But I’ll say it anyway

The first time I kissed a girl I was 28. I was fresh out of a long-term relationship, on the dance floor at a bar with some friends, feeling frisky and a bit lost, when this girl walked in. She was glowing. I don’t know what struck me first – her cheekbones? Her caramel skin? That frilly dress and the strong calves beneath it, or the long arch of her neck curving gently into shoulders? I thought about all those things at length afterwards, but at that moment I only knew that I liked her, the way she started dancing immediately, the way she seemed to inhabit her body. I liked looking at her.

“Hi!” I said. She came over. We shouted names and then life stories at each other over the music. I couldn’t stop looking at her mouth. Within a few minutes I pulled her closer and kissed her; she kissed me back enthusiastically. For a moment the entire bar went silent and then every man in the house breathed a collective sigh of horniness. But I hadn’t kissed her for the male viewers. I wasn’t doing it to try something new, or to shock my friends, or because I was feeling lost and frisky.

I was doing it because she was radiant and I felt irresistibly drawn to her.

But it took me another two years, and several sexual encounters with women, to say out loud, or even think out loud, that I am queer. Even today I hesitate over the word, tripping over terms like “bisexual” and “pansexual” and sometimes “heteroflexible” before finally settling on queer.

I feel cautious, like a child trying out language; and often I still feel like a fraud. Do I get to have this word? Am I bi enough for that? What if this is just a phase? Do I like women JUST as much as I like men? And if I don’t, then would I actually be lying if I called myself queer? If my attraction to women feels different to my attraction to men, then is it even really attraction?

If someone else were to ask me these questions, my answer would be easy and immediate: You don’t need a word, but if you want a word then you get to have one. You can call yourself queer and that could mean anything on the not-straight spectrum. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. And you don’t have to be consistent, nor do you need to have it all figured out. Go be. Go experiment. Go love. Go be authentic. That’s all you need to do.

But when it’s personal, it’s harder. It took a string of crushes, and feeling hot and bothered by some beautiful youtubers (but seriously, check out Stevie Boebi‘s great content if you haven’t yet) to get me to the point of saying to myself: “Somehow I made it to my late twenties before I realised that I find women really hot, and somehow most of my life I assumed that I was straight, and that’s totally valid and fine, but also, I am definitely NOT STRAIGHT.”

If you’re there, if you’ve ever wondered about your sexuality and felt baffled by how easily other queer people seem to know theirs, or if you’re curious about why this took me so long – here are some of the reasons why I’ve been hesitating to claim the word queer (or bisexual, or pansexual, or LGBTQIA+):

  • Because most of my queer friends and acquaintances have had a really rough go of it. As children, they felt different or even ‘wrong’. They grew up feeling isolated. Their parents usually had a hard time accepting their identities. They’ve had to deal with internalised oppression, and shame, and confusion. Just to get to live their lives, they’ve had to do some really brave and lonely things, like turning their backs on their religion, or culture of origin, or even on their families, and coming out again and again when that hasn’t always felt safe.

I, on the other hand, have had the privilege of ‘being straight’ until such a time as I felt ready to expand my repertoire.

In spite of my general weirdness, I’ve always been socially acceptable (in this regard at least). Even my liking women sometimes comes across (especially to straight men) as hot more than anything else – threesome, anyone? I haven’t suffered because of my sexual orientation. I’ve suffered because of other things, though, and I know how it bugs me when people appropriate my hard-earned experiences and lingo for their own purposes (like using the word ‘trauma’ for anything vaguely difficult, or joking about addiction). Would I be doing the same, by coming out as queer?

  • Because I thought for a long time that the only way to be queer is to be really clearly queer. As in, you have to know your identity from a young age (or at least be really conflicted about it from a young age). It’s in the story about the boy who came out at 12, or the woman who grew up in a culture that didn’t even have a word for ‘gay’ but who realised she liked other women nonetheless.

It’s in the phrase “I always knew I was different” – People whose sexuality and sense of attraction to others is so loud, so real to them, that they couldn’t reason it away, even when being this way might be taboo.

For me, however: If I’d grown up in a culture or time that didn’t have a concept of queerness, I am entirely sure that I would have lived to a ripe old age simply thinking that I ‘profoundly admire’ women. I would have dated men all my life, been curious about women and done nothing about it, and would only rarely have registered that I am missing anything.

  • Because so many other things in my life are hard and isolating that in comparison, being queer feels like a relief. There are queer Youtubers, there are Pride events, I have queer friends, there is lingo for everything. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether I’m just claiming the word ‘queer’ to get the benefit of community. I realise this might sound ridiculous to people whose queerness has left them feeling really isolated – and I am not minimising their experiences in the least.

But being non-monogamous, having undergone some difficult medical procedures as a child and bearing the scars of that (I’ll write about that at some stage), coming from an abusive and almost sectarian childhood, wondering about my mental health – all of those things have been very lonely for me.

In comparison, the LGBTQIA+ world seems like a heaven of compassion and belonging to me. Most of the queer people I know are amazing: they’ve thought about stuff more than most people have, they’re self-aware, they’re open. I get to have enlightening and challenging conversations with them. Many of them have experienced religious bigotry too. Some of them are even non-monogamous! Could it perhaps be that I’m just calling myself queer because I want to fit into the group? And, like, do I get to be something if it’s not difficult?

  • Because attraction is weird, if you start dissecting it, and I am the queen of dissecting my feelings to death. Here are some of the questions I’ve asked myself: Am I attracted to women in the same way that I am attracted to men? Is this feeling I’m having attraction, or is it just that I like the attention/enjoy the energy exchange of flirting/like the person as a friend? What does attraction even feel like? Am I getting a adequate amount of butterflies to qualify this as sexual attraction?

If I am attracted to women, why has it taken me so long to become aware of it?

I have long been unequivocally romantically and sexually attracted to men. I could dissect my attraction to them to death, and the conclusion would still be: I am, and have always been, attracted to men, even when I rather wish I weren’t. I had my first (very intense) crush at four, on a boy in kindergarten. I felt definite sexual feelings for boys since entering puberty. In comparison to this clarion call of attraction, my feelings for women felt for a long time like a mix of curiosity, admiration, and an almost queasy sense of being weirded-out.

Being interested in women felt…foreign. Wrong. Almost incestuous, as if admiring a body so similar to mine might somehow make me immoral, since it would bring me dangerously close to actually liking my own body – which in the Calvinistic world I grew up felt like a shameful thing.

(I want to write more about that point, actually: The difference between coming to terms with having sex, and coming to terms with feeling pleasure, because those have been two completely different journeys for me. But that’s for another post).

This last point mainly comes down to compulsory heterosexuality (or comphet, for short). And I intend to write more about that soon, so for now, let’s just define it: It’s the assumption that everybody is straight until proven otherwise. It’s growing up thinking that you’re straight because you didn’t even know there was an alternative. It’s being fed the story of “boy meets girl” since before you could talk, not even in a prescriptive way (“you should be straight”) but rather in a way that assumes this to be the only viable option.

Did I have girl crushes as a child? I think I did, yes. There was a woman in my parents’ prayer group whom I admired very deeply (this was when I was about five), and everybody thought it was just the cutest thing. I thought she was the most beautiful person in the universe. I wanted hair exactly like hers. I always wanted to sit next to her . She once gave me a pair of sunglasses which I lost a few months later, and I still remember the abject heartbreak when I realised I’d lost her gift.

I even ended up being a flower girl at her wedding, and I remember that small feeling of being left out because she had this whole other life now, this whole romance, of which I couldn’t be part.

And then later there was a primary school teacher, and later there was Angelina Jolie, and then many many others. “Admiring women’s beauty”, I called it when I became an adult. “I can’t stop looking at her, she’s just SO beautiful”, I’d say, thinking nothing of it. My ex-boyfriend and I would make lists of our celebrity crushes and I’d fawn over his choices (Olivia Wilde…), and for the longest time I just thought I was a really cool girlfriend. Instead of, you know, really bi.

So yeah – I’m still uncomfortable with the word queer. I’ve never dated a woman and that makes me feel scared – what if I realise I’d been wrong and then I have to backtrack, or what if I hurt someone because of my lack of self-knowledge? And also, if something this huge has been slipping past me unnoticed, what else am I missing about myself? Again and again I catch myself wondering what the implications are for my life: if society could so easily make me think I’m straight, how deeply have some other ideas sunk in, into dark corners from which they run my life without my knowledge?

I was listening to a song today while driving – Brandi Carlile’s “I belong to you” and suddenly I felt a wave of grief coming over me. Here are some of the words:

I know I could be spending a little too much time with you
But time and too much don’t belong together like we do
If I had all my yesterdays I’d give ’em to you too
I belong to you now
I belong to you

And I thought to myself: I don’t think I’m ever going to have that. And I want that.

And also: I’ve had that. And I didn’t want it.

Both things are true.

A while ago, on a Relationship Anarchy facebook group I’m on, someone mentioned the strange grief that comes from surrendering the idea of “the One”. I feel this grief at times more insistently than others, but it’s always there in the background. The dream of being known and seen and cherished is very hard to extricate from the dream of being part of a couple, a tight and exclusive and cosy couple.

I want to be somebody’s favourite person.

I want to feel radiant and beautiful as that person looks at me with awe. I want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else knows it. I want to be weird with someone and know that my weirdness is being held with compassion. I want to be someone’s top priority.

But experience tells me that I cannot have these things without their shadow side. And for me that shadow side is neatly encapsulated by almost everything on the ‘Relationship Escalator’, which Aggie Sez defines as “The default set of societal customs for the proper conduct of intimate relationships.”(She also wrote a really good book about it). Basically, some of the aspects of the Relationship Escalator include monogamy, sharing a living space, merging lives, public recognition as a couple. The normal trajectory relationships usually follow.

And while choosing the relationship escalator is a totally valid choice, for me its shadow side outweighs its advantages.

This is what happens for me when I’m in a long-term monogamous relationship: I look at my partner with equal parts love and exasperation. I chafe under the knowledge that the places we don’t fit will never fit. I grieve for the dreams I’m giving up as I meld my life with theirs. I grieve for the dreams they’re giving up to be with me. I feel guilty when I flirt with other people, and a little resentful over the guilt. I miss having my own space.

I worry about the future – a lot. What if I want to resign, sell all my belongings, and move to an intentional community, and they don’t? What if the way he holds onto his little routines start bugging the living hell out of me, and I can’t leave, because we’ve become too entwined? Wait, is that already the case? How do I love this person without losing so many of the things that bring me joy?

There are ways around these issues without abandoning monogamy, or without abandoning the relationship escalator entirely. Lots of people do it. They spend more time doing fun activities with their girlfriends because their partners don’t enjoy those things. They get permission to flirt with strangers, as long as it doesn’t go any further. They date long-distance.

That’s all valid. But somehow that’s not enough for me.

I want the breathless joy of exploring the beauty of other people’s souls without fearing that I might have to pull the brakes soon.

I want to live by myself entirely (for now at least; I am aware that this might change). I want to make spontaneous weird decisions, go on long road trips and have flings with strangers. I want to flirt with my friends. I want to get to spend entire days alone. I want to bring all of myself into every encounter without worrying that my partner might feel abandoned. I want to not have to explain myself and my choices all the time. I want to not have sex with only one person for the rest of my life.

If that means abandoning the idea of “the One”, then so be it. Because even as I was writing down some of the things I want, I knew I don’t really want them. I don’t really want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else does – when I find someone really beautiful, I want others to see that too. The idea of sharing friskiness and curiosity with others excites me; it even excites me to imagine others falling in love with my partners, when I pause for a moment and let the knee-jerk jealousy evaporate. I don’t want to be somebody’s top priority – the idea makes me nervous; instead, I’d like to be valued. I don’t want to be part of a tight, exclusive couple – there wouldn’t be enough air to breathe.

As for being someone’s favourite person – I am lots of people’s favourite person, even if they have, paradoxically, other favourite people too. And I have lots of favourite people too, people who fill my heart with gratitude and awe and curiosity. I am cherished by my family, by more than a handful of friends. I am known. I am loved. I will never be alone, even as I wander this earth feeling sometimes startlingly alone.

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” – Kahlil Gibran