While unpacking an oversize suitcase in my tiny, sweltering apartment in New York City, I could hear the gay-pride parade roaring past my window. Outside, French-kissing women and be-thonged boys danced their way down Fifth Avenue: free, flamboyant, uninhibited. I’d just left my quiet Midwestern town where “liberal” was the amount of mustard you put on your hot dog and gay seemed confined to Queer Eye. The rainbow-flag variety of self-expression had never seemed an option. So as I filled my sock drawer in one of the most sexually permissive places in the country, I wondered: If I’d never questioned my own sexuality, how could I be sure I was straight?
I spent every day that summer wondering if I was a lesbian. I forced myself to look at cleavage when I went out to a bar. I hesitantly pondered female oral sex. Once, I got naked and stared at myself in the mirror to see if I turned myself on. (I didn’t.) I even made lists: I had kissed girls when I was 7 years old (lesbian); I’d made out with a guy the night before (straight); I was a hypercompetitive college athlete (lesbian); I was voted class flirt in high school (straight); I drove a Subaru (lesbian?).
This singular, nonsensical obsession was like a second job—but it kept me busy and it kept me sane: Shortly before my move, my father was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and given 18 to 24 months to live. Lou Gehrig’s broke my heart the way it slurred my father’s speech: suddenly, aggressively. My impending loss was compounded by the end of a yearlong relationship with my college sweetheart—together, they made the prospect of a relationship with any man feel unstable and time-stamped. And the only thing that got me through that period was the comfort and support of women—the reassuring phone calls from my mom back in Michigan, the distraction of hour-and-a-half lunches with a girlfriend from work. Trying on the idea of lesbianism was a displacement of my grief, but it also gave me control: I could do away with men altogether before I’d start to care about another one. Wouldn’t my life be better if I could rely solely on women?
Once summer changed to fall, a far scarier question crossed my mind: What if I had to accept my heterosexuality—and inevitable heartache at the hands of men? Then, at a party one night, I met a guy who let me beat him at foosball and said my long ponytail was cute. When he sent me a flirty e-mail, I decided to push my fears aside and go for it. Would it last? It didn’t really matter. I was back.
Rachel Sturtz lives in New York. This is her first piece for Marie Claire.