Am I Queer?: Understanding and Embracing Our Queer Awakenings Whenever and However They Occur

Note to reader: While a queer awakening can refer to the process of becoming aware of one’s sexual identity and/or gender identity, for this article we are primarily focusing on sexual identity. 

It took me time to accept my sexuality and even more time to come out to my family. When I was 12, my older brother agreed to take me to my first concert, Lilith Fair. It was incredible. The lineup was epic: Sarah McLachlan, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman, Jewel, Paula Cole, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Fiona Apple, Joan Osborne, Emmylou Harris, Lisa Loeb, Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, and India Arie! What I wouldn’t give to relive that concert! But beyond the musicians, it was my first time seeing queer women, and lots of them. I imagine my adolescent self may have had some idea about what was going on for me as I embraced the music of so many women, but seeing women hold hands, kiss, and flirt—wow. A part of me that I hadn’t been fully conscious of woke up and felt so at home.

I wish I could tell you that was the turning point, that I left Lilith Fair and fully embraced my sexuality, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I secretly read whatever books I could find about lesbians and LGBTQ+ individuals, both fiction and non-fiction. Internally, I struggled. My parents, family, and community held strong homophobic views. And the truth was I was attracted to individuals across the gender spectrum. I tried to downplay my attraction to girls and instead focused on pursuing sexual and romantic relationships with boys. I was torn between my curiosity to explore my attraction to the same sex and feeling overwhelmed and scared by it.

In high school, there was only one girl who was out as a lesbian (and one boy out as gay, and unfortunately, no one was out as queer, bisexual, nonbinary, or trans). I had female friends who would experiment and explore their sexuality with each other, which totally freaked me out. I had a lot I was trying to manage at the time, both internally and with my family. I was fortunate to have loving and patient friends, and unfortunate in that I also coped with (lots of) substances. Eventually, after a few years of self-medicating and exploring my sexuality with boys, I had my first sexual experience with another teen girl, and a couple of years later, I finally admitted to myself and to those I trusted that I was bisexual.

My queer awakening wasn’t straightforward; it was messy and tumultuous. My sexuality continues to evolve. As I learned more about pansexuality, that label felt more appropriate. And as I confronted and challenged the messages I internalized growing up, it became more and more possible to love and embrace myself. To allow myself to wake up to who I am.

What Is a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Queer Awakening?

A queer awakening is the process of becoming aware of, exploring, and accepting your sexuality. It can also apply to becoming aware of, exploring, and accepting your gender identity. The term queer can be comprehensive and all-encompassing. For some, this awakening is a sudden realization; for others, it unfolds gradually over time. Sometimes, the feelings or attraction may have been present prior, but they were unacknowledged or dismissed for some time.

In academic discourse, a queer awakening is also known as “reaching sexual identity milestones,” the first of which is self-realization, basically recognizing that you are in the “sexual minority” and not straight. Research suggests that “Sexual minority identity development varies across social identities and contexts.”

Individuals may embrace their sexual or gender identities at different stages of life and under varying circumstances. As society increasingly acknowledges and celebrates LGBTQIA+ identities, more people are coming to terms with their sexual orientations and identities. While much research focuses on adolescence as a critical period for identity formation, many individuals also discover and disclose their sexual identities later in life.

How Do I Know if I’m Gay? Lesbian? Pansexual? Queer?

This might be the easiest question to answer for some and the most challenging question to answer for others. Understanding if you’re queer is a personal journey that involves self-reflection and exploration of your feelings and attractions. Everyone’s experience is different, and people come to their realizations in various ways, with differing intensity levels and timeframes. Some may have an abrupt queer awakening; a single incidence or experience may be enough for them to realize their sexual identity. The process is more gradual for others, marked by evolving self-awareness and acceptance over time.

Various factors can influence when and how we come to realize that we are queer. One academic article considered the different barriers individuals may have to overcome while developing their queer identities. The authors identified that racial and ethnic identities, age, culture, and geography were all potential barriers or facilitators as people come to understand their sexual identities. These variables can either facilitate or hinder the journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Understanding and embracing one’s sexual identity can be influenced by these diverse factors, making the process more nuanced and complex for each individual.

For many, the simple act of questioning their sexuality can open the door to exploration and help them better understand their sexual identities. For others, there is no question as they may have realized their sexuality without issue, but the act of embracing and celebrating your sexuality will be the task. Allowing yourself to consider your sexuality and inner world is a personal experience that has the potential to be enlightening and affirming.

What Happens When You Experience Your Queer Awakening?

The experience of a queer awakening varies widely among individuals. For some, realizing their attraction to the same sex is a straightforward acknowledgment, perhaps something they have been aware of to some extent for a long time. However, for others, this realization can be challenging, particularly if you come from environments where same-sex attraction is stigmatized or demonized. Growing up in such settings can make it difficult to accept and come to terms with one’s sexuality. Confronting this realization may involve navigating internal conflicts and external pressures, potentially leading to feelings of anxiety, fear, or confusion. Emotionally, individuals may experience a range of reactions, from relief and validation to heightened stress, depending on their social support system and acceptance within their community.

In the United States, heterosexuality is ingrained as the societal norm, a perspective that is gradually being challenged. Despite progress, societal norms can still create barriers to self-acceptance and embracing one’s true identity, especially for those attracted to the same sex.

Emotionally, you may feel relief, joy, anxiety, fear, confusion, grief, and a host of other emotions, sometimes all at once. Through analysis it is evident that in unaffirming or oppressive contexts, queer individuals experience conflict when recognizing their sexual identities. Depending on your circumstances and social support system, you may experience increased stress upon this realization if you imagine you will be shunned or rejected. Conversely, you may feel less stressed if accepted, loved, and supported.

What’s the Relationship Between Queer Awakenings and Mental Health?

Queer awakenings often involve deep introspection and exploration of one’s sexual identity, a process that can be liberating and affirming as individuals come to understand and accept themselves more fully. However, social and cultural attitudes towards LGBTQ+ identities can significantly impact mental health, making it challenging for individuals to recognize their sexual identity. Research indicates that there are no differences in mental health outcomes based on the duration it takes to form one’s sexual identity. Instead, the process of integration—honoring one’s sexuality and incorporating it into the overall self-concept—has been linked to fewer depressive and anxious symptoms, reduced conduct problems, and higher self-esteem among queer youth. Integration typically involves accepting one’s sexual identity, coming out to others, and actively participating in LGBTQ+ communities or activities that affirm one’s identity. Queer awakenings are the first step towards this integration.

The stigma surrounding queer identities can delay or suppress the recognition and acceptance of one’s sexual identity. Fear of rejection, discrimination, or violence may cause individuals to suppress their feelings or delay exploring their identity. Additionally, internalized stigma, where individuals internalize negative societal attitudes about queer identities, can have adverse effects, leading to feelings of shame, self-doubt, and low self-esteem, making it harder to embrace and affirm one’s authentic self. Analysts have linked the discrimination faced by queer individuals to numerous negative psychological and physical health outcomes, including increased suicidal ideation, further complicating the process of coming to terms with one’s identity.

Navigating the complexities of queer awakenings and their impact on mental health emphasizes the importance of this process. As we grapple with societal attitudes and internalized stigma, the journey towards self-acceptance and integration of one’s sexual identity can be both transformative and challenging.

How Can I Explore and Embrace My Sexual Identity?

Turn Inward:

Take time to reflect on your feelings, attractions, and experiences. Remember, you are the expert on you. There’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to explore your inner world without judgment. Journaling or talking to trusted friends may also help clarify your thoughts and emotions. Queer awakenings are different for everyone, and if you need time or if your process takes twists and turns, that’s perfectly okay. In my experience, there were breadcrumbs that I only saw when looking back, and there were also giant glaring billboards I had willfully avoided. Have compassion for yourself as you explore and take time to understand yourself. 

Look Around:

We are so fortunate to live in a time when we can observe LGBTQIA+ folks living loud and proud in various forms of media and within our communities. Exploring different media representations allows us to connect with characters and stories that resonate with us or spark excitement. Media representations significantly influence how we understand the world around us and how we see ourselves. Seeing characters we identify with can normalize diverse attractions and provide a profound sense of validation and recognition, allowing us to feel seen and understood.

Being attracted to characters or media representations can also allow us to explore our feelings safely. It’s common to develop crushes on fictional characters or people we will likely never meet, as it offers space for curiosity without real-world risks. This exploration through media can be a valuable part of discovering and affirming our identities.

Educate Yourself:

Take the time to learn about the diverse range of sexual identities and presentations. Understanding the spectrum of queer experiences can help you discover where you might fit and normalize your own feelings. Additionally, educating yourself can empower you to recognize and challenge any negative beliefs or stereotypes you may have internalized about LGBTQ+ identities. Building self-compassion and self-acceptance is essential for your mental health, and the more you learn, the easier it may become to embrace and affirm your true self.

Seek Support:

Connect with LGBTQ+ communities, either online or in person. Surrounding yourself with others who understand and get you and those who would be glad to embrace your sexual identity with you can provide validation and encouragement. Finding resources and community can make this process easier and help you affirm yourself. And sometimes, the way to access support is through having a queer-affirming therapist who can help you hold space and honor all of your questions and exploration.

As you continue on your journey of self-discovery and acceptance, remember that embracing your sexual identity is a personal and empowering experience. Whether you’re reflecting inwardly, exploring diverse media representations, connecting with LGBTQIA+ communities, or seeking support from a queer-affirming therapist, each step contributes to your growth and understanding. Take the time you need and honor your feelings. And, of course, if you need support during this process, please reach out.

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