“So, you think you’re bisexual?”
I’m 12 years old, sitting in the bathroom, watching my mother straighten her hair before work.
For once, the house is quiet. No little sister running around and agitating the neighbors below us. No stepfather chasing after, telling her to be quiet. Everything is white and fluorescent. We’ve lived in this apartment in Jersey for a year now.
My mother glides the metal plates down her hair, ringlet curls now tamed from years of constant heat damage. Then, she calmly says, “So, you think you’re bisexual?”
This catches me off guard. I, awkward in clothes that have yet to adjust to my changing frame, sputter, “What?”
“Tití Jessie overheard you talking to your cousin.” Which means she picked up the house phone to spy on our conversation. Great.
My mom puts the straightener down, turning from her reflection to look at me. “So you want to put your mouth on another girl’s vagina?”
Naturally, more panic ensues. “What? No!”
She turns back to the mirror. “Okay, then. That’s what I thought.”
And that was that.
My mom and I didn’t talk about my sexuality for another 12 years.
In that gap of time I was on my own, often riddled with doubt. Thinking, yes, she’s probably right.
I read all these romance novels about strong men pursuing strong girls who became soft for them. As a late bloomer of sorts, I didn’t have a significant other until I was 17. He and I explored entering adulthood together until I grew past him.
I went to college in Southern New Jersey, on a small campus known for its nursing and criminal justice programs. You can guess what my fellow classmates were like.
I was a commuter, so I’d drive through Atlantic City — predominately Black, overwhelmed with unemployment, watched over by the casinos jutting into the sky — and into the woodsy off-shore neighborhoods.
Thin Blue Line flags peppered the lawns of homes I passed, a constant reminder of where the people around me stood when it came to my humanity as a Black girl.
So obviously there wasn’t much space for an awkward, introverted Black girl who knew only how to make friends by attaching to the nearest extrovert.
I was still uncomfortable in my Blackness, and I think the other Black kids at my college could sense that.
So I found a home with the other literature majors. I became very used to attention from people who weren’t my type, while simultaneously never being the type of those who piqued my interest. This created a complex that led to a series of sexual encounters that displayed my need for attention and validation.
I was the “first Black girl” for so many cis white men. My quietness made me more approachable. More “acceptable.”
Many people kept telling me what I was or what I wanted. In sitting around common areas with my friends, we’d joke about our relationships.
As my friends watched me rack up body after body, all of them cis and male, they began to make jokes at the validity of my queerness.
A lot of internalized biphobia is questioning yourself because others get into your head.
Bisexual people make up a little over 50 percent of the LGBTQIA community, yet we’re often made to feel like we’re invisible or don’t belong. Like we’re confused, or we haven’t figured it out yet. I began to buy into that concept for myself.
When I finally did have a sexual encounter with a woman, it was during my first threesome. It was a lot. I was slightly drunk and confused, unsure of how to navigate two bodies at once, balancing the couple’s relationship and focused on paying equal amounts of attention to each party.
I left the interaction a little disoriented, wanting to tell my boyfriend about it, but unable to because of the don’t-ask-don’t-tell nature of our open relationship.
I would continue to have sex with women during group play and continue to feel “not queer enough.”
That first interaction, and many of the following, never felt perfect. It added to my internal struggle.
Was I really into other femmes? Was I only sexually attracted to women? I wasn’t allowing myself to understand that queer sex can be less than satisfying as well.
I had racked up so many underwhelming experiences with men, yet never doubted my attraction to them.
Without queer examples in my life, or in the media available to me, I had no idea what was right.
My environment shaped a lot of my self-perception. When I moved back home to NYC, I realized how much was available outside the blue collar, often-conservative district I’d grown up in.
I could be polyamorous. I could be sex-positive and kinky, and I could be queer as f*ck. Even while having relationships with men.
I realized when I began actually dating a woman, I had continuously boiled down my sexuality to sex — just as my mom had years ago.
In that initial conversation, she never asked me if I wanted to put my mouth on a boy’s genitals. I would’ve had the same reaction! I was too young to fathom sex as a whole, let alone the body parts involved.
My feelings for that girl were real and exciting and wonderful. I felt safer than I ever had in a romantic relationship, simply within the kinship of the same gender.
When it dissolved before it really started, I was devastated in losing what I almost had.
To me, it implied a 50-50 attraction to each sex. I questioned if it was inclusive of other gender identities, too — so I chose pansexual or queer in the beginning.
Although I still use those words to identify myself, I’ve become more comfortable accepting this more common term, understanding its definition is ever-evolving.
Sexuality for me has never been about who I am attracted to. It’s more so about who I’m open to.
And honestly, that’s everyone. I no longer feel the need to prove my queerness to anyone — not even to myself.
Gabrielle Smith is a Brooklyn-based poet and writer. She writes about love/sex, mental illness, and intersectionality. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram.