The queer experience is a varied one, contrary to the few, stereotypical narratives told in media. Movies and stories about the non-straight experience are generally centered in their sexuality, and in their coming out. It’s rare to find queer characters that exist for anything else, aside from tokenism (because the funny, gay, male friend trope is tired, isn’t it?). Straight characters can tell any story they’d like. They can be an action hero, a princess, a struggling chef, a love interest, and whatever imaginable, but non-straight characters are confined to stories of sexuality; to stories of coming out only to be rejected, but to have their homophobic family and friends come around in the end. This limits the queer experience to one experience—that of sexuality, oppression, and coming out. While certainly important, those are far from being the only aspects of their lives. Non-straight people accomplish more than coming out. They go through more than dealing with homophobia. Ignoring that in Hollywood and storytelling in general creates this narrative that non-straight people need to come out in order to “count” and that if you aren’t straight, your only role in life is that—to not be straight. This puts so much pressure on queer people (especially teens), and keeps many in the closet. When one adds into the equation the fact that short of gay and (more recently) bi, other sexualities aren’t recognized or understood, it creates an especially bleak picture for people like me. If you aren’t straight, you exist solely as that identity in and of itself. If you aren’t straight, gay, or bi, you don’t exist. Where does that leave people like me—a pansexual woman?
This was my reality for almost my entire life. I felt unseen, and broken when it came to my sexuality. Until 2019, I had never heard of the term “pansexual.” So I spent my life thinking something was wrong with me when none of the three labels I knew matched how I experienced attraction, love, sex, and romance. I thought that clearly I was messed up, and that I needed to keep it to myself. For years, I only came out to sexual partners, and I hoped that someday I would fix myself. This was clearly internalized homophobia towards myself—something that only worsened for years inside a cult that taught horrible things about non-straight people. I’m still working through a lot of that, and am trying to not invalidate myself, but I’ve struggled with it since leaving the cult. Between this internal struggle to accept myself and the lack of education about my sexuality, I felt so ashamed of this part of me. I couldn’t communicate about it, and from a very young age I associated sex and romance with feelings of discomfort, something that many non-straight friends have echoed to me when we discuss our journeys. This is not only problematic in the sense that it makes it hard to find happiness in relationships and in our own relationship with ourselves, but it opens us up to the idea that abuse that we might experience is normal (or that any uncomfortable interaction is normal or okay). It’s exhausting to feel uncomfortable all of the time, and it’s beyond difficult to feel shame about something so out of one’s control.
My first crush ever was on a female movie character from Annie (the musical), and I remember being so uncomfortable about it. I was five or six years old, but I didn’t think it was okay. As I developed crushes on males, I tried to just focus on that and hoped that my other feelings would go away. They obviously never did, so as time went on, I felt more and more despair about it all. I felt as though my crushes on girls were just one-offs, and didn’t “count,” so I didn’t need to look into it as long as I kept it to myself and tried to stifle it. I focused on my heteronormative crushes, hoping that I could talk myself into being “normal” someday if I could just ignore all other feelings.
When I had a crush on this beautiful blond girl in my second-grade class, I told myself it didn’t count, since I also had a crush on two boys who were also in my class. I sat with her at lunch, played with her at recess, and got butterflies when she was near me, but I was not about to ever tell anyone about the last part. I just sat in discomfort and shame. It became my normal, so whenever I had crushes on girls after that, I just told myself that crushes were a bad thing and something “dirty” or wrong. I felt this way all through elementary school, and while other kids talked giddily about their crushes, I clamped up and felt mortified the entire time. It felt humiliating to even worry about someone asking me about my crushes, so despite being extroverted, I went through phases of being extremely shy at school or in situations where that came up often. When pressed, I would only give the names of boys I liked, and I was paranoid the entire time about it.
When I got to middle school, I learned what being bisexual was. I was aware pretty much my whole life what being gay was, but it didn’t feel like me since I also had feelings for boys. Bi felt closer to what I felt, but I didn’t identify completely with it. It felt way too simple, and the way they spoke about attraction made no sense to me. I didn’t experience attraction in that binary way. Someone’s gender didn’t alter the way I felt about them, and it also didn’t determine it in the first place. I was more attracted to someone’s “vibe” when I liked them, rather than their physical appearance or anything in that vein. I didn’t understand why no one else experienced attraction like that, and honestly learning about bisexuality made me feel even more alien since I thought that was the last label there was.
When I got to high school most of my crushes were on girls, but I also had crushes on non-binary classmates and boys. I got out of my shell a little bit, and felt slightly less uncomfortable when talking about crushes, but I always left out anyone who wasn’t a male. This was also around the time when the term “girl crush” became a thing, which felt liberating for me. When girls would casually say they had a “girl crush” on someone, I felt like I could talk about my actual crushes who were female as if they were simply “girl crushes.” I was worried people would realize they weren’t just “girl crushes” but were actual crushes, but it felt good to at least be able to vocalize something similar to what I was feeling. That may not seem like a big deal for straight people, but for me, it was huge. There wasn’t anything I could say to express even something close to my feelings if it was for someone non-binary, but it was a start. I thought maybe someday I’d come out, and while I was still mortified that I wasn’t straight, and still held shame about it, I had some hope for the future. I hoped someday I’d be more bold and honest, and that I wouldn’t hold this embarrassment and shame about my sexuality. I felt like I could envision a future for myself that didn’t involve all of this weight on something that was so normal for others who were straight.
We joined the Mormon church when I was 16. This cult teaches that not only is it not okay to be anything but straight, but that it’s a defect and something that distanced you from God. It was taught to me and drilled into my mind that only straight people were righteous and could be with their family forever. Being someone who has always been close to my family, it terrified me to think about being separated from them. This may sound like a ridiculous thing to believe and fear, but again—the Mormon church is a cult. Members are brainwashed, and if you think things sound crazy, you are taught that you’re the crazy one because everyone around you acts like it’s all normal. It was so hard to not only hold internalized homophobia for myself that was created by me and the lack of labels I could use, but to now hold this possible damnation on my shoulders. I prayed so hard to have my feelings and sexuality just disappear. At one point, I said I’d rather not have love or any sexuality or romance than carry this burden. It was terribly heavy for a 16-year-old to carry.
As time in the cult carried on, more information was given to me about sexuality in the church. It turned out that people could be gay, but only if they tried to pray it away, married someone of the opposite sex, and pretended to be straight. If they ever acted on their true sexuality, they would be eternally punished and be cut off from God. If they could act it away, then they’d still not be as righteous but they could stay in the church and therefore keep their family ties in the eternities. I had a little hope that I’d someday just fall for someone of the opposite sex, but it was so hard to know that I would never have the chance to figure out who I was or explore any other feelings I had for people who weren’t men. On top of that, in the bishop interviews that happened often, my bishop would ask about sex. I was a teen, and a middle-aged man would ask me if I touched myself, if I ever had sexual feelings, if I ever fantasized, if I ever had sex or made out with someone, or if I was straight. I lied through my teeth in these interviews. I just wanted them to be over. I felt so violated, but everyone was doing it and we were taught to trust our priesthood leaders (which included our bishop). I always felt nauseous during the interviews, and I thought it was because I was lying about these sensitive topics that I didn’t want to discuss. I was taught that shame is always warranted, and if you’re feeling it, that’s because you don’t have the spirit of God with you. I’d cry myself to sleep when the interviews would be especially invasive (because some bishops chose to go into greater detail about what they were asking, describing masturbation among other things rather than just asking the invasive question). I was so brainwashed that I didn’t see how messed up the system was, and just thought that I was going to be punished someday by God for not being straight, and for lying about it. It was like the guilt I carried in childhood had multiplied with the shame the cult was putting on my shoulders.
I did my best to compensate for my shame by doing a lot of volunteer work, reading my scriptures more than anyone around me, and being as faithful as possible. It never took away the guilt, but it made it more bearable. Things always got worse when I developed crushes on girls at school (there wasn’t anyone I knew of who was non-binary at my Utah high school). I would pray for those crushes to go away, but it was always harder when I spent time with them as friends. I had never felt so little confidence in my life. I had good times through this all, and I have plenty of good memories, but these things and trials just kept me from ever feeling truly myself, truly relaxed, or truly safe. I was just perpetually, even in good times, feeling a little filthy; a little ashamed; a little guarded. It was uncomfortable at best, and emotionally crippling at worst.
I ended up leaving the cult when I was on a mission for them in Brazil. I came home and had to decide what to do with my life. All of my plans were out the window, and I had to rebuild my reality. I didn’t know what was real and what was made up. I lost all faith in my ability to see truth from lie, and to make decisions. Something that I saw as infallible and truer than anything, something that my entire circle was a part of, turned out to be based on lies. It turned out that the oppression and hurt being done by the cult couldn’t be excused by the fact that it was true. It wasn’t. It was fraudulent, and that fact was being covered up by those men in charge—men that had been my heroes. It was the hardest truth in the world, to find out that my reality wasn’t at all true. I felt like I was in the Truman Show, and that I had just realized that the sky on the horizon was actually a big blue, cement wall, and that the truths I held to be most precious were just myths. I lost all faith in people and myself for a while, and life after the cult was really hard for a while. I had to unlearn everything I had been indoctrinated into learning, including the shame I felt about my sexuality. I couldn’t shake that shame, but I slowly unraveled the other things by educating myself and trying to understand the real world as much as possible.
My first sexual experience was with a girl. It was amazing, but afterwards I just felt guilt. Part of that was that I had just spent years inside a cult that taught that any sex before marriage was wrong, but a bigger part was that I had spent my life (but especially the last few years) thinking that sex was only valid between a certain population of people. I couldn’t handle the guilt that came with it, so I ended up seeing mainly men for a year or two. I decided that I would come out to them so that they knew who I had been with. I felt like I had already gotten over the first hurdle by having been with a woman, and I wanted to keep moving forward toward self-acceptance (even if I never came out publicly). It was a hard decision to make, but I was starting to feel terrified that I would just never be able to be myself, and this would be a small step. I didn’t have a word to give them to describe my sexuality, so it was extremely intimidating. Not only did I have to say I wasn’t straight, but I had to go into details and try to vocalize how I felt for the first time.
I didn’t give a label, since there wasn’t one, but I was honest about how I experienced attraction. Not one of the men I was with took it and just moved on. They all turned it into something that served them. The first thing most of them said was, “So you’d be down for a threesome then!” It was so invalidating, and made me want to never talk about it again, so I didn’t. It felt like they saw me, a woman, being with another woman, as something that was there for their pleasure. I wasn’t telling them this for their sake. I wasn’t telling them this to make myself more desirable, as it was insinuated. I was telling them this because I was trying to be honest. I was trying to be myself with someone I was being vulnerable with, and I was trying to be transparent about my sexual history. I hated feeling like my sexuality only existed for their enjoyment. It made me feel smaller than when I had never told anyone at all. I kept crushing on women and non-binary people, and occasionally going out with them when I was feeling brave. I didn’t like being in relationships at all, because I associated them with having to be too vulnerable, being minimized, and trapped. I had some really bad experiences with abusive partners, and on top of being someone who values independence above pretty much everything else, none of my relationships ever lasted longer than six months. I always ended them before that.
I met Nick in March of 2018. I fell in love with him almost immediately, and long story short, we ended up together. He was the kindest person, and the best man I had ever met. He was empathetic, open-minded, adventurous, and among other things, someone who treated me with so much respect. He made me feel mighty and larger than life. A few months or so into the relationship, I came out to him. We were sitting on a hill at night, watching fireflies, and I told him about my sexuality. I told him how I experienced attraction a little differently, and I told him about my history with relationships and romance in general. He just listened. He sat there thoughtfully and thanked me for telling him. He talked to me like a human being, and made me feel safe to talk about it often with him. I told him I didn’t know what my sexuality was, but that none I had heard of fit how I felt. He didn’t minimize me for it, and instead validated me with a listening ear and best of all, by believing me. We moved in together, and decided to spend our lives together. I figured I’d never come out publicly, because what was the point? I was in a straight-passing relationship, and through a lot of work on myself, I felt more self-love than ever. I still had hints of guilt about sexuality, and the way I experienced it, but it was manageable. I knew it didn’t make me a bad person, or a broken person, despite not knowing what it was. When I went back to school, I didn’t come out though because I didn’t have a word for it, and so there was no way to casually mention it when sexuality came up (which came up a lot since I have a concentration in Gender and Women’s Studies). It was a little stifling, but I was okay with it since it was so much better than it was in the past.
In the autumn of 2019, I heard the word “pansexual” in one of my classes about sexuality. It wasn’t talked about, but the term was mentioned while discussing another topic. Something about the word felt close to me, and it sounded homey to me, if that makes sense at all. I wrote it down, and when I got home, I took a deep breath and googled it. I read up about it for over an hour, and was shocked with how much I identified with it. These definitions perfectly articulated how I experienced sexuality and attraction. For the first time in my life, I had a word for this part of myself, and it was one of the most clarifying moments of my life. The idea that I was broken was completely gone, and I realized that I wasn’t alone. I now knew that so many other people felt the way I did, and had gone through similar experiences in dating, sex, crushes, and life in general. It was the most comforting thing in the world, and I was so excited to be able to understand myself a little better since I now had the tools to talk about it with more ease and less baggage. As soon as Nick got home from work, I sat him down on the couch, and told him I was pan. I had rarely been more nervous, because this would be the first time I would vocalize my own sexuality. He listened, smiled softly, and said, “I know.” It didn’t matter to him what label I put on it—he understood who I was and respected it. He was so glad it gave me clarity, but it didn’t change how he saw me. That made me feel so safe, and again—validated. I felt like I was over the moon. People who have had a label for themselves their entire lives may not understand what a big deal that is, but it’s huge. Being able to name your sexuality enables conversations, and lessens the chance of being in the closet. Coming out is already hard, but having to also explain what it means is even harder. It’s a huge deal to just be able to name a term, and it’s why every letter in the LGBTQIA2+ acronym is so important. It’s not “LGBTLMNOP” and it’s not “LGBT-WHATEVER”. It is empowering, and brings visibility to sexualities that otherwise don’t get the time of day. It helps avoid the possibility that a kid like me would grow up thinking something was wrong with them, and assume they aren’t valid. My “P” is not in the acronym, but I hope someday it will be, so no one has to resort to googling random terms in an internet browser to figure out who they are. These topics need to be as easy as possible to talk about, so that everyone can feel safe in their own sexuality.
That fall I went to my school’s Coming Out Day event. It was low-key, but there was a table with rainbow cupcakes, a giant sign showing support for the students who weren’t straight that people could sign, and a big rainbow arch where people could take photos. I felt so proud of myself for being there, and I decided to ask for a picture. They had signs that had “Happy Coming Out Day” on them, with the flags of each sexuality on them. I picked up the pan flag one, and nervously got a photo. I planned on posting it, to help myself be able to feel more comfortable in my own skin, but I didn’t end up doing it. I was too nervous, but I was proud of myself for going to a public event that celebrated equality. With the knowledge of the term in mind, I came out at school. When sexuality came up in my classes, I casually mentioned that I was pan when it was relevant. When classmates asked, I answered honestly. I didn’t have a big event or a coming-out moment. Coming out for me was a bunch of little, casual comments about me being pan. For the people around me, it wasn’t a big deal, and they had no idea that I had just come out. For me though, it was huge. I was being able to casually vocalize it, and it made it feel more casual in my mind. I felt more myself than ever, and the leftover guilt I harbored began to fade. I had some bad interactions for sure with ignorant people, but thanks to the empowerment of having a name for what I felt, and the fact that I was already out with others, I was able to handle it without it changing my opinion of myself. I came out to my little sister when a relevant conversation came up on the phone, and she was so kind about it. I didn’t feel nauseous, and it was a big sign to me that I had almost come into my own when it came to this. I didn’t think I’d ever come out to the rest of my family or friends, since that would never come up since I was in a straight-passing relationship, but I was still proud of myself for talking about it when it was relevant.
This past year I decided against that. Even though it wasn’t “relevant,” I still felt the need to tell my family. As mentioned, I am very close to them, and it felt weird to have them not know. I didn’t want it to somehow come up someday, and have them feel hurt or that I was hiding it from them. I argued with myself about it many times, but I decided that even if it was a weird conversation to have, I needed to have it. I wanted them to know me, and I wanted to feel more at home in my sexuality by having it not be some unspoken thing in some of my circles. I called each of my family members to tell them personally, and it was a good experience. I was so nervous, but it felt casual. They all understood, and no one was surprised. They all were so kind, and it made me feel so normal. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could be open about this thing I had carried alone for so long.
I’m not hiding it any longer. I have never come out on social media, and maybe some day I will if I feel driven to, but the important thing is that I’m not afraid to do so anymore. It doesn’t feel like something to be afraid of. I still harbor a little shame about it, and invalidate myself on bad days, but I don’t think that will ever completely go away. I can’t imagine a life where I don’t feel at least a little guilt somedays about it (or about sexuality in general). The cult took that away from me. But I feel more empowered, and that’s a really good start. People still ask me what “pansexual” means (and some are mean about it), but I have the strength now to be able to explain it without feeling completely drained. I hope someday my sexuality isn’t so misunderstood, and that it will be included in mainstream conversations the way being gay or bisexual is. I hope that someday it will be common knowledge, and that I won’t always have to determine whether I can come out based on whether or not I have the emotional energy to explain what my non-straight sexuality even is to someone who doesn’t know. I look forward to the day when there isn’t only one pansexual character on TV (Dan Levy’s character in Schitt’s Creek, who famously says when using wine as an analogy for this sexuality, “I like the wine, and not the label.”) for people to look to, or for pan people to see themselves in. I can’t wait for when my sexuality won’t be something so controversial, unknown, and debated (because straight people have debated me, a pan person, about what pansexual means—the mansplaining is real). It can be exhausting and marginalizing to be queer, and even more so to be under such an invisible queer label. It can be invalidating. It can be lonely, but things are getting better. They have never been better, and while I had a pretty negative relationship with that part of myself for most of my life, I can honestly say that I accept who I am now. It’s been a long, hard journey to this point, but I’m here and I’m going to keep going. I’m not going to be invisible anymore.
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Photo: Emily Iris Degn