A year away from the male gaze had left my sense of self on the doormat
Specifically the one by my front door that I hadn't stepped through in 124 days. In hindsight, I probably needed that period of isolation to rebuild myself, but at the time, it was a pretty dull way to come to terms with my sexuality. I was stuck with my thoughts when I’d much rather have been stuck in the queue to Heaven on a Thursday night. To my dismay, there would be no Lady Gaga blasting in surround sound to drown out the hum of the internalised homophobia bouncing around my head.
As restrictions started to ease, my closest friends would, one by one, sneak around the back and sit on the opposite side of the garden. Without hesitation I confided in them my sudden clarity regarding my sexuality and my inevitable fears of navigating what felt like being a virgin all over again. To no surprise at all I was met with sympathy and support but as we chatted away, more than once I was met with the question:
How do you know you’re gay if you’ve never had sex with a woman?
Each time, I didn't really know what to respond. There’s something about unintentional
homophobia that always tends to throw me off guard - I’d feel it get my back up a bit. I’d muster a clumsy response, or joke about how I might not know what or who would feel right, but certainly already knew what wrong felt like. I think at the time I was overwhelmed by the assumptions that question made. I couldn’t formulate a logical response or highlight the flawed reasoning behind that statement.
For a start - what even is sex? The heteronormative idea of sex being focused on penetration seems to leave an vague air of mystery surrounding lesbian sex. But there are plenty of straight women who don’t enjoy penetration, and plenty of lesbians that do. It goes without saying that what constitutes sex is really up to the individuals participating. For me at least, it came down to the level of intimacy. I had had a few sexual interactions with women, but what stopped me feeling as if they constituted sex had very little to do with the presence of penetration or lack thereof - instead it was they had either been performed for the male gaze, or under the gaze of a man, and for me this meant it lacked intimacy.
But let’s take a minute to separate sex from sexuality. The people you have sex with is not empirical evidence of your sexuality. For a while, I guess I was a lesbian that had only ever had sex with men, but that didn't make me any less gay. In fact, these days I’m a lesbian that still does very occasionally sleep with men. Not because I experience any real visceral attraction towards men but because to me good sex feels good regardless of who it’s with. (I’m a lazy hedonist and an admittedly selfish lover.)
So that brings me onto bad sex. Another assumption implied within the question, how do you know you’re gay if you’ve never had sex with a woman?, is that if I have sex with a women and it’s not some life changing expereince, I might not be gay. But have you enjoyed every consensual sexual experience you’ve had? Let’s face it, we’ve all experienced disappointing sex. When you experience average or even bad sex, does it throw your sexuality into question? Probably not. Instead, bad sex tends to make us question either our partner, and our compatibility with them, or our own relationship to sex. If you’ve managed to endure a shit shag without it throwing your sexuality into question, then I’m sure you can understand why my forced abstinence didn’t confuse mine. There are also plenty of people who don’t enjoy sex with anyone and this has no infringement on their orientation while those who identify as asexual may not experience sexual attraction or desire, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t experience other types of attraction. In the same way, those who identify as a-romantic may not experience romantic attraction to others, however they may still be attracted to people sexually and experience sexual desire towards others. It’s worth highlighting that attraction isn't binary, simply romantic or sexual, there is also intellectual attraction, emotional attraction, spiritual attraction and many others. But if you can understand the validity of asexual women-loving-women as lesbians, then you should be able to logically
conclude that a lesbian that is yet to have sex with a women is still very much a lesbian.
As restrictions eased and I got vaccinated, I decided it was time for me to pick myself up and cross the threshold. So thankfully this isn't a question I’m going to have to answer anymore*, but I still think it's important to answer it in retrospect; not just because at one point I was struggling to, but because I think it serves as a reminder that you can’t gate keep a community built for outliers. If you’re a part of it already I hope you agree, but if you're straight and reading this then I only really have one question:
How did you know you were straight?
*unless of course you're my incredibly hot seemingly straight friend that secretly has feelings for me - ask away.