Have you ever watched a film and thought, yes, that makes sense, that speaks to me? Have you ever watched a film and really related to the people and the circumstances? Or have you watched film after film and wondered, when will I see my ideals, my values, my identity reflected back at me?
Finding yourself and understanding your identity is a key experience for everyone, something which starts in adolescence and seems to consolidate during the early years of adulthood. However, we are always learning, I feel, and many things influence the kinds of people we see ourselves as. For LGBT people, especially those who, like me, grew up in the 60s or 70s, finding their LGBT identity can be somewhat problematic. Or at least, can be a less straightforward. Unlike today, back in the day there were very few LGBT characters or storylines on TV or in films. As a teenager in the 1980s, there were very few role models for me to help understand my own identity. My research into narratives shows that ‘we are the stories we tell about ourselves’ and creating those stories often needs exposure to similar stories.
In the 1980s, I remember watching a TV adaptation of The Rainbow (DH Lawrence) and another of Oranges are not the Only Fruit (Jeanette Winterson). Neither of these painted a very positive view of being a lesbian, although there were elements of hope there for me. I was an avid reader, but there were no books for me to read. I watched the teen films that were prevalent at the time, but few had characters I could relate to. I remember watching the film Some Kind of Wonderful which had a boyish character who was called a lesbian by one of her classmates, but she was in love with her male best friend and ended up with him. There were so few books in which I could find something to relate to. I read The Well of Loneliness (Radclyffe Hall) and was so thoroughly depressed that I wondered if I would ever find happiness as a lesbian living in a world of straight people and straight stories.
And then I left home, at 19, and went ‘on the scene’. One evening, I was invited to a party with the woman I was dating. It was at a house owned by an older lesbian, a professional woman, secure in her identity and her context, and the world opened up. She had a shelf full of books about women, feminism, and lesbians. She loaned me a book (which I sadly was never able to return, as I did not have her address and fell out with the woman who had taken me to her house) which opened my eyes to a whole world of lesbian fiction. The book was I am a Woman by Ann Bannon. This was one of the books that were published as pulp fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, sensationalised with provocative covers, but many of which dealt with the real-life struggle of lesbians to find a place within the world. The book had a profound effect on me. I read and re-read it until the cover started to fall off. I started looking for more books, and found that these did exist. And I started looking for films. I found a bookshop, sadly now gone, in London. Silver Moon Books provided women’s and lesbian books and videos. There were adverts in the gay papers, and such things could be ordered through the mail.
Suddenly my world exploded. I watched some of the independent films made in the early 90s, and it was then I discovered my favourite film of all time. Claire of the Moon, Directed by Nicole Conn, tells the story of an American writer who goes on a writers’ retreat and shares a cottage with a famous lesbian writer and academic. The tension between them, set against a backdrop of powerful natural scenery, still grips and moves me, even though I have seen the film so many times I know the script by heart. I bought the book that went with it, and the soundtrack – first on tape, then later on CD. I bought the book written by the actor who played Claire, which described her own journey of self-discovery inspired by the film. And I realised that everything that I had been searching for could be and was reflected out there, somewhere, if I only had the means to find it.
It seems strange now, in these days of instant streaming, instant access to a vast catalogue of music, films and books, that once upon a time it was hard to access materials like this. Librarians would not order certain books, and you had to find out about the books in the first place. I felt as if I lived in a desert of lesbian identity, constantly searching for something to slake my thirst for knowledge, for self understanding. And it was films like this, and like Go Fish (Guinevere Turner) which helped me to start to see myself from different perspectives, and to understand the symbols of lesbian culture which were manifest in these films. Films and books which talked about lesbian life and experience opened up my knowledge of my culture and my history. I learned about butch and femme, radical sex, separatist lesbian feminism, bisexuality, and sexual health, all from videos and books. There was no other way to learn, it seemed.
Claire of the Moon deals with the classic issue of understanding self. Claire is an independent, confident, sexually aggressive woman whose self-assurance is compellingly attractive. The film shows how she is challenged by the sudden interaction and forced proximity with Dr Noel Benedict, and how at first they clash, their differences causing significant friction. “I have never seen two people more ill suited” Noel says. Claire is a night owl, a coffee drinker, with sloppy habits and a tendency to smoke too much. She is laid back and free, expressive and unselfconscious. Noel is an early riser, a workaholic, “dedicated, upright” and somewhat uptight. Their differences seem insurmountable. “You stay north, I’ll stay south” Claire says to Noel. Their differences are emphasised. But something draws them together, some commonality. First, they each read each other’s latest book. They bond over alcohol and backgammon. And the attraction between them becomes evident. Against the dramatic scenery of the Northern Californian coastline, they find themselves drawn together only to pull apart. Noel is attracted but having been hurt by a straight woman in the past, is disinclined to see Claire’s attraction as real or substantial. She dismisses it as idle curiosity. Claire, meanwhile, seeks out sexual encounters with men to compensate for her confusion. Her inner life is represented in dream/fantasy sequences which she finds disturbing, but which reflect strongly for me aspects of my own inner life.
And still, they are drawn inexorably towards each other. In this film, you see references to lesbian and women’s culture and history, particularly in the characters on the writers’ retreat, who are almost caricatures. There is Shylo Starbright, the hippy, esoteric ‘holy-istic type’. There is the conceptual poet, Adrienne. The housewife who has escaped from the kids for the first time, and whose husband leaves her because he can’t cope on his own. And the two women who run the retreat, one of whom is a butch lesbian, the other a femme and academic. There is much more to lesbian culture than these examples, obviously, but they act as tiny symbols of a much greater history that is waiting to be discovered. There is the representation of the ‘lesbian hug’. And then there is that fundamental story line, the love and desire between two people who are attracted to each other despite their differences. That was what gave me hope, as a young woman, struggling to work out who I was, and wondering if I would ever find community, find a relationship, friends who were similar to me, or at least people who shared the same kind of journey. The cataclysm of the climax of the film is simple, and simply powerful.
I have watched that film too many times to count. I have, since, developed a fondness for lesbian fiction, of every class and genre, and can cite whole range of authors and stories that give me pleasure and open up new windows into knowledge, understanding and the wider world. I love Karin Kallmaker’s books in particular, as well as Sarah Waters. I am lucky now that such books and films are mine at the stroke of a key, and I no longer spend weeks or months just watching the same film over and over to remind myself that I am a lesbian.
I have come to realise that we are all looking for identity. We are all looking, perhaps subconsciously, for something outside of ourselves that reflects our inner life, our sense of self. We look for the stories that speak to us, or about us. We find parts of ourselves in the films we watch, the books we read. We find our history not just in the factual records of the lives of lesbians, gay men, transgender people and the vast diversity of identities that are now emerging beyond the boundaries of binaries and definitions. We find them in the books written by others about stories that are often similar to us, the stories that take us away into new worlds and new locations.
I am an author myself, now, and I know that my work is influenced by all those who came before me. As I continue to write, I always remind myself just how far I have come, and how priveleged I am to witness and share in the stories of others. We are the history others will read in the future.
More than ever, it is important to write, read, produce, watch and consume these stories. They are a testament to those who were before us, and to the world we live in now, where our diversity can no longer be eradicated. The stories exist.
And so do we.
by Alys Einion
Senior Lecturer in Midwifery
Alys Einion February 16th, 2016
Posted In: Uncategorized
February is an interesting month. It’s the tail-end of winter, when people are thoroughly sick of the long, dark nights, the cold, the bare trees and grey skies, and are yearning for spring. The bright lights and warmth of the festive season are behind us, and we face the new year full of resolve or trepidation. That this has been designated UK LGBT history month seems to me to be perfect timing. It’s a chance to lighten the darkness a little, but still reflect and learn. Make the most of the lingering mood of introspection. It’s a chance to understand ourselves in context.
Whether you are LGBT+ or other, an ally, or someone who has never considered the history of the LGBT movement and of our identities, this is a chance to explore deeper the people, culture and events which have shaped our knowledge of ourselves and have affected our liberties and rights in the UK. It is a chance to consider ourselves in a wider global context.
The first place to start then, for this blog series, is with a brief overview of what this month means, and I hardly need to do anything other than give the official website: http://lgbthistorymonth.org.uk/
This is about honouring and recognising our history. The history of politics, political movements, literature, the arts, the law. It is the history of identity. Women living as men. Men living as women. Butch and femme, drag and drama. The changes in law, culture, and medicine. The oppressions of society, government, and medicine, pathologising us when we were no longer invisible. It is the history of survival in a world that kept on denying us. It is humbling.
But there is more. As I start this month, my first ‘history month’ as co-chair of the Swansea University LGBT+ Staff network, I find myself reflecting on what it means to me to be even sitting here writing this blog. Writing is a form of history making. Everything I do in this role, it seems, is making history, and that means that everything that others have done to simply be themselves, express themselves, or advocate for the rights of LGBT+ people have also made that history.
It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it, that what we do, day by day, is contributing to history? It causes a sudden shift of perspective, like climbing up and suddenly realising you are actually climbing down, like vertigo from looking up at a high building. And what I see here is that I am one small voice in a vast and huge chorus, all singing the same song. That chorus extends out to beyond the borders of our identities as LGBT+. It extends to all the other dimensions of identity, of self, and of community. Black, white, minority ethnic, female, male, non-binary gender, transgender, old, young, middle aged, parent, single person, coupled, married, divorced, people of faith, politically active people, working people, academics, professionals…. All of us a huge part of creating the world anew, each day.
The theme for this year’s LGBT month is Religion, Belief and Philosophy. There are many things that shape our world, and I have always felt that our beliefs, the way we make sense of the world, are fundamental to our identities. I have always wanted to make a difference in the world, always felt that I was put on this earth to make it a better place. This is one way I can do that. So as I continue with this blog series, I would like to raise key issues about belief, about religion, and about philosophy, and link to the various figures and events in history that have brought about the biggest changes in our wider world.
It was 32 years ago that I realised I liked girls. In that way. I was an introverted 13 year old, with a deep sense of spirituality and a yearning desire to be known, to be seen. There were no visible lesbians in my community, and few in the media. I had no idea about lesbian identity or history; gay was a very bad word in our house. I had no idea of the many, many people who had risked their lives to live according to their own identity. Over 30 years of my own history, and much of what I have and continue to experience is thanks to the people who have helped shape the world into a place where I can sit here and write a blog like this and not risk my career, my home, my life, or my liberty. That is why history is important. Because it is important to see where we have been, and how far we have come, honouring all those who have come before us, so that we can all feel able to continue to shape the future.
Check out the resources on the LGBT history month website, and do please follow this blog series as I explore as many issues as I can throughout this very important month. And if you would like to contribute to the blog, please get in touch at email@example.com
HAPPY LGBT HISTORY MONTH!!!!!
By Alys Einion, Co-chair of the Swansea University LGBT+ Staff network.
Alys Einion February 1st, 2016
Posted In: Uncategorized
In honour of National Coming out day on 11 October 2015, we at the LGBT+ Staff Network here in Swansea University are sharing some coming out stories. I hope that these will interest, inform and empower people and help raise awareness of how important, and challenging, it is to ‘come out’ as LGBT+.
To start the ball rolling, here is my coming out story.
The Yo-Yo Effect – a Coming Out Story
When people ask me about coming out, it seems they expect me to tell them about some huge incident or occasion when I declared my sexuality to the world, and dealt with the consequences. It’s a romantic vision, I admit, of someone making a huge statement, with subsequent life changes and, somewhere along the way, that ‘American Schmaltz’ moment when the estranged family welcome the black sheep back into the fold.
Sorry, but my coming out story is not really like that. It’s more like one of those annoying, serial adverts we used to get a lot of in the 80s and 90s, where, against your will, you have to keep watching them to find out what happened.
Coming out is huge. It really is. Even now, with so much more acceptance and legal protection for LGBT+ people, coming out makes you vulnerable. But it is really important, because it is a form of empowerment. It is an act of strength. It is an act of self-love. And it is a mark of respect to others that you trust they will deal with it appropriately.
For me, it began in the murky shadows of the 1980s. I had known for years I was . . well . . . not exactly straight. I had passionate crushes on my female friends. I snuck home from school when my mother was in work to watch Martina play Wimbledon, and disguised my urgent desire to watch the final as a burgeoning interest in the sport. But it was hard to admit, even to myself, that I was gay, in a valley where homophobia was the norm and local lads regularly took trips to Cardiff on a Saturday night to go gay-bashing in Sophia Gardens.
I was fifteen when I told my best friend. She acted cool, but assured me that she was straight, by the way, in case I had any ideas. Well, I had plenty but I knew she wasn’t interested. I was 18 before I had my first girlfriend, rapidly followed by my second, both schoolfriends, and both of whom ran back into their respective closets when the rumours about us started. Oh dear…but this was the first toe out of the closet. Those rumours brought some difficult questions, and then, my first coming out experience.
My sister, a year older than me, was very involved in my life. Being in a small town, we shared some of the same friends and often socialised together. And so one day, I was sitting on her bed whilst she put on her makeup. We got on well, despite her propensity for borrowing my clothes (she was 3 sizes smaller than me so I could never borrow hers!).
“So,” she says, carefully applying her mascara. “I heard some funny rumours. About you and Clarice.”
“Oh?” My stomach turned over. It’s a strange feeling, that burning desire to be known, to be truly known for who you are, but the terror of losing the love and support of those closest to you. It’s all very well for your head to tell you that if they can’t love you for who you really are, you’re better off without them. I didn’t want to lose my sister. And I definitely didn’t want her to freak out, tell my parents, and engender the worst case scenario, being kicked out on the street. That was a very real fear for me, the withdrawal of parental support, of the chance to have a carefree few years at university before real life began its full demands on my time and energy.
“Yeah,” my sister went on. “They say she’s your girlfriend!”
“Funny, isn’t it?” My sister grinned at me in the mirror.
I took a breath. “Yeah. The funniest thing is that it’s true.”
She gasped, then stood stock still, the mascara brush still in her hand, frozen half way to her eye. Then she said, “Oh, okay. That’s nice.”
I felt like I breathed out the biggest sigh of relief. It was okay. She wasn’t freaking out (though I learned later that she was, but she was determined to show me the love and positive regard she knew I would not get from my parents.) We agreed that day not to let on to the parents, and even though she asked for no details, her acceptance made a huge difference.
Not so my schoolfriends. As soon as the rumours began to surface in school, Clarice dumped me. Then there was Amy. More rumours. Another dumping. And then I ran back into my closet and firmly shut the door behind me. It was cold and lonely out there, and I didn’t like it. I got myself a boyfriend, proved I was straight, and carried on as ‘normal.’
Ditto my life in University. After one term on the gay scene, I was totally disillusioned by all the bed hopping, infidelity, and the phalanx of older barfly dykes who preyed on the ‘fresh meat’ but always went home alone. I didn’t want it. I wanted the white picket fence, the 2.4 cats. So after one term, one glorious term, I ran back into my closet again.
Years later, I finally came out to my parents. Well, to my mother. Living with a girlfriend in the early 90s, I felt that it was necessary to at least broach the subject with my mother. I was living a 4 hour drive away, completely independent, and rarely saw my family, but still. It mattered. That was the point. It mattered that my family knew me. So I rang my mother one day from a payphone (remember those?). This was during my second stint at university, as I embarked on my career and built a life for myself. I was secretary of the LGBT society in the students’ union, had run for Women’s Officer, and was a sexual health activist. I thought, at the very least I should come out to my mother. When I told her, she said, “you can’t be gay, you want children,” and I laughed. I think she had known all along, but for her generation, it was easy to leave things unsaid. Then she asked if I was happy. And I knew it was going to be okay. Her final words were “we won’t mention this to your father.”
Many more Years laterafter my mother died, the law changed, and I married my partner on the first day that civil partnerships became legal. It was like the biggest coming out story ever. Every day I came out, to the teachers in my son’s school, to my colleagues, to a new friend, I felt like I was breaking new ground. I always faced that fear. Yes, sometimes there was rejection, yes, family disappeared for the most part (except for my stalwart, always loving sister), but I dealt with it. Better to live as myself than suffocate in a blanket of self-deceit and invisibility. But I learned, as do many of my peers, that coming out is never one step, one act, one experience, it is a constant process of revelation, and requires strength, self-respect and the love and support of people who matter.
Coming out matters. It’s not easy, despite all the changes in the law and in society. People still have a hard time of it. Coming out means being vulnerable, but it also means truly being yourself, whatever the cost. People have died for the right to be themselves, to call themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and every other permutation of identity that makes us all so wonderfully diverse. It’s always frightening, it’s always a risk. But it matters.
Alys Einion October 10th, 2015
Posted In: Uncategorized
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