Content warning: Internalized biphobia, therapy sessions, discussion of relationships, marriage, and traditional gender roles. I believe that my own internalized biphobia, or “the internalized belief that bisexuality/pansexuality is somehow lesser or something of which one should be ashamed” [source], did come from my issues with the way I was perceived, gender-wise. That being said, it’s a real issue within the LGBTQIA+ community, and shouldn’t be disregarded because of my experience.
Update: I changed my name from “Mimi” to “Marty” and started using he/him pronouns in July 2019. This article keeps the original “Mimi” and “she/her” self-references in order to maintain a sense of timeline.
“So, you’re attracted to men, even though you identify as a lesbian?”
My first-year therapist sat on the couch across from me with a legal pad in her lap, listening intently. It wasn’t our first session together, but it was the first time I’d brought up something other than academic concerns. She seemed to be giving it extra consideration.
I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. “Yes, that’s what I’m concerned about. I don’t think I should be identifying as a lesbian at all, but if I come out for a second time as pansexual and panromantic, everybody will think I was lying about being a lesbian.”
“What do you think about the idea that gender identity and sexual orientation are fluid?”
“I think that’s totally valid.” I paused. “For other people.”
“But you are a ‘liar’ if you let people know that your orientation has changed?”
“I don’t want to be That Girl who was gay, then turned out to actually be into men, too.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It would be reinforcing negative stereotypes.” I stopped to think for a moment. “I would feel like some girl who was just pretending to be a lesbian, who was then ‘set straight’ when she’d had her fun.”
“But you’ve been sexually and romantically attracted to women in the past.”
“Yes, I have.”
“So you wouldn’t have been ‘just pretending’ to be into women.”
“I … guess not, but I still feel dirty about it.”
I had brought up the matter of sexual orientation with my therapist because, despite the fact that I’d been publicly out as a lesbian for my entire first year of college, I’d recently gotten involved with a cis guy. It wasn’t just a fling; there were feelings involved. The more I tried to deny it, the worse I felt. It seemed increasingly deceitful to keep the whole thing to myself.
To admit that I liked this guy wouldn’t just be a personal thing. It would mean that I was no longer a lesbian, no longer only attracted to women, no longer able to wave my gold-star status around like some kind of trophy. I would be one of those girls — and it was always those girls, wasn’t it — who, after having a girlfriend or two, revealed that no, they were strictly dickly all along.
I was eighteen years old and full of internalized biphobia. Never mind that I knew plenty of people, regardless of gender, who identified as pansexual and openly dated throughout the gender spectrum with no discrimination. Sleeping with a man — or even admitting that I was attracted to one — felt like the ultimate betrayal to the lesbian community.
“I don’t want to be pansexual,” I confessed in the privacy of my therapist’s office. “I want to get rid of these … awful feelings. I don’t want to like boys.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to men.”
“I’m not a straight girl!”
“That is correct. You cannot be a ‘straight girl’ unless you identify as a woman and are exclusively attracted to people who identify as men.” She wrote something down on the legal pad. “Is your attraction to men a recent thing?”
My face burned. “In college, yes.”
“I’ve had boyfriends before.”
“What drew you to your previous male partners?”
As was the case with many little kids, my first thoughts on relationships centered around superficial aspects rather than intrinsic things. Qualities such as mutual respect, compatible worldviews, and equal, fair division of labor didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as the idea of grand romantic adventures and happily ever afters.
The narratives I’d consumed as a child featured damsels in distress and brave heroes who did courageous deeds to save them. Every story arc culminated in fancy weddings with frothy white dresses that featured anthropomorphic woodland creatures, fairies, and the whole kingdom in attendance. It was these situations that I found myself daydreaming about whenever I thought about my ideal romantic relationships.
Most little girls my age thought about these things too, but there was one marked difference between my vision and theirs — I had no desire to be saved, or to be a damsel in distress (or a damsel at all). Instead, I wanted to be the one going on adventures; the savior, the protector, the one to lift the glass coffin and carry the beautiful princess toward the sunset in my very capable and physically strong arms.
I had a hard time thinking of myself as a future “girlfriend” or a “wife”. When I imagined what getting engaged would be like, I saw myself down on one knee, holding out an open ring box to my mysterious beloved as they tearfully declared that yes, yes, they would love to be with me for the rest of forever. When I daydreamed about my future wedding, I had groomsmen, not bridesmaids, and I was the one at the end of the aisle, watching through my veil with misty eyes as this mysterious person slowly walked towards me on the arm of one of their parents.
When I got a little bit older, I realized what a sham the entire idea of marriage was, and out went all of the fairy-tale-and-marriage-related daydreams.
The one thing that lived on was my distaste for gender roles in romantic relationships.
My imaginary beloved never had a specific gender. They could have been a woman, a man, neither, or a combination of both. I’d assumed that I’d been so caught up with the aesthetics and logistics of the daydream that the other person hadn’t mattered, but maybe this person’s lack of gender said something about my orientation.
Come to think of it, all the boys I found myself attracted to were extremely feminine, both in looks and character. I liked boys who had soft facial features and sweet dispositions, ones who I could ask out on dates and give my sweatshirts to when it got cold, ones who opted to sit in my lap rather than the other way around.
My first real relationship was during my junior year of high school, with a boy a year older than me. He was a theater kid who sported longish hair, an androgynous wardrobe, and an absolute disregard for gender roles of any kind. He had his nails painted more often than I did, and he often put on my dresses for fun and let me take pictures. It was pretty much like being with a girl. He made me feel more masculine, which I liked a lot. I had a ‘guy name’ and he had a ‘girl name’, and we’d occasionally refer to each other by those monikers.
As I talked, my therapist furiously scribbled bulletpoints onto the legal pad. “Very interesting. Did you have any other relationships before you came to college?”
“Only before that one, and it wasn’t official or anything.”
“Was it with a guy?”
“Yes. He told me that he liked me, because when we were together, he felt as though he were hanging out with a guy friend rather than with a girl he had to try and impress.”
She looked at me curiously. “Have you ever questioned your own gender identity?”
“Yes, but don’t all kids do that at some point?” I ignored the strange feeling in my stomach as I said this. “I’m … okay with being a girl now.”
“Hmm, all right. I ask because it seems that you’re attracted to these men because they make you feel like the masculine partner in the relationship.”
“I like being the masculine partner with women, too,” I protested. “I wear these dresses ironically.”
“When did you come out as a lesbian?”
“In college. I was out as queer at fifteen.”
“Did you feel that ‘lesbian’ was a better identifier for you than ‘queer’?”
“I don’t know. I always thought that just ‘queer’ was a better actual descriptor, but I thought that it was more legit, more valid, to be just a lesbian.”
My therapist set her legal pad down and leaned forward. “Why did you think that?”
“Movies. Chat forums. TV shows. Girls I dated, who were just gay and thought that being bi or pan was a way of copping out, of half-committing.” I shrugged. “It was pretty toxic.”
“You’re aware of this.”
“One of my biggest flaws has always been that I’m too aware and yet still afraid to take action.” I met her gaze. “Although, admitting that there’s a problem is always the first step for me.”
“It’s okay to feel discomfort or reluctance. It’s a big change for you.”
“Do you feel more comfortable now that you’ve talked about it here?”
I nodded again.
“Good.” My therapist hesitated for a second. “Would you say it’s true that you’re uncomfortable taking the female gender role in a romantic relationship, even temporarily? Would it bother you, say, if a person were to put their arm around you during a date?”
I cringed. “Oh my God, yes. It’s not even that I want to be domineering, or ‘the man’ in the controlling sense. I don’t like unequal partnerships. I just want to feel masculine, like I’m not a girl, period.”
“You mentioned earlier that you’re okay with being a girl.”
“That’s just an everyday thing. I can defy gender roles more easily when I’m not in a romantic relationship.”
“Do you feel that having exclusively female partners inherently makes you a more masculine person?”
It was a question that sent a jolt of recognition running down my spine. “I don’t … yes, probably. Socially. Yes. I mean, I shouldn’t, but I do.”
My therapist wrote this down. “To be honest, even though you mentioned encountering biphobia in your environment, I think that the root cause of your discomfort lies in the way you perceive your own gender.” She looked at her watch. “I would love to get more into that now, but unfortunately, we’re just about out of time for this session.”
Damn it, I thought. Just as it was getting good. “This time next week?”
“You got it.” She stood up and gave me a small smile. “I want you to spend some time thinking about how you see yourself, gender-wise, and whether or not your discomfort regarding being with a male partner is actually a fear of appearing less masculine. We often conflate sexual orientation and gender identity. Though the two are somewhat related, they’re not the same.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I nodded, stood up, and reached for the doorknob.
“Oh, and Mimi?”
I turned. “Yes?”
“No matter what conclusions you come to, there’s nothing wrong with being pansexual, or being more attracted to men than you originally thought you were. It’s completely valid to have your sexuality change over time. You’re by no means a fraud or a liar because of it.”
Her words warmed my heart. “Thank you so much. I’ll see you next week.”
Unfortunately, I never did get to see that therapist again. The session described above had occurred near the end of my first year of college. Call it denial, call it covering up my identity issues with endless work, but in the end, I was too caught up with exams and other end-of-the-year things to make it to more sessions.
It’s too bad that I was too scared busy to really confront these questions about my sexual orientation. I’m almost certain that I would have connected the dots about my gender identity much earlier (and maybe saved myself a lot of pain), had those sessions continued like they were supposed to.
I did coming out as pansexual and panromantic soon after that discussion, though, and for a little while, I dated the guy who had started this re-questioning in the first place. He and I are still friends to this day.
I now know the reason for why I felt weird using the word “lesbian” to describe myself — the term “lesbian” means “a woman who is sexually and/or romantically attracted to other women.” The fact that I am a lesbian inherently implies that I am a woman. My female partners saw me as female, which caused a mild gender incongruence that I was barely conscious of back then.
My therapist had gotten it right on the nose — when it comes to the lovers I choose, I’m less concerned about their gender than how gender plays a role in the relationship itself. I would personally much rather date a guy who makes me feel like a guy than a girl who thinks of me as her girlfriend.
There’s so much I’m still learning and unlearning when it comes to all of this. If there’s one valuable piece of advice I could give to myself when I was stressing out over my crush on this guy and What It All Meant, it’s that it’s totally valid to like who you like. The labels may change, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be “betraying” your community, or who you think you are. Sexual orientation doesn’t validate or invalidate gender identity.  ♚
 Just because I identify as pan doesn’t mean that “lesbian” isn’t a perfectly valid sexual orientation. There are plenty of women who love women. I just happen to be a man who doesn’t discriminate based on gender identity. ????