First, I want to give thanks to all the queer people who didn’t have the luxury of being offered opportunities to write essays about their queerness, and certainly not for pay. I recognize that the privilege I have in writing such an essay, specifically about mid-life queer awakening, is because of all the queer activists who refused to be minimized. I honor every person who has a story they cannot tell, and every person who has one, but was refused a platform — or wasn't ever afforded the decency of having their humanity recognized.
The first time I had sex with a woman I was 38 years old. This is not counting the times I participated in male-gaze-y sexual situations that were so performative I instinctively duck my head as I write this out of cringe.
In other words, when I was younger, I got drunk and felt up my friends in front of dudes sometimes. Because I knew they would think it was hot.
Throughout my early twenties, I was almost always the straight girl in a sea of gays. And while I was always attracted to women, I was also petrified of them. I was so detached sexually at that point in my life that the idea of connecting with a person anything like me — even if only in body — was a paralyzing thought.
Beyond that, from the vantage point of a femme, straight-identifying white woman who had no experience with homophobia save for speaking out against it on behalf of my friends, it felt disingenuous for me to identify as anyone other than this version of myself: straight, but up for experimenting.
If I were to sexually identify my early 20-something self now, though, it would be “imposter.” I was a woman masquerading as whatever the man I was fucking was turned on by; unable to articulate her own wants and needs and, frankly, unsure of what they even were.
But all of that changed when, after 14 years of marriage, I became single again at 37. What a relief it was to feel as if I could start over. I was my new life partner now, and to her I solemnly swore that the only gaze I would prioritize from now on was my own.
Entering a sort of reclamation phase, I opened myself up to every possible situation that excited me. There would be no labels on any of it. No expectations. Just freedom to move about the cabin without turbulence.
Unbuckled, wandering me.
Heteroflexible was a term I first heard via the sex positive dating app Feeld, and it was one that resonated immediately. It felt peripherally queer. Like strapping training wheels to my bike and exploring a new cul-de-sac. Beyond that, it suggested a sort of indefinability which appealed to the part of me who never wanted to be labeled again.
Sexually and otherwise, it felt like a misrepresentation for me to identify with a community that had been marginalized in a way I never felt I was — friends who had been kicked out of their homes, banished from their churches, spat on, beaten up or worse, all for coming out of the closet.
And as a cis, white, hetero-passing person, who has never struggled in the way so many of my friends have, I have found myself questioning whether or not there was even a need for people like me to come out. I live in Los Angeles after all. Queerness in our community is the norm. I can count how many straight-identifying girlfriends I have on one hand. Straightness comes as more of a surprise, if I’m being honest.
Not that we are, in any way, living in a post-biphobic society. Statistically speaking, bisexual people, specifically those with cis partners are the least likely to come out.
And it wasn’t until recently that it occurred to me that in the same way I claimed to be an imposter in my early-twenties — centering the male gaze as the only gaze that mattered — I found myself similarly centering all queer voices save for the ones I personally identified with: bisexual cis women.
Because we can pass as straight. Because we tend to engage in heteronormative sex. Because because because because because….
It wasn’t until I had my first solo, sexual, no-men-in-the-room experience that I realized, Wait, no, THIS is for me.
This is for me.
At one point I felt as if I’d left my body, so overwhelmed was I by the euphoria of connecting to another woman in a way I never had before.
When it was over, I cried. Beyond the sexual dynamic between women being so profoundly different, I felt like I had been reborn in my own image. The power of experiencing sex without men was overwhelming to me — not because I do not love sex with men but because, up until that point, sexual experiences without men didn’t exist.
It felt a bit like the dreams I sometimes have, where after years of living in the same house, I discover another room that had been there all along. How could I have missed this? Where have I been all my life?
This, of course, led to more experiences, which led to a love affair — my first and also hers — a coming-together so overwhelming I assumed, I would only ever love women after this.
I am done with men! There’s no going back! Cheers to a future with women ONLY.
But it wasn’t true, and months later, I am once again in a relationship with a cis man — one I happen to love very much.
I am now extremely aware of the fluidity of my sexuality, which is not unlike my fluidity when it comes to intimate relationships — the wanting, the needing of an open door. And a partner who not only respects that, but desires the same thing.
Many women who identify as bi, pan, or queer feel like the nuances of having a non-binary sexuality precludes them from being a part of the conversation. When you’re not queer enough to be gay and you’re not straight enough to be straight, your voice tends to come out as a whisper, your experience less validated. Perhaps because we have confused fluidity with fickleness; recognizing our inability to commit to a team without celebrating what that really means.
And even though I was in free-fall, life-altering-first-love with a woman, I found myself doing what I’d been working so hard NOT to do: pushing myself off the side, standing on the periphery, insisting that my experience was inconsequential. Not valid enough. As a person who claimed to be inclusive, why did I have such a hard time including myself?
There’s a conundrum in feeling empowered by new freedoms and unworthy of experiencing sexual relationships that might be unfamiliar: Because so many of us have spent years in traditional relationships, we never had the opportunities to pursue them. It’s not because we haven’t wanted to, but rather because monogamous heteronormative relationships have not allowed us to.
It is because of this that, for many of us, we don’t know where to begin. Additionally, it is not uncommon for women to come into our sexuality later in life, perhaps because we realize how much of it has been wrapped up in performative heteronormativity. We are told our early experiences were just a phase (Oh, her? That was just her “experimenting” in college) while also struggling with our own internalized monosexism, which suggests exclusive heterosexuality and/or homosexuality is superior or more legitimate because it’s specific. This is not to mention the various forms of biphobia claiming that women are only attracted to other women because of the trauma we’ve experienced with men.
And, because we are so conditioned to get specific — to pick a team — we still feel, even in 2021, that wanting sexual relationships with people of different genders, often simultaneously, makes us indecisive when in reality, many of us, after years of struggling, have finally arrived as our whole selves.
It makes sense if you think about how our culture is so obsessed not only with binaries, but also with choosing one thing. We don’t think twice about asking our children what their favorite color is. Or asking our date about their favorite film. We want so badly for people to choose, to be decisive about one person or one gender or one sexual orientation. And then we get confused when The One isn’t enough, when we realize we don’t work that way.
Queerness isn’t just about sexuality and gender. It’s also about embracing healthy lifestyles that do not fit into a white, patriarchal, heteronormative box. This goes beyond intimate partnerships and intersects with inclusion of all people who deserve love, autonomy, pleasure, and joy.
And isn’t that the whole point of Pride? To pull at the seams of limitation so that everyone, regardless of their past experiences, can pour through the ever-expanding opening? So that all humans — regardless of gender expression or sexual orientation — can experience such moments of intense realization without the fear of repercussions? I want everyone who feels similarly to be able to explore their feelings unencumbered, to experience the euphoria of connection without obstruction.
I have long made an effort to center those who have always identified as queer. But, as a way to understand how to include myself — while also being mindful of the many privileges I possess as someone who has never had to fight against anyone else’s bias to love who I love — I have also spent this time embracing my own version of heteronormative defiance. It’s one that is personal to me, and no one else. It’s a reminder to myself that a person’s truth is theirs to experience, define, and prioritize — not on the periphery of other people’s experience, but to center as our own.
All of this is why, in the end, I knocked the heteroflexible from my dating bio and replaced it with queer.
It is a beautiful thing to stay open. To liberate ourselves from all gazes beyond our own. That’s queerness to me. It’s about embracing the nuances of sexuality and gender and defining ourselves as indefinable. It’s about allowing ourselves to trust our bodies, to listen to our own wants and needs — especially as women and mothers who have centered everyone else’s for so long, only to wake up and realize we have never even asked ourselves what we want out of love — out of sex; out of connection.
And, as we collectively celebrate Pride this month, no matter where we are in our journey and what it took to get to queerness, may we remember that Pride was always a protest against the puritanical fear of queer liberation, acceptance and joy. It has always been a celebration of freedom to live and love and fuck with abandon, in bodies that are worthy of uninhibited truth — filtered through no one’s gaze but our own.