“Phase,” as a term, is often used dismissively, and assumes that an experience must be inauthentic in its temporariness. But, Anna Fitzpatrick asks, isn’t everything we do temporary?
I used to be straight, but now I’m queer. Or I was always queer, but just didn’t know it. Or I was straight, then gay, then straight again, then a little bit of both. Or I’m 100% bisexual, and always have been, even when the term didn’t feel accurate for me, even when I read all the academic theory and blog posts telling me there’s no “right” way to be bisexual; that it’s fine; that I can stop overthinking it. Or I was just going through a phase, and now I’m going through another one. Or everything I do is a phase.
I’ve always understood the value of identifying through labels. They can be useful — powerful, even — in forming community, defying the status quo, organizing resistance, and expressing pride in who you are. At different points in my life I’ve been loud about declaring myself a feminist, vegan, mixed-race, a member of various political groups and a believer in more causes. In high school, I was an active volunteer in my school’s Gay Straight Alliance (repping, at the time, the straight side), organizing fundraisers and attending rallies for marriage equality. I wasn’t shy about where I stood.
My exploration of my sexuality coincided with the rise in popularity of social media platforms. As a teenager, my friends and I took great care in finessing our Myspace pages, selecting the right profile song that best represented our indie proclivities, curating the “Top 8” friends that would appear to the public (kinda messed up in retrospect, no?). There was a space to fill in our stats, selecting from little dropdown menus the options that best represented our relationship status, political leanings, body type, and sexuality. Facebook, the platform that was used by our normie classmates and family members, would take this further, asking us to reify to our extended networks how we defined ourselves; any changes or updates would be announced via the newly introduced newsfeeds. By the time Tumblr and Instagram took over, announcing your identities became less of a baked-in feature and more of a norm.
When I started experimenting with women (“experimenting,” another term I have trouble aligning myself with, only because it brings to mind a lab coat and test tubes and colorful chemical reactions) it was casual enough: kissing friends at parties, joining heteroflexible couples in the bedroom. Then I started hooking up with women away from the presence of men. Then I started dating women, loving women, imagining building a life with women.
Through it all, I abstained from publicly committing to any identity. There was a time in life when I was so sure I was straight and would always be straight. I was careful not to lead anyone on, to be transparent with my partners that I wasn’t looking for commitment or monogamy. What if this was temporary? What if I was simply having fun, but it was really only a matter of time before my attraction to women dissipated? What if, in other words, this was all just a phase?
“Phase,” as a term, is often used dismissively, and assumes that an experience must be inauthentic in its temporariness. It’s been applied to teenagers going through depressive episodes and college students who have recently been exposed to radical politics. It’s applied to baby queers of all ages who are maybe beginning to explore their sexuality and gender identities to see what does (or doesn’t) fit. It’s linked with other terms like “poseur” or “performative,” and treats any deviation from the norm as a pit stop on the path to becoming a person’s true self.
Yet isn’t everything in life ultimately temporary? Does a straight person need to prove an attraction to the opposite sex from infancy to their dying breath? Does a feeling have to last forever to be valid, and are the impacts of a relationship any less tangible after it ends? I believe that everyone should have space to explore, without wondering what this means for your identity. I wouldn’t have known how much I loved women if I hadn’t been given the room to figure that out on my own terms.
The priority should, of course, be on approaching your partners, no matter how casual, with honesty and mutual respect. Other humans, especially queer humans, don’t exist solely to serve your personal growth. But being transparent about your desires and curiosities, especially in a space where you’re invited to do so, can give you the room to learn about different parts of yourself. Trying on different labels without stressing over committing to them in the long term can be a safe way to lead you to the truth of who you really are. It might not last forever, but then again, nothing ever really does.