Growing Up Hated … Shona’s Story

Black Lives Matter, Discrimination, Growing Pains, Mental Health, Pansexuality

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.

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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!

By Hayley Sherman

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Confessions of a Lesbian Cliché: The L-Word Fantasy

Growing Pains, Kirsten Leah, Lesbian, The L Word

By Kirsten Leah

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.

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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.

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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.

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Random Thoughts: This is Not a Diary … Cursed!

Growing Pains, Janine Norris, Lesbian, Mental Health

By Janine Norris

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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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