For some people, sexual orientation and desire are not rigid or continuous throughout their lives; rather, they can be fluid and change over time.
Mass media and mainstream LGBTQ+ movements and organizations often define sexual orientation identity as one (but no more than one) of the following: heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and pansexual. More niche, often online, communities add other identities: demisexual, sapiosexual, lithosexual, and many others. And while sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing, the concept of a sexual orientation is typically based on the sameness or difference of genders among two or more people. A framework of sexual identity based on static, binary gender categories leaves no space for those whose gender identities transcend the gender binary, nor for anyone attracted to them.
Unfortunately, what many communities share in conceptualizing sexual identity, is a belief in its fixed nature. From the “born this way” rhetoric of the mainstream gay rights movement seeking to root gay and lesbian identity as established at birth, or the search for a “gay gene” seeking to legitimate gay and lesbian identity through biology, sexual identity – more colloquially described as ‘sexuality’ – is cast as a characteristic or trait that does not change. Mainstream LGBTQ discourse subscribes to a model of identity formation and development that assumes an early discovery of same-gender attraction, a period of hiding that attraction (being “in the closet”), an explosive coming-out process by which that attraction becomes a publicly held identity, and finally a stabilizing of that identity over the long-term – typically, the remainder of an individual’s lifetime. For some people, sexual orientation and attraction are very fixed; however, this is not the case for all.
This depiction of fixed sexuality is often established in opposition to the conservative argument that sexuality is both “unnatural” and “a choice” – an argument that seeks to delegitimize same-gender relationships and orientations by virtue of them being non-normative, and by virtue of them not fitting into a prescribed perception of “appropriate” human sexuality often informed by religious beliefs. Countering this argument, then, often involves arguing that human same-gender relationships are both “natural” and “not a choice” – through examples of same-sex relationships in animals, same-sex human relationships in history, and the aforementioned framings of sexuality as a biological characteristic established at birth.
Human sexuality, however, is understood currently as more complex than either of these binary depictions typically show it to be. We now often differentiate sexual, romantic and aesthetic attractions and identities from each other, framing each as a constantly-changing characteristic shaped by past and current experiences, other held identities (whether racial, class, gender, ability, religious and/or others) and an individual’s own agentic desire. An individual may, for example, desire to have sexual relationships typically with women, but find themselves romantically attracted to people of all genders and aesthetically attracted to more androgynous forms of gender expression. Many years later, the same individual may find that their sexual, romantic and/or aesthetic attractions and identities have changed –perhaps as a result of living in a different environment and interacting with different communities, personal and/or spiritual exploration, a significant formative sexual or romantic experience, personal choice, some combination of all of these or for a different reason altogether.
No matter the cause, sexual fluidity is an experience shared by many people, and does not inherently imply any negative emotional or mental health outcomes for individuals who experience it. For many, sexual fluidity is just one of the many unique ways in which people experience their sexuality over a lifetime.
Alongside Stanford’s Weiland Health Initiative, the Queer Student Resources Center located in the Fire Truck House provides a warm and welcoming space for the extremely diverse population of students celebrating, questioning, investigating and struggling with sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Originally authored by Lily Zheng, edited by Weiland Health Initiative team.