Minda Honey| Longreads | August 2018 | 11 minutes (2750 words)
My friend and I sit on the patio of a tapas restaurant in suburbia with a view of the parking lot, SUVs lined up baking in the summer sun. We sip sangria. We eat off tiny plates. We feel bougie. She tells me about her dating turmoil. She’s not sure where she stands with a man she isn’t sure she should be with. “And,” she says, “the other person he’s sleeping with is a trans woman. I’m trying to be OK with that.”
“I’ve slept with a trans woman,” I say before pushing more shrimp, shiny with olive oil and studded with minced garlic, into my mouth. An SUV pulls out of a parking spot, another SUV pulls in. I can see my friend thinking, the muscles in her lips flexing and relaxing, questions forming and crumbling, but never leaving her mouth.
I wonder if it’s her understanding of me or of herself that is changing. I do not tell her about the graduate-level writing course I took as an undergrad, or about the other undergrad in the class whose writing I loved, and who offered me words of encouragement. I don’t tell her about the night that writer walked me to my car after a reading, or about how the only thing that stopped a kiss was the thought of the boyfriend waiting for me at home. Or the years that passed, the writer resurfacing on Facebook, the Messenger chats about my move back home and about writing and work leading to chats about her being a trans woman, about the excitement of trading T-shirts and jeans for dresses and makeup. Or about our paths crossing at a house party, the hand-holding by the fire, the annoyance at drunk interlopers trying to crash our conversation, the said and unsaid, the invite back to my place, the movie unwatched, the open window in the rain, how consent culture showed us the way: “Is this OK? Do you like this? What do you want?” Yes. Yes. You.
I finish chewing, and instead of telling my friend these things I say, “It’s not a big deal,” and take a drink of my sangria. But I haven’t always been so unprejudiced.
In the parking lot, another SUV pulls out, another SUV pulls in.
Around 2011, in my mid-20s, on a trip home to Louisville from Los Angeles, I sat in the living room of a couple I’d known since college. I told them about a guy I’d had a crush on back then who was now living in the Bay Area, but who texted and called me regularly and had even sent me an Edible Arrangement when I was battling a summer cold. “He’s probably my future husband,” I confessed.
The wife and the husband exchanged a look, then they asked me: “But isn’t he gay, though?” They explained that before arriving in the Bay Area, they’d heard he was in Chicago shacked up with another man.
I figured it was just a rumor, that a man who wasn’t into women wouldn’t be putting that much energy into wooing me.
The wife shrugged. “Maybe he’s bi.”
“I’d never marry a bi guy,” I told them, then the wife called me homophobic and her husband nodded along.
I was embarrassed. I felt like the couch was starting to swallow me up. I scooted to the edge of the cushion and defended myself. “I’m not homophobic,” I insisted.
Growing up, my parents’ policy for who we dated had always been that they didn’t care about the race or gender of the person we brought home; as long as that person didn’t beat us, they’d be welcome. But I knew not everyone’s parents had been so open-minded. I continued to explain myself to my friends, insisting the issue was more that I was worried a bi man who chose to date a woman was only doing so because it’s easier to be straight in our society. How could I ever be certain about his feelings for me? What if he woke up decades into us being together and left me for the man of his dreams, my life imitating the subject matter of all those Ricki Lake–era daytime talk shows I’d watched as a kid. I thought, I am not being homophobic; these are valid concerns. Sometimes bigotry masquerades as logic.
I was worried a bi man who chose to date a woman was only doing so because it’s easier to be straight in our society. How could I ever be certain about his feelings for me?
A few years later, when I was living in Denver, I met B, the sometimes host of an open mic night held in the dank basement of a Polish bar. I was often the lone Black woman in a room full of white dudes who hadn’t mastered the art of laundering their clothes regularly. B often did bits about his bisexuality, and he had recently ended things with his long-term girlfriend. I can’t really say what drew me to him — maybe it was his sweater-vests, a touch of class against a backdrop of sweaty, faded concert tees.
Over the years, I’d repeated to others what I’d said to the married couple, even adding another objection to dating bisexual men: “Then I’d have to worry about other women and men!” All the other straight people I’d said this to either nodded along in agreement or laughed, helping me assure myself that I was not, in fact, homophobic. But it turned out that B’s smoking was a bigger issue for me than his sexuality. I quickly bored of the cigarette breaks after every meal and that he lit up any time we got out of the car, no matter how close to the entrance we’d parked.
One morning, standing outside a diner after a pancake breakfast, B lit a cigarette. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but he noticed me squinting up at him. He inched to the left and angled his body just so, using his height to block the sun and give my eyes some relief. “There,” he said, smiling down at me and sending a puff of cigarette smoke over my head.
When I was with B, I didn’t spend any time fretting over who he was interested in besides me. I realized my policy against dating bisexual men hadn’t been as much about the influence of our homophobic society as it was about my own insecurities. Regardless of sexuality, how can you ever be 100 percent certain someone is into you and only you? Being bisexual doesn’t complicate that; either way, all you have is your trust in that person. The married couple had been right, even if their definition of homophobia hadn’t matched my own. I wasn’t dictating what other people’s relationships should look like, but by limiting what my own relationships could be, by limiting my definition of what “normal” could look like, I was standing in my own way.
B and I didn’t last beyond a few dates, but years later, during an interview with a professional online-dating-profile writer, I thought about him and my old ways of thinking about dating and sexuality. In the context of her own love life the profile writer rhetorically asked, “Can you even call yourself a trans ally if you’d refuse to date a trans person?”
It forced me to wonder what the rigid line of straightness has cost me in romantic partners and relationships over the years, and what would have been possible if the boundaries hadn’t been so narrow and well-defined when I was learning how to date and love. Certainly, it’s cost me far less than it did my LGTBQ+ friends and family on the other side of the line, but the heteropatriarchy does damage to us all.
At 24, I lived in Orange County, California, and I liked to get trashed on the Newport Beach peninsula with my best friend. We got thrown out of bars for openly swigging from her flask on the dance floor, more successfully snuck hits of the cigarette-style ceramic one-hitter she kept tucked in her cleavage, and when we got drunk enough, I became one of those straight girls making out with other girls on the dance floor. Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” was an anthem.
The prevailing idea is that straight girls get drunk and make out on the dance floor to attract straight men. In my personal experience, straight men are easier to pull when you put your mouth on theirs in the club than when you’re occupied with tonguing down your bestie. It’s not that. The weak notion that it allows straight women to transgress the traditional boundaries of what friendship can mean doesn’t ring true to me either. We came from a place where we believed those kisses didn’t matter. If I’d drunkenly made out with a guy friend on the dance floor, there’d be questions to answer in the morning. It makes me cringe now to think of the way we were trivializing lesbian relationships by reducing the act of kissing women to just another vice alongside binge drinking and smoking weed. Our behavior went unquestioned.
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As a cis woman who identifies as straight, I’m rarely placed in positions where I’m forced to interrogate my own sexuality. It’s a given. It’s an accepted status. But as a relationship advice columnist and someone who frequently writes about their dating life, I’ve begun to ask myself if I’m committing acts of erasure by presenting myself as strictly straight, by using cis-het men as the default when I reference past partners. Why am I, a professional writer, using straight as shorthand for my sexuality when it isn’t that straightforward? What’s the terminology for someone who’s straight*?
I came across a Facebook thread a few weeks ago where a debate was raging about whether or not people who identify as heteroflexible or heteroromantic belong under the queer umbrella. That was my first time hearing either of those terms. I was surprised to learn there is language for what I’m feeling. At this point, I’m more interested in the words than where the people associated with those words belong. As someone who feels straight and benefits from all the trappings of straight privilege, my most pressing need is to acknowledge the full variety of people I’ve been intimate with, have cared for, and am attracted to. I don’t want past partners who aren’t cis-het men to feel like I’m hiding them like secrets under my bed. And I want other “straight” — quotation marks because what does straight even mean anymore? — people to think more about the impermanence of their sexuality.
Is our sexuality really this fixed point we should be structuring our entire lives around? I’ve never felt a strong pull to traverse the sexuality spectrum in relation to my identity, but how can I be certain I’m straight versus just following along with the sexuality endorsed by the mainstream? And why even this insistence on certainty? Hasn’t life already shown me I could benefit from being a little less certain? The question I was putting to bisexual men is the question I should have been asking myself.
My $70 annual membership to the local museum makes me feel like I have license to call myself a “patron of the arts.” When a new exhibit opened, I invited the director of the university’s LGBT Center to attend a “Queer Eye” tour led by one of his colleagues. The professor leading the tour delved into the different ways to interpret the term “queer.” He gave an example of two sisters who’d never wed but lived together and raised a child together. Being “spinsters” is queer, he suggested. It’s going against the norm, the traditional family structure, and what’s expected of women. It’s queer in a way that two gay men, married, working nine-to-fives raising children is not, he explained.
As we moved from work of art to work of art, I rejected this definition internally. I didn’t say so out loud, because I don’t feel it’s my place to define a term I don’t connect with. But, should the worst-case scenario occur, I could see a reality where my younger sister and I move in together to raise my middle sister’s child. We would be the professor’s very definition of queer.
Queer is a word, a space I’ve always felt like a guest in. I take my shoes off and leave them by the door every time. When I hear people who do identify with the term speak about the first time they heard it, it is like a homecoming for them. Queer identity is so expansive and can be discussed in so many different ways, and still it doesn’t feel like mine. I don’t have the same fight in me to be visible as queer that my bi women friends married to straight men are fighting. When I chatted with my younger sister, who identifies as queer and laments the fact she’s often read as straight, about the tour and my reluctance to embrace the term, she said, “You don’t want to ruin your image.”
I don’t think my public image is that deeply rooted in my straightness, and I have the additional freedom of being self-employed, so it isn’t like my sexuality is something I’d have to navigate in a conservative workplace. And yet, I wonder where the line is between clinging to some facet of yourself you consider true and the actual truth of who you are? Where is the line between societal default and deeply internalized bigotry? Between interest and fetish? Between fucking your way to enlightenment and simply being open to who life presents to you? And how many of us are so desperate to walk these lines in perfect balance instead of allowing gravity to place us where we belong?
I’ve never felt a strong pull to traverse the sexuality spectrum in relation to my identity, but how can I be certain I’m straight versus just following along with the sexuality endorsed by the mainstream?
I feel like I’m circling around this idea that my identity should only matter to me to the extent the world is using it to challenge my humanity. I have to assert that I am a woman, that I am Black, that I am a person of color, because the world would have me believe I am less than because I am. But internally, the fight shifts to the battle to just let myself be. To resist putting up guardrails around what does and does not define me. For the soul, language holds no meaning. And if from this fluidness emerges a new part of me I have to defend externally, is that what I have to be ready for in exchange for inner peace? It’s this thought conundrum I find myself turning over and over again.
How many years are we away from a future where claiming to be straight and exclusively dating other straight, cis people of the opposite sex becomes the equivalent of someone saying, “I’m an advocate for the Black community, but I’d never date a Black person. It’s just a preference.” I look at the group coming up behind me —generation Z, fewer than 50 percent of whom identify as straight — and I contemplate whether millennials are the last generation for which straight was the default sexuality we were all herded into.
Our culture is in flux. Right now, we’re stringing together an ever-growing alphabet representing the possibilities of who we might be in terms of sexuality and gender, broadening our understanding of ourselves. But we’re still at a point where mainstream society treats straight as the default, and where heteronormativity is still very much the dominant culture. It’s an uneven equation, with cis-straightness on one side, and everything else on the other. At some point, it’s got to flip. Straightness as a sexuality will become the anomaly, the identity that must be defined and defended: “No truly, I am a straight cis woman in the year 2052 who finds her ultimate romantic fulfillment in life with straight cis men.” Sis, we don’t believe you. Here’s to a future where America is so queer that being anything-but-straight is as everyday as apple pie, Motown, and SUVs pulling in and out of strip mall parking lots.
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Minda Honey is writing An Anthology of Assholes, a memoir about dating as a woman of color in Southern California. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
Editor: Sari Botton