I am 9, with short blonde hair and a bright yellow tankini, walking around the pool at my summer camp, staring at the women in their bathing suits.

I know what it is to be gay, and I know that god doesn’t like it, so I try to disguise the reason for my interest. I tell myself I just want to look at them because my body will look like theirs one day. I tell myself I’m interested in their bathing suits, the fashion.

I’m young, I don’t know how old exactly, but old enough to have a rough concept of sex. At night, hidden by the darkness in the room I share with my sister, I hold my pillow between my legs and tell myself elaborate stories. I know that what I’m doing is a sin, so in the stories what happens is always against my will. My favorite involves a man tying me, naked or in underwear, to another girl–except we have the bodies of women–and forcing us to rub against each other. I can’t be blamed for it if it’s someone else doing it.

I’m 11, and finding out about my Uncle Danny for the first time. His existence is a surprise to all of us kids. My mom doesn’t say it, but we suspect that when my parents were together my dad forbade my uncle from being around us because he is openly and unapologetically gay. When my parents eventually get back together, my uncle is a source of barely concealed tension between them.

I’m thirteen, watching MTV with my older cousin whom I’ve always admired. She is swooning over some shirtless male musician, and I try to force myself to understand what she’s talking about. I decide that I can see the appeal, but I’m still not moved by it. I don’t mention the women in their short skirts dancing behind him, although I picture the shapes their panties trace against their skin later when I’m alone.

I’m fifteen and with my first boyfriend. I’m not attracted to him, not in the way I am to the girl who sits across from me in civics whose legs go on for miles and whose shirts gap prettily when she bends over her desk to write. I try to force an interest in his body in the same studied way I tried to find appeal in MTV celebrities. Despite that, I can’t get enough of his hands on me. We get caught making out all over the school. I cry the first time I put his dick in my mouth and tell him that I feel dirty, but I fantasize about making him cum. His desire for me is addicting.

I’m 16, and smoking pot with my best friend in a room heavy with the smell of incense. The walls are red and warm and she is creamy white, teasing me about the bra I’ve left on her bedroom floor. “This is too big for you! This is the size I wear!” she squeals, and starts to put it on. “Oh, except you have it done up all tiny,” she says, turning to me. Her breasts spill over the cups like ice cream scoops and I reach for her without saying anything. My hands are on her waist, her lips are on mine, and we are falling together on the bed. My memories are warm and soft and blurred, but she loses interest before I do.

We end up cuddling, my head on her stomach, while she eats a lollipop. I listen to the sound of her lips, her tongue, and pretend that I am that candy. She moans, very slightly, in stoned appreciation as she eats, and I begin to quiver. My insides feel like molten lava and I can still smell her on my fingers the next morning.

I’m 17 and in rehab. My counselor, a very pretty woman with a Playboy Bunny tattoo on her hip and breasts like pillows, takes in my flannel shirts and oversized coat and starts asking me about my sexual preferences. She encourages me to make a list of reasons I may or may not be gay–two columns, like pro and con but with pussy. I put never having sober sex on that list, as well as my lack of attraction for male bodies. I feel like I need to make a choice, and, excited to voice something I hadn’t addressed too openly, I come out to my friends. I call myself a lesbian for two weeks before I admit that I’m dating another man. My friends put it all down to attention-seeking.

I’m 18, and in-between boyfriends. I have sex constantly, but never cum. My favorite part of sex with boys is their attraction for me, which gets me into trouble. If I sense their desire, I have a hard time not acting on it.

19, and at an all-ages lesbian dance club on the second floor above one of two local gay bars. A pretty girl with a severe haircut chats me up, then asks point blank if I’m a lesbian. I stumble, and she rolls her eyes in exasperation. “Bi girls,” she says to her friend, and walks away. “Look me up when you realize you’re gay!” she calls over her shoulder.

22, and it’s rare that I’m in a room devoid of people that I’ve slept with. All of my friends are straight women, but I’ve been between each of their thighs, some of them more than once. I’m in love with my best friend but she too is straight, and I content myself to live with her and her boyfriend. My own love life is a mess. I’m dating a girl with whom I have absolutely no chemistry, but she’s the first girl I’ve slept with who is attracted to me. The sex is unbelievable. It’s like having sex with a man without the boring parts. It’s like being in a warm bath and on a roller coaster at the same time. But we don’t get each other’s jokes. We communicate entirely in in awkward misunderstandings and she, it turns out, is struggling with her own identity. Sometime after we break up, she admits to herself that she is a man and begins transitioning.

At 23, I get sober and get into the first monogamous relationship of my life. It is with another man.

I am 26 and can’t stop reading about the massacre at the Pulse nightclub. Not for the first time, I am ashamed that I cannot identify as gay. I feel that my romantic attraction to men unfairly protects me. I wonder whether I should come out to family even though I’m in a stable relationship with the man I started dating when I was 23. Would it do more harm than good? Would it hurt them? Would they even hear me?

Now. I think about my orientation all the time. I don’t know how to explain it to anyone and I don’t know whether it matters but it feels important. It feels like a puzzle I need to solve, something that needs to be labeled.