How often do you hear people discussing the chronological fluidity of sexuality? In my life, I rarely am party to these conversations. A lot of positive work has been done around fluid and queer sexual identities—from the basic idea that being bisexual doesn’t mean needing to ‘pick sides’, to the complexities of Judith Butler’s notions of performativity. These conversations are awesome and important and there should be more of them. We still live in a world that erases bisexuality and a kink scene that treats switching as less real or serious on a daily basis.
But there are many ways to be fluid, and time is one of them. A lesbian who marries a man doesn’t stop having been a lesbian when she identified that way. That I thought I was straight once and dated a woman this year doesn’t mean I was a latent queer all through high school. It seems unfair to the younger person I once was to retroactively re-write that identity. I know I wasn’t hiding a lust for ladies at that time, and while one could argue that labels should be of limited importance in our lives, once declared, they ought be respected.
I think that some folks fear that admitting our sexuality can change with time means it might not be innate and that if it’s not innate we’ve lost our rationalization for why we deserve to exist. And I definitely understand this, because arguing that sexuality is immutable, the way our society perceives race and gender to be immutable, is helpful in some instances, to winning legal rights. And also because for many people, their sexuality does feel totally immutable and they have been bullied their entire lives over whether they should change this fundamental part of themselves that they know they could never change.
But the common stranglehold on naturalizing discourse can limit nuance. I don’t mean this to shame people who are committed to defending queerness on the basis of being ‘born that way’. But it’s a fact that some people feel they chose queerness, and that counts too. And there are all the other ways of living that are not considered default in society—trans* identifies, polyamory, kink, etc. Some of these are understood as choices, and some as ‘always have beens’. That’s okay. You deserve to have the consensual life you want, regardless of why you want it.
But one person’s sense that they have always been immutably gay or (straight, or queer, or poly, etc.) doesn’t mean other folks haven’t had a more fluid experience. And it is hard to get people to talk about the way sexuality can change with time. This isn’t even about exploring the ways labels can inherently be limiting—though that’s important too. What worries me here is that there are so few models on how to change those labels. All we really have is ‘coming out’ and that is reserved for telling friends and family that we’re a little bit less normative than they once believed we were. I never ‘came out’ as queer because when I first began exploring it, I wasn’t even sure it’d stick. I’d spent years exclusively chasing (cis, normative, masculine) dick. But I really disliked the idea of ‘questioning’ because I didn’t feel confused, I just felt curious.
Like, discovering a new talent doesn’t mean you’ve lived your whole life in denial, and discovering a new band doesn’t mean that you lived your life in a music-less hell-void, and for me, discovering that touching a vagina was fun and not scary didn’t say anything about my life before discovering that. There is no model for ‘hmm, I’m not really sure’ that doesn’t assume confusion. But I like to live every day with a bit of the ‘hmm’ and have never felt confused about this. I am very confident in my not-knowing of what tomorrow will bring. It’s not some form of existential unrest—it’s just a present I haven’t unwrapped yet.
So I want more conversations about the way sexuality can change. I want my ‘hmm’ to be validated.
You may have read last year about Chirlane McCray, former member of the Combahee River Collective, political strategist, and wife to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. In 1979 she wrote an article for Essence (which I have yet to find a copy of) entitled “I am a Lesbian”. Now she is married to a man whose election has thrown her into the national spotlight. When Essence asked her in an interview last May, “So how did you go from being a lesbian to falling in love with a man?” She replied, “By putting aside the assumptions I had about the form and package my love would come in. By letting myself be as free as I felt when I went natural.”
Many articles about McCray have erroneously described her as a ‘former lesbian’. McCray has never said this about herself. We don’t know what kinds of words McCray likes to affix to her identity. We don’t know if there are any. When asked if she was now bisexual, McCray replied “I am more than just a label.”
So, the external’s in McCray’s life have clearly shifted. That she would go from Combahee to NYC’s First Lady was hardly a predictable trajectory. How she feels internally has potentially shifted too, but she’s not interested in defining it for an audience. She told Essence that “Labels put people in boxes, and those boxes are shaped like coffins.”
Sometimes a piece of writing has a clearly defined ‘hey, please do this thing’ that they build up skillfully throughout the essay, ending with a strong, engaging declaration. I’m not doing that here. I don’t have anything more clearly articulated for you than ‘maybe talk more’. That’s pretty much it. I don’t want to tell people how they should feel about their own sexualities (doh.) I don’t want to tell them what kind of words they should use. I don’t want to tell them they need to talk the way that I talk.
But I’m not the only person whose sexuality is not immutable. I’m not the only person who’s found bliss amidst the flux. This much is obvious. So why, when I know so many fabulous queers in my life, is fluidity in terms of time so rarely discussed? Not everybody’s self-exploration is a forward march of progress. Sometimes it’s more of a meander. And basically, I just want more talk about meanders.
To be honest, I didn’t even start using the word queer to describe myself until I needed a codeword for ‘none of your damn business’. Queer is many things to many people, but to me it was just that I got tired of explaining to people that I wasn’t straight, but had only dated men. That I didn’t care about being a woman, but didn’t mind it either. That bisexual, genderqueer, sub, bottom, poly or the other word’s I’d tried mostly felt like a lot of fanfare around something that I didn’t think needed so much fanfare. I adopted queer because it’s so ambiguous and vast and ill-defined that I thought it might mean people would leave me alone.
I am so different than I was even a decade ago. I can’t imagine who I will become in the next ten years. This doesn’t make me nervous or unsure. I have never felt more grounded than when I realized I could be okay with just not-knowing.
Not knowing gives me joy and I want more folks to share this with. I want ‘I don’t know’ to be a type of brave. I want to know tomorrow might surprise me. That sexuality is a lifelong walk. That it’s the road but not the street sign. That the road can have several street signs. That I’m not expected to be able to summon myself for you in words. That if you think you need to know something about me you’ll ask that thing about me. That a lack of label won’t scare you away. That a label won’t scare you away.
I want to know that the labels won’t scare me away. I want to find some folks to join me in my meander. That is what I mean when I wish we talked more about fluidity and time. It’s not everybody’s walk. Some people simply know. And that’s okay. But for those that don’t? Or who always know but for whom that knowing changes? That’s okay too.
In an interview with HuffPost Live, McCray expressed that she definitely wouldn’t have expected to be where she was 35 years ago when she penned that first article for Essence. I get that. Though I lack the years and wisdom of McCray, as I was coming of age a decade ago I wouldn’t have predicted my life right now either. I don’t wish I’d known back then what the future held. I just wish I’d known how okay not-knowing was.
So may we all have good traveling conditions in the year to come, whether we are on marches or on rest-stops or on meanders.