Why did I date men for so long before coming out as a lesbian?
Questions I ask myself while grappling with my own identity are, "Why did I date men for so long before I came out as such a flaming lesbian?"
I think I knew I was queer at a much younger age than I was ready to admit fully and openly to even myself, let alone my family and friends.
Looking back, I think I was uncomfortable with the word “lesbian.” I asked my friend Grace Davis, who came out at a similar point in her life, if she felt the same way.
"I get really uncomfortable with [the word 'lesbian']," Grace said. "I think it's disgustingly fetishized and over-sexualized in the heterosexual eye. It's a category in porn, and to think that who you are might be just looked at for sex is disappointing. So 'lesbian' is a really difficult word for me."
Any time I hear the word “lesbian,” the first person I think of is my mom’s friend Rachel Shortt. So I wanted to get her thoughts on the word too. She invited me to a rehearsal of her band, Rachel Shortt and the Underwoods, at a warehouse on Cleveland's near West Side.
After they played a cover of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Rachel told me she doesn’t love any type of label. She thinks labels are a forced way to describe us to gain common ground.
"Labels are like the red tape of sexuality right now," she said. "I feel like we have to label and describe ourselves rather than just identifying with the fact that we're intellectual human beings experiencing empathy and other feeling and/or chemical reactions towards one another."
Rachel told me about her experience moving out of small town Ohio to Seattle. When she moved, she felt more liberated and able to just exist without being tied down by labels.
"[In Ohio], it didn't matter where I went: Walking down the street in Lakewood, in North Olmsted, everywhere I went, being a short hair, faux hawk, Rufio-looking [person] made me like a scream," Rachel said, referring to how different she felt from those around her. "And when I got to Seattle, everybody was a scream."
I related to this because when I was younger, I already felt like a scream — just from being different in general, regardless of my sexuality. So to add to the scream, by fully recognizing the attractions I had to non-men and proclaiming it to the world, was not really appealing.
A former fling
But to fully understand why I was was attracted to men for so long before coming out, I knew I needed to talk to a former fling.
Kevin Smith has been my friend since I started noticing boys. We met through the breeding ground of many high school kids’ first sexual encounters: marching band.
It turned out Kevin and I both felt some confusion about what had happened between us.
"There was a point where I had feelings for you," I told him when we met to reflect. "And there was, like, a week long where all we did was stay up on the phone and ask those personal questions and stuff."
I asked him about his perception of our relationship.
"I think it took until you realized you were gay, for us to finally be like, 'Yeah, we should just be friends,'" Kevin said. "Which is great. I'm really glad you personally realized that for your sake, just because that's a lot to figure out personally. And then also being able to move on where it's like, 'Is this sexual tension or what's going on?'"
I asked why he thought it took me a while before coming out. Kevin didn't hesitate to answer.
"Because society is always like men and women need to be together," he said. "No matter when you're raised, it's never like, 'Oh, if you happen to like girls, that's fine, too.' It's just like 'find a boy' sort of thing."
My biggest takeaway from talking to Kevin is about my own experience finding my identity. My past experiences helped me figure out what I like from other people and have shaped me into the person I am today.
So to answer my initial question — "Why did I date men for so long before coming out?" — who cares?
Labels aren’t really important. What is important is knowing who I am and nurturing my own existence.
I can wholeheartedly say today I am the happiest, most fully formed version of myself that has ever existed. And I could not be prouder.
"+Voices" shares stories from LGBTQ+ young people, in partnership with the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. It's part of Ideastream Public Media's "Sound of Us" initiative to empower Northeast Ohioans to tell their own stories, facilitated and co-produced by Ideastream's Justin Glanville.