How I Finally Figured Out I’m Queer In My Late Thirties
Being smacked in the face by a major revelation is especially jarring for those of us who are hyper-aware and over-analytical. We get worried about what else we missed and what it means, while also trying to process what’s changed. When moving into a safe and supportive living situation with literal and figurative room to think a year and a half ago kicked off a series of life-altering realizations, my critical self-doubt told me I should have gone through all of this ages ago.
Because my mid-late thirties seems too old to me to be figuring out who I am (especially because I thought I knew), I’ve spent more time than usual interrogating myself about new feelings and perspectives. This one has been developing for almost a year now, through hours of conversations in therapy and with several close friends.
The current revelation in progress? Discovering I’m not Kinsey 0.
It turns out I’d assumed I was straight the same way I had assumed I was monogamous and wanted to get married. But different friendships and experiences eventually scrubbed away both assumptions. I’m probably situated at a 2 on Dr. Kinsey’s famous 0–6 scale of sexuality — “predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual” — and still mainly hetero-romantic.
I’m embracing my newly surfaced sexuality with the label “queer.” If gender/ID isn’t a make or break qualification for attraction — if I’m not so intensely and singularly attracted to maleness — then I can easily picture being into people of all or multiple genders.
I’ve always had a rather busy inner monologue — likely due, in part, to being a well-behaved only child left to occupy myself much of the time. I was also the awkward outcast most of my childhood and adolescence, which gave me time to observe “normal” and popular people. I became fascinated with human behavior from the outside, which explains my fondness for Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. His ability to perform human tasks while not quite being able to understand human idiosyncrasies and feel what people felt still resonates with me. I, like Data, tried to mimic behaviors I saw and worked to internalize desires and behaviors.
I was so successful I did myself a disservice. I followed the script set out for me by a hetero/mono-normative culture and internalized it before I realized there were other ways to be and live. There were no out queer women in media and entertainment while I was growing up (not that there are so many roles for them now). I had gay, cisgender male friends in college and my twenties, but didn’t have many women friends, period, and no openly queer women in my life — until I became part of the reproductive justice movement.
While reproductive rights circles are still largely straight and white, reproductive justice circles are more diverse. (Reproductive rights efforts historically focused on decriminalizing abortion; reproductive justice is a term coined by SisterSong to distinguish that well-known, narrow focus from the intersectional efforts of activists of color.) Even before I knew the difference between the two terms, I found myself drawn to organizing and then to social spaces that were largely made up of marginalized people. I became real friends with women — women who shared details of their lives and loves.
In was within this context that I developed a . . . crush? Maybe? A maybe crush.
At a reproductive justice conference, I’d run across the room to hug someone I’d collaborated with, but not yet met, and when I set my stuff down, the two seats next to her were occupied. So I sat behind her next to a professional, intriguing-looking woman who said she worked in public policy at the local level. My wonky heart was captivated — professionally, of course — and a friendship that’s still thriving today was born.
A couple of years ago, I stayed with this friend for a while, generously taking advantage of an offer I knew was a big ask for someone as introverted and independent as she is. We talked a lot — really talked. About pretty much everything. She’d been married to a man, but described herself as bi- or pansexual. So I asked how that manifested in her life, and she was gracious enough to talk about her life in some detail. She had the kind of life I wanted: a professional job in public service, a house and a dog, a developed and comfortable sense of self, and a community of people to spend time with.
We joked that it was too bad I was Kinsey 0; I said it was probably because I just really, really like men.
“It’s like . . . if I’m going out to eat, I’ll always end up at the sushi restaurant or the steak house. Every time,” I said, fumbling through an analogy I would use for years, not realizing I’d cribbed it from an Ani Difranco song (“In or Out”). “I’m never going to pick the Indian restaurant because I like other things more. Now, if a group is going, then there are definitely things on the menu I enjoy, but I’m not going to opt-in if I’m planning the evening.”
We laughed about the sushi restaurant in my analogy standing for straight men.
Sexuality is so binary in our culture; people can either be straight or gay. Those whose gender identities and attractions diverge from the confines of “either, or” fall outside the narratives we’re comfortable with. But through conversations with my friend, who openly eschewed “either, or” for “both, and,” I began to question this limited conception of sexuality.
The enlightening friendship would play an important role in my life when, last year, I started researching an article on adult getaways, and my boyfriend and I began talking about scenarios involving other people. We’d been seeing each other again (we’d dated for a spell in early 2015) for a couple months and had great chemistry; the timing was right to discuss dating as a couple. Not all polyamorous people date in the same fashion. Some of us know all of our metamours (our partners’ partners), some of us date outside our anchor partner (the live in/spouse role) on our own as a social activity, and some of us date as couples and individually. We decided we could have fun in group scenarios and incorporated it into our flirting and fantasy life.
I put up some profiles and started exploring the idea of dating couples on my own as well; being a third with an established pair who know each other and themselves sounded awesome. I reached out to my friend, knowing she had some experience, and she was excited for me. It was new, but felt normal — a thrill of sorts, but not because it was challenging some norm or breaking a rule. My brain thrives on both routine and newness (as does my boyfriend’s) and I couldn’t wait to expand my experiences.
After chatting with a couple of couples (most often with the woman of a cis/het couple) I realized I should probably figure out just how into women I was. Not because I’m necessarily preoccupied with labels (though my self-analysis-driven anxiety does find them comforting), but because in open and kink circles people are refreshingly upfront about their likes and dislikes, deal breakers, and preferences. If I was going to engage with people honestly, I should probably have some idea of what I wanted.
I spent time thinking about it. My mff (male-female-female) fantasy life got more vivid. Let’s hear it for sexual gifs and how much fun they are to flirt with! I pictured myself as one of the women and then the other. Thanks to the dearth of decent hetero porn (the exceptions being some made and performed by women, trans, and gender nonconforming folks), I perused a fair amount of queer porn.
I also thought about my friend, who I was starting to recognize I was maybe into as more than a friend.
“Maybe I had had a crush on her,” I thought. “Or, maybe I just wanted to be her. Cuz I still basically want to be her.”
I’d never had to evaluate this dynamic before. Why was I drawn to her and how much? And was I confusing a crush with envy or just a tight female bond — a notion that was still new to me as someone who had always primarily had guy friends? No doubt I found her attractive, but was it just in that appreciative way in which you can recognize people are good looking, whether or not they’re your type? It’s not like the attraction had registered on a conscious level when we met . . . but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
My brain had filed it under “I wish I could be more like her” rather than the “I’d like to hit that” category that’s so natural with men thanks to years of conditioning and habit. I’m still not sure if I’ve always been attracted to women, but stifled the impulse, or whether this is simply a newer development as my sexuality has changed over time. And because my friend is in a committed relationship (among other respect-based reasons) I wasn’t trying to figure out if I should confess with the intention of something happening between us; it was more of a mental exercise I knew she would be okay with.
I knew I could eventually just tell her about the maybe crush, because she’s an adult with boundary skills. We got together on Skype a few weeks ago and I opened with a joke about how maybe that old restaurant analogy didn’t work anymore. She smiled as I said the story had a lot to do with her — that she helped normalize some of the situations that have manifested in my life before I encountered them. She said “CONGRATS!” and got excited (a reaction I’m privileged to have gotten a bunch since coming out on National Coming Out Day) and wanted to know all about “how this came about.” (She’s used to my long stories.)
“It’s evolved over time to my understanding more why I’m comfortable in some spaces and not others and because polyamory literally offers me more choices,” I told her. “You’re how I figured it out. I was trying to determine whether I had . . . a crush on you . . . ” (Thank god she’s still smiling.) “ . . . or just wanted to be you — because who wouldn’t want to be?? — that really helped me work out what I wanted.”
She was predictably gracious and flattered as I interrupted to add — “and I knew I could tell you and it wouldn’t be weird and you wouldn’t, like, think I was hitting on you or not respecting your current relationship.”
She laughed. She radiates a calm assuredness (one of the things that draws an anxious, less grounded person like me to her) and is deliberate when she talks. When I asked if it was weird or somehow convenient or co-opting for me to be adopting this different label, she shook her head and told me she understood why I asked.
“You’re thoughtful and good-hearted and I don’t think it’ll come across that way,” she said. “Also, if you’re attracted to other genders now, then now you’re queer. Or bi. Or however you want to identify as. It doesn’t really matter whether you always have been or were yesterday. Today you are.”
And just like that I absorbed a bit of her calm confidence. Having heard something similar from another bi friend whose attractions have ebbed and flowed over the years, I felt better. Both friends reminded me that I’d uncovered a lot of things over the past 18 months — everything from learning my ADHD affects my dating life to how much childhood trauma and an abusive adult relationship still affect me. None of those things were any less true because I hadn’t known they were there, under the surface, until recently. Relationships between queer women — the friendships or the romantic ones — simply aren’t modeled for us. Anywhere. (With apologies to Shonda Rhimes for How to Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating/Eve Rothlo subplot and recent episodes of Easy and Black Mirror.)
I was being more judgmental about myself than I would ever be of someone else. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been skeptical when I heard someone come out about, well, anything really. People’s lives and circumstances change; our experiences mold us.
If almost everything about the way I see myself and what I’m allowed to be and want has changed, why would my sexuality be static?
My favorite reactions from the people who didn’t know before coming out day were variations of “Oh! Thought you were! Welcome!” My closest friend here in San Diego was so excited I thought she might levitate. I’m very lucky. The people who have stuck around through the past few years (unsurprisingly, mostly people who’ve been marginalized or struggled themselves) are really great — at least when it comes to moments like these. Bigots don’t tend to hang around my social media or in-person spaces much.
Because I am privileged to not have to worry about how anyone will react, I felt comfortable writing about this revelation. Queer women are depicted as a novelty or a turn-on for straight men on the rare occasions they’re depicted at all. (Again, apologies to Ms. Rhimes . . . I LOVE YOU, SHONDA.) Or it’s the focal point of their character. And queer women in hetero relationships are even more invisible — as though you trade in part of who you are when you decide to spend your life with one particular person over another.
Which all means it’s still important for people with a public platform who can be open to not hide behind their privilege like a shield. I’m not shaming anyone for not being out; sharing anything private is unhealthy for some people, for example.
Being open about personal shit is clearly not an issue for me, and so here I am.
I haven’t figured out the answers to all my questions. But I hope I never reach the point where I have nothing new left to experience and, thus, run out of questions altogether.