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Happy Pride, Portland! This week, the Mercury is running a series of opinion pieces and personal essays from LGBTQ+ Portlanders on the theme Pride 2021: Queer Beginnings. As we emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're all re-evaluating and re-imagining things, and that includes queer life and how we observe Pride. Here's the fourth entry.

I thought I was done coming out.

Nine years ago I came out as bisexual (twice to my parents) and then again more publicly in an essay for a magazine at my university. When I started dating my now live-in girlfriend, Stephanie, I figured that was explanation enough.

But in recent years, I stopped connecting with the bisexual label. I was more interested in pursuing relationships with women and femme people, and being with a man or masculine nonbinary person just didn’t feel quite right. At first I shrugged it off as just heavily preferring one particular gender over others, which is common among bisexual people. But in reality it was more than that. This year, on International Women’s Day, I came out to myself as a lesbian—although I use lesbian and sapphic interchangeably. Even though I had adopted the term sapphic last year, I realized it was time for me to dive deeper into why I was avoiding “the L-word.”

I didn’t expect that I’d be so nervous to tell people. After all, I had come out many times before and there wasn’t anything particularly groundbreaking about this announcement. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like a bi-phobic trope, using the bisexual label as a stepping stone to gayness. Those feelings were immediately assuaged by the outpouring of love I received. Stephanie, my friends, and my parents were not just supportive—they were also not remotely surprised.

There was something about the acceptance, though, that disappointed me. Everyone seemed to see what I couldn’t. I didn’t realize how far in the closet I actually was while I thought I was living an authentic life. That was when Stephanie told me it was because my loved ones knew me so well that they weren’t surprised. I was living my truth; I just didn’t quite know it yet.

Over the years, I realized there were times I did start to question my identity. After a bad date or kiss with a man, I wondered if it was because I wasn’t actually into it. The thought was fleeting as I made up countless excuses for why it didn’t feel right. After all, I had already done the work to figure myself out, so it couldn’t have been me.

When I started dating Stephanie (who is queer), I knew it felt different. Most of it had to do with the fact I was falling in love with a wonderful person, but everything also connected for me in a way it never had before. As our relationship blossomed and we started talking more about our past relationships with men, it started to dawn on me that we had a very different baseline in how we related to men—she was actively interested in that gender, while I just wasn’t—and I began to really evaluate my sexuality.

I looked back on my past relationships with men to see if I was missing something. I only had a handful of non-serious boyfriends, and I realized how often I was either apathetic or uncomfortable being in close proximity to them. I used to think that I just wasn’t a physically affectionate person or that I wasn’t someone who wanted a long term relationship, both of which I know now aren’t true. One ex called me "cold," turns out I was just gay!

Knowing I loved women had always been the easy part. When I came out at 16, it was laughable that I ever thought I wasn’t into women, but I always assumed that had to be in conjunction with my attraction towards men. Sure, part of it was probably society, but as an avid reader I had also inundated myself with heterosexual romance arcs and found myself crushing on Edward Cullen just like every other person who liked men. (Yes, I see now how that was the gayest choice.)

I learned quickly growing up that men in real life were not the same as in the novels I devoured. Rather, it was how the female author portrayed the male love interest and the relationship that I was enamored by. Last year in quarantine, I joked that the only men I liked were either celebrities or fictional. This was my “proof” to myself that I was still bisexual, but I was really just confusing appreciating the beauty of other genders as attraction.

From the outside, it doesn’t look like anything has changed in my life since re-coming out. Stephanie and I are still living together, I’m still active in the LGBTQ+ community, and I’m still defending the validity of bisexuality. Really, nothing has changed, except I understand myself more. I am more confident in my sexuality than I’ve ever been, and I feel like a piece of me has finally fully clicked into place.

Labels are allowed to shift. How you identify at 16 might change by the time you turn 25, and for some people, their label may never shift—all of which is okay. Demi Lovato recently spoke about how they “started realizing how queer I really am,” and Kehlani also changed her labels when she announced she “finally knows” she’s a lesbian. People are growing and making new discoveries about themselves every day, and labels are just tools to help us interact with identity.

The introspection into my sexuality and decision to re-come out was emotionally taxing, but I’m proud of myself for doing it. I may have been celebrating my attraction to women during Pride for nine years, but this is the first year that I get to celebrate as an out lesbian.