One of the ongoing cultural and social clashes in the United States seems to be centered around the idea that people never change, instead reaching adulthood and becoming frozen in a fixed and stable existence. If someone grows up as a girl and into a woman, for example, then she’s always a woman, and if she says otherwise, she’s threatening the natural order of things. Likewise, if someone is gay, he can’t later identify as heterosexual or bisexual: he’s gay, and that’s the end of the matter.
Identities, in other words, are viewed as extremely fixed, with one of the few exceptions being disability; people have been forced to reluctantly acknowledge that it is possible to transition from nondisabled to disabled, and even back again, depending on the nature of the impairment and the situation. In a world where someone can be in a car accident that causes major spinal damage, leading to partial paralysis, ability status is very mutable.
But the same concept is not applied to other identities, labels, and modes of being, depending on how people prefer to think of them. With gender, of course, people are very fixated on the idea that there are only two genders and they are predetermined at birth on the basis of superficial sex characteristics. A deeper understanding of gender rooted not just in science (superficial sex characteristics and chromosomes are actually rather complex) but in sociology and psychology (just because someone has a penis doesn’t mean that person identifies as male) is difficult for many people to achieve, perhaps in part because it destabilises and threatens their understanding of their own gender.
What, they think, is to stop them from being misgendered or miscategorised if anyone’s gender can shift over time? They don’t seem to understand that it is not people with a consistent, stable gender identity in alignment with their genitalia who have something to worry about, but instead those who do not have stable genders, who transition between two or more over the course of their lives.
Sexuality, too, is fluid, and many people seem to struggle with this, to the point of being actively repulsed and confused by the idea that sexual orientation does not necessarily remain consistent throughout someone’s life. This attitude is harmful for those who do experience shifts in their sexual orientations, but it also stifles conversation and exploration, as people who may be confused about their sexuality who receive this kind of messaging may experience harm that takes years to undo—and in some cases, they may never recover, because they are never given an opportunity to learn who they are and be themselves.
Take, for example, the heterosexual woman who later develops an attraction to women, and begins to identify as bisexual or lesbian. She may have experienced this attraction throughout her life and not picked up on it—perhaps she didn’t meet the right woman, or she was living in a repressive environment where homosexuality was not accepted. Or maybe her sexual orientation actively shifted. The attitudes of those around her will be dismissive and unpleasant, as people attempt to erase both her past as a heterosexual and her present as a gay or bi woman.
Though her sexuality has shifted, she remains fundamentally the same woman. Her past history doesn’t magically vanish, and she may even look back on it with fondness or gratitude for the relationships she had. Likewise, people may move through other sexual orientations depending on circumstances, their current stage of life, and other factors; the asexual who later realizes he’s gay, the lesbian woman who develops a bisexual attraction.
There is nothing wrong with having a sexuality that shifts. And the cultural insistence on repeating the idea that sexual orientation is fixed and rigid is incredibly harmful. Whether your sexuality is truly shifting or just expanding is almost beside the point, in this case: in both instances, you’re experiencing a change, and you’re encountering negative attitudes about it that can trigger self-doubting thoughts. Those pressures can be especially intense for young adults, which is one of the reasons there’s a higher suicide rate among queer youth. As they question their sexuality and try to understand who they are, without the benefit of the knowledge that sexuality can and does change, they may experience shame, frustration, and confusion.
Promoting the idea that sexuality never changes primarily serves the goals of controlling sexuality and creating a very rigid society, sexually speaking. Unfortunately, it extends not just to heteronormative thinking, but also to harmful attitudes among some people of other sexual orientations, as for example in some lesbian communities where women who discover that they are also attracted to men may be pilloried for their evolving sexuality. Likewise, some bisexual men or gay men with a bisexual past are treated as suspect, and made to feel uncomfortable about their own sexuality. The harmful myth, for example, that bisexual men are secretly gay needs to be broken down for the sham that it is.
Having a fluid sexuality is nothing unusual, and it’s nothing to experience shame over, and it’s time to start clearly communicating that in a broad and accessible way. While some people may experience sexuality as an unwavering identity throughout their lives, others don’t share that experience, and both experiences are entirely valid. Attempting to negate the experiences and identities of others serves no function other than to reiterate oppression, allowing for greater social control of marginalised groups.