ILLUSTRATIONS BY KALYA E.
Sexual fluidity is a challenge to both traditional and alternative sexual narratives.
Lisa Diamond’s seventh interview is the one that she remembers best. She had recruited “subject 007” at Cornell University, where she was studying how women who express attraction to other women come to understand their sexual identity. One early evening in 1995, in a conference room on the university campus, she settled down to ask the first question of her subject.
How did 007 currently identify herself on the spectrum of sexual identities? The woman answered that she didn’t know. She told Diamond that she had been heterosexual all her life until just that last week, when she suddenly found herself falling in love with her best friend—a woman. They had had sex a couple of times, something she described as very satisfying. Part of Diamond’s work was to categorize her subjects based on how they self-identified, but 007 wasn’t sure—so Diamond put her into the “unlabeled” category.
By the time 007 left after the two hour interview, Diamond had tentatively concluded that the woman would come out as bisexual in her follow-up interview. But 007 never did. The interaction marked the beginning of Diamond’s gradual realization that her assumptions about sexuality needed to change. In addition to the static orientations that most of us think about, like heterosexual, gay, and bisexual, some people experience shifts in their attractions that don’t fit into static orientations. In Diamond’s group, in fact, most did.
As she made her way through her 88 other subjects, Diamond asked each woman to fill out a pie chart indicating, in percentages, how much of her sexual attraction was directed to women, and how much to men. When Diamond followed up with 007 and her other subjects in 1997, she found something interesting: The make-up of their pie charts had shifted, and about 32 percent had changed their sexual identity labels.
It was on a flight to Los Angeles to visit her parents, in the middle of reading interview transcripts and making notes, that Diamond had an “aha” moment. She realized that she had been expecting, and imposing, conventional “coming out” stories: a falsification of sexual identity followed by a revealing of the true self. But “that’s not actually what people [were] saying,” Diamond recalls.
Re-reading her transcripts, Diamond realized that many of her subjects had not been misrepresenting their previous identities at all. Instead, they were moving from one genuine, persistent identity (and label) to another.
As Diamond followed up every two years with the women she was studying, her hypothesis found new support. “They were moving in all possible directions,” says Diamond. In 2005, 10 years after she began her study, the pie charts continued to change, and about 67 percent of the women had changed their sexual identity labels at least once. Many self-labeled lesbians had unlabeled themselves. Most of the women who had initially preferred not to have a label had taken on the bisexual label. Some unlabeled women became lesbian, and others heterosexual…