Maria Bello says that we need new ways of talking about who we are and who we love. She’s not wrong.
Sexual identity is complicated. Love is simple.
When I was coming of age, my story was so much more nuanced than the narratives I read, watched on TV, connected with online, and that confused me.
For many years, it wasn’t that hard to date men. It was fine. I even fell in love with one or two, along the way. That didn’t happen to the gay girls in pop culture (well, besides Willow). It didn’t seem to happen to the people who read or wrote for my online communities, either. Everything seemed so very clear to them: they liked women. They loved women. They wanted to sleep with women. They wanted to marry women, someday, if it was ever legalized. Meanwhile, I didn’t know what I wanted. I just wanted…more than what I had with men. So what was I?
As the years progressed, I crept towards my queer self at a snail’s pace. I hated the bisexual label, but no one around me even knew what queer meant. I doubted I would ever date a guy again, but I felt about as much like a lesbian as I did a leprechaun. Finally, when I started dating a woman the summer I turned 30, I was ready to start coming out — because instead of having to define my sexuality abstractly, I could say what I wanted to: “I’m dating this great girl.”
I had never wanted to tell people what I was, some word that might mean different things to different people, a construct that would in some fundamental way divide me from them forever. Instead, I wanted to tell them who I was dating. I didn’t want to announce a label for my sexuality — something my straight friends and family would never have to do. I just wanted to introduce them to my girlfriend. I wanted to tell them about my life in the same way they might tell me about theirs.
So during that summer fling, I came out to some of my family and friends. But I only dated the woman for a month and a half. I went on a few other blind dates, but I didn’t find what I was looking for. And then something weird happened. I somehow came down with a huge crush on a guy. I hung out with him, I thought about him too much, I finally got brave (three shots of something blue at a bar-sponsored Spelling Bee) and asked him out. We started dating. I was seeing a guy — something I thought I would never do again.
And that’s not even where it gets complicated.
But that’s the thing: it’s not even complicated. Writing about it is complicated. Explaining it and defining it is complicated. Living it is simple.
My boyfriend is trans, and I probably wouldn’t be dating him if he weren’t.
No, I’m not trying to be this girl. I don’t want a cookie or a pat on the back, and I don’t need to shout it to the rooftops in order to validate my queer identity. I don’t out him to my friends or family. In fact, I haven’t even done so when he’s given me permission and it’s made sense within the context of my conversations. I’m simply not comfortable doing so. I want them to know, because it’s part of who we are together, but it doesn’t feel like my right to tell them. It feels like his.
But there’s the fact that I don’t really date (cis) guys anymore. And my boyfriend’s just a guy, for better or for worse, right? No different than any cis man? If I truly want to be an ally to the trans community, isn’t that what I must believe?
Well, yes, obviously, he’s a man. He gets a little grumpy before camping trips. He’s got about as much hair growing out of his back these days as out of his head (sorry, baby). His hands are big and scarred and wonderful. He can go on about carpentry planes for hours. (Of course, none of those things make his experience a male one, necessarily — identifying as male can look like a great deal of different things for different people, but these traits are components of, his masculinity for him, for me, and for many people he meets).
See how complicated this gets, and how quickly?
Anyway. Yes, he is a man, for better and for worse. But somehow with him, there is just a little more better, and a little less worse.
Because: as two people who have been seen and treated as female by the world, we have certain experiences that are, in some way, shared. I don’t know if that makes it easier for him to be a feminist, but a feminist outlook is something that we share. And there are things for which we have a certain shorthand: whether we’re talking periods, bras, or patriarchal oppression, there are many components of my experience that I don’t have to explain to him to get him on the same page.
Because: he knows what it feels like (more profoundly than I do, I’m sure) to feel othered, and he knows (more profoundly than I do, I’m sure) how difficult it can be to fight against the tides that would keep us living inauthentic lives. I have respect and awe for the work he has done, and he has compassion for and perspective on all the work I still must do. (Note: I’m sure I over-romanticize his journey, and that is something I will continue to work on.)
Because: we’re both queer-identifying. That means a great many things to us: private things (what we do in the bedroom, we agree, isn’t even a little bit straight, and isn’t it glorious!) and public things like our politics, our peer group, our shared vocabulary.
Which brings us to Maria Bello. In her new book, she explains that she doesn’t label herself as gay or bi or queer. Instead, she uses something her son said when she told him she was seeing a woman. She came out to him and he said “whatever, mom. Love is love.” In keeping with this, she calls herself a whatever, explaining, “there are so, so many labels and traditional labels just don’t seem to capture the reality of who we are in our time.”
For Maria Bello, and for me, love is simple, but labeling it is complicated. Labels are supposed to function as shorthand that will identify an experience — one we share with other people. But what label could accurately portray (to other people) the complexity of my life and relationships, without all the footnotes, the paragraphs of explanation?
When I started dating women, I felt queer and lesbian spaces open up to me in a way I just hadn’t felt I had access to before. I finally felt like I had earned my seat at the table. I started to feel less apologetic for my own identity, for taking up space, for expressing myself and talking about the nuances of my identity in online spaces and in real life.
When I asked my boyfriend out, I didn’t want that to go away. Honestly, I was kind of done asking for permission to exist in queer spaces. But for some people — particularly online — as someone who was dating a man, my existence in their sphere was now once again problematic. All of the infighting that happens within these safe spaces became more apparent than ever. During a debate with one commentator on an Autostraddle article, she told me that the mention of a male-female relationship on the forum was as much a slap in the face as if I went to a dyke bar and danced with my boyfriend. “There’s a time and place for that,” she said, “and it’s not here.”
Well, I haven’t been to any lesbian bars yet. But if there are any left, I would like to go to one. I’d like my boyfriend to go with me. And if we go, if some KD Lang (his favorite) comes on, I will take his hand and lead him out onto the dance floor. I will hold him close, and I will tell him I love him, and we will dance. And I have a feeling that we won’t really offend anybody. Even if we do, I’m done asking for permission. Not because he used to identify as a lesbian. Not because I’m queer. We’ll dance because we’re human beings, and we love each other, and love, I have decided, is always, always, a very good thing.
It’s whatever. Love is love.