It is hard for me to be a proud lesbian woman, especially in public.
I use ‘privacy’ as way to avoid talking parts of my life that might expose my sexual orientation. In the times I’m forced to talk, I use gender-neutral terms, names and pronouns when I really should just say “my girlfriend”. Where possible, I use the excuse that “my sexuality is the least interesting thing about me”. I don’t correct people if they assume I’m a straight woman and I very, very rarely refer to myself as a lesbian.
But get me in a private group chat and things are a bit different. Besides the 5% dedicated to whining about our 30s, the chat, shared with two of my closest girl-loving friends, is a celebration of lesbian life and culture. There, I talk and exist openly about being a big ol’ lesbo. Cate Blanchett in a suit. Reclaiming the word “dyke”. Who’s Alice? Who’s Bette? Who’s the Shane? Strap ons. Ellen Page’s latest ledia1. Why lesbian storylines don’t exist without a scorned husband or a forbidden love2. When making girl friends sometimes feels like dating girlfriends. Lesbian motherhood. Celebrating Pride. Are we getting rainbow tattoos yet?
You get it.
In private, I am open. In public, I am fearful.
In private, I am proud. In public, I am ashamed.
Most vulnerably and most personally, my fear is of disappointing people whose expectations I’m unable to meet and everything that follows that disappointment. My shame comes from the knowledge that a large part of my identity is merely tolerated, but never wholly accepted, by an otherwise loving family. My existence as a lesbian woman has been coded with fear and shame from the beginning and I am not ignorant to the reality that it will always be this way, in varying degrees and from varying sources, for most of my life.
My story is not unique; this is a reality for many. Perhaps, even, for all of us… in one way or another.
For some, the reality is serious — depression, drug-abuse, suicide, self-doubt, criminal charges, violence, internalised and externalised homophobia, homelessness, isolation, loneliness… it doesn’t stop there.
For others, the reality is different. They learn how to happily, outwardly and proudly exist despite the noise that comes from family or friends or society or even themselves that says: “you shouldn’t be who you are, you shouldn’t love who you love.” You don’t need to look far to find these people. You’ll find them openly sharing their experiences, marching in Pride parades, flying flags, making art, creating inclusive communities and… fighting for our rights. They’re people like Harvey Milk, Christine Jorgensen, Jess Guilbeaux, Jonathan Van Ness, Audre Lorde, Amy Andre, Rain Dove, Laverne Cox. They’re visible.
I suspect that I currently exist somewhere between the ‘some’ and the ‘others’.
Visibility is always something I had been passively aware of but it wasn’t until two years ago when I actively understood what it meant.
In March 2017, Erin Phillips, a star footballer, had just finished a pemiership season with the Adelaide Crows, in the inaugural australian women’s Australian Football League. If a pemiership, being voted Most Valuable Player and winning Goal of the Year wasn’t enough, Erin was also awarded the league’s Best & Fairest, the most coveted medal in footy.
Under the sparkly lights of a Melbourne gala, and upon hearing her winning votes being called, a beaming Erin turned to her wife Tracy and kissed her. No biggie, right? We’re all familiar with this celebratory moment between spouses. But that particular moment, shared between Erin and Tracy, a married couple, was now forever planted in Australian women’s AFL history. And, despite lasting only a few short seconds, left a lasting impression on me and many other Australians.
Watch the beginning and then skip to ~7:40 for Erin’s speech.
It wasn’t the kiss that was remarkable. It’s not uncommon to see two women kissing in mainstream media these days. In fact, the first lesbian kiss on Australian TV aired in 1970 in an episode of ABC’s This Day Tonight. For me, it wasn’t even that I had finally seen a real-world representation of two feminine-presenting women in a same-sex relationship.
No, the part that struck me the most was that this was very much real life with real people, a real environment, a real career and very real possible consequences. Whether or not Erin and Tracy realised it at the time, their kiss and Erin’s speech that proceeded3, was a courageous and brave thing to do no matter how routine it might have been to them. They did it, without a second thought, despite the wider and mainstream AFL being a historically heteronormative — and often, homophobic — community. In 123 years of the sport, not one national league player has come out as gay in the media4. In 2010, prominent footballer Jason Akermanis urged gay people to stay in the closet because the AFL “wasn’t ready”. Erin’s split second of no-holds barred visibility —in spite of all of this— is fucking powerful. The authenticity is powerful. The pride she had in who she is and who she loves is powerful.
For who? For me. For other people like me. And yes, probably even for you too.
While there are many side conversations to be had about the way the public are quicker to support two feminine white women in a same-sex relationship5, I can’t deny that the very public reaction made me feel seen, positively. It showed me that the society is changing. It showed me that I too could feel supported, encouraged and accepted en masse. If Erin could do it then maybe, too, so could I.
This is the moment I realised that visibility has a real lasting impact on people.
So when people ask why things like Pride month is important or why it’s necessary for LGBTQ* people to “flaunt their sexuality,” this is why. It paves the way for other people to step into their truth. It gives us courage and helps us to feel proud, even in the most trying of environments. It shows the wider public that who we are and who we love is completely normal, healthy and nothing to be afraid of.
The past two years have been slow going. It’s not an easy process ‘being visible’; fear and shame frequently rear their heads, regularly rolling back progress. Even writing this is a huge and uncomfortable step for me. I wonder about the reactions and the conversations that might follow. This might all be a surprise to some, saddening to others and maybe even infuriating to a few. But, this is something that I feel the need to do because I want to be visible - it is a privilege to even have it as an option despite it being an uncomfortable one. With every person who speaks about their experiences, every Pride parade that exists and for every country that legalises same-sex marriage we are one step closer to making a public kiss between wives unnewsworthy, one step closer to other countries decriminalising homosexuality, one step closer to this unfathomable violence not being a reality, and one step closer to little old me and my fellow LGBTQ* community being out and proud in public without fear or shame. I want —need— to be a part of that.
Several times a week I travel through The Castro, a well known LGBTQ* neighbourhood in San Francisco. I’m new here; I’m not used to seeing rainbow flags hanging from buildings, technicoloured crosswalks and so many openly gay couples walking the street. It’s nice. It feels good. It’s also the neighbourhood where, in the 70s, Harvey Milk, a camera store owner at the time, become the first openly gay elected official in California. He fought tirelessly for the rights of the LGBTQ* community, leading a campaign to ban discrimination in housing, employment and services based on sexual identity. As well as being one of history’s most prominent gay-rights activists, Harvey is often described as a visionary. Rightly so: Harvey knew the power of visibility before we even came close to understanding or experiencing it. Some 40 years later I believe he said it best when he said, “Gay people: we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets.”
He’s right. We should be proud and where we can, we should loud about it, in public. If it’s safe to do so: share your story, confidently correct assumptions, hold your partner’s hand in public, wear your brightest colours, flaunt it however you like. For those who can’t, whether it’s because of a lack of support or because your life will literally be in danger, we’ve got you.
If you need support, the following websites, ReachOut (Australia) and PFlag (USA) list resources that could help. Thank you to Jessica Stanley, Anna Rowe, Aria Stewart and some other lovley people for helping me to edit this piece.
- That’s lesbian-media. Ha. [return]
- Seriously, can someone please produce a film where two women fall in love and the friction point isn’t about they way they’re going against society in one way or another? I’ll take a long distance job opportunity getting in the way of romance. Or a differing opinion on cats. Anything. [return]
- During her speech, Erin spoke confidently and proudly about Tracy’s support. Erin said, “Tracy, we’ve been through some amazing things…when we were four months pregnant I said, ‘can we go to Adelaide so I can play footy and risk my WNBA’, and I was waiting for an ‘are you joking?’, and you said, ‘absolutely, I know it’s your passion and your dream. Every bit of this is all owed to you and I can’t thank you enough. I love you and thank you so much.” [return]
- In 2012, Jason Ball, was the first Australian rules footballer, at any level, to come out to the media. [return]
- There is an argument to be made that the general public is quicker to support same sex couples who don’t challenge them in ways other than with their sexual orientation. In this case, the public support might have been different or even non-existent if alternative races and/or different gender expressions were a part of the story. Separate, but parallel to this, feminine lesbians have long been sexualised and garner a different (read: crude) reaction than lesbian women who align closer to the masculine stereotype, who are often subjected to violence and exclusion. [return]
This is a 4-part Pride month project. Each week I’ll be producing something new in an effort to push myself to be more visible, and feel comfortable doing so. If you’d like to support this project and the issues it surfaces, please consider donating to my fundraiser. All proceeds will go towards Minus18 and Black Rainbow.