If I’m Not Gay Enough, & I’m Not Straight Enough, Then What Am I?

Lauren Patten

Lauren Patten (she/her) originated the role of Jo in the new Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill both on Broadway (Drama Desk and OCC Awards) and in the American Repertory Theater’s world premiere. Other theatre credits include: the Broadway production of Fun Home, The Wolves (Obie and Drama Desk winner), and Steven Levenson’s Days of Rage (Second Stage). Film and television credits include: Blue Bloods, The Good Fight, Succession, and The Big Sick. Learn more on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @pattenlauren.

For several months in 2016, I kissed a woman eight times a week. I lunged at her, devouring her with my mouth as we fell onto my bed. Then I stripped off my jeans, revealing large tighty-whities, and sang about my sexual awakening. This was my Broadway debut, playing Medium Alison in the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home.

I did not identify as queer yet, but I felt a deep kinship to the lesbian culture I discovered through the show. In spending time with the lesbian actors, creators, and producers, I found affirmation for my tomboy youth and my exploration of masculine presentation. Shortly after I took on the role of Medium Alison, I started to write about this confusing affinity. As someone who struggles to write without a deadline, I unsurprisingly stopped after a few paragraphs, but I kept the draft on my computer. I recently decided to open it — like unscrewing the cap to a mini time capsule. Here’s what I wrote:

[My] desire for queerness has intensified over the last year or so; I’m sure a lot of that has to do with a job that has immersed me in the lesbian community. But it certainly isn’t a new development. I’ve been speaking a pitch or two lower than my natural speaking voice since at least 18. I have scars on the knuckles of my right hand from a skateboarding incident with the twin boys who lived down the block when I was a kid. I can yell at the game on TV at the same decibel as my dad any day. I’ve never really been…femme.

Some of my lesbian friends have joked that I really am a dyke, I just don’t know it yet. I feel the opposite: I totally know I’m a dyke, I just haven’t become one yet.

It’s easy for me now, as an out queer woman, to chuckle at my blindness. My “desire for queerness” was just the buried recognition of my very real queerness, unvalidated by any sexual experience with a woman. Queer identity is so often affirmed and understood, both internally and externally, through sexual experience. Whether you are longing to touch the girl who sits next to you in English class, or sleeping with a woman for the first time in college, sexual thought and action is usually the lens through which we view our queerness and the queerness of others. So, even though I deeply identified with a gender presentation and a culture that was not heteronormative, I had only ever considered dating men — therefore, I told myself, I couldn’t possibly be queer.

May, 2017. My first (offstage) kiss with a woman was at Rockwood Music Hall in the Lower East Side. I had a drink in one hand and her waist in the other. It was our third date, but she had seen photos of my male ex on Instagram and wasn’t sure they were dates until I finally kissed her.

In the short time that we dated, she was gentle and kind. She was patient with my baby steps into this unknown territory. But even though it was new, being with a woman felt as natural and easy to me as all the positive romantic experiences I had with men. The relationship didn’t last long, but through it I gained a lasting understanding of myself: the knowledge that I am a bisexual queer woman. The bisexual+ identity — being attracted to people who identify as my gender and other genders — allowed expression for all of my experiences: the same-gender relationships, the different-gender relationships, and my fluidity among masculine and feminine cultures and presentations. It felt like I had put on glasses with a new prescription. My surroundings didn’t change, but my vision sharpened. I felt empowered.

I called two of my friends the morning after my first kiss with this woman, excited to tell them what had happened. Both of my friends — one a polyamorous lesbian, the other a genderqueer trans activist — expressed joy and support for the experience they thought I was having: a sexual awakening akin to Medium Alison’s realization that she was a lesbian. I know that my friends never intended to pressure me into a certain label; they were simply relating to my experience in the ways they knew how. Still, I felt a pressure — subtle externally, magnified internally — to pick a side.

When I ended things with this woman, it was messy. It was July, hot. I was feeling unhealthy in the relationship and needed to take space. My explanation for ending it didn’t satisfy her, so she turned to her own explanation. I had never been with a woman before, she said, and that was why I felt so much discomfort and anxiety,  why I was now running away. She didn’t say it outright, but the underlying implication was clear: either I was afraid of being gay, or I wasn’t really gay in the first place. I let the comment slide.

After the breakup, I was excited to put myself out there as a single queer woman. I felt a thrill every time I saw a woman I was attracted to on the street, a tingly feeling at my new ability to recognize that attraction and call it by its name. I switched over my settings on OKCupid to match me with women. I even considered trolling a lesbian bar, a big deal for anyone who knows me and my devotion to being home in my pajamas by 10 p.m. And then, I met Max. I fell in love; it was the beginning of a years-long journey with him.

I remember thinking of my ex the first time I posted a photo of Max on social media. Would she feel vindicated? Would I look like just another straight girl who messed around with a woman as a “phase,” or to “get something out of her system?” As time went on, I became afraid not only of what my ex thought, but what anyone who knew me, or knew of me, thought.

My queerness has always existed in the public sphere of my work. I was read as a lesbian by audience members, casting directors, and colleagues long before I understood my bisexual identity; it wasn’t unexpected, after playing lesbians in both Fun Home and The Wolves. Then, mere weeks after realizing my bisexuality, I was cast in the first reading of Jagged Little Pill to play the masc-presenting and very queer Jo. It has been a true blessing to navigate Jo’s journey as a queer person while my own journey unfolded alongside. But it has also illuminated the tension I feel navigating the public and private spheres of my life. In public, a lot of my work has explored queer relationships and identity; the women I have played on Broadway both actively eschewed femme gender presentation, and wanted nothing to do with dudes. But after work, I returned home to my boyfriend, to a different-gender relationship that could “pass” in straight spaces. And while my queerness did not disappear when I left the theatre, and though my boyfriend has been extremely supportive and loves me not despite my queerness but because of it, I cannot deny the difference of these worlds. Moving between these spheres, it is rare that I feel seen as my entire self.

These tensions have magnified as my public presence has grown. My work connects me with so many incredible audience members and fans who identify and see themselves represented in the stories I help tell on stage, and this connection has inspired me to use my platform to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in any way I can. I would not change this for anything. But engaging in this public work while owning a bisexual+ identity — an identity that cannot be assumed or confirmed by examining a person’s gender presentation or the gender of their current partner —  is vulnerable. My queerness is looked at by some as fake or performative because of my relationship with a cis man; to others, my relationship with a cis man is confusing and threatening because I am not attracted solely to cis men and I often do not present within their expectations of a cis woman. The validity of my identity is therefore questioned in both spaces.

If I’m not gay enough, and I’m not straight enough, then what am I?

The problem with bisexual+ erasure, and why it is so imperative that we directly acknowledge it, is that demeaning bisexuality ultimately serves to confirm and uphold patriarchy. Female bisexuality is both encouraged and trivialized by patriarchal culture. It’s exciting and sexually gratifying for straight cis men to imagine women sleeping with other women, but only with the assurance that they will be involved somehow — through the telling of raunchy stories from college dorms past, or through threesomes and other group sex acts. It is also safe for straight cis men to encourage female bisexuality, because it assures them that while a potential female partner may be attracted to other women, male sexual gratification can still take precedence. Meanwhile, male bisexuality is militantly erased. A bisexual+ man is seen, by both men and women who uphold patriarchal culture, as “secretly gay.” There is no room for nuance, because once a man transgresses the rules of patriarchal heteronormativity, he is never again allowed to claim his validity within a different-gender relationship.

Bisexual+ erasure is, of course, perpetuated by cis straight people; as someone who has directly experienced it, that goes without saying. But I have also experienced erasure in the queer community, and I’ve had to take an honest look at my own internalized biphobia since coming out. I have rolled my eyes and gossiped about bisexual+ men, thinking that they should just accept they are gay and move on. I have listened and stayed silent when lesbians talk about bisexual+ women as opportunists, dismissing them as straight women leading them on. Bisexual+ erasure does not disappear when we step into queer spaces. It is socialized in both straight and queer communities, and has manifested itself in harms like workplace discrimination, partner abuse, and in the high rate of anxiety and mood disorders among bisexual+ folks.

The word “queer” is one of the only identifiers in our community that is not explicitly defined; it represents a multitude of different identities. The most beautiful thing about queerness to me is the singularity of each person’s experience. We exist on a spectrum, and anyone who identifies within that spectrum shouldn’t feel like the need to qualify their experience or prove that they are enough. I wish I could have told myself this four years ago, when I was trying to find the words to express my feelings of identification during Fun Home. If our community leans into the expansiveness of the queer spectrum, we will empower others to own their queerness — even if it’s just a feeling inside them, something they’ve never had the opportunity or desire to act on. Just as our genders are not defined by our bodies, our sexuality is not defined by our partners. Being with a man does not negate my attraction to other genders; it is just one form of romantic and sexual expression for me as a bisexual.

A lesbian is not a more valid queer person than a bisexual+ woman. A cis gay man is not a more valid queer person than a trans man. No one is more valid than anyone else. You don’t have to wait until you feel like you have sufficient proof to identify as LGBTQ+. I want to empower others to own their queer identities on these terms.

It would have been extremely easy for me to continue presenting as a straight woman. I could have dismissed my relationship with a woman as a blip on my radar, and looked to my relationship with a cis man as confirmation of my real sexuality. I could have enjoyed all the privileges straight identity provides in our society, and spared myself the discrimination and the general lack of understanding I now encounter as an out bisexual queer woman. But any privileges passing as straight would have given me would not make up for the fundamental disservice I would have done to myself by staying silent. As queer people, we deserve to been seen in our totality.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

Calvin Klein Is Celebrating Pride All Year Round

20 Movies To Stream For Pride Month & Every Month

Pride, Inside

More From

  • Found: The Most Comfortable (& Stylish) Sandals To Hoof Around In

    Despite the fact that we’re traveling much less this summer, it's still managed to feel like we’re walking more than ever. And, all of this bipedalism means that we are in dire need of some serious workhorse sandals to follow suit. No more strapping on those questionably supportive gladiators or flimsy flip-flops and Ubering our ways around town. Now that we're using our own two feet to hoof it to a host of local destinations, our footwear will need to support us (literally) every step of the way. We learned long ago that just because a shoe falls under the umbrella of “comfort” doesn’t mean it can’t be fashionable, too. With utility and style overlapping now more than ever, there are a plethora of choices this season that will enhance your walkabout without subtracting a single style point. Whether it's an unexpectedly cool cork slide, a recycled-rubber sandal adorned with dancing bears, or a leopard-print clog cousin, we’ve got you covered with summer-ready sandals that are both chic and sublimely comfy ahead. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. All product details reflect the price and availability at the time of publication. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Comfort Footwear Shoes That Are Actually CuteAll The Sales On Summer Sandals Happening NowBye Birkenstocks: Meet The New "Ugly" Sandal

  • Demi Lovato Just Revealed The Name Of Her New Song — With A Manicure

    Just a few short weeks after Demi Lovato announced her engagement to Max Ehrich, the star has more big news: She’s about to drop new music. According to Lovato’s most recent Instagram Story, the “Anyone” singer is working on a brand-new song — the title of which she announced via manicure, showing off a squared deep French shape studded with multi-colored butterfly nail art.“Guys, I’m writing a new song called butterfly rn,” Lovato captioned a closeup shot of her butterfly nail art shared to her Instagram Story. Following the low-key announcement, fans were quick to track down more details, only to discover that this isn’t the first time Lovato has used the winged insects to inspire song lyrics.“The first song @ddlovato wrote as a child was about butterflies,” one fan account posted. Lovato herself cosigned the report, reposting the fan account and adding, “And today I’m writing a new one about just one.” If you can’t recall a past Demi Lovato single about butterflies, that’s because it was written when the singer was just seven years old, and was never actually produced. In a 2013 TV interview on Katie Couric, Lovato revealed that the first song she ever wrote as a child was about a crush and that quintessential butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling — she even sang a few cords for the audience.As of now, all we know about the new track is that its subject is a single butterfly — and that Lovato is wearing symbolic nail art to match. We’re keeping a lookout for more breadcrumb clues ahead of the release. Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?The Mismatched Manicure Trend Just Got An UpgradeMeghan Markle's Bridal Mani-Pedi Broke TraditionCharli & Dixie D'Amelio Launch Nail Polish Collab

  • Vanessa Guillén Was One Of Many Soldiers To Be Brutalized & Killed At Fort Hood

    Vanessa Guillén, a Fort Hood soldier who originally went missing in April and whose body was finally found in July, still hasn’t gotten justice. Despite detailed reports, including a confession from her alleged killer, Spc. Aaron Robinson, Guillén’s family has lost faith in the system that was supposed to protest their daughter. “From the start, we lost trust with them (the Army) from the very beginning,” said Mayra Guillén, Vanessa’s mother. “The story they gave us is completely… I don’t even know what the right word for it is, but no one believes that story.” But as it turns out, Vanessa Guillén was only the latest fatality to come out of Fort Hood. Fort Hood has one of the highest rates of murder, sexual assault and harassment in the Army, according to Secretary Ryan McCarthy, who visited the base this week and said that the army base is known for having a violent past. United States Army post in Killeen, Texas has a troubling history of shooting rampages between 2009-2014. But as early as this past year, violence has continued across the base, with at least 7 soldiers who were stationed at Fort Hood having been found dead since March of 2020 alone. This includes Robinson, who took his own life after confessing to killing Guillén. Even in this past week, Francisco Gilberto Hernandezvargas, a 24-year-old soldier based at Fort Hood, was found after drowning near the Texas base. An investigation is still being conducted.In March, 20-year-old Shelby Tyler Jones’ died after suffering a gunshot wound in south Killeen near Fort Hood. Brandon Scott Rosecrans, a 27-year-old who joined the Army in 2018, was also found with a gunshot wound near Fort Hood in May, his car found burned nearby. Then, in June, another soldier, Gregory Scott Morales, was found dead in a field in Killeen, Texas, nearly 10 months after vanishing. Fort Hood released a statement that foul play is suspected. Morales was only 24 years old. Of the eight deaths this year, five so far have been publicly linked to foul play, according to the Army Times. When McCarthy visited this week, he said it’s clear that the Army should be taking better care of its soldiers. “We are getting an outside look to help us to get to those root causes and understand them so we can make those changes. We are going to put every resource and all of the energy we can in this entire institution behind fixing these problems,” McCarthy stated during a press conference. McCarthy also referenced Guillén’s death as a catalyst for the Army to focus on sexual harassment and assault in the military. Prior to her death, a survey given to 225 Fort Hood soldiers in June found that one-third of the women who responded had been sexually harassed. According to Guillén’s family, she had also shared allegations of sexual harassment with them prior to being murdered, but never reported out of fear. Fort Hood is now under a review, according to McCarthy, where officials will examine historical data of discrimination, harassment, and assault, and investigate the climate and culture that’s allowed for violence to take place. McCarthy himself has also already had conversations with soldiers based in Fort Hood to understand their experiences and the culture of the post, and conducted listening sessions to determine what the Army needs to change. With this kind of history, it’s unclear why this is just coming out now, and why serious action wasn’t taken as a preventable measure. Many cases of missing and killed soldiers had begun popping up long before Guillén, but they weren’t publicized or investigated in quite the same way. Still, McCarthy is determined to correct these injustices, despite a lack of faith in the current system — specifically the system governing Fort Hood.“Ultimately the results, findings, recommendations will fuel an implementation team chaired by the Undersecretary of the Army and the Vice Chief of Staff for the Army,” McCarthy said. Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?150 FBI Agents To Investigate Crystal Rogers CasePolice Continue To Be Accused Of Sexual ViolenceAaron Glee Confesses To Killing Toyin Salau

  • 19 Matching Sweatsuits For Living Your Best Stay-At-Home Life

    While many of 2020’s most-popular fashion trends don't feel quite right for a life of time spent at home and social distancing (I definitely won't be wearing a tailored vest anytime soon...), there is one in particular that I'm currently very grateful for: the matching sweatsuit. As a freelance fashion writer, I’m already a big fan of sporting my pajamas while conducting phone interviews and writing stories from the comfort of my own abode. And, now that all my previously in-person meetings to events and coffee dates have been replaced by virtual Zoom calls, I’ve found myself reconsidering this sleepwear-only WFH wardrobe entirely. Luckily, the sweatsuit happens to be a comfy PJ-adjacent look that's appropriately conducive for wearing during a day full of important Zoom meetings — aka it's still just as comfy but more elevated than the aforementioned "I literally just rolled out of bed" attire. Ahead, find 19 stylish sweatsuit sets that are so comfy you won’t want to (or really need to) take them off. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team, but if you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?There's No Such Thing As Work-From-Home StyleShop Every Piece From R29's New Loungewear LineAmp Up The Joy Of Loungewear With Tie Dye Print