I’m gay.

For me, that phrase defines more than just who I love. It impacts who I hang out with and who I trust. It determines the kinds of spaces I inhabit and how I inhabit them. It affects all of my relationships with others, regardless of how out and open I am with them. It’s who I am. But for the longest time, I refused to use that label.

For most of my life, I never thought about my sexuality. In middle school, I actually took pride in the fact that I wasn’t interested in boys and at times even considered myself superior to all the boy-crazy girls I knew. But I think I always assumed, at least on a subconscious level, that it was something I would grow out of as I emotionally matured. Of course, I never did.  
It wasn’t until midway through my high school career that I first realized I might be attracted to girls. This realization marked the beginning of a years-long journey that I still haven’t completely finished. Coming to terms with the fact that I like girls wasn’t the whole picture; I also had to figure out something else. Did I actually like boys too?

After that first spark, I was reluctant to identify as anything other than straight. I was “heteroflexible,” I was “open-minded,” I was “straight with one or two exceptions.” From there, as I started to understand that this newfound attraction was not limited to just a few specific individuals, I toyed with many different labels. I knew I liked girls, and as my social circles and knowledge of the world broadened I began to include nonbinary people too, but what I didn’t know was whether I liked boys.

By writing this, I am in no way intending to discount individuals who do identify as bisexual or pansexual or to imply that they are “confused” or “lying to themselves.”  Every person has their own experience, and many people truly are attracted to multiple or all genders.  This article is only meant to reflect my own story, and my own personal struggle to come to terms with the fact that it’s OK for me to be more exclusively gay.  

But why was this realization so hard to come by? The answer lies in the way I was raised, the society I live in, the cultural messages I have absorbed my entire life and, ultimately, in a phenomenon called compulsory heterosexuality.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it essentially means that our society enforces straightness as the norm and pushes this on people as the only natural form of existence.  One effect of this for me was that I convinced myself that I was attracted to boys because I assumed it had to be true and that there was no other way to be.  

I remember choosing boys seemingly at random to have crushes on and convincing myself and others that my attraction to them was real. I remember insisting that I would find a boy I liked someday, that I just wasn’t ready yet or that none of the boys I knew were good enough. I remember seeing boys and wondering if they were attracted to me and deciding that if they were, then I would like them back. Finally, though, I started to realize that it didn’t have to be that way. I didn’t have to like boys back just because they liked me, I didn’t have to wait until I met a good enough guy to prove that I wasn’t attracted to him (or any man) and I didn’t have to pretend to be in love with people I didn’t know just to be normal. It was liberating.

Heteronormativity isn’t created on its own, however. It requires people to participate and uphold it, whether knowingly or unconsciously. For queer women and woman-aligned nonbinary people, some of the biggest obstacles to overcoming this heteronormativity are those put in place by straight women. I don’t believe that all straight women are homophobic or that they are even fully aware of their actions, but the point still remains that they are unknowingly complicit in the enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality. From the flicker of false hope I feel whenever a straight woman refers to a friend or acquaintance as her “girlfriend” to the media’s labeling of potentially (or even confirmed) queer women as “gal pals” or “close friends,” rather than romantically involved, these types of attitudes are everywhere.  

Dismantling the systems of heteronormativity is no simple task, but each and every one of you reading this can take small steps towards helping the queer people in your lives. Be aware of your hypocrisy when you encourage straight women to be intimate with their friends and yet, at the same time, voice your discomfort with queer women simply existing near you. Be aware of the language you use and how your words may resonate with others. Be aware of the implications of your actions. Be aware, be prepared to listen and be ready to learn and to do your own research sometimes. Remember that this is only the first step, but don’t let that deter you from taking it.