Can You Be Sexually Gay & Romantically Straight? ~ Lyla Cicero

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A few months back it came out that actor John Travolta may have had sex with men.

Whatever the facts of the case, the blogosphere and my sex therapist circles were aflutter with speculation. What did this mean? Was John Travolta gay? Does sex with men necessarily mean gay?

The fascinating Good Men Project post “Mostly Straight Most of the Time” talks about men who identify as “mostly straight,” including men who feel politically or personally limited by the heterosexual male role, men who find other men attractive but primarily enjoy sex with women, and men who have romantic feelings or enjoy cuddling or going “beyond platonic” with other men, but not having sex. It also talks about men who have sex with other men, but still identify as “mostly straight.”

For example, the article quotes a man named Dillon who explains that “he resides in the ‘Sexual Netherlands,’ a place that exists between heterosexuality and bisexuality.”

So what is going on with these men? Are they gay, straight or bisexual? My answer to that question is that it is the wrong question. Rather than trying to squeeze people into existing labels, perhaps we should be making new labels. Can you be sexually gay and romantically straight, or as some of my colleagues described it, “homo-sexual and hetero-emotional? ” Of course!  You can be anything. That is what we keep missing. No matter how many categories we make, people will keep inhabiting “the Netherlands in between.”

I personally feel somewhat more sexually attracted to men than women, but still sexually attracted to women… perhaps in a different way? Affectionally or romantically, I think I might feel slightly more pull toward women than men, but still feel romantic toward men. Then again, there are men who are more like women and women who are more like men, and transgender folk, and genderqueer folk, and people who are cisgender, but don’t follow traditional gender roles. I could be sexually or affectionally drawn to any of them!

I tend to be most attracted to people who exhibit a combination of traditionally male and traditionally female traits, but still identify with a clear male or female gender identity, though in a subtle way. What does that make me? It makes me hard to label. I love the term pansexual because it separates gender from sexual orientation, allowing attraction to be more about other things. It also rejects the false dichotomy between sexual/romantic and platonic relationships. To me, pansexual takes into account the complexity of sexual and affectional orientation.

The currently accepted gay/straight dichotomy with bisexual in the middle presents the following limitations:

1. Gender as a concept is problematic.

In order to label your orientation based on gender, you have to be able to label everyone as a gender. Tricky and getting trickier!

2. Research is making it clearer and clearer that sexual orientation is fluid.

See the wonderful work of Lisa Diamond on fluidity. Sexual orientation changes over the lifespan way more than most of us realize.

3. Sexual orientation labels attempt to describe feelings and behaviors that exist along a spectrum as discrete entities with no gray area in between.

It’s as useful as calling everyone under four feet “short,” everyone between four and six feet “medium height,” and people over six feet “tall” and then asking each group to all wear the same size clothes. Of course there are people who fall in between straight and bisexual, in between bisexual and gay, etc. The “Mostly Straight, Most of the Time” piece states, “National surveys in the U.S. and Canada show that three to four percent of male teenagers, when given the choice to select a term that best describes their sexual feelings, desires, and behaviors, opt not for heterosexual, bisexual, or gay, but for ‘mostly’ or ‘predominantly’ heterosexual.”

4. Types of attraction also exist along a spectrum.

Relationships don’t fall neatly into platonic and romantic categories or sexual and non-sexual categories as easily as you would think, given our current labels. We can experience sexual feelings or sexual tension and not want to have sex. There are sensual aspects to almost all human interactions—including with our children, parents, and siblings, with close friends, bosses, or the person who delivers our mail. Sometimes the beginning of a new friendship can feel like a romance. A close friendship can include physical and emotional intimacy. Sometimes sex is just about getting off, sometimes much more. Some folks have primary and secondary romantic relationships, or more than one equally weighted relationship at a time.

I believe Kinsey had it right when he introduced the spectrum idea—that there is a spectrum between gay and straight.

What we need to add is just how many spectrums there are. It’s not just how gay or straight you are, it’s how gay or straight are you at a certain age, in a certain emotional state, with a certain person, in a sexual situation, a romantic situation, a sensual situation, when there is an emotional connection, or some combination of these. What are your romantic, sexual, sensual, emotional reactions to people with various types of gender expression? These questions can’t be answered with a simple gay or straight, or even “I’m a 6 out of 10.”

I’m not advocating we throw out the terms gay and straight. There are very important reasons to emphasize difference, even while seeking equality. Nuance is not politically expedient. Some of us are kind of like you some of the time and not like you some of the time, and you are probably more like us than you’d like to admit and we all change over time, so please allow us marriage equality.

This would make for a horrifically bad Human Rights Campaign slogan. It’s about as compelling as “Read my lips… no new taxes… unless the following 10 things happen.”

We are gay, we always want sex and romance with people of the same sex, we were born this way, we will always be this way is a much easier sell. Even some of us are right in between and like both males and females, which is a lot easier to sell than trying to explain that male and female may not even be that useful in assessing our level of interest in another person and doesn’tapply to a sizable and increasingly visible portion of the population.

For these reasons, there is a tendency among queer folk and allies to assume those who insist on identities like “mostly straight” or who operate on the “down low” are closeted and unwilling to be honest about their identities. Are there people who don’t use existing labels because they would rather shield themselves from the minority stress associated with being “out” as a sexual minority? Of course! But I believe there are also many folks (myself included) who have a sense that the gay/straight/bi categories don’t quite fit them.

So are these categories useless, then?

No, I don’t believe so. I believe many labels become stepping stones to other more nuanced ones. Without gay and straight we would never have had bisexual and transgender, and without those, we never would have come to pansexual, genderqueer, etc. How do we strike the right balance? How do we advocate for the queer community and build new notions of identity while also acknowledging that identity is complex and nuanced? And still explain that our labels are currently limited, but will keep growing?

Not easily. We are simultaneously shackled and set free by these labels. We need to be able to question and expand upon existing labels, acknowledging their limitations, without throwing them out all together or assuming the labels themselves are the problem. We need to be able to use them and question them and make room for new types of identities all at the same time.


Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, with clinical interests in relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy.  Lyla is feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UndercoverInTheSuburbs.com, where she focuses on expanding notions of identity beyond cultural limitations in the areas of gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.



Ed. Caroline Scherer


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John Feb 16, 2016 3:20am

Can a man be attracted to women both phisically and emotionally but have a hard time to be aroused by women despite really wanting to have sex with them, while he doesn't really feel the need/urge to have sex with men but can easily be turned on by them (like an involuntary reflex) and is only emotionally attracted to those men who emotionally resemble women? Because I'm very confused.

Kobay Jan 20, 2016 12:19pm

This, unfortunately, is me. I am in an extreme minority, there are no support groups for people like me, and most of what I find about people like me are articles speculating if we even exist. Let me put this to rest. We do. Romantic and sexual orientation are two separate things, but usually for almost everyone these two orientations match. For myself, I am a woman, I am in no way sexually aroused by the physiology of a man. I do become attracted to men, "crushing" and even falling in love with them. The attraction is hard to describe, it's usually to a combination of their face and personality. I may want to kiss them, cuddle them, etc. I will make love to them, and tolerate it, but I really don't find any sexual gratification in it inherently. Ever since I began having "relations" with men, I've never achieved an orgasm unless I was thinking about women, usually pretending in my mind somehow I was with a woman. But I love men, I am exclusively interested in relationships with men. I thought for a while in my youth that I was bisexual or maybe even gay, and I tried to date women, but it was EXTREMELY WEIRD (except the sex which was amazing)… I found it to feel very unnatural, I never had feelings for a woman, I just had none of the lovey dovey romantic feelings for a woman like I have with men. I loved the sex as much as I ever imagined I would. But, I broke a lot of ladies' hearts in those days and figured I'd better call the whole thing off. I'm not a confused teenager, I'm an adult in my 30s and I've come to terms in the last 10 years with what I am. I'm unlikely to ever be in love with and sexually aroused by the same person. And I have a desire to have as "normal" a life as I can with a family and children. So I gave up my sexual desires for the sake of that, and I married a man and we had a child. He doesn't know that I am what I am. I've never let on that I love him, but sexually, I'm about as into him as I am into a carton of milk. He's got a very delicate ego and I know he couldn't handle it. I know he deserves to be wanted and loved in EVERY way but that's not something I can give anyone. So I play a role kind of. I have been playing this role since I hit puberty, probably before really. Nice and normal me. As of late, with all of the attention on non binary people, trans people, etc… I have been finding a tad bit more information. We're still pretty much the least recognized orientation out there. The proper term is "homosexual heteroromantic" and there are various variations on this theme. I feel sad that, even to sexual minorities (asexuals, trans, homosexuals, etc) we're still sort of considered a theoretical possibility. I mean I guess it might mean that this is pretty rare and I guess that's good because it's really kind of a poor hand to be dealt that one cannot change no matter what really. Sexuality isn't really "fluid" at all in my experience. I have tried to force myself into one or the other category, but sexuality seems really to me to be more akin to an allergy than a habit or chosen lifestyle. As in, the body has its reaction to something, whether we like it or not. You can't will away an allergy and unlike allergies, there's no medication for homosexuality. Let's just accept what we are

Arizona Nov 27, 2015 4:02pm

I always identified as a lesbian but in the past months I realized that I want to have sex with a man, it's not that I have feelings for him, I'm just sexually attracted to him. And an also very strange thing is that I am sexually attracted to gay men..but at the same time I still want to spend my life with a woman and I am still attracted to them sexually..can someone tell me how to call this?

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