The first time I had feelings for a girl, I was 13. I remember the moment distinctly because it caught me so off guard. I immediately suppressed those feelings because there was no way I was a lesbian.
It was the mid-nineties and I was a teenager. None of my friends were gay, or so I thought. Being gay or lesbian was so taboo then. As far as I knew, the scary stereotypes about queer folks were true. I couldn’t let myself even go down the road of possibility, because I was so scared of being outcast.
I also had real feelings for boys and it was easy to just go with that. I had a steady boyfriend through the end of high school and beginning of college, and then dated and loved guys throughout the rest of college. I wasn’t questioning my sexuality, because I didn’t need to.
There wasn’t much question when I met my first real girlfriend. We had to be secretive because we were camp counselors together, but I am pretty sure we were no secret to anyone with any sense of chemistry between people. It was undeniable and I fell hard.
I was so in love that coming out seemed easy. It’s always easier when there is a relationship you want to brag about. I didn’t make any public declaration of a new sexual identity, I just introduced people to my girlfriend. I did not care one single bit what anyone thought because I was so sure I had found the person I would spend my life with. Sidenote: Thank god there were no Facebook status updates back then because I cringe just at the thought of what I might have put out there.
Like a lot of queer relationships where one partner has been out a while and the other is brand new, I was clingy and unrealistic. I think I was a living, breathing version of the heart eyes emoji which was probably cute at first and then super annoying as time went on. When she broke up with me 4 or 5 months after we got together, I felt like my life was over. I had risked everything for her, and this was the payback?
That same year, Texas passed the constitutional amendment effectively declaring same sex marriage illegal. Between the heartbreak of the relationship ending and the heartbreak of my home state voting overwhelmingly to send a message that me and people like me were not welcome, I was done. I went back to men.
There’s a ton of safety in being in the majority, this is not news to me now. Back then I was not brave enough to walk away from the privilege I got as a straight person. When I got to grad school, I was identifying as straight, and I had a steady boyfriend who I was pretty sure I would marry once we both got done with our respective graduate work. All of that was well and good except that my life was about to be turned upside down.
My grad program ended up being 2 of the most introspective years of my life and galvanized so much of who I am now that either I hadn’t realized yet or wasn’t willing to be before getting there. For instance, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term “white privilege” prior to 2008, so while I was grappling with my participation in a system that lifts me up while holding people of color down, it turned out I was dating a white dude with super libertarian view points who laughed hysterically after we watched Crash together. Needless to say we grew apart.
Bear with me through this, as I know the language I’m about to use is wrong — it’s relevant. Back in 2009, Shelby was a girl I knew from run-ins at the GLBT Resource Center at Texas A&M where we were both in school. After attending the National Equality March in D.C., Shelby got a pivotal haircut and made the first transition from feminine to androgynous and I was face-to-face with the reality that I had feelings for a girl.
The difference in tween me and mid-twenties me was that this time I was much more well equipped to reckon with those feelings that were once taboo. I had friends who would support me no matter what and had enough confidence to tell anyone who spoke differently where they could go.
It wasn’t meant to be with Shelby then, but as we’ve learned since, the 2009–2015 versions of each of us were not ready to build a relationship that would last. We both needed time to grow up, time to figure ourselves out, and to blow up a couple of relationships in the time between. By the time we somewhat randomly ended up back in the same space, we were ready and we dove headfirst.
When I was coming out about my sexuality, I never really could identify a particular label for myself. This isn’t one of those millennial “I’m beyond labels” cliché things, I just didn’t think any of them really applied to me. I was definitely not a lesbian, bisexual implied a gender binary I wasn’t comfortable with, the other potentials like demisexual and pansexual and omnisexual were too cerebral for me, and that left queer.
I didn’t feel a particular affinity toward queer as a label, like I had suddenly found my identity or anything, it was just good enough. Being in a longterm relationship with a woman made it easy to let folks know I was somewhere on the sexuality spectrum. Mostly, I just didn’t identify myself using a label. There are probably a lot of folks out there who think I’m a lesbian because that’s the easiest conclusion to draw. I’ve had to make a few awkward corrections along the way. When pressed for a one-word answer I’ll offer queer as my defining label, but more often than not I usually shrug and just say “Um…not straight?”
That gender binary I mentioned earlier…one of the reasons I couldn’t be bi was that I didn’t want to reinforce that only men and women existed, but also that I had never been with a trans or nonbinary person before and knew it was a possibility. What could that mean for my sexuality? I didn’t know then, but I was willing to leave the door open for whatever might come.
Over time and with some experience, I was also able to figure out that my most successful physical relationships were with men and my most successful emotional relationships were with women. I knew that I was most often physically attracted to androgynous people…effeminate men, masculine women, androgyny is my jam.
When Shelby and I reconnected, he told me he was trans. When I tell you lightbulbs went off for me, I mean it. I hadn’t forced the issue of defining my sexuality because I didn’t know what laid ahead for me. The lack of definition allowed me to remain open to possibility so that when Shelby came out to me it was like pieces of a puzzle coming together. My life (all of it up to that point and since) makes a lot more sense with Shelby in it.
One of the things Shelby and I talked about before he came out was how important being part of the queer community is to me. It’s been interesting to try and manage both of our needs — for Shelby to come into his true identity and for me to not lose mine. Once some time passes, to most people we will be any other straight couple. People will go from assuming I’m a lesbian to assuming I’m straight. I needed for Shelby to be okay with me still being out.
The onslaught of attacks against trans people from our state and federal government has made Shelby more interested in speaking up and less interested in being quiet about his trans identity. It works with my desire to be fully out about who I am and who we are as queer people. Now, we fight together…in our comically once straight, then lesbian but never lesbian, now straight again but not really relationship helps us do.
Labels haven’t helped define me, but openness to possibility has, and that is enough of a label for me.