When did you realize you were gay? That’s the question that many people who identify as queer have probably heard at least once in their lives. It’s an odd question because no one asks straight people when they realized they were straight. Nonetheless, many of us rack our brains trying to figure out the exact moment that we realized that we were attracted to the same sex. For some people it’s easy. For others, not so much. For everyone, it is a crucial tidbit of information because without this informational badge of honor, can you really consider yourself gay? People, gay and straight, are just now getting the memo that sexuality and gender are both on a spectrum and can change for each individual person throughout their lives, although it may not necessarily. Until this idea really hits home though, many of us queer people struggle to pinpoint exactly when the “gay revelation” happened to us.
To try to figure out when you knew you were gay is to assume there was a time that you didn’t know you were gay. But how can that be when people are born gay and there are some people who say that they knew they were gay from the day they were born? The reason is that this knowledge is subjective and extremely susceptible to societal norms. For example, if we don’t grow up with a context for being gay or, what’s worse, we don’t have an accurate representation of what makes a person queer, then coming to a place of realization can seem tricky.
As a queer woman, I can say that this moment of realization is hard for us to figure out, especially for those of us who have dated men in the past or even the present. A lot of this has to do with bi-phobia and bi-invisibility, but that is another topic for another day. Aside from that, I think that the patriarchal socialization of women and homophobia (both mainstream and internalized) are also to blame.
As women, we have the added pressure of being expected to find a man to marry or, at the very least, to attract men in some way. We are socialized to want to be with men; we are taught that this is what we should desire. Even if as children and teenagers marriage is too far in the distance to take into consideration, there is always the very perceptible knowledge that getting a boy to like us means we have value and even power. It goes much deeper than the need to have a boyfriend or husband because even as society very slowly rejects these expectations for women, the idea that a man needs to affirm you, even in small ways like having a crush or a fling, is still prevalent for women as they come of age.
When girls are in middle school and high school, everyone knows that the popular girls are the girls that all the boys want and because of this, other girls learn that to be popular and have social value means to have boys regard them as valuable. Even if they don’t necessarily want a boyfriend, girls often get caught up in doing what is socially acceptable and earn them the attention they are socialized to think they need.
As adults, women are seen as broken or damaged if they aren’t desired by a man or if no man wants to be with them or marry them. If you combine that with pressure from family or religion to participate in a socially acceptable lifestyle, even if a woman finds herself attracted to other women, she may chalk it up as a phase or a sexual proclivity and not an acceptable way of life. Of course, this isn’t everyone’s story, but for those who have all of this going on as they grow into adulthood, it is very difficult to not only come out but to recognize the need to come out at all.
Furthermore, because there are so many stereotypes that plague the gay identity, it is even more confusing for some people to “realize” that they are gay. These stereotypes are often reinforced by the gay community in the form of internalized homophobia. This internalized homophobia may then be adopted by the person who has yet to come out, creating a situation where what it means to be gay is totally unrecognizable to them. Besides the stereotype that gay people have to look, dress, or carry themselves in a certain way, which can be very confusing to a person who is still discovering themselves, there are other damaging stereotypes within society.
For example, many queer women can recall their pre-teen and teenage years and marvel at the fact that they didn’t feel anything when they saw their female friends naked or even that they couldn’t imagine themselves going any further sexually than making out with a woman. Because the gay community is often over-sexualized, it is easy for women with these experiences to begin to doubt that they are gay at all. The stereotype that gay people are super-sexual and want nothing more than to have sex with every person of the same sex may have come from mainstream society but it has been incorporated in some parts of the gay community as well.
I remember being a young woman and hearing other gay women say that if you can’t see yourself giving another woman oral sex, then you can’t possibly be gay and if you can, then you definitely are a lesbian. So because of these ideas, many people who are still discovering their queer identity may invalidate their own feelings as just a phase. These thought processes make it hard for queer women to consider that maybe when they were younger they just were not sexually attracted to their friends and maybe they were simply not ready to have oral sex.
Straight women are not generally confronted with these things or really even have to consider them. If a straight teenage girl or young woman isn’t ready to have sex, the first thought isn’t to question her sexuality, although there are other pressures unrelated to sexuality that will likely arise. But because of stereotypes, gay people (and, because of toxic masculinity, straight men) sometimes feel the need to either defend or question their sexuality if they aren’t considered sexual enough.
Because of the prevalence of patriarchal gender norms and internalized homophobia, many people are very unwilling to accept the idea of gender and sexual fluidity. Growing up, we are taught that sexuality is finite, final, and one-size-fits-all. Patriarchy says that if you are a woman who dates men, you should be in a relationship with a man, regardless of who else you date or are attracted to. And internalized homophobia says if you are gay, you are only allowed to be with the same sex. People are not given the space to be individuals and have individual experiences. So if you are a person who happens to be dating the opposite sex or has in the past, others may discredit your gay identity because to a lot of people, one can only be gay or straight. Because of this misconception, many people stay in the closet for years.
For me, even after I reconciled with the fact that I was attracted to other women because I had only been in relationships with men I decided that meant that I was bisexual. I thought that to be a lesbian you had to have never been with a man or if you had, you were totally disgusted by it. Men didn’t disgust me but I remember enjoying their friendship more than anything else and if they ended up liking me that was an added bonus because it made me feel powerful. So I collected boyfriends as trophies and as a security blanket while secretly thinking of myself as bisexual.
But even the bisexual identity was problematic. As little as I knew about having a gay identity, I did know that gay and straight people alike didn’t have much respect for bisexual people. In fact, even I used to get annoyed at other bisexual or self-proclaimed bi-curious women for giving other bisexual women a bad name. I didn’t want to come out because I knew people would think I was confused and wishy-washy and just write me off as someone who was a sexual freak and nothing more. So I decided to stay in the closet because it was simpler. My family is West-Indian and Christian, so I felt like if I came out as bisexual, no one would take me seriously anyway and I would be upsetting the equilibrium of my life for nothing.
From my experience, those who don’t think sexual fluidity is a valid identity or position to have tend to believe that it is a cop-out or a free pass to do whatever you want and not be called out on it. But what many fail to realize is that if we embrace the idea of sexual fluidity, it would help everyone to learn to accept others and themselves better. Often people will force another person to pick an identity or even project an identity on another person based on what they think it means. There are a lot of gay (and straight) people who label-shame other gay people because they themselves are insecure about their own sexual identity. If we realize that each person has their own identity, journey, and story, everyone will have more room to be themselves.
Accepting fluidity and validating individual experiences can help a person navigate around the “OMG, I’m Gay!” moment. But when you do finally have that realization and come out, what are you supposed to come out as? What are the factors that lead you to this label? Is it necessary to come out as anything? Whether we like it or not, sexual orientation categories do exist and because they do we are forced to pick one for ourselves. But if we can’t, there’s more confusion and many of us go back in the closet because of the embarrassment of not knowing. If the spectrum was more of an accepted view, then there would be much less pressure for people to choose, defend their sexuality, and live up to expected standards of that choice.
Labels aren’t in and of themselves a negative thing, though. There are many people who are very comfortable with labeling themselves and labels often help others to understand a person’s identity. What’s more, these boxes are necessary to queer people’s meaningful existence in society because society at large doesn’t believe that sexuality is a spectrum so gay people are always considered “other” and different. Because we are seen as separate, we sometimes have to act under this premise in order to tangibly fight for our rights and protection under the law.
For me, labels are helpful but not necessary. Instead of bisexual, I now identify as queer. My journey from straight(-ish) to bisexual to queer was definitely hindered by homophobia and the socialization I experienced growing up. As far back as I can remember, I have always been attracted to women, although I can’t pinpoint an exact time I realized this – to me it was just always there. But, as a doctor’s daughter and as someone who studied psychology, I just thought it was a phase of my development.
I grew up in a time when, even though it was wrong to discriminate against gay people, gay people were weird and straight people were the norm and if you were anywhere in between (and a woman), you weren’t gay, you were just confused. I thought I was supposed to marry a man eventually because society and the Bible said so. But, despite these beliefs, I rarely felt shitty about my attraction to women because I figured it was just growing pains and it would just go away. But it didn’t go away and eventually I realized that it was not just a phase.
Today, I am openly queer, although because of stereotypes, many people wouldn’t guess that I am. But since I am a lot more secure about my sexuality than I was, what people think of my identity doesn’t matter as much to me anymore. What is important is that I know who I am and my identity doesn’t belong to anyone but me. Hearing other women’s coming out stories I’ve discovered that, while I’m not alone in my experience, my experience is still uniquely my own.
Everyone doesn’t have to have a big “aha” moment of gayness, a static sexual identity, or even a label at all, even though patriarchy and homophobia make us think that we all need to have these things. Society tells us that if we don’t have them, we aren’t really gay or we are lost. As a queer woman, I don’t necessarily identify as fluid, mostly because of the negative connotations that it comes with, but I know that we are all to some extent fluid and it is just society that has forced us to choose static identities. As a feminist, I have begun the process of shedding everything I have learned from society about what it means to be a woman and because of this, it has made it easier to embrace my queer identity.
I imagine a future where each of us can look within ourselves and use that to determine who we are and not feel like we have to define ourselves by societal standards of humanity. I see beautiful signs of this every day as many young people proudly announce their gay, lesbian, non-label, queer, trans, non-binary, fluid, etc. identities and I see that the next generation is clearly more enlightened than mine. I’m convinced that if we all can let go of societal expectations for ourselves and for others, we would realize that we are all somewhere on that spectrum and that’s not only OK, but it’s truly amazing and wonderful.