My early experiences with queerness could have been scenes from a cliche coming-of-age story. Open up to the interior of a gloomy bedroom. Two teenage girls – one with a shock of dark curls, the other, me, in a crisp bob with thick bangs – negotiate who will be “the boy” in their kissing exercise.
Fade into the interior of a jeep five years later. It’s pouring rain outside. No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom” is playing on the stereo. A blonde girl with glitter in the corner of her eye is sitting in the driver’s seat. Next to her is one of the girls from the previous scene, with longer hair but with the same heavy bangs. The rain makes beautiful slippery patterns on their bodies. They clasp their knees to avoid approaching each other.
Then we see her sitting on a massive water bed in a bedroom. The blonde girl reaches out to the other, kisses and grabs her breasts while giggling. The other girl withdraws. Then there’s a montage of the blonde girl bathing naked with groups of other teens, dancing naked with a group around a campfire, she and the girl with bangs making out with different guys on opposite sides of the waterbed, and finally after a tearful argument, the Girl with bangs walks away.
In the mid-’90s, as I wrestled with guilt and confusion about being attracted to a girl—and her attraction to many people at once—the term queer went from being an offensive term to an empowering verb as a new one Frame. Queer Theory, united academics interested in sexuality and gender that fell outside of heterosexual norms. “Queering” was about more than just sex and gender, it also subverted the dominant culture’s position on sex and relationships, what families looked like and how they were formed. It challenged conventional narratives about identity, monogamy and more.
I was far from ready for such an unconventional lens. Just kissing a girl felt like crossing a dangerous line, but the girl I kissed was ready to shake off the entire fabric of heteronormativity. Unable to understand each other’s perspectives, we broke up, and by the time I was 15, I started dating men again. It was easier than figuring out my sexual identity.
I never thought of myself as gay back then. After all, I was attracted to men, and bisexuality was treated with great skepticism in the ’90s. The few gay people I knew all agreed that their sexuality was not a choice. As someone who was attracted to both men and women, it felt like the only defense was to choose what would make everyone more comfortable.
That logic continued through high school. I went between periods of exclusivity with guys who wanted to be my boyfriend (even if I wasn’t particularly attracted) and periods of what I called “wild flirtation” where I would make out with a bunch of different guys. I’ve always had multiple crushes, which I was deeply ashamed of. I also had a best friend who I thought was so beautiful I wanted to touch her stomach, although I never did. At 18, I moved from my conservative hometown to the next town. I was only there a few months when I met a woman who I found so absolutely attractive that I decided I had to be a lesbian. I called my parents and announced my new sexual orientation – they predictably responded by telling me I was going to hell.
The wife and I moved in together. I was very curious about her body, but she quickly realized that touching her was taboo – she would only touch me. She carefully kept me separate from her friends and took pride in meeting “straight” girls, a category in which she adamantly placed me. When our relationship ended after three years, she found another “straight” girl and I was left disconnected from the gay community, embarrassed by my little experience of satisfying a woman and lingering Christian shame about what sex and love looks like should. I pined for my ex for a year, then I started dating a boring, financially successful guy who was pushing me to grow my hair out and shop at Banana Republic.
I dated another guy, then another. At the same time, I’ve had a number of very close friendships with women, some of which eventually led to some kind of sexual or romantic climax — a kiss, a hug, a prolonged gaze — that either ended the friendship suddenly or marked the beginning of a measured move away. I gradually came to accept that I was bisexual, but I lived like a straight person, although I often found dating men stifling and frustrating.
Then one of my relationships with a man stretched beyond the usual two to three years to five, then six. There was talk of marriage, which made me panic even as I tried to convince myself that this was what I wanted. When the relationship ended, I was sad but also relieved. I moved out and found myself in a whole new cliché: the midlife crisis.
At 40, I was finally ready to figure out what I wanted. I was tired of monogamy, of gender roles, of forcing my feet into heels and my body into size 6 jeans, of sex that followed a predictable script, of every relationship following the same trajectory. I found myself again, not as gay or bi or even pansexual, but as queer, an identity that implied a wholesale rejection of sexual and romantic norms.
“For many people born before Gen Z, making decisions about our sexuality feels rampant. We grew up in a time when queerness was seen as unnatural and wrong, when gay and straight were two opposing teams that everyone should choose between.”
If I were 20 years younger, that identity wouldn’t feel so out of place. At the college where I teach, some of my students identify as queer and non-binary, but among my colleagues and friends who are older millennials, I still see a lot of bisexual repression, rigid relationship structures, and unease with exploring Gender identities outside of the male/female binary.
For many people born before Gen Z, making decisions about our sexuality feels rampant. We grew up in a time when queerness was seen as unnatural and wrong, when gay and straight were two opposing teams for everyone to choose between. I’ve spent many years believing this, but I’m finally learning to accept that my sexuality doesn’t exactly fit into a predetermined category and I’m finding ways to skew my relationships, regardless of the gender of my partners.
What that looks like is complicated. It also has a lot to do with community and visibility. I’ve delved into queer podcasts, TV shows, and music. I do the monthly hikes hosted by a local LGBTQ+ organization and have joined a queer book club. I identify as queer to my students and colleagues at the college where I teach. I’ve come out to my family and friends, most of whom have assured me they still love me, and some of whom have taken an interest. I’ve started to see queerness as an intrinsic part of me, not something that depends on who I date.
I express my gender in a way that feels more authentic and fluid. I cut my hair short and donated most of my clothes. I choose clothes that I feel comfortable in, even if they don’t follow the rules of what is flattering or sexy to others. I work on accepting my body rather than trying to force it into a certain size and shape.
Love and connection are very important to me, but I’ve learned that I’m happiest when I live alone and I don’t want children. I’m no longer willing to follow the familiar story that tells us that love is possessive and one-sided, that it only counts when it’s romantic, one-person, and lasts forever. When I meet someone I like, I try to explore the connection with an open mind, and if something doesn’t work, I take a step back instead of cutting things off forever. I build relationships that feel good to me, even if they look weird to others.
In the final scene of this film, which began playing all those years ago, the girl with the pony – now a woman – is having dinner with three other people. The man next to her, whom she has loved for eight years, touches her knee under the table, a gesture of reassurance and affection. She smiles at him, then turns her attention to a blonde woman across from her, asks if she wants more food, then gets up to clear the table. The two women stand close together as they make tea and plan when they will meet again. When it’s time to leave, they hug for a long time before the blonde woman and her partner say goodbye. The woman with bangs and the man she has known for eight years sit side by side on the couch and hold hands. They discuss all of the paths they’ve been on together and apart, and all of the possibilities that lie ahead. It’s a life she has yet to figure out – one that scares her at times – but it’s the life she chose, one that she built out of her deepest needs and desires. It feels right to choose, to be right, to be right, to be right different. Funny. Strange.
Laura M. Martin lives in South Carolina, where she teaches at a small university, tends a stubborn and mostly edible garden, and works on her memoir. You can find her on Instagram @LauraMMWriter.
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