Writing by Jodie Matthews // Photography by Selma Reis
It’s 2010. Baby by Justin Bieber has been blasted for what feels like the last 12 years, Macklemore hasn’t yet taught us about that obvious correlation between drawing and being gay yet, and I’m finally starting to grow out of my scene kid phase. I’ve only just turned 17 and I’m hovering on the precipice of adulthood, I still wear gel pen eyeliner and my hair is bright red from a shoddy dye job executed in my friend’s kitchen. By now, all my friends know that I’m not straight and although each of them dealt with it differently, each of them stood by me. I’d had the same group of friends since I was a kid because that’s how it goes in tiny towns, and together we all started growing up and learning about each other. When we started secondary school, our little friendship group doubled in size as we bonded with other groups who’d all been friends since they were kids too. By the time we were all 17, a lot of inter-group dating had gone on. All of it heterosexual. You couldn’t really get a new boyfriend that someone else hadn’t once had a ‘thing’ with (the illustrious ‘thing’: are we together? Aren’t we together? Who fucking knew). I was the only one who wasn’t heterosexual. You always hear about the queer kids all flocking to each other, but at that point, I was pretty sure I was the only bisexual girl in the whole school, the whole world even. Although my friends were accepting, it was hard for them to understand what it was like to be anything other than straight.
I had one friend who would constantly ask if I fancied her ‘yet’. By constantly, I mean literally every other week, in class. One minute we’d be falling asleep on our chairs as our teacher detailed the history of prog rock and the next she’d be reminding me of my otherness, questioning me. Eventually, the jokey comments and prodding and poking frazzled my nerves a bit too much, so I snapped back ‘honey, you’re not my type’. Queue the next four months being a pity party for my straight friend, because ‘even the gay one didn’t fancy her’. This is a theme that continued for years as I grew up, as my friends cried ‘I’m giving up on boys, I might as well be a lesbian’ each time their boyfriends broke up with them. We were seen as a jokey backup plan, existing to boost damaged egos, too ridiculous and weird to ever be a real option. This didn’t only happen to queer girls either; my gay friend was always asked who he’d date if he was straight, which girl he thought was prettiest. We were the ego polishers, the ‘you’d totally date me if I was gay right’ receivers, the private experiments.
The experiment phenomenon went on and on because obviously I’m a sucker for soul-crushing rejection and being treated like a science project. None of it was ever serious, no one was ever actually interested beyond morbid curiosity, until one night, someone was.
Megan* and I had known each other for a long time and formed the type of bond that only exists when you’ve fought through puberty together, greasy hair and all. After doting on each other for years as the closest of friends, discussing our first boyfriends together and spending every weekend at her house, I finally came out to her. Nothing happened. There was no drama, no tears, nothing at all. Just crystal clear acceptance. It was a massive weight off my shoulders.
It was my Megan’s 18th birthday, I’d recently broken up with the shittiest boyfriend I’d ever had (he still holds the number one spot) and I was ready to let my hair down.
Her party was held in the back room of a pub, as was all the rage in our town at the time. A group of us got ready at hers, smearing neon face paint on our cheeks and yanking our tops and dresses down so a little bit of cleavage and sparkly pink bra peeked out. The party went as all parties did back then, someone hooked-up round the back of the pub, my ex rang me repeatedly, and a couple of people cried. Everyone had graduated from bright blue WKD’s to Vodka and Red Bull, and we all felt so damn grown up. After the party I went back to her house to spend the night, in the same bedroom I’d slept in hundreds of times. We sobered up and squeezed into her single bed. Under her old purple bed sheets, everything went tits up. She asked me a few questions about my sexuality, and a guy I’d been seeing recently, and how that worked. I was great at talking then (and now), so I went on and on. I spoke so much that I didn’t notice when she moved around so she was facing me, and I didn’t pay attention to how close we were, and I barely even heard when she said she liked me. By the time I could even begin to process what was going on, she was kissing me. Once I registered we were kissing, I quickly realised that no, I didn’t want this. My friend was attached to my face, and all I could think was ‘this doesn’t seem quite right’. Afterwards, instead of explaining myself I copped out and said something along the lines of ‘you should totally experiment with your sexuality, goodnight!’ That was the last that we ever spoke about it, until a few years ago when I brought it up and she denied it ever happened.
The day after we kissed and all the weeks after were really confusing. I kept trying to convince myself to like her as more than a friend. I didn’t know why liking someone was referred to as ‘more than a friend’. I couldn’t work out why having the option to stick your tongue down someone’s throat was seen as so much more appealing than having that same person as your lifetime bezzie who you can talk shit with. I wanted the option to be gross and embarrass myself in front of the people I cared about, without having to freak out about whether they’d still want to sleep with me later that night. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make myself see her as anything other than a really great friend.
The most messed up thing was that I felt like I had to like her. Megan knew nothing about me freaking out– she never asked me for anything more and she didn’t mention anything again. Yet I still felt guilty. We lived in a town with no LGBT community, I’d messed things up with the very few gay/bi/questioning girls I’d met so far and here was a girl who I got along great with, loved with all my heart, and she’d said she liked me. I should fancy her. I had to fancy her. If I didn’t, I’d be doing every girl who’d ever dreamed of a happy ending to the tv show Sugar Rush a disservice. I’d be a pariah among all the girls who were rejected by their straight best friends. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. The idea that we, the queer, bi, lesbian girls, have to take what we’re given stuck with me for a really long time.
It was impressed and imposed on me more and more each time someone said ‘I’ve got a friend who’s gay, shall I set you up?’, each time I was reminded how non-existent the LGBT community was where I lived, each time a girl left to go back to her boyfriend.
Even in my 20’s, I found myself on dates with girls I met on Plenty of Fish and OK Cupid who weren’t my type, simply because they were the only ones in my town. If you grew up somewhere without the thriving community we all dream of (see: Brighton and Manchester), there’s this internalised idea that you can’t be picky. You start to lower your standards for girls who aren’t what you like, you get into bad relationships, spend time with girls who are a little mean, or hate the things you live for (like the girl who tried to chat me up by saying how much she hates poetry) or girls who hated you in school but have recently come out and now want a date. It’s easy to forget that you deserve to date people who are kind to you, that you can sleep with people who you find attractive instead of people who are ‘just there’. If you’re too picky, you feel like you’re going to end up alone, hanging out in gay bars when you’re in your 30’s, trying to impress the new gay kids on the block.
We stick with who we’re given because for a lot of us, the idea that there’s anyone else out there is unbelievable. This isn’t only paramount when it comes to dating either. Without positive role models who are like you, the idea of your future is unimaginable. Living in Cornwall, the only adult female couple I knew were fired from their jobs when they came out. It was a worrying mould to grow into. As a teenager, the only media I’d experienced about LGBT had all ended tragically. Gia, Boys Don’t Cry, even Sugar Rush. Films and books were telling me there was no happy ending, as my straight friends re-watched their favourite Disney Princess movies, certain in the knowledge that their happy ending was deserved. You find yourself taking small moments from each LGBT film and saying, yes, that sounds good – a stolen kiss here, a doomed two-week love affair – that’ll do before I either die tragically or have my heart ripped out by a girl named after confectionery.
When Juno first came out, I watched the film every day for a week. It may not have been a film about LGBT characters, but I felt an affinity with Ellen Page and the character of Juno. Everything about Juno read as queer to me, and my fictional girl crushed blossomed. I wanted to date Juno, and I wanted to be best friends with Ellen Page.
Ellen Page came out publicly when I was 20, with a moving speech that I’m sure we all remember. I was curled up in a chair at my mother’s house, visiting home after ending a misinformed relationship with a guy, my heart still attached to a short haired Danish girl. I was feeling weepy but empowered. I was out to everyone I knew, working on poetry about female relationships, and I finally found my people at university. I watched her speech on my laptop, my mum cooking lunch for us both in the kitchen. I’d never felt so connected to a community as I did then, in a tiny village with my supportive mum, as an actress I’d looked up to for years stood in front of the world and made a declaration of love. We already had Jodie Foster and Ellen DeGeneres, standing up for our rights, but these women had always felt too far away from me to comprehend. Older, richer, and more successful obviously, but they’d also struggled more hardships than I could comprehend. It felt like appropriation to commandeer their struggles. Their battles were too far removed from mine. When Ellen Page stood, I felt like she was talking for me. For the young people I knew. Those of us who are in their 20’s and older, those of us who have survived being ‘other’ as teenagers in our tiny towns need to tell the girls who are living that now that it does get better and they will find their people. We owe it to them. Their world may be less scary than ours, but as we all know, no matter how many straight people tell us that the battle is over now that gay marriage is legal in many places, ‘less scary’ does not mean perfect and it does not mean fair. This story is about confusion, and feeling like you can’t get a happy ending– this story doesn’t touch on even a margin of the horrible shit you deal with when you are seen as different as a teenager. This story doesn’t detail the way it feels when someone screams ‘dyke’ at you on the street, or when your friends no longer want to get changed in front of you, and the guys you know don’t want you to be friends with their girlfriends anymore. This story is a tiny chapter of a huge tale, and it’s one we need to keep on telling.