It’s time to make space for confusion

Isabel Dorn in front of Warch Campus Center. Photo by Alana Melvin.

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As a lesbian, my journey of self-discovery has been full of surprises. From first crushes to pixie cuts to geeking out over The Half of It, it’s been a wild but mostly beautiful ride, and I’m lucky to have such an amazing network of friends and family who have supported me along the way. 

However, no one ever told me that the hardest part of stepping into my identity as a lesbian would not be discovering my love for women, but rather accepting that I couldn’t love men. 

As someone who can’t even get coffee without a detailed plan, I’ve been designing my dream wedding since childhood. Halter-neck gown with allover lace, bouquets of irises and lilies, a June honeymoon in Moscow. And I knew what I wanted in a partner – a brilliant, quirky boy who loved traveling around the world, watching Jeopardy and singing P!nk in the car on Saturday supermarket trips. A well-read, well-spoken boy with a passionate, sensitive soul. The sunshine to my midnight rain. 

I believed that when I met this man, I would fall so deeply in love with his heart that I would instantly long to kiss him, touch him, hold him like a lover. I assumed that puberty would fill in that missing piece. But instead, my love for women swept in like a rainstorm, drowning me in their beauty and power. I emerged from the heterosexual matrix, reborn as my true self. 

However, college sent me spiraling into an identity crisis. I had always imagined that I would meet my soulmate in college, and seeing cute opposite-sex couples on campus made me mourn what might have been if I could’ve been born straight. For the first time in years, I started to wonder if I had written off men too quickly. There were plenty of boys here who were kind, smart and interesting. Maybe I could be happy with one of them. How could I possibly know something so important at such a young age, especially since I had no experience with dating? 

Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t really in love with these men; I was just desperately clinging to the hope that my childhood dream of a perfect boyfriend would come true after all. While many aspects of being a lesbian were fun and exciting to me, part of me still craved the comfort of a conventional rom-com love story. 

At the same time, I felt intensely embarrassed to admit that I was questioning my identity. Queer people – particularly women – are constantly accused of being “confused,” largely because society doesn’t want us to take charge of our own sexualities. We’re told that we just haven’t met the right man yet, or that we’re jaded man-haters who are scared of intimacy, as if intimacy with women is somehow less valid than intimacy with men. Our culture still wants to force lesbians into relationships with men because we don’t value women’s consent.  

This constant scrutiny leaves little space for queer women to explore their sexualities. While lesbians, bisexual women and pansexual women all suffer under the heteropatriarchy, many queer women police other women’s identities in a misguided effort to affirm their own experiences. Women who initially identify as lesbians but later discover that they are still attracted to men often face harsh criticism from some members of the lesbian community because they are accused of “faking it.” Likewise, lesbians who have dated men before discovering their sexualities are often invalidated or mislabeled as bi or pan. As I tried to untangle my feelings, I was terrified that other lesbians would call me a fraud for questioning my identity. I was not afraid of being bi or pan, but I was afraid that if I discovered I was bi or pan after I had already come out as a lesbian, people would use me to prove that lesbianism is just a phase because young women aren’t intelligent enough to understand their sexualities and can’t live without men. 

Isabel Dorn in front of Warch Campus Center. Photo by Alana Melvin.

Queer people are constantly fighting the perception that we are too confused to know our own selves. But it’s okay to be confused, because love and lust are inherently confusing feelings. Expecting queer people – especially queer teens and young adults – to instantly know the one word that best describes their identities is like expecting them to know which careers they want to pursue for the rest of their lives. Some people know their dream job at five years old, but other people change majors and jobs several times before they find their passion. Some queer people try on several labels before finding the one that fits best, and some people prefer not to use labels at all. 

From the moment we’re born, girls are socialized into a man’s world. The “happy ending” of almost every movie involves a girl and a boy falling in love, so we’re raised to believe romance with men is how women find happiness. We’re told that puberty happens so we can procreate with men, a perspective that simultaneously ignores the existence of gay, trans and nonbinary people. Society’s misogynistic attitudes about marriage, sex and gender roles tell girls that we need men in order to live good lives. Distancing ourselves from these internalized beliefs can take many years, especially when our society rewards people who conform to these ideals. It’s not our fault that we doubt ourselves when we live in a heteronormative system that’s designed to trick us. Being any type of queer woman in a patriarchal society requires an incredible amount of strength and courage, and the last thing we need is anti-queerness from within the queer community itself. We can only succeed through solidarity. 

Today, I find pride and happiness in identifying as a lesbian, and I wouldn’t change that. However, I do hope LGBTQ+ people can create larger, judgment-free spaces to discuss the unique struggle that comes with untangling oneself from social norms. This community was founded to support queer people; let’s make sure that it stays true to its mission.