“One cannot mount a stripper pole while wearing a metal diving suit.” -Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
I’ve reached the point in writing memoir where moving forward requires me to ditch the metal diving suit. If discussions about sexuality and gender make you uncomfortable, now is the time to look away.
My name is Melissa, and I’m questioning my sexual identity. This isn’t the first time I’ve examined who I’m attracted to and why. For most of my life, I’ve hung out in this squishy place of being attracted to people toward the center of the masculine/feminine spectrum. Contrary to appearances, I don’t gravitate toward partnerships with traditional heterosexual dynamics. I’ve known something was different about me since I first made my awkward debut into dating at 16 years old.
Until my most recent partnership, I’ve been more concerned with who would want me than with who I want. Rather than owning who I am, I’ve played a part. I’ve worked hard at trying to pass as the type of woman many straight, cis men are attracted to. As a teenager, I literally starved myself through calorie restriction and excessive exercise out of the desire to fit in and be seen in the world as it is. I wonder how many partners in my past starved their sexual appetites because the world told them they should want the type of woman I was pretending to be.
I am not that woman. Parts of what you see in her are real. My hair is blonde. My spine sticks out no matter what my weight. Other parts of her are a cover-up, like the way she presents as straight. If I had given myself permission earlier to entertain romantic and sexual possibilities other than cis men, I probably would have dated a wider variety of genders in my youth and after my divorce. Instead, I kept my connections with males and females in their assigned lanes, as specified by religion and cultural norms. Being raised in an evangelical Christian home and having an obvious attraction to men made this easier for me than for many other people in the LGBTQIA+ community.
I’ve struggled to claim my sexual identity as something necessary and important at this stage of my life.
Until my mid-thirties, I hadn’t considered exploring anything other than friendship with women. As for people who are nonbinary, I didn’t know they existed until my employer hired a gender nonconforming person, and I had to choose which pronouns to use in their bio—the ones leadership preferred (she/her) or the ones he preferred (he/him).
I’ve struggled to claim my sexual identity as something necessary and important at this stage of my life. I’m remarried. I’m 41. I have two children and no desire to explore my sexuality outside my monogamous relationship. There is more to fear than gain from disclosure. But the more I sit with the question of who I am, the more relevant my identity becomes to my sense of self and my work.
My memoir-in-progress is not a divorce story. That’s been the placeholder narrative to explain my work to other people, and sometimes to myself. There’s a truer narrative emerging that I can’t yet articulate in one sentence. As it’s written now, my manuscript centers around how I responded and adapted to discovering many of the people in my life had sexual orientations I wasn’t aware of. In real life, each of those revelations blind-sided me until I looked back and saw all the signs I’d clearly missed, and dismissed. Likewise, as I read through my latest draft with a more flexible concept of my sexuality, I’m looking at myself on the page and thinking oh.
In the absence of clear answers, I’m getting comfortable with the questions I wasn’t ready to ask until now.
I don’t expect everyone to understand, but if you’ve made it this far, thank you for witnessing where I am in my journey right now. If what I’m revealing here is the reason I’ve felt called to write my memoir, I’m at peace with the time and effort it’s taken and will continue to take. What I know to be true today is that I am a human being with an ever-expanding capacity to give and receive love. I’m still in the process of shedding the layers of armor and conditioning I’ve worn for so long. As I continue to uncover who I’ve always been, I’m blessed to belong to a family where differences are the norm and thankful to have a life partner who challenges me to be fully me.
I haven’t decided on a word that neatly communicates my sexual identity. Bisexual, pansexual, demisexual, queer—all of these labels point to pieces of me. None feel like they capture the whole and complexity of my lived experience, much like no religion has yet to define the breadth of my spirituality. In the absence of clear answers, I’m getting comfortable with the questions I wasn’t ready to ask until now.
From here, I’m ready to see and be seen. May my words reach the people in search of a common thread between their experience and someone else’s existence.
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