My girlfriend and I have very different taste in men. One of our favourite ways to spend a Sunday morning is to sit in the window of a cafe and haggle over the handsomeness of guys who walk by. In terms of type, Justin Bieber, Leo circa-Romeo + Juliet, and David Beckham pre-beard are all big fat 10s for me. Jen is less into pretty boys, and prefers Don Draper-like hunks. When we were introduced to Jamie Dornan at a restaurant by an actor friend recently, we both turned 50 shades of cerise and swooned, ridiculously. Don’t get me wrong: to do anything more than ogle the opposite sex would not be OK. We’re a happy, committed couple and have been so for over five years. She’s a girl, I’m a girl. But does being in a relationship make us lesbians? I used to assume it did and I was totally fine with that. Now, I don’t actually think it matters.
At the time of writing, Kristen Stewart, Cara Delevingne and Ireland Baldwin have all unofficially introduced us to their girlfriends without making any definitive › announcement about their sexuality. You might wonder why they don’t come out as bisexual – an identity that acknowledges an attraction to both sexes – but it’s the labelling of one’s sexual identity as anything that they’re rejecting. ‘Bisexual’ can feel as absolute an identity as ‘gay’ or ‘straight’, and for these women, it’s not black and white. The singer St. Vincent – Delevingne’s girlfriend [at the time of going to press] – put it well when she told Rolling Stone magazine, ‘I don’t think about those words. I believe in gender fluidity and sexual fluidity. I don’t really identify as anything.’
I know a ‘straight’ woman who switched her Tinder profile to ‘looking for girls’ and has been having a lot of sex with a lot of women ever since. And I know a ‘gay’ girl who, after being dumped by her girlfriend of 10 years, has fallen in love with a man and is trying for a baby. Neither of these women has once even mentioned how they define their sexuality now. They’ve just said, ‘Hey, this is my new partner.’
But such embracing of sexual fluidity isn’t a trend: it’s a serious shift in attitude that has happened gradually over the past few years. Remember, equal rights and gay marriage weren’t achieved by celebrities and hip twentysomethings being fashionably ambivalent about their sexuality: people fought for change, and it is thanks to the men and women who risked all kinds of prejudice to speak out and be unapologetically homosexual at a time when it was very difficult to do so, that Delevingne is now inundated with heart-eye emojis from her 20 million-plus social media followers for saying, ‘I think that being in love with my girlfriend is a big part of why I’m feeling so happy with who I am these days.’
The film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol, out in December, is a stark reminder of the sacrifices that women who fell in love with women in the 1950s were forced to make. While Cate Blanchett (in the lead role) expresses no inner conflict about her own attraction to the same sex, her life is made miserable by her decision not ‘to go against [her] grain’, and be pressured into remaining in a loveless marriage to a man.
How far we’ve come: gay marriage is now legal in 21 countries around the world, TV shows about lesbian relationships are winning Emmys and kids are growing up with far more openly gay people in the public eye. The question among young, educated, open-minded women today is not, ‘Is it OK to be gay?’ It’s more, ‘Can we be every sexual identity at once, can we be some of them, or none of them, or even move between them?’ In 2015, we fall in love with a person, not a gender.
The chart-topping singer Jess Glynne is another of this new breed of celebrity speaking openly about her sexuality but refusing to negate its grey areas. She spoke in a magazine interview about being, ‘f*cked over by the first girl I’d ever fallen in love with’, but was reluctant to define her orientation any further, saying: ‘I don’t know what I want now – to be with a guy, with a girl, be with anyone.’
I got in touch with Kayla Goggin, a 25-year-old writer based in Savannah, Georgia, after reading the essay she wrote about her own fluid sexuality for the feminist website xojane.com. I asked how she explains her sexuality to people who ask if she’s gay or bi. ‘People ask this but it’s a real pain in the ass. I guess I would answer bi because that’ s easier to explain than invite people to plumb the annals of my fluctuating sexuality with me. Fluid or queer are better… but you’ve got to read the room, you know?’
In the latest series of Netflix drama Orange Is The New Black, Piper comes out to her parents by admitting, ‘I have a prison girlfriend.’ ‘Does this mean you’re officially a…’ asks her uptight mother. ‘It means I officially have a girlfriend,’ Piper replies. I wonder how many women have used this line since.
Of course, not everyone understands such a reluctance to define one’s sexuality. My friend Ally Jones, a 33-year-old illustrator from Brighton (the one who started swiping right on Tinder girls and discovered a whole new side to herself) says her mum has really struggled to get her head around it all. ‘It’s definitely a source of mental strife for her,’ she says. ‘She just can’t understand why, if I’m still attracted to men, I am choosing to “make my life more difficult” by being with women. Her reaction to my same-sex partners is the closest thing to homophobia I’ve experienced.’
I’m very lucky that my sexuality isn’t an issue for my family. I came out at 16, and even at my quite rough comprehensive secondary school in London, I may have been bullied for wearing the wrong trainers, but never because I dated girls. And because I grew up feeling that there’s nothing unusual about not being straight, and I’ve always been quite, ahem, successful with women, I haven’t felt the need to experiment with the opposite sex. But unlike some lesbians who would rather poke their eyes out than sleep with a man, I’m happy to admit that on the Kinsey scale, I’m swinging somewhere between Orange Is The New Black’s ‘butch’ Big Boo and serial heterosexualist Taylor Swift.
When I was in my teens and twenties and still finding my place in the world, it felt really important for me to be a badge-wearing lesbian (I actually had a badge, this is not a metaphor). Now I’m in my thirties, I care less and less about my sexuality as a label: society has changed, and I know myself better. My partner, who has dated men and women, would describe her sexuality as similarly unfixed. Our life experiences before meeting each other meant she had previously identified more as straight, and me more as gay. But now we’re together, messing around with these labels by acknowledging our attraction to men and to women, but most of all to each other, is really good fun.
Writer Goggin sees our cover star Miley Cyrus as a poster girl for fluid sexuality. She says, ‘Cyrus really hasn’t been afraid of talking about sexual grey areas and the sexual spectrum. The more people hear about it, the more it might be easier for people like me to have those conversations with the people in our lives. If it gives someone a frame of reference, then I think that’s great.’
‘I’m very open about it, I’m pansexual,’ Cyrus told ELLE on (p236). ‘I change my style every two weeks, let alone who I’m with.’ When she was rumoured to be dating the Victoria’s Secret model Stella Maxwell, she posted countless Instagram shots of them canoodling, rather than tell her 26 million followers she was in a ‘lesbian’ relationship. The reaction? A collective shoulder shrug.
‘I’m not hiding my sexuality,’ she told Time magazine recently. ‘There are times in my life when I’ve had boyfriends or girlfriends. And there are times when I just love being with myself and don’t want to give part of myself away to someone else.’
What I think is so great about Cyrus is not just her way with a wrecking ball, but how, despite identifying as fluid herself, she campaigns for gay rights, and isn’t afraid to speak out on behalf of the LGBT community – it’s not a case of, ‘Yeah, I date girls but I’d hate anyone to think I’m a lesbian.’ She’s being refreshingly honest when she says of her own sexuality, ‘I’m just equal [in the genders she’s attracted to]. I’m just even. It has nothing to do with any parts of me or how I dress or how I look. It’s literally just how I feel.’
Hannah Marshall, a 33-year-old creative director from London, has been in a relationship with Romy Madley Croft (singer and guitarist in the band The xx) for four years. Before meeting Romy, she had been engaged to a boy she had known since school. ‘We gradually grew apart as our paths were heading in different directions,’ she tells me. ‘I have always resonated with what Patti Smith once said: “We go through life. We shed our skins. We become ourselves.”’
Rather than say she’s a lesbian now, Marshall likes to refer to her ‘girlfriend’ and let people work out the rest for themselves. ‘The only problem is that in the States, people think I’m just meaning a girl who’s a friend!’ Of her personal story she explains, ‘In the end it’s very simple – I fell in love, and that person just happens to be of the same gender. I found someone that I have a deep connection with on every level: emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually and creatively. Love is love.’
It’s a sentiment echoed by lots of my friends, not least my own girlfriend Jen. She says her sexuality has evolved in a way she didn’t really expect. ‘I used to like the idea of experimenting, but ultimately thought I was straight and always would be. I thought the worst thing would be to be bisexual, because that would make choosing a life partner very difficult. But now, I just feel content that in reality, everyone has to choose just one person to be with, so what difference does it make that the person I’ve chosen is a woman?’ As Delevingne implores on her Instagram bio, ‘Stop labelling. Start living.’
After all this gadding about in the grey areas of sexuality, I wonder if I can really claim to be ‘fluid’ if the closest I’ve ever got to sealing the deal with the opposite sex was an ill-advised massage from the deckhand on a yacht in Turkey? What I can say is I was queuing outside the cinema for Magic Mike XXL tickets, with three mini bottles of prosecco in my handbag on the day it opened. Does that make me straight, bi or just boy-curious? Who cares? Knowing I’m not 100% anything is enough of a sexual identity for me right now. And plus, if anyone asks, I was at the screening for that other icon of fluid sexuality, Amber Heard, who plays Tatum’s (unrequited) love interest in the film. ‘I don’t want to have to deny my sexuality in order to be me,’ she has said. ‘But I don’t want to have to be defined by it. I’m fundamentally opposed to trying to edit myself to be palatable or popular. I don’t give a f*ck.' ...Yeah, what she said (and all those ripped, naked men).