My relationship with my sexuality was already a precarious thing. Having grown up in the isolation of the Appalachian foothills, queerness only existed either as a scandalous piece of gossip or the punchline of a rude joke told in locker rooms or cafeterias.
Plus, I had a bad habit of falling in love with straight girls.
I was 17 the first time I asked someone (anyone!) out. We were in drama club together. I liked her laugh and her red hair. She smoked me out for the first time in a shed near the woods. We used an emptied can of Mountain Dew, a disgusting and delightful experience.
When I finally got the nerve to tell her about my feelings, I came up with The Plan. The Plan involved two basic steps: first, write her a confess-all love note with my purple gel-tip pen. Second, put the note in her jacket pocket during rehearsal. I thought I was so smooth, so debonair, like a nerdier Heathcliff with tits.
Most importantly, I thought I was safe. I was so sure I was safe and that she wasn’t straight. She had a side shave in 2005, when that still meant something.
She read the note. The next day, she did her best to let me down easy. “I’m flattered, but I’m actually straight. I hope we can still be friends.” I remember her smile being kind and earnest. I was sad, sure, but I understood. And if that had been the last thing she had said, I would have gone home, had a soft cry into my pillow while listening to A Perfect Circle and been done with it.
It wasn’t the last thing she said.
When I told her that I totally got it, that I of course wanted to still be friends, there was a moment of relief on both ends. Then: her mouth curled and her eyes rolled. She sighed, exasperated.
“Why do dykes always ask me out?” Again, that earnest look in her eyes. She wasn’t even being rhetorical. She wanted an answer, it seemed, and she wanted me to give it to her.
I didn’t know what to say. I had lay my feelings bare at her feet, knowing the risk of exposing my sexuality to a community that at best, saw it as a joke, and at worst, saw it as degenerate behavior worthy of retaliation, and even violence.
I wasn’t ready for the review portion of my rejection. I was sweaty and nervous and my heart was splintering. Not even from the rejection, but from the embarrassment and fear.
“Because…they like you?” I tried, laughing in that peculiar way one laughs to try and distance oneself from something entirely uncomfortable.
“But why?” Perhaps I was imagining it, but this felt so layered at the time: the why was deep, and demanded to be dissected, to be understood. It wasn’t a simple why. It was why do women find me attractive? Why does this keep happening to me? Why do they think I’m gay? What can I do to change that? Every way you turned it, more questions seemed to tumble out.
I couldn’t answer her. I didn’t know what to do with the why she was giving me. So I laughed again. I laughed and waved my hands in a way that I hoped would dismiss the conversation and disband this responsibility she was trying to hoist on me: help me appear less gay.
And when I say I never asked anyone out again, I mean literally. Every date I’ve ever gone on, every partner I’ve ever had, I waited for them to make the first move. That why shook me to my core. My confidence became shackled to this need for approval; I became petrified of going out on that love-limb again only to hear the breaking of the branch beneath my feet.
So people I adored from a distance became unattainable by default. Womxn/femmes were especially terrifying. So I played it safe. I waited for others to express an interest in me first, and then I decided if I tolerated them enough to fuck them, or even have a relationship with them. Feelings like attraction or mutual respect became secondary needs. My primary need was emotional safety.
This wasn’t the only thing that drove me into the arms of my abuser. But it certainly didn’t help.
My pansexuality was never a secret. I was always upfront about it. And yet, a few years into our relationship, my ex made a dramatic scene in our living room after I mentioned some casual attraction to a woman. I don’t even remember if she was a real woman I knew, or if I was talking about some hottie on TV. I remember my ex’s jaw hitting the floor, his mock surprise obvious.
“You’re gay?” He said it as if he’d never even imagined I could be anything but straight, despite the fact that I could recall several times over the last few years that I had talked openly and earnestly about my sexuality. I honestly couldn’t tell you if he had actually forgotten (he never really listened to me much anyway) or if this was simply another gaslighting tactic of his to wear me down.
I explained as calmly and quickly as I could how my sexuality worked. His face went through an entire gymnastics routine, jaw flexing and beard fluttering in outrage. At the end, he threw his hands up in the air, declaring that he didn’t know if he could have sex with me again. That this changed everything. That I wasn’t who he thought I was. That I was so utterly disgusting to him now.
This coming from a man who had to be reminded to wash his hands.
In hindsight, it was almost comical. Even the part where I bent over backwards to placate and appease him has moments of hilarity.
Then there were the lies. Those aren’t as funny.
I rewrote my sexuality for him. I became the straight woman he, for whatever reason, needed me to be. I went through the garden variety excuses every teen drama had taught me my sexuality was:
It was a phase.
I did it for attention.
I didn’t really mean it.
The woman who had only ever asked one person (a woman) out disappeared. She was replaced by this confused person who apologized for her “fabricated queerness.”
Years past with me wrapped up in that identity. It smothered me, wore me down, like so many other things about that relationship that chipped away at me. You might be asking how I could give up something so integral to my identity. How does one redefine oneself for the benefit of another? To be fair, this wasn’t the only thing I had given up. I was already full of holes from removing chunks of myself for his benefit. I had dropped so many pieces of who I was to satiate whatever drove him to tear me apart and remake me; what was one more piece of my heart, discarded?
That might not make sense to you. It’s hard to explain what an abusive relationship is like to someone who hasn’t been in one.
Imagine you’re a sapling in the shadow of a larger tree. The larger tree soaks up all the minerals and water in the soil and blocks out the sunlight. You forget what feeling satisfied is like after starving for so long, and you forget that the sun is still up in the sky, even if you can’t see it.
You don’t grow. You stagnate. The larger tree is such a looming presence. You know it’s killing you, but you can’t remember what life was like without it anymore. You’ve forgotten that there was once a world without the larger tree at all. Once, you’d been a growing tree yourself, and not this wilting thing stuck in the earth. But you can’t even recognize that version of yourself anymore. It’s too painful to remember what it was like to grow.
This is where a lot of people in abusive relationships remain. It becomes nigh impossible to untangle yourself from the dominating personality of the larger tree. You remain a sapling in their shadow. And eventually, you die.
I was lucky. With help, I cut that tree down. I reclaimed my sunlight and my water. And slowly, I started to grow.
And I remembered the girl from drama club with the red hair. And for the first time in a long time, I remembered her fondly.