Find out how stumbling upon your sexuality in your late 20s can completely destabilise your sense of “self” — for the better. Here, we look at how identity can be shaped through the lens of a patriarchal and heterosexual upbringing and what happens when we pull back the bed covers.
When you stumble upon your sexuality in your mid-20s, or rather realise your heterosexuality is presumed rather than definite, the experience is similar to a really well-planned surprise party. You have no idea it’s going to happen although you’ve definitely thought about it once or twice, and when it does you feel both bewildered and excited. Your initial fight-or-flight terror is quickly replaced by total, unselfconscious joy. When your sexuality reveals itself, beaming with a loud “SURPRISE!” you experience a level of uncertainty that a stable, heteronormative upbringing does not prepare you for.
For me, this sexual stumbling was more of a faceplant; haphazard, ungraceful, kicked off by a moment of shared frisson with a friend who joined me in the hope that someone had planned their surprise party too. In this moment, you feel a new colour has appeared on the palette of your life. It repaints elements of your world, amending the mural of your memory — your past now both familiar and alien.
If you’ve ever had a surprise party, you’ll know that the “SURPRISE!” moment of the party is often the most chaotic. Multiple bodies unfurl themselves from behind too-few sofas, someone starts singing too early, it’s not necessarily slick, you don’t know how it’s going to go, but it’s a moment of unbridled joy like no other.
The same can be said for sexuality. Its revelation can be many things: haphazard, an unexpected delight that leaves you wondering who you are, what else you don’t know about yourself and what else you haven’t discovered. At this moment, anything is possible (perhaps you’d be Olympic pole vault champion if you’d bothered to try). But more importantly, who are you now? You feel both found and lost; you’ve stumbled upon something fundamental while letting go of one of the reference points of your identity. You realise that your memory is an unreliable narrator, suddenly recalibrating the times you kissed girls, repainting the memory as something done not to impress the boys but because you actually wanted to. Remember when you suggested spin the bottle at an all-girls party? Kylie Jenner might have been ridiculed for “realising stuff”, but when a single encounter can rewrite your personal history (and, more excitingly, your future), you actually do realise some stuff. You realise that there is nothing certain about the self — you are a changeable, organic being, constantly adapting. Yes, it is destabilising, but it’s also something worth celebrating.
Quick to shift
Never has the human ability to adapt been more clear than in the uncertainty of the current global pandemic. It is not easy to find a positive in the chaos of the crisis, but one we can cherish is the light it has shone on how quickly we have been able to shift our behaviours and our parlance, to change our modes of being and adapt to an unknowable landscape.
However, the ride has not been easy. The fluidity required to navigate this “new normal” and to be comfortable with uncomfortability does not come naturally. Humans define themselves according to certain variables, building a sense of self through focal points such as our sexuality, gender, career, friends, family and significant others. When these are thrown into question, we are left feeling untethered. At the moment, we are untethered on a global scale.
A brief Google of Coronavirus brings up thousands of self-help guides peppered with buzzwords like “uncertainty” and “anxiety”. When it comes to sexuality, there is no guide and no way to neatly homogenise the nuance of individual experience. A Google of “Am I bisexual” does not offer mindfulness as a way of working through it. When you lose what is certain, it is destabilising. When you lose the certainty of heterosexuality, something you learn to assume so early on in life (a bisexual fairy tale princess saved by another princess? I don’t think so) you can feel totally without an anchor.
Perhaps it is too early to pull profound lessons from the current crisis, but there’s no doubt it has created an environment in which stasis is impossible. In the most unlikely of circumstances, greater fluidity has become essential. It has led me through — among other things — an unprecedented number of times of reading the word “unprecedented”. If the entire world can exist in a state of flux, so can I.
Apply this learning to sexual orientation and it becomes clear how much potential there is in uncertainty and the need to pull up our roots in order to grow. There is little in life more destabilising than a moment of revelation — realising you don’t like your job, realising you are or aren’t in love, realising you want something different from the life your parents wanted for you, realising that you are a millennial who hates avocado toast. These moments create anxiety because they challenge notions of “who we are”.
The moment of revelation for me was almost comically unsexy, a refreshing departure from the expectations of a heterosexual encounter. There were no moments of self-consciousness, no wondering whether you look good, whether you’re doing the right thing, whether you shaved your legs or not — just total equality, a feeling of being totally present and totally unaware of yourself. It was as close as you can get to existing purely in a single moment. It was the moment of the surprise party when fear gives way to the feeling that you are exactly where you need to be. You are left (if we’re going to labour the metaphor) with great memories and a lot of cleaning to do. In this instance, cleaning away the detritus of the heteronormativity around which you are built.
A 19th-century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, described anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom” and never has this been more relevant. We are experiencing anxiety on an unprecedented scale but buried in the uncertainty of our future is freedom and a chance to recalibrate. Uncertainty is a destination where you can be who you want to be, rather than who you are supposed to be. If you are certain about your “self”, you close yourself to change.
Throughout life, you are encouraged to entertain the idea of a tangible, homogenous self. You’re told to “just be yourself”, to love yourself, to know yourself, to find yourself. You’re told that “you should do you”, and there is praise for those who can be “unashamedly themselves”. People say “just be yourself” as if it is comforting. But this fixation with the self leaves little room for exploration and fluidity.
Just as the world has been flummoxed by the sudden need to recalibrate the elements of daily life that we take for granted, the obsession with the self disregards our endless capacity for change. We are a collection of experiences, moments, learned behaviours and memories. A static “you” is a myth.
Of course, humans are rooted in the past; our identities are constructed through memories, societal norms. Girls kissing girls in the eyes of a patriarchal society is a performative validation of heterosexuality, an act to impress the boys. When we try to maintain these stereotypes and reference points to validate our sense of self, we create a myth of certainty that makes uncertainty terrifying. You are not “definitely” anything, but you spend your formative teens and 20s desperately trying to box yourself up into neat “definites”. Definitely hetero. Definitely gay. Definitely going to be successful. Definitely going to own a house. Definitely going to have children. But as the last few months have proved, everything is uncertain — and in that there is freedom.
Sexuality and freedom
When you reveal your sexuality in your mid 20s, hopefully your friends are supportive, curious, interested and excited for you. Some of them might lunge at you at midnight in the vague hope of some kind of bucket-list ticking exercise. But with each question there is a lingering need to define you. Would you say you’re more into men or women? Would you be able to marry another woman? Which one do you prefer? Who is better in bed? Each question asks you to make a choice and revert back to binary classifications. What happens when you don’t know? How are you meant to feel?
A group of millennials who have grown up around the heteronormative cultural production of ‘90s and ‘00s Disney films, rom-coms and angst-ridden indie pop are not unaffected by their messages. Cinderella could not be herself until she had found her prince — she would have been confined to a life of servitude and unhappiness had she not. Snow White would have physically died if a heterosexual male prince had not saved her in her final hours as *gasp* a single woman. I bought into these ideas; I didn’t even question them. Only a semi-drunken, fully revolutionary experience with another woman made me question the impact of normalised heteronormativity. My sexuality has been a veritable question since I set my tinder to men and women way back in 2015, but it wasn’t until I managed to let go of the need for rigid norms to feel like I am a “whole” person that I truly started to see the value in seeing sexuality as fluid.
The formative years of childhood are shaped by the assumption and the certainty of heterosexuality. Each human experience is different, nuanced and rich. Nothing about a definable “self” truly reflects that — the dizziness of freedom should be embraced, the anxiety of uncertainty harnessed to generate change.
Even bisexuality as a term is one that tries to box the experience into a neat package. In recent years LGBTQ identities have proliferated, blossomed, existing in their thousands to fit into a society that relies on definition, while making the point that a pre-ordained identity is regressive to individual experience. Bisexuality as a concept is in itself contentious — it is liminal and therefore taken less seriously. It is often cited as the part of the LGBTQ movement that is ignored in a move coined bisexual erasure. There is never a bisexual best friend, no stereotype against which you can either identify or deny.
But therein lies the freedom — to express yourself however you want — to use the definition and work out what it means to you. In obsessing over this idea of a neat, definable self, there is a risk of denying the opportunity to truly evolve and embrace instability, to value fluidity and see yourself as malleable.
“Being yourself” seems fundamental but it lacks the nuance that our identities deserve. I am not straight. I am not gay. I don’t know if being bisexual even really means anything to me. I am a product of my experiences, a product of the rich, exciting experiences that change me. I like men and I like women and I have not decided who I like more.
Each moment of your life is like an iPhone update; it’s a small change, almost subconscious, an optimisation of a recognisable self. But pick up an iPhone 3 now and you stare in awe at how unrecognisable it feels. What Coronavirus has shown is that we have the capacity to be fluid, to shift and change at a rate previously unknown. If this can be applied to our identities, then the surprise party has only just begun.
Words SOPHIE WILLIAMS