Like plenty of other people who identify as any one of the many different brands of “not straight,” I have a difficult relationship with labels.
I have early memories—I think I must have been in kindergarten, or first or second grade at the time—of watching VH1’s Pop Up Video and thinking some of the female artists in those music videos were very cool and very pretty, and that I wanted to be like them. I realize now, being older and wiser, that I was actually just feeling very, very gay. (A quick Google search of “music video, mud”—the only details I can remember from the video I’m trying to track down—brings me right back to Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever,” which I have vivid childhood memories of watching in full, many times, in rapt fascination. As I write this, I’m realizing for the very first time that Shakira might have been my gay awakening. Huh. Who would have thought?)
Of course, primary-school-era me wouldn’t know for years that identities apart from straight and cisgender even existed. And so, I continued my heterosexual sleepwalk through life up until middle school where, by that time, using “gay” as a synonym for “stupid” was all the rage. I don’t remember when I first heard of the concept of same-sex relationships, except that gay men were considered shameful among my peers, while lesbians were considered super hot (because everything in the entire world is made for male consumption, all the time—am I right, ladies?)
It was also in middle school that I first heard the term “bisexual.” The B word was an epiphany and provided a sense of relief that I didn’t know I needed until it was handed to me. I had thought my attraction to other girls was normal, that I was just appreciating pretty people. But with “bisexual” bouncing around in my skull, it felt like I finally had a word that almost described my thoughts and feelings.
But, as I say, labels are complicated. As much relief as I gained from learning about bisexuality I was now—and continue to be—confused about different issues. New things.
Among my peers, it was trendy for girls to identify as “bisexual,” but the middle school definition of bisexuality was not the attraction to two or more genders. Rather, it was more a way for straight girls to say, “Hey, boys! I’m happy to help fulfill your straight male fantasy of hooking up with more than one girl—at the same time!”
This is a phenomenon that I didn’t realize until quite recently is a far more universal experience than I once thought. It set me back in the journey of finding my identity because I learned about said identity via harmful, biphobic stereotypes. It taught me that bisexuals are easy, that we’re more likely to cheat because of some misguided idea that our dating pool is twice as big, that sapphics are only putting on a performance for the male gaze before settling down with a man, or that bi is just a phase before people pick a side on either end of the Kinsey scale.
It didn’t help that the small town I grew up in does not, in large part, take kindly to members of the LGBTQ+ community, and so in the closet I (mostly) stayed until I moved to Toronto for university.
Moving to the city gave me an opportunity to reinvent myself and allowed me to experiment with my sexual identity, all with the comfort of knowing my entire extended family wouldn’t immediately catch wind of my exploits due to small-town gossip.
When I finally took the leap and found my first (almost) girlfriend, I thought my question of labels had finally been answered and I could claim bi as my label after years spent quietly identifying as “not straight.” I told some close friends and immediate family that I was seeing another girl and started throwing around “bisexual” more casually.
Our little summer romance didn’t end up working out, throwing me into yet another tailspin of self-doubt and anxiety surrounding my sexuality. Was I faking it to be different or for attention? Was I just proving the stereotype that bisexuals are confused or greedy and will eventually pick a side? After all, me and her had so much in common that if I were to ever have romantic feelings for another girl, it should have been her. Right?
As I started going on more dates with other people, though, I realized a few things about myself: PDA made me nervous and uncomfortable in all situations, not just with women—although my anxiety about potential homophobic attacks didn’t help. I also realized that I am emotionally constipated and afraid of commitment, but that is an entirely separate personal essay for another time. Or maybe for my next session with my therapist.
It feels like I am constantly discovering new ways that heteronormativity is harmful. In the process of dumping my thoughts into this article, my latest realization has been this: I never would have spent the amount of time that I have mulling over the particulars of my sexuality if we would all move on from equating heterosexuality to “default” and “normal.” I never would have spent years jumping from label to label (bisexual to bi-curious to demisexual to pansexual to bisexual and around and around we go) because nothing seemed to fit. I never would have dedicated so much of my time to stressing about it. If we stopped feeling the need to identify everything with a label—while ridiculing and abusing those whose identities we don’t like or approve of—we would all be better off.
Labels should not be given as much weight as they are. But they are. Until that changes, all we can do is find the one that feels most comfortable at any given time and if it changes? Roll with it.
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