An ‘At What Point do I Qualify? My Queer Experience’ Post
By Louise Clare Dalton
Let’s talk about shame baby, let’s talk about it and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the – oh wait. Hon, let’s not kid ourselves, there isn’t much ‘good’ to speak of when it comes to the shame surrounding sexuality and queerness.
Shame is something that routinely appears in my writing, whether it be poetry, playwriting or as a part of this blog. For me, it’s really important to unpick both the conscious and unconscious shame I feel surrounding my sexuality in order to move on from it. The hope? If we can learn to feel shame, it’s possible to unlearn it too.
Since I came out to my mum around a year ago, she’s taken proactive steps towards becoming the best ally she can be. To give her an insight into my world (and because she’s great at correcting my spelling mistakes. Ta, Mum!) I send her a link to my blog every month. After last month’s piece in particular, it was interesting to hear her shock over the repeated mention of shame.
See, most of the time straight folks don’t have to deal with any shame surrounding their sexuality, so it’s never really been something for her to consider in regards to her own life. It’s likely that she’s never felt othered because of who she’s attracted to.
When people tell me that it took them longer than they would have liked to be comfortably open with their sexuality, it doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s no shock to hear that for many people, this shit still ain’t easy. But for some people I’ve spoken to (particularly straight, cis folk) this can come asa surprise. There’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what could cause someone to feel ashamed of their queerness.
So let’s dive into this a little more…
Like many others, before I knew what the word ‘gay’ actually meant I had heard it on the playground. From my earliest memories of primary school, until I left academia at the age of sixteen, I remember hearing the word gay thrown around as an insult. And although it pains me to say, I used it myself as a kid, before I really understood the gravity of what using the word in this way meant. But the worst part? None of us were pulled up on it by the adults around us that should have known better. Nobody sat us down and explained, so by the time we knew what the word gay actually meant, the damage was already done. The seeds of shame and self-hate were already planted.
And in case you think times have changed since I was at school, as recently as a couple of years ago, I had to have a difficult conversation with a thirty-year-old, straight, cis friend about why they shouldn’t use the word gay in this way. So, yeah … unfortunately we’re not out of the woods with that one.
This is just one example of how so many children will have their first introduction to gay and queer culture. They will falsely learn that ‘gay’ means lame, rubbish or bad before they learn the truth of it, and although it mayseem small to some, things like this are massive. They slowly chip away at our sense of pride before we’re old enough to tie our shoelaces.
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Now, times are definitely changing and we’ve come a long way, but, honeys, we just ain’t there yet. Sadly, I still hear people speaking this way now. I still hear the slurs I heard as a kid, and a lot of ignorance among adults when it comes to queer people, queer sex, culture and expression.
I think it’s important for allies of the queer community (hello and welcome, you wonderful hons) to understand the shame that is thrust upon us queer folk, often from a very young age. To understand that although you may not feel you’re being overtly homophobic, the things you say can still have an effect. It’s important to understand that this shame surrounding sexuality hasn’t come out of thin air, or even just from the monumental things – the historical mistreatment of queer people, the injustice or the overt homophobia. It comes from the seemingly smaller things we see, hear and experience too.
For queer allies, it’s important to understand that these ‘small’ things can have a huge impact on how safe we feel to be ourselves, and how we understand ourselves within the wider context of the world. This is particularly important for those influencing the next generation, so let’s make this change now, and ensure that teachers, parents and guardians have the right tools, enabling them to deal with these situations effectively, with kindness, compassion and knowledge.
And, in the interest of healing, it’s important (for me at least) to name the demon. To understand some of the shit that induced shame within me, and to understand that it’s the fault of a homophobic world, and not of me or any other queer person.
And then, most importantly… TO LET IT ALL THE FUCK GO! Love yourself, hon. That shame ain’t for you, because you are bloody wonderful.
Peace and rainbow love,
Louise Clare Dalton is a feminist, queer writer and poet interested in sharing her personal experience. She aims to open up the dialogue about common misconceptions and the queer-phobic narratives they perpetuate. Louise writes her own blog at www.louiseclaredalton.com, which focuses on ethical consumerism and healthy life hacks. Finalist in the Roundhouse Poetry Slam 19, her spoken-word poetry focuses on introspection and understanding how societal pressure affects human behaviour.
Lou was our featured poet in September 2020. Check out her performance of What They Told You
By Hayley Sherman: “Picture the scene. It’s 1991. I’m thirteen, she’s twenty-six. I’m an iffy-looking, greasy-faced, stalkerish teenager and she’s a respectable, married foreign languages teacher. Let’s face it, it was never going to work.”
A ‘Postcards from Lesbania’ Post by Hayley Sherman
“Picture the scene. It’s 1991. I’m thirteen, she’s twenty-six. I’m an iffy-looking, greasy-faced, stalkerish teenager and she’s a respectable, married foreign languages teacher. Let’s face it, it was never going to work.”
Our one-eyed, grumpy, old-man dog, Ollie, is always determined to embarrass us. It might be finding the least tolerant dog owner in the park and humping their pooch to within an inch of its life or emerging from the bushes with a mouthful of used condom (classy parks we go to!). But he excelled himself a few weeks ago when, from the moment we got into the park to the moment we left, he was obsessing over the same dog. He wouldn’t leave this poor, nervous dog alone, who was on a lead and couldn’t escape him, which meant that for a full half hour, I couldn’t escape the owner who – cue drumroll – just happened to be the woman I was obsessed with when I was thirteen years old: the woman I spent all my time daydreaming about, who was the first ever focus of my Sapphic stirrings, who has always been such a big part of my life, because I’ve told and retold the stories and carried her in my heart like an Amazonian goddess for so long, next to whom I would measure all woman … who, thirty years later, didn’t have the first idea who I was!
Picture the scene. It’s 1991. I’m thirteen, she’s twenty-six. I’m an iffy-looking, greasy-faced, stalkerish teenager and she’s a respectable, married foreign languages teacher. Let’s face it, it was never going to work, but it didn’t stop me doing everything I could to bask in her orbit, from signing up to the clubs she was running, to behaving like a monster to get detention with her, or even just executing low-grade annoyances, clicking my pen, chewing gum, just to get her to look at me. And I would just happen to be walking past her classroom between lessons or wandering near her car when it was time to go home. “Hi, Miss! Did you have a good day, Miss?” Yes, I was quite the smooth operator back then. And, oh my God, I drew her a picture and wrote a card. I blush now thinking about it, but I fell hard. I didn’t even know it in the beginning. I just thought she was a great role model, and wouldn’t it be great to be by her side 24/7. Like, literally 24/7.
Back to the park and we are no longer thirteen and twenty-six. I’m forty-three, which makes her fifty-six, and at first, I’m not sure that it’s even her, but thanks to Ollie (whom I may donate to natural sciences when I get home), I have lots of opportunity to find out.
“Sorry, I’ll just …” I’m saying, trying to get him on the lead and get the hell away.
But she’s so lovely. She says, “No, leave him. He’s fine.”
So while he’s trailing around the park with a nose full of nervous-dog bum hole, I’m trailing behind Miss, and now I know it’s her. Thirty years has changed what it could, but the essence of her is the same, and I can hear a hint of an old accent that has faded with time. My heart is racing, because I’m obviously still a little bit mental, but it’s becoming very clear that she has absolutely no idea who the hell I am. In her defence, she’s probably taught thousands of baby-dyke stalkers over the last thirty years, and I’ve changed quite a bit since I was thirteen, but really? How can this be? She’s been kept alive and reinvented in the stories I have told others over the years like a cross between Madonna and Jesus Christ himself. I know the stories have mostly centred around how bat-shit crazy I was back then, but at least she was in them! She hasn’t thought about me at all!!
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Back to the park again, and I should be a grownup by now. I should be able to say, “Aren’t you Miss? I think you used to teach at my school.” But suddenly I’m thirteen years old again, and old feelings are floating to the surface. Because, joking aside, it was so hard being that age, having such overwhelming feelings and nowhere to go with them, no one to talk to. I had only heard the word lesbian used in sentences that also featured the words “Euuuww!” and “Gross!” I didn’t want to be euuwwwy or gross. All the boys in my class fancied her, but that was okay, that was just bants, while I died a little more inside each day. I was powerless and wrong and disgusting. And I was just so awkward, which was exactly how I became in the park when … and this is the best bit … Sarah, my partner, struck up a conversation with her. Kill me now! I’m chirping in with the odd embarrassed smile and “Oh, right”, but there’s sand in my throat, and I know I’m going beetroot. I nearly called her “Miss”, for goodness sake! They’re chatting about their kids and the weather and how Miss just got this dog and she isn’t too well trained yet, and I just want it to be over, because I’m desperately embarrassed about all of that stalkerish shit all these years later. I hated myself then, and I just want the ground to swallow me up before she realises who I am and tells me what a tit I was. But when it is over, I’m filled with regret.
“Why didn’t you just speak to her?” Sarah asks, as if it were as easy as opening my mouth and just talking!
I don’t really have an answer for her, but I have resolved to ask Miss if she remembers me if I ever run into her again (accidentally, on purpose!!), be brave and maybe we can laugh about it (if I can ignite any flicker of memory in her brain). In the meantime, it adds another chapter to the legend, and the great takeaway is one of relief, that those days are long behind me and things really did get better.
Hayley Sherman is a writer, ghostwriter, blogger and editor who just wants everyone to be nice to each other. Her blog smiles in the face of adversity, licks the cheek of the oppressor and generally reflects on her denial about being a middle-aged lesbian. hayleyshermanwriter.com.
Louise Clare Dalton. “Let’s talk about shame baby, let’s talk about it and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the … oh wait. Hon, let’s not kid ourselves, there isn’t much ‘good’ to speak of when it comes to the shame surrounding sexuality and queerness.
Like for many, 2020 has been a year like no other. For me, it has been a revelation.
Coming up to 51 years old, an experience in the summer opened my eyes to a world of oppression and toxicity, surrounding my mother. Without realising quite how much power she still has over me and my life decisions, an argument exploded between us and I have subsequently taken a ‘non-contact’ approach until I feel ready to explore what I need to do.
I have felt guilty about this decision, I mean, family is family – you’re supposed to stick by them no matter what, aren’t you? I had a therapy session with a guy who works with the teachers in our school to help them offload and ‘park’ traumatic events which may have occurred with some of the young people on a day-to-day basis. He assured me that feeling guilty was not going to help, and neither was long-term non-contact. However, he did say that it didn’t matter how long it took, I had to do what was right for me.
This was my first obstacle! I’m a people pleaser, I seek approval, I see the best in everyone and I’ve kept things to myself for years and years in order to ‘not upset the family’. A friend of mine sent me a link to a Blogger, Bethany Webster, who researched and wrote about ‘The Mother Wound.’ I read it and my eyes were opened.
Wow! Everything Bethany Webster talks about, I have felt over the years: shame, not feeling good enough, guilt for wanting more, mental health issues and more; so much more. So now I feel ready to address it (I’m not sure my family are ready for me to address it though, but hey-ho).
When I was a toddler, I was seriously ill and spent a lot of time in hospital. I, therefore, wasn’t perfect. I didn’t realise this at the time, but my ‘imperfections’ began here. At 15, I knew I was gay. This was in 1985. For ten years I did nothing about it. I went through sixth form, university and two years into my first teaching job before I had the courage to admit feelings for someone of the same sex. It was another two years before I told the family.
So, for twelve years, I hid the real me. I did it because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. I did it because I didn’t know what my friends, my brother and sister would say. So, my emotional ‘bucket’ should have been full to overflowing way back then. However, I made sure there was a hole near the top of this bucket so it never got full; it never overflowed, emotions dribbled out slowly and I dealt with that.
“He said, ‘Thinking about you and her having sex (here we go again) makes me feel sick!’ I know I replied with, ‘Thinking about you and your wife having sex would make me feel sick, that’s why I don’t!’ He put the phone down.”
Again, I didn’t realise this was happening, it was a natural thing for me to do. Just as it was natural for me to come home from school and peel the potatoes ready for tea so that my dad didn’t have to do it all when he got in from work. My brother and sister, blissfully unaware of the feelings of anybody but themselves, were firmly placed in front of the TV watching crap programmes. I would then crack on with my clarinet and piano practice. (To be fair, I did the bare minimum here because I found it dull, hard work. This showed the further up the grades I got).
When I finally ‘came out’ to my mum, it was at Christmas – Boxing Day to be exact. It was our first Christmas without my dad, I think. He had died in the summer at the age of fifty-three. Mum had an inclination that I was about to tell her. On the Christmas Eve that year, I had accompanied mum to the local Working Men’s Club in Morley, just outside Leeds. My sister-in-law’s parents were there. It was the time when, in Emmerdale (Farm), Zoe, the vet, was about to ‘marry’ her lesbian lover. My sister-in-law’s mother (whom I’m sure knew about my sexuality) spouted off about how ‘disgusting’ it was that this was on the television. So, now I was ‘disgusting.’ Wow!
So, when I told mum on the Boxing Day of this year that I was in a relationship with A (obvious as we had bought a house together, had dogs together, went on holiday together, spent every waking moment together), her first question was, ‘Who’s the man?’
“From then on, I wasn’t allowed to see my nieces. There was no reason, but I imagine it’s the same old thing that all gay people cannot be trusted with children of the same sex!”
Honestly, what is it about heterosexual people that focus totally on the sex in a gay relationship? I mean, I never ask my heterosexual friends (and I have lots) what their favourite position is! I sighed and responded with, ‘It doesn’t really work like that.’
Eventually, Mum told my brother. He was, after all, the man of the house now that we didn’t have our dad. It is a shame that my brother couldn’t be the man of the house when it came to organising Dad’s funeral – that was left to me as everyone else fell apart. Here is probably where my mental health issues began – I wasn’t allowed to grieve, I had to ‘look after’ the family. I had to explain to my niece, who was a toddler, that ‘Grandad would always be there – in the stars. If you can’t see the stars, it’s because it’s cold so Grandad has to cover himself up with the clouds to keep warm’.
So, when my brother found out, all was as expected. He phoned me up – I was at a quiz with my work colleagues at the time – and demanded I return to Leeds where he would find me a nice bloke to be with! I think I laughed. I think I also told him that if I returned to Leeds, I would still be gay and he would have to meet all the women I picked up after nights out in the city. He didn’t find this funny. I was being flippant. He said, ‘Thinking about you and her having sex (here we go again) makes me feel sick!’ I know I replied with, ‘Thinking about you and your wife having sex would make me feel sick, that’s why I don’t!’ He put the phone down.
From then on, I wasn’t allowed to see my nieces. There was no reason, but I imagine it’s the same old thing that all gay people cannot be trusted with children of the same sex!
So, let’s go back to my emotional ‘bucket’. It should have been full a long time ago but because I’d allowed it never to fill, I’ve coped as best I can.
Lockdown made me realise that I have everything I want, everything I need. I have an amazing girlfriend and a tiny community of friends who accept us together, for us, including the people at the church. Mel and I didn’t argue during the first lockdown at all. We enjoyed each other’s company and our relationship blossomed.
Our big argument happened in the summer when my mum and her partner visited. It was difficult for Mel and I as we had spent so long by ourselves, knowing what each other was thinking, understanding our roles within the relationship, that when we had to cater for two other people we had to vocalise what needed to be done. We wanted everything to be perfect for my mum and Frank because they’d been locked away for so long. However, Mum couldn’t resist pointing out how ‘bossy’ Mel was, how she ‘ruled me’, how I’d lost my ‘confidence’ and wasn’t the same person anymore.
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There was a moment where I went blank. My anxiety disorder took over and I was ‘absent’. I think it was at this point that I repaired my ‘bucket’. I filled the hole in so now, the bucket would overflow; and it did. Everything I had held in, the suppressed feelings of love for my first girlfriend, the hidden scars and bruises from the domestic abuse I suffered at the hands of my second girlfriend, the traumatic stories I hear every day at work and the depth of love I have for Mel, who, at her own admission, isn’t perfect (who is?) but adores me for me. She is my protector, my soul mate, my best friend. How many people can say they’ve got all that in their lives?
I consider myself very lucky and I love now, more than I’ve ever been able to love before because I am being me. In the words of Bethany Webster, I am ‘taking responsibility for my own path by becoming conscious or previously unconscious patterns and making new choices that reflect my true desires.’
It’s not going to make everyone happy, but it’s going to make me happy and that’s all that matters.
Janine was born in Leeds in 1970 to working-class parents, the middle of 3 children. She graduated from Teacher Training College in Lincoln in 1993 and has taught in Norfolk and Suffolk ever since. email@example.com
By Hayley Sherman: “At midnight, where fireworks exploded around the globe, just twelve hollow clangs of a cowbell sounded somewhere in the distance, then the disappointing toot of a depressed owl. Then more silence. Happy New Year to me!”
By Janine Norris: “Don’t get me wrong, the insults still come thick and fast. Most recently I have mainly been ‘a short-haired, lesbian bitch!’ My general response to this is something along the lines of ‘You can’t insult me with fact and I’m not always a bitch’.”
By Josie Quinn: “This year, Christmas is going to look very different, and it’s going to be really difficult for a lot of people, but that just makes it all the more important to be grateful for whatever moments of cheer we can manage.”
“I’ve been hated for my skin colour, for my sexuality, for my mental health, things I can’t change. People are going to hate me whatever, so I might as well be who I am. I don’t care what people think anymore.”
Shona Van Hassen grew up around her uncle’s circus, sometimes travelling the country with this unique, ragtag community. She loved the life from the beginning, and would eventually become a stilt-walker and trapeze artist, before finding her niche as a fire-poi and burlesque dancer, as well as a Black Lives Matter activist. As a child, she was just soaking it all up: the colour, the costumes, the music and, most of all, the amazing people; including her mother—who ran away to London to become a punk and often performed as a clown in the circus—and those they lived with, from performers to prostitutes and dominatrixes. Her non-judgemental attitude now and the generous, open way that she lives her life, her experimental performance style, even her sexuality, are greatly influenced by this early exposure to truly original people living in the margins, but she has been even more profoundly shaped by the challenges that she has faced and the strength it has taken to overcome them.
As a tiny child she was a tomboy, always playing in the mud and climbing trees, so when people first started to call her dirty, she innocently thought this was what they meant. She had no idea that they were referring to her skin colour. “I remember a little girl coming up to me when I was maybe three or four, licking her finger and trying to rub my colour off,” she says. “Her mum pulled her away and said, ‘Sorry, she’s never seen a black person before. She thinks you’re dirty.’” She was so young that she was able to shrug it off, but it was racism within her own family that was the most damaging. “When I was born, my dad said, ‘She’s not mine.’ My mum had to literally explain race to him.” Her white dad had lucked out two years earlier with the birth of her sister, who was white-passing, with curly, blonde hair and green eyes. Shona looked more like her mother, although she didn’t know just how varied her ethnicity was until she sat her mum down when she was sixteen and asked, “Right, what am I?” Her mum drew her a diagram, unlocking the secrets of her blasian features. She was so different to her dad that the police stopped him in the street more than once when she was tiny to make sure he hadn’t stolen her.
“As soon as you start treating black people or LGBTQ people as equal, that’s when people get threatened that we’re taking power away from them. In a way we are because we’re taking their superiority and privilege away. It’s what happens when you’re conditioned to look down on people.”
When her grandma also started calling her dirty, she was still too young to understand why, but her subsequent acts of cruelty were undeniable. “I always had a split lip when I stayed with her,” she says. “She’d push me down the steps of the caravan. Wherever there were steps, I’d get pushed down them. No one really questioned it because I was always running around. And I’d lose weight because she would take the things I liked off my plate and give me less food or things I couldn’t eat. She wouldn’t let me have water when I was hot. I just thought she was cruel. It never really computed until I was much older what it was about. She’d make me have the first bath when it was stupidly hot, and I’d come out bright red, and then my sister would go in when it had cooled down. She’d tell me, ‘Yours is the kind of filth you can’t wash off.’” Eventually, Shona started faking sickness to get out of seeing her grandma and stopped going altogether when she was ten.
The one person that treated the sisters equally was her mum, but this presented problems of its own. “Because my sister was conditioned to be better than me, by my dad and grandma, she didn’t understand how lucky she was. She’d say, ‘You’re Mum’s favourite.’ It’s like, ‘No, we’re just getting treated equally. You’re just not used to that.’ Which is what’s happening in the world. As soon as you start treating black people or LGBTQ people as equal, that’s when people get threatened that we’re taking power away from them. In a way we are because we’re taking their superiority and privilege away. It’s what happens when you’re conditioned to look down on people.”
Watching her sister go through life more smoothly than she was able was definitely difficult, especially as the two were abandoned in the flat together for most of their teenage years after their mother, Shona’s lifeline, became trapped in an abusive relationship. Her sister was academically gifted, while Shona was rebellious, creative and out there, with colourful hair and tattoos even as a young teenager. She would steal food to survive, and vodka, and subsequently developed alcohol and self-harm issues. “I was hanging around with a group of misfits, problem kids like me,” she says. “We’d get drunk and stoned together and crash at each other’s houses, and my sister was pissed so she’d lock me out. I slept in the garage a lot. But I don’t blame her. She was raised to hate me.”
At the same time, she was also being bullied at school: called fat, ugly, monkey, dirty and told to go back to her own country, as well as being singled out for her sexuality. “I had come out as bisexual, before I knew what pansexual was,” she says. “Actually, I didn’t really come out. I just never really wasn’t. I was just the weird one in year seven who had a girlfriend. All the girls at school thought I fancied them or thought I wanted to see them naked in PE.”
White beauty was also a pressure, and she would fantasise about bleaching her skin and cutting her curves off, pushing her towards bulimia and anorexia. “I remember hating myself because I wasn’t like my friends. I ended up starving myself for years. And I still wasn’t good enough. Growing up, there was no one like me in the media, just token black people, no one to show that there was nothing wrong with the way I looked. I felt so ugly.”
Life spiralled further when she was sexually assaulted by a boyfriend and ended up staring into a rough sea one night, contemplating suicide, desperate for the pain to end. Her mum’s boyfriend had thrown a bottle of vodka at her, told her to kill herself and sent her off into the night with no shoes. “I thought people might think it was a drunken accident, so it wouldn’t affect my family,” she says. “If I could make it look like an accident, it would be okay. That was all I cared about. I just didn’t want to be here anymore. Everything hurt so much.” Thankfully a friend found her, took her in, gave her fresh clothes and they curled up together, in a daze, staring at Scary Movie 2, safe for the moment, but she knew she needed help and eventually reached out to a counsellor. Opening up about her past experiences helped, but she was still living it—the self-hatred, the bullying, the shitty homelife, the feelings of suicide. How do you change how you feel when everything around you has stayed the same?
And then, at sixteen, things really did begin to change. “I went to hospital because they thought I might have cancer,” she says. The scare proved to be without grounds, but the experience shook her. “That day I saw someone jump in front of a train and I saw a kid dying of cancer. It was the shock I needed. I saw myself as going from one to the other. I kind of didn’t want to die anymore, but I still felt like I was dying. It was like this weird depression. My brain was still saying that I didn’t deserve to live, but now I wanted to. That’s when I really started to focus on my mental health, take tablets, and try to heal.”
“People get confused when you don’t fit a stereotype. They like to put you into boxes. Like my ex’s family, who were like something from ‘Get Out’. They actually drew a pie chart of my ethnicity and would question me all the time. They made me feel like such a hood rat.”
It was her relationships with her ‘misfit’ friends that helped her to begin this process. “All of my friends were so messed up at the time with their own shit, and I was trying to help them because I’ve been through a lot in my life. People would come to me for advice, and I started seeing things from their point of view. It was a slow process, but when you’re giving advice, you realise how you should be feeling about yourself. And then I started to stand up for people being bullied because of their colour. So I went from ‘I hate my skin colour’ to ‘fuck you! This person is beautiful. We are beautiful. You can hate me for my colour, but I love me for my colour.’ So it was definitely a transition in my late teens. Like, I’m brown, get over it. My blackness was not the issue. It was the racists and the bullies who obviously have deep-rooted issues of their own.” From there, Shona went from accepting who she was to revelling in it, leaving her free to express herself as creatively as she wanted to. “You get to a point where you’re beat down so much for who you are that it gives you permission to be anything. I’ve been hated for my skin colour, for my sexuality, for my mental health, things I can’t change. People are going to hate me whatever, so I might as well be who I am. I don’t care what people think anymore.”
The problems haven’t completely disappeared, but support has helped with the self-harming and addiction issues. “It never really goes away and the temptation’s still there, but it’s not something I’m in anymore,” she says, and she is now better equipped to deal with the challenges of being a black, pansexual woman. “I’ve met people who say they just don’t find black people attractive. I always challenge them and when you dig deeper, it’s not the skin colour they don’t like but the perception of black people in the media, online, in films. On the other hand, I’ve had people tell me that I’m so exotic, fetishizing my skin colour. I’m like, I’m not a fruit!
“Being pansexual and black is hard,” she continues, “because the two communities don’t click. Everyone assumes that I’m straight because I’m brown, because you don’t see many black women who are into girls. And then there’s what a lesbian or bi- or pansexual should look like. If you’re black and gay, you have to be boyish to show that you’re not straight. People get confused when you don’t fit a stereotype. They like to put you into boxes. Like my ex’s family, who were like something from ‘Get Out’. They actually drew a pie chart of my ethnicity and would question me all the time. They made me feel like such a hood rat. Every day there was something about my race, my colour – it was crazy. They knew more about my life than I did, and then they’d say they didn’t really know me. They literally knew everything about me, but they still didn’t know me because I didn’t fit into this box. People do it all the time with black people and LGBTQ people. They need to categorise them.
“When it comes to sexuality, I just see myself as human – I don’t care what a person has in their pants; why should it matter? – but at the same time I feel alienated towards the whole humanity thing. It’s like, do you identify as a man, woman, they, them, he, her? I’m none of it. Call me what you like. I don’t care. It literally doesn’t mean anything to me. On the spectrum, I would definitely put myself outside the situation. Humanity is like me looking in rather than being a part of it. Because I’ve always been told that I’m different, I don’t feel a part of it. I’m fine with that now. I met someone who felt exactly the same after a show recently and felt instantly connected. Yes, another alien!”
These days, Shona’s life is calmer than it has ever been, with a stable homelife and an improved relationship with her sister. “Now, we love each other. We don’t have to get along, but if I’m sad I’ll go to her. She’s there for me.” Central to her life is campaigning for equality and educating others about her experiences. She says, “The issue that faces every person of colour is the feeling of not being equal, the feeling of being not good enough, that there’s something wrong with us. We need to teach each other and our children that we are good enough, we have a right to live and not just (emphasise just!) survive, that we are beautiful and we are loved. The world can be an unequal place, but we need to stand up against inequality and hate, and we, no matter what your skin colour, background, sexuality or mental health status, are all worthy. Every one of us matters. We must stand up against those who try to keep us down, lift up the most vulnerable, and make a stand against inequality wherever it may be.”
At the suggestion that her life so far has been unique, incredible and extraordinary, as a fire-eating, ex-circus-performing, burlesque dancer who has overcome so much and now stands up for the rights of others through the BLM movement, she says, “Really? I think I’m quite boring. People tell me about going on holiday with their family and I’m like, ‘On holiday with your family? No! That’s crazy!’. So much of life is about perspective!
An Afternoon in Primark Changed My Life: Joni’s Story
“It touched other aspects of my life for years to come: finding work was difficult because I was so searchable. Nobody wanted ‘that angry transwoman’ working for them.“ Read More
BLOG POST: But .. How do you really Know You’re Bi?
“It’s this same logic that leads some to think that bisexual people in heterosexual relationships have flipped on their straight switch, and are now no longer bi. Or that when a bi person enters into same-sex relationship, they are now gay. For some reason we’ve been conditioned to believe that the person we’re currently sleeping with is in direct correlation to our sexuality. Honeys, that ain’t it. I assure you.” Read More
BLOG POST: Coming Out All Over Again.
“I was a proud, confident, bisexual woman, with every future stage of my life and career meticulously planned. At that time I had no idea that a few years later I would have to come out all over again, as someone with disabilities.” Read More
Growing up (sort of) has taught me that mates are mates, gay or straight, and that being an unbearable arsehole will leave you alone very quickly.
Like every gay girl of my era, I was an avid fan of The L Word in my early teens. I’d download every season through LimeWire (never minding the 327843597 viruses that would accompany and ultimately destroy the family computer), and secretly binge them by myself late at night. As a shy, closeted baby dyke they offered a hopeful glimmer of an aspirational future. I could be out, cool, successful, attractive, and have proper relationships, however meaningful, with women. I could spend my days killing it at work and my evenings at some cosmopolitan gay bar with a close friendship group of fellow girl-loving girls.
The thing that drew me to The L Word so much – ok, besides the sex scenes – was the idea of having a group of gay friends like Shane, Bette, Alice, et al. People in the same situation as me, whom I could share my women woes with over a beer.
Because it’s lonely when you start out. In my high school of 750ish students, there was only one out LGBT+ person – and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t me. The idea of a don’t-give-a-shit, gay friendship group à la L Word was about as unattainable as walking to the moon. I had a good group of friends in school, but it was a group I had to put a mask on for. I’d pretend to fancy this actor or that singer, and I’d get off with the odd boy, to keep the mask in place. I loved my straight mates, but at the same time yearned for friends whose ~feelings~ were more similar to my own.
The search for such a group intensified when I came out – and coming out coincided with a definite increase in going out. Aged 16, I discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that I could get served in a few select venues in town. This included Betty’s, the local gay club. I’d persuade my (incredibly supportive and put-upon) straight mates to go there with me every weekend. I went there looking for new, exciting, gay people to match my new, exciting, gay life.
And, yeah, I met gay people. Girls I had clumsy flings with. Guys I’d do shots with until kicking out time rolled around. I suppose I felt like I was on the way to getting what I’d craved so much as a teenager. I definitely felt cool when I walked into Betty’s on a Friday night and saw half a dozen people I recognised already propping up the bar. I might’ve even felt cool when I was drinking myself into oblivion weekend after weekend, waking up with zero memories of the night before, a questionable one-night stand, or both. Sure, turning up to my Saturday shift at Iceland still pissed, reeking of vodka and looking like something scraped off the bottom of a shoe wasn’t exactly living that L Word dream, but I was getting there, wasn’t I?
I guess I’m a cliché for falling so hard into that nightlife hole. I’m not beating myself up – being out and going out was a heady freedom after being closeted for so long. It took me a while to climb out of that hole again, though. When I finally did resurface – after a few deathly hangovers too many, a near-miss, and a ride home in a police car – I found I didn’t actually have that many friends left. My desperate search for a group of gay friends had alienated most of my straight friends. While I’d been sinking into gay nightlife, they’d been getting their shit together and becoming proper adults. And the friends I’d made whilst out drinking? In reality most of them didn’t impact my life at all unless I was out with them. My drunken, ‘romantic’ encounters with girls I met at Betty’s just made it increasingly awkward for me to be there.
The L Word was a sham. I was disillusioned with its promises. Either that, or I was a weirdo unable to form the gay-lady friendships so intrinsic to everyone else’s best lesbian lives.
… so I wallowed.
People say that, with love, we find it when we stop desperately searching for it. The same goes for friendships. It took me a bit of growing up, and a lot of getting comfortable in my own skin, before finding the relationships I’d pined for in my teenage years. I stopped drinking myself into a black-hole every weekend. I made grovelling apologies to my remaining friends, vowing never to take them for granted again. In high school I’d wished for another group of friends so I wouldn’t have to wear my straight-girl facade. Years later I realised the only person forcing myself to pretend was me.
I’m now out in every aspect of my life. In my career (which has moved on from its inauspicious supermarket beginnings); with my family; with my friends. I still like a night out and a tequila or two, but now have interests beyond this. A year ago I started roller derby (which is probably, incidentally, the gayest sport in existence, but that’s another post, for another time), through which I’ve met some brilliant people. Through my partner, I’ve gotten involved with the local LGBTQ+ Women’s group. Even the knowledge that the group existed would have overwhelmed my gay little 13-year-old self with excitement.
The L Word made me strive for a cliquey lesbian friendship group. Growing up (sort of) has taught me that mates are mates, gay or straight, and that being an unbearable arsehole will leave you alone very quickly. It’s great to have your fellow lady-loving-ladies around you for a night out at Betty’s. But, sometimes, nothing beats getting wine drunk with your straight mate while you whinge about girls, she moans about guys, and neither of you envies the other one bit.
Kirsten is 28, gay, enjoys watching nerdy sci-fi films, embarrassing herself at open-mic nights, and strapping wheels to her feet and hitting people. Apparently, she also likes oversharing with people on the internet too.
“I’ve been hated for my skin colour, for my sexuality, for my mental health, things I can’t change. People are going to hate me whatever, so I might as well be who I am. I don’t care what people think anymore” … Read More
BLOG POST: The Gender Dance-off
“Had I been growing up now, ‘non-binary’ may have been a shoe that fit, but as I skidded through my teens in the nineties, gender was as fixed as the colour of your skin; you could change it no more than you could change the weather or Sporty Spice’s insistence that she was straight” … Read More
“So, ok, I’m ginger! There, I said it. I can deal with that. However, a test of my strength of (sensitive, ginger) character hit hard when I also realised I was gay. Come on! How unfair did this seem at the time?“
I was born cursed.
“Cursed with what?” I hear you ask.
Well, let me tell you. I was born cursed with the ginger gene! To many of you reading this now, you may feel this is a dramatic over-exaggeration of my hair colour. Some of you may be ‘ginger’ and love it. However, growing up ginger in the 70s was no easy task.
When I say ‘ginger’ I mean ginger. Not ‘Strawberry Blonde’, not ‘sandy,’ but actual ORANGE. On top of this, there were 3 of us. Me, my younger sister and my older brother. All orange!
As kids, we would be out and about with our parents, shopping, on holiday, whatever. Wherever we went we would be stared at. I mean, literally, people would stop and stare at the 3 of us. In today’s context we would be chart-topping superstars as part of ‘The Greatest Showman’ soundtrack; we could all sing!
It wasn’t just the staring either. People would touch us. Touch our hair. Without permission. I’ve heard pregnant women say similar about strangers thinking they have the right to touch the ‘baby belly’; people they don’t know walking up to them and stroking their bump even in this day and age.
A colleague of mine has recently had cancer and lost all of her hair. She said that one of the most uncomfortable and almost distressing parts was when her hair began to grow back and people would stroke her ‘stubble.’ Generally people she knew, but some outside of the family.
I suppose the ‘Curse of Ginger’ could have caused me a lot more trouble. There were not so many gingers about in those days and many of our ‘community’ were bullied for their hair colour. On reflection, the targets of bullying were mainly boys with a ginger chip on their shoulder, so they would attack first in order to defend themselves. This did not usually turn out well.
My brother and I were both quite placid and easy going, so there was no real need for us to be singled out and bullied for our hair colour. I mean yes, there was the usual name calling—‘Duracell,’ ‘Carrot top,’ ‘Ginger nut,’ etc.—but I was never bothered by it. My sister was a totally different character, so nobody in their right mind was going to have a pop at her!
An observation I have made about the ‘Ginger Curse’ is that, generally, if you are ginger, you hate it; if you are not ginger, you love it and want to be ginger.
Redheads (a polite way to say ‘Ginger’) are apparently the rarest ‘breed’ of the human population with only between 1 and 2 per cent natural gingers. Research has been taking place for years into the ginger gene. In the year 2000 it was discovered that the ‘mutation’ of a particular gene (MC1R/MCIR) causes gingerness and its unique characteristics.
Here we go again! Such negative connotations into the ginger gene—mutation! Come on! What about ‘Transformation,’ ‘Revolution,’ ‘Metamorphosis?’ These are all far more complimentary than ‘Mutation’. As it is, our gingerness causes us to be more sensitive than the rest of the world’s population (scientifically only physically more sensitive, but who knows, it could have an effect on our mental and emotional sensitivity too?)
Over sensitivity to temperature changes is a definite physical symptom I suffer as a ginger. In the winter, one minute I’m fine and within a millisecond I’m shivering like a Chihuahua being forced to walk in the rain. As a ginger, I am more sensitive to pain which is why, if you visit my home, you will find enough painkillers to stock a village pharmacy. During major operations as a child I required 20 per cent more anaesthetic than the kid in the next bed and I was far more susceptible to bleeding out as blood doesn’t clot as quickly. (I remember all these details from the doctors, nurses and surgeons from my weeks at a time in hospital.)
So, ok, I’m ginger! There, I said it. I can deal with that. However, a test of my strength of (sensitive, ginger) character hit hard when I also realised I was gay. Come on! How unfair did this seem at the time? I knew I was definitely not straight when I was 15 but it wasn’t until I began my teaching career in the early 90’s amid Section 28 that I knew I was most definitely gay.
My first true love was a senior teacher (13 years older than me) and we were together for 9 and half years. However, for all of that time, due to Section 28, due to her not wanting to upset her elderly parents, due to her not wanting to attract attention, due to parents of pupils making derogatory comments following rumours around the village where we lived, we behaved outside the home as ‘just good friends’. This most definitely took its toll on our relationship and I ended it, feeling guilty. I left with nothing.
As if this wasn’t/isn’t enough, I have battled a severe anxiety disorder which presents (when unmedicated) in a range of ways: at worst, panic attacks so debilitating I can’t function enough to even get out of bed to take a shower; at best, I have extremely tidy, alphabetically-rearranged, colour-coordinated kitchen cupboards through an attack of OCD.
I am aware of an addictive personality which is not always a negative attribute (alcohol, food, self-harm), it can also have positive influences on my life. For example, during the recent lockdown, my obsession has been with maths! For me, this has been fabulous because, as a primary-trained, non-specialist maths teacher teaching GCSE maths to excluded teenagers, I feel that, at last, I am ahead of the game.
So, the ginger curse could have been much worse for me. I haven’t ever embraced it. I have yearned for my hair to turn naturally grey for years but it’s as stubborn as I am. I am currently rocking my natural colour, which is certainly less orange than it was when I was a child, and there are definite sprinkles of grey in there, so things are looking good.
In the grand scheme of things, I am in good health, have an amazing career and a loving, generous, kind partner. Curse of Ginger? I’ve got this.
Janine was born in Leeds in 1970 to working-class parents, the middle of 3 children. She graduated from Teacher Training College in Lincoln in 1993 and has taught in Norfolk and Suffolk ever since. firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more blogs by incredible LGBTQ+ Women Like Us.
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BLOG POST: The L-Word Fantasy
“Growing up (sort of) has taught me that mates are mates, gay or straight, and that being an unbearable arsehole will leave you alone very quickly.”Read More