I’m Gay—Or Am I?

Suddenly dating the opposite sex can turn your world upside down. Here’s how to stay sane while you consider switching teams.

By Tracie Potochnik

e’ve all heard the heartwarming stories — women and men who, after years of oppression, repression and fear, realize or admit that they are gay and come out of the closet. In a culture that still has more than its fair share of homophobia, this is both a courageous act and a political one, and these men and women are generally not only celebrated but welcomed as a part of the community. They’re “one of us” now.

But what is less celebrated and generally much less talked about, is the flip side. What
Sexual orientation and identity are more complex than we often admit.
happens when you’re gay, out and happy, and much to your surprise you develop an attraction or feelings for someone of the opposite sex?

How did this happen?
If you’re gay and find yourself falling for a member of the opposite sex, you might feel shocked and confused. But the truth is that despite how strongly we may identify one way or the other, sexual orientation and sexual identity are more complex than we often admit. Ellen Schecter, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who conducted a research study on longtime lesbians who partnered with men, says that researchers have found that several of our assumptions about sexuality simply aren’t true. “There is an assumption that sexual questioning is a onetime event that happens either in adolescence or midlife and always terminates with the permanent adoption of a straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual identity label,” she explains. “That’s not always true.”

In a culture that has trouble with “gray area,” acknowledging that sexuality can be fluid is often challenging. And this isn’t just true for heterosexuals. Gay-identified folks often have to develop a strong identity partly in response to heterosexual bias. Notes Kimeron Hardin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Loving Ourselves: The Gay and Lesbian Guide to Self-Esteem, “It’s often threatening to the person who has formed a lesbian or gay identity to acknowledge that his or her sexuality is on a continuum. Sometimes as you become more comfortable with who you are, you may explore outside of the rigid internal identity that you set up for yourself. You may become less black and white about the way you think about life in general.”

How does it feel?
In some sense, acknowledging your attraction to someone of the opposite sex isn’t all that different from beginning to discover same-sex attractions. You may be intrigued and excited, but also feel panic, confusion, fear, and stress. “Looking at a new aspect of your identity throws off all the familiar parts of yourself and makes you begin to question almost everything,” explains Dr. Hardin. A purely sexual fling or casual experimentation may be easier to dismiss, but if a relationship becomes more serious, so may your turmoil. “You feel conflicted because you have your feelings for this other person, which are positive, and dislocation from your gay or lesbian life, which feels negative,” says Dr. Schecter. “Having both of those going on at once can be really confusing.” Agrees Tricia Johnson, 31, from Philadelphia, “When I first went out publicly with my current boyfriend, I wanted to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t what it looks like! I’m not really straight!’ In my heart, I was starting to wonder who and what I actually was. I felt totally out at sea.”

To deal with the conflicting emotions, Dr. Schecter and Dr. Hardin both suggest finding a safe place to talk and process your feelings. This might be in the context of counseling or by turning to a trusted friend.

Do I have to come out again?
Revealing your new relationship to family and friends — particularly those who are gay — can present additional difficulties. “I felt like a traitor,” says Daniel Wright, 32, from Los Angeles. “I thought, ‘I am going to lose my
Revealing your straight relationship may feel like coming out all over again.
friends, and I’m going to lose my community.’ It was like coming out all over again.” And it may indeed be hard for your gay friends to accept your new relationship. Dr. Schecter says, “In general, the gay and lesbian community is a minority community. It fights hard to be treated equally. There is strength in numbers, and any potential loss of a member of the community is threatening.” There might also be a perception that a person who enters a heterosexual relationship has taken the easy way out. To deal with negative reactions, Dr. Hardin recommends allowing these friends to express anger, shock and hurt, and beginning a dialogue about it once their initial reaction has passed.

Telling family members about your new relationship can have complications of its own, particularly if they were not accepting of your gay identity. Samantha Lewis, 37, from Providence, RI, says, “The religious members of my family were ecstatic. They never fully accepted me for who I was. It was just another slap in the face.”

There is also the unique question of whether to come out to your current love about your gay identification and relationship history. The best approach to this situation is — you guessed it — honesty. “You may have a range of feelings that are going to impact the relationship,” observes Dr. Schecter. “Your new partner needs to understand that and have some context for your varying feelings.”

How do I see myself?
As a gay person in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, you might struggle to find an appropriate label. Does this mean that you’re straight or bisexual? Can you be dismissed as a “hasbian” or “yestergay"? In the end, your identity is something that only you can define. Dr. Schecter says, “There are people who retain lesbian identity while in a committed relationship with a man. Others do not. Identity is shaped by individual meaning.” Your current situation also does not invalidate your past relationships or mean that you are or were “going through a phase.” Tricia Johnson says, “I struggled for so long with what to call myself. Eventually I thought why do I have to have a label? My experience is more complex than a single word.”

In the end, your attractions to, feelings for or relationship with a member of the opposite sex might be something that you explore for a short time, or it might develop into something more significant. In either case, give yourself some credit for being willing to explore feelings that may surprise you. “I would say go with your heart,” says Samantha Lewis. “If you don’t pursue opportunities out of fear, life just stops.”

Tracie Potochnik is a writer living in Providence, RI.
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