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.