By Kristin Russo
Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities. Do you have a word that needs defining? Let us know!
Questioning is exactly what it sounds like: Understanding our sexuality or our gender identity is not always (or even commonly) a clear-cut process, so many use the identity term Questioning to explain that they are exploring all or parts of those facets of their identity!
Sexuality and gender have often been portrayed as either/or identities—we hold very tightly to binaries as a society. The world tends to tell us: “You’re either a boy or a girl,” or “You’re either gay or straight.” As several of our other defining pieces have discussed, these binaries can be troubling to begin with—sexuality and gender exist on (and outside of) much larger spectrums (we’ve just begun our defining journey, but have already covered transgender, nonbinary, & cisgender, as well as bisexual, asexual, intersex, and queer). So, for many people, figuring out exactly how they identify, or who they are attracted to, can start (or continue in an ongoing way) with “questioning.”
At 16, I didn’t quite understand my own sexuality—though at the time, I didn’t have the word “questioning” at my disposal. As a matter of fact, because of those pesky, pervasive binaries that I mentioned earlier, I really thought that I had to be one thing or another: gay or straight. Since I knew that I had crushes on boys, but I also knew that I really liked making out with a girl in my class, I was confused as all get-out. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had so, so much exploring ahead of me! I would come out as bisexual the following year, then as a lesbian a few years later; I would fall in love with a girl for the first time and have my heart broken; I would be in a long-term relationship of five years with another girl; I would struggle with occasional attractions to boys (“ahhh, what if I am not gay after all?!”); I would come out yet again as bisexual, and so on and so forth…it was a long and winding path. At all or any of these points in my life, I could have claimed Questioning as my identity. Certainly, at 16, it would have felt incredible to know that I could be right there, wondering, and that the questioning experience in and of itself was valid!
We often think that the only way to validate our feelings is to know them so well that we can clearly label them as “this” or “that” for others to understand. This isn’t the case, of course, because my identity as a questioning 16-year-old was very real: I was getting to know myself, my desires, my attractions, and more. Questioning is a healthy place to be (for people of any age), and increased understanding and openness about that exploration allows room for experiences that help us better know ourselves.
• Questioning is not denial — When someone says they are questioning, it doesn’t mean that they are “actually” gay or “actually” trans and just haven’t gotten there yet…it means they are questioning. It means they don’t yet know. You certainly don’t know the inside of their brain better than they do, so trust in what they tell you, and listen as they explore and learn more about themselves!
• Questioning is not wishy-washy — Questioning is not an indicator of someone not being “able to choose.” It isn’t indicative of being non-committal, or anything of the sort. Someone who is questioning is involved in an active process, sifting through experiences and feelings and coming to better understand their evolving identity.
• Questioning is not only for kids — I have questioned elements of my sexuality at several stages of my life, and I am certain that I will have more experiences that bring up questions! Sure, we may first begin our questioning as young people—but we don’t ever stop having informative and enlightening experiences. For some of us, that questioning element can remain constant, or come back at different times in our lives.
• Questioning is not a fad — We are seeing a much-needed increase in people talking openly about sexuality and gender identity, which means that exploration (and talking about exploration) has more visibility. This visibility allows for young people (all people!) to know that it is okay to question, to explore, to wonder, and to identify outside of a binary! If it seems that more people are questioning their sexuality or gender identity than in years past, know that this isn’t because there are suddenly more people questioning (or jumping onto a “fad”), but that this is a result of being allowed to talk about that questioning, rather than feeling it must stay hidden. Visibility is an amazing thing.
Knowing that we aren’t expected to be just one rigid thing for our whole lives—and that we can question our sexualities and our gender identities without invalidating the way we feel—is incredibly important. If your child, or anyone in your life, tells you they are Questioning, know that this is a very powerful and important place to be. It might be the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of ever-evolving answers, or it might be a path toward a narrower, more specific identity that sticks forever and ever…it all depends on the person. Honor the questioning space for what it is, and don’t try to make it be anything else!