I’ve never liked labels on sexuality. Hetero/homo/bi, dominant/submissive/switch, masculine/feminine/non-binary…these seem to imply that we’re only ever one thing. But there are so many ways in which we can change depending upon the circumstances and who we’re with, in the moment.
I identified as hetero most of my life. If you asked me now, I’d still say I’m hetero. I love a woman’s body, a woman’s mind; I’m attracted to femininity most of all. But I’ve always left open the possibility that I might be attracted to a man…”you never know”, as my mom would say. I expected that if it happened there would be some sense of awkwardness, a “coming out”, and then a decision about how to deal with this new part of my sexuality. It didn’t quite happen that way.
Cape Town is nestled into mountains, slowly blending into the ocean, at the southern end of the African continent. There’s something endearing about the city and the people in it. A kind of genuineness, maybe.
In my home town of San Diego, you might meet a person in a coffee shop and quickly find that you enjoy a shared conversation. So you’ll trade numbers and part ways, and then never text or call again. Shallow and temporary is how it’s done. In Cape Town, though, the scenario plays out differently. You trade numbers and part ways, and then within minutes you’re receiving texts inviting you to events around the city. I remember one encounter where the people I met immediately invited me out to their son’s birthday party, then invited me out rock climbing the next day, then invited me out to a party in the wilderness that they weren’t even going to (they said they’d tell the host to expect me, and they’d love to have me). Building relationships and community were as natural as breathing to them.
I traveled to Cape Town on a whim after spending the last fifty days in the African wilderness; a large city seemed like a pleasant change of pace. After a week or so of partying and making friends there, I was ready to start slowing down. Somewhat by chance, a Couchsurfer named Philip offered to host me exactly when I needed. So I went.
Philip was a graphic designer and DJ, living and working in Cape Town. I remember looking at him and thinking that his face didn’t at all match his pictures—somehow photographs never quite capture the way he looks to me, especially now that I know him. He had short hair bleached white, but dark at the roots, with dark stubble growing in around his jaw. He was skinny and taller than I expected—taller than me, at least. And he had a way of moving that managed to look careful and unsteady all at once, as if he was never quite sure whether to hug you or to stay away.
The first few days were fairly standard, as far as couchsurfing goes. I slept on his couch, he showed me around Cape Town a little bit—hiking spots, coffee shops, parties DJed by his friends. Mostly we kept to ourselves and talked only at night. But slowly and subtly a bond formed.
We were both in long-distance open relationships at the time. Me and my girlfriend; he and his boyfriend. It turns out that we shared a lot of values and ways of looking at the world.
I valued his way of not labeling anything—there was no distinction between “friend” and “lover”; sex and intimacy could be natural parts of any relationship, or not. I didn’t know it at the time but this philosophy is called “Relationship Anarchy”, which is a fancy way of saying that there are no rules imposed on what a relationship is, what it can and can’t do, where it can go.
In turn, Philip valued my willingness to try anything, to learn from each new experience. He saw me approach strangers to start conversations, often losing me in crowds because I was busy making friends. I had no problem making a fool of myself if I thought I’d learn something from it. Success and failure, for me, was a game. And though Philip was no stranger to this way of being, he still admired it.
After less than a week of Philip and I orbiting each other, through long conversations and shared experiences, we learned that there was something else there. Philip was just as content to let it be whatever it already was as much as he was content to let it grow, if I wanted it. He never pushed, he only accepted. I, on the other hand, was vaguely aware of some connection—friendship or more, I didn’t know. But it’s in my nature to push and explore, so I did.
At this point, Philip had already made it clear that he would be happy with me staying longer. So I requested one more week. And then I set to exploring my internal space.
I knew that Philip enjoyed experimenting with drugs. As with all things, he was never pushy, but he offered. And I saw the care and attention he paid to his drug-taking; it was always taken with forethought about appropriate dosage, timing, safety, situation, and emotional state. So I felt safe, and I made a special request.
It should come as no surprise that the drug that brought us together was MDMA. For those of you who haven’t tried it, it’s a drug that promotes social connection, empathy, and physical and emotional pleasure. While high, you want to be honest and talk deeply to discover the depths of whoever you’re talking to. It feels good to hug and hold, to smell another person and feel them breathe against you. You intensely want to make other people feel good. If you’re already empathetic and connecting (as Philip and I were), the effect is intensified. And if you’re already connected to another person (as Philip and I were to each other), then the sense of connection is brought to the surface—it allows you to see what you’d felt, but perhaps never commented on.
And so Philip and I set aside an evening to have an experience together. It was gorgeous! Even before we started taking drugs to enhance our senses, a thunderstorm spilled over the mountains and floated above the city, lighting the horizon with flashes on sunset-hued clouds. I sat on the balcony in a moment of quiet and awe. And then we went inside to start the experience.
They say that the first time you take MDMA is the most memorable, the most intense. To date, I have only one other experience that can compare, also with a lover. But this was my first, so everything was fresh and new. We talked for hours, made silly games whose only function was to bring us closer together, we cuddled. I still remember the smell of Philip’s sweat and scalp that night. It was as if I couldn’t get enough of it. And, to nobody’s surprise, we kissed.
We did explore each other’s naked bodies somewhat that night, but not too much. This was my first time, after all, and MDMA doesn’t totally rob you of your sense of inhibition. I just wanted to feel his skin and he mine, and that was enough.
We tried laying with each other in different positions and I marveled at how different it was from being with a woman. There was none of the softness I was accustomed to, but hard muscle. I suddenly understood what it felt like to have a partner who matched me in strength and could hold me back or force me one way or the other, if he wished. I felt how much more equal it was. With a woman, I would usually be expected to be masculine, dominant, powerful. With Philip, however, I felt none of this. My masculinity matched his. My femininity, too. Neither of us felt a need to be dominant or submissive, we simply were. And so we fell asleep together and felt the subtle afterglow the next morning.
Some time later the next night, I was feeling the MDMA comedown. That dreadful state where your neurotransmitters are depleted and euphoria turns to depression. I found it instructive—was that what depression feels like all the time? Still, I was able to get through it by telling myself that it was only temporary, and entirely worth it for the amazing time I’d had the night before.
Philip found me on the balcony staring off into the distance, feeling sorry for myself. He sat next to me, put his arm over my shoulders, and said, “What goes up, must come down.” I’ve since learned that this applies to so much of life. High states of being are never sustainable. Jack Kornfield perhaps expressed it best within his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. My personal takeaway matched Kornfield’s: the goal is not to sustain the high state, but rather to draw lessons from it and to apply those lessons to life broadly.
I wondered if my feelings for Philip were a symptom of chemicals, a high that peaked and now could not be reattained except through herculean effort, or more drugs. I thanked Philip and watched him leave, then quietly contemplated these things. Eventually, I got up to find Philip, put his face into my hands, and gave him a kiss. Yes, the feeling was still there. It was there before the drugs, I just hadn’t put lips to it.
Philip and I eventually parted ways. I had a flight to catch to Cologne, then Barcelona for a time, then Stockholm, then Home. Often Philip was in my mind, even when I was with others. I felt joy talking about him. There was none of the awkwardness or coming out or reconciling that I had expected. It was a new experience—a special experience—but I was already the type of person who would take the chance, so what had truly changed? In truth, the change came afterwards, as I thought about the nature of sexual preferences, gender expectations, and well-intentioned but ill-fitting categories.
I was happy with the outcome. Within a short time, I had allowed myself to feel something for a man. I enjoyed the intimacy, the sexuality, and the romance. I still say that it was love through and through, however brief. But I also wouldn’t say that I am bisexual. I hesitate to say that I’m heterosexual, even, but that’s the category that works best for people who believe in such things. I simply am, and I loved another, and that is enough.