Camp Pride: Releasing and Reclaiming My Labels
About the Series: Camp Pride
Here at Camp Thirlby, Pride lasts year long—however, this month we want to highlight the stories of queer individuals and how they came to terms with their complex stories and identities. Part of our mission during Pride is to feel proud of all aspects of our identities, no matter how messy they can be. These contributors not only shared their stories, but also spoke them, allowing you to listen and/or read their deeply personal, at times intimate, but always very queer journeys • Illustration by Geordon Wollner.
Fluidity has been a welcome constant in my life, allowing me to move through phases and spaces without too much resistance. My friends and I were lucky that we created communities where we could easily change our labels, swapping out certain sexuality and gender labels whenever we found something that felt more fitting.
The first few times I came out weren’t announcements, per se. They were casual updates; an offhand comment about how I added women to my tinder profile and a joke about being the “gay cousin” were all it took to open dialogue about my newfound queerness. I lingered somewhere in between calling myself bisexual or pansexual, enjoying the freedom that these labels carried.
Later on, when I realized that I was really only interested in women, I changed my language to include my lesbian identity. Suddenly all of my labels felt limiting; my sexuality was more pointed than my interpretation of being bi or pan, but more ambiguous than my interpretation of being lesbian or gay.
My queerness—similar to many other peoples’—still involves an endless slew of conversations where I have to “come out,” in one way or another. As a queer person, I’m expected to come out to my friends, my family, my friends’ families, my coworkers, my bodega guys, my overly-friendly Uber drivers, and countless strangers.
This perpetual process of coming out to the world isn’t an explicitly good or bad thing; these conversations can involve moments that are both liberating and exhausting. In many ways I didn’t understand myself as queer until I found a supportive community of queers who were open to discuss their fluid sexualities and identities, and those discussions shaped my queer identity for the better. But on the other end of these conversations, I’ve encountered numerous strangers who ask intrusive and inappropriate questions, attempting to dissect my sexuality in ways that make me incredibly uncomfortable.
Somewhere in between my various Tinder dates and late night conversations with friends, I realized my sexuality wasn’t as simple as other people wanted it to be. My bisexuality was never a 50-50 split, and it seemed to frustrate others when I explained that I could never really boil my desires down to a simple pie chart of which genders I wanted to sleep with. To accommodate the confusion, I found myself roughly summarizing my sexuality as “I’m infatuated with every woman I meet, and I’m occasionally drunk and bored enough to be interested in a man.”
During my college years, I leaned further into my queerness, eventually switching out my default label of “bi” for the term “gay.”
A close (gay) friend texted me one day, gently asking why I switched terms. I thought about it, ultimately replying that “gay” felt like a term that encompassed my community and my sexuality more accurately.
At this point in my life, I use an array of terms interchangeably, mostly depending on who I’m talking to. When I discuss my sexuality with straight men I identify as a lesbian, usually to shut down their sexual advances. But when I delve into my identity with straight women and other queer people, I’ll take the time to explain myself as queer or pansexual, since it gives my sexuality a simultaneous ambiguity and clarity that feels honest and accurate.
There are still phases where I enjoy dancing with men and basking in male attention, but I’ve found that my feelings for womxn are more enduring and meaningful. Voicing that distinction isn’t particularly important to me because those feelings will always endure, no matter if I share them or keep them inside, but I still want to address the implications that come with sharing the intricacies of my sexuality.
The fact that I’m often unattracted to men doesn’t invalidate my choice to call myself bisexual, pansexual, or queer. The fact that I’m not exclusively attracted to women doesn’t invalidate my choice to call myself gay or lesbian.
I’ve noticed a tendency to police terms from people in both straight and queer communities. Many of my female friends have hesitently come out to me as bisexual, prefacing the discussion with the fact that they don’t want to be seen as “another annoying straight girl who’s co-opting queer culture.”
While I appreciate their mindfulness, it’s endlessly frustrating to see how queer womxn are conditioned to think that sharing their queerness is attention-seeking or annoying if it’s not simple. We’re told — from both ends of the monosexual spectrum — that we’re choosing to linger in a “phase.” It’s a dialogue that’s so normalized that it almost feels stupid to point it out, but it’s unfair that sexual fluidity and exploration is frowned upon by so many people in both straight and gay communities.
I think that people get frustrated with fluidity because it’s harder to condense. Maybe it would be “easier” for people if I was simply straight or gay, but I don’t exist to be easy. I can’t explain why my sexuality fluctuates, but I can confidently say that it’s not a stagnant part of my identity, and I embrace that motion.
Maybe I’ll wake up one day and decide that I want to date a man for the first time in my life. I don’t see that on my horizon right now, and I may never feel that way, but I’m also not going to limit myself by saying it’ll never happen. I have the potential to be attracted to people from any and every gender identity, and as Janelle Monaé once put it, “I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.”
My fluidity and exploration doesn’t make me less lesbian, and my consistent attraction to womxn doesn’t make me less bisexual or pansexual. These labels are ours to claim, and it’s ok to fit them to your own narrative, rather than the other way around. It’s been truly liberating for me to realize that I don’t have to change myself to fit a label if I can change the label to fit me.
Don’t get me wrong: representation and language are crucial, and I respect people who proudly embrace their labels just as much as the people who proudly reject their labels. Having the language to articulate my identity can be both empowering and limiting, and that’s a contradiction that I’m learning to love.
I don’t need to prove the validity of my sexuality to anyone and I don’t need to hide the fluidity of my sexuality from anyone, either. There’s a beautiful duality to this realization; I don’t have to explain myself, and because of that, I’m willing to have open and evolving conversations about where my sexuality rests.
About the Author
Julia Carmel (she/her) is a recent graduate from Binghamton University. As a journalism student, she became fascinated with how art and technology alter our social landscape, and her work centers around human connections that can be found at the intersection of identity and culture. She’s currently the communications intern for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, but you can usually find her reading in public parks, eating Takis, and dancing at free concerts. You can check out her other work on her website.