I’ve been in love twice, once with a woman and once with a man. I’m bisexual, and despite the very clear definition and commonness of the term, I’m often met with overwhelming scrutiny when I express any sort of interest in the opposite sex.

Because I was in love with a woman before I was in love with a man, it’s assumed that my attraction to women is now null and void. I’ve purchased a one-way ticket to Gay Town, and anything I felt or experienced prior is a farce that I crafted while scheming in the closet.

It’s an unfortunate stereotype that plagues queer people across the spectrum: that the love we felt for the opposite sex meant nothing. We selfishly used them as placeholders until we had the confidence to come out.

“This is something I deal with a lot,” Tim, a 23-year-old bisexual man, says. “I find myself correcting people in my life when they talk about relationships before my current relationship as if they were ‘fake’ or ‘a beard.’ Of course, like anyone, there were flings that didn’t mean anything, but some of the hetero relationships I was in before meeting my current partner were based on genuine attraction.”

Dating women taught me that I was able to love and be loved. These experiences gave me the confidence to explore the full capacity of love that I’m capable of, which, I’ve come to find, is not limited by gender. To imply that a love that was monumental to my life and emotional development is meaningless is incredibly offensive, not to mention blatantly false.

These relationships with women — their feelings, their heartbreak — were very real. Sexuality is not binary and our preferences don’t always fit into rigid boxes, as uncomfortable as that makes some people.

David, a 28-year-old gay man, says his hetero relationships were primarily the result of loving the idea of a person — but that doesn’t make them any less valid. “My desire was to have this love be the love that changed me. I wanted so badly for each of them to be the woman I could have the perfect white-picket-fence life with.”

This longing for the heteronormative ideal forced him into opposite-sex relationships, yet he genuinely opened his heart to these women and took good care of theirs. “It was a love that exceeded sexual desire and was more about intellectual love than physical,” he says. “The love I had for these women was real, no matter what psychological issues I was having with myself.”

It’s an unfortunate stereotype that plagues queer people across the spectrum: that the love we felt for the opposite sex meant nothing.

This hetero-influenced race against the clock (marriage, mortgage, children) is a big reason closeted people feel forced into straight relationships. It certainly was for me. As somebody who was raised in a small town, being on the high-school rugby team, getting married, and having kids in your mid-20s was considered the path to success. So I did what I had to do: I played rugby (just one season) and dated women. Do I regret it? Not one bit. Every relationship brought me closer to my authentic self.

There are many ways you can love — and be in love with — someone. You can love someone for their eyes, their charm, and their loyalty, all of which are traits separate from gender. So while queer people (wherever you identify on the spectum) might have a preference for a particular gender identity, that doesn’t wash the others away. It’s not that black and white.

We’re able to love before we exit the closet. That love just takes on new meaning when we do, which doesn’t make it any less important or significant. At the time, the feelings we had were the closest to love we’d ever known.

All relationships, regardless of sexual orientation, teach us what we want and what we don’t. For queer people, sometimes more so than our straight counterparts, it also teaches us who we are. In experiencing love with men and women, I have come to understand the love I have for men is more compatible with who I am.

In all the lessons I’ve learned along this journey of self-discovery, I’ve realized the only failed relationships are those you don’t grow from. That holds true no matter their length, circumstances, or the gender of the person they’re with. Every relationship is a part of finding one’s self, and as long as that experience brings you a little closer to happiness, who the hell is anyone to say anything?