[art by Yasutoki Kariya]
The first time I felt arousal was in the arms of a woman.
I don’t remember how old I was. All I know was that it was summer and we were in my best friend’s backyard, playing “War” with her sisters and brother; hiding from the Nazis in the plywood fort her father had built. Huddled underneath the window, we were curled up against imaginary blasts and shrapnel, and she was holding me.
I could feel her lips against my hair, and suddenly, I forgot what we were doing and where we were. It . . . felt so good. Blissful. And for those moments, before our characters made a run for it to the “cellar,” I melted into her arms and never wanted to leave. It was like stepping into a hot shower and feeling the water cascade over me. I felt shivers, and goosebumps . . . but I didn’t understand what was happening. I had no words to explain what I was feeling. I had never heard the word arousal, had no context for desire.
For years I treasured that memory, although I have never admitted what I felt that day to anyone.
For years I was frightened, terrified, sickened at the thought that I might be a lesbian. I ferociously tamped those thoughts down, but as years passed and I never had a crush on a boy, the fear increased. What was I supposed to do? Every time we had a sleepover and we were in the same bed, or cuddled up next to each other on the floor in her family’s living room watching a John Wayne or Roy Rogers movie, I fought, desperately, against what I wanted to feel, wanted to think. I found excuses to touch her, to brush my fingertips against her skin, to play with her silky-soft chocolate hair. I wanted to be with her. But I couldn’t. I could never say that, never tell her, never do anything. The want would sit on my tongue, trying to burst out of my lips; desire was an ache I could never acknowledge existed.
For years I was in love with my best friend, and I had no idea.
When I went to summer camp and met a cute boy from Texas that made my heart do pitter-patter flip-flops, I was ecstatic. Over the moon. The relief was bone-deep. Good good good I’m not a lesbian thank God. I threw myself into that crush, but it inevitably fizzled and I grew desperate again. My prayers became fixated on finding a man who I could be with. All through high school I tried, fiercely, to “like” boys the way my girlfriends did. That all the young men around me compelled nothing except disgust and revulsion I attributed to a dislike of “Southern preacher boys,” which was the only kind of man I knew.
When I was 17, I went back to summer camp, and met the most bizarre person ever. In a conversation one day about relationships, he told me that he’d dated both men and women, and I was hopelessly confused. I asked him how that was possible, and his response was “I’m bisexual.”
“Bi– what? What does that even mean?”
“It means I’m attracted to both men and women. I bat for both teams,” he laughed.
Something inside of me perked up, curious and interested. That sounded . . . familiar. I instantly slammed the door in my mind, refusing to acknowledge that feeling of recognition.
My freshman year in college I had a fledgling crush on a boy that I nurtured with more passion than was probably healthy, especially considering I didn’t really want to spend my life with him and I knew any relationship between us would be disastrous. But every time I walked into my bathroom and saw my suitemate in nothing but lacy lingerie I tried to think of that boy.
My junior year, when I was roommates with one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever seen, I reacted by throwing myself into a ill-fated relationship with John*, trying to block out images of her getting dressed, of watching her curl her hair and put on makeup and get ready for bed.
When I cuddled with my best friends on a Sunday afternoon, studying and taking naps together in mounds of fuzzy blankets and pillows, I blocked out anything that told me that what I felt around my friends was something different. All girls think and feel this way, I told myself confidently, ignoring fantasies and dreams that woke me up in the middle of the night.
I didn’t give a thought to how, every year, the women in my prayer groups knew that if they wanted I would massage their shoulders and play with their hair. I paid no attention to how much I loved it when my friend put her head in my lap and we would read together while I ran my fingers through her hair– it never occurred to me that what I was feeling was . . . not very straight.
I only had one way of framing sexuality: either you were straight, or you were gay, and being gay was sinful, evil, wicked. That young man who’d told me he was “bisexual” was making it all up– he was gay, but trying to deny it by saying he liked women, too. I couldn’t be gay, because I knew that I liked men, that I fantasized about men, that I wanted to be in a straight relationship. The thought of sex with a man turned me on, so everything I noticed about women? It was nothing. Women are just beautiful, and I’m a person that appreciates beauty. That’s it. That’s all it can be. That’s all I’d let it be.
In the last year, I’ve slowly come to terms with this reality. It was a slow process, and involved a lot of me going back and looking at experiences I had from girlhood onward and dismantling all the lies I’d told myself for years. I admitted that the first time I’d ever been in love, I had been in love with a girl. I acknowledged that what I felt for my roommate wasn’t just an aesthetic, objective appreciation of beauty, but attraction and desire– and I was lying when I tried to tell myself otherwise. At first I thought of myself simply as “queer,” because, after all, I ultimately fell in love with and married a man, and I had never given serious thought to being in a relationship with a woman– or so I believed at the time.
I don’t know why I fought so hard against being honest with myself. I didn’t even really come up with this on my own– it was my partner who pointed out a lot of this to me, who helped me come to terms with all of my memories of being in love with and attracted to women. He helped me admit that over the course of my life I’ve been attracted to women far more often than I’ve been attracted to men, and that this is ok, and he loves this about me.
I spent over a dozen years being terrified of this part of who I am, of doing everything I could to avoid facing myself honestly– but I’m done with that.
And not only is that ok, and not only do I accept this– I think it’s wonderful.