Five years ago, in my first week at college in a new town, a high school friend invited me to drinks. The other students there were talking about the struggle of trying to fit into a heteronormative world as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“What about you, Alice? What do you identify as?” a student asked me.
“Uh… uh, straight, I guess,” I responded, feeling caught in the spotlight.
In my conservative hometown, I’d only met one person who identified as a lesbian. I’d read and heard about homosexuality and bisexuality. But it was only in college that I realized how broad the spectrum is. At the drinks, there were people who identified as pansexual, bisexual, heterosexual and asexual.
Finding myself in a space that welcomed different sexualities allowed me to consider that maybe I wasn’t totally straight, which I’d never given myself a chance to do before.
I questioned whether I was heterosexual for a few reasons. For one, I suspected that I may have had a crush on a girl in high school. Another reason was that I’d never felt inclined toward sex. While many of my college friends had an active sex life, my hookups usually didn’t go further than a kiss.
I played around with a lot of labels. Maybe I was biromantic and heterosexual. Or maybe I was asexual. The one that seemed to fit best was demisexual, which means you only feel sexual attraction toward someone that you have an emotional bond with. But even this wasn’t totally right. I’d enjoyed sexual encounters with strangers. It was just rare for that to happen.
I never voiced any of these labels out loud. Although I had found a space that welcomed different sexual identities, I also got the sense that you needed to be 100% certain about your label. I worried I didn’t align strongly enough with any specific label to claim it as my own. Similarly, Harriet Williamson, who is pansexual, wrote on openDemocracy that she didn’t join an LGBTQ community in college because she didn’t feel that she would be considered “gay enough.”
My lack of identification with rigid heterosexuality isn’t unique. A 2018 YouGov study found that one-third of the participants, aged 18 to 34, identified as something other than totally heterosexual. Although it’s unclear whether these participants identify with a label, the study suggests that a growing number of people are sexually fluid and identify with being somewhere between heterosexual and homosexual. In a U.K.-based study, up to 55% of the participants between 18 and 24 identified as something other than wholly straight.
When I left college, I continued searching for the “right label.” Yet, despite reading and learning that you don’t need to fit certain criteria to identify with a label, I still never felt confident enough to claim any label as my own.
I’ve come to realize that my obsession with finding a label was about trying to find a simple explanation for my sexuality. If I could find a single word to describe my sexuality, then maybe dating would be easier for me.
Many queer people go through a period of “questioning” that involves a process of exploration of their sexual orientation or gender. This can lead to them finding the right label or labels. For other people, like me, who struggle to find the “right label,” it can feel like we’re stuck in the questioning stage.
Yet, the concept of labeling is cultural. In fact, there are cultures in history that were accepting of queer people and didn’t even have a concept of sexual orientation.
I’ve come to realize that my obsession with finding a label was about trying to find a simple explanation for my sexuality. If I could find a single word to describe my sexuality, then maybe dating would be easier for me. Typing the word “demisexual” or “asexual” in a Tinder bio seemed like an easy way to connect with the right people. Typing “mostly not interested in sex with strangers” didn’t quite have the same ring to it.
And when a guy couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t interested in sex straight away, I thought a label would offer a straightforward answer. But fixating on finding a label hasn’t helped me grow in my sexual identity. Who I date or how I have sex shouldn’t be dictated by the label I choose.
Besides, sexualities can change over time. Claiming a label does not have to be a lifelong commitment. It doesn’t have to be a commitment at all. A psychologist who studied 100 women for over a decade found that as they moved from adolescence to adulthood, their sexual orientations shifted.
Labels can be helpful ― they help people find others to connect with, which is often an important part of understanding one’s sexuality or gender. On a policy level, labels can make a complex human experience easier to understand, which can be helpful for things like funding.
Yet, trying to choose a label can make the process of understanding one’s sexuality or gender even more confusing. It has taken me 23 years to realize that a label doesn’t offer some kind of inner truth about my identity or sexuality.
I have finally given up the search for a label. I don’t know who my future self is going to be attracted to. I also don’t believe that my journey toward fully embracing and understanding my sexuality includes fitting into a single box. And so, yes, this might make my Tinder profile a little less accessible.
But when — and if — the right person comes along, they will just have to try a little harder to understand me.
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