In an eighth-grade game of Truth or Dare, on a school camp in Australia in the mid-1990s, a girl in my friendship group admitted that she “might be bi.” She was never allowed to forget it. The words followed her around for years, deployed with the casual mockery of an Internet meme. The environment wasn’t one of outright disapproval, exactly, but it was clear that, when it came to sexuality, people were paying very close attention to what you said and did—perhaps a little more than you might want.
By the time I landed at the more progressive environment of university in the early ‘00s, the rules had changed shape a little—and with the exception of a few homophobic holdovers, “gay” was no longer considered bad. But heterosexuality was still the default, the thing you were until you had indisputable proof that you were something else. Aside from the few people who were forced to make a point of “coming out,” I was surrounded by straightness. My parents were straight. All of their friends were straight. And with the exception of a handful of Very Special TV Episodes, everyone I saw in the media was straight, too.
And so, in the absence of a burning desire to make out with the women in my life, I arrived at the seemingly obvious conclusion: I must be straight.
It wasn’t for nearly a decade, when I was already married to a man, that I considered I might be anything otherwise. Or that the giddy thrill I felt upon connecting with a new female friend wasn’t all that different from the giddy thrill of a new male crush—the difference was that my brain interpreted one as a potential platonic companion and the other as a potential love interest and sex partner. That, in a world free from the assumption of straightness, I may have interpreted my feelings differently: not one as romance and the other as friendship, but both with the potential to be either.
As a feminist, I’d never been much of a fan of Freud’s takes on gender. But as a sex writer and researcher, his belief that our human sex instinct wasn’t so much for reproduction as for pleasure resonated with me. If my attractions manifested as a desire to turn emotional excitement into a physical connection, why should that only apply to cisgender men? How could I definitively say I would never be attracted—or had never been attracted—to a woman? Or, now that we were considering it, to a trans or gender-nonconforming person?
It wasn’t a “coming out” in the traditional sense. I didn’t have to sit my parents down or risk my friends’ rejection, and it didn’t make me want to end my marriage. I didn’t feel like I’d spent my life to date hiding an essential defining truth about myself. It was simply an acknowledgement that who I was attracted to wasn’t as set in stone as I had thought it was.
When I shared what I’d been thinking about with my husband, he said he felt the same way. “I think most people do,” he said. It turns out he may be right.
We still live in a culture that talks about gender and sexuality in terms of rigid dichotomies. We are either men or women, straight or gay—determined by our genes, our hormones, the wiring of our brains, or the shape of our genitals when we’re born. The idea that same-sex attracted people are “born this way,” or that trans people have brains that are a different gender to their bodies, have been central to the mainstreaming of LGBTQ rights over the past couple of decades. How, the logic goes, can you discriminate against someone for a thing they have no control over?
But these tight, biological boundaries around sexuality have also served another, more conservative, purpose—to soothe and reassure straight people. If same-sex attraction is treated as if not a matter of moral deviance then at least a physical deviation, then what assumed norm does it deviate from but heterosexuality? If sexual difference is written in the genes, that means that if you’re not queer, you must be straight. And if you’re straight, that means you are (theoretically, at least) safe from the threat of homophobic violence, discrimination, or hoping that an acquaintance will treat you with the same ease after you tell them the gender of your partner.
Yet there are signs that these boundaries are beginning to blur. The last year has seen a succession of young celebrities come out to the media as assorted shades of queer. First it was Lily Rose Depp who revealed, via her participation in photographer iO Tillett Wright’s Self-Evident Truths project, that she identified as sexually fluid. Then it was Miley Cyrus, who told UK Elle she was pansexual. In January, actress Amandla Stenberg told her fans over a Snapchat video that she was bisexual. A few days later, Rowan Blanchard told a fan on Twitter that she would love it if her character on Girl Meets World was bisexual, because she too identified as “queer.”
While each of these declarations garnered their share of publicity, none had anything close to the cultural magnitude of Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out almost 20 years earlier. Nor were they loaded with the same fear of professional blowback.
But the most interesting thing about these revelations is the way they defied the usual dichotomy between straight and gay. Self-Evident Truths, for example, which has captured the faces of more than 10,000 Americans across the LGBTQ spectrum, doesn’t ask potential participants, “Are you gay?” Instead it asks, “Are you anything other than 100% straight?”
Perhaps the starkest indication of this brave new world came in March, when market research company J Walter Thompson Intelligence published the results from a survey which found, among other things, that only 48% of young Americans aged 13 to 20 (classified by JWT as “Gen Z”) identified as exclusively heterosexual, compared with 65% of people in my own age group, the “Millennials” aged 21 to 34.
It’s a statistic that seems staggering at first glance—the result, perhaps, of a very self-selecting sample. But when I reached out to JWT’s Shepherd Laughlin, who directed the study, he assured me that although they surveyed less than 1,000 people, their sample was nationally representative. “This wasn’t a group of likeminded people who found [the survey] on Tumblr,” he said.
The numbers make more sense when you look at them in close detail. Less than half of the teenagers surveyed by JWT identified as exclusively straight, but that doesn’t mean that the remaining 52% identify as gay, or even necessarily as bi or queer. In fact, the survey didn’t ask respondents to give themselves a label at all. Instead, they were asked to place themselves on a Kinsey-style scale from 0 to 6, where 0 stands for “completely heterosexual” and 6 for “completely homosexual,” with an additional option for people who identify as asexual.
The percentage of respondents who identified as exclusively same-sex attracted was the same in both groups (6%). It was in the center five points in the scale that Z-ers and Millennials diverged; a series of 1 to 3% gaps across each point that in the aggregate produced a 17% difference at one end.
The numbers also make more sense if you stop thinking of heterosexuality as a default rather than as a specific orientation: the state not simply of being attracted to the opposite sex, but attracted to the opposite sex to the exclusion of all others.
“You know how there are girls who will go out to bars and kiss each other? Well, my fraternity was like that,” says Ben, a tall, athletic 24-year-old from the Midwest who describes himself as “straight-ish.” “‘We’ll kiss each other, if you’ll flash us.’”
Ben didn’t engage in such explicit trades himself, but he did kiss his fair share of guys at parties. “It started out almost as a rebellious streak,” he explains. “There are these rules—guys kiss girls, girls kiss guys. If you’re a gay guy you can kiss guys, but that’s it. I just thought, ‘Screw that. If I want to kiss a guy I will.’ So I did.”
If Ben had to place his sexual orientation on a spectrum, he’d say he was “75% hetero, 25% homo”—a position he acknowledges makes him technically bisexual, although he tends not to use that word. “I can imagine being sexually intimate with a man,” he says. “The idea doesn’t turn me off, like ‘No, that’s definitely not for me.’ I can see how it could be fun. But I’ve never felt an unconscious pull to do it. I’ve never kissed a guy because I felt a flutter in my chest. Not in the same way I’ve kissed a woman.”
By the time he left college, Ben had kissed more men than he had women. But it’s only over the past couple of years that he has started to reconsider his previously taken-for-granted “straightness.”
Part of the catalyst for that, he tells me, has been moving abroad to Asia, which was “a big, redefine yourself moment for me.” Since leaving the U.S., “I have tried and done so many new things, challenged so many of my assumptions about myself, and that’s come right back around to [me questioning my] sexuality. If I can be so many other things I thought I wasn’t—if I can be outgoing, if I can stand up for myself instead of avoiding conflict—why is sexuality exempt from that?”
But it was also a sense of curiosity and not wanting be boxed in. As Ben puts it, “The only thing stopping me is I don’t feel a compulsion of it like I did with women. But I am a human being. I have the capacity to try things I don’t have a compulsion for.” He might also have the capacity to like them.
If the ambivalence towards same-sex attraction in the 1990s could be summed up by Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the emerging ethos of the mid-2010s may be best captured by 14-year-old Girl Meets World star Rowan Blanchard.
When Blanchard announced that she identified as queer, it wasn’t because she was specifically attracted to girls. It was because she couldn’t say she never would be attracted to a girl. As she explained it on Twitter: “in my life-only ever liked boys however i personally dont wanna label myself as straight gay or whatever so i am not gonna give myself labels to stick with – just existing.” (sic) Later, she clarified to a curious interlocutor that she was “open to liking any gender in the future.”
It’s not just the more hetero young folks who think like Blanchard. Morgan, a 17-year-old high school senior in the suburban northeast, started identifying as a lesbian when she was 14 and has been dating her girlfriend for seven months. But recently, the label has left her feeling boxed in.
“When I started to question my sexual orientation, I had three categories to choose from: straight, bisexual, and gay,” she tells me. “Lesbian was the one that fit me best, but over time, I realized there was no reason to put myself in a bubble. Even if I do feel a stronger attraction to one specific sex, it shouldn’t limit who I end up falling in love with.”
Morgan’s dissatisfaction with traditional sexual labels is shared by a lot of the kids she goes to school with. “I’m in the Sexuality and Gender Awareness club in my school, and I’ve seen that a lot of people there don’t really identify as gay,” she says. “We have a lot of kids who identify as pansexual, or who don’t put labels on themselves.”
Part of the reason they think about sexuality this way, she says, is because of the increased education on LGBTQ issues that is taking place online. “When you hear directly from people who identify as pansexual, you realize that there are alternatives [to the old categories].”
This theme of going online to find words to describe your desires was one that came up often amongst the youngest people I spoke with. Demi, a 16-year-old from the Netherlands, told me the thrill of recognition she felt when she first came across the word “heteroflexible”—“like, whoa, that is me,” she said. “I always felt like there wasn’t a word that described how I felt. But from the moment I identified as heteroflexible I felt happier, like I knew myself a little better.”
Niahda, a bubbly 18-year-old from Chicago who vacillates between heteroflexible and bi, turned to Google to investigate different types of sexual orientations, in search of the one that best described her. But, she stressed, “I don’t think that anyone from any social media network has made me believe I’m anything other than what I already knew about myself.” Describing the process she went through to label herself, she said: “It’s all about knowing how you feel, and researching that.”
But just because an infinite vocabulary of sexual orientations exists on Google doesn’t mean that the opportunity to identify with or embody them exists equally for everyone. I’ve spent much of the past year traveling to colleges across the United States, talking to students about what they’re thinking and hearing about sex. And for all the talk of the youngest generation’s progressive new world, many of the concerns we have feel surprisingly old-fashioned—even within the highly self-selecting space of people who attend extracurricular discussions about the sociology of sex. At one talk I gave, an hour outside of New York City, only one person in the room raised their hand to say she’d ever been in a same-sex relationship. At another talk, in a mid-sized Midwestern city, a young man spoke about having to hide his sexual orientation on social media for fear that people in the small town he’d grown up with would find out he was gay. To say nothing of the millions of young Americans who never make it to this kind of progressive environment at all.
The new sexual fluidity also has a gender gap, it seems. The JWT survey found no difference in the proportion of male and female Gen Zers who identified as exclusively straight. But it feels notable, for example, that for all the young female celebrities talking in the media about sexual fluidity, young male stars aren’t clamoring to do the same.
One Direction may have teased their fans with homoerotic subtext in their music videos (and been the subject of countless erotic fan fictions for it), but the closest Harry Styles has come to a Miley Cyrus-style declaration of pansexuality was jokingly telling bandmate Niall Horan not to “knock” sex with men “until you’ve tried it.” Justin Bieber, despite his recent experiments with glam-rock androgyny, rushed to reassure fans he was “not gay” after sharing a video of him kissing a male friend on the cheek. As they might have said back in the 1990s, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” And of the 20+ not-strictly-hetero people I interviewed for this piece, only three of them were cisgender men. Finding them was like searching for needles in a haystack.
“My male friends would either identify as heterosexual or gay. There is no in between for them,” Niahda observes. “I only have one male friend who is like, ‘I’m bisexual.’” That’s not necessarily because they are homophobic, she thinks, but it is related to homophobia. “You know how some people judge males who say they are bisexual? They see it as you just being gay. And nobody wants to be branded as something that you don’t believe you are.”
Last October, not long after Miley announced she was pansexual, I met Suzanna Walters, author of the book The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality and the director of the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program at Northeastern University.
I mentioned I had been reconsidering my own identification as heterosexual. That I wavered between describing myself as “straight-ish” (because as a cis femme woman in a heterosexual relationship, my lived experience was for all intents and purposes straight) and, in situations where I really wanted to get technical about it, “pansexual” (since I didn’t see gender as the determining factor in who I was attracted to).
Walters was skeptical. Being a woman who had flickers of attraction to other women, or a man who had kissed men, was not the same as having a fundamental desire for the same sex, she said. And being open to the possibility of being in a queer relationship was not the same thing as having the lived experience of being in a queer relationship.
“Of course increased fluidity and breaking down the binary categories is all to the good. Who would contest that?” Walters said months later. Nonetheless, focusing on hypothetical labels rather than visible, lived experience had the potential to “erase the realities of structural discrimination.”
Especially in the academic circles she moved in, she said, there was a phenomenon “where people who are allies define themselves as queer, even though they act in the world as a straight person”— and even though they benefit from heterosexual privilege. “If everyone was really as queer as they all say they were, we wouldn’t have heterosexual dominance, which we do.”
This reluctance to trespass onto territory that isn’t his is one of the reasons Ben isn’t fully comfortable calling himself bisexual. “There’s a lot of me that wonders, ‘If I don’t feel that spark of tingling inside of me, at what point does that become cultural tourism?’” Jen, a New Yorker in her thirties who has slept with both women and men, feels the same way. “I’m still mostly attracted to and dating men,” she says. “I have friends who are genuinely lesbian and they’re like, you shouldn’t try to claim any part of that identity, because you don’t do it in any sustained way.” Not to mention the sense of betrayal some people in queer communities feel when someone in the fold—be they heteroflexible or homoflexible—“goes straight.”
Surprisingly, the young queer people I spoke with were less concerned with the possibility of appropriation than the more straight-leaning ones. “I think it ultimately depends on the kind of people you’re looking at,” says Morgan. “There definitely are people who [use terms like heteroflexible] jokingly. But even then, it helps in the sense that people are comfortable enough to be in a public space like a party and hook up with someone of the same sex.” Elizabeth, a 21-year-old from Kentucky who married her girlfriend of three years in June, says she isn’t bothered by “the rise of people who are sexually flexible or who don’t find their sexuality conforms to certain labels. I don’t think it’s appropriation,” she says. “I think that people like me, who have only experienced sexual attraction to one gender, are kind of a rarity.”
In the wake of the Orlando attacks, Walters’s words have stuck with me. It may be true that sexuality is a spectrum, that many if not most of us have the capacity to be attracted to and fall in love with people of more than just the opposite sex. But it’s also true that the risks associated with being anything other than 100% straight are unevenly distributed.
There is a difference, in privilege and in lived experience, between recognizing your potential to form intimate relationships with people of any gender, and actually forming those relationships. Between thinking that you could hook up with someone of the same sex, and knowing that you would be miserable if you didn’t. Between seeing yourself as someone who doesn’t fully meet the expectations laid out for “men” or for “women” and living in a gender-nonconforming way.
The world’s bigots aren’t directing their hate at people like me, i.e. married straight folks who quietly note the sexual undertones of their same-sex friendships. Or at cisgender people like Ben who kiss their same-sex friends when they’re drunk. They’re directing it at people who live their lives and form their relationships in queer spaces. Who don’t “pass” as straight, and who maybe don’t care to.
That isn’t to say that the new queer—or queer-ish—majority is meaningless, or that these identities are surface-level accessories only. Gray areas matter when it comes to sexuality. They both signify a decrease in social stigma (it’s easier to acknowledge potentially transgressive parts of the self when doing so isn’t likely to result in violence or exclusion), and can be a source of destigmatization in their own right (we tend to be more charitable to people we can see ourselves in). They offer an expansion of possibilities of how we might be and love, allowing us to more truly be ourselves rather than adhering to artificial, culturally imposed limits.
These possibilities are gifts that have been bestowed by generations of LGBTQ activists upon people who in previous generations might never have considered living, loving or identifying as anything other than straight. The question that follows is one of allyship: What gift do you want to give in return?
Rachel Hills is the author of The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality.