To All The Men I Thought I Loved Before

To All The Men I Thought I Loved Before

I have been attracted to women for as long as I can remember.

My attraction to men, however, was always something up for debate in the very back of my mind. I identify as bisexual but have always flirted with the idea that I might just be gay. Some men are beautiful, sure, but was I attracted to them? Did I want to be with them or was I subconsciously clinging onto the concept of heterosexuality because it had been drilled into my brain from the moment I was cognizant?

My last boyfriend—who I broke up with because I mistook our incompatibility for me not being capable of romantic attraction to men—asked me a question after I broke up with him that forced me to analyze the decisions I was making in my romantic life: “Why did you date me if you knew you had liked women more?”

At the time, I didn’t have the answer. I still didn’t know the answer until I began the process of writing this article. It’s not that I had never had a crush on a guy, and, on paper, Will* is exactly the kind of guy I should like. But in reality, I just didn’t feel that tingle in my gut when we held hands. Throughout my life, I’ve had crushes on and relationships with both men and women, but none of my experiences with the former lived up to the ones I’ve had with the latter. Still, I don’t rule out the possibility of being attracted to a man in the same way I am to a woman.

It took a while for me to come to terms with the fact that my sexuality doesn’t require a label and that I don’t owe anyone an explanation for what I feel. From growing up thinking I was an alien in my own skin because of my attraction to women to reconciling that I still have a capacity for an attraction to men, becoming comfortable with how I identify has been a long and arduous process, and I haven’t done it alone. I want to take you through my life of crushes and flings and relationships, both from my perspective and theirs. I want to tell you how I became comfortable just being myself through my eyes and the eyes of friends and family who watched me grow. I want to give you the whole story.

Let’s travel back in time.

I’m 11 years old. I like to watch Spongebob when I get home from school while I eat a Little Debbie snack cake. I also have a crush on a boy named Ryan, who I’ve liked since the fourth grade. He’s blond, sweet and has circular wire-rimmed glasses—an accessory I still find attractive to this day. Tonight, I’m spending the night at my friend Kate’s* house. Kate has news: she has new a boyfriend who goes to a different school. I’m mad at him. I hate him. I also haven’t met him before.

“Do you guys kiss?” I ask Kate while holding up the pixelated picture of him she printed from her computer and hung up in her room. I feel sick to my stomach.

“Yeah,” she says, annoyed that I won’t stop prying for details about her romance with this mysterious boy.

“I don’t like him,” I respond. He’s not half bad looking. I pinpoint the feeling that holding his photo makes bubble inside of me: jealousy. I attribute it to me being jealous of her for dating a cute, out-of-town guy. That night at our sleepover, I want to touch her. Not in a sexual way; I just want to feel her skin. I imagine her new boyfriend holding her hand. I never want to see her again.

Randi, my hometown neighbor and good friend who I consider a second mom, remembers having a feeling that I was repressing my sexuality, “I felt [you were queer] when you were growing up. I don’t want to say I had a suspicion because that sounds like I’m accusing you of something. I just had a feeling.”

Let’s fast-forward another two years.

It’s the summer of 2008. I’m about to go into my last year of middle school. Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” is at its peak popularity. The first time I hear it, I enter crisis mode. Can girls kiss other girls? The thought hadn’t crossed my mind. I sneak onto the desktop in my house’s designated computer room and frantically Google. I learn that girls who kiss other girls are called lesbians.

“Is it a sin to be a lesbian?” I ask the Internet. I get a mixed bag of answers, but I grew up in the church and need to know for sure: is wanting to kiss girls a ticket to eternal damnation?

The election is coming up in November, and I admire Sarah Palin because she’s a woman and my parents like her.

“What does Sarah Palin say about lesbians?” I search, desperately needing some sort of comfort. The results are less than ideal. I decide to shove my feelings as far down as I possibly can. I promise myself I will never speak of this to anyone. Most importantly, I do not want to kiss girls.

My parents, who love me very much, are old school conservatives and were most concerned with economics; at the time, LGBTQ rights just weren’t on their radar. I don’t blame them for not knowing that a negative stance on same-sex marriage from a politician they endorsed might impact me. My dad explained to me that my sexuality never even crossed his mind, “I didn’t really contemplate one way or the other. It wasn’t something that was a particular concern of mine.”

Randi notes that it was around this time that I became more reclusive, “I thought you were just growing up and going through teenagehood. I just thought you had the stresses of a normal teen. Really, behind that, you were suppressing who you thought you were.”

I traded in my otherwise goofy personality for a reserved one, fearing that if I inched out of my shell even the slightest bit that I would accidentally reveal more than I wanted to, eventually ostracizing myself from my friends and family.

Let’s go forward a little bit further to 2009.

I don’t care what Sarah Palin has to say anymore, but I still don’t feel comfortable in my own skin. Who does at 15? Still, high school is hard enough without concealing your attraction to your new best friend.

Everything I feel for Greta* is too strong to deny. I spend every day with her. She calls me every night. She tells me she wants to kiss me, but she won’t. She’s as scared as I am. I more than like her—I love her.

We spend three years as best friends, only breaching the line of friendship a handful of times towards the very end. We have a falling out after I tell one of our mutual friends about what we’d been doing together, who in turn shares it with Greta.

Greta denies ever partaking in anything remotely homosexual with me; it was all in my head, she says. I start to wonder if maybe she was right—maybe it was all in my head. I’m afraid I won’t ever love anyone like this again. I’m afraid I’ve ruined my life. I know that a good bit of my fear is irrational and stems from lack of perspective, but at the same time, mine is the only perspective I have.

A good chunk of time has passed between our falling out and the time of me writing this—about six years, to be exact. We have since reconciled and there is no bad blood between us. I wanted to talk to her for this piece. I wanted to ask her how my being so openly attracted to her made her feel and if it had influenced the way she behaved towards me. At first she obliged to be interviewed but became elusive when it came to actually setting a time to talk. It’s disappointing, but I understand. Maybe she truly doesn’t care anymore and it just isn’t a priority. Maybe I was a blip in her timeline and talking about it would remind her of a piece of herself she’s not ready to revisit. This is a feeling I can empathize with.

Now let’s go forward to college.

I’m depressed. I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Boys like me. I don’t really care. I hook up with a few of them, but nothing is permanent. I don’t care to date. Sophomore year, I form a crush on a girl in my Social Sciences class. I have yet to feel anything remotely close to what I felt for Greta for anyone else, but this girl may be a good candidate. We have a group project together and get along great. We have the same sense of humor. I’m incredibly attracted to her.

I take a leap and send her a risky text, “Hey, hopefully this isn’t weird or anything because I’m a girl. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. But would you maybe want to go out sometime? No pressure.”

My palms are more sweaty than usual when I see three dots emerge on the screen. Her reply pops up rather quickly. She’s straight, unfortunately. But she tells me something that’s stuck with me, “Don’t ever apologize for asking a girl out. It’s not weird. Screw any girl who thinks it’s weird.”

Damn, I think. I’m disheartened, sure, but I’m also completely reinvigorated. It’s not weird. I keep playing the words on a loop in my head. I decide to stop hiding myself from the world. I write a note in my phone to remind myself, “People will think you are who you behave to be, so be yourself.”

Let’s travel into the much nearer past: March of 2018.

At this point in time, I’ve dated a couple of women but mostly men, purely because the ratio of boys I consider dateable to girls I’m attracted to who are also attracted to me is about 50:1.

I meet Hanna.* I can already tell she’s going to break my heart, but that doesn’t stop me because I’m a little bit stupid. She tells me she’s never felt this way for a girl before. We’re inseparable for about a week, and then she starts to trickle away. She’s busy. She’s not in a place to be in a relationship. I take the hint. She doesn’t want to be in a relationship with me. I move on. I meet a Will. We start dating in July.

I love her.

Now it’s September.

Will is beautiful and I had faith that we’d be good together. In the beginning, it was normal; now, he’s extremely possessive. I can’t breathe without him worrying I’ll leave. He’s terrified that I still like Hanna. Every single one of my actions, however minute and meaningless, is analyzed to no end and I have to reassure him daily that I still want to be with him. I don’t know how to tell him I don’t.

It’s late. I post a screenshot of the song I’m listening to—Phoebe Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness”—onto my Instagram story, not for any reason in particular other than I just like the song. Within a couple of minutes, somebody replies to my story: “!!! Phoebe Bridgers is the love of my life.” I recognize the username.

Familiar goosebumps rise and I know I’m about to jump down a rabbit hole I won’t be able to climb back out of. We don’t know each other aside from following one another on Instagram. She’s stunning. She’s brilliant. She’s just my type. I have a boyfriend. I’m not going to flirt.

We message back and forth, mostly about nothing, and I start to form a crush. I feel safe and divulge my secrets to her. I tell her I felt guilty for not feeling what I have felt for girls for Will and that I feel trapped by his insecurity. She tells me what I need to hear: “You can make the really hard choices now and maybe fuck up or you can wake up 20 years from now with a whole lot of regret about not doing what your gut was screaming at you to do the whole time.”

The next day, I come out to my parents. I also tell them I plan to break up with Will.

About a half hour after I come out to them, I drive to Will’s house to tell him I’m gay. As expected, he was devastated. I knew to prepare for the worst when I rescinded my verbal agreement to be with him. The version of me he had in his head was not the me who lives in reality, and I am partially responsible for that.

For a lot of my life, I was acting. I was performing because I feared I would hurt someone if they knew the truth. I feared for his well-being and prioritized it over my own—an unfortunate commonality in women who stay with men they know aren’t right for them. It is expected that we sacrifice ourselves for the happiness of others. This is not fair. The space that should have been reserved for my emotions was overshadowed by his insecurities, and any ounce of doubt on my end—real or perceived—was not handled well.

Will texted me a couple days after the breakup, “I know it happened and it was good but everything I thought I had was a lie? Sounds corny but I’m for real.” He is not entirely wrong. He is also not blameless in the creation of this lie. Idealization is not love. Backing someone into a corner by making them feel like it will destroy you if you don’t reciprocate their feelings is not love. He is not a bad person for not loving me right just as I am not a bad person for not being able to love him.

Michael,* one of my exes who shared the same fears as Will when he dated me, has a valuable perspective to offer. He had an inkling that I wasn’t offering myself to him in the same capacity I had previously offered myself to women. “I wouldn’t say I was worried because you identified as bisexual, but I definitely had thoughts like, ‘What if an ex comes back who’s a girl?’ I was worried in the same way that any couple might worry about the other person’s ex. But there is definitely a different dynamic there because I knew you were able to have a different understanding with a woman.”

Hanna came back into my life briefly a week after Will and I broke up. We hung out one night as friends, which we quickly realized neither of us is very good at. When we said goodnight, she kissed me, told me she’d missed me and would see me soon. The next morning, she told me that she had feelings for me but had been seeing someone else. A few weeks later, she posted a picture of her and her new boyfriend on Instagram. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt, but just as I’m entitled to be who I am, she’s entitled to be who she is.

Will found out about the kiss and sent me a less than pleasant text: “You used me, Darby. You led me on. You used me to lie to yourself.”

Part of me wants to be apologetic for dating Michael and Will when at my core I knew that I had felt more for women in the past. An overwhelming part of me is sympathetic to myself. I still don’t rule out the possibility of feeling for a man what I have felt for women, and I will continue to date who I want to date. Gender is a factor, but not a determining one. There are no rules for which two souls can have a connection. It just so happens that I’ve only had those connections with a handful of people—all women—up to this point in my life.

Randi explains my transformation better than I could, “I think when you were younger you were very quiet. You kept a lot of things in. I think you’re more expressive now. You’re not editing what you say anymore. You don’t care about judgment and you feel freer in your speech. I have always adored you as a person and your sexual preference doesn’t define you. It’s just one small part of who you are.”

We all deserve to be ourselves. We all deserve happiness. Be with whoever makes you feel good. If you aren’t sure if someone will make you feel good, it’s okay to test the waters. If you end up not liking them, that’s fine. If you end up loving them, that’s fine, too. Live your life without pretense. There’s no use for it. The people who love you will stick around; just be you.

*Pseudonym

Image via Getty


Darby McNally

Darby McNally is a freelance writer based out of Atlanta. She loves true crime, queer cinema, and sketch comedy. You can follow her on Twitter @darbsssss.