choose to remain celibate for religious reasons. There are those who commit to a same-sex partner and buy a house, raise some kids, and drive a big honkin’ SUV. Others are in polyamorous relationships or eschew commitment of any kind. All of these people can still be neatly filed into categories of “gay,” “straight,” or “bi” based solely on the sex of their partners, but that detail seems irrelevant when you take the long view. Things get stickier when you involve trans identity. If a lesbian woman has a relationship with a trans man, is she, like, totally straight now? Or what about someone who is intersex? We can roll up our sleeves and exhaust ourselves grappling with this and that category till finally we have to ask, what exactly are we accomplishing here by deciding what to call a person who loves another person?

As The Well of Loneliness days draw to a close and we all inch (slowly, but surely) closer towards widespread acceptance of queer identity and non-straightness generally, we should all be able to choose our partners and decide what kind of life we’ll live with them without having to put a sign on the front lawn that declares our label. Hopefully, in the future, if there’s no longer such a tremendous need to identify to unify, or if we as a society stop trying to point fingers at those “sexual deviants,” these categories may then become obsolete and we can put that old sexual label maker back on the shelf, where it belongs.


8 thoughts on “No, I Wasn’t Just a ‘Lesbian Until Graduation’: Why Everyone Except Me Wants To Define My Sexuality

  1. I enjoyed this article, but I also found it a frustrating read. I self-identify as a bisexual woman. Of course you don’t have to accept labels from others that you aren’t comfortable with or disagree with, so if you see the label bisexual as somehow reductive or something other people ‘need to use’ because they need neat little boxes for people (which you seem to be implying) then fine, don’t use that label. But please don’t sneer at it or mis-define it for the rest of us. What it feels like you’re saying is that you were uncomfortable with the wrong and often stupid assumptions others brought to the table when you used that label, or that they didn’t even take the label seriously (coming out to your parents as gay is tricky, but coming out as bisexual?! that’s even less ‘proper’ because it’s often simply read as sexual confusion!). That is something I absolutely sympathise with, but for me, the answer isn’t to reject the ‘bisexual’ label, it’s to try and own it and push back to educate people about what it actually means. For example, what on earth makes you think being bisexual requires you to have perfectly equal, unshifting levels of attraction to each gender? The ’50/50′ rule behind most people’s assumptions of bisexuality is one of those unspoken ideas that made me struggle with my own sexual identity for years, as did the complete lack of people identifying as bisexuals in my peer group or in the media… (the primary reason I find myself getting so frustrated with people choosing not to identify as bi… of course you don’t have to but god, we could really do with the numbers because I’m struggling to think of any out-and-proud bisexual role models!)

    So why not identify as a bisexual, even if your percentages have shifted at different points in your life? Why see it as going through patches of being ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ instead? Again, I can’t argue if you as an individual have just never felt that bisexuality doesn’t reflect who you are, but it does sound like it applies…. you’re someone who “had the capacity to be attracted to and fall in love with both men and women”, who during your ‘gay’ periods at school still had an eye on the odd boy. You’re comfortable using the label ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ for these periods, even though from what you say they fit you far more badly as labels because you were actively attracted to both genders at the same time.

    Ultimately, it’s very hard for me to fight this point in good conscience, because I absolutely agree with your right to reject labels or to not feel comfortable with them – why should we all be classified like species of insect? But the difficulties bisexual men and women face in being acknowledged as ‘legitimate’, often even with the LGBT community, make me wish nonetheless that more people would embrace that label and say it loudly and proudly. Claiming to be straight when with a man, or gay when with a woman, is much easier and simpler and gets you far fewer raised eyebrows, I know that from personal experience – and it lets you duck those assumptions that you’re ‘just confused’ or ‘in denial’ or ‘bi for the boys’ … but for me, the only way to erode those assumptions about what bisexuality is or isn’t is to keep pushing back and using the word. I’m sick of bisexuality coming in as a second class identity and while of course you’re not obliged to label yourself they same way I do, at least don’t perpetuate those fundamental misunderstandings of what the identity even means (the 50/50 rule you cite, as an example).

    Sorry, rant over…. I really did enjoy reading this article and am always full of admiration when people choose to share stories about their own sexual identity, especially when (as it almost always is) it’s complex and ‘messy’ and doesn’t fit an easy pattern. I also sympathise entirely with the confusion and identity struggles you’ve faced. If I hadn’t faced so many myself, and hadn’t felt anger at so many people dismissing the only LBGT term I felt really covered who i was, then I certainly wouldn’t be writing this comment…. but as it is, this is an issue I feel very strongly about and I couldn’t stop myself from leaving a comment (my first ever, in fact).

  2. Thank you, Helen. You said pretty much everything that went through my head when reading this article, but put it much better than I would’ve done!

  3. I could be defined as bisexual as I am sexually attracted to both men and women but have never engaged in a relationship with a woman. I wouldn’t say I am bisexual because I don’t comfortably slip into the ’50/50′ divide which ‘bisexuality’ suggests. I also wouldn’t say I’m straight because I’m not but my preference is men.

    But I’m happy. Which is all that matters.

  4. I’ve never understood why people feel they have to have had a relationship before they can identify as something. Most people have an idea of their sexuality before they actually start having relationships (people who’ve never questioned their heterosexuality, or people who “knew they were gay from the age of 3″ or whatever). If you know who you’re attracted to, you don’t have to “prove” it to anyone!

    I myself have never had a full-blown relationship with a woman. I’ve had two “proper” relationships in the past, and both were with men. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m a lesbian. There are all sorts of reasons why people get into relationships (or don’t), after all.

    Sorry for jumping on just one part of your comment, but it’s something I feel quite strongly about.

  5. @ Helen, the gorgeous Saffron Burrows and Alan Cumming are two role models for the bisexual community that instantly spring to mind (and I believe they dated one another at one point too).

  6. But isn’t the whole idea of this article not to necessarily redefine labels (although I do understand what you are saying Helen, about the misunderstanding surrounding what ‘bisexuality’ is or can be) but rather to do away with them all together?
    I sat on the sofa recently facing an interrogation from family members about how I should ‘come out as gay’; and ‘just accept/admit that’. These supposedly liberal people made me shrink inside myself as this defended into a shoutfest because they just refused to understand how I really feel quite happy not putting a word to my sexuality. I am with a woman now, but have been with men and women in the past. I also have a child, which appears to confuse people even more. My mother actually started crying – “but what am I going to tell people?”
    I hate any and all labels, and always have. I don’t want to reapproiate bisexuality from its limited and misunderstood usage any more than I want to redefine what ‘Britishness’ or ‘female is’. Whilst I think these are all worthy and necessary movements – indeed, I work with many women who are Queer, Black anti-racist activists who do exactly this – but they often paint me as some kind of ephemeral post-modernist who wants to carve out a space in no space at all. I am certainly very aware of who I am, I just refuse to acknowledge that I need to identify as anything.

  7. I really enjoyed this article as well as reading the comments. I do agree with what is being said in the comments that we have to be careful to not perpetuate stereotypes about bi people, but I would like to throw my opinion into the hat of ideas on sexuality. I myself have only ever been with men. Yet I definitely feel attracted to women. Though I know that I don’t have to be with a women to call myself bi I still don’t really vibe well with the term. It is for this reason that I like the term “sexually fluid” to describe me, as I believe the author does too (or at least I got that feel from this article).

    I do struggle with the fact that we really don’t need another label to talk about sexuality, because its already complicated enough, especially with the fact that peoples genders don’t always match their sex and this throws a lot of peoples identifiers for a loop. This is why, in my personal view, we’d all do better without labels. Too complicated.

    Unfortunately though our society is not nearly progressive enough to accept this. And not so unfortunately, identities are also “empowerment through visibility” as the article said, and some people could really benefit from visibility.

    All this being said though. I personally am not all that cool with the label thing and for this reason I am super happy I found this piece.

  8. This.

    The idea of bisexuality being a perfectly 50/50 sexual attraction for two sexes, is very limiting and mis informed. It’s almost as if one day a person who wasn’t bisexual told bisexuals that what they felt wasn’t real. Distorting the sexual experience of people who are already pretty much invisible. I can remember having the capacity to be attracted to people regardless or because of their sex and/or gender until someone told me verbally or passively, that it was wrong. As a child I remember my bisexuality being an exciting and simple thing that was a part of what made me me, and then people who weren’t bisexual tore that down and I had to build a re understanding of who I was.

    I claim the bisexual label to define what is fluid and also because I remember having no role models at all that identified as bisexual growing up. None. There is no shame attached to the word bisexual but if shame is felt I guarantee it won’t be another self loving bisexual person that caused it.

    Thanks for writing your response, the bisexual experience does need light shed on it. So yeah, thanks for clearly articulating your thoughts on a very important sub.

    (sorry for the de-rail, great article!)