The Frustrating Limits of Sexual Identities

We’ve all had it happen. We are at a social event, we strike up a conversation with someone dynamic, and—before long—we notice ourselves feeling tingles of attraction. The trouble is, this person is outside the bounds of who we normally feel chemistry with. Perhaps they’re a different gender—or an atypical presentation of the gender with whom we ordinarily connect. Maybe they’re a different “type” than to which we are accustomed.

We notice ourselves leaning in and touching their elbow. Our pheromones are pushing us onward, but our brain is spinning to pull us back. This experience is incongruous with our identified orientation. We shouldn’t be doing this, we chide ourselves. This is wrong—this isn’t who we are. Because this flirtation is beyond the scope of our sexuality labels, our personal identity feels compromised.

No matter what label you have chosen to define your orientation, there will be unanticipated moments that defy it. You usually only hook up with women—but, damn, there’s that stubbly man over there in the corner with those rolled-up sleeves, and he is really doing it for you. Maybe you normally only find hyper-masculine men attractive, but that gender-fluid person sipping coffee is calling out to you in a provocative way.

When these moments of unexpected attraction arise, we can feel discombobulated. Our sense of selfhood might even feel endangered. Each of us has worked hard to present a confident, consistent persona to the outside world—and when cracks in our curated identity erupt, it can be immensely unnerving.

The truth is—a shift in your orientation is completely normal and healthy.

Identity is a complex and layered thing. We have many years of accumulated experiences, traumas, and experimentations that have formed the person who we know ourselves to be. But our present identity is merely a momentary appraisal of an ever-evolving phenomenon. We are like onions. We peel away one layer to reveal a fresher one beneath—a new identity that feels more cohesive and encompassing of our truth. New layers come and go—and our sense of self shifts.

We’ve seen it happen—a discovery that changes who we think we are. An untimely death of a loved one, an unanticipated change in career or social status, a spiritual awakening. Events that trigger a reconfiguration of personhood. A layer of identity gets stripped away, and suddenly we are not what we supposed.

It is foolhardy, therefore, to assume that our orientation label will forever remain static. I have encountered countless stories of self-identified straight men saying, “I’ve never been attracted to another guy before, but suddenly…” and they go on to reveal a burgeoning longing that they’d never previously named. In a recent poll by YouGov, a staggering 48% of millennials and Gen Zers (who, being younger, are generally more open to exploring their orientation) say that they identify as something “other than exclusively opposite-sex attracted.” Sexuality atypicality is far more common than many might guess.

Even for myself, my assigned orientation labels have shifted dramatically over time. In college, I thought I was straight—but that assumption was purely theoretical. I had asked out a few women—nearly all turned me down. One even laughed in my face. I never made it to first base.

After graduating, I adopted the label of asexual. I wasn’t really finding anyone attractive in real life. In images—sure. But those same appreciations didn’t transfer over to flesh and blood persons.

In truth, I was ashamed of my longings and repressed my sexuality. That all came to a head, however, around my twenty-fifth birthday when a roommate set me up with an online dating profile and flirted on my behalf. Suddenly finding myself with a plethora of first dates—with people of every gender expression—I came to identify as bisexual. After several months—and a deepening appreciation of my predominate same-sex attraction—that shifted to an identifying as gay.

There—I solved my orientation riddle, I thought. I can now proudly proclaim who I am. Well, that badge of identification lasted for only so long. Shortly after my marriage—to a man—I ended up traveling abroad with the lady-friend who officiated our wedding ceremony. Alone in a hotel room on the opposite side of the globe, I suddenly found myself feeling opposite-sex attracted in an obvious and notable way. My identity as gay no longer seemed to fit.

Since then, I’ve explored using the label of omnisexual—which feels rather inclusive—but it still doesn’t capture the shifting nuance of what I experience. I am happily married to a man—I am far and away predominately attracted to men. But, still, there are some times when I experience desire that feels foreign.

So, here’s my encouragement: allow yourself to be where you are. Trust that whatever you’re feeling is alright. No, it may not be what you expected. But it is what your experiencing. 

Let go of labels—open to possibility. You may just discover something wonderful and beautiful about yourself that you never anticipated. By peeling back another layer of the onion, you may uncover beautiful truths that you would have never known had you stuck too rigidly to your prescribed identifications.

Maybe each of us is a bit more mysterious than we always supposed ourselves to be.

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