On the Straight and Narrow

When I was in eighth grade, I tried to come out as gay.

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No, really, you read that right. I cornered a girl after science class and told her I was, like, pretty sure I was a lesbian. And I was totally prepared for my whole life to change. I had been terrified to tell anyone, and I was certain that now that I finally did, I’d be labeled as gay forever.

See, I’d spent my entire life being very confused about sexuality. Not even my sexuality, necessarily, but sexuality in general. I didn’t have a lot of queer role models. I vaguely knew that Ellen was gay, and that a girl in my fifth grade class had two moms, but other than that, I was mostly exposed to very heteronormative perspectives of the world. When a few girls came out as bi in middle school, they were labeled as attention-seeking and slutty. When boys came out as gay, they were suddenly expected to be every girl’s token gay BFF.

The idea of sexuality being a spectrum, or being far more personal than about public appearances, wasn’t really on my radar.

I wasn’t raised in a particularly repressive household, either. I pretty sure my mom got some serious gay vibes from me growing up, because I was regularly reminded that I’d be accepted no matter who I was or who I loved. But I shut down those conversations just as quickly as they’d arise, because I for sure was not gay. 

Well, actually, I think I was for sure not ready to be labeled by my community as gay. Because that was the real fear, to be honest. Although it was still a town in the Bay Area of California, it was still a pocket of small-town conservatism in many respects. Gay uncles were only cool with God if they were your gay uncles, if you get my drift. Once a label was thrown at you, it was hard to shake, and it was sure to come up at some mom’s Bunco party a few weeks later with some judgmental eyebrow raises over a glass of Chardonnay.

You see, looking back now, it’s really funny to try and pretend that there was ever a time in my life that I tried to convince myself I was straight.

Growing up, I was extremely comforted by the idea that I was attracted to boys. Because having crushes on boys was normal, and being gay was (if not exactly wrong) weird. And as long as I could join in with the girls gushing about how cute that one boy in science class was, I could pat myself on the back and assure myself that, yes, I must be straight.

Yes, I clung onto every whisper of heterosexuality my little pubescent heart could muster up to create a plausible deniability around my sexuality for myself. Wanting to kiss your female best friend is totally normal, right? And having crushes on female celebrities the way your friends were crushing on male pop stars was normal too, right? When the term “girl crush” started to creep up everywhere sometime in middle school, I was relieved, because that seemed like a plausible deniability any court of law worth it’s weight in salt would accept.

The older I got though, the more I began to realize that how I was feeling was vastly different from the way other people were feeling in regards to their “girl crushes.” Bisexuality wasn’t on the table, though, because that term was reserved for either:

a) Sluts.

b) Attention-seekers.

or,

c) Closeted lesbians.

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So I eventually got to the point where I figured, hey, maybe this whole “gay” thing is like being pregnant. You either are or you aren’t, pick a side. And if there was beginning to be no doubt that I liked-liked girls, then I guess the metaphorical pregnancy test must be positive, right?

But, back to the girl I cornered in eighth grade.

So, right, I was ready to come out to someone. This wasn’t an easy decision for me, but I felt like I needed to get it off my chest before I exploded. I picked the nicest girl in my grade who seemed trustworthy, cornered her with a cryptic, “Hey I need to tell you something…” and proceeded to tell her I was pretty sure I was gay.

Then she convinced me I wasn’t.

“No you’re not,” she said, “You’re probably just hormonal.”

Already being somewhat terrified of what I was doing, I quickly just agreed with her and shut up about it for the next four years. I felt stupid, and silly, and like I had jumped to conclusions. My inner dialogue raced to jump back to my heteronormative life from moments before: Was I attention-seeking after all? You know what, she’s probably right, you liked that boy that one time! You’re not gay. What a weird thing for you to say!

Throughout high school, I avoided the topic as much as possible. Anything remotely related to sex or sexuality was off the table for me in terms of conversation. As I got older, and my friends started exploring their own sexualities, I would meet their attempts to talk about it with me with silence or awkward stalling. I continued to feel stupid for trying to come out, but it also felt like a barrier had been broken somewhere along the line. Calling myself straight just didn’t feel right anymore. But if I couldn’t be gay, then who was I? It was best to avoid the issue altogether.

Towards the end of high school, when all of my friends were in relationships and I was still jokingly dubbed “The Virgin Maris,” I started to convince myself that I simply didn’t belong. I wasn’t gay enough, and I certainly wasn’t straight enough- I existed in a grey area that made me fearful of entering a romantic relationship with someone of any gender. My greatest fear was dating a man and having it confirmed that I was gay, or dating a woman and confirming that I was straight. Either way, I would be outed not only for my sexuality, but for being an imposter in the opposite realm.

When I met my current boyfriend, I knew I was attracted to him. I knew I wanted to date him. I knew that I could, perhaps, even love him. But once we started dating, and my innate attraction to other women didn’t magically go away as I’d hoped it would, I had to confess to him. I told him everything that I had been too afraid to share my entire childhood and young adulthood. I told him about the times I lay awake as a child, wondering if I was broken. I told him about the times I’d convinced myself I was gay, only to find myself preoccupied with a man and more confused than ever. I told him about the times I’d quietly developed crushes on my female friends, and been so afraid that I’d abruptly cut them out of my life. I told him I loved him, but I could also see myself, in another time, loving a woman, too. Where I expected him to see me for the misfit toy that I was, not following any set of rules, he simply looked me in the eyes and said, “Maybe you’re bi.”

Maybe you’re bi. He offered it up like the most obvious explanation in the world. Where I had choked on that word a thousand times, shoved it away as an impossibility and a confirmation that I didn’t fit in anywhere, he saw it as it truly is: its own identity, just as valid as any other. For the first time, a wave of relief came over me. I didn’t need to try and squeeze myself into one category or another. I didn’t need to be either more gay or more straight. I didn’t need to “commit” and stop dancing around who I truly was, I was already there. Already in my own valid way of loving.

I never faced true homophobia, never had someone call me a fag and threaten to beat me up for who I love, never feared for my safety or my life because of my sexual identity. At the same time, I never felt truly secure as the culturally-accepted heterosexual woman. Still, I never felt welcomed in either community entirely. 

For one side I thought I wasn’t “gay enough,” hadn’t struggled enough or been rejected by my family for my sexuality, and for the other side I wasn’t “straight enough,” and would be viewed as just another slutty girl at a party making out with their best friend for attention. I existed on the border, in yet another category of my life, between privilege and disadvantage. Somehow, life on this border felt harder than I believed I had a right to feel: no one was coming after me as their target, and yet I couldn’t get it out of my head that I wasn’t enough.

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While I’m remarkably open about other struggles I’ve faced- overcoming depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder that almost took my life- this is a part of myself that I’ve never publicly addressed. My family has no clue that I’ve struggled with my sexuality, some of my closest friends have no clue that I’ve only just begun to acknowledge who I am, and I find myself subconsciously avoiding LGBTQIA+ support and allyship groups because I still fear not belonging. When filling out forms or surveys, even anonymous ones, I struggle to feel like I “deserve” to select “bisexual” as my sexual orientation because I’m in a relationship with a man and have never been in one with a woman. And above all else, I constantly tell myself that I don’t have a right to feel conflicted, ashamed, or confused about my sexual identity when there are people in this world persecuted and targeted for their homosexuality every day where I never have.

Living life on the border means never fitting in. It means never feeling like you’ll reap the full benefits of being privileged or deserve the support for being targeted. It means wondering if you’re a part of the problem or a part of the ones being affected by it. It means struggling to speak up for fear of being told to be quiet, to sit back down and enjoy the privilege you have. It means never quite knowing who you are, who you want or deserve to be seen as. And while it may not be a life as obviously painful as that of the targeted, it is one that involves years- sometimes even an entire lifetimeof quietly feeling that you will never be enough.

I’ve avoided this topic for years. The inception of my blog come from an article devoted to the idea of “talking about the shit I don’t want to talk about,” and yet I’ve avoided the one thing that was staring me right in the face the entire time.

There were many reasons for this. This may come as a surprise, but I’m actually a fairly private person when it doesn’t come to my mental health. My relationships, my friendships, and many other aspects of my life are not shared online or even with most people in my life. It’s not that I’m being secretive, it’s more that as my life becomes more and more public, I find myself cherishing the private things more and more.

And another, rather simple reason, is that I rather dislike opening the door to prodding questions about my sex life. When you’re in a “heterosexual relationship” and try to express that you’re not straight, a surprising amount of people think they’re entitled to request a copy of your sexual history to verify the truth of your statement. There’s a surprisingly large amount of people out there who forget that they likely knew their sexuality before they ever slept with anyone, it turns out.

But, every time Pride Month rolls around, it gets a little harder for me to stay quiet.

I was talking about the I Am Maris film with the filmmaker awhile ago, discussing diversity and representation in regards to it. We wished we had more people of color in the film, more diverse bodies and identities represented. And all of a sudden it hit me like a ton of bricks: Did I miss my chance to talk about the role sexuality plays in developing an eating disorder?

Because, surprise surprise, suppressing a large part of your identity for most of your life can lead to some serious mental strife!

I feel guilty, rather often, to be honest, about the fact that I don’t speak out about the prevalence of mental illness in the LGBTQIA+ community and my own relation to it. It’s something I’m still trying to understand in my own story, and it’s something I’ve heard and seen others struggling with in incredibly similar ways.

Not too long ago, I received a message on Instagram from someone who wanted to follow-up with me about some advice they’d sought a few months back about coming to terms with the realization that they had an eating disorder. I had offered her the advice I offer most people who come to me with that struggle: that the eating disorder has its roots in something far greater than just food or body image. There’s usually something lurking far beneath the surface that’s hard to look at, but must be dealt with before the true healing can begin.

Now, she realized that her struggle came to a head when she was struggling with her sexuality. She’d fallen in love with a female friend, and her life had been turned upside down because of it. I was so proud to hear her tell her story so boldly, to be able to come to someone who is essentially a stranger and be able to say, “This is who I am, and now I know where my work lies.”

And to be honest, I was jealous. I was jealous because I felt something creeping up inside of me that I’d been ignoring for so long and wanted to feel like I could talk about it, too. I wanted to be honest with my community about the parts of my story I’m still navigating, I wanted to stop feeling like I could only discuss this part of my life with only a handful of people I’ve awkwardly come out to over the past year or so. And I wanted to stop feeling like I wasn’t worthy of weighing in on topics I feel incredibly passionate about and connected to because I was afraid of being shunned as attention-seeking or simply lying.

So this is me saying, hello. I’m not straight, and it’s not really up for debate anymore. You can’t convince me otherwise. I’m not sure what label feels right just yet, but somewhere in the realm of queer feels pretty good. I used to think I was just being private by not being publicly “out,” but I’m beginning to realize that I’m really just scared.

I know some will ask what the point of  “coming out” is if I’m in a “straight” relationship at the moment. But here’s what I’ve come to decide:

If talking about my eating disorder when I didn’t want to could help a lot of people, then I hope talking about this will help a lot of people, too.

You are exactly who you’re meant to be, I promise.

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Photos by Roberto Martinez. Big love to Isa, who always encourages me to live as I am. Big love to Syd, who is delightfully unimpressed by big life changes in the most empowering way. Big love to Ryan, who takes my oftentimes-overwhelmingly complex view of the world and makes it bite-sized. Big love to this community, who gives me the courage to talk about the shit I don’t want to talk about. Big love to my mom, who might already know to be honest, because the other week she gave me a shirt that says “Love Is Love” on it and I’m like 75% sure that was a hint.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Shannon says:

    I admire your bravery to be authentic even when it scares you to do so! There’s so much strength in that and I believe anyone who tells you otherwise is simply afraid of what change will bring. Sending you love! 💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marisdegener says:

      Thank you so much. ❤

      Like

  2. Anonymous says:

    ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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