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A little over a decade ago, Jesse*, a now-42-year-old man based in Alberta, Canada, got a divorce. An office administrator for a warehouse distributor, Jesse’s a self-described “omega male” who sees himself as a pretty geeky guy, or at least one who doesn’t stand out in a crowd.

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But in the aftermath of his marriage, Jesse did something out of the ordinary, and found a way to explore fantasies that just hadn’t fit into the context of his marriage. Specifically, BDSM-fueled fantasies of being a devoted, submissive slut to a dominant woman.

Jesse turned to an online dating site and connected with exactly the kind of woman he was looking for. For six or seven years, the two met up once a month or so for hot and heavy playdates. She pushed him to explore not just his original fantasies, but ones he never would have thought of on his own. She “force-feminized” him, dressing him in feminine clothes and makeup—a genderbending form of domination that eventually expanded to include pegging, which Jesse discovered he loved as well.

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“I found it exciting mainly because I was with a woman,” he tells me. “Being dressed up didn't make me feel like a woman or queer, but a ‘slut’.”

But a few years in, Jesse began to wonder if there might be something more to his predilections. A lesbian co-worker he befriended noted that those D/s adventures he’d engaged in sounded a bit gay, which, he says, “got me wondering if maybe I am a closet case like every alt-news site decries me to be.”

So he decided to find out. He started hitting up local cruising sites, the CruiseLine phone chat system (this was still a few years before Grindr blew up), and even managed to pick up men at arcades and peepshows. And as he began to explore sex with men—exchanging dick pics, giving blowjobs, receiving anal—he found it pushed some of the same buttons as that initial relationship with his dominant female friend. “I'm basically interested in the dick and being ‘slutty’ since it fills my submissive side,” he explains.

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But for all the fun he’s had with men, Jesse doesn’t consider himself gay, or even bi. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a straight man who just happens to enjoy the occasional episode of cruising. Which—even in the most libertine of sexual circles—is an identity many people just can’t wrap their heads around.

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If Jesse’s story sound familiar, it’s because he’s hardly alone, even if identities like his don’t fit into a comfortably defined definition of sexuality. A number of ostensibly straight politicians, like Larry Craig, have been outed after soliciting sex with other men. Sociologists have built their careers on studying populations of men who are “on the DL” or—in the case of a study that garnered a great deal of attention late last year—engaging in “bud sex.”

Researchers tend to be sympathetic to their claims of a complex identity, but the general public is rarely quite so willing to view the topic in such nuanced shades of grey. The “Guilty As Fuck” episode of HBO’s Insecure offered a concise portrayal of the way men, in particular, get boxed in by black-and-white sexual identities: When Jared admits to a one-time sexual experiment with another man, his female partner automatically assumes he must be gay or bi. To her, the slightest hint of sexual fluidity (or even curiosity) called his heterosexuality into question.

This is the most common response when not-so-straight sex lives of straight-identified men surface. In a review of Jane Ward’s 2015 Not Gay, a book that examines the phenomenon of straight-identified men who engage in gay sex, Rich Juzwiak offers a pointed summation of this reaction:

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Given the cultural incentives that remain for a straight-seeming gay, given the long-road to self-acceptance that makes many feel incapable or fearful of honestly answering questions about identity—which would undoubtedly alter the often vague data that provide the basis for Ward’s arguments—it seems that one should care about the wide canyon between what men claim they are and what they actually are.

Jesse can understand why others might view his identity with suspicion, or assume that—to use Juzwiak’s phrase—he’s merely a “straight-seeming gay.” But the idea of coming out as gay, or even bi, feels dishonest. “I know I wouldn't be able to be in a typical relationship with a guy,” he tells me. “It would be weird to hold hands, or spoon a guy.”

The intimate, romantic gestures he’s always enjoyed with women have never felt right in his encounters with men—during his second same-sex encounter, Jesse played with a man who “was more into cuddles, wanting to make out, and I found it decidedly awkward and not a turn on at all.” It’s certainly possible that this initial discomfort might have been more due to lack of familiarity than lack of attraction, but even after years of cruising, being intimate, rather than just sexual, with men has never felt natural for Jesse.

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When I pressed him for details about what differentiates a hook up with a man from a date with a woman, he admitted that he’d never really thought about comparing them before. With men, the experience is about sex: He doesn’t want to grab a beer or get coffee with a male hookup, and to the extent he’s interested in any kind of regular relationship, it’s simply out of a desire for convenience and safety.

With women, on the other hand, he’s much more traditional. He’ll go on dates, he’ll spend time getting to know them, he’ll get emotionally as well as physically intimate. Notably, Jesse tells me, “If I'm in a relationship with a woman, I don't cruise at all. I can fill my romantic intimacy and sexual desires in the relationship.”

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Why do we have such a hard time with identities like Jesse’s? Paradoxically, the fight for gay liberation may be a contributing factor. In a different era, a man like Jesse—someone interested in relationships with women in addition to occasional sex with men—would not have been seen as particularly out of the ordinary.

Contrary to our modern framework that fuses sexual orientation with sexual behavior, a century ago queerness was far more about gender presentation than sexual behavior. As historian George Chauncey’s Gay New York expertly recounts, a feminine man who solicited sex with other men might be considered a “fairy,” but a masculine man who took him up on his offer of sex could be considered “normal.”

But as queer people began to advocate for acceptance, the framework began to shift. Homosexual encounters were no longer seen as merely a behavior, but a full-on identity, an inborn sexual orientation more about love than gender expression, sexual preference, or perversion. This rhetorical realignment helped normalize LGBTQ identities—consider, for instance, the cries of “love is love” that propelled the cause of marriage equality—but in removing some of the division between sexual behaviors and romantic attractions, we may have inadvertently oversimplified our understanding of how humans process and pursue both sex and love.

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Internalized homophobia and straight privilege do sometimes result in closeted people who are merely in denial—as in the case of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, a married man who came out as a “gay American” after being exposed for having an affair. But to assume that every man who will have sex with, but not date, other men is simply repressed or unwilling to think deeply about his identity is to ignore the complex inner life of many of these men. Jay*, a 39-year-old bisexual Torontonian, told me about the extensive conversations he’s had with his therapist about his sexual identity.

Jay’s attraction to men initially came from a romantic place; he fell in love with a best friend with whom he had almost no sexual chemistry. And, since his queer awakening in the late 1990s, he’s openly dated men and even come out to his mother. But over the past few decades, he’s found himself shifting into a decidedlyheteroromantic” place. Over email, he detailed a number of reservations he has about same-sex relationships, ranging from a feeling that the men he’s dated have been far needier than his female partners to a sense that, as a bisexual man, he’s just not taken seriously as a romantic prospect. And he’s certainly aware that the cultural stigmas and assumptions around gayness may have influenced his ability to romantically connect with other men.

But why do we insist that people like Jay must be battling internal demons, rather than just accepting that they may have reached the boundaries of their own identities?

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Within the asexual community, where many people experience desires for romantic relationships with members of one or more genders even as they experience little to no sexual interest in anyone, many people have begun to advocate for a recognition of many different types of attraction—including “romantic attraction,” a separate phenomenon from sexual attraction. This distinction can be a useful way to explain why, say, you might want to hold hands and share a life with someone even as the idea of rubbing your bits together holds less appeal. Or explain the attitudes of people for whom sexual and romantic attractions are both present, but manifest in different ways.

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While some of the men I spoke to for this piece mentioned details that might bolster the argument that they’re just in the closet—conservative upbringings; homophobic family members; youths spent absorbing rigid messages about sex, love, and gender roles; and a conflicted feeling that they might be battling internalized homophobia—others offered an entirely different picture of what it can mean to be a heteroromantic bisexual.

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Jason, a 22-year-old based in rural England, has several openly LGBTQ family members and chafes at the notion that his lack of romantic interest in men makes him a “fake bi guy.” And Andrew (not his real name) lives in a college town he describes as a “super LGBTQA+ friendly city” and is happy to adopt the bisexual or queer label, even as he worries that his tendency to swing hetero in his romantic relationships means he doesn’t have a place within the larger queer community.

And while heteroromantic bisexuals are more common, and much more discussed, there are people at the other end of the spectrum: homoromantic bisexuals, or queers who are sexually attracted to many genders, but romantically attracted to just their own. Like Valerie*, a Los Angeles-based trans woman who primarily dates women but will happily hook up with men as well (a habit she picked up pre-transition, when exploring the gay bath houses of San Francisco while sorting out her identity).

The arguments that get lobbed at someone like Jesse or Jay—that they’re closeted, that they doesn’t want to sacrifice straight privilege, that they’re just internalizing society’s queer-shaming messages—cease to make sense with someone like Valerie. Perhaps she’s just a person for whom women are appealing both as romantic partners and sexual playmates, while men only spark only sexual attraction. And if it’s possible for a trans woman to have a complex and nuanced sexual orientation, why do we deny that same possibility to cisgender men?

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Jesse, for one, doesn’t feel conflicted about who or what he is. When hookups have questioned his identity—calling him, for instance, “another closeted gay, fake straight boy into prick teasing and playing games because I was too scared to face the facts”—he’s calmly reminded them that he’s always been upfront about exactly who he is, and exactly what his desires and intentions are.

“I make it clear before meeting: I do not want to date, I do not want random phone calls,” he says. “I am only looking for sex and if we click maybe we can make it a semi-regular thing.” Perhaps it’s time that we as a culture finally start believing him.

* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of interview subjects.

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Lux Alptraum is a writer, comedian, and consultant with one thing on her mind. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.