What If I Don’t Know?
Cross posted from We Got So Far To Go.
This week was April Fool’s, and one of people’s FAVORITE jokes on April Fool’s is coming out as gay. Miri, a fantastic beast of a human being, decided to do the opposite yesterday. Her essay is hilarious and you should probably go read it.
But there was one element of Miri’s essay that stuck out to me as potentially damaging for those who are questioning or who (such as myself) are rethinking elements of their orientation and identity. I understand that within the context of the essay this paragraph is about the assumptions of many that bisexuality is fake, however this same rhetoric can be used to delegitimize those who might have questions or be uncertain, and to shut down conversations from those who are simply trying to understand their own sexuality.
“I’m straight because I started seeing guys long before I started seeing women. How could I have really known I was bisexual if I didn’t have “experience”? Unlike straight people, bisexual people do not have the luxury of being born with an innate and immutable knowledge of their own sexual orientation. Nothing–not their turn-ons, not their crushes, not their romantic daydreams–nothing besides Real Sex with someone of the same gender is sufficient to prove for certain that they are really bisexual as they say they are. ”
Because here’s the thing: there are some people who don’t have an innate and immutable knowledge of their own sexual orientation. There are some people who feel like they need to try sex to find out if they’re attracted or not. There are people who don’t know what their identity or their orientation is and who take a great deal of painstaking reflection, experimentation, and thought to figure out what it is that they feel they want in their lives. Sometimes feelings just aren’t clear: not all of us get crushes that come screaming at us that WE REALLY LIKE THIS PERSON. Sometimes instead it’s a slight inkling that we want to hang out more or a little bit of anxiety when we see the person.
In fact, even for those who might have a very strong attraction (or lack thereof), life itself can make it extremely difficult to recognize those feelings. As an example, my eating disorder certainly disguised some of my lack of sexual attraction for a long time: it’s easy to simply write it off as “I’m just self-conscious”. I imagine that there are similar intersections with race, gender, class, physical health, or any of the other ways that our lives differ from the basic script of “very white guy falls in love with very white girl, actively pursues, gets married and has babies”.
Sexuality and attraction are far more complicated than we give them credit for. Attraction doesn’t feel the same to everyone. Our sexual desires are not all the same. Not only do you have to determine who you’re attracted to (men, women, other), but you have to figure out what you actually want to act on, how attracted you are, what type of attraction it is, whether you’re attracted to multiple people or not and in what ways, what relationship style works best for you…each of these things can be clear or muddy, can be specific to one person or very generalized, can be affected or obscured by other things in your life. Maybe you are actually quite poly at heart, but you’ve grown up in a culture that deeply prioritizes jealousy as a healthy and good emotion and now even the concept of being attracted to multiple people doesn’t make sense.
I think sometimes it’s easy to forget that if you’ve never seen a template of what your sexuality might look like that feels right to you, you often just assume that you’re basically the same as what you’ve seen. You might have some weird feelings that don’t quite fit, but it’s fairly easy to write them off as something else, especially if there’s anything else about you that’s outside the norm.
This is not the narrative that we hear from those who talk about GLBT issues. We often hear “I knew I was different” or “I tried to be like other people but it felt completely wrong”. And that’s true for some people. But for some people, muddling through doesn’t feel completely wrong it just feels a little bit off. By no means do I think it’s inappropriate to assert that some people know right away. But for some people it’s really hard to figure out what the heck they are. It’s fairly invalidating to hear over and over that your sexuality is an innate drive that you just “know” because of your daydreams and crushes and attractions. What if it’s a hard process of learning to listen to your emotions, your boundaries, your likes and dislikes? What if you actually really don’t know you like/don’t like something until you try it?
Just like there’s no one way of having a relationship, there’s no one way of figuring out what kind of a relationship you want. I think it’s quite possible that some people’s identities are more fluid than others, just like some people are far more committed to a national identity or a career identity than others. It’s important that we learn to validate the experience of “knowing” without simultaneously implying that everyone should know, or that identities which are a little gray (like demisexual or gray asexual) don’t get blown off as special snowflake syndrome or stealing the real queer identities. The identities that are more indicative of uncertainty are just as valid and just as real: being straight up confused is a valid identity!
I seriously doubt that anyone is intentionally invalidating people who aren’t sure of their sexual identity, but simply using a little more care in how we talk about sexuality and being willing to multiply the possible experiences rather than close them off can go a long way towards validating those who are already confused.