Is it permissible to conjecture aloud about my sexuality despite never having acted on the feelings I lay claim to? Am I supposed to claim a label? Am I allowed to claim a label?
There are those in my life whom, after reading my novel Beyond the Break, are not quite sure how to react. “Kristen,” they say while giving me a healthy dose of side-eye, “how much of this is…um, you?”
They don’t always come out and ask the more direct questions I can only imagine must lurk beneath their narrowed, curious eyes. But I know people wonder. Why would a heterosexual, happily-married SAHM write an angsty novel about a pair of heterosexual women falling into a torrid love affair?
I recently shared with a psychologist friend of mine that I was nervous about doing interviews about the book. How much should I reveal about Beyond the Break’s inspiration? How much of myself do I want to give away here? She said, “Having fantasies is perfectly normal and, according to the professional literature, isn’t necessarily indicative of bisexuality.”
And I got pissed. I felt like I’d been dismissed. I felt, to use an obnoxious psych cliché, invalidated.
I told her, “There’s a difference between Ooh, I had a naughty fantasy, which everyone has at one time or another, and sometimes feeling like you might have stumbled into the wrong life. Feeling that you could just as easily have ended up in a very different life. Feeling that, because you weren’t paying attention, you’ve actually lost something. It’s like someone died.”
She then clarified that she only meant that, in terms of what I choose to reveal publicly, it is perfectly acceptable to say “The book is a fantasy” and leave it at that. She meant to say that I’m not obligated to divulge any personal information or label myself at all. But the fact that I misunderstood her and got so defensive that actual steam shot out of my ears was a clue to me that maybe I’m not OK with pretending Beyond the Break is just me exploiting a hot trend. Beyond the Break was the written equivalent of slicing myself open, from clavicle to C-section scar, and letting my guts spill out onto the floor. I can’t casually stroll away from the carnage, whistling all innocent-like, pretending I have no idea whose innards those are.
One of my biggest fears in releasing Beyond the Break was that I would get flak from the LGBTQ community for being a heterosexual married woman writing so explicitly about an experimental queer relationship. The relationship between the two central characters evolves within the context of a woman suffering from PTSD in the wake of a violent rape, and is, at its core, a story about healing. But it is most definitely a queer-centric—or maybe queer-curious—novel.
And so, before I ever typed the first word of the first draft, I was petrified. I thought, I don’t have the right to write this. I am going to be called a fraud. I’m not queer enough. I’m not queer…at all.
But I don’t fit into the hetero box, either…at least, I don’t think. Am I allowed to say this? Is it permissible to conjecture aloud about my sexuality despite never having acted on the feelings I lay claim to? Am I supposed to claim a label? Am I allowed to claim a label?
Does any of this even matter?
Well, yes, I think it does. It matters because when something clicked inside my head a few years ago, when I was blindsided by a little piece of me that flared up and could not be extinguished, I thought I had gone motherfucking batshit crazy.
It matters because, since Beyond the Break’s release just a few weeks ago, I’ve already received an onslaught of messages from women who have had similar feelings or experiences. Women who have suffered terrible anxiety and depression as the result of being trapped with feelings they could not explain, could not act upon, and could not wish away. Women who, in some cases, had chosen to act on those feelings, with or without the blessings of their husbands, and whose lives were turned upside down, sometimes nearly destroyed.
It matters because, all this time I feared I would be accused of being a sellout or a fraud, I was looking at this situation completely wrong. What has happened instead, at least so far, is that I have learned a few things: I am not alone. I am not a freak. There is nothing actually wrong with me. How amazing is that? Perfect strangers inboxing me and saying Thank you for writing this! I thought it was just me! The funny part is how they think I validated them.
It matters because now I know, now I am sure: There are many, many women who, like me, followed that well-worn, predictable, white-picket-fence path, who did everything they were supposed to do to build “the perfect life,” and now they’re sitting there with their absolutely lovely husband and children, stunned and blinking and wondering how on earth a whole side of them managed to lie dormant and unexplored for years. This sort of undefined, ever-evolving, fluid sexuality of a woman, these unacknowledged, latent feelings that spring seemingly out of nowhere—this is something we don’t discuss. Not us grownup marrieds, anyway. Why does no one talk about this?
These things matter. But what doesn’t matter to me, I have decided, is claiming a label. For me, labels are irrelevant, because I know I am where I’m meant to be. I love my husband and I love my family. I’m happy.
But all those words in Beyond the Break that cause my friends and family to cut their eyes at me? Those guts all over the floor? Those are mine.