Sexuality as a lifelong process
by Joshunda Sanders
I wrote “The Questioning Continuum” because of a deep need to sort out what bothered me about existing labels for sexuality and the absence of considering sexual fluidity in dialogues and spaces that claim to champion diversity. It was frightening to write, but it was deeply moving to read the reactions and responses to it.
Social media has allowed for a complex dialogue about sexual fluidity to emerge over the past few years. Actor Maria Bello declared herself a sexual “whatever” in a 2013 New York Times “Modern Love” column that inspired her new book Whatever…Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves. Elsewhere in the NYT, author Charles M. Blow wrote an op-ed in which he acknowledged that “Attraction is simply more nuanced for more people than some of us want to admit, sometimes even to ourselves.” And Miley Cyrus, of course, has become mainstream media’s favorite sexual outlaw, telling Paper, “Everything that’s legal, I’m down with. Yo, I’m down with any adult—anyone over the age of 18 who is down to love me, and I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.”
The work of writers is to illuminate a path for ourselves and others while we try to figure out what we think we know, who we think we are, and what we think we believe. With “The Questioning Continuum,” I was honored to engage in that work.
At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, I once went through a bisexual stage.
I was a teenager, and I tried on the label as a way to describe my affection outside of prescribed definitions of love and lust. But like the too-small shoes I’d wear before I came across affordable size 12s, the identity was ill-fitting.
But discarding it was difficult. I am a regimented woman; I love structure. I love labeling things with Post-it notes and storing them in pastel Martha Stewart accordion files. I am a Catholic choir lady, I run marathons to relax, and I truly enjoy the manic discipline of arranging words on paper.
But you can’t file away desire.
The maddening and amazing thing about the heart is its inability to be classified or pinned down. Labeling myself sexually has never worked, as much as I have admired the gumption of women like Sex and the City’s Samantha or The L Word’s Shane. I have been a folder without a label, languishing in sexual limbo during a time of increasing mainstream acceptance of lgbtq identity.
But while the Q of “queer” is rightfully gaining more traction, the Q of “questioning” doesn’t get a lot of love in a culture that demands definition. I have always envied people who find the perfect sticker for themselves and proudly display it one way or another, but I grew up finding role models in people of color who expressed a sexuality fluid enough to seem as close to being a questioner’s love as possible—the broad romanticism of Zora Neale Hurston, bell hooks’s adamant romantic flexibility, the undesignated bisexuality of Lorraine Hansberry, or the declared free sexual expression of Alice Walker and MeshellNdegeocello. Even the rappers I loved, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, were presumed to be gay because they operated in the male-dominated universe of hip hop—but I respected that, like Jodie Foster and Frank Ocean, they never declared their sexuality one way or the other.
Perhaps it is easiest to fully disregard sexual categorization altogether, like quite a few young celebs are doing. In October, Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson told Out magazine that he is “mostly straight” but that, like a lot of people of his generation, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of same-sex attraction. “I’ve never been, like, ‘Oh, I want to kiss that guy.’ I really love women,” he said. “But I think defining yourself as 100 percent anything is kind of nearsighted and closed-minded.”
The question of defining oneself as totally in one camp or another has been on my mind as so many African Americans in the pop-culture spotlight have come out in a way that is nothing short of historic. From Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, Michael Sam in the NFL, Jason Collins in the NBA, and Brittney Griner in the WNBA, it has been encouraging to see their courage affirmed more often than not.
What we questioners have in common with our decidedly gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is the same impulse to destroy our lives when we feel suddenly that we may be locked out of any sense of true community. When I first realized I was something other than heterosexual yet wasn’t quite willing to claim queer, I let myself sink first into suicidal despair. I realized that I might not have a single team to join, but perhaps more than one, maybe one that was beyond language, beyond the acceptable parameters of longing prescribed by my Catholic upbringing, my Baptist family, or anyone else who was already looking to exclude me from the normalcies of daily life because I was born poor, black, and a woman.
The freedom to choose was constricted by what I grew up experiencing and believing. As I saw more and more lgbtq people come out of the closet, I wondered whether or not I even had a closet to walk out of.
I was born to a devout Catholic mother and grew up in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s. In middle school, I found my first literary angel and mentor, James Baldwin, in a nonfiction collection called The Price of the Ticket. In his essay “Here Be Dragons,” Baldwin wrote about each human as androgynous, containing elements of both man and woman. Until I read his work, I was fundamentally unable to separate the act of loving from the act of sex: Popular culture discussions and depictions of sexuality, after all, center on who does what with whom. But love enchants us because it is the least mechanical aspect of our lives, the place where we can still encounter spontaneity.
“Love between any two human beings would not be possible did we not have available to us the spiritual resources of both sexes,” Baldwin wrote. “Love and sexual activity are not synonymous: Only by becoming inhuman can the human being pretend they are.”
Black mothers are so frequently portrayed as flawed and inhumane that I struggle always to describe the cruelties and failings of my mother, even though those are the key aspects of my childhood with her that I remember. She was a funny woman, but also mentally ill and unmedicated. I do not know how much of her religious fervor was related to her bipolar disorder, but I do remember watching her disgust during Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as men with pink triangles and the words “Silence = Death” on their shirts stood up in silent protest during homilies.
During her manic moments, she sometimes referred to me as a “lesbian bitch.” The epithet made it easy for me to make the leap from fearing her rejection to trying to kill myself when I was around 11, after kissing Lydia, the daughter of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When her parents discovered what we had been doing, I never saw my friend again. I was devastated. I also felt trapped in an identity structured to pacify my mother and make our hard lives as relatively easy as possible.
My mother might have flipped out if I’d told her that I’d hooked up with Lydia. I never considered that if she disowned me I would not lose anything (as we had nothing), but that my life might actually get better—a testament to the stronghold her mental illness had on my well-being.
She would have been livid to see any of the envelopes labeled “Beautiful Black Bisexual” that I sent to my two best friends in high school. Those words were my bridge to them from upstate New York on scholarship at boarding school, hundreds of miles from my mother in the Bronx. There, I tried on the words that still didn’t fit, hoping I could grow into the courage of understanding who or how I was supposed to love properly.
A decade ago, when I found myself in love with a woman for the first time, I was living in the Bay Area, a center of free, open sexuality. But my queer (soon-to-be-ex) friends felt that I was not being honest enough, and my friendships with heterosexuals ended as soon as they began quoting chapters of the Bible that outlined my fate for kissing girls and liking it.
I worked myself into the ground trying to make my sexuality a exclamation point instead of a question mark, and was not even close to being successful. Years later, the question of whether I am straight or something else stubbornly remains. Like many people, I long to fit into a neat category, and it irks me to be so open to the possibility of love in any form. But a lifetime is a long time to be at war with yourself.
Unsurprisingly, there remains a persistently unaddressed and entrenched cultural bias against people who identify as bisexual or questioning. Maria Bello’s “Modern Love” column, “Coming Out as a Modern Family,” was a rare exception, where she writes about falling in love with her friend Clare without stating her sexual preferences explicitly. Not long after, articles in the New York Times Magazine and Salonincisively explored both queer and straight resistance to the widely acknowledged (if rarely tolerated) notion of the Kinsey scale of sexual fluidity.
In Salon, Louise Sloan wrote about coming out of the “bisexual closet” after identifying as a lesbian for years. Even though she knew she had always been attracted to men, her choice to identify as gay was purposeful: “Adopting a label that didn’t quite fit me was definitely a political choice. No one wanted to discriminate against me for liking men. And with people getting fired and denied many basic rights for having same-sex relationships, I felt the term ‘bisexual,’ though accurate, just confused the issue,” she wrote. “Refusing a label altogether? Tempting, but total political cop-out. The way I looked, people would just assume I was straight.”
Until I read Sloan’s piece, it had never occurred to me that my steadfast ambivalence about labeling my sexuality might be viewed as a political cop-out. Bisexual erasure and invisibility are real, for certain, but so is the invisibility of those of us who feel levels of attraction along a continuum. What of those of us who, even as adults, are not adamant about a specific location along the sexuality spectrum? Questioning one’s sexuality is often considered (like bisexuality) to simply be a confused, temporary stage on your way to being gay or lesbian, a mushy gray area of romance.
Lisa Diamond, who studies identity and same-sex attraction, was quoted in the New York Times Magazine’s “The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists,” and took the words right out from under my keyboard: “I think our categories of gay versus bisexual don’t capture all the important space in between.” Diamond was also quoted, along with several other researchers, in a February 2014 piece published in The Advocate, “Exploring the Umbrella: Bisexuality and Fluidity,” discussing data that shows that 10 to 14 percent of American women describe themselves as mostly but not completely heterosexual; 6 to 9 percent of American men identify similarly.
There is a place, researchers and advocates agree, for our sexual attractions to grow and change over time. Denise Penn, who is on the board of directors for the American Institute of Bisexuality, put it this way inThe Advocate: “I think that fluidity is simply a way to express the gray area that reality really is…. Fluidity refers to a range, and I think that’s good.”
But if fluidity is gaining acceptance and we can all begin to see that we share an evolving sense of sexuality, why is it always left out of the conversation? In a 2012 Gallup Poll announcing that 3.4 percent of Americans identify as “lgbt” the Q was eliminated altogether. Online searches about the meaning of that Q reveal forums and pdfs explaining that there is power in declaration, and declaring oneself in one way or another is a way of being truthful, empowered, and free.
I cannot ignore that freedom to me looks different. It looks more fluid and less discrete. It is possible that I am unlike other nonwhite Americans—who, according to that same Gallup Poll, are more likely than our white counterparts to identify as L, G, B, or T—and I am allowing shame or fear or my general dislike of categories to keep me in the closet. At the same time, many of us question our sexuality for far longer than beyond adolescence. That is not abnormal; it is not some suspension of adulthood or extension of childhood. It is a way of allowing love and intimacy to develop outside of conventional standards or definitions of how sexuality should be expressed.
Unfortunately, we are a nation that is rarely satisfied with unanswered questions. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage noted, “Nowadays, there’s so much information about everybody that it’s hard to see the performance when you know what [the actor] had for dinner last night. You want to keep a mystery. I think it’s healthy too. You want your privacy as a human being.”
It is healthy to keep a little to yourself. But is it my shame and lack of self-acceptance saying that? Is it an excuse to not come out, or is it valid? I can’t tell. I wonder if, in the perceived pressure to declare oneself along one line or another, we don’t also confine ourselves to thinking about desire in compartmentalized ways. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”
I live those lines like a mantra. I like that possibility and openness. I have learned to be comfortable with the ambiguity, even if the world isn’t quite ready yet.