I used to be so adamant about my heterosexuality. In middle school I identified as straight and I wanted everyone to know it. I was largely reliant on qualifiers to make sure the person I was talking to knew exactly where I stood. Phrases like “Well I’m straight but…” were commonplace, and I never once wavered from heterosexuality. There were two factors responsible for my definition: fear, and lack of information.
When I moved from New Orleans, LA to Knoxville, TN when I was eight, my family moved to an area where I often felt out of place and unaccepted. As a result, I made every attempt to neutralize the attention I drew to myself. I wanted to be “normal.”
I defined normal based on my surroundings and when my classmates spoke of their crushes, the majority of them did so in very heteronormative terms. The majority of the girls spoke of liking boys and vice versa. Conversations about relationship were always about a boyfriend and girlfriend the idea of LGBTQIA+ couples or individuals were never addressed. I don’t know how my classmates identified at the time or how many of them identify now as LGBTQIA+. However, I came to the conclusion that, based on my classmate’s discussions and relationships, that heterosexuality was “normal.” And I was afraid of being labeled as anything other than normal. I did not want to give my classmates any reason to think I was different and so I avoided behaviors that would lead people to think I was gay or bisexual.
Though I did not personally witness homophobia within my school, I’m sure it very likely existed, and I assume that my fear came from a place of internalized homophobia. At the time my awareness of inequality and discrimination, in terms of sexuality, was largely underdeveloped but I saw so much heterosexuality expressed in media and entertainment, internalized it as normal, and accepted it as my guiding understanding of sexuality. However, I accept that I was young and uninformed. Now I attribute my lack of understanding with my personal sexuality to my lack of understanding of sexuality in general.
When I was 11, I definitely didn’t know about gender fluidity, the Kinsey Scale, or non-heterosexual orientations. Since all the girls liked boys, and vice versa, I assumed it was the norm and left it at that. I maintained my straight label until my freshman year of college when I took an Introduction to Women’s Studies course and began to explore feminism leading me to finally stop labeling and trying to justify my sexuality.
Feminism did wonders for me. As I got older, and my feelings for men and women came and went, I began to feel more and more out of place with my unflinching identity. Out of general curiosity and an increased understanding of my own sexuality I began to research sexuality and broaden my horizons. I read Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism and Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler’s anthology Bitchfest. Soon enough terms like gender binary, LGBTQIA+, and sexual fluidity made their way into my daily vernacular. Thanks to feminist ideologies and conversations with other feminists, friends, and LGBTQIA+ individuals I realized that gender and sexuality were part of a spectrum and I didn’t have to fall in line with one identity and for that, I am incredibly grateful. I no longer speak in qualifiers or try and fit in with what is considered “normal,” because my sexuality doesn’t need to be defined. While choosing to personally label oneself and discovering terms that explain how you feel is fantastic, I don’t think the societal demand and expectation that people outwardly define their sexuality is a good thing. It is one thing to find personal safety or comfort in a label, but it is entirely different to demand explanation from someone else.
A focus on an orientation’s legitimacy—as shown through strict definition and explanation—creates the assumption that someone can only identify as a certain sexuality if they “prove it” either through science or sexual practices; an assumption that is even more common when it comes to bisexual, pansexual, and transgender individuals. Bisexuals are often categorized as “selfish,” “confused,” “greedy,” or people that “can’t make up their minds.” And there are often demands for proof that trans individuals suffer from dysphoria in order to be a “real” trans individual. Conversely, for those who identify as asexual, many people demand they remain virgins for the entirety of their life to ever be considered ace. Where does this magical societal line end?
I choose not to define my sexuality because I don’t personally find comfort in a label. However, I recognize the privilege that I receive by being able to reject any definitive labels. I hope that society reaches a point where labels are handled on an individual preference, not social demand. Sexuality is fluid, people change, and we are more than who we want to sleep with. So, I don’t define my sexuality, nor do I expect anyone else to.