Thorin finds Bilbo thoroughly confusing.
He thought he had this sussed when he was thirteen, a cocky teenager facing the sudden realisation that most boys his age didn’t want to hold hands with other boys, much less snog them. He wasn’t quite so cocky after that; oh he made sure to act like he was – the captain of the rugby team has an image to maintain, after all – but it’s hard to remain so self-assured when the only other gay kid you know regularly has his PE kit stolen in the changing rooms.
Thorin hadn’t come out to anyone back then, despite the tentative hope that his family wouldn’t take it too badly. In fact it wasn’t until the evening of his School Leavers’ Ball – a whole three years later – that anyone else would find out, and even then it wasn’t really intentional. Thorin stooped awkwardly as his mother redid the bowtie he had made a mess of, firmly ignoring his siblings snickering about how he couldn’t find a date when even Dwalin had one.
“Face it brother,” Frerin sing-songed, “girls just aren’t interested in you.”
“No, I’m just not interested in girls,” blurted Thorin, before he could stop himself. His mother’s hands paused on his tie, and for a moment no one said anything.
Thrain’s face appeared from behind the newspaper he was reading. “Does that mean you’re gay?”
Thorin swallowed and nodded, not sure what he was supposed to say now.
“Well, I think it’s a shame you don’t have a date,” said his mother, finishing off Thorin’s tie smoothly. “He wouldn’t be able to keep his eyes off you, with how handsome you look.”
Thorin blinked. That hadn’t exactly been the reaction he was expecting. His mother smiled gently at him, and Thorin suddenly understood that this was a good reaction. A positively lovely reaction really, even though he was far too old for his mother to say such things without it being embarrassing.
“This is awesome,” Dís piped up, and everyone in the room turned to look at her. “I totally wanted a gay brother!”
A confused silence followed that bizarre statement, but before long Frerin was pouting and whining that Dís wasn’t supposed to have a favourite, and Thorin found himself laughing in stunned relief.
Other than Dwalin, Thorin didn’t come out to anyone else until upper sixth, when some of his rugby mates caught him making out with the full-back from a rival team behind the gym (and in that moment Thorin would wonder how he became so good at unintentionally outing himself). All the same, while it may have taken some time for people in general to find out, Thorin was thirteen when he first realised that he was attracted to boys and not to girls, and there was no going back from that.
Which is why Thorin finds Bilbo so confusing.
Bilbo is many things, aside from confusing. Bilbo is a languages student, an avid Taylor Swift fan and a Marmite lover (the heathen). Bilbo is small enough to complain about Thorin’s ‘perpetual looming’ and so stubborn that it’s impossible to ever win an argument. Bilbo is charming and witty and quite possibly one of the kindest people that Thorin has ever met.
But of all the many things Bilbo is, a man isn’t one of them.
It isn’t really that Thorin is confused about Bilbo’s gender – though it’s fair to say he’d been very confused about that in the beginning. It was nerve-racking enough just being at the coffee meet – Thorin was terrible at making small talk, and in the two years he’d been at university he hadn’t been to a single LGBT+ Society event before that one – but it had been even more disconcerting to discover that the curly haired chap he was sitting next to had a much higher voice than Thorin expected. He was frantically trying to figure out whether he was listening to an effeminate-sounding guy or a butch-looking woman when the stranger stopped mid-sentence, levelling Thorin with a slight glare.
“You’re not very subtle,” the person stated, and Thorin wanted to curl up in embarrassment. “Since you’re clearly so confused, my name is Bilbo and my preferred pronoun is ‘they’.”
There was a short pause, in which Thorin decided that honesty was the best way forward. “I… don’t know what that means.”
Bilbo’s glare morphed into a frown. “I’m pretty sure this was mentioned in the society handbook.”
“Uh, I didn’t get one,” Thorin said sheepishly, because even if he’d been out for a while he was still hesitant to be very public about it; he was somewhat ashamed to admit that he managed to talk himself out of approaching the LGBT+ stall at the welcome fair every year.
“Of course you didn’t,” Bilbo sighed. “Alright, I’ll explain. A preferred pronoun is what you like people to refer to you as. Some people feel most comfortable being called ‘he’, others prefer to be called ‘she’. There are a lot of different options, but I personally like to be called ‘they’.”
Thorin nodded absently for a moment before adopting a frown of his own. “But I thought ‘they’ was supposed to be plural?”
Bilbo’s eyes narrowed a little. “It is. It’s also singular.” The words had a distinctly challenging tone. “I find that it describes my gender more accurately.”
It was at this point that Thorin belatedly realised that LGBT+ doesn’t just mean gay. He wasn’t entirely sure what the ‘T’ or the ‘+’ entailed but he was starting to think that Bilbo might come under one of them.
“This is probably one of those things I should google, isn’t it?” he asked.
Bilbo stared at him for a moment, then let out a soft burst of laughter. “Yes it is. That generally helps people avoid awkward conversations like this one.”
Later on that evening Thorin had googled it, discovering a truly staggering amount of identities and terminology that he never knew existed. It took a while to get his head around everything, but eventually he understood enough not to accidentally insult Bilbo when they next met.
Despite that less-than-promising first meeting Bilbo’s gender doesn’t really confuse him anymore, not just because Thorin understands terms like ‘genderqueer’ and ‘non-binary’ now, but also because Bilbo had once explained the whole thing to him over late-night pizza.
“It occasionally feels like there’s some fluidity to it,” they mused, “but ‘agender’ is probably the term that fits best. Most of the time gender just feels like a concept that I can’t really apply to myself.”
Thorin nodded. “And that’s why you feel uncomfortable when other people call you ‘he’ or ‘she’, because it’s like they’re applying gender to you?”
“Uh-huh,” hummed Bilbo, through a huge mouthful of pizza.
No, the specifics of Bilbo’s identity aren’t what cause problems; Thorin is more confused about what Bilbo’s gender means for him.
Because Thorin has been using the word gay to describe himself for nearly ten years at this point, yet that doesn’t change the fact that he’s currently dating someone who isn’t a man.
Bilbo isn’t a woman either, which is somewhat reassuring, though rather unfortunately doesn’t actually clarify anything. Because Bilbo has a vagina and breasts – which neither of them particularly likes to talk about – and yet Thorin really enjoys it when they have sex. Logically he knows that’s fine, because gender and biological sex are different things, and in the heat of the moment it’s never been a problem, but sometimes when Thorin is on his own he finds himself fixating on the fact that his partner doesn’t have a penis. And if Bilbo isn’t a man and doesn’t have a penis, what does that make Thorin?
Does being attracted to Bilbo mean that he isn’t gay? Does it make him something else, like bisexual or polysexual or homoflexible or a label that he hasn’t discovered yet? Thorin tried ‘polysexual’ out once in his own head, a few weeks after he and Bilbo got together, but it didn’t really fit. He also tried ‘homoflexible’, but that wasn’t quite what he wanted either. The problem is that ‘gay’ feels right, but it also makes Thorin feel like he can’t incorporate his own partner into his sexual identity; what Thorin really wants is a word that declares ‘I am attracted to men and Bilbo Baggins’, though obviously he’d have to make up such a word himself.
If he’s honest, Thorin isn’t sure he’d want to adopt a new label even if he found one that fit; it’s just that the idea of telling everyone back home that actually he’s not gay, he’s something that’s similar but not quite the same as gay, makes his cheeks burn with humiliation. He wants to take Bilbo to meet his family but he’s too scared to really go through with it, because Bilbo isn’t a man and everyone will know they’re not a man and Thorin’s family might start to believe that he was just pretending to be gay all along, that he was doing it for attention. Such thoughts make him feel inescapably guilty too, because Bilbo has to deal with people doubting their identity every single day, and it seems unfair that Thorin should get to hide from it while Bilbo is forced to face things head on. And really, it’s long past the time to tell his family that he’s in a relationship because Bilbo and Thorin have been together for ages at this point.
Soon, Thorin promises himself. He’ll get around to it at some point soon. Or at least, he would if he weren’t busy being so damn confused.
“Bilbo,” he says one evening, pausing in the act of chopping tomatoes, “do you think I’m still gay?” Bilbo tilts their head to look at him quizzically. “It’s just,” Thorin continues, “you’re not a woman, but you’re not a man either and… I don’t know what that means.”
Bilbo stares for a moment. “How long has this been bothering you?”
Thorin shrugs, ducking his head a little. A hand reaches out to squeeze his arm gently, and when Thorin looks up again Bilbo is taking the onions they’re frying off the heat and turning to face him properly.
“You like me, yes?” they ask.
“Yes, of course,” Thorin says immediately, because he does. He really does.
Bilbo smiles, their cheeks dimpling adorably. “And do you like being gay?”
“Yes,” says Thorin, slowly. “I suppose so. I mean… That’s how I’ve always felt.”
“Well then,” Bilbo replies, wrapping their arms around his waist. “It is what it is.”
As advice goes it’s not all that useful. “You know, that doesn’t actually make things any clearer,” Thorin mutters, but he embraces Bilbo back all the same, burying his face in their curls.
Bilbo chuckles a little, drawing back to look Thorin in the eye. “Labels are like that, sometimes. You should use whatever feels right for you, even if people find it confusing.”
Thorin frowns. “What if I find it confusing?”
“You’ll figure it out eventually,” says Bilbo, running their hands over his back. “These things can take time, you know?”
It’s not very helpful, and yet somehow it is. Thorin’s still confused after talking things through with Bilbo, but it feels less... urgent. He thinks he’s come to realise that defining it doesn’t need to be such a priority; clarity doesn’t often come to him when he tries to force it, so maybe it’s best to stop worrying. Life is a constant process of discovery, his mother had once said to him, and Thorin decides it might be possible to feel comfortable in himself even if he doesn’t have all the answers yet.
So Bilbo’s words do help, Thorin supposes, because they’ve given him the space to breathe. They’ve given him courage in some ways too, because a few weeks after their talk Thorin manages to pick up the phone and ask his mother if she’d mind a guest coming home with him at some point over summer. It’s actually a somewhat gruelling phone call, because Thorin has to explain to each of his family members in turn that he’s dating a transgender person who prefers to be called ‘they’ and he wants them to respect Bilbo’s wishes, and no that doesn’t mean his partner is a hermaphrodite and actually the correct term for that is ‘intersex’, and yes of course it’s inappropriate to ask about Bilbo’s genitalia. He comes out of it with a newfound appreciation for what Bilbo has to put up with on a regular basis but it’s tempered with some relief – his family had been ignorant but they hadn’t been unwilling to learn.
And it’s absolutely worth it to be able to watch Bilbo charming Thorin’s mother with their enthusiasm for baking – a passion his mother most definitely shares – over dinner in the back garden. It isn’t until Thorin is helping to wash the dishes that anyone actually brings it up, when Dwalin knocks his elbow lightly into Thorin’s as he deposits a pile of plates next to the sink.
“If you’re gay, how come you’re into Bilbo?” he asks.
Thorin doesn’t look up from his task, though he can feel both Dwalin and Dís, from her place drying the dishes on Thorin’s other side, watching him curiously.
“Bilbo isn’t a woman,” he says.
“But… they’re not a man either, that’s what you said,” Dís prompts, tentatively.
Thorin nods a little, thinking about Bilbo’s own words on the matter. “It is what it is,” he quotes, and continues to wash the dishes in the silence that follows that.
“Fair enough,” Dwalin grunts after a few moments, patting Thorin on the shoulder as he heads back outside.
Thorin looks over at his sister after Dwalin has gone, raising an eyebrow at her obvious bemusement. “Problem?”
She coughs a little, seemingly embarrassed at being caught out. “No. No I’m happy for you, really,” Dís says, and his heart warms at how earnest she sounds. All the same, he still spots the spark of amusement in her eyes as she continues. “It’s just, I really enjoyed having a gay brother. It was cool, you know?”
Thorin shoots her a decidedly unimpressed look. “Who said I stopped being gay?” he asks, and then has to stifle his laughter when her mouth drops open in confusion.
“It is what it is, Dís,” he repeats softly when she starts frowning at her dishcloth, clearly no closer to understanding it. “Besides,” he continues when she looks over at him, “one day you might have a transgender sibling-in-law. That’s far cooler than a gay brother.”
Dís blinks twice as his words sink in, and then squeals so loudly that Thorin drops his sponge.
It’s only later, Bilbo giggling at his side as they both watch Dwalin and Frerin compete to see who can eat the most crackers in a minute, when Thorin realises that Who said I stopped being gay? seems to imply that he’s made his mind up. He thinks about it for a moment, saying the words I am a gay man in his head and finding that it feels true. ‘Gay’ works then, Thorin decides, and notes wryly that he spent a truly ridiculous amount of time worrying about something that hasn’t actually changed.
Perhaps it will change at some point, he muses. Perhaps one day it will make more sense to use ‘homoflexible’ or ‘polysexual’ or another term that he hasn’t come across yet, or perhaps one day he won’t use any labels at all. And Thorin realises he’ll be okay if that happens; self-identity and self-image are things that develop and change over time, he thinks, and that’s nothing to be scared of. He reaches over to twine his fingers with Bilbo’s, a pleasant tingly feeling taking root in his stomach when they smile at him affectionately. I am a gay man, he repeats. I am a gay man that just happens to be in love with someone that isn’t a man.
And for the moment that’s fine.