For all intents and purposes, I’m as gay as can be. It was a conscious decision moving into Yale that this would be how I’d introduce myself to my peers when asked. No more pretending, I thought. No more misunderstandings. Just be yourself.
But life moves fast, and my brain moves faster. And now I find myself in the second week of college, already wrong and already mad about it: the question of a label.
The truth is, it was a lie when, a week ago, I came out to my suitemates. A white lie, but a lie. It’s a functional truth: I am not interested in dating men. But that “truth” does not account for the sinking, claustrophobic feeling in my stomach each time the words leave my mouth. And that feeling, I’ve realized, is caused by something that, up until now, I’d somehow managed to disregard.
Here’s how I see it: When you come out as gay, something happens in the minds of the people to whom you come out. Suddenly, you no longer reside in the common space of their personal contacts. Rather, you are placed into a specific mental room with other queer people, perhaps without the friend even realizing this is happening. This room has a specific track of expectations and assumptions that, although sometimes influenced by stereotypes, is more often determined simply by logical inferences anyone could make about a gay person. One example: The other day, my roommate recounted a conversation she had with a straight male friend in search of a hookup. When he asked if she knew anyone who might be interested, she drew a blank.
“Well,” she said. “Hannah has a boyfriend, Emma has a boyfriend, Shannon has a boyfriend, and Sarah … well, Sarah’s gay!”
Now, if I were the type of gay she thought I was, I probably would have felt grateful to have been excluded from that list of possibilities. That’s how I was supposed to feel, after all. But I didn’t. Instead, I found myself experiencing much of the same feelings of guilt that I remembered from afternoons on the playground — afternoons spent nodding along to girls who said things like, “Can you imagine liking another GIRL? That’s disgusting!” Because, as it was then and as it still is now, the problem of closetedness for me was always a matter of symmetry — a disconnect between the way people outwardly perceived me and the way I felt inside. I was ashamed of the secrets I was keeping, ashamed of the feelings I had which strayed outside the lines of my public definition of myself. Ashamed of misrepresenting who I was.
I still am.
When my Peer Liaison from the Office of LGBTQ Resources asks me how I identify, I try to explain.
“It’s complicated,” I say. “But then, so is every queer person’s identity, I’d imagine.”
Silence. They are letting me speak.
“I guess I’m technically bisexual. But I don’t want to date men. So I’m gay. But I’m not. It’s … confusing.”
It is nice to think these feelings out loud. My Peer Liaison is knowing, empathetic. Even in the crowded dining hall, I am comfortable speaking these things to them. But still I am confused.
In my first-year seminar, we discuss the effects of neoliberalism on sexuality. It is a lively class, full of writers and thinkers and activists, many of whom are queer or people of color or both. Our professor is new to the University, refreshingly honest and seamlessly cool.
“I’d like to point something out,” she says, and we are all ears. This is not school. This is secret spilling.
“The Homosexual, as we know it, is a relatively new concept. Homosexuality has always occurred. But only recently has The Homosexual become a subject. Before, it was a type of act. Now it is a type of person. A type we must identify. A type we must confess to being. A box.”
She goes on, but we are stuck on that last thing. That thing which, when said, reveals itself to be truer than truth. I watch a classmate across the table mouth, “Wow.” “I know,” my heart says back. There is something in this statement which burns and burns. I take this little revelation with me, all the way back down Prospect Street and home to my suite.
There are two Liams here, in my new life. One is gay. On Sunday we leave the pep rally early, get smoothies and talk about God and class schedules.
“Does queerness ever feel to you like a kind of religion?” he asks. We are kinetic, long-held notions now free to jaywalk across the street. I’m wearing my joggers, the ones that make me feel like a True Lesbian.
“Yes.” The things I have saved up prepare to fall out.
“It’s a community — a collective identity,” he says.
“And flamboyant, like any religion should be. A way to say, ‘I am God, and so are you.’”
“Yes.” We stop at the corner.
“Wanna get Insomnia?”
For a long time, I was wary of those who pronounced themselves “labelless.” To me, it felt like something between an insecure cop-out and a pretentious attempt at individuality. It implied a level of self-importance far beyond that which I wanted to embody — and besides, no one wants to hang out with a person who refers to herself as “indefinable.” Specifically, I remember reading an article about Taylor Schilling from “Orange Is The New Black” in which she was asked for a statement regarding her sexuality. Her response: “I’ve had very serious relationships with lots of people, and I’m a very expansive human. There’s no part of me that can be put under a label. I really don’t fit into a box — that’s too reductive.” Initially, my reaction to Schilling’s self-diagnosis was, I assume, much like anyone else’s: I rolled my eyes, closed out the tab and went back to scrolling through Twitter. But now I find myself rethinking: What if my annoyance wasn’t a reaction to the falsity of what she said, but instead a reaction to the overwhelming truth of it? What makes Schilling’s statement so infuriating is not that it’s untrue, but that she implies that it is particular to her, when in reality, it’s probably true for most humans on Earth, or at least those of us who aren’t completely straight.
There are questions I’m posing here, I know. Some scarier than others. We aren’t supposed to think of sexuality as something changeable, or worse — as something that involves choice. We are born this way. We can’t change, even if we tried, even if we wanted to. But these are questions I don’t have a choice in asking. They are necessary for me to understand myself, in order for me to move forward with life. I can’t shake the feeling that when I walked out of the closet, I was really just walking into a slightly larger room. Still enclosed. Still claustrophobic. Still — most importantly — inside.
This essay is not an explanation of my sexuality. To explain my sexuality — to explain anyone’s — would require much more than a 700 word op-ed (and for me, personally, would require a whole lot of tangents that nobody ever asked to hear). Sexuality is not something which can be reduced to words; it is fundamentally unstable and indefinable. It encompasses past, present and future; consists of both the rules and the exceptions to the rules; and is almost never a complete, coherent story. It does change, and it does involve choice. Just not in the ways others like to believe.
I cannot recount my entire life to everyone I meet. It’s not practical, it’s not polite and it strips me of my own privacy in a way that leaves me feeling betrayed and exposed. But anything less than that, anything which prompts the assumption that how I’m feeling now is how I’ve felt in the past and how I’ll feel forevermore, is simply not enough for me.
In my journal I have a list. I made it a few days ago, when it rained and for an hour my room looked like a different planet. It’s about somebody I haven’t met yet. It’s called The Girl.
She is cosmic.
She is drawn to me.
She feels safe with me.
She thinks I’m funny.
She loves to help others. She devotes herself to it. She gets excited about things I don’t understand. I think it’s beautiful. I love to watch her. I love to see her laugh, be silly, dance. Together we help people. We give them a place to land, a place to feel seen.
We can be apart, but reunions are always joyful. She holds onto my arm when we lay in bed and curls her head into my chest. She sleeps and I lie awake and think how happy I am. But just when I think I know her, I don’t. There is something I haven’t seen. An interest. An opinion. An experience. A joke. I tell her I love her and she doesn’t quite believe it. I feel the same, but we take each other’s word. My certainty, proof of her certainty, and vice versa.
There are things about me she can’t get to. I am safe when I am separate. But separateness is waning. Singularity is on the horizon.
I am falling asleep. She is thinking how happy she is. I hold on to the feeling of her holding onto me.
The rain stops.
Sarah Marsland | email@example.com