Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home was the first book that made me so angry I wanted to throw it across the room. I’m pretty sure the only reason I resisted the impulse was that it was a borrowed book, selected from the school library for my independent study project in Grade 10 English. They had a whole shelf of Jodi Picoult books, but I don’t think it was a coincidence, even then, that I picked the only one about lesbians, queer rights, and homophobia.
It holds a special place in my heart now, this book that burned so fiercely under my skin, that sent flames of fury racing up my bones. What an incredible thing, to feel so much from ink on a page. Maybe it should have been a clue.
When I finished the book, I gave an impassioned 20 minute presentation to my class on queer rights. Most of my memories of it are vague—there was an analogy about cake and diets, some science regarding experiments on sexuality in fruit flies, and some talk about how little the Bible actually says about homosexuality. The only line that sticks out clearly in my memory was near the end of the presentation, defending sexuality as a biological reality: “In a world that so persecutes homosexuality, why would anyone choose to be gay?”
After the presentation, one of my classmates came up to me. He had tears in his eyes, and he smiled and simply said, “Thank you.”
I blushed, smiled, shrugged. I just thought I was being a decent human being. A good ally. No big deal.
It would be another five years before I would start questioning my sexuality, and nearly seven before I would come out to my family.
There are a lot of reasons it took me so long to figure out that I’m queer and to accept it. One of them was that I’d never heard a story quite like mine before.
There are three classic narratives on those rare occasions that queer stories are told, even now that representation is starting to rise. The first: the character has “always known” they were queer. The second: the character has a single defining moment where they realize their sexuality, a lightning strike epiphany. And the third: the character realizes they’re queer after overcoming internalized homophobia, often caused by their homophobic family.
None of these stories are mine. I clearly didn’t always know I was queer. There was no single moment that made me realize. It was slow, more of a sunrise than a thunderclap. My family has always been loving and accepting, if sometimes a bit clueless (they’re working on that). It was never about overcoming an idea that there was something wrong with being queer.
The first time the thought really crossed my mind that I might be queer, I immediately thought, Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve never had a crush on a girl. So I must be straight, right? Never mind, of course, that despite two boyfriends and a few dates, I’d never really had a crush on a boy either. I had never felt any sexual desire for them.
In my second year of university, when my boyfriend kissed me—really kissed me—there were certainly no fireworks. It was wet and salty and his beard itched on my skin, and I pulled back, giggling nervously, thinking, Are we doing it wrong? And as he leaned in to kiss me again, Is he actually enjoying this?
I would break up with him a month or so into our relationship over a vague but powerful anxiety. A year and a half later I would watch the classic campy queer movie But I’m a Cheerleader. There’s a scene you might know where the main character, Megan, is kissing her boyfriend Jared in a car. Or rather, being kissed by her boyfriend. Her eyes are open and she grimaces as Jared’s tongue swipes through her mouth, enduring the kiss until she finally pulls away and fakes a smile. And I thought, huh.
You might be thinking, see? Epiphany. But that moment wasn’t an answer, only the beginning of the question. I didn’t finish the movie with a sudden understanding of my queerness and how I fit in the world. The first inklings of doubt were already there in my mind before the movie, and it would still be almost a year before I came out, before I figured out the right labels and felt comfortable claiming them. But after that moment, I would start telling a few of my queer friends that I was “probably not straight,” that I was “something.” That was all I had. Probably not straight.
The first time I came across the term asexual, I thought, huh. Sound familiar? But at the time I thought it was just idle curiosity. Later I would return to the word, turn it over on my tongue, test it against my skin. But it still wouldn’t fit quite right. I would put it aside.
In May of 2018, Chantel Houston from Buzzfeed’s Ladylike would post a video called “How I Discovered I Wasn’t Straight.” I can’t remember now if that was the first place I heard the term demisexual, but it was the first time I really took note of it. I’d spent the past several months stewing over my sexuality, searching out queer media that always sparked something warm in my chest, but still never gave me the right answers. Watching Chantel’s video, for the first time it felt like I was hearing a story kind of like mine. Not perfect, not exactly right, but more than I’d had before.
I googled demisexuality. A lot. I read articles and personal stories, always thinking maybe, maybe, waiting for that lightning strike certainty, for some deus ex machina to come down and tell me what I am. That didn’t happen. I still wasn’t sure, but I tucked demisexual into my pocket and carried it with me.
Have you heard of demisexuality? Did you know about it before I did? Before I told you? If not, here’s a definition: demisexuality is on the asexuality spectrum and refers to a person who only experiences sexual attraction after developing an emotional or romantic bond with someone.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an unfamiliar term. Remember how I said I’d never seen a story like mine?
I have never encountered a demisexual character on TV or in movies—of which I watch a lot—or even in books, which are less regulated by conservative politics. If I go searching specifically for demisexual characters in books, I could find some, but on the screen? So far, no luck. If we broaden our parameters to asexual characters generally, we find that according to GLAAD’s annual report on LGBTQ inclusion, 2017-18 marks the first year ever that regular or recurring asexual characters can be found. Two of them, to be exact. Across all of the broadcast, cable, and streaming television last year, I can find exactly two characters who almost represent me.
Is it any wonder it took me so long to find it? To process it? Recognize it?
I went home for the summer, still testing queer and demisexual in my mind, and changed my Tinder preferences to look only for women. Soon after, I was going on a date with a woman for the first time. Alison was bubbly and kind and funny and beautiful. We went on a second date. And a third.
When my parents got curious, I refused to tell them the name of my date. I was not subtle. They suspected, I knew, but I wasn’t ready to say it aloud; there was still this little voice at the back of my mind, whispering, liar. Faker.
Because the problem wasn’t just that I hadn’t found the right labels—it was that I couldn’t help feeling I didn’t have any right to them. Like maybe I wasn’t gay enough, queer enough. Maybe I was only pretending to be queer to feel different, to be special. Apparently I’d forgotten my own words from that high school presentation.
But my turmoil had very little to do with fear of persecution from straight people. I was terrified I might come out and then later realize I was wrong, that I really was straight, and then I would be contributing to the dangerous stereotype that queerness is a phase. I was afraid of being an intruder, a bad ally, of unlawfully breaching the gates of queerness. And I was afraid that if I came out without somehow proving my queerness first, the queer community might not believe me.
I was afraid of gatekeepers. Because deciding that someone isn’t “queer enough” is exactly what gatekeepers do. Some gatekeepers try to exclude trans subjects from queer spaces, or refuse trans women entry to women-only spaces. Some try to exclude bisexuals—claims that bisexuality doesn’t exist don’t only come from outside the queer community. Many try to exclude asexuals, especially heteroromantic aces or aro-aces because they’re “basically straight.” Gatekeepers close ranks, pick and choose who gets to come in, who is allowed to feel safe and at home in the community.
I had never encountered any personally-targeted gatekeeping, and yet the effect of it is so pervasive that I felt I couldn’t come out, couldn’t lay claim to my queer identity, until I had proven my queerness. The day Alison kissed me for the first time while we danced at the only gay bar in my hometown was the day I came out to my family. It was very anticlimactic, and I didn’t even use the word queer. I only offered up Alison’s name.
I stopped hiding after that, though I didn’t shout it from the rooftops. But still, I kept my words in my pocket, told people about the girl I was dating instead of handing them labels. When the summer was over, I went back to university, and told people about the girl I had dated. I tested queer out in my poems, but not on my lips.
Then one night I was texting with one of my oldest friends, talking about how we had changed from when we were kids. I typed out “University-me is %1000 gayer,” sat staring at my phone, heart racing, and then I hit send.
Her response came in: “Yay it’s great being out and about eh ;)”
As it turns out, she’s queer too. When she asked me how I identified, I took queer and demisexual out of my pocket and offered up the words for the first time.
I would write them into a series of poems and offer them to my family at Christmas. Queer, not gay, or bi, or pan, because even now I’m still figuring out the place of gender in the people I might date. This was another speed bump, the fear that queer wouldn’t be enough of an answer, that I would be constantly having to explain that I didn’t have all the answers yet. I was still afraid that I wasn’t gay enough, that queer wasn’t enough.
And there are gatekeepers who rage against the use of queer as an identity, who claim it’s a slur and would tear others down for finding comfort in it. They seem to forget that gay has its own history as a slur. There may be acephobia, biphobia, and the like lurking behind this claim, because queer is an umbrella term. Queer doesn’t offer up specificity the way gay or lesbian seems to. Queer feels right to me precisely because it doesn’t demand answers that I don’t have.
I am queer. I am demisexual.
It’s been over seven years since I stood before my classmates and demanded acceptance for queer people, and I am finally at home in my own skin. I am still waiting to see my story on screen, but until then at least I can tell it myself. There are still gatekeepers prowling, but at least I don’t fear them anymore. I have claimed my words, and no one can take them from me.
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