What’s that Q in LGBTQ for, anyway? Sometimes it’s for queer, a way some of us identify who feel like gay, lesbian or bisexual doesn’t cover all the bases of who we do or may love and have sexual feelings for, or suggests things about us or those we’re attracted to that are oversimplified (especially in terms of gender), or just not quite right.
The Q also stands for questioning: for being in a process of figuring out what groups of people one may or does feel emotional and sexual attraction to based on gender, but not having any answer yet or at the current time. Someone questioning is someone for whom the question, “Are you gay or lesbian? Are you straight? Are you queer or bisexual? What’s your deal?” is one that, at a given time, isn’t one they feel they can answer or want to answer in any definitive or solid way. Sometimes people who are questioning may never have had an answer about their orientation or may never have identified otherwise; others have known their orientation in the past or identified as another orientation before, but are currently experiencing a possible shift, and presently feel they’re not so sure anymore.
Some people who identify as questioning use exactly that term, while others might say they are things like “bi-curious,” “gay-curious,” or “heteroflexible.” (I do think “questioning” is preferable to the -curious terms, which sometimes can feel kind of skeevy to a listener, suggest that person is on the downlow, trying to retain their heterosexual privilege or that we may be seen or treated as a glib curiosity by the person using those terms.) While a lot of other terms for questioning are about possibly being bisexual, gay or lesbian, someone questioning might be or think they are heterosexual, too. Questioning can also be a term used to describe questioning our own gender identity: it doesn’t have to just be about sexual orientation.
Why might you or someone else identify as questioning?
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- Because you/they haven’t felt strong sexual and emotional attraction to anyone yet, so it all just kind of feels blank
- Because you/they feel somewhere in between certain orientations, like between being heterosexual and bisexual, or between being bisexual and homosexual and aren’t sure where you/they land on the spectrum
- Because you/they have had feelings for different people, but can’t suss out how much or how little those feelings had to do with gender
- Because you/they or a partner are genderqueer or in a state of gender transition which has made the whole notion of attraction to gender specifically murky or in question
- Because you/they thought you/they were one orientation, but a recent set of feelings for someone or a relationship outside of that orientation has created a questioning of orientation
- Because you/they have never had the opportunity to ask the question of orientation for yourself/themselves, such as because of living in a home or area in which that question alone was or felt unsafe
- Because using that term helps you/them feel empowered in allowing yourself/themselves to engage in the process of questioning
- Because you/they are starting to figure out what your orientation is, but you don’t feel ready to be out to others yet
- Because you/they just don’t know what your/their orientation is, period.
While periods of questioning orientation or identifying that way can and do happen to people at any time of life, it’s safe to say that for many young people, especially the youngest teens, questioning is often the most accurate term for sexual orientation. A young person questioning their orientation is a bit like the fact that at 40, my bottom isn’t in exactly the same place I left it on my body at 16: questioning is developmentally typical in adolescence.
That’s often going to be so even for young people who presume heterosexuality to be a default orientation, and presume that’s where they’re at because it’s all they know or are the only sexual or romantic feelings they have had or recognized for far for others. Why? Because while, at the current time, science and social science, as well as many of our collective experiences, support the understanding that orientation is something we’re all probably born with to a large degree, it’s just as supported that orientation is something that develops and evolves over time, just like the rest of our personal, interpersonal and sexual development, and that the teen years are often the most major time for starting to experience and feel out sexual orientation.
Our childhood, adolescence and early adulthood are all times of life when we are growing and changing exponentially, when we are becoming the core of who we are. As we gradually separate from our parents and develop our own identity and separate relationships, we find out more and more of who we are, uniquely and separate — and potentially different — from our parents and our family. We’re figuring out if ideas, values and identities we were raised with are or are not a good fit for us, and what our own are. During our teens specifically, our sexual development is doing the most developing it ever will, physically and socially (the experiential, interpersonal, emotional and intellectual parts of sexual development tend to be more of a lifelong process). Once puberty begins, questions about our gender identity and sexual orientation, and exploration of both of those things intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically tend to begin if they haven’t already.
As we reference in another piece here, the American Psychological Association states that “sexual orientation emerges for most people in early adolescence without any prior sexual experience. Some people report trying very hard over many years to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual with no success. For these reasons, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation for most people to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.”
Let’s dip back to that idea of “default” orientation for a sec. I probably don’t have to tell you that many people have the idea that being heterosexual is the default orientation. What I mean by that is that many people assume that being heterosexual is normal and everything else is a variance or difference, that all people start out as heterosexual and either stay that way or diverge to become something different. Hopefully what I don’t have to also tell you is how flawed that is.
Many of us are very certain we have never, ever been heterosexual: our own life experience tells us as much, and we are the experts on who we have been attracted to and to whom we have not been, not our parents, friends, doctors, Anita Bryant or Fred Phelps. If we are gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, heterosexual or anything else, including questioning, we all have our own normal. Heterosexual isn’t normal, after all, for someone who is not heterosexual, just like not having freckles isn’t normal for those of us who are freckle-faced. As well, suggesting heterosexual is what’s “normal” and everything else is different is a whole lot like suggesting that being white is what’s normal and everyone else’s race is a variance, or that speaking English is what’s normal and all other languages are deviations. The idea that heterosexuality is a default or what’s normal is something we call heterocentricity: heterosexual people centering ideas about orientation around only their own orientation, rather than seeing orientation for the wide, diverse spectrum that it is.
Everyone — straight, gay and everything in between — finds out what our orientation is over time. Even for people who feel like they knew from early childhood on they were a given orientation, including being heterosexual, it’s still time and experience that prove that sense or theory. It’s very common for people of all stripes to question their orientation: most people do at at least some point, even if they don’t tell anyone else about it.
Some of us may have had stronger feelings about what we felt our orientation was earlier on, or with less life and relationships experience, than others, but the question of orientation isn’t one anyone has the answer to right at the gate or from the minute we’re born. It’s something that tends to reveal itself to us and others over time.
Since part of the question of orientation has to do with sexual and romantic feelings we don’t tend to have entirely as children, experiencing those feelings is often part of everyone’s process of sussing out orientation. No one needs to go have sex with someone to find out what their orientation is — and since one person can’t possibly represent a whole gender or sex, it’s not sound to expect sex with one or two people could answer that question — however, as we have feelings then participate in those kinds of relationships, we do often have more information to sort out our orientation with. Sometimes there can be some other factors, too. If you or someone else is living in an area where it’s really unsafe to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, visiting or moving to a place where it is safe can provide more room to really ask the question. If you have questions about your gender identity and your orientation, sometimes getting at the answer to one of those things can help you figure out the other. If you haven’t ever seen any real-life examples of people in a wide variety of families and relationships, with a wide range of orientations, once you do, it can be easier to picture where you might fit best.
One of the barriers I hear some folks voice about using questioning as a way to identify is that it’s so vague, so iffy, so everything but final or definitive. And thus, super-duper annoying. During any time in our life when we’re seeking out your own identity, we tend to really, really, really want answers, NOW. Not having them can make us feel lost or like we don’t know who we are, or can make it feel tougher to figure out where we fit in with peer groups or other communities. If you recognize, though, that putting out an answer that really isn’t your answer doesn’t tend to make any of this feel any better, and that trying to make yourself be somebody doesn’t tend to help you find out who you are (it may even make the process take longer), you might be able to feel a little bit better about this period of questioning. Or not, but that’s all I’ve got. Limbo of any kind in life is nearly always going to suck eggs, and the truth is that most of the time, we’ve just got to wait it out, whether we like it or not.
Sometimes, people will also say that identifying as questioning isn’t for real: that the only reason people identify that was is because they do know the answer, and they just don’t like it or don’t want to tell anyone what that is. While that may be so for some people (and it’s always everyone’s right: no one has the right to require us to tell them what our orientation is), most people who know their orientation more often are either truthful about what that is or, if they’re not going to be truthful, will tend to simply say their orientation is what they’d prefer it was or what they think or know others want it to be. Someone trying very hard to hide something is not going to tend to leave the window open for people to make inferences, after all, and saying you’re questioning does leave people space to assume or conclude you could be any orientation, not just one.
You may find that not everyone knows what you mean when you say you’re questioning. If that’s so, here are some possible ways to clarify it to others:
- “I’m just not at all sure how I orient that way, so using any other term for my orientation doesn’t feel truthful.”
- “It means that right now, I’m in the process of figuring out what my orientation is. I know some people have a clear sense of knowing that, but I don’t right now.”
- “Just like some people don’t have the answer to what they want to be when they grow up, what college they want to go to or if they do or don’t want to have kids, I don’t have the answer to my orientation right now, so that’s why I idntify as questioing.
- (If someone is asking because they have an interest in dating you) “I don’t actually need to know my orientation to know if I’m interested in you or not, but if you do, you just need to be able to understand and accept I don’t have the answer yet. If you need more than that, that’s okay, but I can’t give you more than that right now.”
- (For the science geeks out there)”Think of me as being in the pupal stage of my orientation. If and when I become a butterfly, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, please allow me my metamorphosis.”
- (The defensive position to a reply like “Questioning what?” that is accompanied with a snide attitude) “My orientation. But given the way you said that, now I’m also questioning your own security in yours.”
If and when you’re questioning, there should never be any deadline on getting to an answer imposed on you by anyone. You might feel frustrated yourself about wanting that answer, but you really don’t need to rush it. You can identify as questioning for as long as you want to, or even stick with it your whole life if you want.
If you want to go ahead try on an answer you’re not totally sure of yet, and identify in a way that might be true for you but you’re not pretty sure is, that’s okay. You just might want to be prepared for taking some grief from people you identify that way to if and when you backpedal and change that orientation again, or go back to questioning. If you feel like trying on an orientation out loud to others is a way for you to figure things out, that’s okay, and you can even qualify whatever orientation that is with a “I think I’m , but I’m still not 100% sure.” Heck, many people who identify as heterosexual do this with some frequency.
If you want some help in trying to answer the question of your orientation, even though you don’t have to have one, you might try looking at pieces like this or this, or asking yourself some things like:
- Who do I have crushes on or fantasies about? Who do I have or have I had the strongest emotional feelings for or about? Who do I have the strongest sexual feelings for or about?
- How do I visualize possible relationships and who I’m in them with: who do I picture myself with, and what gender or genders are they? Can I also picture myself in relationships with people of different genders than that?
- Do I have strong feelings about the gender of people I’m sexually and/or romantically involved with, or is it more of a “whatever” or “I love who I love?”
- If you’ve had romantic and/or sexual relationships so far, how have those been for you as far as gender goes? Has the gender of the other people felt like a good fit with your own or not? Have the gender roles in those relationships felt right to you or off?
- If I have experience with certain communities in terms of gender or orientation, with whom do I feel most at home and able to freely be myself?
- Do you feel like there’s a “right answer” when it comes to your orientation, only one acceptable answer, according to others or to myself? Do you feel afraid of having certain answers which may be what’s true for you, but which you or others feel are wrong, immoral, sinful or otherwise unacceptable? If you can acknowledge it’s possible your orientation is someone else’s or your “wrong” answer, and open up the spectrum in your mind a bit more even though it might be scary, what does your possible orientation look like then?
Some of the answers to those kinds of questions may not always be exactly about orientation. For example, some heterosexual cisgender men don’t feel comfortable in certain groups or communities of other straight guys because of things like machismo, violence or sexism. Some lesbians may not feel at home in lesbian communities because they’re still new to them and because they want to belong very badly and are worried they won’t. As well, some answers to those questions can be biased by our own prejudices or internalized prejudice: if we only feel allowed to be attracted to a given gender, or like it’s somehow better or worse to be attracted to this group or that one, we may not be able to really get at the truth of things just yet, and may need to unpack some of our own biases and fears (and/or recognize someone else’s are about them being the problem, not us) first.
But on the whole, questions like those, and giving yourself plenty of time to experience life and relationships and time to evaluate your own feelings and experiences, will usually tend to help you arrive at whatever answer is your right answer, be that for now or for the whole of your life. It can also be helpful, if you feel safe doing so, to talk to other people about their orientation and how they arrived at that answer, especially older people who have had a longer time to think about orientation. Should you find yourself feeling very distressed about a period of questioning, or about what orientation you think you may be, counseling from a teen-friendly (and ideally queer-friendly, whatever your orientation) therapist can also often help.
As someone who grew up with one parent for whom “Question Authority” was a mantra, and who works to challenge young people to allow themselves to find out who they are and then be that authentic person, hopefully I don’t have to tell you I think questioning is always an awesome thing to do.
Asking questions of anything, including our understanding of ourselves, is about working to develop or nurture our own awareness, our understanding of the world and about challenging our own ideas or those of others in order to get at what we experience and know as our own truth. It’s about making sure that what we think is really what we think, not just what other people have told us to think. I know that having a big, burning question of any kind you don’t know the answer to and really want the answer to, especially when it’s about yourself, can be seriously frustrating, particularly when others have an answer for themselves or expect you to have one. Anyone (including yourself!) giving you any kind of grief about being thoughtful and mindful clearly has their own kind of questioning they should be doing about why they’re so threatened by people doing gender or orientation questioning. If you’re in a space of questioning — whether it’s about orientation or gender or anything else at all — I’d encourage you to claim it, let yourself have it and understand that you’re entitled to it.
Question away! Identify this way as long as you’d like to, cut yourself a break if your questioning process takes a while, and if and when you arrive at a different answer, do your very best to accept you just as the fantastic person you undoubtedly are, whatever your orientation is. And know that if you ever feel a need to be questioning again, that question mark is always available to you.