I came out at twenty-five and at the time of writing this have been out for less than a year. I wish coming out wasn’t something people had to do, but the reality is that we live in heteronormative societies that assume straightness and that it is a privilege for me to feel safe and able to come out when so many others can’t out of fear of the repercussions which, in some places in the world, mean death. As I came out relatively ‘late’ and after a long-term relationship with a man, I was met with many questions, including: how did you not know? Well, I now know that the male gaze and my own internalised shame had a lot to do with it.
I grew up going to a school that did not teach much in the way of LGBTQ+ history and did not offer any sex education outside of the heterosexual experience; where bullying was rife and terms like ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘dyke’ were thrown around every day as slurs. At the same time, girls would make out with girls at parties in celebration of the male gaze. Endorsed for male pleasure only. Even kisses that went on behind closed doors, in the company of other girls, seemed to be merely stories to brag about to the boys the next day. And I was complicit in this behaviour. I was a young girl who thought she derived enjoyment from kissing girls only because she wanted to please men.
When I was called a lesbian as a ‘joke’, I would panic and retaliate by flirting outrageously with as many boys as I could find. I remember several occasions where I was goaded to kiss one of my best friends in exchange for free beer. In doing these things, I learnt firstly that kissing a girl was ‘bad’ unless it was for the male gaze, and secondly that sex was a transaction that again centred male pleasure. I learnt to objectify myself. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger breaks down how this happens; “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”, he says. Crucially, this not only defines a woman’s relationship with men, but with herself: “she turns herself into an object and most particularly an object of vision”. It starts young and buries into your subconscious, meaning that most women are not aware of it. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing yourself being seen, the image of yourself, rather than truly seeing yourself. It’s walking into a restaurant and imagining how you might be being seen by others. It’s quite frankly exhausting.
By an early age, I had already internalised the following beliefs: sex is for men’s pleasure only; sex is only ‘natural’ if it is between a man and a woman; sex is something that a woman must give a man for him to love her; my value lies in my desirability towards men. From this place, I centred my life around men and entered relationships carrying these beliefs. When I had my first proper boyfriend, I would hear from his mates that he would ‘get bored’ if I didn’t put out and go elsewhere. When I had sex with him, he became a legend and I became a laughing stock. “Slut”, “slag”, “whore”– words that were yelled at me in the school corridor. I once walked into the P.E changing rooms and found ‘slut’ scribbled next to my name on the girls’ football team list and later found out it had been written by a friend. I absorbed these beliefs about myself. Whilst I was being shamed, I also noticed that I started to garner more attention from the boys at school, which fed into the notion that my value was in my desirability. Later, boys would assume my availability and consent, which led to experiences that I now recognise as sexual assault.
Though my experiences at school solidified these beliefs, many of them originated at home. I learnt that sex was shameful when my mum found condoms in my bedroom, left them on my bed for me to see and then didn’t speak to me for days, apart from to tell me that she had made me a doctor’s appointment. She marched me to the doctor and demanded they told me about contraception and that’s all that was said about that. I learnt that it was shameful for a woman to love another woman when my parents chose to tell me that my nan’s partner was her ‘friend’. When I found out in my teens that they were in a relationship, because my best friend pointed it out, I felt a fool. I internalised their relationship as shameful because it was presented as needing to be hidden. I am deeply sad now that my nan’s partner did not get the same treatment as my grandad’s wife after he remarried – she became my nan too, yet my nan’s partner became a ‘family friend’.
My parents did not have bad intentions, but this is where the problem lies. Intentions are irrelevant when the action (or inaction) itself is still harmful. Micro-aggressions in your day-to-day life from well-intentioned people that you do know can be just as painful and damaging as blatant prejudice from someone you don’t know. In fact, micro-aggressions have been studied and can cause feelings of anxiety, stress, PTSD symptoms and depression (Woodford et al., 2014; 2015; Robinson, 2014). Many people will live their lives committing micro-aggressions without realising (I am not excluded from this – I am sure I have done so myself in the past and that I will continue to make mistakes in the future). Some examples in relation to the LGBTQ+ community are: “I support gay relationships but I don’t need to see them kissing on TV”, “that’s so gay”, “why do we always have to talk about gender and sexuality”, “you don’t look gay”, assuming straightness, saying that queer couples are “too much” for holding hands or showing affection in public, telling a trans person they “pass”, “gender identity is getting out of hand, like where does it stop, can I identify as a dog now?”. The more we can learn, look inwards and unpick our own unconscious biases, the less likely we will be to commit these micro-aggressions.
The shame I felt around queerness and sex became so bound up inside me that it’s no wonder I was unable to recognise and validate my feelings towards women. As Florence Given, artist and activist, puts it in Women Don’t Owe You Pretty: “The shame that women have surrounding sex is the same shame that seeps into our desire to be with other genders, because we are taught that our bodies exist and belong to the male gaze – so having feelings for other women is bound to confuse us.” Whenever I felt something towards another girl growing up, I immediately discounted it and buried it because of this shame.
At the beginning of last year, I had lost so much internalising shame and performing an inauthentic version of myself for my then boyfriend and others that I had nothing left to give. I spiralled into a dark depression where I confronted suicidal thoughts regularly. Finally, I reached out and asked for help. I went to the doctor and was prescribed anti-depressants. I went back to counselling. I ended the relationship. These things saved my life. I finally prioritised myself and said: I no longer want to buy into these toxic ideas. For the first time in my life, I had the space to ask myself what it is I want. To take the time to unlearn the beliefs that fostered the shame and guilt that had become normalised in my mind.
When I left my relationship, my sexuality was not in the forefront of my conscious mind. After the initial painful period of grief, I started to make connections with my counsellor about my sexuality. Buried feelings and memories resurfaced that at first I found very difficult to hold. I felt a fraud. I felt unsure. I felt ashamed. I am deeply grateful to have had the means to attend counselling during this time to help me process these feelings; not just about my sexuality, but my whole identity. Alexander Leon, writer, campaigner and activist, says that “queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation and prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us and which parts we’ve created to protect us”. I relate to this statement both as a queer person and as a woman who has grown up performing versions of herself for the male gaze.
Now, I proudly identify as queer, though I find I am only interested in dating women and non-binary people now and can’t see myself dating a man in the future. I ask myself often why I choose to use this word. I tell myself it’s because I like the flexibility of it; it feels open and inclusive of the breadth of experiences I have had in the past, including loving a man, and those I may have in the future. However, I find it important to question whether I am choosing to identify as queer because I also have an internalised fear of the lesbian label after years of negative associations with the word. I am still trying to unpack this, and that is okay. It’s also okay not to want to label yourself at all. Or to feel like a label helps you to reclaim a part of your identity that you once felt you had to hide.
Going back to the original question: How did you not know? The answer is that I have always known, but I have not always been aware, as my truth was deeply buried under shame. There has certainly been some positive progress since I was at school in terms of understanding and representation; the show Sex Education on Netflix, for example, breaks down misconceptions and shame surrounding sex, including queer sex. The rise of social media has allowed space for queer voices to be amplified. And in many countries, including where I live in the UK, same sex marriage is now legal.
However, many of these positive changes predominantly benefit white, cis-gendered queers. I recognise my own privileges that mean that it is easier for me to proudly exist in the world as a queer woman: I am white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, thin and pretty (by Western standards), neuro-typical, and, I am ‘straight passing’ because I am femme presenting (which is a privilege, even though it can in some scenarios feel frustrating as I can feel less visible within the queer community). I owe being able to be out and proud to the brave Black trans women and queer people of colour who led the way towards liberation at the catalytic Stonewall Riots in June 1969, including Marsha. P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormé DeLarverie. Liberation for some is not liberation because the rights I have are still not afforded to many within the LGBTQ+ community, particularly Black queer people and trans women.
I will continue to fight for the rights and respect of those marginalised within the LGBTQ+ community, for more and better representation for all of us, for better education in schools. I will continue to fight against the patriarchy. I hope that this, along with being loud and proud, will mean that more people growing up will feel less shame so that they can own their truth. I hope that, one day, this will mean liberation for all.