“I know you were flirting with that guy at the bar,” Jade said, her teeth clenched into an underbite, her criticisms almost fighting their way out of her mouth, through the spaces between her teeth.
“His name is Dee,” I said. “And no, I wasn’t. He’s just a friend.”
Whatever you say, she said. But I know that I’m just an experiment.
We were standing in my kitchen, drunk, fighting. This time, over a boy from Cuba I’d been friends with for two years, whom we’d run into on New Years’ — strangely, at the local lesbian bar, Sass. We’d played a game of pool, had Captain and Cokes. Jade seemed like she liked him, until we got home. When she started in, I’d clutched the handle of the refrigerator in my hand, dug my nails into the palm of the other, closed my eyes. Clenched my own teeth. This had been a recurring theme in my and Jade’s relationship — whether or not I was genuinely attracted to her, whether or not I actually loved her, whether I secretly liked men and was getting a phase out of my system. I was, after all, in college, and isn’t that the joke, that girls messing around with other girls in college is just girls gone wild?
Jade was my first girlfriend girlfriend, the first woman with whom I had a romantic relationship, after having dated men in high school and my early college years. We met in a bar — more specifically, a gay dance club (always promising for a long-term relationship, but back then, it was hard to meet openly LGBT people elsewhere). She was feminine and I wasn’t butch — once we got together, it didn’t occur to anyone that we were in a relationship unless we held hands or made out in public, which was always a mistake in front of men, who’d, since we were both feminine, assume we were also into men and ask for threesomes. But, once I was with her, I didn’t mind who knew or who didn’t; I was just happy to have found a woman who actually liked me back.
Before Jade, I’d only shared the fact that I was sometimes attracted to women with a few select friends, or with a few poor souls to whom I was hopelessly attracted but didn’t have the same feelings for me. Since I was starry-eyed over Jade, I felt ready to tell people.
Telling all of them the truth.
I thought the truth was simple. I like who I like. I date whomever I connect with, man or woman or trans or androgynous. I didn’t use a word like “gay” or “lesbian” to describe my attraction. I tried “bi” a few times, even though that word also felt wrong. It didn’t feel like any of these words described me, because my relationships were just a part of me, and I didn’t understand why anyone found it monumental that people could be attracted to more than one type of person. I saw it basically as simple as being attracted to people with brown hair or blonde hair or red hair or people with different eye colors. Other people didn’t see it as something so simple. Especially Jade. And especially my parents.
Jade knew I was also attracted to men, and brought this up basically any time a man came up on TV, in conversation, or physically to us, which was often. I’ll never date a bi person again, she’d tell me, I’m always wondering when you’ll leave me for a man. Or, you’re just using me to see if you like women. Or, butch lesbians are so much hotter. At least I know they’re into me. Or — my favorite — you’re just not gay enough. Later, long after Jade, a boy named Nick would break up with me because he was afraid I’d leave him for a woman. No gender was immune from my potential infidelity!
I may as well have been Madonna (sadly, though, I didn’t have a cone bra, nor a good voice). Playing both sides of the fence, that slut, my mom once said. Of course, Madonna was the person I brought up when I tried to explain my “sexuality” to my mother (mistake no. 2). I was trying to soften the blow with the quip, you know, kind of like Madonna, I’m an equal opportunity employer, etc., etc., but my mom still screamed as if I had died (and later told me that the day I told her I was “gay,” it felt like I actually did die) and cried about the wedding she would never get to attend, the grandchildren on which she’d miss out. All of her hopes and dreams for me gone like my preference for the penis.
After the (literal) screaming and crying, she quickly moved into denial, and believed I’d end the relationship with Jade and move back on to men. What about that guy you dated, she asked, the one who looked like Ashton Kutcher? Or Dan? Or Ben? You said you loved them! You cried when you broke up. And you were mad that Ben was gay! How can you be gay when you’ve been mad that other people are gay?!
There was no explaining that I wasn’t actually gay, and maybe I would, indeed move back onto men. And she wasn’t wrong, I did cry about the loss of the Ashton Kutcher look-alike. Who wouldn’t?
But arguing that I wasn’t gay wouldn’t help, because it would invalidate my feelings toward Jade and other women. I was thus in a bind: either tell my mom and the rest of my family that I was gay and forever so, or deal with constant lamenting about my phase, my “choice” to be with women.
The lesbian community wasn’t having any of it, either. Granted, I live(d) in a place that doesn’t have the biggest lesbian community — most of the lesbians in Northeastern Wisconsin know each other and have been with each other (wish I had known this and asked someone about our friend Jade before getting with her, but alas, I digress). But it was still hard to find acceptance in a community that (at least around then) decried penises at any possible opportunity and called people who identify as heterosexual “breeders.” Indeed, Jade demanded that we go only to gay bars, spitting out the words, that’s a breeder bar, I can’t believe you’d even think about going there any time I wanted to go anywhere but Sass or the gay bar that was constantly putting on drag shows (love them and all, but sometimes, I need a quieter scene).
Obviously, I don’t believe all lesbians are like Jade, and I’m not trying to buy into the stereotype of the man-hating lesbian. I’m just saying that in my experience, it’s been hard to find people who accept my sexuality, especially where I live. Whether it was my mother, Jade, the local lesbian community, or anyone else I told about my attraction to women, the message was clear: my identity isn’t valid because it doesn’t have a label. It isn’t black or white or even gray. It isn’t even an identity, really, even to myself — I didn’t (and don’t) like the idea that having feelings for another human being defines us as anything beyond human. But everywhere I looked, there was someone questioning the realness of my feelings toward women. Strangely, no one has questioned whether my feelings for men are real or if my relationships with men had been part of a phase. Instead, they’ve waited for my compass to once again point North and called the women with whom I had romantic relationships friends, even later, after I’d been in a relationship with one woman for four years.
Since I told people in my circle that my romantic possibilities aren’t limited to men several years ago, a lot of things haven’t changed (except maybe my relationship status). Lesbians still don’t want to date me. Men still think I’m a lesbian. My mom probably still thinks I’m gay. There has been some hope, though — I’ve have found more accepting friends, and I did have a relationship with another nonbinary-sexual (ha) woman, a relationship in which the only attraction that mattered was my attraction to her. But it’s still hard for me — people make assumptions about my sexuality one way or the other, depending on whom I’m interested in or seeing at the time, or they deem me confused or a slut, when I’m neither. I’m just a person with attractions to other people.
Recently, my mother called to tell me she was going on a trip to Hawaii. I’ve been single — no man, woman, or anyone else — for almost two years now. She told me she hoped to bring me back a souvenir. A good one, since I’m probably lonely by now — one of those hot, tan men in a hula skirt, she said.
Or maybe one of those women in a coconut bra, she said, laughing (she must have heard me grumble). I guess whatever it is that you’re into these days.
I laughed and told her that maybe she should bring me back both.