If I’m Not Gay Enough, & I’m Not Straight Enough, Then What Am I?

Photo: Courtesy of Jenny Anderson.

Lauren Patten (she/her) originated the role of Jo in the new Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill both on Broadway (Drama Desk and OCC Awards) and in the American Repertory Theater’s world premiere. Other theatre credits include: the Broadway production of Fun Home, The Wolves (Obie and Drama Desk winner), and Steven Levenson’s Days of Rage (Second Stage). Film and television credits include: Blue Bloods, The Good Fight, Succession, and The Big Sick. Learn more on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @pattenlauren.

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For several months in 2016, I kissed a woman eight times a week. I lunged at her, devouring her with my mouth as we fell onto my bed. Then I stripped off my jeans, revealing large tighty-whities, and sang about my sexual awakening. This was my Broadway debut, playing Medium Alison in the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home.

I did not identify as queer yet, but I felt a deep kinship to the lesbian culture I discovered through the show. In spending time with the lesbian actors, creators, and producers, I found affirmation for my tomboy youth and my exploration of masculine presentation. Shortly after I took on the role of Medium Alison, I started to write about this confusing affinity. As someone who struggles to write without a deadline, I unsurprisingly stopped after a few paragraphs, but I kept the draft on my computer. I recently decided to open it — like unscrewing the cap to a mini time capsule. Here’s what I wrote:

[My] desire for queerness has intensified over the last year or so; I’m sure a lot of that has to do with a job that has immersed me in the lesbian community. But it certainly isn’t a new development. I’ve been speaking a pitch or two lower than my natural speaking voice since at least 18. I have scars on the knuckles of my right hand from a skateboarding incident with the twin boys who lived down the block when I was a kid. I can yell at the game on TV at the same decibel as my dad any day. I’ve never really been…femme.

Some of my lesbian friends have joked that I really am a dyke, I just don’t know it yet. I feel the opposite: I totally know I’m a dyke, I just haven’t become one yet.

It’s easy for me now, as an out queer woman, to chuckle at my blindness. My “desire for queerness” was just the buried recognition of my very real queerness, unvalidated by any sexual experience with a woman. Queer identity is so often affirmed and understood, both internally and externally, through sexual experience. Whether you are longing to touch the girl who sits next to you in English class, or sleeping with a woman for the first time in college, sexual thought and action is usually the lens through which we view our queerness and the queerness of others. So, even though I deeply identified with a gender presentation and a culture that was not heteronormative, I had only ever considered dating men — therefore, I told myself, I couldn’t possibly be queer.

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May, 2017. My first (offstage) kiss with a woman was at Rockwood Music Hall in the Lower East Side. I had a drink in one hand and her waist in the other. It was our third date, but she had seen photos of my male ex on Instagram and wasn’t sure they were dates until I finally kissed her.

In the short time that we dated, she was gentle and kind. She was patient with my baby steps into this unknown territory. But even though it was new, being with a woman felt as natural and easy to me as all the positive romantic experiences I had with men. The relationship didn’t last long, but through it I gained a lasting understanding of myself: the knowledge that I am a bisexual queer woman. The bisexual+ identity — being attracted to people who identify as my gender and other genders — allowed expression for all of my experiences: the same-gender relationships, the different-gender relationships, and my fluidity among masculine and feminine cultures and presentations. It felt like I had put on glasses with a new prescription. My surroundings didn’t change, but my vision sharpened. I felt empowered.

I called two of my friends the morning after my first kiss with this woman, excited to tell them what had happened. Both of my friends — one a polyamorous lesbian, the other a genderqueer trans activist — expressed joy and support for the experience they thought I was having: a sexual awakening akin to Medium Alison’s realization that she was a lesbian. I know that my friends never intended to pressure me into a certain label; they were simply relating to my experience in the ways they knew how. Still, I felt a pressure — subtle externally, magnified internally — to pick a side.

When I ended things with this woman, it was messy. It was July, hot. I was feeling unhealthy in the relationship and needed to take space. My explanation for ending it didn’t satisfy her, so she turned to her own explanation. I had never been with a woman before, she said, and that was why I felt so much discomfort and anxiety,  why I was now running away. She didn’t say it outright, but the underlying implication was clear: either I was afraid of being gay, or I wasn’t really gay in the first place. I let the comment slide.

After the breakup, I was excited to put myself out there as a single queer woman. I felt a thrill every time I saw a woman I was attracted to on the street, a tingly feeling at my new ability to recognize that attraction and call it by its name. I switched over my settings on OKCupid to match me with women. I even considered trolling a lesbian bar, a big deal for anyone who knows me and my devotion to being home in my pajamas by 10 p.m. And then, I met Max. I fell in love; it was the beginning of a years-long journey with him.

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I remember thinking of my ex the first time I posted a photo of Max on social media. Would she feel vindicated? Would I look like just another straight girl who messed around with a woman as a “phase,” or to “get something out of her system?” As time went on, I became afraid not only of what my ex thought, but what anyone who knew me, or knew of me, thought.

Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy.

My queerness has always existed in the public sphere of my work. I was read as a lesbian by audience members, casting directors, and colleagues long before I understood my bisexual identity; it wasn’t unexpected, after playing lesbians in both Fun Home and The Wolves. Then, mere weeks after realizing my bisexuality, I was cast in the first reading of Jagged Little Pill to play the masc-presenting and very queer Jo. It has been a true blessing to navigate Jo’s journey as a queer person while my own journey unfolded alongside. But it has also illuminated the tension I feel navigating the public and private spheres of my life. In public, a lot of my work has explored queer relationships and identity; the women I have played on Broadway both actively eschewed femme gender presentation, and wanted nothing to do with dudes. But after work, I returned home to my boyfriend, to a different-gender relationship that could “pass” in straight spaces. And while my queerness did not disappear when I left the theatre, and though my boyfriend has been extremely supportive and loves me not despite my queerness but because of it, I cannot deny the difference of these worlds. Moving between these spheres, it is rare that I feel seen as my entire self.

These tensions have magnified as my public presence has grown. My work connects me with so many incredible audience members and fans who identify and see themselves represented in the stories I help tell on stage, and this connection has inspired me to use my platform to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in any way I can. I would not change this for anything. But engaging in this public work while owning a bisexual+ identity — an identity that cannot be assumed or confirmed by examining a person’s gender presentation or the gender of their current partner —  is vulnerable. My queerness is looked at by some as fake or performative because of my relationship with a cis man; to others, my relationship with a cis man is confusing and threatening because I am not attracted solely to cis men and I often do not present within their expectations of a cis woman. The validity of my identity is therefore questioned in both spaces.

If I’m not gay enough, and I’m not straight enough, then what am I?

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The problem with bisexual+ erasure, and why it is so imperative that we directly acknowledge it, is that demeaning bisexuality ultimately serves to confirm and uphold patriarchy. Female bisexuality is both encouraged and trivialized by patriarchal culture. It’s exciting and sexually gratifying for straight cis men to imagine women sleeping with other women, but only with the assurance that they will be involved somehow — through the telling of raunchy stories from college dorms past, or through threesomes and other group sex acts. It is also safe for straight cis men to encourage female bisexuality, because it assures them that while a potential female partner may be attracted to other women, male sexual gratification can still take precedence. Meanwhile, male bisexuality is militantly erased. A bisexual+ man is seen, by both men and women who uphold patriarchal culture, as “secretly gay.” There is no room for nuance, because once a man transgresses the rules of patriarchal heteronormativity, he is never again allowed to claim his validity within a different-gender relationship.

Bisexual+ erasure is, of course, perpetuated by cis straight people; as someone who has directly experienced it, that goes without saying. But I have also experienced erasure in the queer community, and I’ve had to take an honest look at my own internalized biphobia since coming out. I have rolled my eyes and gossiped about bisexual+ men, thinking that they should just accept they are gay and move on. I have listened and stayed silent when lesbians talk about bisexual+ women as opportunists, dismissing them as straight women leading them on. Bisexual+ erasure does not disappear when we step into queer spaces. It is socialized in both straight and queer communities, and has manifested itself in harms like workplace discrimination, partner abuse, and in the high rate of anxiety and mood disorders among bisexual+ folks.

The word “queer” is one of the only identifiers in our community that is not explicitly defined; it represents a multitude of different identities. The most beautiful thing about queerness to me is the singularity of each person’s experience. We exist on a spectrum, and anyone who identifies within that spectrum shouldn’t feel like the need to qualify their experience or prove that they are enough. I wish I could have told myself this four years ago, when I was trying to find the words to express my feelings of identification during Fun Home. If our community leans into the expansiveness of the queer spectrum, we will empower others to own their queerness — even if it’s just a feeling inside them, something they’ve never had the opportunity or desire to act on. Just as our genders are not defined by our bodies, our sexuality is not defined by our partners. Being with a man does not negate my attraction to other genders; it is just one form of romantic and sexual expression for me as a bisexual.

A lesbian is not a more valid queer person than a bisexual+ woman. A cis gay man is not a more valid queer person than a trans man. No one is more valid than anyone else. You don’t have to wait until you feel like you have sufficient proof to identify as LGBTQ+. I want to empower others to own their queer identities on these terms.

It would have been extremely easy for me to continue presenting as a straight woman. I could have dismissed my relationship with a woman as a blip on my radar, and looked to my relationship with a cis man as confirmation of my real sexuality. I could have enjoyed all the privileges straight identity provides in our society, and spared myself the discrimination and the general lack of understanding I now encounter as an out bisexual queer woman. But any privileges passing as straight would have given me would not make up for the fundamental disservice I would have done to myself by staying silent. As queer people, we deserve to been seen in our totality.

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