Brain, what the hell
March 28, 2011 6:46 AM   Subscribe

You know how awkward you feel at 12 when you're trying to talk to the cutie in your class? Well, that's me, but at 27, and with women. I'm a woman, and I'm completely lost with how this works. Maybe lost is an understatement. Could you walk me through what you did, if you experienced this?

I'm 27, female, and I've been doing a lot of thinking in terms of my attraction to women. Publicly I identify as straight, privately as bi. All of my sexual and relationship experience has been with men, except for a few women I have kissed. I've been attracted to women since probably middle school; but only in the last 2 years has it become natural to me to just feel physically attracted to anyone of any gender.

In the last year or so, I've realized I'm also emotionally and intellectually attracted to women. Or maybe I'm just now acknowledging this. Last fall I started grad school in a large city where I know no one - I was partly excited at being able to explore my interest in women in a new place. But I haven't done anything. I don't know where to start. All I know is that I'm confused.

I've also been seeing a counselor at my school since last fall, talking about some suicidal thoughts I'd been having. Talking about it has been super helpful. In the process of all of this talking, I've become aware that I can't make myself bring up this confusion over sexuality, and all of these thoughts might be related. These thoughts scared the shit out of me, but they were never acted on. This was also my first time at a counselor, I'm not/have never been on medication, and I've been low, but not like this. I do know I felt like crying just typing this stuff out. (My counseling ends when the semester is over, and I don't have insurance.)

I don't know if I'm straight/bi/gay or all of it. I find I'm extra sensitive to perceptions of non-straight people. My mom jokes about me being a lesbian/not getting grandkids, because it's been so long since I've introduced who I was dating to my family. My immediate family is liberal enough, but both sides are in general conservative. My friends are pretty open-minded, but they are all far away. I'm very private, and I compartmentalize many aspects of my life, so no one know this aspect of me.

Basically, no support group, no social skills (in terms of meeting women). I'm never good with guessing sexuality, and so there is the risk of embarrassment (or harassment??). I don't know what to call myself - if I say bi, will that off-put gay women, and vice-versa? Will they be offended and think I'm experimenting on them, since I'm really starting from scratch? Where do I meet women? It all seems like a super secret world, and I don't know how to break in. I'm 12, and everyone else knows the rules but me.

This is a big deal to me, and its scary. It feels like something is trying to hatch, but I'm not letting it. I've tried to describe enough, but I don't even have a vocabulary for some of this. Any advice, anecdotes, books, websites, groups, or anything really, is appreciated. Is this a common experience? I've read some of the other relevant questions on here, and people seem confused, but I think my emotional reaction is somehow not the norm.

(Relevant, I'm in southern california)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I always think this kind of answer is too easy to give, but if you're having a hard time telling your therapist about these things, how about printing what you just wrote and sending/handing it to him/her? Once the ice is broken you may be able to open up more.

There is not going to be any uniform response to you from gay women; some would be excited at the idea of helping you experiment, others will decline respectfully, perhaps a few might be jerks about it -- because hey, any dating pool is studded with its share of jerk land-mines.

The thing that is choking you right now is the secrecy of it. "No one knows this aspect of me," you say. So of course you aren't good at revealing yourself to strangers -- you have not even tried revealing yourself to safe people who already care about you, or who are there to provide professional help.

You sound very secure in the knowledge that this is an enduring part of who you are. It's not just some phase or a silly fantasy. So what is there to gain from such secrecy? All those conversations you are dreading having with people about what's going on -- they're going to wind up occurring eventually. Your therapist is the best person to help you take control over when/how that happens.

Also, once you get out there and start meeting people, I think you'll find that you are not as far behind as you think. The GLBT world is full of late bloomers, and full of people who have only been able to figure things out in piecemeal from a limited range of experience.
posted by hermitosis at 7:35 AM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Basically, no support group

Aha! well that part is easy enough to remedy:
LA Gay and Lesbian Center's Coming Out workshop for Women (I'm sure you can take this even if you're not yet sure you even want to come out, or what you would be coming out as)

UCLA Student Groups Related to Women, Gender, and/or Sexuality

The (San Diego LGBT Community) Center's Discussion Groups

UC San Diego's LGBT Resource Center
posted by salvia at 7:40 AM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're at graduate school, I imagine you have access to a campus GLBTQ organization--at a large school, possibly a range of choices. Such an organization will have events, both educational and social. They'll have recommendations for counselors. They'll have resources, books, etc etc. And they will assuredly have talked to folks in your situation.

Not that it isn't scary to walk into one of those offices or meetings....And I add that you probably won't find your dream girl there, just because it will be a fairly random group. But it's a first step.

Also, on the "lesbians don't like bi women" front: IME this is true with some women, partly because it's tiring to deal with those among bi women who have a lot of straight privilege for whom being bi is mostly about an expanded dating pool and coolness points. You can always try to meet bi women, however, or just be really pleasant and decent around lesbians; after a while, that tends to work since you show that you're not just looking for quick fun.

Plus, you have the advantage of being new in town! A new person in a small dating pool! In any group, everyone has already assessed each other, has their crushes sussed out, etc. A new person always has mysterious-stranger points.
posted by Frowner at 7:45 AM on March 28, 2011

First, I think you should look into resources for continuing your counseling. Your school or counselor may have resources for other low-cost or free counseling services in the area. When I was in undergrad (I'm the same age as you), I started counseling through my school, and then switched to a local sliding-scale place the summer after freshman year. My school helped set it up for me.

Does your counselor know about your concerns/issues surrounding your sexuality? I can't tell from your explanation. If he/she doesn't know, I strongly recommend sharing. Coming out is terrifying, but a counselor's office is probably one of the safest places to do it. Good counselors usually operate under something called "unconditional positive regard," which means that no matter what you tell them, they are not going to judge you or view you negatively (obviously, if you tell them something dangerous/illegal, they may be required to report it--but they will still not view you negatively). You still have a few weeks before the semester is out, so even a few sessions of discussion regarding this issue will be helpful to you.

In terms of meeting people, check out Search to see if there are any LGBT get-togethers or groups meeting in your area. Right now, don't worry about what to call yourself or what others might think. It's true that some lesbians may be put off by you being bi or unexperienced, but right now you're still figuring things out and trying to meet people socially. Sign up for some meet-ups and go. When I lived in rural VA, I drove 45 minutes to meet a group, and I made myself go alone even though I had some other gay friends in the area. I went alone because I knew that would force me to interact with people rather than hanging out in a corner with a friend all night. I introduced myself and I made small-talk. It was awkward and scary at first, but I relaxed as the evening went on. I made plans to attend the next meet-up, and I did. I ended up making several good friends as well as dating someone in the group.

Another thing to do is try to find people with common interests. If you like the club/bar scene, see if there are local gay clubs or bars. If you are into more literary/intellectual pursuits, see if there is a LGBT or feminist bookstore in your area. Check out the bulletin board there. Ask if they have book clubs or other types of groups.

Finally...check Craigslist. They have a women-for-women dating board. I do not recommend answering ads or dating anyone from there at this point--there is a LOT of crazy on those boards, and I think for right now you're better off just trying to get into the scene and make friends. However, sometimes on the w4w board, local LGBT groups post ads for activities, like speed dating, game nights, etc. Also, sometimes other women post looking for friends or activity partners. There may be some crazy there, but as long as you meet in a public place and take proper precautions, you may meet some good friends on there. Or you may end up with a really funny story. I relied on Craigslist a lot when I first moved to Chicago, because I had one friend and I wanted to meet more people on my own. It was a little nervewracking, but I met some good friends, and I did eventually meet my beloved there (although we are a bit of a rarity!).

Good luck! Feel free to memail me if you need someone to talk to.
posted by catwoman429 at 7:52 AM on March 28, 2011

Ok, more from me (I didn't want my phone to delete that part).

I don't know if I'm straight/bi/gay or all of it

You really don't have to know right now. When I was in college, I believe the Q in LGBTQ actually stood for Questioning (I think it's Queer now). Also, I would not overly worry about being judged for being bi. I say this as someone who could fit Frowner's description. (I identify on the straighter side of bi now, though in my defense, those years when I dated only women were really about figuring all this out and not at all about being cool.) I did not experience any outright hostility. I probably missed out on a few really cool women, but nobody was rude. And many people were nice, and really, that's all it takes. The fact is that you've been attracted to women since middle school, and that proves you're not just dabbling; it is more than enough to make you someone who deserves a warm welcome.

You're in a particular moment now. I remember thinking "I think I may like women. Where do I show my membership card to gain admittance to this super secret world?" Once you start spending time with a few people who identify as queer and maybe even go on a few dates, in my experience, it largely stops feeling like you are an undercover agent or a detective looking for a super-secret underworld, and the whole thing becomes a logistical question closer to "where are the hip coffeeshops in town?" Also, at a certain point, the whole thing stops feeling like "What Am I?" and later "Now I Am A Bisexual/Lesbian." You go back to feeling like Normal You. But instead of having a boyfriend or going on dates just with guys, that person you spend a lot of time with is the same gender as you.

I suspect that one of the hardest things you'll do is to show up in public at one of those meetings, or tell your counselor. That moment when the door cracks open to reveal this hidden secret feels very vulnerable. It can also feel really thrilling. People don't get the chance to confront enormous fears in the name of discovering who they really are, not very often.

This is obviously a tough period, so keep relying on your therapist. And maybe this is easier said than done, (or even an impossible suggestion given other details about you that I don't know), but if you can, try to enjoy this secret agent phase, knowing that life will become more comfortable and humdrum again. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 8:56 AM on March 28, 2011

There is nothing wrong with your brain. Your problem (and it's not really a problem) is that you don't understand the cultural nuances of same-sex dating. This is not some psychological state. It's more akin to being unsure of office etiquette or what to bring to a seder. Nthing checking out one of the support groups that Salvia's listed -- or joining a lesbian book club, or going for a hike with the Gay and Lesbian Sierrans, or doing an activity with this meetup group. (Being sure of where you fit into the spectrum is not going to be a requirement, even if you see the word "lesbian" in a group's description.) Good luck and have fun!
posted by Wordwoman at 9:23 AM on March 28, 2011

I've become aware that I can't make myself bring up this confusion over sexuality

Actually, you can.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:24 AM on March 28, 2011

Online dating!
OKCupid has been historically free and easy to use. And way less intimidating than just hitting on people.
posted by kavasa at 9:32 AM on March 28, 2011

I'm going to give some weird advice, but here it is: if you want to figure this out, swear off men for awhile. Not forever. Maybe 6 months. I say this because as I wrote in a recent comment, it is ridiculously easy to fall into "Oh, this guy likes me so I'll just go along with it", or "this guy is cute so maybe I'll ask him out instead of scoping the ladies because it's hard to figure out if they're a) gay and b) into me", then you keep dating him for months/years because it's comfortable and safe, instead of figuring out who you are and what you want/like. Force yourself to go into this all-gay. You can tell people you're queer instead of bi, if you're more comfortable with that.

Some lesbians are wary of bi women, but as long as you're clear about your wants, you should be OK. If you call yourself bi, I might specify in online dating profiles, etc. that you are looking for a girlfriend - not just an 'experiment'. This should be enough to weed you out from the more casual or curious people.

I would 2nd OkCupid as a great resource. It might be different in southern CA, but in my experiences, the Craigslist "women for women" section was all women with husbands/boyfriends, or women who wanted a one-night stand. I'm guessing from your post that you're more interested in some kind of relationship?

MeMail me if you want to talk to someone who has gone through a similar thing.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:24 AM on March 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

As other people have said, among people who are not jerks, it's generally understood that sexuality and labels can be confusing and fluid, and being confused and uncertain is completely okay. And yeah, LGBT groups at your school are probably a good way to meet some LGBT folks. Showing up at an event that is explicitly for people who identify as queer or are questioning is a good way to communicate to some people that you are queer or questioning; if that's an uncomfortable idea, showing up at an event that is explicitly ally-inclusive is a good way to meet some queer-positive people without feeling as much like a public statement (alternately, these are both also good ways to discover that people you already know are queer or queer-positive).

I dunno what the atmosphere at your school/city is like, but there were also a whole lot of people at my school who had rainbow pins on their backpacks, and all you could really assume about them was that they supported gay rights (my friends and I liked to good-naturedly bitch about all those darned allies getting our hopes up), so if that's something you'd be comfortable with, it might be a nice way to be more likely to be included in queer community stuff..

I agree that OkCupid is pretty nice, even if you're just looking for friends or a queer community and not necessarily dates. It also has the advantage that it's possible to just put up a profile and wait for other people to message you, which is waaay less scary than approaching new people. I've never met anyone through meetup or craigslist, but I imagine they're good, too.

I don't know what to call myself - if I say bi, will that off-put gay women, and vice-versa?

I have met a few gay women who won't date bi women, but I think they are in the minority. I have never met a bi woman who wouldn't date a gay woman (that's what you mean by vice-versa?). Depending on what you're looking for in dates, some people might be a little cautious about getting involved with someone who is uncertain about her sexuality (but other people might not, and in any case, "cautious" isn't necessarily bad).

Feel free to memail me, also.
posted by Vibrissa at 10:31 AM on March 28, 2011

Hi. My partner was a late bloomer, too. As others have already stated, the way she got over this was to timidly begin attending LGBTQ events on her campus. I quote:

"Sounds similar to my experience. What eventually helped was being around other queer people, even though I had not yet really outed myself to anyone, including me. Find people. Also, I agree with person who said print this out and give it to your counselor. There's more than one issue here. She wants to date and she wants to be comfortable with her identity. Dating is easier and less stressful when you are comfortable with your identity."

She also said feel free to MeMail her, and I extend that invitation as well.
posted by Lieber Frau at 2:29 PM on March 28, 2011

I have been where you are in a big way. It's like a second adolescence and it's as traumatic as the first minus all the acne. Wanting to date women but not knowing where to start, or how to approach them, led to a lot of angst and anxiety and stories that are now funny but at the time were horrifyingly embarrassing.
The only difference between you and I was the acceptance of it. Although I didn't quite click in to my homo-ness until I was in my mid twenties, when I did realize it I was really excited. OMG I like women! My dating pool has expanded! Women are so pretty and amazing! Women make great parents! Some women are gay and actually want to make out with me! I am going to live on a farm with a woman and a bunch of goats and chickens and babies!
This may have been because I was in a big city, away from my family, and working in a neighbourhood with a lot of gay people (gaybourhood). It may have been that because I didn't realize this about myself earlier, I didn't go through my earlier years trying to hide anything. I was pretty comfortable with myself when this realization came about.
I wasn't so comfortable afterwards, however. You know, the requisite depression, low self esteem, hopelessness that I would ever find someone to date, cluelessness about how to break into queer subculture, etc. Finding "The Feeling Good Handbook" really helped me get over myself a little bit, and slowly but surely I found my way into the lesbian underworld. You will too. Don't worry about being bi...if you want to identify yourself as a way that might be more appealing to lesbians who might cringe at 'bi', you could use 'queer', which basically implies that both gender and sexuality are fluid, tenuous constructs, and it's silly to try to identify as one thing and only like people who identify as certain things.
Anyways there's tons of hope for you and fun sexy times to be had with pretty ladies. Be gentle with yourself and treat yourself the way you would a confused teenager: though you may be frustrated with yourself at times, try to maintain patience and compassion and remember you will blossom into a fully functioning adult again.
But for the love of god try to bring this up in therapy.
Also, memail if you want. Then you'll have at least one gay friend!
posted by whalebreath at 8:48 PM on March 28, 2011

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