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Student Series: Letting Go of Labels    

Student Series: Letting Go of Labels

Art by FISK

By Saskia Klinkenberg

I identify as bisexual but even as I sit here writing this I feel like an imposter, like at any moment I could be hit with the sinking realisation that I’ve been faking it all along – I’ll slip back into being who I actually am and look back at the person I’m pretending to be right now with a feeling of embarrassment. But I can’t do that because I’m not faking it, as much as my brain tries to tell me I am. That’s the trouble with labels, you take all of your experiences and try to sum them up with a single word. Sure, that word can be affirming, a quick way to explain a part of who you are to a stranger, but it can also feel like something you owe to other people or have to prove, rather than just letting it be a part of who you are.

I’m 22 now and since I was 18 this imposter feeling has taken up an annoyingly large part of my everyday thoughts. I guess my thoughts are just making up for lost time, as my sexuality was something that I ignored for a long time. It was not easy for me to work out. It seems a lot less confusing to know you’re one or the other, that you’re straight or you’re gay,  but with bisexuality I’ve found myself in this weird in-between space. I don’t fully belong in the straight or the gay community and yet I’m a part of both at once. I’m constantly checking to make sure I haven’t accidentally drifted too far in one direction: “What if I’m actually straight and I’m doing this for attention?” or “Maybe I’m gay and in denial so I pretend to like guys as well?” Although bisexuality is my truth, I feel like an imposter in the straight world and an imposter in the queer one.

Before going to university, how I identified wasn’t something I thought about much at all. I’m incredibly lucky to have grown up with very supportive parents in a safe and healthy environment. I was a happy and independent kid and my parents always supported me in anything I wanted to do. They wanted my sister and I to be happy and they stressed the importance of that over everything else. Of course they wanted us to do well and succeed but only if it was something that we wanted for ourselves, not because other people had that expectation for us. 

My parents never married, they just didn’t want to, and every time I asked why they would give me a different answer. “I don’t want to kiss in front of a whole lot of people, yuck,” my Dad would say, looking concerned, followed by, “Did you know the average Kiwi couple spends $20,000 on their wedding!?” “We just never got around to it,” my mum would say, adding to the list of things they never got around to that includes renovating the house they’ve now lived in for 31 years, selling the house to move into a bigger house once my sister and I started high school, and selling the house to move into a smaller house once my sister and I finished high school and left the house. Apparently they are engaged but neither can remember who proposed or when it happened.

But one of the reasons that stuck with me most was that they felt it was unfair to get married before gay marriage was legalized (it finally happened in New Zealand in 2013). Because of that, I always knew that however “adult me” turned out my parents would have my back. 

Still, whenever any thought popped up throughout my childhood and adolescence that may have hinted at my non-straightness (like my slightly obsessive interest in Shego from Kim Possible or Eris from Sinbad) it was easily pushed back down and forgotten about, something I could wait to deal with when I was actually interested in relationships. As a teenager, amidst a healthy amount of teenage angst and more frequent occurrences of non-straight thoughts, I knew I liked boys (validated by my crushes on Logan Lerman, Eddie Redmayne, Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Sam Claflin, Dylan O’Brien, and so on) so I tried to focus on that and not be too worried about my other five crushes (Jessica Brown Findlay, Anna Popplewell, Keira Knightley, Emma Stone, and Kristen Stewart). I told myself that the people in the second list weren’t proper crushes because, well, didn’t everyone think girls were hot? Plus, I had bigger things to think about like training for rowing Nationals and trying to find parties to sneak into and get drunk off three Smirnoff Ices at.

When I went to university, though, I found myself saying things like “I hope there’s someone cute at this party” and “I wonder what my future partner will be like,” suddenly saying someone and partner deliberately, instead of boys and boyfriend and husband. In my first year hall I was surrounded by different people, unlike at my all-girls high school. Boys were just there, being regular people (who knew?) and I got to meet people who were bi and non-binary people and not-straight-but-I-don’t-label-myself people. 

Although I took a more-than-your-average-straight-person amount of “Am I Gay” quizzes online, I had not yet come to terms with my sexuality. There were new friends, parties, studying and training to think about and whenever I thought about the fact that I might not be straight I felt incredibly anxious, and so I continued to ignore it. Second year, however, really threw a spanner in the works (“messed things up” for my non-Kiwis out there) when it came to facing those late-night quiz answers straight-on (pun intended). 

My second year flat happened to be right next door to a complex that housed about 40 international exchange students and the experience of my proper bi awakening (university accommodations always manage to squeeze more into a building than you’d expect). We were good friends first – she was interesting, funny and charismatic. When she offered to let us use the washing machine after ours broke two weeks into the school year, we started to see each other pretty often. I sat on her couch while I waited for the machine to beep, pretending that I needed to separate my laundry into whites and colors and delicates just to give me an excuse to stay longer. 

Seven months later, we had our first kiss during a 50-person scavenger hunt in which we had to tick off the most dares on the list. “Kiss all your teammates” was near the top of the list so I suggested something else, willing to jump to the bottom of the list (which was supposed to be worse) and skinny-dip in the on-campus river or drink something prepared from the first 10 ingredients in the fridge in order to continue to repress my sexuality and stay on the “straight” side of my identity. She had noticed me avoid that top dare and later, when we were walking home from the game, she dared me again. This time I did it. 

That experience finally brought to the surface all those repressed thoughts and feelings I’d always had and now, at 22, I no longer ignore them. Instead, I’m constantly working towards feeling more comfortable with myself instead of feeling like an imposter. I identify as bi and it’s been a long journey to get to that place but it’s also not a label that I feel the need to always use. I don’t feel the need to come out and label myself to everyone I meet, I allow my actions and what I say to do that for me (like bringing up my girlfriend in conversation without needing to tell people how I identify beforehand). I’m comfortable with myself and know who I am, and don’t want to have to clarify my “label” for outside validation or understanding. Just like my parents didn’t feel the need to validate their relationship to other people by getting married, for me it’s more about having the long-term ability to be myself than it is about using a short, socially-accepted label.

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