I don’t remember the first time I learned what it meant to be gay, likely due to everyone assuming my (homo)sexuality since I was a wide-eyed cherub. Growing up, my voice was high-pitched, my wrists naturally went limp, and I loved musical theater. I was that kid who sang the harmony on the final verse of “Happy Birthday” a little bit louder, so everyone could hear me.
But by the time I finished high school, I was already on my second serious girlfriend. The first one I loved more than anything, so I knew I wasn’t gay. There was no way. Gay men don’t cry for a month straight after a brutal breakup with a woman. I did.
But then I got to college and, for the first time, I was surrounded by openly gay men my age. (There wasn’t a single man who came out as gay in my class of 150 students while in high school.) Vassar College, for lack of better words, is gay AF, and I mean that in the best of ways. I was swimming in a sea of queer men who were confident, open, and proud of their sexuality — and like everyone else in my life — they assumed I was gay. Only unlike the boys in high school who spread nasty rumors behind my back, these boys were trying to hook up.
And I kind of wanted to. I figured I might as well give it the ol’ college try. Besides, my attraction to men — even while I was in love with my first girlfriend — never dissipated. What if everyone was onto something? I mean, could the hundreds of people who’d assumed that I was gay all be wrong?
My second week of college, I was out with the swim and dive team, and there was this one disgustingly attractive man who was clearly flirting with me. He had natural blond curls, big blue eyes, a sharp nose, and such kissable lips. Oh, and his body was snatched from being a diver.
He came onto me hard, and at first I felt uncomfortable. Not because he was being creepy or too aggressive. On the contrary, he was charming, and I found myself unconsciously reciprocating his advances, but then pulling away out of fear. I knew I wanted to hook up with a man, and I told myself I was going to give it a try, but now that the opportunity was in front of me, I couldn’t go through with it.
So I drank. I pounded shot after shot so that I would have the courage to do something with him. He invited me back to his dorm room and well, you can imagine what happened next.
I expected this big “aha” moment. I thought the second I’d kiss him, I’d lose myself in him, and think, This is what I’ve been missing my whole life. Then I’d scream “I’m gay” from the rooftops. Or, I’d kiss him and think, Oh, no. This is definitely not for me. Instead I woke up to a hangover and more confusion. Nothing was bad about the experience (except I did vomit at one point) but nothing was necessarily good either.
After about two weeks of sleepless nights questioning my sexuality, I decided that I was straight. I mean, I had loved girls, and clearly, I didn’t feel any sort of way about this man. But then I kept getting with guys while hammered. Every time, I woke up with some excuse. I was just super sloshed, or “I was horny, whatever.”
By the time I had graduated from college, I had been physical with dozens of men. Still, I considered myself straight.
It wasn’t until well after college, when I went to an LGBTQ-specific therapist, that I was able to embrace my bisexuality. In our second session, I told him I was “confused” and was about to launch into a prepared monologue about my sexuality when he interrupted to say, “You’re bisexual. You’ve been hooking up with guys for five years, so clearly you enjoy that, and as you said, you know you love women. Where’s the confusion here?”
It was the first time someone had laid out my (bi)sexuality so bluntly. I didn’t think bisexuality existed in men. Every man I met in college who used the bi label came out as gay within months. I couldn’t be the one man who was actually bi. (It wasn’t until years later that learned that, of course, there are plenty of bi men out there, they just tend to not be as vocal about it as gay men.)
With more therapy and starting to date men sober, I was finally able to embrace my bisexuality. It was a process, or a journey, as every queer person loves to say, but I finally got to where I needed to be, and as we all know, the journey never ends.
Looking back on my young, wild, and inebriated exploration with men, I wish someone had sat me down, and told me, well, a few things.
First and foremost, you might not love your first same-sex encounter, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t queer. Even coming from a loving, LGBTQ-friendly household, I still had so many subconscious fears, anxieties, and other hindrances that impeded me from relaxing and being present in the moment. My mind was running a mile a minute. Do I like this? Do I hate this? Why can’t I get hard? Should I close my eyes and imagine a girl? What am I feeling?
“Going in with these high expectations of suddenly knowing your identity is unrealistic,” explains Gigi Engle, certified sex coach and clinical sexologist. “This will, of course, happen for some people, but for the vast majority of us the feelings will be muddled.”
“The human experience is so influenced by our identity, society, and lessons about gender and identity that it’s almost impossible sometimes to suss out who we are right away,” Engle continues. That’s why she believes that “some modicum of confusion should be expected,” especially since “most people are taught to default to heterosexual relationships.”
The key, Engle makes clear, “is to sit and process your feelings, however overwhelming they may be.”
What should have been the telltale sign for me is that I kept being intimate with men. Sure, I was drunk, but that was honestly more telling, since it clearly meant I wanted this, I just didn’t have the courage to be sexual with men sober.
This leads to my second piece of advice: Do things sober. For many, college is a time of excess. It was for me. It’s difficult to know how you’re actually feeling when you’re drunk. You can also rationalize pretty much anything when drunk, because hey, you were drunk, you had no idea what you were doing.
Lastly, your sexuality is yours and yours alone. However silly this may sound, I almost didn’t want to be gay (or queer) because then it would prove right all those condescending assholes who judged me from my cherub days. I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction. But you know something? Screw ’em. Not to sound like my mom, but as she liked to tell me, “People should focus on themselves and not you.” Taking that idea a step further, the folks who focus on you are the people who need to work on themselves the most.
It’s also worth pointing out that everyone’s experience is unique. I’ve had friends who’ve had that big lightbulb moment, immediately realizing they were gay. I’ve also known women who thought they were 100% gay, only to fall in love with a man decades after their first same-sex experience (and vice versa).
At the end of the day, there’s no predicting how you’re going to feel after your first same-sex encounter. You may have a sense of serenity or feel more confusion. Either way, if you’re able to put less pressure on the moment itself, recognizing that it’s likely going to be one of many that helps you better understand your identity, then you might be able to enjoy it just a bit more.