As somebody who self-identifies as queer, coming out has simultaneously been the thing that has changed my life the most and the least.
The most, in that I had to upend everything I knew in order to figure it out, and the least, in that when you come to familiarize yourself with queerness, you realize it is way more universal than the ideas that underpin heteronormativity.
The beginning of this story, for me, happens at age 15. I grew up in Manhattan, in about as liberal an environment as you can get. I went to a coed high school where people were generally left-leaning and open minded, and most my class of 110-ish kids had gone to school together since we were 7 years old.
One of my best friends, Andy, who I met at summer camp, went to an all-boys school. In high school, our friendship allowed us to introduce our friends to other girls and guys whom we hadn’t known since before we’d hit puberty. At that age, we’d head back to one of our houses, and at some point would wind up playing truth or dare or some other game that gave us all an excuse to make out with each other.
Until then, it was implied that the dares were always aimed at getting the boys and girls to make out. But one day, Andy invited a group of his friends from an all-girls school over. That day, the rules changed. Not only did those girls make out with each other, one even said she was bisexual. It blew my 15 year old mind.
One night, me and three of the girls went to a Sleater-Kinney concert at the Roseland Ballroom (which, if you were wondering, definitely does make this story much cooler than it should be). We drank vodka Red Bulls unironically, and on the way home, I shared a cab with one of the girls, who had better style than than most adults I know to this day. She casually asked me if I’d ever kissed a girl. I said no. and right then and there, she kissed me.
I’d made out with a handful of guys in those days of after school truth or dare, but for the first time in my life, I felt something different. I think the kiss probably lasted for 2–3 seconds, but it was long enough for something to click. My heart raced, I wanted the cab to let the meter run longer so we could just ride around the upper west side and kiss into infinity. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to read that it didn’t play out quite like that.
The cab stopped three minutes later, we got out, walked to the corner, and I was filled with the anticipation of kissing her goodnight. As I waited nervously to see what her move would be (my way of shooting my shot, which hasn’t changed much to this day tbh). She leaned in and gave me the type of hug that felt more like a pat on the head. And we went our separate ways.
That moment cleared a lot of things up for me. I was sure that I was bisexual and I was sure that it was okay to say it. I was also sure that the way I was experiencing it was distinctly different to the way my friends were, and that I wanted a version of that night where when we said good night we got to kiss again.
As the year went on, making out with girls became a regular part of those after-school parties. Though no make out in those subsequent years turned me on the way the first kiss had, it was still really fun.
But what I experienced a few months after was something distinctly less fun.
As is typical of high school, one day I got a call from a girl I knew ringing to tell me “as a friend” about a rumor that was going around about me. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, Steph” she said, with a heavy tone, “but there’s a rumor going around that you’re a lesbian”. The way she said lesbian made it sound more like loser. It hit me like a punch in the stomach. I knew the way this news was delivered didn’t mean the same thing as the proud way my friends had talked about bisexuality months earlier. It wasn’t meant to help me out of the closet or show me it was safe to explore. It was a way to drag somebody in that specific way high schoolers do.
The comfort I’d found in owning my bisexuality suddenly felt like a trap.
That moment taught me that sexual play and fluidity is totally okay, as long as you aren’t a lesbian about it.
The ways in which I internalized that message and unconsciously passed it on in the subsequent years is hard to count.
In high school and college I was ‘out’ as bisexual. For me that meant dating and having sex with men, and making out with girl friends when I was wasted enough so that it wouldn’t count as ‘gay’. I would have NEVER identified as queer, gay or lesbian back then.
Interestingly, Lady Gaga, who is also out as bisexual, went to the same all-girls high school as my friends did at roughly the same time. Recently, when she appeared on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, she said, “I’m not a gay woman”. I think there’s a clue in here about the type of rhetoric we were indoctrinated with about sexuality in those days.
Towards the end of my first serious relationship, which was with a man, my bisexuality morphed from being a part of my identity as inconsequential to our bond as my hair color, into an all-consuming, lying-awake-most-nights urge to explore. The more I tried to push it to the side, the more it pulled at the seams of my relationship.
When I finally moved out of our shared apartment to rebuild my life, I had a broken heart, pretty much no money, and no fucking clue what I wanted.
One night, when I was out with a bisexual female colleague, she pushed me against a fence and made out with me. Not like in the cab when I was 15, but really made out with me. I could feel her heart racing like mine, and all of the energy from the fantasies I’d been having rushed through me all at once.
In the coming months, our relationship took the quality of a bad gay porno. We’d get wasted, eventually start to sort of play wrestle as a weird excuse to get physical with each other until we ended up fooling around.
In this period of time, my hookups with women existed exclusively in these types of interactions. It would always start by getting drunk enough that hooking up ‘wasn’t gay’, then waking up and laughing it off, like ‘look at us, what silly friends we are!’
It was also in that period that my boss, who was an out lesbian and knew I was dating women, asked if I wanted to be part of our company’s internal Pride film.
“What? I’m not gay.” I responded, offended.
“Um, you date women”, she replied. Touché.
“Yeah, but like, not really.” I protested. “I have sex with women when I’m drunk. That doesn’t make me gay.’
“Having sex with women is pretty gay,” she responded.
I couldn’t argue, but I also couldn’t abide.
I wanted what I was doing to stay unnamed, to happen wasted, in dark bars, obscured to the point that it could never be confused for ‘lesbian’, ‘queer’ or ‘gay’ and all the politics and baggage that came with those labels. And I especially wanted it to be separate from my job.
This mindset pulled me towards closeted partners who amplified my shame. It alienated me from other queer people who could have helped me and given me support. It pushed me towards exploring my sexuality through partying, which made the shame worse, so much so that I would lie about who I was sleeping with to my therapist.
And then I moved to Amsterdam. The first woman I went on a date with in The Netherlands was bisexual, but mostly dated men. As we were getting to know each other, she told me she was going to go to a gay festival called Milkshake. She reminded me of the girls I’d dated in New York, with one important difference: when I asked her why the festival was important to her, she said “because I’m gay”.
I replied, “But you’re bisexual, right? And like, you’ve only really kissed a couple of girls. That definitely doesn’t make you gay?” She replied, “I don’t see the difference. I’m part of the community, so that makes me gay.”
It may seem like an obvious revelation, but it blew up my whole world.
Since I had broken up with my ex-boyfriend, I was crippled by the anxiety of ‘figuring out’ my sexuality, as if it was a ticking time bomb I had to defuse before it blew up my life again.
But here was somebody who made the choosing and the figuring out irrelevant. I could be everything. And celebrate all of it.
In sharp contrast to the trapped feeling I’d felt around my bisexuality in high school, the freedom I found in this definition of gay was pure oxygen.
For the first time in my life, I proudly attended Pride. I built a strong community of queer friends, became comfortable self-identifying as queer, and realized why I had been so right and so wrong about my sexuality.
My shame around the politics of queerness were the exact reason my queerness was political. I was ashamed of it because society had taught me that being lesbian or gay is shameful, and bisexuality is a loophole around that shame. But that logic is homophobic garbage that only creates more alienation and shame. Bisexuality and everything on the spectrum of queerness is queerness. You don’t need to earn a badge to be gay and you definitely can’t get a ‘pass’ from the shame and politics that surround it by using other vocabulary to describe it.
Accepting my queerness, marching for it, waiving a flag for it, became a powerful counterbalance to the years I’d spent walking against the wind.
Reading Jenna Lyons’s interview about her sexuality this week, I saw a mirror for my own story. The confusion when society is hell-bent on putting you in a box when you’re still totally unsure of where or if you fit. The weird mix of excitement you feel about exploring your sexuality, and the uncertainty about what any of it means for the bigger picture of your sexual identity beyond the fact that you’re into it, at least at this moment.
I didn’t ever ‘figure out my sexuality’ the way I thought I would, but getting comfortable with it made me sure of a few things. It made me sure that we should all have the freedom to explore what we’re into, without having to worry about what box that lands us in. It made me sure that shame is the jet fuel behind hate, and weaponizing words about identity like ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ is just about the most harmful way you can teach kids to behave.
In my work as a brand strategist, I often hear from ‘straight’ clients that queer culture is niche. But I disagree.
There’s a reason ‘straight’ people find Pride and Ru Paul’s Drag Race so liberating. It’s because heteronormativity assumes that there is a logic to desire and a ‘civilized’ way to act on it. But human desire is messy and illogical, not just for queer people.
I’m deeply convinced if you want to put an end to hatred and ‘other’-ing, a great place to start would be to work from the assumption that we’re all born queer, rather than straight.
After all, we’re a little gay — or maybe some of us aren’t — but we’re all a little something and the ideas that underpin heteronormativity are holding us all back from a life where it’s normal, not shameful or threatening, to find out where that desire takes us. And where queerness means it’s also normal that no matter what you’re into, to stand side by side in pride with others, proudly connected in the acceptance of your differences.