Here’s something I’ve known for a very long time. I am not straight.
Here’s something I’ve known for a much shorter period of time. I’m gay. I’m bi. I’m pan. I’m queer. I’m all of these things without being a paradigm for any of those things. (And that’s okay because who needs sexual orientation paradigms? Not me.)
Here’s something else that I’ve realized much more recently. Labels are both freeing and confining. Labels are complex. So are people. So are sexual orientations.
What follows is a deeply personal explanation of why I identify and the stories that shaped those decisions. It is not me trying to tell anyone else which labels they should or should not adopt. All the labels I embrace — gay, bi, pan, queer — have different denotations and connotations depending on the context one is coming from. And so I don’t expect you to understand any of those words exactly like I do, nor do I expect you to use them exactly like I do.
My Christian Growing Up Years
I grew up in a conservative Evangelical Christian household where my dad was the pastor of an Evangelical nondenominational Bible church, and I went to a small private Christian school housed in the church. That “homosexuality was a sin” went unquestioned.
Thus, when as a thirteen year old boy I stumbled across the music video for Sisqo’s “Thong Song” I knew I was in trouble when I found myself just as captivated, if not more so, by Sisqo’s dance moves and abs then by the many scantily clad women with “dumps like a trunk” that he was singing about.
At first, I attributed my interest to a certain sort of envy. I was chubby, unathletic, and definitely couldn’t dance. Maybe I was drawn to a guy like Sisqo because he was cool and I wasn’t. As true as that was, there was more to my allure than that.
I never had sex ed or “the talk.” My pruriently squeamish middle school “health” teacher never touched the subject. And by the time my dad asked if I was learning about sex ed in school, I lied and said yes, because by then the internet had taught me the basics and I didn’t want to have to talk with my dad about sex.
In middle school, high school, and my first couple of years of undergrad, I downplayed my sexuality, both to myself and others. I had crushes on both girls and guys in those years, casual ones in middle and high school and more intense ones during college. I saw myself as bisexual. Given the Evangelical community I was in, I was just grateful to think I probably could have a satisfying long term romantic monogamous relationship with a woman, which is what my community told me my faith required of me.
But I also was questioning the faith I had been raised in. Dating and romance took a back seat to my intellectual and moral curiosity about the world and what it meant to live well in it. Eventually, I had my first kiss (with a woman) shortly after my twenty-first birthday. And I entered my first serious dating relationship (with a different woman) shortly before my twenty-second birthday.
My girlfriend was (and still is) a phenomenal person. She was more sexually experienced that I was (although there were limits to both of our experiences) and it was exciting and gratifying to explore my sexuality with her. But I was also wracked with guilt. The environment I grew up in had ill prepared me for a nuanced sexual ethic. I was raised to view all sexual activity outside of marriage as a sin, and what we were doing felt illicit.
Another part of the problem is that I had been raised with an incredibly skewed view of female sexuality. The standard youth group line I had been given was that we men were going to want to have sex because we were animals, but that women were going to feel pressure to have sex because of a deep emotional need to be loved by a man. (Yes, that sentence felt as gross to write as I hope it made you feel to read.) The issue was that I had trouble believing that a woman was actually enjoying sexual intimacy with me.
That relationship helped me undo some of those harmful ways of thinking, but for a variety of reasons, I needed to continue to develop ideologically and emotionally outside of a relationship with her, so after about a year I broke things off.
My Gay Awakening Years
Not long after that breakup, I developed a rebound crush on a guy. It was in that time that I developed the dominant method I used for much of my twenties to come out to people: the disclosing a romantic or sexual interest in a guy method. I wouldn’t tell friends “so I’m gay” or “hey, I’m bi.” Rather I would say things like “so, there’s this guy I have feelings for,” or “this guy I hooked up with.” If the people in my life wanted to talk about whether I was gay, or bi, or whatever, we could have that discussion. But I didn’t want to select into one camp or another unless pressed.
I became a PhD student in philosophy where my top priorities were my work and my friends. Sex and sexuality again took a back seat. I was having sex (mostly with guys), but I wasn’t really dating. Given that I was in Indiana, that suited a lot of partners — many of whom had their own complicated relationships with their sexuality — just fine. I identified as bi to friends for whom it felt uncomfortable not to give a window into my sexuality.
During those years a lot of the ideological and moral questions I had been working through began to settle. I came to the view that my being bi or gay (or whatever I was) was not a moral flaw and that I didn’t need to ultimately end up with a woman or be celibate to please God or to live an ethical life. In the light of this clarity, the idea of dating a man became a more appealing option. And somewhere along the line the idea of being with a man long term had come to feel more comfortable than the idea of being with a woman.
My (Mostly Gay) Dating Years
After finishing my PhD, I moved to a significantly more urban area for the last leg of my academic journey (law school). I joined my law school’s LGBTQ student organization and started dating a guy pretty quickly. As a result, lots of my friends labeled me as gay and I ran with that. It fit. In moving to a more urban area I had thought this would be a good opportunity to start thinking more seriously about dating, especially dating guys, so that’s what I was doing. And so yeah, I was gay now. (I guess?)
A couple of months into the relationship with my new (and first) boyfriend, I mentioned something about a girl I had gone on a date with not all that long ago. He was confused. He said he didn’t realize I hadn’t come out so recently. I told him a bit more about my coming out journey and that it had been very slow, but I also said that this was post-coming out (mostly) and that I was like sorta kinda bi. He was taken aback and seemed frustrated that I hadn’t said anything earlier. That relationship didn’t last much longer (for good reasons having nothing to do with that conversation), but it made me realize that even if the distinction between gay or bi didn’t mean much to me, other people had the right for it to matter to them. So going forward I decided that I would disclose that I was bi (in some sense) to people I dated.
In the year or so that followed I was often surprised by the reactions. There was the guy who was super curious about what it was like to have sex with a woman, even though he claimed to find it completely unappealing. There was the guy who thought the Kinsey scale was on a 1 to 10, not a 0 to 6, so when I said I “was like a 4.5 on the Kinsey scale” was somewhat alarmed by how not gay I was. And there was the woman who told me that “it’s bad enough if I have to think about you being with another woman, but now I have to worry about you being with men too.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of those budding relationships ever fully blossomed.
How Do I Choose to Identify?
In the face of those responses, I was left unsure what to do. I was surprised just how much the label of “bi” lead to the stereotypical responses that I had previously thought were more trope than reality. (Turns out, they’re not just tropes.) Maybe identifying as gay was the way to go, but I didn’t like the way that seemed to undercut valuable portions of my past narrative and current self.
For a while, I landed on the label queer. I like that it’s brazenly non-heteronormative and that for many it’s an umbrella term for the LGBTQIA+ community. I also felt like it fit with much of my social and political ideology. But it too was imperfect. I recall the words of a lesbian friend who lived through an era of much greater social censure and ostracization of the LGBT community who shared that she continues to feel the sting of the term ‘queer’ remembering how it was (and still can be) an insult. And I’ve had friends and acquaintances advocate for a more rigid or aspirational explanation of what queer ideology is that makes me feel boxed in or like I’m no longer giving an answer about my sexuality.
I like the term pansexual or pan because it more explicitly captures that I’ve also been drawn to people who don’t fit sex or gender stereotypes and who identify as trans or non-binary. (This is also how many have come to understand bi, where the binary refers to attraction to both one’s own sex or gender, as well as others.) But pan can be off-putting to those who feel like the queer community has developed so much language that it’s hard for outsiders to keep up or to feel at ease. It also underplays the fact that for much of my adult life the prominent mode of my sexual identity and sexual expression has been gay.
Each label is imperfect. So I choose all of it. I’m gay because my dominant sexual and romantic impulses are for other men and because I’m in a loving long-term romantic relationship with another man. I’m bi and pan because who I have felt romantic feelings for is not bound by sex or gender. Those are not the features of a person that predominate in how romantic and sexual attachments develop for me. I’m queer because I seek to cast off the heteronormative structure and because sometimes what I’m not (straight) predominates intellectually or socially over what exactly it is that I am.
You may find much of what I’m saying relatable, or you may find it very little of it relatable. And either way is okay. I’ve spent a long time avoiding labels for fear of choosing the “wrong” one. But the idea that I have to choose one was part of my mistake to begin with. Growing into my sexuality has meant growing into more than one label. And that’s okay with me.