Not long ago, I happened to be in a conversation with several straight-identified women when the topic turned towards bi-curiousness. To a one, they all were some level of interested in exploring sex with other women—for some of them, it was just something they thought about sometimes, while others had actually had one or a few experiences with another woman. But all of them seemed full of doubts.
“How do I know if I would like it?”
“Is it OK to call myself bisexual if I have only ever slept with men?”
“Should I try to act on this, or is it just a fantasy for me?”
“How do I explore this side of me without either making someone feel like a sex toy, or hurting them if I get into a relationship with them and then it turns out I really am straight?”
And then, as Pride month dawned and everyone on my social media feeds started talking about it, I kept seeing the self-questioning begin: “Am I queer enough to ‘count’?” “How much experience do I need to have before I can call myself [fill in the label]?” And of course, the frustrations and doubts and isolation of those who are in relationships that look hetero, who find themselves with straight privilege at the expense of queer visibility.
With our Queer Pride show coming up tonight, I wanted to talk to all of you who see yourselves in these thoughts and questions. There was a time when I was having the same feelings—when I was already in a committed relationship with Mr. Darling and suddenly found myself realizing that there was a whole lot more to my sexual orientation than I’d ever considered. So, I feel ya, bbs. And I hope this helps you figure some stuff out.
The tl;dr summary is this: Yes, you are queer enough to count. You and you alone are the one who gets to decide whether you identify as bi, queer, gay, lesbian, demisexual, asexual, etc etc etc. And that is enough to count.
Sure, that doesn’t mean that some people might not take you seriously if you don’t meet their standards for queerness, or that you might not find yourself in that limbo of “not hetero enough for the straights, not queer enough for the queers” in your social circles or community. And that sucks. But there’s no condo association board of queerness to which you must present yourself in order to be granted membership in the rainbow.
Do I need bed cred?
Let’s talk for a minute about “experience”—i.e., having had sex and/or an intimate relationship that isn’t heterosexual*. There’s this idea that you need to walk the talk (fornicate the conversate…?) before you’re “allowed” to ID as anything but straight. You don’t. You don’t need evidence. You aren’t required to prove how queer you are by the number of people you’ve dated and/or fucked.
“But then how do I know for sure if I am…?” Well, when you were a kid starting to have crushes and think about dates, did you feel sure about your hetero desires even before you first held hands with someone? Yes, right? So by the same token, your queer desires are also real, even if the only place they live right now is inside your head.
And let me add, it is still OK to be attracted to people of your own gender but to decide you still identify as straight. If it feels more authentic to you to just acknowledge that lots of people are just super fucking sexy, but that the core of your being is heterosexual, there is nothing wrong with that. Frankly, we’d probably be a lot healthier as a culture if we all just chilled out and let it be no big deal to look at another human being and enjoy the sexyfeels that happened to bubble up in our brains or bits without feeling the need to rush to the borders of our sexual identities and defend them to our last breath.
Point being, you can choose to call yourself bisexual, or whatever, even if you haven’t “done anything about it”. Even if you never act on your desires. And you are still a real whatever-you-identify-as.
*I’m saying “isn’t heterosexual” not to suggest that hetero sex is the default, but rather that in this case “experience” can cover a pretty long list of possibilities and the main thing they have in common is that they’re not hetero encounters.
How do I know if I’d actually like having queer sex? Or a queer relationship?
I’ve gotta break this one down just a little bit, because this usually gets tangled up in the whole “Am I a real queer person” question and really, we need to pull them apart and think of them as two separate things.
When people express doubt about their sexuality because they’re not sure if they’d like having sex with the gender(s) in question, most of the time, it’s not really that they’re doubting their attraction or desires. It’s that they’re unsure of how they feel about one or more particular sex acts. To take a really common example, women who are attracted to other women often worry about discovering that they don’t like going down on a vulva and clit, and that if it turns out that they dislike it, it means they’re not “really” bi.
Here’s the thing about queer sex. There is no defining sex act that makes it “real” queer sex. You don’t have to be a woman eating out another woman to have had “lesbian sex” or “bi woman sex”. You don’t have to have given or received anal penetration with a penis to have had “gay/bi man sex”. In fact, you can do almost any sex act with a partner of any gender, even if in some cases you need to buy extra equipment. You can use fingers, mouths, penetration, vibrators, other toys, and a multitude of positions with just about anybody.
You also don’t have to do any sex act you dislike. I mean—it helps to communicate that before you hit the sheets, because people do often assume that their partners will be into certain things, and I won’t say that nobody’s ever going to be disappointed or change their mind if the thing you hate doing is the main way they get off. And yeah, that’ll suck if that happens. But if you’re a woman going to bed with another woman who doesn’t mind if you don’t like going down, you can still have fantastic sex.
Another thing to keep in mind—how often is your first time having sex with anyone the best sex you’ll ever have with them? (Hopefully rarely—you don’t want to Citizen Kane that shit and find yourself ten years later having sad drunk Paul Masson Wine commercial sex.) I’m not saying that if you get sexy with someone of a particular gender and you feel like it’s not your bag that you have to keep trying. I’m saying that ultimately you’re going to bed with a person, not an entire gender. Don’t make them responsible for your entire sexual identity. And don’t put pressure on that relationship to turn out mind-blowing sex right off the bat. If you like that person and want to be with them, but your first sexcapades with them are less than stellar, it doesn’t mean that you’re really straight at heart or that your relationship is doomed. Take a breath. Talk some more about what you like and don’t like. Remember that things get sexier when you have more sex and your brain chemicals start kicking in to help you bond more deeply and feel more attracted to your person. And if they turn out not to be a long-term lover but you still feel attracted to their gender, you’re not failing at being queer. You’re exploring and growing and having life experiences.
After all, you’ve probably had more than one straight relationship, right? And breaking up with one person didn’t necessarily make you think you weren’t straight, or that you’d failed at it, or that you didn’t have “real” sex because you didn’t do any one particular act, right?
But what about relationships?
Again, you’re having a relationship with a person, not a gender, so each one is going to be a unique experience. You can’t ultimately say that “dating men is like this and dating women is like that”.
Having said that, yes, when you’re talking about how we’re socialized in this culture, there are going to be some common experiences. Those of us who were socialized to be feminine are often going to look at and interact with the world in some shared ways that will be different from many of the ways that people who were socialized as masculine will do. If you’ve only ever dated one, it’ll probably be a pretty different experience to date the other. You may or may not enjoy that experience. But remember that a lot of that stuff is learned behavior, and the awesome thing is that you’ll probably get a chance to examine all the gender-role stuff you were taught and to decide which of it doesn’t suit you, and you may find yourself discovering and exploring aspects of yourself you never questioned before. Personally, I think any experience that leads you closer to the person you really are at heart is an experience worth having.
The difference between private queer life and public queer community
There’s one important distinction to make, I think, when it comes to the whole “do I count? do I belong?” question, and that’s the difference between the truth of your lived, personal queer experience, and your involvement, leadership, or expertise in queer community spaces, causes, or groups.
You don’t need a master’s degree in queer theory studies to count as a “real queer person”, and someone who has such a degree is not more authentically queer as a human being than you are. You do not belong any less in your local queer community if you haven’t organized festivals and marches and gone to jail for protesting unjust laws.
It helps to recognize that there are times when someone’s academic or professional experience, or community leadership, or political savvy, will matter more to the situation than your personal experience. Give respect to those who have put in time and effort in service to the queer community and those who have achieved a level of expertise that you haven’t. It doesn’t make you lesser to admit that you’re a newbie to those things, and to follow the lead of people who have earned leadership roles. And recognize that your experience as a queer person is different from the experiences of those whose race or size or physical ability or economic status or religion or or or is different from yours, and don’t try to speak for them, or assume that everyone shares your level of privilege.
You don’t have to be actively involved in queer culture, politics, or social circles to be authentically queer. If you don’t feel like you can be because, for example, you’re afraid of being too publicly out just yet, you still count. But if you can be involved, there’s a lot of really great reasons why you might want to at least dip a toe in that pool.
Is it OK to just want to play, no strings attached?
On the one hand, there are a lot of people who can be really insensitive and kind of selfish when it comes to sexual exploration—there’s a reason that there’s such a negative stereotype about the straight-man-bi-woman couple who go out looking for another bi woman for a threesome, where it turns out to be all about the couple’s desires and their partner is casually discarded or treated as an afterthought. On the other hand, there are people who are really anxious about not being creepy or disrespectful, which is great, except that they’re so worried about it that they’re afraid to approach anyone at all.
I’ve been on both sides of that equation (as in, the person being approached as well as the one doing the approaching), so here’s my big-picture perspective: If you’re just looking to hook up with someone and have some fun and you don’t want a relationship right now, that’s totally OK. There are plenty of people out there who also want no-strings sex. Lots of them even enjoy being someone’s first queer experience. If you’re being honest about what you’re looking for, and are treating them with basic human respect, there’s no reason you can’t ask someone if they’d be interested in some casual play.
There are also plenty of people out there who aren’t into hookups, or who for whatever reason don’t really want to be someone’s first experience at anything. If you know that about them already, then don’t ask them for no-strings sex. If you’re not sure, ask them if it’s something they might be into. Hopefully they’ll appreciate your honesty and your interest and just turn you down without it being a big deal. Yes, it sucks to hear “no” when you were hoping for “yes”, but if you prepare yourself for the possibility and remind yourself not to take it personally if it’s not their thing, your question probably won’t offend them. (If it does, just apologize and let it go.)
Ready to explore?
Hopefully, this is giving you some chewy stuff to consider and it clears up some of your questions. Exploring our sexuality is always going to be kind of a bumpy, uncertain road, and I can’t promise you won’t ever get hurt or fuck up along the way. In fact, I can almost guarantee that you will. But it’s just part of being an ever-growing, ever-evolving, ever-fascinating human being, and from my point of view, it’s 100% worth taking that journey. Happy Pride, and may you become more of who you truly are.
Featured photo courtesy of Tjook on Flickr under a Creative Commons license