“And what’s your orientation?”
I wish the nurse would stop asking me that question, but it’s the same every office visit. I understand why. I’m in the middle of changing. I’ve grown breasts. I’ve had my facial and torso hair zapped off one painful laser sting at a time. My skin’s softer. Everything else about my transition has had data points, measurements, and comparisons. It’s what I hold on to, each difference reminding me that I’m becoming more of myself. It’d only make sense if how I feel changes with my body. But when it comes to who I’m attracted to, I hate picking a label.
I pause. I’ve only ever dated or been sexual with women, but there’s something about the word “lesbian” that doesn’t feel right. I feel like that’d be claiming membership in a club that might not even see me as one of them, especially when my former partner left me because I wasn’t a woman. Not to mention the toxic chant of feminism-appropriating radical transphobes that sex is immutable and biologically dictated at birth, as if a half-remembered lesson from 5th grade biology class is a natural law. My girlfriend and I call each other lesbians, chuckling “rub my lesbeans” when our feet our tired, yet it still doesn’t feel quite right with how I relate to others — perhaps a rotten internalized kernel left over from past relationships that’s yet to be healed.
But in that moment, sitting in that sterile room, something so simple as “What’s your orientation?” carried a weight disproportionate to how I felt. I didn’t really think about it before. I’m attracted to whoever I’m attracted to, which both felt like a powerful statement and a non-answer all at once.
I couldn’t think of a term of encapsulate how I experience attraction. I love women. And while I’ve never felt a pang of desire for men — there’s just nothing there — I’ve run into enough gay furry art that perks my ears to joke that I’m “gay for werewolves.” I used to play with that idea with a former partner, sexting for hours as we took turns writing out our own version of “Riley meets the Wolfman.” But that curiosity never made the jump outside of fantasy. In theory, of the billions of people on this planet, there might be a man or someone masculine I’d crush on a bit. I’m not theoretically opposed. But it’s never been a reality.
Orientation isn’t sex, and it isn’t gender, but it can be influenced by both. And it doesn’t always follow linearly or according to body parts. I think women — whether cis, trans, or any variation thereof — are wonderfully sexy. But I’ve never felt any attraction to any masculine-presenting person of any gender description.
What do I go by? Experience? What I find sexy? Fantasy? Only the “Yes,” or should I leave room for the “Maybe, if the planets align and I’ve had a particularly good day” variations?
The nurse can see I’m struggling. I ask for a write-in. “Can I say I’m largely attracted to anyone who identifies as a woman?” The nurse nods and taps away, and I can only hope it’s what I just said rather than a multiple-choice selection.
The question still bothers me. “What’s your orientation?” I feel like it’s a query I need a probe to answer and the only tool at my disposal is a chainsaw.
I like who I like. I like people, not labels. But there’s always that throbbing pressure to pick a side and stick with it, as if sexuality is hard-wired and immutable. Queer people rallied for years under the banner of “Born this way,” rightly adamant that the way we feel isn’t a phase or a choice. We want space to unabashedly express who we’ve been this whole time. And yet our desires can still spill over the boundaries of cultural expectation, or even change as we do.
I think most of us know that sexuality and desire aren’t static. Maybe it’s not a change in who you desire, but how much. There are times where many of us want to yowl into the hot summer night for want of sex and others when crawling into the sheets with someone sounds like the least appetizing thing in the world. The cultural pressure to be having glorious sex 2–3 times a week is another topic altogether, but it’s easily demonstrable that desire doesn’t follow a regular schedule.
Let’s go a step further. Little by little, research is catching up with the fact that sexuality is labile and changes with time. Who we’re attracted to may be different from the time we’re in our teens, our 20s, and onwards, not from intentional decision making but because of the fact that sexual orientation is a spectrum that doesn’t do well when forced into tidy boxes. Picking an orientation label from a list is a form of shorthand that scrubs out the variations and fuzzy areas around the edges. It can even lay traps for us, telling us that an attraction or relationship we want is wrong because it’s outside the terminology we’ve attached to.
Labels can offer a powerful source of pride and provide something to rally around. But they can also be cages. It’s not uncommon that someone identifies as queer but has a relationship that to all the world looks straight. It’s made me a little snarly when people’s identity and the legitimacy of their feelings has been questioned because they go off-label with their affection. One spectacular partner can override the list of what we usually like. That’s not to give hope to those who fish or chase, but a reflection of the fact that we make relationships with people rather than lists of attributes.
I didn’t really get it until my own dumb joke came back to bite me. My “gay for werewolves” quip really only worked when I was trying to live as a man. But now I’m a femme nonbinary person. Does that mean I’ve suddenly become straight for werewolves?
Of course the question’s ridiculous. If I feel backed into a corner, I’ll say I’m a lesbian. The word sums up my dating history and who I’m primarily attracted to. But I don’t feel like my sexuality neatly fits in that box, and I don’t think it should. The idea that we pick a side once in our lives and are required by some sort of social contract to act consistently with that construct totally erases the fact that variability is a central part of what makes us who we are.
I’m not attracted to labels. I’m attracted to people. And occasionally lycanthropes.