When Words Fail: The Limitations of Labels

Evangeline and I aren’t really quite sure what to call ourselves.

Well, one thing is certain. We are girlfriends. In fact, she’s made a point of punctuating comfortable silences between us by simply stating, “You’re my girlfriend.” And I’ll pipe up, “I’m am your girlfriend.” It’s just this thing we do. We do a lot of things.

Another thing we do is tell each other that the other one is gay. I’m not sure why we do this, but I’d imagine it’s because we’re both still uncomfortable with the set of labels before us, and maybe by saying them often enough, one or more of them will become comfortable.

This is our first woman-to-woman relationship for either of us. Let me state. The first lasting woman-to-woman relationship. I’d had a few flings and one-night stands with women, but nothing that ever rose to the “you’re my girlfriend” stage. On the other hand, I’ve had a lot of relationships with men, including an 11-year marriage (granted, to a man who later decided he wanted to become a woman, but frankly, he was – is – a man to me). So for the bulk of my life, to anyone looking, I appeared to be quite straight.

Evangeline hasn’t had many relationships at all. She’s intensely private still, after four years of living together, but I gather she had two relationships before ours. Neither seemed to be happy, interesting or last very long. But nonetheless, both relationships were with men, and being with a woman isn’t something she considered until I came along.

So I suppose you could say we’re both bisexual. But are we?

True, I enjoyed sex with men in all its variety. In all their variety. Let’s not mince words: I was often promiscuous. I can try to parse the reason why if you want, and I probably will at some point, but for the most part, I was promiscuous because it was fun.

So I liked sex with men, no doubt. It was the relationships with men that I didn’t enjoy so much.

My marriage was a decade-long experiment in misery. Yes, we were together 11 years. In honesty, the marriage became an emotional drain after year two. We even separated at one point, until my stubbornness forced us back together. It was a mistake I paid for dearly.

Before that, the longest relationship I’d had was with my first boyfriend, which stretched on-and-off for two years plus a few subsequent hook-ups. Looking back, I know I was lucky to have had my first love be him, as I was his first love, and we both lost our virginity to each other after a long and deliberative decision making process that included listing out the pros and cons of taking that plunge. I loved him, but it was turbulent with lots of fits and starts, breakups and reunions.

And in between that first and last male relationships there were a cast of … dozens. The sex was often good. Sometimes not. But the actual emotional part was almost always dismal.

I now realize that while I found men’s bodies to be entertaining, to say the least, I don’t really mesh well with them on an emotional level, at least not in a romantic or committed relationship way. Don’t get me wrong – there are men in my life who I love. My father, my coworkers. My boss’ boss, who I admire more than anyone I’ve ever worked for. I’m so tender-hearted for my coworkers that I’ve even teared up when seeing them just living their lives after work hours. We’ve gone through a lot together.

But, in a Relationship-with-a-capital-R sense? I’ve come to realize I just don’t need men.

What does that make me? Lesbian? Bisexual?

Evangeline has her own set of perplexities. She claims I’m a one-of-a-kind, and that she can’t imagine being attracted to any other woman. But then, she was rarely attracted to men, either – at least not ones she knew in everyday life. I would guess that’s because she’s very cautious about who she lets into her world and is extremely sensitive to rejection. But while she certainly lets me know she finds me attractive, she says she’s not attracted to women in general.

What is she? Lesbian? Bisexual?

Labels fail us, and when none of them stick well, we often think that the fault lies with us. What a horrible thing to do to ourselves.

I used to volunteer at a crisis hotline, and I’ve fielded several calls from young people bewildered by their own sexuality. And some not so young. The question they keep going back to is “am I gay or am I straight”? And I know what they’re going through — I agonized over the same thing for two years from ages 12-14. But I rarely hear them mention the possibility of bisexuality, much less the option of rejecting labels all together.

When it comes down to it, I think labels are great as a kind of shorthand. You want to know who I am? Here’s a set of words that explains it. Done. In that sense, labels make great sense.

But when no label sticks, I’ve seen so many people decide the fault must be with them, not with a flimsy set of words that can only do so much to describe the breadth of the human experience.

Frankly, I don’t know what I am. I am a woman who loves another woman, who has enjoyed men’s bodies but can’t relate to them exceptionally well at all, who likes to look at either form. I can’t imagine ever being in a relationship with another man ever again. If Evangeline was taken from me, and I did eventually yearn for companionship, I imagine I would turn to a woman. But even that is hard to imagine. I love Evangeline. She loves me.

Perhaps that’s the only label we need.

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3 comments

  1. I agree. Words can be such a disaster, especially when you find out that gender is no longer just “boy” and “girl.” Combine that with sexuality… Don’t you love it? =)

  2. J

    Beautiful commentary on an issue that plagues more people than I think we realize. Labels can be benign and used in an offhand manner, but at worst are used as hurtful barbs. Language is only one way that we can express ourselves.

  3. The “funfem” crowd, which you probably dislike for other reasons, actually does have labels available if you want them.

    According to your description alone:
    – You are bisexual and homoromantic
    – Evangeline is demisexual

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