By Paige Owen
Like many young bisexual girls, the first label I used to describe my sexual identity was “straight,” followed by a long, silent phase of “Oh no, am I a lesbian!?” Long before I discovered that I had sexual and romantic attraction towards other girls and women, I chased boys on the playground and they chased me. Same-sex recess tag never had the same connotations that the opposite-sex alternative had. Girls never chased other girls on the playground, begging for hand holding and kisses on the lips. I never even considered this as an option. I was confused when I discovered, around the age of ten, that I viewed women differently than it seemed most of my female peers. It didn’t help that I had discovered this in the same way that many millennials discover sex and sexuality: through misogynistic, homophobic and pornographic material on the Internet.
In high school, when I came to terms with the fact that I might not be completely heterosexual, I went through many labels, none of which I shared with my friends or family. I remember one time when my friends and I sat down to watch Orange is the New Black, a dialogue was sparked about the support that Laverne Cox’s transgender character receives from her wife throughout her transition. The group of heterosexual women unanimously agreed that they wouldn’t be able to have a romantic or sexual relationship with another woman, regardless of the circumstances. Meanwhile, I sat silently wondering how a change in my perception of someone’s gender could possibly cause me to stop loving them. It was around this time that I started to become comfortable with the term pansexual, because I did not think of gender as a strong deciding factor in whether or not to start a relationship with someone. (Not that I had had any real relationships at the age of sixteen, with men or women.)
The term pansexual seemed to fit me nicely and within online safe spaces, this is how I began to identify myself. I adamantly rejected the term bisexual because I mistakenly thought that it reinforced the gender binary. Upon entering college, I was immediately exposed to my school’s celebration of Queer Awareness Month. I had heard about people reclaiming the former slur queer and using it as a term of self-identification but I had no idea how widespread this trend was. I learned about how words like queer and gay were starting to be used as umbrella terms for LGBTQ+ individuals. Before long, I fell in love with the label queer and it is still the term that I feel best fits my identity. While other terms can often draw certain assumptions from others or feel limiting, queer not only represents a complex part of my own identity but also a huge worldwide community that I am lucky enough to be a part of.
It wasn’t until Bi Women Quarterly editor Robyn Ochs visited my school that I really began to appreciate bisexuality as a label for myself. I began to realize that there was a huge community of bisexual women that I had been cutting myself off from simply because I preferred other labels. I began to understand the struggles and joys that I shared with other bisexual women. On that day, I bought a button that says “Do you like boys or girls? Yes!” and it is still pinned to my backpack as I sit writing this. I wear this pin with the pride of a queer bisexual woman living in a heterosexually dominated society. Every time I choose to wear this pin in public, I am brave. Sometimes I forget that the pin is there and I’ll venture away from my liberal college campus to unknowingly display my bisexual pride elsewhere. Only when I hear footsteps behind me am I reminded that this badge is one that not only includes me in the beautifully diverse bisexual community but also one that can sometimes alienate and “other” me from the rest of the world.
Although I am not out as a bisexual woman in all realms of my life, I have started to become comfortable identifying myself as “not-straight” when meeting new people. How I label myself to these people depends upon the setting we are in. In an environment that I know includes many queer individuals or people who are knowledgeable about queerness, I will often identify myself as queer because that is the term with which I feel most comfortable. However, in situations where I know or assume that the person I am talking to is straight and not very well informed about the queer community, I will usually identify myself as bisexual. Although bisexual women still face a great deal of discrimination within and outside of the queer community, the term bisexuality is one that is at least in the average person’s vocabulary, which is not always the case with pansexuality or queerness. Because I now feel comfortable identifying as bisexual, it is easier for me to explain my sexuality to straight people. Once I become more comfortable with a straight friend, I may decide to discuss with them the many other aspects of my sexual identity that the term bisexual may not immediately reveal.
I am gay. I am a lesbian. I am bisexual. I am pansexual. I am queer. Some of these things may seem contradictory (Can you love and make love with a man and still be a lesbian?) but they are all terms that I identify with on some level. While the labels I use to identify myself have changed quite a lot over the past twenty years and will likely continue to change, there is one thing I know for damn sure: I am not and never will be straight.
Paige Owen is a 20-year-old college student currently pursuing both a bachelor’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies and a master’s degree in Deaf Education. She splits her time between The College of New Jersey and her home outside of Annapolis, Maryland.