Queer and shy about acting on it: Best Sex Ever has advice

A reader asks Arielle for tips on coming out, both to her family and in her own dating and sex life

By Arielle Egozi
Published June 13, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Best Sex Ever is Salon's advice column on sex, love and relationships. Questions? Send them to Arielle@Salon.com

Dear Arielle,

I am a cisgender woman and I think I’m pansexual. I still feel like that label doesn’t perfectly fit, and I don’t feel like I fit into any certain box. I have preferences, but they’re fluid and don’t depend on gender identity, just on who the person is and if I’m attracted to them or not. (I am not sure if that makes any sense — it’s confusing for me too, but I try not to worry about that much because that really doesn’t matter.) In the past year, I have become sexually active, but only with cisgender men.

I am so proud of myself for fostering up the courage to come out as pan to my three closest friends (my chosen family) and a mentor at the university I just graduated from — and am so grateful for them. Do you have any tips for coming out to others, such a family members who have never left our small, conservative town and who can barely grasp the concept of bisexuality? Do you have any tips for starting to date/become sexually active with people that I am attracted to who are not cis, straight men?

I am shy and have let societal pressures get to me in the past. I was scared to be a sexual being, being a cis woman; however, I finally said f**k that, and felt liberated and safe enough to have sex with a man.

Now that I have conquered that, I feel pressured by other (bullshit) expectations, such as the idea that I am only supposed to be attracted to cis men. I am now trying to overcome that, since it does not align with my reality. I understand that it’s bullshit and I would never want someone to fall into that trap — but here I am, letting it hold me back in shyness.

* * *

Dear Queerly Confused,

Congratulations, and welcome to the queer club! Everything you’re sharing with me makes perfect sense and is not confusing at all — you’re discovering your sexual and romantic preferences while also figuring out how they fit into your identity. Like most who spend the time unpacking and deconstructing societal expectations and their relation to self, it seems that you’re finding it’s not always such a neat fit. Again, welcome to the club.

As a cis woman, you’ve grown up with the world reinforcing certain behaviors and punishing you for others. You’ve been ingesting the juice of the cisheteropatriarchy since the womb, and it’s basically impossible to ever squeeze every last drop out of us. Our veins and our brains become very used to the hits of validation we receive when we play nicely into the roles that have already been outlined for us. Choosing to move against these stereotypes can sometimes even feel physically painful — it’s like this constant death of the pieces of our identity, that, however harmful, we’ve always just known as part of us. The moment we make the choice to start shedding them, we begin to recognize the chance to continue shedding every piece of us that no longer fits inside us, and begin to feel ourselves outside where society has told us we should be.

This isn’t easy. Religion and government and lots of old white men have invested centuries and books and wars and lots of money into us never doing what you’ve begun to do.

The steps you’re taking to discover your sexuality on your own terms are revolutionary.

You aren’t just going against hundreds of years of societal and general conditioning, you’re going against your own conditioning. You’re unlearning everything you’ve probably been telling yourself for years, and you’re teaching yourself that you can be lovable still; that you are deserving and worthy of a sexuality on your terms; that you can sleep with cis men if you want, and be attracted to other genders too.

The “queer police” is out there, and it’s truly a shame it exists. It’s important to remember who paved the way for you to explore and question and come out, and the violent circumstances in which they occurred (and continue to occur), but your identity is yours, and no one else’s to tell you what you are and where you fit and how you should identify or not. Just because you’ve only slept with cis men doesn’t make you any more or less queer. Just because you don’t feel like you’ve found the right word for you doesn’t make your identity more or less valid.

I relate so much to everything you’re experiencing. I, too, began having sexual experiences much later than everyone else I knew, and almost all were with cis men. I “officially” came out a year ago to my then-partner after realizing I’d found a word that fit me — queer. There’s a fluidity in that specific word that doesn’t feel like I’m putting myself into a box, which I feel with every other label, which is also what being queer means to me.

It’s pretty difficult to be a queer femme cis woman who's also attracted to men. No one seems to take us seriously, and we become fetishized and ostracized from the communities that we thought might support us. Too gay for the straights, too straight for the gays. We’re told we’re not enough, only reinforcing stereotypes and thought patterns that many of us already face as femme women. I remember the first time I told my dad I had dated a woman. His response was that it was just a phase I’d soon grow out of. “I know you,” he told me. “You’re not a lesbian.” He was right; I wasn’t, but I am queer, and it took years of learning to believe in myself, rather than him or anyone else, to come to terms with that.

I enter queer spaces and don’t feel gay enough, or I feel too femme, or I feel like a liar and an imposter because I don’t have as much experience being romantically or sexually involved with other people besides cis men. When I was going through the process of coming out to myself, I felt like I couldn’t, because to come out would be to steal the community’s very real struggles — I’d watched so many of my friends go through such a difficult process in coming out years ago, meanwhile, here I was, a straight-passing femme in her late-20s. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to own my identity because it hadn’t been as hard for me.

Except, it has been hard. I’ve gone years questioning myself, not trusting myself. I’ve gone through relationships where my partners never trusted me because of my past romantic experiences with a woman. My sexual identity has been sexualized and fetishized and often either taken as a joke or taken as a threat. I’ve felt, and continue to feel, like an outsider in every community I enter. I don’t feel like I belong, and it’s hard to feel like any community wants me as theirs, but here I am, being me, still.

As far as labels go, there’s been many a think piece on the term “bisexuality” and whether it’s playing into the binary and excluding trans and non-binary and gender nonconforming folks. Many bisexuals feel comfortable in that term, and see it as being attracted to the same gender they identify with, as well as all the other genders that they don’t. I know trans folks that use that label themselves. It really depends who you ask and where they’re coming from.

And then we have “pansexual” — a word many love, while others can’t stand it. Every time I hear the word, my thoughts end up spiraling into a sink filled with pots and pans, and then I segue into Harry Potter and Peter Pan, and ultimately, although the definition fits me, the word doesn’t. Meanwhile, I’ve met people who, once finding the word, felt like they found home. A word is a word and a label is just a label — the meaning that we imbue upon it is where the power lies.

You don’t ever have to pick a word, you don’t ever have to check a box. You can be you and identify as you and that’s enough. It will always be enough.

I so appreciate your level of self-awareness and how you’re celebrating the courage it’s taken you to share yourself with your close friends and mentor. It’s a big deal and a big step, and it’s wonderful that you have people in your life that you feel safe enough to share this news with, and wonderful that you feel comfortable enough in your identity to express it. You’ve also been taking big steps in becoming sexually active, and that’s a scary and beautiful place in it of itself, no matter which gender you’re doing it with!

As far as the external pressures you’re feeling, can you pinpoint what those are and where they’re coming from? Can you identify how it makes your body feel when you feel the heaviness of that pressure?

What do you need to feel your strongest self, to feel like you’re most “you”? I encourage you to do that thing, or think of that thing whenever you start feeling that pressure begin to weigh on you and shrink you. I encourage you to find community — either in real life, if you’re in a place that has queer community, or online. Being around people that you feel you can relate to and that can understand this part of you will hopefully reinforce all the beautiful work you’ve been doing on yourself and remind you that alternate worlds can and do exist. It’ll also help in terms of dating prospects, and expanding who you’re exposed to. If you’re in a metropolitan area, going to events put on by the queer community and hanging out in queer spaces will definitely be another way to meet not only dates, but friends who can introduce you to people to date!

If you’re not in a place that has queer community readily available, or even if you are, queer dating apps like Her, Feeld or Thurst, depending on your interests, are always there for you. Even apps like Tinder are beginning to include different sexualities in their product. Dating apps were born from the queer community, and that’s a great place to start, no matter where you live.

Coming out and dating is really like starting over — it’s a whole new world and a whole new language.

“As with dating people of any gender or sexual orientation, rejection can happen,” Shulah Melamed MA MPH, Relationship and Wellbeing Coach, tells Salon. “Don't let this deter you just because the people that you are dating are not your usual demographic. This is an exciting time of self exploration and discovery — the good, bad and awkward are all part of the journey.  Loving yourself makes you irresistible to friends, lovers and yourself!”

Have patience with yourself, and remember it’s super normal to be feeling nervous and excited and terrified all at once. I remembered the first time I locked eyes with a woman and started flirting with her — I couldn’t believe I was doing it, or that I even knew how to do it. I couldn’t believe it was working! Although she ended up being the first woman I ever kissed, our first kiss wasn’t my first queer kiss, and that’s an important distinction for me. I’m queer, and that means every kiss I’ve ever had has been queer. No matter what it’s looked like from the outside, every sexual experience I’ve had has been queer because that’s who I am. Whatever anyone else has thought about it doesn’t really matter — my experiences are mine to live in.

It’s vital to have compassion for yourself, and to celebrate all the incredible things you’ve been uncovering about yourself, all the patterns you’ve been breaking in your own mind. This is a lot of work, and it doesn’t happen overnight or in the instant we want it to. It takes time, and practice, and endless amounts of support and love for ourselves. Step by step, and you will get there in time — or maybe you won’t, and that’s OK too. It’s a process, and there is no destination except to the truest parts of ourselves, and right now, you’re the truest you that ever was.

Now, living your truth out loud, and coming out, is your choice. If you feel ready to share it with your family, there’s five million ways to do it, and how (and if) you do it, will always be up to you.

“The most important element in all of this is that YOU fully accept and embrace YOUR identity, that you understand where you stand in your life, and that you own it wherever you are, even if it is harder for people to wrap their minds around,” says Melamed.

“Here's the thing about coming out to others with an identity they might not necessarily understand/believe in — you might feel their resistance, or you might be pleasantly surprised and ultimately, you will have to let neither matter. . . . You can only meet people where they are at in their present moment, so if they don't react in a way that screams ‘I get you, I see you and I acknowledge your identity’, you will have to be good with yourself.”

That’s easier said than done, but it sounds like you’ve been laying down all the groundwork for you to get there. You can’t control how others perceive or react to you, but you can control how you feel about yourself and how you choose to identify.

“Being pan or fluid or anything that transcends any binaries can cause others to feel discomfort, which can lead them to question since it might not be in line with their experience of themselves,” says Melamed. “If other people question your identity, and the societal pressures start to mount, take a time out, check in with yourself and double down on self love/care. Get in touch with your desires for your life, not your defenses around your identity to others.”

Basically, stay you. No one else has to get it, and ultimately, no one else has to accept it as long as you accept you.

Have questions about sex and love? Email arielle@salon.com

Arielle Egozi

Arielle Egozi is a writer, speaker, and Instagrammer (@ladysavaj) who gets asked a lot about sex, periods and social justice. She's the co-founder of Bread, a data-fueled creative lab bringing diverse representation to advertising.

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