Love is…

This week I’ve been in a horrible funk. Nothing is clicking, my confidence is at a low; I’ve been exhausted, clumsy, battling the same horrifically boring demons I’ve faced since I was a kid. I’m coming to realise why ‘self-care’ is so important – and that’s because no matter how much I love my people, my Mama and Naughty Daughter, my wonderful group of women, we are all battling most of the time. You have to be able to give yourself a bit of attention, you can’t rely on anyone else to be able to swoop in, because you never know what they’re going through at the same time.

The week started with this podcast – please listen if you can spare the time. Now, you can’t know me without knowing that I love podcasts. As a medium I think some of the best work happening on the planet is happening here and I have pods in my ears around four to six hours a day at the moment. Cameron Esposito is a firm favourite and while a lot of pod episodes rely on being interested specifically in the guest, I can listen to Cam talking about this stuff with anyone. I’d never heard of Rebecca Sugar and I probably won’t watch her series, but this episode struck a massive chord with me. I started the week examining myself and my past – and the reasons I’ve never taken bisexuality seriously, even my own.

So perhaps it was the perfect time to head to the Iris Prize Festival, where I knew absolutely no one, so was alone, consistently confronted by some of the best films I’ve ever seen – but all of which came at a fairly high emotional price. I have cried a lot this week.

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I had some fairly mixed feelings when someone posted on FB an urban exploring site showing photos of my old school. I marvelled at it and barely recognised most of the more opulent spaces – this place is like a palace – as I hadn’t been in half those rooms as a student. But the corridors and science labs brought back some very conflicted memories.

I loved my friends, I was in awe of so many of the girls and so desperate for them to love me back. But I was desperately unhappy too. I didn’t fit, I was bullied and in turn bullied those weaker than me. I was cruel and in pain and acting out. At fourteen, when I brought home a school report where the maths teacher described me as ‘morose’, my mother realised she no longer recognised the person I had become and she whipped me out of there pretty quickly. The school were furious at her seeming ingratitude for the financial bursaries I’d received. But I doubt they ever questioned themselves, or how I’d become so unhappy and ostracised in a place where they had constantly treated me as inferior; not Catholic, not rich, not conforming and from a broken home.

Looking back, it seemed the worst thing you could be at an all-girls convent school was a lesbian. Or ‘lemon’ as we used to say, because the word itself was distasteful. Even ‘finger-fucking’, i.e. masturbating, was ‘gay’. As we pored over every copy of Just 17 and gossiped about each other, it was clear that having sexual or romantic feelings for another girl was basically disgusting. Under Section 28, the school were under no obligation to teach us anything about same sex love or relationships, so all I heard was scorn if anyone was considered to be ‘a lezzer’. It wasn’t even a particularly religious view, among most of my friends, but it was unanimously held. Or so I thought.

Of course, once I left the school it was revealed that at least a few of the girls had been in relationships with each other, having sex and later coming out as lesbian, like it was no big deal. I’m pleased for them that they were able to be who they were. But a seed was sown at a particularly confusing time for me. I was in no doubt that I was in love with Kurt Cobain, that was certain. But I couldn’t tell when I looked at Courtney Love, whether I wanted her, or wanted to be her. I just knew that if I’d admitted to the feelings I had for women, decades before we had the term ‘girl crush’, I would be ostracised and rejected on yet more grounds. So I kept it to myself.

After school I fell in love, with a male human, and we were together throughout my college years. By that point I knew that some people might think they were bisexual, but most people think they’re kidding themselves. Bisexuality was never in my experience, unless it was a joke about being ‘slutty’ or basically gay or… well we all know the stereotypes. I just kept schtum. I had a boyfriend therefore I couldn’t be bisexual.

Then I went to university. Whys and wherefores aside, I ended up at Royal Holloway which was about 80% female and, in my experience, about 50% gay. It was brilliant and I had a lot of fun in the five months before I quit. I had fun with boys and I had fun with girls and I had fun with a boy who looked like a girl who was dressed as Frankenfurter the night we met. It was a pretty cliché university experience, although me being me, I packed a lot into those two semesters.

Right after I came home I got pregnant. And that was that, really. For years and years afterwards I denied my sexuality. I believed the rumours – that lesbians don’t trust bisexuals. I didn’t think any woman would want to be with me, because I had a kid and they would think I was heterosexual and lying to them for some reason. For what reason? Now I think about it, almost in tears, I’d built up a lot of shame and fear and it’s actually entirely inexplicable. Why couldn’t I just be honest, put myself out there? I was hobbled by what I thought was an obstacle, whether or not it existed. Instead I made bungling, horrid mistakes. I won’t go into them here – I’m not in any way shy about it, but there are other people to consider. However I lost a couple of female friends that I fell for hard, but with whom I couldn’t be honest. And I went out with a whole bunch of men.

Even until recently the pattern continued. On dating apps I went from ‘seeking men and women’ to ‘seeking women’. However, while I was intimidated by these cool, sexy, beautiful women, getting men was easy and I’d end up dating women, but going out with men. Some decent men, but still…

At some point, alongside the relationships and one night stands and then taking a big break from drinking, which made everything better but infinitely harder, I became a much more political feminist, an angry woman, an out bisexual and – at this point – a bit of a hairy man-hater. And I obviously don’t really hate men, there are two I really like. But I talk to women every day, I crave the company of women, I don’t have any interest in heterosexuality or heteronormativity. It’s just taken so long to get here.

Last year National Coming Out Day was such a proud time for me, but it stirred up a lot of hurt. I couldn’t help but think of all of those beautiful children around the world who can’t come out, or do and lose their families, their friends and even their lives.

The films at the Iris Festival this week, some of which were set in the past or in vastly different cultures across the globe, all hit me as a reminder – that to be gay was illegal in this country so recently and still is in several places across the world. That to be openly LGBTQI+ will give you a community, a proud and vocal one – and I urge you to go to an LGBTQI+ screening some time and hear just how vocal! It’s truly a delight to hear the responses and encouragements. But that in our other communities and families we are often prevented from being ourselves. Churches talk about love, but preach hate. Families fail to understand and blame cultural differences or the generation gap or a rural mindsets! Although this is not about my mother, who has always accepted me, and I know I am so lucky. I know in my case, this was something I did to myself. Yes, it was because of media and society and all that shit, but it was all in my head. I told myself my sexuality was irrelevant as long as I dated men – but finally, this week, a podcast made me realise a few things about that. I’m happier when I’m honest, with everyone else and with myself.

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Hardly any of the films at Iris tackled coming out stories, but many of them contained violence and castigation, people shunned from their families, their religion of all things, their locale. In some cases the worst a characters faced was heartbreak – but it all seems so unnecessary, so avoidable. Why should our hearts be broken?

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Many of the films tackled masculinity and the aggressive shame surrounding homosexuality, which is so ridiculous. Why wouldn’t you prefer someone of the same sex – you have so much in common! [NB Come on, lesbian filmmakers, more please!]

Whether it was Xhosa men in South Africa or the tensions for women in modern Palestine – or even sheep shearers in my home county of rural Herefordshire – it’s distressing and disturbing to see people being torn apart because of something so real, so human, so natural. It makes no sense to me that this is how anyone feels about love.

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One of the few good things I took away from my time at the Convent was, ironically, a bible passage. It’s the best one.  It describes love and although I don’t love any god, I love love and I’m so desperate to love humanity. Please listen to the podcast, watch some of the Iris films, think about the real humans who are still suffering because of love and think about how little sense that makes.

Only the worst things happen when we’re not allowed to love each other. Only the best things happen when we are.