Coming Out Late

I knew I was a lesbian as soon as I knew what a lesbian was, which, due to the sheltered nature of my childhood, wasn’t until I was 16 and we studied Mrs Dalloway. So why did it take me until I was 30 to come out?

People stay in the closet for so many reasons. Some of mine were fairly standard, like family and religion. Others were a bit more complex.

Family is fairly easy to explain. I had tested the water by making jokes about bringing home a girlfriend. My dad’s face turned stone still and he said “We don’t even make jokes about that”. So I had my answer. I knew that coming out could cost me my relationship with my parents and I just wasn’t ready to pay that price until I reached the point where their love simply wasn’t enough.

Religion also played a major role, not really in the ‘gays burn in hell’ kind of way. I had already decided that God probably wasn’t that serious about hating gays or He would have made more of a fuss about it. It was more that religion had taught me to ignore my own desires. It never even occurred to me to question what I did or did not want in a partner.

Once I worked out that what I wanted was girls, other factors came into play. All the lesbians I knew fell into one of two groups; far too cool to be interested in me, or so weird I had no desire to be associated with them. Clearly the ‘too cool’ category were the ones I was attracted to, but lacked the self esteem to do anything about it.

Later, in my twenties, I let myself be persuaded by the narrative surrounding lesbian relationships, that they burn out because there is no ‘growth’ and no development ie no children. I didn’t know anything about LGBT families and didn’t know any lesbian couples. I wanted a family, so I thought the only option was a husband. I know now that this narrative is a lie. LGBT relationships are just as deep and lasting as heterosexual ones. Not only do we have kids, the studies show that our kids do just as well, if not better than the heterosexuals’.

I also didn’t want to end up dating someone just because we were both lesbians, even though I ended up doing that for a while. Again, this was lack of experience. None of the lesbians I had met shared any of my interests and I didn’t share theirs. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t dismiss all lesbians on the basis of knowing 6 of them by name.

Finally, I thought that my lack of experience was an issue. I think I imagined that if I walked into a gay club, I would set off some kind of sensor and be forcibly ejected by the bouncers. I had no idea what to do with a girl if I got one and was so naive that I thought it would matter (when I did come out I bought a very helpful manual and read it cover to cover – I made sure I had the theory down way before I had my first girlfriend).

I’m sure that some people still think that if I had met the right man, I never would have come out. In some senses they’re right. But then, there never would have been the right man and people have a way of spotting it when they are not what you really want. I tried, really I did, but it never worked out.

So I got to 30, so lonely and so depressed that I was frightened to drink in case I did something stupid. When my therapist asked me “Do you think you might be lesbian or bisexual?” it was like being given permission to act on all the thoughts and feelings I had buried for so long. Everything changed. I came alive and I have not looked back since.

Footnote:

The thing everyone wants to know is how you can have sex with men if you are a lesbian. It’s very much like TV. You can watch a black and white set and you’ll see the same show but a colour set makes it come alive. That’s all I’m saying.

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Coming Out Late

Curioser and Curioser

The toddler was staring at R, mouth open and eyes wide. When his mother wheeled the shopping trolley round, his head swivelled round like an owl’s. R smiled at him and said hello. The child hid his face in his mother’s coat.

“Uh, uh,” she said, moving the coat. “You got caught being nosy and now you’ll have to be nice. Say hello to the lady.”

It was a perfect response. Children, especially white ones, are fascinated by R. Our niece even got caught licking her arm (we think she thought R might really be made of chocolate). They stare and stare. She always responds to them and waves and says hello.

Quite often, though, the white parents are horrified that their children have been staring. They tell their babies off, some give R an apologetic smile, but some don’t even engage with R as they hustle their family away. I know it is because they are embarrassed, but it isn’t helpful.

Difference is strange and interesting; it excites curiosity, even investigation. I never mind answering questions about being a lesbian, R never minds curious regard. But when parents are embarrassed by their kids’ curiosity, it teaches them that there is something wrong or shameful about R, and that is a problem.

The other issue is that people often think that R can’t tell the difference between curiosity and hostility. The facial expressions involved are quite different; try it in a mirror and you’ll see what I mean. If you can tell the difference, so can she.

That white mother in the supermarket had the right response to her child’s nosiness. She acknowledged the curiosity, but she also made it clear that R was a person and needed to be treated with courtesy. I am really glad that at least one little boy will be able to embrace difference and recognise shared humanity at the same time.

Curioser and Curioser

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

Just as DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act – the one which prevented any US federal body from recognising same sex unions and the legislation that meant that R and I couldn’t stay in the US) was in the process of being repealed, the New York Times published a lifestyle piece about a lesbian couple. For the life of me, I can’t find it – if you have any better luck can you pass it on as I would love to link to it! Anyway, this article was a well meaning attempt to ‘humanise’ same sex partnerships by showing that gays and lesbians are just regular folks. Obviously at the time (2012), the notion that queers have to put out the garbage was considered newsworthy.

As I’ve said, the article was well intentioned, but in its attempt to normalise us, it called on a whole slew of gender stereotypes. It really did talk about having to put out the rubbish and arguing over who got rid of the spiders. I suppose the point was to highlight that lesbians are just ordinary women. I’m sure that the writer didn’t mean to suggest that ordinary women needed a man to deal with their spiders.

There is a joke that is really old now; ‘Asking a lesbian couple which one is the man is like asking chopsticks which one is the fork’. It’s true. We can deal with our own spiders (R gently ushers them outside, I squash them). We know enough about ‘man stuff’ to have renovated our own house and have bought a used car without consulting either of our fathers. We are both strong enough to lift anything that needs shifting. This isn’t because we have special lesbian powers, it’s because gender stereotypes are rubbish.

What neither of us can do, however, is occupy a man’s status in society. The other weekend, there was a huge row at a house party we had been invited to. One of the other guests, a large white male, was angry that R (who is Black) had said that English people could be racist (see Racism in the UK on this blog). Then he went off on one about immigration. R refused to say what he wanted her to – why would she? What she was saying was true and what he was saying was racist. He kept arguing and arguing. I took him outside to try to talk to him. He wouldn’t listen and he still wouldn’t stop. Finally another guest, a white male, the same age, but shorter and less physically intimidating, said to him “Enough now, time to stop”. The man shut up instantly.

R and I can defend ourselves physically, but in situations like this, where the aggression is verbal, neither of us have the power to shut down an angry white male. We just don’t have the status. That is one of the few times when I really wish one of us had the power of a fork.

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

Learning to see

When I was at school, I had a friend who was extremely beautiful. She had big grey eyes and long auburn hair. I would watch people do anything to please her; bus drivers would make unscheduled stops, shop keepers would knock money off products if she didn’t have the right change and so on. It skewed her idea of humanity. She thought that all people were basically kind and generous. It never occured to her that she was getting special treatment because she was beautiful.

Being white skews my perception in much the same way. I assume that the treatment I receive is extended to everyone around me. I have blonde hair and a middle class accent. In most cases, I am treated with courtesy, even with respect. I have come to expect this level of treatment. It rarely occurs to me to check for dangerous negative reactions from the people around me because I have experienced very little real danger. In fact, I know that I can safely ignore the people around me.

It took a long time to realise that being able to ignore the people around me is an enourmous privilege of colour and class, one which R does not enjoy. Her experience has been one of unexpected, unprovoked physical and verbal agression. She wasn’t even six when an adult called her the ‘N’ word for the first time. The attacks are not constant, but they are persistent and they are incredibly difficult to predict; a few weeks ago she was called a “black bitch” by a suited commuter travelling from London’s financial centre. She never knows when these verbal assaults will spill over into violence, so she must be on her guard constantly. She never has the luxury of being as oblivious as I am.

Kyle Killian speaks about the tendency of white partners to ignore and belittle the negative experiences of their Black spouses in his book Interracial Couples, Intimacy and Therapy (which I recommend to anyone in a mixed relationship). I know I have been guilty of this behaviour. I have said to R “Why do you have to be so sensitive all the time? These people don’t matter”. It ranks up there with the most stupid and insensitive things I have ever said in my whole life because it blames her for not having my level of privilege.

If I am to be the loving and supportive wife I want to be, I have to learn to see the world as R sees it, to make myself aware of my surroundings in the same way she has to. It is not easy, but it is necessary.

Learning to see

Being sufficient

This is the blog post I don’t want to write and you don’t want to read. After you have read it, don’t respond. Don’t offer me sympathy, I won’t like it. You’ll know about this, that’s enough. If I don’t talk about this, nothing else I say will make sense. That’s the only reason I’m doing it. So.

I had a missed miscarriage. Neither of the two fetuses developed a heartbeat. We found out last Tuesday. Yesterday the miscarriage happened. It was my birthday, which was a bit poor. On the other hand, it was the only day this week that R could have been home. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

This is one of those times that defines a marriage. R fell and aggravated an old injury last week resulting in crippling pain. She is being messed around at work while trying to meet an impossible deadline. We are both at our limits, physically, mentally and emotionally. And yet what few reserves we have, we are giving to each other. At times it feels like trying to prop each other up with thin air.

What I do not doubt is that we will be sufficient. We will be kind with each other. We will step back and forgive. We will praise and reassure each other. The house will be messy, we will cry and get angry, we will misunderstand and hurt each other’s feelings, but beyond all this, we will keep on breathing and keep on loving. We will come through this.

Post script

If you have experienced a miscarriage or are looking for ways to support someone who has gone through one, The Miscarriage Association has some good advice:

http://www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk/

Being sufficient

Weightless

In order to have the best chances of success for our IVF treatment, I needed to lose at least 15kg (33lbs). It wasn’t last year’s resolution (which was to always take the stairs and to sit up straight), but I started the process around about the middle of January last year. Since then I have lost 20kg or 44lbs. I have come down from a size 20 UK (16 US) to a size 12/14 UK (8/10 US).

This may seem like an astonishing success. Friends and family are very vocal in their praise and admiration. In fact, nothing I have ever achieved, not renovating a house, writing a novel nor gaining a Masters, has ever been received so positively as becoming thinner. And I am decidely ambivalent about all of it.

I didn’t like the way I looked this time last year. It was hard to find clothes that looked good and were comfortable. I felt guilty all the time. I felt like everything else I had achieved meant nothing because I was an obese woman. I resented the fact that, at 40, if I were a man, I could slide into a rotund middle age without losing my status in society. Losing weight has not taken those feelings away. I don’t feel constant guilt any more, but I still feel that for most people, my weight means more than my achievements.

Losing weight wasn’t particularly difficult. Once I got into it, I enjoyed leaping about my living room with increasingly heavy weights. I like running. I don’t miss alcohol at all and I like the food I cook. I found what worked for me. So I don’t understand why my weight loss is treated as an incredible achievement. All of the other things I have done were much harder and are much more important to me.

There are definite drawbacks to being thinner. I am much more visible now. I don’t care for male attention, mostly it creeps me out (I’m that kind of lesbian). The blatant staring is far more uncomfortable than my clothes ever were. People assume I take up less space in the world – I have to fight for possession of the whole of my seat on the train. I feel like my excess flesh protected me from the world and now it is gone, I am exposed in a way I never noticed before.

Being thinner may have raised my status in some ways, but it has sexualised that status. It reminds me that as a woman, I am always defined by my body.

Weightless