Lives: From trans-sexuality and lesbian motherhood to the search for the elusive homosexual gene, modern society is preoccupied with sexual identity. Duncan Fallowell talks to four individuals about the act of love. Photographs by Luca Zampedri
Ours is an age of rapid transformations. We change jobs, change countries, change partners, change places of residence more than ever before. In addition, our society asks us to switch TV and radio channels, cars, pop stars, brands of beer, hairstyles etc, with almost random abandon. About the only things most people have of lifelong continuity are their language and their bodies. But now we are all going polylingual, while sex-changes have become increasingly common since as long ago as 1960.

All this has been much written about. What seems less well-known is people switching not their sex but their sexuality. This doesn't mean bisexuality, which is as old as the species - it's the phenomenon of changing from one more or less stable sexuality to another: from gay to straight, and vice versa. And perhaps it's happening now so decisively because it requires the existence of "gay" as a distinct and public lifestyle.

So here we are, two men and two women, moving in contrary directions. There's a whole tribe of them out there who have made the same switch. Their very individual stories indicate that multiple identity, whether parallel or sequential, is a hallmark of the future.

Gay, bisexual or straight?

Katie, 31, is a nurse from Huddersfield, currently working with old people in Devon. She has had lesbian affairs since she was 16, but for the past four years has had a boyfriend, Robbie

My first sexual feelings arose when I was at school, and they were definitely towards my own sex, but nothing happened. We had an art teacher who talked about his bisexual feelings with a small group of us. It was the first time I'd realised that there was a sexuality different from that taught in biology class. My parents have never talked about any kind of sex with me. Mum has a philosophy - "As long as you're happy, we don't want to know."

I don't know why I chose nursing, but I'm glad I did - there were gorgeous women [at training college], bisexual and gay, and I had my first lover. I was 16, she was 17, and it happened very quickly. She was bisexual, wild, and terrific fun. She had failed as a nurse and went to Dubai as a belly dancer. We only slept together a few times, but she introduced me to a whole new eccentric set - you'd be surprised what goes on in Huddersfield.

I was very settled and happy during this period. I explored my sexuality with lots of different women but didn't think deeply about why women and not men. Men didn't really enter into it. We teased them sometimes, flirted with them. We didn't hate them or anything.

[She then moved to Winchester and worked for a year in a home for children with cerebral palsy]

In Winchester, I didn't know anybody and was a bit lost. I didn't tell anyone about my previous gay life. I was celibate for a year. Then a man there went through a crisis. He felt he was gay and wanted to come out, but he was engaged to be married and would have to break it off. So, in turn, I told him about me. After he came out, I became more confident and actually tried something with another man on the staff, but it was disastrous and I didn't do it again.

Then one of the girls we worked with thought she might be gay, and it turned out she was. I had a relationship with her, my first serious one. It lasted well over two years. We eventually moved to Devon together where we discovered quite a lot of other gay women dotted about the countryside. One couple were the sort of local gay community darlings, and I began a relationship with one of them. We broke with our respective partners and moved in together for over three years, both working in the old people's home and travelling all over Europe in the holidays. Sometimes I popped up to London and had mini-flings there, always women.

I met Robbie in the pub. He was a good drinking companion, a talker and thinker. Robbie would call round to where I was living - he was like a little boy asking me to come out to play. He's five years younger than I am.

He was going through a bad time - his father had been killed in a car crash not long before, so I did my social work thing. I was seeing him for a year behind the back of the person he was officially with, which was very exciting. I love all that - I'm terrible. He said he loved this woman and was going to marry her and have children. I never wanted to have children and still don't. After six months, he said he loved me and I said he was talking crap, but I liked sleeping with him - it was very sexy and different.

I started to question my own sexuality, which had been a very good cover when we first started sleeping together. Finally, I got serious, and now we're into our fourth year, my longest relationship so far, and I've not had a woman since I've been with him.

Robbie is a total surprise to me. My relationships with women were very intimate and intuitive. With Robbie, obviously, the mechanics are a bit different because he's got a willy, but that's not the main thing. Because I understand my own body, I understand other women's bodies, too. It seems more natural with a woman, and sex with a woman doesn't finish the way it does with a man. But the exciting thing about sex with someone of the opposite sex is that you don't know really what they're feeling. You have to find out. It's less natural in that sense.

Women are devious. Men are more direct, but often they're unable to explore things - they're flippant as a way of hiding their emotions. It's a kind of brusqueness and rudeness. And you are more likely to come across prejudice in a man.

I now also do all sorts of straight things, like going to country discos, which I never did before. I don't find other men attractive, but I do sometimes see a woman and say to Robbie, "She's gorgeous".

Emotionally, he's very forward with me, like a woman is. I feel close and safe with him, and I sometimes wonder: is it because he has a gay side which hasn't been expressed? In my experience, the more sexual a person is, the more bisexual they are - though for various reasons they may not act it out. Exclusively heterosexual or homosexual people are usually not very sexy.

I do miss the warmth of the gay community, and I still believe in the cause. But I feel a bit of a fraud now. When I meet new gay people and see them thinking, "Oh, she's straight", I want to say, "Please, I used to be very gay - it's just that I'm with a man now". But you can't keep saying that.

I went through a stage of being very anti-bisexual, thinking they were just gay but lacked the courage, but I now see that was incorrect. So am I really gay, bisexual, or straight - and do I give a shit? If Robbie walked out on me tomorrow, I haven't the faintest idea what sort of person I'd have a relationship with next.

Family affair

Tony, 24, a car mechanic in north-east London, believed he was heterosexual until he began a relationship with his girlfriend's brother.

It [his first sex, at the age of 13] was with a girl, in an empty warehouse in Stepney. In a damp corner. It was very exciting, but I didn't do it again for quite a long time after, and not with that girl - I don't think I saw her again. In adolescence, I sort of became shy with girls in a way I hadn't been before, and spent most of my time with my mates. I didn't do anything with them except piss against the wall together.

Then, when I was about 15, I started going out with this girl at school, and eventually we had sex together, starting from when I was about 16. She was the same age as me. When she went off with someone else, I thought OK, I'll look for someone else, you cow. Let's have variety. But I didn't have another proper girlfriend until I was about 18. I went to college and met someone there. I had something with this girl for a couple of months, nothing special - it didn't take off, really. And then I met a friend of hers, a girl called Carol who was doing catering, and she became my girlfriend.

I was a few months older than her, and two years older than her brother. She had this brother away at university, so I didn't see him much, although they lived not far from us. Then he came home for the holidays and I saw quite a lot of him. He was quieter than me, but friendly, easy-going, good-looking - and I started to fancy him.

It was a shock. I didn't realise it at first. It just felt nice if he came out with me and Carol for a drink. Occasionally, we'd go out together if Carol didn't feel like it. And one day we were sitting side by side in a pub, sort of jammed together, and I started to get stiff. I didn't feel guilty, just very excited and confused. My heart started to thump loudly. I remember it very clearly. Bang! Bang! Bang!

I still had sex with Carol and enjoyed it. Maybe it was like getting to him through her. I knew the family quite well, so I could go round and see him. But it got difficult when, you know, things started to happen. He didn't have a girlfriend. One day we was talking about it and I asked him and he told me he thought he was gay - but off the record, I wasn't to tell his family.

After he told me, I thought, "What the fuck, go for it". I couldn't get to sleep all that night. I went round and it happened the next day. It was like a bomb going off. And I remember afterwards, when I was alone, I cried, which is not something I often do. It was just, like, boiling over. But looking back, maybe something in me knew my life had changed - and not necessarily for the better.

I'm gay now, not bisexual, but it caused a lot of trouble. It was one of those things you couldn't keep quiet. Also, it happened very quickly, so even now I can't really unravel it. Carol sussed immediately something had changed. And it really became a big thing for me. I couldn't get enough. It was like something had been pent up. I was having both of them at one point - separately. That was almost the best, just before it all came out.

Then he told her. I suppose, as brother and sister, they were close, but I could've killed him. Then she told my big sister, who told my mum, who told my dad. There was a great row. Actually, Carol's mum was the most calm about it - there wasn't a father - he pissed off years ago. I think she'd already sensed that David was gay. But it was a terrible period, people not speaking to me and all of that, people I'd been at school with. Me and David, we moved to another part of London for some peace, got jobs, and we lived together for two years, the most exciting period of my life.

But I have a problem being faithful, and he can't stand that. I still love him, but it's like I'm making up for lost time. I can't be a little goody, sitting by the fire every night. I understand why he thinks I'm a bastard. Maybe we'll get back together. But the thrill is going out and hunting down another bloke - I'd be too impatient now with all that other stuff, the courting stuff.

Gays like me because I'm not poofy. And I prefer guys who aren't poofy. My boss is gay, too, but it's not a gay garage. I think people can be many different things - it just depends on the circumstances. [For me] there wasn't any choice. I just accept it now. I never wanted to be a family man with loads of kids. Maybe it was always in me, waiting for the opportunity - although it didn't feel like that, it felt like out of the blue. That's what made it so great, in fact. I know blokes it's happened to who were in prison. But I ain't been to prison.

My family are OK now. In fact, I'd say we're closer, more grown-up with each other. Although I like one-night stands and stuff, it's important that I have someone regular, someone close. That's me - I'm from a warm family. So I'm looking. But because of how it happened, I don't think anything will ever be as dramatic again. Who knows?

The morality virus

Matt, 49, teaches philosophy at a Midlands university and comes from a wealthy family. Until the age of 30, he was exclusively homosexual. He has been with his present girlfriend for a year.

I first penetrated a woman when I converted to heterosexuality, though I'd slept with a woman once before and had some very minor sexual play. A girl, one of my students, androgynous, my type except she was female, but with enough characteristics to make the leap possible - she and another girl sent me a Valentine card with lip marks in purple lipstick, and both of them wore that lipstick for the rest of the week, so I got the hint. It was quite easy to ask out the one I was interested in, so we went out to lunch, dinner, and eventually I invited her back. She was surprised, since I was more or less known to be gay, but she said yes, and we had a lovely night. I thought, "God, what have I been missing all this time?"

I didn't know if it would convert me forever, but, frankly, I rather hoped it would, because I felt that I'd become boxed into a corner. I fancied boys with long hair, and long hair had gone out of fashion. I tended to like young, working-class boys, which would mean being increasingly confined to rent boys, and I could easily see myself becoming a sad, lonely old queen.

I haven't had sex with a male since - which is extreme, and almost against my principles, which like the idea of the world as a continuously exploratory bisexual orgy. But I'd had lots of boys and now felt there was so much to explore with girls, so that's where I've been putting my energies. Occasionally, I see a boy I fancy, but it's rare and it's mild, and there are always at least 100 girls I'd much rather have.

My girlfriends are very female. I can't take that Laura Ashley, wishy-washy feminine type, but I'm not going for ambivalence. I like the whole ethos of heterosexuality. And I like a variety - racially, fat, thin - though I tend to prefer them younger than myself, with the exception of Tina Turner - I think she's wonderful. I do point out to them that my homosexual life was a long time ago - it ended when I was 30 - and I've been Aids-tested since.

The difference between men and women is far greater than the difference between gay and straight men. I feel that most men like sex to be exploratory, finding out about life, intellectually as well as physically. Whereas most women are much more concerned with home-making, child-bearing, choosing the right man for that. This leads to uncomfortable compromises. I didn't have to make such compromises when I was gay - and I don't want to now.

Also, men like explicit sexual material. Most women - at the moment, anyway - don't. But men have to be quiet about their natural raunchiness. So often at heterosexual dinner parties I have seen men biting back their true feelings on this matter because they know the wife or girlfriend wouldn't approve.

When I first converted to heterosexuality, I felt very strongly that women were sort of carriers of the morality virus - and, I'd like to add, most men want them to be. Men have double standards. They want to screw women, then think them ghastly slags if they agree. I find this an extremely unpleasant attitude, that girls who enjoy sex get a bad reputation. But I know that there are various types of feminism. Some are very puritanical, others are, to me, quite exciting and encourage the idea of a more expressive female sexuality and are not pro-nuclear family.

Although many things are a matter of genetics and can't be changed, it seems that my sexual orientation was culturally conditioned and, therefore, was changeable. In a country like Morocco, they wouldn't understand an immutable gay gene - almost every Moroccan male has homosexual experiences, and almost everyone passes through them and gets married.

The taboo against sex with younger people has become the big taboo in recent years, so that it's not even possible to discuss it rationally. Even the idea of childhood sexuality is repudiated now, as though Freud never existed. English law, for sexual purposes, exaggerates enormously the definition of a child - under 18 for homosexuality, under 16 for heterosexuality, which is plainly absurd and full of practical difficulties, especially for the teenagers themselves.

[In my childhood], I liked fairy stories and always identified with the prince looking for the princess. One particular story impressed me very much - the prince looking for the princess who was trapped among brambles. This must have been my sado-masochistic side. Freud talked not only of sexual object - who you do it with - but also sexual practice - what you actually do with them. I've always found the paraphernalia of sadomasochism exciting.

And I like to use prostitutes sometimes - I've always liked quick sex as well as the other sort. It's not only practical, it's romantic. It's a shame that the police have become so tough on kerb crawlers. Driving along an ill-lit street at night, in a sinister part of town, seeing someone standing by a lamp-post, it's very exciting.

I admire people who are questing for something beyond the everyday. But I'm enough of an old whore not to pin the weight of this romantic idealism onto one individual person because this is bound to lead to disillusionment. Romantics may be sad a lot of their lives - because one can live on the heights only briefly - but this sadness can be deeply rewarding. Such people are deeply alive.

Look back in anger

Amelia, 37, works for London Underground and is a lesbian mother of two children. She moved in with her partner, Anna, while her husband was in prison

Most lesbians - most lesbian converts, I should say - don't trust men. That's very often why they've become lesbians, because of bad experiences with men. I'm speaking to you because I don't want to get stuck there, I want to be positive.

With me, it was one man, mostly. He hit me when he had problems in life. He drank, did drugs, had other women and boasted to me about it. He took it out on the kids - I've one of each and they live with us here and they're happy, happy inside, by which I mean not always those eyes wondering what's going to happen next. The boy had asthma, but that's gone now. I think I have a sweet life now - boring in some ways, I expect, but that's what I wanted. Something ordinary and boring, no worries.

[Her husband was of mixed race] He thought that made him superior, having a lighter skin. He once said that - it was pathetic - but he had low self- esteem, really. My parents came from Antigua. They were good to us - I'm one of four - two brothers and a sister. We went to church in white socks. I hated the church and the socks.

A girl at school hit on me, but I said no. A white girl. I sometimes think about her. My partner is a white woman

We don't socialise with other lesbians much. Working, most of the time. We both work for the London Underground. I'm in the offices - part-time, because of the kids. She's really great with my kids. They think of her as an aunt. But they know we sleep together. The main problem has been how easy it is - like there's nothing to battle for suddenly. I sometimes jump to the wrong conclusion about her behaviour. I'm still unwinding, learning to trust, to relax.

[She left her husband while he was in prison]. It sounds disloyal, but I couldn't face him coming out. I went to live with Anna, packed up and left. His cousin took over our flat. He [her husband] is still living there and sees the kids occasionally. I think it's better for him, too. He says it [her living with another woman] is bad for his reputation. That has to be the biggest laugh. He's quietened down a lot, actually. I'm organising a divorce. I'll get custody. I couldn't handle it before. He's always had someone else. That's all he ever had, someone else. I was just someone else. He was always working on the edge - clubs, dealing, the usual rubbish. I'm still angry. I'm not gonna pretend.

Fallowell: Some people might think that, if you're so angry, part of you still loves him.

They can think what they like. The important point is that it was a dreadful life and it's over.

F: But you fancied men before?

Yes. I assumed, the way people do, that that side of my life would be with a man. I didn't lust after men, but I never questioned the basics.

F: So you had boyfriends before your husband?

Yes. The others were better. I got pregnant about a year after we were married. Then it went downhill quickly.

F: Did you consciously decide you wanted to live with another woman for a bit of peace and then the sexual feelings came later?

I slept with her before I lived with her. What she gave me was love, and I responded to that. I married at 25 and stuck it for eight years, and Anna was the first adult since my parents to give me real love. It meant everything then, and it still does now. I don't separate sex and love. That's where I went wrong with my husband - because he fancied me, I assumed he loved me.

F: Would it worry you if either of your children was gay?

Not at all. Whatever made them happy.

F: Do you think it's more difficult finding happiness if you're gay?

Where are all these deliriously happy heterosexuals, then? Love, happiness, pain - these are the same for everyone, problems for everyone.

F: What about family and friends from the old days - how do they feel about your new life?

My husband didn't like me having friends. One of my brothers can't handle it, but he's a dead loss, anyway, and I think it's his way of trying to be someone, by disapproving of me. My mum is marvellous - relieved - she was very worried about me before, but not now.

F: Do lesbians normally wear dresses?

Ha, ha, it's coming back into fashion!