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On becoming a bisexual in downtown Los Angeles

What is a sexuality anyway?


Emily VanDerWerff

Jun 22 2020

23 min read


(Continued police violence directed against black Americans is a horrific problem that we, as a nation, are hopefully finally reckoning with. I want to be conscious of the ways in which this is a conversation where my voice isn’t needed as much as the voices of others, so this newsletter is going to stick with its regularly scheduled programming, which in June is a series of Pride posts on trans stuff. But it’s important to use what platform I have to direct you toward folks who could use your money, if you have some to spare. If you have the extra cash, donate it to any one of the black trans women in this Twitter thread, who are crowdfunding transition-related surgeries.)

Most summers when I was a kid, my mother would drive my sister and I the 30 miles to the little town where we attended the evangelical churches I grew up in. Each summer Wednesday, we would trundle into the church basement to receive various lessons in being a good Christian, then exit back into a night turning pink. At the end of summer, we would go for a fun-filled cookout on the banks of the nearby Missouri River.

We lived on the very western edge of the Central time zone, so daylight would last well after 9 pm in the summers, giving every memory I have of that time a hazy, too-warm quality, always with the whir of cicadas somewhere in the background. I don’t remember the events so much as I do the sensations. The whole evening had the feel of a swimming pool at dusk, when the heat from the day’s sun has soaked into the water and made it the temperature of lukewarm broth.

We were always encouraged to bring friends from other churches to these events, in the thought that they might be saved from their iniquities. Everybody where I grew up was a Christian, but some Christians were more Christian than others in the estimation of my church. Mainline Protestants and Catholics were, at best, well-meaning dupes who needed the full fire of the Lord to join in the church’s true mission of making the United States a theocratic paradise. So the goal was to get as many of our friends as possible to realize their churches were insufficiently dedicated to this goal, which would either cause our friends to join our church or (more unrealistically) agitate to change the policies of their own churches. (Needless to say, neither of the above happened.)

Summer in South Dakota. (Credit: PD Healey)

The particular summer night I’ve been thinking about lately involved a whole collection of kids from my town piled into the back of my family’s Suburban. One of them was my sister’s friend Julia (this is not her real name), who had been coming over to our house every so often from the time she moved to our town about a year prior to when this story begins. Julia and my sister were not exactly close friends, but they got along, and anyway, she lived just down the road, which might as well be best friends in a rural setting.

One thing I haven’t said is that Julia had been held back, so she was roughly right in age between my sister and I — 18 months younger than me, 18 months older than my sister. This created a weird tension between Julia and me that I didn’t always understand, particularly when she would tease me or snipe at me when I was otherwise minding my own business. I had always had schoolyard crushes, in the sense of all kids, but this felt different enough to perplex me. (If my memory is placing this story correctly, it happened when I was 10 and she was 9.) My schoolyard crushes had generally been on the little girls I desperately wanted to be friends with; whatever tension there was between Julia and I most often existed as something closer to a rivalry.

As we drove back home from church that day, Julia dared me to kiss her. I did, one of those silly, fumbling childhood kisses that are vague approximations of things we think we’ve seen in movies. Then she kissed me. Then I kissed her. It was less romantic than it was a series of escalating dares, but neither of us particularly wanted to back down. My mother, watching in the rear-view mirror, told us to cut it out several times, but we kept at it. The other kids in the car stared at us nervously, as if aware that we were now in a standoff with each other and also my mother, and there were no good endings here.

Finally, we came to Julia’s house. Julia and I stared at each other for a long while, as if trying to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from this incredibly weird situation we were ill-equipped to deal with. I’m sure I looked petrified. She had a weird little smile, like she knew she was about to win whatever this was. Finally, my mother yelled, “[Old name] and Julia! Stop it!”

The spell was broken. Julia went up to her house. She and my sister stopped hanging out. She still went to my school, but I rarely, if ever, talked to her. I don’t know what happened to her after I left.


So Julia was the friend my sister brought to that church day, but I also brought a friend. His name was Reggie (again, not his real name). The guys in my class were almost perfectly chosen to be the best dude friends of a trans girl who didn’t yet know she was a trans girl. They were forgiving of my idiosyncrasies, happy to have me pal around with them, and generally amused by my sense of humor. I felt more whole when I hung out with the girls in my grade, but I never once felt rejected by my guy friends. I just felt a little off, as though I were a bird throwing itself against a window. There was something they all shared that I couldn’t get to.

Of those guys, Reggie wasn’t really close to my inner friend circle. He and I were chummy, and I found his utterly strange sense of humor charming. But we didn’t have nearly as much in common as some of the other guys I spent more time with. But I kept wanting him to be closer to me, in some way I just couldn’t define. I spent time hanging out with him, at his house, at my house, at school. It just never quite clicked. We were like friends, but whatever closeness I was able to approximate with some of the other guys I knew well just wasn’t there. That relationship persisted all through high school, a vague sense that there should have been something more there, without a sense of what that might have been.

Reggie went to church every so often, but he wasn’t particularly committed to the idea. His family had the lackadaisical charm of people who assumed God would bless them regardless of what they actually did. In the grand class struggle of my hometown, they were almost nearly in the middle — able to afford most things but not able to afford all things. If my sister and I were from the upper classes of my town and Julia (who lived in a rundown old farmhouse) was from the lower classes, Reggie and his family were as middle class as you could get. His dad had a good job. His mom had a good job. They didn’t see each other much, but they seemed to love each other, from what I could tell.

So if I’m trying to fill out this memory of my kissing standoff with Julia, Reggie also has to be there, somewhere on its periphery. I had talked him into attending this church thing with me, even though he was clearly reluctant, and I felt intense pride when he went forward to accept Jesus into his heart. Wouldn’t it be great to spend eternity together? Ol’ Reggie and me? Wouldn’t that be amazing? This, at long last, was the friendship I needed — brothers united in the Lord!

We dropped Reggie off after Julia, and now, it really was trending toward night. As we drove home, my mother said nothing, my sister sitting quietly as well. A few days later, I called Reggie to ask him if he wanted to go back to church with me, and he said he didn’t. His mom wouldn’t let him. Something about the whole thing had made somebody somewhere in his house set off alarm bells (and not without reason). Reggie remained a friend at a distance. We got along, and I still found his sense of humor delightful. But whatever should have existed between us didn’t get a chance to blossom.

I have, in recent months, started trying to figure out what my sexuality is. The first year of my transition was so focused on just keeping everything buttoned down so I wouldn’t accidentally out myself in a review of The Americans that I didn’t bother with the sense that something inside of my core self was largely undefined.

When I reached adolescence, I figured out that I was attracted to women. And since that seemed to make everybody else in my life more or less happy, I went with it. What I’ve come to realize in the past couple of years is that, yes, I was attracted to women, but I was attracted to women enough. There’s a (massively outdated) sociological survey of trans women at all ages that writes about how trans girl teenagers often use dating as a proxy for female friendship, and boy, did I ever do that. I dated girls I wanted to hang out with. I dated girls whose friend groups I wanted to be a part of. I dated girls I wanted to be more like. I dated girls I wanted to consume me and make me part of their very core selves. I didn’t realize I was doing any of this.

Early on in transition, I would tell people one of the reasons I didn’t figure out my whole deal in high school was because my understanding of gender was deeply tied up in my understanding of sexuality, because it was the ‘90s and I lived in South Dakota. I was attracted to girls and not guys, ergo…

And, honestly, that would fit the pattern of many trans women who transition in adulthood. They are often more strongly attracted to women, and often identify as lesbians. The gigantic cultural advantage that is seeming to be a straight white man makes it easy to ignore persistent voices in the back of your head that insist otherwise until you’ve perhaps gotten a career going, or had some kids, or… or… or… (I have long bemoaned how few trans people in their 30s I knew, and I eventually realized it was because transitioning in your 30s is maybe the most fraught time to do so if you have a family or job or something.)

But calling myself “a lesbian” always felt wrong somehow. I knew I was attracted to women, but I didn’t know I wasn’t attracted to men. I had simply never bothered to check in on that part of myself. I was attracted to girls, and everybody was cool with me dating girls, and there you go. There was a gigantic blank void there, one that started to fill in rapidly the longer I was on HRT. The further into the process I got, I had to admit to myself that I did think guys were pretty hot. Sometimes significantly hot.

Bisexual lighting!!

The experiment that finally tilted me over the edge was thus: Assume my only dating pool is my fellow trans people. Now assume that I’m asked if I’d rather date trans men and non-binary people who skew more masculine or trans women and non-binary people who skew more feminine. All things being equal, I’d probably pick the former nine times out of 10. (This ignores that if I were actually dating people, there would be every chance I would be attracted to all kinds of people, and my experiment leaves out folks who are genderfluid or androgynous or etc., but I needed to do this to prove something to myself — that the thing in me that always said “I’m not attracted to guys” wasn’t actually true.) The second I started saying, “I’m a straight woman,” it still didn’t feel true, but it didn’t feel like as much of an overcorrection as saying I was a lesbian. And so I got to the point where, as I joked to a friend, my sexuality is just an increasing series of attempts to find a more precise definition for bisexuality.

A trans friend of mine who transitioned long before I did has always referred to her sexuality as something floating off in space. If pressed, she will put herself somewhere on the traditional spectrum of sexuality, but she says there’s no way for her to really know, even though she’s had romantic and sexual partners. So much of determining one’s sexuality happens in adolescence, with odd fumbling and furtive kissing and so on, and because trans people are so often disconnected from their own bodies — and especially the way those bodies might behave during sex or foreplay — they often reach adulthood with only a vague understanding of what that might mean. Often, we know who we’re attracted to, but we don’t have any idea what to do with that information. (My best friend, for instance, knows she’s only attracted to women, but she’s still figuring out what that means for her.)

And then there are cases like me and like other trans lady friends of mine who date men but were involved with women before their transitions. And what is often true is that because our disconnection from our body made sex feel like a math problem to solve rather than an emotional experience to have, it was often just easier to solve that math problem with a woman, because that’s what society expected, thanks to compulsive heterosexuality. If society gives you an incredibly easy path to follow, why not follow it?

But you can only coast on that for so long. Sooner or later, everything starts to become a frustrating soup of thwarted intentions and dysphoria. When you begin HRT, certain parts of your brain wake up, to use a totally non-scientific metaphor, and they’re often right at the start of puberty, and they start firing in all of the ways they would have had they been able to in some other lifetime. And in my case and the cases of some other trans women I know, that meant acknowledging to ourselves that, yes, we were attracted to men and had been all along.

For a long time, both my therapist and my friends insisted that my slow-building certainty that Something More Was Going On was an attraction to the idea of straightness as a concept, the idea that I had gotten so used to the privilege afforded to straight couples in society that I short circuited when I was suddenly part of a seemingly lesbian couple. (My wife is bisexual, and she went from a straight-passing bisexual to a lesbian-passing bisexual without having to do anything. Congrats to her!!) But that didn’t feel right, on some primal level. It felt like I was missing something entirely.

Which brings me back to Reggie.

Here is what I’ve come to think about my thwarted attempts to develop something like a sexuality before I began transition, something that seems to track with how I’ve developed attractions in adulthood:

When I meet a woman I’m attracted to, there’s a feeling of being sucked into a vortex. I want to spend all of my time with her. I want to have endlessly long conversations with her. I want to sit on a couch and watch a fireplace and cuddle and drink tea and maybe we own a cat? I don’t know, this seems like a nice fantasy. I get a crush on a woman, and it’s like I can see the entirety of our future in a single blink, like I could take her hand and suddenly find myself lying peacefully beside her in bed 40 years from now. I think the end result of this is that we just sort of… merge into one person. Without quite realizing it, this was the relationship I developed with my wife, until the near dissolution of our marriage caused us to sit up and find a way to decouple ourselves from being so codependent. Regardless, there is an assumption that we enter the relationship with roughly the same goals.

When I meet a man I’m attracted to, there’s an intense sense of wanting to prove to him that I’m good, that I’m cool, that I’m funny. This part of me is still so new and still so raw that I don’t entirely understand it. But it feels more lizard brain, a little more intense. Yes, I want an emotional connection, and yes, I want to be with someone who makes me laugh and makes me think and takes my ideas seriously. But on some level, I really just want to have good sex. Future? What future? An attraction to a guy feels like an eternal present that I never want to leave, even though I eventually must.

There’s an urgency to these feelings, an urgency that I did not understand when I was a kid and teen, when I would form these quickly thwarted friendships with boys that mostly involved me following them around and trying to get interested in what they were interested in and trying to get them to think I was cool and funny, even though I was only fitfully funny and definitely wasn’t cool. I didn’t want to be gay, and the fact that my sexuality was off in space somewhere meant I could afford not to be gay, so I just didn’t look at these things for what they were, which was: I was attracted to these boys, and I didn’t know what to do with that. So I did nothing with it. That part of me was a void.

(Again: I’m reducing gender to a binary, which it’s not. But since all of this is theoretical, for reasons I’ll get to in a second, I’m trying to look inside of myself to figure all of this out.)

The dam break, for me, came a few months ago, when we could still leave our houses, when I was talking to a cis woman friend of mine while on a hike. My standard deflection for “Of course I don’t like guys!” had become “I don’t know what I’d do if I were dating men! It seems bad!” She, who had had her share of bad or just mediocre relationships before meeting her husband, laughed that, yes, yes, it often was. And then she said, “But sometimes it’s not.”

I felt this lifetime of other possibilities open up beneath me and almost swallow me whole. Imagine that car ride from so long ago where I know I’m a little girl, and there’s something I can’t quite capture with Julia and something that feels a little dangerous with Reggie. All of the ingredients were there. I just didn’t know how to access them.

Like I said: This is all theoretical. I’m happily married. I love my wife and am attracted to my wife, and wherever our relationship goes from here, I want to have her in my life to some capacity. We are both each other’s biggest fan, and there’s something really lovely about that. One reason I got together with her was because I had that sense of seeing her and suddenly understanding all of our futures together.

But would we have seen each other so clearly had I been a cis woman? I don’t know. There’s this theory that queer people tend to find each other without really knowing they’re doing so, which is why it’s so common for a whole bunch of people to come out as bi or trans or pan or whatever in a friend group over a course of a few years. One domino falls, then another, then another. (I know so many couples where a trans woman comes out, and it precipitates a slow but sure exploration of identity in the other partner, which inevitably leads to them rethinking their own gender in some capacity.) So maybe there’s a world where Libby and cis Emily meet and fall in love and conquer the odds. But most likely not.

No, what probably would have happened is that I would have liked guys just enough to find myself able to be with one for the rest of my life. It would have been good, and I wouldn’t have given much thought to all of the times being around a woman I vibed with particularly well would have felt like being drawn across some other horizon into a new life. The present might have become so present that I could have existed in each moment with a sense of purpose and belonging, but without a sense of some far-off space to fill up with my own dreams.

But I also don’t really know. I’m still an undiscovered country. There are so many of my best friends whose male romantic partners have occasionally put their own dreams on hold to help my friends achieve their own goals, and I also know myself well enough to know that I would have been stubborn about what I most longed to do in any reality. When I imagine the cis version of myself as a successful recipe blogger, it’s a lark, but it’s also an attempt to grapple with the idea that I would not have been that different had I been born cis.

No, the version of me that is so different, so alien, is the cis guy version of me. I can’t understand him, I realize, even if I can sort of broadly see the “types” of masculinity he would have slotted himself into. Who is he? What are his desires? Who is he attracted to and how?

A standard go-to when it comes to hacky humor is this idea that men don’t understand women, and women don’t understand men, and wooooooooooo. As someone who has lived on both sides of this line (though much more abundantly on one of them), I can say that there’s plenty of bunk here — we all really do understand each other most of the time. But there’s a kernel of truth to it, which is to say the thing that makes us operate as humans is empathy, our ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. To say that you don’t understand “women” or “men” or any other gender you want to slot into this sentence is to say that you can’t see yourself in those shoes. (Seriously: If you’re cis, try this. How easy is it for you to really imagine the person you might have been beyond broad strokes?) You can empathize with a specific person; it’s harder to empathize with a broad category.

Here in downtown Los Angeles, there’s a dog park I like to go to because it’s a sufficiently long walk from my apartment without becoming so far away that I have to book several hours to get there and back. When I go, I often sit and watch the dog people of Los Angeles, who are so often so beautiful, regardless of gender presentation. I have started to realize, as I sit there, that some part of me is still assembling itself, trying to figure things out it should have long ago. Putting a name like “bisexuality” on it feels so crude, really, so dishonest. It feels like quantifying myself for the benefit of other people, but, then, that’s what we all do all of the time, to better get by in this world.

So my sexuality isn’t so simple as that. My sexuality is kissing the girl and not quite understanding what I’m feeling but knowing it’s complicated and messy and raw while also knowing that she’s not the only person I want to be kissing. Keeping yourself from yourself is a bit of sleight of hand that trans people are awfully good at. But always, always your self breaks through.

Programming note: Libby and I just didn’t want to do our Babylon Berlin recap for the final two episodes! It will run sometime this week — promise.

What I’ve been up to: If you’re an Apple News subscriber, I can link you to one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. If you’re not, you’ll have to wait a few days, but I think you might end up liking it. It’s about a trans woman who came out from the virtual pulpit of the church where she’s pastor and about her fears and hopes and goals in the moments leading up to that fateful sermon. I’m sure I’ll push the shit out of it on Twitter.

Read me: So much coverage of trans kids in the media is needlessly alarmist, which is why I’m so happy Katelyn Burns got to write this piece for The Guardian about a program for trans kids in New York that is helping them thrive. It’s a really great piece of journalism!

Seph, a seven-year-old boy with sweeping blond hair, sat between his mom and me in the backseat of a Lyft for the ride to an indoor playground in the family’s New York neighborhood. 

“Are we going here so that you can see how I play with other kids?” he asked, turning to me.

The question took me aback – it was so clear in that moment Seph understood he was being watched and examined because he is different, because he is transgender. 

Kids like Seph bring into sharp focus what it means to be male, female or something else. There is still widespread belief that minors with gender dysphoria – the clinical term for the distress caused by a mismatch between a person’s sense of their gender and their birth-assigned sex – should not be encouraged to transition. At least eight states have proposed bills that would criminalize doctors who prescribe puberty blockers or hormones to trans adolescents.

On one side of the debate are people who think Seph’s gender dysphoria will fade by adulthood. On the other are the vast majority of mental health professionals who study gender dysphoria insisting that affirming a child in whatever way they express their gender is beneficial to their mental health. 

Watch me: I really love the time I have spent playing role-playing games with Aabria Iyengar in the past few months. (It’s really been too long since we were in a game together.) I appreciated Wizards of the Coast gathering Iyengar and several other black folks involved in the world of Dungeons & Dragons to talk about their experiences. If you’re a tabletop gamer, this is well worth a watch.

And another thing… If you wanted to buy me a giant piece of art, I would really love one of these paintings from Teo Nguyen. His portrayal of the rural Midwest is so immaculate and so close to my memories of that space. (Please don’t buy me a giant piece of art.)

This week’s reading music: “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey

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