I am a 37-year-old a bisexual woman married to a wonderful man, now happy in my skin, but who was gender-nonconforming and dysphoric through my youth. Up until very recently, I thought of my bisexuality and gender non-conformity as separate things, like the rest of the world seems to. Except that this line of thinking misses the obvious: that same-sex attraction is itself a form of gender non-conformity. The vast majority of people are straight, and being lesbian, gay, or bi does not conform to that. It makes sense that experiences with gender and sexuality are intimately tied.
While part of my youthful gender non-conformity was natural, I now realize that part of it used to be internalized misogyny, part of it a maladaptive shield against misogyny and distrust of men. All of it was probably fueled my further alienation from other girls. These same powerful forces had effects on my sexuality too once that started to emerge.
I am convinced that in my case dysphoria was caused by being a gender non-conforming, skinny little girl in a very macho, misogynist, and homophobic post-Soviet society – it was not a trait like my sexuality. I had deep-seated insecurities about being dismissed, cast aside, and not taken seriously. I hated with a passion being associated with anything girly and did all I could to distance myself from it as far back as my earliest memories go.
I understood I wasn’t a boy and that I only wished to be one. But that cannot be divorced from the fact that I had also no idea that it was even considered possible for girls to “be” or to “become boys” or have a “boy brain in a girl body.” The whole trans concept was not known to me nor really anybody else in my 1990s Eastern European country. Social transition would have been the worst “remedy” for me personally. I can’t even imagine how wrong it would have been to have other people, my peers, and authority figures to mistake my distress (dysphoria) and my attempt at coping for a trans identity and affirm that!
In my world, womanhood and later sexuality seemed to be defined by men, to serve their needs, not mine. Sex and gender roles felt restrictive and not attractive at all. Same-sex relations in comparison seemed so much freer and yes safer. A lesbian/bi identity offered me both a simple explanation for my not fitting in and a solution, a community, and an escape from male dominance.
There are some interesting parallels to the ROGD phenomenon in the way I latched onto my sexuality. The obsession was instant and all consuming. When I saw a gay character and his struggle with sexuality on a TV series for the first time at around age 14, it’s as though a trigger was pulled. The next eight years were spent with my mind stuck in an endless loop, interrogating myself about my sexuality. I was caught between wondering if I really liked women or men or was I just tricking myself into believing I liked men/women? Was it something real? What seemed like confusion – this relentless scrutinizing – in hindsight extended indeed into the territory of mental self harm and negation or, if you want a label, internalized biphobia.
It is jarring to look back considering I am now happily married to a man, but I had no sexual or romantic feelings for boys in my teenage years and only a couple of weak inklings through most of my 20s. The first big shift happened in my early 20s when I hit rock bottom with my ruthless questioning regime and had to give it up due to sheer exhaustion. It made me realize this obsession wasn’t helping and I wasn’t finding real answers this way. There were still a few years of exploration and growth left ahead, but my mind opened up and I gained enough confidence to venture into the real world. Then in my late 20s, something very strange happened, after I had dated a few women and was making my final peace with and accepting the fact and consequences of being a lesbian. Feelings for men suddenly and unexpectedly surfaced. It was as if this newfound liberation allowed my mind finally to relax and some deeply buried feelings to emerge. (I had had boyfriends before that, but they didn’t last because the connection wasn’t there.)
What really changed, that one day in my early 20s? I decided to stop fearing and overthinking and to start owning my womanhood and sexuality the way it was. What helped me get to that point?
Despite my country and family being homophobic, I had found myself a liberal, artsy, and bohemian bubble. It offered me the freedom to explore my gender expression in playful and creative ways. (I fear the arts crowd has become quite ideological in the west today). I even had openly gay and lesbian teachers and horse-riding coaches who were well respected.
Meditation was very helpful to my obsessive mind, knowing it was possible to simply observe my thoughts and not latch on to them, to just let them pass. Most of all, to overcome my distress, I needed to feel safe and secure to start exploring alternative mindsets, not feel pushed. There is no alternative to acquiring real skills when it comes to building confidence and independence, plus it is good to do something you love to lose yourself in.
Salsa dancing was great for connecting with my body and learning to sync with another person. It also gave me a community.
Reading “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins helped for general intellectual grounding and understanding of the world, as did books about psychology and how the mind works, like “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk.
It may look like slow going, but all those small evolutions can come together and create an avalanche – that’s what my personal breakthroughs felt like.
I realize I’ve talked a lot about learning to accept my sexuality, but I believe it to be a crucial and hopefully informative part of my experience with gender. Gender dysphoria was just one manifestation of my greater gender-related distress. I am gender non-conforming and that includes my sexuality, but what made me dysphoric was my environment.
It scares me to think what our current, hyper, online, trans-saturated, addictive-by-design, social media environment might have done to my already obsessive-compulsive, depressed, anxious, and impressionable young mind. The focus of my obsession could have quite easily become my gender and not sexuality. I feel like I lucked out by being 10-15 years older, pre-smartphone, and coming of age before the gay rights movement morphed into trans only.
Anne is a 37-year-old bisexual woman who suffered from gender dysphoria in her younger years. Genspect thanks her for writing this informative and revealing piece.
Photo credit: Peter Salanki, Wikimedia Commons