Carly Swenson • Intuitive Artist

apparently i’m unsure of my own sexual orientation

I think I’m bisexual.

I know what you’re likely asking, and yes, a person should probably know that, right? Sexual orientation generally isn’t vague. It’s something you intrinsically know about yourself, but I don’t really know, at least not from full on experience. I can tell you what I do know. I’ve been attracted to women. I’ve been attracted to men. I’ve dated men. I’ve slept with men. I’ve married (and divorced) a man. My current partner is a man.

Still Buffering podcast on MaxFun. It’s delightful, go listen to it.

Last June, listening to the Still Buffering podcast (episode: How to Pride), cooking dinner, washing dishes, and I just stopped. I had to rewind to (about 51:00) where host Sydnee McElroy shared came out as bisexual. “Holy. Fuck. That’s me.” I realized she’d expressed a sentiment I’d felt, but never really shared, because I felt like a fake.


A friend of mine remembers seeing Prince on TV as part of her adolescent sexual awakening. The fox from Disney’s Robin Hood or Jessica Rabbit are other commonly referenced examples from my age demographic. For me, it was some scantily-clad hyper unrealistic cartoon woman clearly intended for the male gaze. It might have been a scene from Heavy Metal? Or maybe Aeon Flux? Either way, you get the idea. Whatever it was, it opened something in me that I was too nervous to acknowledge. I knew I shouldn’t be watching it, so I kept flipping through the channels, five up, ten down, ten back up, ten back down. Just in case my parents were to walk through the living room, I’d have plausible deniability for being a weird little pervert watching this sexy lady running around or whatever.

Looking back at the fictional crushes in my early adolescence they always included girls and boys– Gadget from Rescue Rangers, Devon Sawa in Casper, Princess Jasmine, Alex Mack, Shawn from Boy Meets World, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas in, well, anything he was in.


Obviously there’s a difference between finding a human attractive and being attracted to a human. Growing up, I seemed to have some different feelings that I never really examined, and I didn’t want others to know I had them. Occasionally, I’d be awkward around a girl friend because I was nervous she’d think I like-liked her. Now that I’m an adult, it’s still a tricky distinction between women I’d like to be versus women I’d like to maybe be with. I know I was attracted to a few women in college, but it was never anything. In turn, I was attracted to plenty of men in college, and with most that was also nothing.


At Age 22:

I don’t even remember her name. But she was my supervisor at Victoria’s Secret while I worked retail after college. My new husband was finishing his deployment overseas, after that we were moving to England. I had such a crush on her. She was fun, got my sense of humor, and had a wonderful relaxed attitude in stressful situations. She was simply delightful. Originally from Guam, she had gorgeous olive skin, brown eyes, and long black hair. She also had a boyfriend of seven years, and appeared to be entirely content in that relationship.

It was a harmless unrequited crush, that led to nothing except my undeniable realization that I was super attracted another woman. For my going-away, some coworkers took me out for drinks, as I left she hugged me and quietly said, “You’re my favorite”. And my stomach felt giddy. I know she likely meant it as, “We’re two women in our early 20s working with a lot of 18-19 year olds, I’m going to miss you on the staff.” But it still made me a little melty. (Clearly, because I still remember it.)

During this time, I went to a few gay dances with my out and proud friend/roommate and later in England, I’d model nude for photoshoots with other women. It was the closest I could get as a married woman to try and explore–something. If I’m honest with myself, I’d hoped some organic situation would provide an opportunity to act on some long ignored inclination. I wanted to know if I was also into ladies or if I’d realize, “Oh! This is appealing from afar, but apparently, dudes are for sure my jam!”


At Age 32:

I entered the world of online dating after I left my decade-long marriage. On Bumble, I checked both men and women for potential matches. (That’s probably a strong indicator right there, huh? If you’re straight-up all-out heterosexual, you’re probably not considering same-sex dating options.)

I was interested in dating women, but I never followed through. I was afraid of the stigma bisexuality has, even in gay communities. Fresh out of my marriage, I was nervous how other women might judge my past relationships. I was terrified I’d be too inexperienced and awkward to be a worthwhile romantic partner. Given my general anxiety that makes even mundane things hard to navigate, I ended up sticking with what I knew–men, with biologically conventional men-parts.

Received in Damaged Condition, mixed media, Carly Swenson 2014 • Art Journal

At Age 35:

Sitting on his sofa in the Saturday morning sun, sipping coffee, I told my current partner this self realization. He warmly listened to my explanation, smiled thoughtfully and asked, “Well, if you’ve never really had a relationship, or slept with another woman, how do you know you’re bi?” (Which, granted, is the very same question I’m working through with this post.)

I responded, “Well, I don’t know? I know I’ve been attracted to women. And in reality, if you’re straight, but you’ve never been in an intimate relationship, how do you know you’re straight?”

He understood my point.


Remind me how it all went wrong • 24in x 36in • Acrylic on canvas • Carly Swenson • 2018

I’ve kissed other women through a couple [odd] circumstances. I enjoyed it. They’re soft and sexy. I’ve always been drawn to the female form. I assumed that’s likely because artistically, women have smooth curves with soft lines and angles that are aesthetically pleasing. (Or are they pleasing because we’ve been conditioned since birth to evaluate and idealize women’s appearances? I don’t know.) My high school art projects often included female forms, so classmates occasionally commented, “What’s with all the nude women? What? Are you gay?” I’d momentarily entertain the thought before dropping it off some edge of my mind. I had a boyfriend I was attracted to, so that was that.


I’m well aware, that for all intents and purposes, currently and throughout my entire life, I’ve appeared straight. Beyond a couple late night conversations with close friends and occasional jokes, I’ve never openly called myself bisexual, until now. This leaves me with a strange internal conflict of finally being honest with myself, but also feeling fake. I’ve never had to deal with any of society’s judgements about the acceptability of my relationships –(with the exception of, “You’re taller than all the boys, so no one will ever date you,” wisdom dispensed by a fellow 13-year-old girl at summer camp, which isn’t actually comparable. And, for the record, she was wrong on two accounts. Men exist who are taller than me, and I can also totally date shorter men.)


As an artist, I’ve seen exhibition calls open to LGBTQ+ identifying artists. I’ve never applied them. I don’t have the right to. Right probably isn’t the correct word. But it doesn’t seem appropriate for me to do so. I’d feel like a fraud, despite the fact that if circumstances had been different, I’d have been all over my Victoria’s Secret supervisor (consensually, of course). Regardless, I receive the ease and privilege that comes with cis-heteronormative relationships. I’ve never faced and of the challenges from being LGBTQ+. I didn’t experience the adolescent isolation of being different because my body or sexual orientation didn’t align with what was considered acceptable. I haven’t feared coming out to family or friends. (Oh! By the way, family and friends, it seems, throughout my life, sometimes, I’m attracted to women. Cool. So now, that’s sorted.) I haven’t been harassed or threatened by strangers. I haven’t been scared of losing my job, or ostracized for simply loving who I love.

Therefore, it isn’t fair for weirdo-I-don’t-know-what-I-am-me to take any potential visibility away from individuals who deserve to be recognized for their artistic contributions.  It’s inappropriate for me to apply to opportunities that real LGBTQ+ people deserve. Although, who defines real? I’m aware of the absurdity of “real LGBTQ+.” By its very nature sexual orientation, gender, etc. are nonbinary with levels of fluidity. It’s important to emphasize, it isn’t out of any sort of shame or fear that I feel disassociated from the category of LGBTQ+. I feel like I don’t deserve it, I haven’t had the life experience to earn it. I haven’t persevered against cultural ignorance, I receive all the privilege of a cis-white-straight-woman, even if internally that isn’t exactly who I am. So, here I am with my sexual identity in this blurry-grey sense of self—I think I’m bi.

[Please excuse any accidental heteronormative/gender-exclusionary language. I’m still learning the appropriate semantics regarding people’s sex, gender identity, and sexual orientations. It’s important, and I’m constantly learning, so please don’t mistake any ignorance on my part for malice.]

4 Replies to “apparently i’m unsure of my own sexual orientation”

  1. Gender boundaries are becoming increasingly more blurred. Maybe 10% of Carly is actually Carl?
    ( I’ll resist the wordplay with ‘y’ chromosomes)

    Like

  2. Such doubts from yourself and others are common. You don’t have to be 50/50 attracted, as you might already know. Yes, bi-erasure and biphobia sucks, sorry you’ve already had some experiences. :(

    What your partner asked was also the same question a clinical psychologist said asked me. My answer was the same as yours. Eventually you’ll find that some couples think of us as “unicorns” (ugh).

    I hope you find affirming community in your local spaces we ARE out there. :) Congrats on being true to you and coming out to yourself!

    Liked by 1 person

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