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TW: Homophobia; internalized homophobia

When I was 12 years old, my mother told me to unbutton my collar because I looked like a lesbian. She assured me only a moment later, after I had undone two of the buttons, that it wasn’t bad to be a lesbian — I just shouldn’t misrepresent who I was. Years later, she would call me a “d*ke,” but I would laugh it off and pretend it didn’t haunt me all the way into adulthood.

When I was 16 years old, my grandmother asked my mother if I was a lesbian because I had never had a long-term relationship with a boy. My mother assured her I was no such thing; I was just focusing on my grades. I didn’t have time for a relationship – I was trying to get into a good college, and that required most of my attention. 

Growing up, words like “gay” and “lesbian” were never intrinsically linked with being “sinful” or “amoral” despite my Christian upbringing and eight-year attendance to a Christian school. But those words were treated as something you shouldn’t say, something you should never assume about someone. They were treated as the ultimate marring of character, but never a sin. That is to say, I was never told I was going to Hell nor that I would be disowned, but it was still thought of as an unfortunate affliction. It was still something to feel shame over, not take pride in.

I truly believed that I hadn’t grown up in a homophobic environment because I knew my family wouldn’t kick me out for being different — and don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly privileged in that way. I am incredibly privileged to know that my parents would still accept me no matter who I loved. But, that being said, I’ve still spent the last several years of my life trying to come to terms with who I am and trying to unlearn the harmful words that my family used around me during my adolescence.

I was 15 years old when I first started questioning my sexuality. My best friend of 10 years had just come out, and he’d explained to me some of the experiences he’d had. I found myself relating more than I thought I would. The way he described his feelings towards girls was exactly the same feeling I’d had toward boys my whole life: this utter lack of desire to have any sort of romantic or sexual relationship with them. But I had also convinced myself that I felt the same way towards women. I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of being attracted to women — I also don’t remember seeing a wlw (woman-loving-woman) couple on television, in the books I was reading or in my real life until late into my teenage years. And any same-sex relationship I had seen was treated as something different. Something other. Something I knew I needed to avoid for myself. 

The outcome of the 2015 Obergefell vs. Hodges Supreme Court case, legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, sent a barrage of mixed emotions through me. At the time, I was still deeply rooted in my family’s religion and hadn’t yet come to understand any of my own views – I was simply parroting theirs. I knew my parents weren’t thrilled about the outcome, but they also didn’t think it was going to cause “America’s moral downfall,” or any of the other things I’d heard many Christians in my own church say. However, I also believed that the court case was never supposed to be something that affected me personally – it was something others were allowed to take pride in.

So, for the entirety of high school, I distanced myself from any possible bi-curious tendencies. I used the label asexual – a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction to anyone, regardless of gender. I knew this wasn’t quite true, but it was a good enough fit for the time. 

***

I still have so much pride associated with the label asexual, despite no longer identifying with it as closely as I once did. It was my first connection to the LGBTQ+ community and to the word “queer.” It was my first experience with separating different types of attraction and understanding the complexities of human love. 

We are not told that there is more than one way to love someone — that there are more than two ways to love someone. Sexuality is not as clean and simple as some people think it is. 

At some point in my life, my mother told me that she didn’t understand bisexuality. You either liked men or you liked women, she believed. I knew then that I would never try to explain asexuality to my family. They didn’t need to know about it, I reasoned — only my partner and I would need to know about it.

However, it was still pivotal to my understanding of my identity.

***

When I was 19 years old, I started using the term bisexual. Technically, I used the labels asexual and biromantic, but I always said bisexual because it was easier and required less explaining. I didn’t want to have to explain how romantic attraction and sexual attraction were two entirely different things to me — how I thought I still experienced romantic attraction towards men, but not sexual, and how I thought I experienced sexual attraction towards women, but not romantic (thank you, internalized misogyny that I’m still working through).

The label bisexual was easiest, but it still felt wrong because it simply wasn’t true. When you are a cis-woman, the expectation for bisexuality is that you experience sexual attraction toward men and women. Obviously, gender is much more complicated than that, but these are the average assumptions people hold about that label. I never felt that kind of attraction to men, so it very quickly started to feel disingenuous to use that label. 

***

The results of the pandemic on self-understanding and exploration have become increasingly evident. According to a recent Gallup poll, around 15 percent of Gen Z identifies as somewhere in the LGBTQ+ community. It seems likely that visibility on social media and growing acceptance play a huge role in these numbers. During the height of the pandemic, many people in this age group flocked to social media for a new sense of community. This, along with so much time alone for self-reflection, has allowed many people, myself included, to understand themselves better.

I do not have a TikTok account, but my sister regularly sends me videos she thinks I’ll find funny — and I inevitably fall down the ever-so-dangerous rabbit hole. I came across one that talked about how many lesbians identify with asexuality before completely understanding their identity (thanks to heteronormativity and misogyny working in tandem). This really struck me and sent me down a months-long revaluation of my own identity. 

I know that, stylistically, the payoff of this story would be for me to don an identity that had been thrown at me since I was young, an identity I always wanted to dissociate from. The reality is more complicated. 

Primarily, I know that if I ever were to start using the label of lesbian, my family will claim that they knew before I did — they will claim their taunts were just their way of telling me they knew. They will take away my own discovery and nullify the difficulty of trying to come to terms with my sexuality. They will take credit for understanding something about me that simply wasn’t possible to know because I didn’t even know. Something I still don’t know for certain.

But I also know there is some internalized homophobia and misogyny that I still have to work through. When you are raised to avoid associating with something that is intrinsically linked to your humanity, it takes time to fully accept every part of yourself. 

For now, I take pride in the word “queer.” I know many people still have strong feelings against that word because of its history as a slur against LGBTQ+ people. I understand the history of the word; I’m a linguistics major and language history is something very important to me, so I understand why some people are still hesitant about using this word. However, it is also the word that has allowed me to explore this part of my identity without fear of not quite fitting perfectly into another category. It is a word that gives me a sense of belonging. And it is a word that, for me, doesn’t have a direct negative connotation like some others. Identity is incredibly personal and delicate, and it can be difficult to navigate a world where who we are has the ability to cause us the most pain.

Statement Columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at mdhubb@umich.edu.