If you’ve lived somewhere on Earth and in proximity to ignorant people you’ve probably heard the old conservative line “But when did you know you were gay?” The question might not have been directed at you or even anyone you’ve known but I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It might have even been asked from a place of genuine curiosity but more likely it was underscored by condescension and judgement. It’s been the catchphrase of our heteronormative culture for decades and the witty retort returned to the people who use it is just as recognizable: “Well, when did you know you were straight?”
This quick comeback was likely adopted out of frustration and anger with the misunderstanding and outright demonization of LGBT people and their identity and was meant, understandably, to be an “open-mouth-insert-foot” conversation ender. But, in these days of intersectional social justice, that doesn’t mean the question doesn’t now have conversational and intrinsic value.
-Oh my, the awkwardness!-
My whole life I’ve considered myself 100% hetero, a breeder as Dan Savage likes to call us. But, since I obviously didn’t have enough thought projects already, I recently started thinking about how I would answer this question myself. When did I know I was straight? Part of the privilege of identifying with a social norm is that it doesn’t require much critical thought. It renders itself invisible to introspection because society only expects to examine things that deviate from the societal expectation. But what a devious trap that is (not to mention incredibly insulting to those who don’t benefit from that privilege)! By bypassing the self-examination that comes with defining a personal identity, even one that aligns with a “norm”, we can potentially miss an amazing opportunity for personal growth and greater awareness.
So how do I actually define my sexual identity and what societal biases could have influenced it? The path these questions took me on was surprising and enlightening.
The Male Sexuality “Binary”
It’s no secret that if you are a boy or man you are expected to be straight. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. You’re straight or you’re not a “real man”. Welcome to heteronormativity. Starting as early as elementary school these norms start becoming peer-enforced. Those who strongly identify as gay are either forced into the closet or forced to address their non-conformity openly.
But what about those who don’t necessarily strongly identify as gay? The idea that you must be straight unless you reject heterosexuality so much that you’re 100% gay leaves the potential for queerness, bisexuality, and the entirety of the sexuality spectrum completely erased from male culture.
This is the main bias that I’ve had to overcome to really explore my own sexual identity. Am I straight simply because I don’t strongly identify as gay? Is my sexuality more nuanced and potentially queer but that identity is buried under the expectation of a sexuality binary? At the very core, how do I define personal romantic and sexual attraction and how can I construct my sexual identity around that?
The Great Attractor
Being a feminist, defining personal romantic and sexual attraction is not a trivial task. Most of our default reactions when asked what we’re attracted to go directly to deconstructed and objectified parts of people. Sizes of different body parts, body shapes and sizes, skin/hair/eye color, exotified ethnicity, etc. While I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone their personal aesthetic preferences (as long as they are not disrespectful) I no longer choose to define the majority of my attraction standards around these things.
So what does make me attracted to someone besides physical characteristics? That they are intensely passionate about something(s) in their lives. Their ability to hold both abstract and specific conversation. Their dedication to self-improvement and awareness. Shared interests. Openness to new experiences and perspectives. Their capacity for expressing emotional depth. Compatibility and comfort with physical intimacy, sexual or non-sexual.
Now what do all these things mean in terms of sexual identity? Well what I noticed was that none of my attraction constructors were particularly gendered in any way. Those characteristics could just as easily be met by a person of any gender and I would find them equally attractive and comfortable. So what does that mean for my supposed heterosexuality?
Now It’s Personal
I’m sure by this point you’re all expecting some sort of grand revelation or deep philosophical conclusion but I’m unfortunately going to disappoint you. I embarked on this project because, while I’ve considered myself straight, I’ve found men attractive before. A few particularly so. My sexual and romantic attraction has always been heavily directed toward women but I feel like I have the potential to have non-platonic feelings toward a small subset of men.
I felt like it was important that I deconstruct the biases that I have and, instead of suppressing those feelings, try to construct my identity in a way that is inclusive and expressive of my experiences. What I find particularly liberating is that I have now made an active and informed choice to explore my sexual identity in a way that is less biased by societal expectations. That whether I end up identifying as queer or straight, I will know that I arrived at that identity from a place of self-awareness and personal love and acceptance.
It’s very difficult to examine or even see cultural scripts when your expression supports the “norm” but doing the work helps to normalize actively constructing identity in any form and that can potentially lead to less strict policing of “norms” in general. And dismantling societal norms is what brings us closer to real internalized social equality.