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Labeling Your Sexuality Is Not An Obligation

By Erin Heffer

I came out to my college roommates accidentally. I was mindlessly swiping on Tinder, when my roommate Mel hugged me over the back of the couch. Resting her chin on my shoulder, she caught sight of a girl she knew on my Tinder feed. “Wait, why are there girls on your Tinder?” she asked. Our other roommates overheard, then looked over to me. What followed was a rather anticlimactic coming-out story.         

I considered lying. Not out of fear of acceptance, but because of my uncertainty around my sexuality. In my experience, when you “come out,” one of the first questions people ask you is, “So, what are you?” Although that’s not inherently negative, the question implies an expectation that you need to instantly assign yourself a letter within the LGBTQ+ abbreviation. If I was going to come out, I should at least have a label for what I was, right? “Not straight” felt insufficient.

When I came out, people assumed that I’d known all along, like my sexuality was a well-kept secret. That may be true for some, but in my case, it was the opposite. Even after coming out, I still wasn’t sure who I was attracted to. I grew up with the understanding that sexuality and gender identity were relatively fluid concepts. I’d kissed girls at parties, sure — but that was “the norm” at my high school. I was comfortable with the notion that “everyone is a little bit queer,” and I’d only ever dated boys. As far as I was concerned, I was straight.

“People assumed that I’d known all along, like my sexuality was a well-kept secret.”

That changed when I first developed romantic feelings for a girl. My track record with guys suddenly felt disingenuine, and I began to obsess over figuring out who I was and how I identified. All at once, my inability to label my sexuality felt like a pressing issue. So, I set out in search of answers.         

Although it can feel empowering to assign yourself a label within the LGBTQ+ community, the process of discovering your sexuality can be lengthy, and having a label isn’t an end-all, be-all. My fixation on labeling myself brought an added layer of stress to a period that should have felt exploratory. I found myself overanalyzing who I was attracted to, desperately trying to figure out if I fit into a predetermined category. In an attempt to figure out where I belonged, I googled the topic of questioning your sexuality. What I discovered was an overwhelmingly positive plethora of articles, YouTube videos, and personal blogs from people experiencing the exact same thing. I felt seen, significantly less alone, and most importantly, accepted – it was suddenly clear that who I was and who I loved was going to be unconditionally celebrated within the LGBTQ+ community – label or not. Labeling your sexual orientation is by no means a requirement of being a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s hard to condense years of learning and self-discovery into a few hundred words, and my personal journey is far from over. But if there’s one thing I’ve taken away, it’s that being unable to label your sexuality is extremely common. According to a study from North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Pittsburgh, at least one in five teenagers see shifts in their sexuality as they get older, meaning we may cycle through a variety of labels that fit at one time or another, but don’t make sense permanently. Instead, focus less on the label and more on your feelings, and who they’re directed toward. Connect to yourself and your sense of identity, and you won’t need a label that the world recognizes.

Life changes, people change, and sexual preferences can change, too. You might one day find a label that represents you, or you may discover that there isn’t a label that accurately describes you and your attraction to others. Bottom line, people can evolve over time, and you never need to feel the need to commit to a single sexual identity at any point in your life. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. No matter how your feelings change or how your sexual orientation shifts, you are deserving of healthy, loving and fulfilling romantic relationships — label or no label.

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