“All identities are valid.” Queers love to say this, only to raise an eyebrow at the lesbian who mentions her ex-boyfriend, or the trans person who changes their pronouns more than once. All too often, when queers say “all identities are valid” it’s with the unspoken caveat: “as long as you’re absolutely certain, and your narrative is coherent, and you stay in your box.”
Why are queers resistant to “incoherence” (read: fluidity) in ourselves and others? In my experience, the impulse is rooted in trauma. When you’ve been told over and over again that your desires are unnatural, that your relationship isn’t valid, or that your sexual orientation or gender expression is “just a phase,” you learn to be ashamed of your experiences, and to not trust your own account of them.
In short, queers resist fluidity in ourselves and others because we crave the acceptance and validation that’s been denied to us by our loved ones and society at large.
I identify as a queer transgender man. But I haven’t always identified this way. There was a time when I identified as a straight woman, a time when I identified as a gay woman, and a time when I identified as a straight man. I don’t think I was ever “wrong” about my identity, or about my own experience, at any point along the way. The labels I chose were accurate, meaningful descriptions of my desires, and behavior patterns over a significant stretch of time, as I best understood them.
Nowadays I identify as queer because I believe that identity, certainly my identity, is fluid, and I like how the word “queer” encompasses all possible experiences, attractions and transformations, and allows me to remain open to these possibilities. I also feel that any other label over-simplifies a history which, while coherent, is neither simple nor static.
My earliest sexual memories are fuzzy, in part because a good portion of my teen and adult years were spent either starving myself or abusing alcohol. I was hospitalized three times for anorexia by the age of twenty, and as soon as I recovered from my eating disorder, I started on the path toward alcoholism.
My first sexual experience was with a man. I dated and slept with men exclusively before exploring my attraction to women. My attraction to women had always been there—in early crushes on female celebrities, friends at school or on the neighboring school’s speech team, counselors at bible camp. But I didn’t have adequate language for these feelings, because I believed I was a girl, and I didn’t know any girls who liked girls (or boys who liked boys for that matter.)
The first time I slept with a woman, I discovered that it felt “right” in a way that being with men never did. If being plastered helped alleviate dysphoria, sleeping with women—especially feminine ones—brought the opposite: gender euphoria, joy or pleasure in having my masculinity, my internal sense of gender, affirmed. Lacking the conceptual framework to make sense of my “gender issues,” and the affect they had on my sexuality, I came to interpret my sexual history with men as a failed experiment, and any attractions I’d had to men as the result of social programming.
I exclusively slept with and dated women for a full decade. I was not in denial. It wasn’t a phase. I had significant long-term relationships with three different women over the course of this decade. I was genuinely attracted to each of them. And I genuinely had no interest in dating or sleeping with men.
Then I figured out that I was trans. The signs were there all along. But it took me a lot of time, self-reflection, and therapy before I connected the dots. A year into my medical transition, once I was consistently “passing” as male, I started to notice that queer guys were starting to notice me. I did not recoil from their attention, but found myself enjoying and even reciprocating it. I started to rethink my sexual orientation, considering the negative impact my gender dysphoria had on my attraction to men.
Currently I’m dating a man. People assume we’re a cis gay couple. This is not the first time people have made false assumptions about my gender, sexuality, sexual history, body, or relationship. The only difference is now I don’t lose sleep over it.
Desires are not permanent, immutable traits. They are subject to change—with time, self-awareness, experience. Yes, many of us are “born this way”—with this desire, attraction, orientation, gender identity. But in addition to these facets of our identity as gay or trans or queer folx, as humans we were also born with a capacity to evolve, expand, contract, expand again. There is no shame, and no contradiction, in this.