Some three decades ago, in my early 30s, I came out – to certain close members of my family but also to myself. Not to my father however. If he were alive today, I believe I would still feel forced to present a life that was in part a lie. So, some things don’t change with age!
I can’t claim to be a ‘Gold Star Lesbian’ – a woman who has never slept with men and whose sexuality was fixed from her earliest memories. At 19, I got married for many inadequate youthful reasons: someone said they loved me, I had an engagement ring, a wedding ring, even an eternity ring to flash in front of my friends, just being married made me feel like a grown-up.
It wasn’t till I was in my late 20s, going to art college as a mature student, I met my first lesbians and gay men. This was a revelation. My entire world opened up over a few short weeks. From living a narrow life of work, home and visiting family and in-laws, of being sexually, deeply unhappy, I found people I was able to relate to.
My acceptance that I too was a lesbian didn’t come easily. Initially I searched for but couldn’t find an image I fitted into. Meeting someone at 16, marrying in my teens – feminism or any knowledge about what was politically going on for women, passed me by.
When I look back, it seems as if I lived out 15 years of my life without a serious idea entering my head! Yet at the same time, I was dissatisfied. I had a phrase constantly in my thoughts: ‘There must be something better than this.’
During the first half of the 1980s, I was still married but playing the wife-role badly. I was also in a clandestine lesbian relationship, but this seemed very separate to becoming part of any community.
I admit I was fearful of change and what ‘people’ might think of me. At that time, given an option, I wouldn’t have chosen to be a woman who loved, liked and enjoyed the company of other women. I did try lesbian clubs, discos, pubs, but with no real success. Looking back on these years now, I see that I probably set myself up to fail. I felt like an outsider. Nobody, not any LGBTI community, not my family, nor my lover, were holding out a helping hand.
In 1984, I left my marriage and my lesbian relationship broke up. I spent the following year in a rented flat in Stoke Newington, north east London, on my own.
I was fearful of the future but not unhappy and I was forced to think.
I had to re-evaluate my life, my beliefs, my opinions. I realized how much these had been formed by others who belonged to a straight world. I also realized I had done very little thinking at all.
But I would liken myself to some ponderous juggernaut – once turned round my progress might be slow but it was determined. I moved away and then back to Stoke Newington, which still is a wonderful part of London for a lesbian to set up home and create a life. I made friends and tentatively became part of a community.
I have no doubt it is still hard for men and women to come out to parents and friends, even sometimes impossible. But there are many more resources and the ever-increasing awareness of ‘diversity’. Whether lip-service or genuine, there is now a social obligation to accept sexual difference. In theory, we can be who we want to be and in parts of this wide world, structures are in place to support us.
The problems will always remain in the small and personal. Private prejudices within family, friends and work situations. I am now braver, more confident and often very happy to feel myself to be part of LGBTI. Having said that, there are still moments when I am with straight friends, that I feel my life and sexuality are being completely ignored or ludicrous assumptions made. I hear my voice becoming querulous and defensive as I strive to put over how it is to be a lesbian.
I haven’t yet found a way to sell myself and others with good humor and intelligence but I’m trying whereas years ago, I would probably felt obliged to keep my mouth shut.
Have things got better? Oh yes, but there’s still a long way to go.
VG Lee will be hosting a panel discussion on age, race and being LGBTI on 21 February at Kings College, London, starting at 6.30pm and followed by a reception at 8.30pm. It is being organized by The Rainbow Intersection. You can find out more and get tickets here.
Gay Star News is supporting the event as a media partner.