Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Ask Polly: Why Do People Always Think I'm Gay?

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Does your soul ever feel, you know, not so fresh?"

Dear Polly,

I finally garnered the courage to write to you about my particular problem, and I hope you can shed some of your wisdom on the situation.

Ever since the 6th grade, people have been asking me if I'm gay. Back then, the other kids thought any person who was any bit different from them was gay, and attached a bad meaning to the word. I'll be the first to say that I've never been the most "masculine" individual. I love to read and write, and a lot of what I read is somewhat romantic. My iPod is full of Ellie Goulding, Florence + The Machine and Norah Jones, but utterly lacking in Korn, Metallica or Aerosmith. I love to cook, and have been singing in school choruses since 4th grade. I've never liked violent video games or talking about sex. I can kind of see where they got their opinions of me, but it made me enormously self-conscious. When I got to high school, the asking increased, as people noticed when I discovered fan fiction, the piano, and numerous other "non-masculine" things. I realized after a while that most of the people asking me were genuinely curious, and it made me even more self-conscious. I found a great girl sophomore year and we dated up until senior year, but the asking still continued, some of which was coming from my closest friends.

In high school, I tried as hard as I could to rid myself of the label people had given me. I joined both the football and hockey teams. I tried my hand at Call of Duty. I quit the chorus and playing piano. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, people would still assume and ask. It came to a point junior year that I had to have a "talk" with my football coach, since he had caught wind of the rumors and wanted to make sure it was okay that I was surrounded by men all the time. It also didn't really help my case that my best friend came out that he was gay senior year.

I left for college far away from home, hoping to maybe get a fresh start. I rejoined the chorus and began playing piano again, while joining the hockey team at the university, and I met my amazing girlfriend in the chorus and we have been dating since August. However, people I had barely come into contact with began walking up to me and asking if I was gay. It still really hurt, but I tried to shrug it off as best I could. The asking just kept coming, and it has now come to the point where I had a talk with my parents over Christmas about how "they will always love me, no matter how I live my life." I have had enough.

My question for you is: is there anything I can do or change about myself that will stop all of this asking? How can I change the impressions I give on people in that context? And if nothing, am I really gay? I've never liked men like that, but you never know. Please help.

Had Enough

Dear Had Enough,

We all have lots of reasons for wanting other people to be something other than what they really are. Some of the men who keep asking you about your sexuality are probably just attracted to you. Some of the women are hoping you'll be the gay confidant of their dreams, or maybe they want to be the one who gracefully ushers you out of the closet. Your parents, on the other hand, are just trying to be good parents.

We all have lots of reasons for wanting to be something other than what we really are, too. I went through a phase where I kept getting hit on by beautiful women who assumed I was a lesbian. My boyfriend at the time had never managed to attract such pretty women, so he wanted to live vicariously by encouraging me to encourage them. The initial titillation was always fueled by boozy banter, but it inevitably gave way to awkwardness and a complete absence of desire on my part, paired with the uncomfortable feeling that I was expected to play the butchy conquistador. Oh sweet god, the panic of that! As badly as I wanted to be a devil-may-care bisexual, I was just a very straight woman who not only wasn't remotely interested in naked women, but absolutely hated being cast as the lanky, boyish heroine in these scenarios. (I also felt horribly guilty when I'd get a chatty, hopeful email the next day that sounded like every chatty, hopeful email I'd ever sent to a man.)

Although my whole bisexual experiment was an abject failure, I learned a lot from it. 1) Some people are just flat-out straight. Disappointingly enough, I am one of them. 2) Chatty, hopeful emails have an uncanny way of transforming indifference into repulsion. 3) There's nothing quite as unnerving as feeling misunderstood sexually. 4) People anxious to inform you of what you are usually aren't the best listeners when it comes to discussing how you actually feel inside.

So there are two elements in play here. There's the impression people have of you, and then there's how you feel about yourself inside. Somehow, these two things have become muddled for you, and I'm not sure why. While I can totally empathize with feeling misunderstood, it's hard to believe that you JUST want me to tell you how to "act straighter." Because acting like a straight man is really easy. Just try to think and move like a slow animal, one that's a little angry. Look people right in the eyes, yes, but let your eyes reflect a glint of disdain and disinterest. Voila, you are straight! (Interestingly, if you're a women, these same behaviors will make people think you're gay. In my case, I just happen to be a slow animal who's a little bit angry and disdainful.)

So there's your cheap shortcut to dealing with the outside. But what about the inside? Is everything great with your girlfriend, or does this looming question seem to be poisoning everything in your life? Until you know exactly who you are and what you want, until you know how you want to feel (and how you don't want to feel) and you can say it out loud without shame, sex can feel like an elaborate performance, in which only actors and liars and ghosts show up. That's how it felt when I was trying to be with women. But sometimes you have to experiment to understand whether you're lying to yourself or lying to someone else. You have to try a few things before you know what titillates you and what leaves you cold. You have to trust your own instincts and physical reactions. You have to forgive yourself for not living up to your internal fantasy of what you "should" be.

You ask, "If there's nothing I can do to convince people I'm not gay, then am I really gay?" Clearly, you are whatever you are, no matter what anyone else thinks. On the other hand, Oprah once said that if it looks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it is a duck. (Are we sure that Oprah isn't a duck?) You say, "I've never liked men like that, but you never know." Well, you do know, eventually. Do you want to find out?

If you do, you might want to consider experimenting a little, to see how it feels. This would require a discussion with your girlfriend, of course. Or maybe you should call your friend from high school and talk to him about it. Or you could talk to some other trusted friend, a good listener who'll keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions. You could rent When I Knew, the documentary where gay men and women explain how they figured out they were gay.

Duck or no duck, something feels unsettled to you about your identity right now. You're standing at the precipice of something really big. I don't know if it's sexual or not. It could be purely emotional. It could be about balancing the world's version of you against who you really are. Try to forget what everyone else thinks for a while. Your feelings about yourself are what matter the most. You have to honor what you want, stay as open as you possibly can, be as courageous and as interested in the truth as you possibly can be, and forgive yourself, over and over again, for whatever mistakes you might make along the way. Fuck the spectators. You are the decider. The more true to yourself, to your heart, you are, the more love and guidance and wisdom there is waiting for you.

You know how it feels to wake up in the morning with a song in your head, and you go to the piano and you can play it, and it's so beautiful it makes you cry? The closer you get to your true self, the more you'll find yourself in that divine space. In that space, other people's confusion and labels and noise melt away, and you can see right through to their love for you. That's where you're pointed right now. The sky is on your side. Every tree, every blade of grass wants you to be exactly who you are, and nothing less.


Dear Polly,

It's sort of difficult to put my problem into words. It's more a series of questions. And confusions. And I'm probably just fishing for validation. What you should know first of all is that I'm a 14 year old girl and I have no sexual experience whatsoever. My problem is that I'm not sure I even want to.

I always sort of expected that I would grow up and have sex and eventually get married. I'm not exactly squeamish about sex, either. I had a good grasp of what it entailed by the time I was eleven, probably because my parents have a (rather lovely) stance about not interfering when it comes to my internet connection, which they maintain to this day as long as I'm not doing anything illegal. And since joining the fandoms I've been exposed to some very explicit smut, het and gay. And that's kind of great. I've never felt traumatized by my knowledge of these things. I even enjoy reading about them, just, I've never felt the need to do it myself.

As for masturbation and that, (sorry, this is becoming far more detailed that I'd hoped it would have to be) I'm quite fond of down there and comfortable around it but feeling it is about as pleasant as having a cup of tea in that its familiar, and I feel like, absolutely no need to have someone thrust their dick down it. I guess I can see why others would—I'm sure it's very intimate and enjoyable, and I think I'll try it myself when I'm older. But that's just it. I'm not any more eager to try it for itself (connotations of romance aside) than I am eager to try a really good cheesecake or a restaurant that people have kept recommending to me.

I've had crushes on boys before but my idea of a relationship is solely romantic, based around conversation. The only times I want to be close to people are the times I really like their brains.

Sometimes I try and work out whether I'm just missing my episodes of turned-on-ness or whatever, and try and look at boys (and girls) sexually. At the thought of intercourse (I know pretty well how it works, from smut and even video porn I once looked up to try and make myself feel something) there's just a sort of layer of emptiness where something should be. I don't feel warm or happy or turned on or even impassioned, just sort of separate.

Last year, I was reading fanfiction when I discovered this idea of 'asexuality'. These rare sort of people don't need sex or even want it particularly. Before finding AVEN I had started to think that maybe there was something wrong with me, teens being the age of hormones and all. There are all these people out there the same as me, and some of them the same age and since then I've been wondering – maybe that's how I am too, and it isn't bad and I'm not ill and I'm not too young. Because I don't think of other people like that, and I feel fake when I pretend to around my friends.

I'm sorry for all this context, it's really complicated. My actual question is what I should do. I feel asexual. Would it be absurd to come out when I have so little experience? Should I just keep quiet about it? I find myself sort of acting around my mother when I see attractive men on TV.

I know this is a really simple situation and I have it easier than most. My insides aren't being chewed up by this and I think my parents would accept it (although they would probably privately discuss it as a 'phase'.) It's rarer than being gay or trans, so I feel sort of alienated and like I'd be making a fuss over nothing. I do kind of want to come out and feel like I know myself – but maybe it's better to just wait and hope it is a 'phase'?

Is it stupid to identify as something when I am as young as this?

Over-thinking And Uneasy

Dear OAU,

I'd really like to track down your lovely parents and punch them in the face, hard. While I completely understand your curiosity about pornographic stuff (and your gratitude toward your parents for not being overprotective), most adults have pretty good reasons for wanting to keep 14 year olds away from that shit. Understanding sex by watching porn is sort of like playing Call of Duty to find out what it's like to join the army. Powering down your PS3 doesn't prepare you for washing real brains and intestines off your boots.

But listen to me now, and listen very, very closely: You are not asexual. And what you're experiencing is totally normal. You are exactly as uninterested in sex as most 14-year-old girls out there. I don't care what your friends say. Most of them are just trying to fit in. If I had watched porn when I was 14, I'd probably be a monk right now.

And just so you know, real sex is nothing like porn—that is, if you're lucky, and don't find yourself dating some idiot who watches and reads way too much porn, and thus believes that jackhammering away at the same speed for 45 minutes straight is the ultimate test of macho endurance.

Do me a big favor and put all of that out of your mind for a while. You'll have several decades to sort out sex, but you only have a few more years to be a girl. I hope you'll be patient. I know that sexual stuff online can be intriguing, but now that you've seen it, will you take a little break and, I don't know, read some good books or watch old episodes of "Kids in the Hall" or research new music? There's so much other great stuff out there, stuff that will nurture your mind and your soul instead of fucking with your perspective on sex and your body and making you feel self-conscious about being a regular, healthy girl.

Tell your friends the truth: You're not all fired up to have sex, and that's perfectly normal. The more you can tell the truth to other people, the more you make it okay for them to tell the truth to you. You're doing them a favor. I guarantee they're not as anxious to do the deed as they pretend to be. One of them is, maybe, but the rest are just following the leader. Try to be nice and let your friends be wherever they are. But trust me, you're not weird. Stop monitoring yourself so closely on this front. The more patient and truthful you are with yourself, the better that part of your life will be when you get there.

It could take five years, eight years. Who knows? Don't label something that hasn't even had a chance to develop yet. A lot of those young people who are anxious to call themselves "asexual" are just afraid of feeling like freaks. They want to make sure it'll be okay if they never feel anything. But by embracing that label too early, they're cutting themselves off from their own developing feelings. I had a friend who thought she might be asexual for a while, and she avoided dating anyone for almost a decade. It turned out she actually was very passionate—about women. Another friend didn't feel that sexual until she fell in love with the right man. So keep an open mind, and avoid labels. Anything could happen!

But most of all, take your time! Christ. The kids who hurry, it messes with their heads. There's nothing worse than going too far and feeling grossed out by it, because you weren't ready yet. Hang back and let other people explore the frontier. Enjoy where you are right now.

And please, give your parents a swift kick in the shins for me.


Previously: Ask Polly: Will I Be Alone Forever?

Are you worrying about what the hell is wrong with you? Write to Polly and she'll worry right along with you—100% guaranteed!

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Rishad Daroowala.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

Bittersweet (#765)

When I was 14, my 9th-grade gym teacher taught us a unit on health that included a very clinical description of heterosexual intercourse. After that class, I was traumatized and swore I'd never EVER have sex. 28 years later, I'm happily married with a kid. It really does pass.

And boy is Polly right about kicking your parents in the shins. There is a lot of stuff on the internet that most well-adjusted adults shouldn't see/experience, much less 14-year-olds.

Liz R (#234,893)

I read an article somewhere recently about how the phenomenon of teen girls getting into smut, while empowering for some, was giving a lot of people the wrong idea about sex. Because since the characters in smut are CONSTANTLY just EXPLODING with ORGASMIC LUST, these perfectly normal teenaged girls think they're Doing Sexuality Wrong.

I didn't kiss a boy until I was 17, and didn't have sex or even masturbate until I was 19. Now I'm like… hella sexual. Don't even worry about it.

cherrispryte (#444)

To the second writer (and to all 14 yr olds reading the Awl, I guess?) While yes, not being enthusiastic about sex at your age is really perfectly normal, and yeah, people are getting all sorts of weird ideas about sex via porn – hey, maybe you are asexual. People are, and it's not just a phase. And you're right – it's a pretty rare thing, and there aren't many resources out there. Don't worry too much about putting a label on yourself right now – you're still figuring things out.

And speaking of figuring things out, I was looking at an awful lot of porn at 14 and seem to have not suffered too many long-term affects, but then again, internet porn well over a decade ago was completely different than it is today.

heykid (#240,880)

To the 14 year old….

Dude, you sound super smart. And veeerrry analytical. Which, personally, I love analytical folks. One downside to that gift, however, is the "over-thinking" of things…. (major understatement). It sounds like you're curious about yourself, and how you might be different from the norm regarding this mega thing called sexuality.

Sexuality is a big part of identity, aaaand, it's also a vast playing field. If it's not one you feel a gravitational pull towards, I can tell you to rest assured: You clearly have mucho creativity to devote to other spheres.

Do you need to define yourself? Do you need to "know" who and what you are (espesh at 14?) Nah… that's a lifelong process that changes and evolves. Even sexuality can change dramatically over time. Or simply just with different people. (Sex with different people can be dramatically different — even sex with the same person can vary dramatically).

My personal "experience" around sex is that, for me, it's very different than it is for "most people" "most of the time". But hey, that's me. I think of sex as this HUGE merging of forces with another person and I am always surprised when people don't seem to see it as mostly about that, but more about emotional comfort and physical pleasure. I think sex is very powerful and transformative. But so are other things too. Are you missing out if you don't feel vibrant sexually? Well, I think if you don't have passion for anything in life, you might be missing out, but sex is an expression of the life force — but it's not the only one. And the way most people do it… it's not necessarily much more than scratching an itch… granted, a scratching that feels pretty darn good, but then again, plenty of people have very mixed emotions about sex, and can end up feeling lonlier or less satisfied as a result.

So basically… sex is complicated. And so is life. But are you asexual? Maybe yes, maybe no. The internet can't tell since you're 14 years old and may be a late bloomer. Maybe you're asexual for now, in the future who knows?

But maybe, it sounds like you'd be cool if you are, but keep an open mind in case it's something that might be something you dig at a future time. Just, basically, accept yourself, whatever you are. And also maybe don't be in such a rush to definitely know and pin it down, right now?

Also, I mostly really am into people when I am TOTALLY into their brains… The brains (mixed with the heart) are the best part! The body comes way way after that (although, in a totally superawesome way, if you are inclined to go down that road).

You might potentially run into problems if you're really into some dude (or lady) and they want to take it there and you're like, nope, not really into it. But if that happens, you'll just have to deal, and figure out ways…. super (duper super) smart people will likely explore with you, since sex is moving energy, and there's lots of ways to do that. That's getting very unconventional though — but people should explore it more. They'd ultimately end up being more satisfied (sexually and otherwise).

Good luck to you! You sound really neat!

heykid (#240,880)

Oh, and reads gay guy… does this really matter to you? If it's not affecting you getting dates/partners (and it doesn't seem to be) then what does it matter? Do you feel you're being denied "straight privilege"? Does it bother you to be a "girly man" or a sissy boy?

Sure, you could butch it up (take some acting/improv classes and explore different ways of being), but personally I think you should just go ahead and embrace it. You're self conscious about this, I hear you. But like the tomboy girl, people who defy gender "norms" can make that work for them. Personally, I am a big fan a gender ambiguity in straight men. Mick Jagger circa the 60's was unreal and totally read like a gay boy.

If you insist on making an "external change" though, then play with that and have fun with it. Dude, the most fun thing you could do is go hang out with a bunch of drag kings!

Embrace your girly man, or go hang with drag kings! Win-win either way. And, yeah, go suck some cock if you feel like that's the thing to try…. hey, you never know, right? (unless you do, in which case… well, you still might be heteroflexible (like this guy (LW#3)) so go for it!)

hidflect (#199,944)

Obvious hoax letter. Polly was had.

mystique (#240,961)

@hidflect Really? Well I'm glad she wrote back anyway — I can relate to both of them.

sharilyn (#4,599)

To both writers – it matters not at all what other humans think about your sex life/orientation. This is an idea that seems completely weird and impossible before a certain age, but after that it becomes clear that good sex is a gift you give yourself. Give yourself time and some room to explore. It's really the only sane pathway.

julebsorry (#5,783)

God, talk about teen girls being sexualized too early. I totally remember being 14-15, and having these gross 30-40 year old dudes skeeve on me. I knew what they wanted, and was more just confused, as in, "umm…OBVIOUSLY you are old and gross to me". But it happened often enough that I started wondering if I was SUPPOSED to be interested and that there was something wrong with me.

No, there wasn't then, andthere's nothing wrong with LW2 now. A lot of 14 year old girls aren't sexual yet. I certainly wasn't (and grew into my own perfectly well at 18-19). I also remember just insane amounts of social and personal pressure about sex, though. Because even if I wasn't thinking about it, society certainly seemed to be thinking about it, and placing me smack dab in the center. Nothing like making out with your 14-year-old boyfriend and have him say something like "Ohh, tell me your FANTASIES" and come up with…er…nuthin, really. Which I new realize was totally normal, but I felt like such a freak at the time. Basically, people will encourage you to perform sexuality because it fits their own ends. But, it'll be a lot better in the long run if you just own what you're comfortable with, and accept that people develop at their own speed despite whatever cultural messages you receive.

LHOOQ (#18,226)

LW2: Trust me, it is entirely normal for a straight girl to spend quite a few years thinking that intercourse sounds unappealing. Don't believe this business about teenage hormones; it's not for nothing that it used to be said women don't peak sexually until their 30s. Please don't feel you have to behave a certain way, and be honest with your mom. You are going to figure it out in time, and you will be fine!

dham (#4,652)

While obviously it is "normal" to have no interest in sex at 14, it is also "normal" to have lots of interest in sex at 14. It is also "normal" to look at a bunch of porn at that age, to not want to look at it, to be traumatized by it, or to not be traumatized by it at all.

When I was that age, at least, I was 100% convinced I would die a virgin if I didn't find someone to sleep with soon. This was obviously not true.

The takeaway, for me, is that 14 year old girls feel a lot of pressure to figure out things about themselves and their futures that it will take a long time to totally work out. I think Polly handled that part well? But I cringe at the assumption that most teenager girls are grossed out by sex.

sharilyn (#4,599)

@dham Good points – and absolutely normal to be interested in sex at 14 – but holy cow most porn _still_ grosses me out and I'm middle-aged (and have had occasion to try some of the things being depicted). Sex is a TOTALLY individual thing.

blueblazes (#238,044)

LW1: One of my best dude friends is just like you. He's kind of a smaller guy physically, so he never really got into contact sports. His voice is pitched a little high and inflected well… kinda gay-sounding (ugh, the fact that that is even a thing is so wrong, but true). He enjoys foreign films. He cooks and gardens. He is utterly delightful and charming. And I was convinced he was gay for the first year I knew him. Then I kind of started to wonder, and then, as our friendship blossomed, I realized he was just one of those wonderful straight guys with whom I could share my interests! Hooray! We hung out all the time and dated briefly, and exchange long emails and poetry books and the whole nine yards. I wish there were more dudes like him because I find most manly-men repugnant. They're so angry and violent and loud. So anyway, be yourself. Spend time with people you want to spend time with. The ones who are worth knowing will accept you for exactly who you are, whether you're sure of it or not. Your sexuality is nobody's business but your own.

LW2: I am going to suggest something so redonk. Turn off the porn and get yourself some novels. Look for Austen and Bronte if you're into old timey. If not, look for something contemporary but sexually tame–I'm sure folks over on the Hairpin would be beyond thrilled to suggest some! (Or if you're a movie person, try some rom-coms or any BBC costume drama.) Because what you may need, my girl, is romance–not sex.Internet porn was just barely a thing when I was your age, but I had seen some magazines and some late-nite cinemax. And all I could wonder was 'what's the point of this?' Not that I wasn't interested in sex as a mechanical pleasure, but that I didn't understand the context of why you'd want to do it. Romantic novels helped me fill in the blanks a bit. :)

mittens blum (#240,900)

It seems like some people are confusing fanfiction with stereotypical Ron Jeremy type of porn here, which, not exactly the same. Understanding sex based on porny fanfic – I'm assuming here that LW2 is at least hanging out in the more progressive and better-written corners of fandoms – is closer to understanding sex based on cheesy romance novels more than Skinemax. Flawed in certain areas but ultimately not terrible. If anything you're going to have unrealistically high expectations.

LW2, I'm in my mid-twenties now and I've been hanging around in fandom since I was…probably around 13. You'll be ok. You'll either eventually be into sex or you won't, but either way, at the moment you're still in the "figuring your shit out" phase. Don't be too quick to try to label yourself and try to just chill out and see how things unfold, and if you're having fun in fandom, I don't think it's going to damage you. And if you're not in the fun, affirming, feminist corner of your fandom, go find it.

Though maybe avoid the kink memes, those can get weird.

ourlightsinvain (#240,902)

@mittens blum You may as well have said "google 'kinkmeme'! I promise you won't regret it!" :D

But IAWTC. I remember being 14. I cannot remember pornfic having any particular deleterious impact on me.

LW1, I'm sorry our shit-ass machismo-ridden culture makes you feel like a freak for having two grains of taste, as that's basically what people are saying when they ask you if you're gay. Speaking as a queer, you're queer when you feel like it and not a moment sooner. Keep on truckin'.

mystique (#240,961)

LW1: I think you have to focus on the idea of "what other people think of me is none of my business."

The pursuits you list — piano, chorus, literary, badass lady singers, cooking, etc. — don't strike me as gay in the least. They seem sensitive and thoughtful, like Pi from Life of Pi, Mark from Empire Records, Seth from The OC, Y from Y the Last Man, Josh Groban, heck, Hugh Jackman…
Maybe the problem here is because you aren't seeing other/most guys doing the things you do. You don't see your identity as a sweet, sensitive, artistic individual represented around you, so when other people try to give you the identity of "gay" because of these qualities, you wonder if they're right because you don't see anyone else like you around. Because (other than being attracted to you) why else would they try and figure you out this way? They want to pinpoint your personality. They want to put you in a box in their heads. The problem here is you don't trust your own judgment and figure everyone else knows something about you that you don't. NOPE. Other people might get frustrated because they can't stick a pin in you and be done with it but whatever, their frustration is your problem.

Here is the thing: take some time, write in a journal, figure out what you want. Do you want to try hooking up with a guy? Why not try? Listen to your body when you do. Do you feel the revulsion that Polly talks about (you might!) or the intrigue I felt when a green girl at an LGBTQ event asked me to dance or the boredom you feel when you talk to someone who likes Korn and denigrates everything else? The thing is, it's the asking and assumptions that bother you because you don't have an answer. My answer is “I like who I like.” Is yours “I like what I like, and I like ladies”? Or, “no, are you?” If they don't accept your answer – if they ARGUE about WHO YOU ARE – tell them the conversation is over, because are they for real?

LW2: You're 14. 14 years old typically don't want to have sex (especially if there's no one they want to have sex WITH in the near vicinity). You are fine.

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