How do I know if I’m gay? How do I know if my assigned gender is the right one for me? How did I know that I was a lesbian? Every time I hear these questions, my brain train derails and I gaze wistfully off into the distance as Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” chorus plays in my head and I daydream about what would have happened to her relationship with Robyn Crawford had the world been a more accepting place. As the brain train comes back on track, I struggle to find the hard answer to that question.
The question of knowing.
It seems like there should be an easy answer, right? Shouldn’t there have been a definitive moment when I looked at a girl and thought to myself, “Wow, it seems that I’m attracted to women” or “Golly, I think I’d rather date women.” These statements were never uttered. I don’t say words like golly.
The Super Mega Easy Task of Understanding Queerness
I’ve struggled to find a way to explain why understanding one’s own sexuality, particularly if it’s anything but hetero, is so complicated. Attraction is incredibly nuanced, with differentiation between romantic sexual, platonic, and sensual attraction. Sexuality seems to be a spectrum that we can float across to various points at different stages of our lives. Throw in a healthy dose of comphet (see my post explaining compulsory heterosexuality here), and you’ve got all of the makings of a multiple-choice quiz with no correct answer.
A friend shared with me, after witnessing my own coming out story, that she had a conversation with an upset teenager who was filling out college paperwork. Apparently, for demographic purposes, the school included an option questionnaire to collect information about their incoming class. One of those questions related to sexual orientation, and the teen was distraught. They didn’t know which box to check. They weren’t sure where they fit. How would they know?
My adult mind looked at that and initially thought, who the heck cares? Check whatever you feel most drawn to! Leave it blank! It’s optional and you don’t owe anyone an explanation! But then, I did that thing I do, and I tried to put myself in their shoes. What if I had grown up in a more progressive time, where I understood that lesbianism was a real thing and that descriptors like pansexual, bisexual, asexual, and questioning were more understood? Would I have been able to fill in a box with an answer that felt like me? It’s hard to say if I would have even had the guts to admit to anything other than hetero, even in today’s more accepting climate. Huge and colorful Pride Month celebrations with increased queer visibility help improve acceptance, but “coming out” is still hard, even in the best-case scenarios.
Coming Out Day
I remember the first time I came out to another individual. I was already years into my hetero marriage to the one and only person I had ever seriously dated. We had a child together. I was receiving a craniosacral therapy session from a very talented practitioner who seemed to move effortlessly from one of my buried traumas to the next. When she placed her hands over my liver, a deluge of emotions came up. I knew what was there. I had been questioning my sexuality for a few years by that point, now finding myself drawn to some women like RuPaul at a wig sale. I had started fantasizing about women in my dreams. At the same time, I still couldn’t picture myself in a relationship with a woman, and certainly couldn’t bear the thought of giving up my marriage and destabilizing my new motherhood.
When the therapist asked what I was holding in that area I employed every ounce of restraint I had not to tell her what was going on. But she already seemed to know. She said it felt like something that went back to third grade. Ah yes, my first girl crush. Her name was also Jill. It would have been awkward.
My brain gave in realizing that this therapist was probably a mind reader and already knew the secret I buried in my abdomen. “I’m… bisexual,” I stammered. Part of me prayed that it was true so that I could validate staying married to a man. The other part of me knew that label didn’t feel right. But I didn’t know. And the therapist didn’t support my answer. I went home and never shared the details of that session with anyone.
I didn’t know what I was.
Queerness Explained with Vegetables
As I was cruising around Tampa Bay in my minivan (correction: there was probably less cruising and more panicked hurry to get my kids to a class on time), my mind went to the most random of places: the story of the princess and the pea.
It’s been a hot minute since I read that fairytale so I’m 92% sure this analogy will not at all line up with the actual story but stay with me. In the story, to determine if she’s a real princess, the palace puts a pea on this woman’s bed and then covers it with all of the mattresses in the kingdom. They must have had a great insurance policy because anyone who has ever stacked mattresses as a kid knows that even a small tower is wobbly as fuck. Also, the villagers had to be upset at the loss of their mattresses. My train of thought was derailed as I started to wonder if the pea was like a dried one that you’d use for soup, or soft and prone to squishing…
My brain train hopped back on track and continued with the visual. Here’s this potential princess, trying to get a good night’s sleep on top of all of these mattresses, pretending that there’s absolutely nothing weird about this scenario, when she realizes she just can’t sleep because something is not right. Something deep down hurts her. She doesn’t know the what or the why, just that there is a thing that is keeping her up at night. Is that her knowing?
I tried to think of a quirky way to turn this into a story about lesbianism (because that is my sole purpose in life… to make EVERYTHING about women loving women). I thought I’d rewrite the story as “The Princess and the Chickpea Hummus” or “The Sapphic Poet and the Subaru Keys.” Instead, I’ll just go for the visual with me and the entire Mattress Firm collection of Sealy Posturepedics stacked in a safe, reinforced pile.
Uncovering the Source
So here I am, a younger version of Jill, trying to rest comfortably and feeling that something is not right. I’m so far from the source of my pain, I can’t even begin to guess what it could be. So I start by removing the mattress of ignorance as I meet my first out lesbian at age 26, realizing that this is a valid type of relationship and that lesbians really do exist. My body still feels the pain through the layers and my mind doesn’t know why.
Then I remove the mattress of fear and see that there is a beautiful, loving, protective, and thriving gay community in my area, complete with gay bars, gay-friendly beaches, affirming churches, and wonderful Pride celebrations. I still don’t see myself as part of that community, but I watch from afar and take comfort in knowing that it’s out there.
As I begin to study the queer community and lifestyle, I realize that there are multiple mattress layers labeled internalized homophobia. I uncovered years of societal conditioning and the damage of soaking in subtle (and not so subtle) signals that gay was something “less than.” These layers ran deep. I decided to study queer culture like it was my new college major, reading every book and watching every documentary I could safely get my closeted hands on. Through studying, I found pride and admiration for a community that had risked so much just to love. And their love was not less-than. In some ways, queer love felt like a more-than, because so much more was on the line. Why take the risk if that love wasn’t real and true?
An ugly mattress of insecurity lay below. I started to feel what was causing my sleeplessness. I was okay with other people being gay, but what would happen if I came out? I wondered how my friends and family would react. I wondered if I wanted a life where my best friend was no longer my husband. There were so many unknowns to the thought of admitting I was not a heterosexual. I questioned if I could just live with the discomfort of the pea. Certainly, that discomfort couldn’t be worse than what I would face if I came out, could it? That was a heavy mattress to move.
The final mattress that I dragged away with my massive lesbian biceps, toned from all of the aforementioned mattress flinging, is shame. I concluded that living a lie and trying to fit into a mold that wasn’t made for me was unhealthy and would eventually cause me to come undone. I remembered that I was made whole and exactly as I was intended to be. I didn’t “stray” to homosexuality. I strayed from my truth, a result of being fed the lie that who I was wasn’t okay. I strayed from my core knowing and that is what had caused me so much pain.
I picked up the container of chickpea hummus and enjoyed it with some gluten-free crackers. I was hungry from all that unmattressing.
The Mattress of Knowing
In what layer of those mattresses did I know for certain that I was gay? I would argue that the knowing was always there. I had always felt it to my core. But without the language for it, learning it, and allowing myself to get closer to it, I couldn’t see what I was dealing with. There was no particular mattress removal that was the “A-Ha!” moment. They were all just layers that had to be addressed to know myself better.
My queer fairytale did, indeed, turn out to be dream-worthy. I have never felt more whole as a person, more full of love, and more clear in my mission and purpose during this lifetime on Earth. I cringe at the thought of trying to sleep through that discomfort for the rest of my life, though I understand why others do. Getting to the truth meant uncovering a lot of layers. I had to do the hard work and the heavy lifting.
If you consider yourself questioning, great! You’re normal and there is no timeline you need to meet to answer your question. If someone you know is unsure of what label fits them, just hug them and let them know they’re perfect the way they are and are allowed to change those labels at any time, no explanation needed.
To answer the question of, “How will I know?”, there is no right answer. Just get to the source of what keeps you up at night.
I Never Want Anyone to Feel As Alone As I Did
Doing the work is hard and should not be attempted alone. That's why I wrote my memoir, Perfectly Queer. See why it made Wondermind's list of "13 Books by LGBTQ+ Authors That Feel Like Therapy." and Good Morning America's list of "15 delightful books perfect for spring reading."
I’m a huge proponent of talk therapy and craniosacral therapy as well. For Florida residents, may I recommend LGBTQ+-affirming Project No Labels and the Fitzlane Project for support offered on a sliding income scale. If you live outside of Florida, The Trevor Project is an incredible organization to contact. You can find a local craniosacral therapy practitioner HERE. Please just verify that your practitioner is an ally before the session.