The Moment I Stopped Knowing How to Label My Sexuality
The award-winning journalist Harron Walker might best be known for her expansive coverage of trans healthcare and the often comedic pop culture pieces she writes for Jezebel (which come second only to her searing takes on Twitter). But in her column for W magazine, Walker traverses a new territory: the highs and lows of womanhood, through the prism of her experiences as a thirtysomething resident of New York City. Welcome to Burning Thoughts.
The first time I had lesbian sex, I expected something more. I don’t mean from the act itself—that was intensely pleasurable. What I mean is the afternoon after I left her place, sitting outside on my stoop processing the experience with two of my close queer women friends, I realized I didn’t feel any different.
That surprised me. Every major shift in identity I’d gone through before that morning had brought with it some sort of revelation or catharsis. When I came out as gay in the summer before ninth grade—I’d fantasized about waiting until I was an adult so I could come out on The Real World for some reason, though I ended up settling for some scattered AIM chats and a LiveJournal post—I felt unspeakable relief. When I realized I was a woman some 14 years later, I felt overcome by an immense clarity. Immediately following that realization, I began cycling through long-forgotten memories, piecing together evidence and previously inscrutable clues—that recurring childhood dream about not being my parents’ real son, my teenage subculture-vulturing in pursuit of any excuse to wear eyeliner—so as to reframe my life as a woman’s all along.
That afternoon on my stoop, however, I felt no great epiphany, no moment of newfound self-understanding like all those “Am I a Lesbian?” Masterdoc devotees profess in their evangelism. I expected that I, like the YouTuber Contrapoints, might realize my attraction to men had simply been the result of compulsory heterosexuality all along. “There’s an intense erotic thrill in being desired,” she says in a video titled “Shame” from early last year. “I think that’s what got me interested in men in the first place. It’s that they’re interested in me, and that’s pretty interesting.” But no, comp het was not the culprit. My first foray into lesbianism might have confirmed something that I’d already suspected to be true—that I was attracted to masculinity, period, unbound from any particular gender—but it didn’t reveal anything new to me besides an overwhelming new crush on someone whose bed I couldn’t wait to crawl back into as soon as humanly possible.
I knew what I wanted to do next but not who I would be while doing it. To my annoyance, I still haven’t figured it out. I’d hate to think that I’ve become one of those women who, when asked how she identifies her sexuality, doesn’t have an answer—or worse, considers herself beyond labels. The refusal to use labels is a familiar press move to those of us who care way too much about what famous women say about themselves in interviews. Whenever I see it deployed, I tend to roll my eyes and groan, maybe scrunch up my face like Kristin Wiig in Bridesmaids and derisively whine, “Oh, you doooon’t?” But then, as if Jane Pratt willed it herself, it happened to me: I stopped knowing how to label my sexuality.
I’d hate to think that I’m adopting this stance. It, of course, bothers me on a political and historical level, given how crucial language has been and always will be to collectively organizing against marginalization and oppression. But if I’m being honest, my visceral irritation with that pose has a lot more to do with how clumsy celebrities always look when they attempt to strike it. Kristen Stewart used to play the “no labels” game when speaking to reporters, though she has since grown more comfortable with using definitive terms. Lily-Rose Depp has also done it, though only to defend her participation in an LGBTQ-themed ad campaign. Raven-Symoné has, as well, once telling Oprah Winfrey that she bristles at being called “gay” simply because she’s romantically involved with other women. “I want to be labeled a ‘human who loves humans,’” she explained.
I’ve found this answer so annoying because of how out of step it feels with my own experience being some kind of LGBTQ for nearly 20 years. In all that time, I’ve known very few people who seriously identify as “a human who loves humans,” “no labels,” or otherwise beyond identifiers, and those I’ve met who do manage to escape simple categorization have always been operating many gender levels above whatever basic 101 these “humans who love humans” are doing. So, hearing a woman—especially one whose wealth could conceivably shield her from the everyday experiences of whatever marginalized identity she’s actively trying to disidentify from—essentially say “no❤️” when asked a simple question spurs a lot of cynical, perhaps even ungenerous questions on my part. Who are her friends? What do her communities look like? Mine are filled with people who label themselves and each other with ease, from your garden variety “gays” and “lesbians” to “fags,” “trannies,” and “dykes.” (I’m sure I don’t have to explain how my friends and I are using those latter three epithets as terms of affection or that our affinity for those terms doesn’t justify their hateful use by bigots.) Even if we didn’t use those terms amongst ourselves, even if we insisted on being called “humans who love humans” within community and outside it, do you really think that would change how other people talk about us? Trust me, it doesn’t—I’ll pull up the Grindr screenshots.
Then, why am I suddenly struggling to label myself now? Well, “now” might be a misnomer. To some degree, I’ve been unsure about this ever since I transitioned. Back then, I wondered whether I’d someday find myself traveling down the faggot-to-lesbian pipeline, joining so many other girls I knew who’d made it safely to the flip side of queerness. But pretty quickly it became apparent that my attraction to men wasn’t done with me yet. No matter how many times a man ghosted me, disposed of me, casually crossed my boundaries, or treated me however he wanted, I would still come back for more. It confused me, how I could change something as seemingly fixed as my gender if for no other reason than the fact that it caused me pain, yet there I was, powerless to change my desire no matter how painful I found its consequences. Eventually, I made peace with my homo-turned-heterosexuality. I started to care less about how I might stop liking men and began to interrogate what it was I liked about men, given the indisputable fact that I did. I even briefly made a podcast to work through that line of inquiry, appropriately titled Why Do I Like Men? (In her piece on what she termed “heteropessimism,” writer and academic Indiana Seresin praised the short-lived project for showcasing heterosexuality as “a possible site of experiment and change” rather than “a terminal diagnosis” as is often the case.) In the end, I concluded: Who cares? I like men, and that’s that.
Does that make me straight, then? Not after playing femme to the aforementioned butch. (Even before then, calling my post-transition self “straight” always felt kind of silly. I mean, I called straight people “breeders” in high school, and now I’m one of them? Not literally, of course, but you get what I mean.) Queer then? God, no. Everyone who’s anyone knows that calling oneself “queer” as a means of collective identification is out for 2021. Hari Nef declared it so on her Instagram Story a few weeks ago! And though she said that collective identification under “gay” is very much in, which I love—a classic, really, bringing it back—it presents a problem when I’m trying to fuck straight men, who famously don’t like thinking of their attraction to trans women as gay. And if I’m trying to fuck straight men—and I’m trying to fuck straight men sometimes—I can’t really call myself a lesbian, now, can I? “Bisexual” would seem to be the obvious cure for my taxonomical neurosis, but at the risk of committing bisexual erasure against myself, the label doesn’t really do anything for me.
So, as Azealia Banks once asked on The Breakfast Club, what now? I honestly don’t know, but as I’ve sat with this question, trying to find an answer, my mind has wandered back to T. Fleischmann’s 2019 book-length essay, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, and the ways in which they wrote about identity, or rather the ways that they didn’t. What I love about Fleischmann’s book is how they resist using familiar identifiers like “queer” and “trans” as if they were lazy shorthand—and in doing so, reveals how they can be. Instead of listing their labels upfront, thereby forcing the reader to do all the heavy lifting of unpacking what they mean for the author, Fleischmann writes about cruising on Grindr, traveling to a New York City health clinic for hormones, and feeling what resonates when they gaze upon artwork by the late visual artist Félix González-Torres. In both its content and form, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through argues against static identification, suggesting instead that a life is better understood through an individual’s actions over their labels, their verbs over their nouns.It’s like what Dusty Springfield once said when asked about her sexuality. “I know I’m perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy,” she told the London Evening Standard in 1970. She didn’t say who she was, but she said who she did, and isn’t that what matters in the end? It’s a lot hotter, anyway.