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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.

Right.

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!”

I laughed.

“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.

 

October 10th, 2015

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Bi Visibility Day header

This has been a very interesting week, particularly as it has been my first set of activities as co-chair of the LGBT+ staff network here at Swansea University. Having been welcomed into the role by the out-going co-chair, Tracy Maegesuku-Hewitt, and by my current co-chair, Cath Elms, I’ve spent a lot of time simply in awe of the amount of things that relate to the network. And then . . . there was Bivisibility day.

Having hit the ground running, so to speak, caught up in the whirl of the new term, my own new students, courses starting, I hadn’t realised how quickly this day would arrive. I had never before realised how important such a day would be on the LGBT+ calendar, but as soon as we started getting the information out there, I could see how important it is. I think it comes down to the simple fact that we all live our lives in relative isolation, and sooner or later we look outside ourselves for recognition. We look around for people who reflect our own identities in some way, so that we can get a sense of solidarity and belonging. If the world around you doesn’t present many opportunities to see parts of your identity reflected back at you, it can seem like a very lonely place.

I guess it’s even more important when considering working life and student life. The workplace, well, we don’t choose our colleagues but it is a bonus if we get on with them. And being able to be yourself at work, or whilst studying, is fundamental to happiness, and to being good at your job. I’ve experienced a lot of challenges along the way, but one of the key factors in choosing an academic role here was knowing that I would never have to hide any aspect of my identity in order to feel safe, secure and supported in my work role. This really is a very positive and inclusive place to work. But Bivisibility day helped me to see how it might not always be easy for people to express their identity in a similar way.

It was a real pleasure, therefore, to spend an hour staffing the Bivisiblity information stall in the library foyer, and to meet a few brave souls who came to talk to me. It was also entertaining to watch people look at the stall, realise what it was about, and hurry on past. In between these two extremes were the students who looked like they were interested, but didn’t have the courage to stop and talk to me, and of course, the ones who thought I was working for the library and could tell them where the tours were!

So, why do we have a Bivisibility day? Because largely, bisexual people get overlooked. I don’t know why. Maybe simply stating that you are lesbian or gay is a stronger statement in the eyes of the average person. Who knows? Maybe bisexuality is still largely misunderstood, or not accepted as a clear and defined identity. I am not sure. But it is important to recognise that there are many, many ways in which sexuality, sexual identity and gender identity are expressed – as many as there are people in the world. And it is important as well to challenge the stereotypes about people who identify as bisexual, because this is something that is often misrepresented in the larger world.

I was amazed by the display, put together by my co-chair, of famous bisexual people. David Bowie! Annie Lennox. And one of my favourite authors, Alice Walker. Who knew? I thought if anything would make people feel better about bisexuality it would be knowing that many highly creative, intelligent and expressive people are happily open about their identities. It can only help to be in such august company.

I felt immensely proud to hang the bisexual flag from Fulton house this week, and even prouder to sit on the stall and be visible! I felt that I reached out to some of the people who were brave enough to approach me, and if me sitting there made a difference to one person’s life, then it was worth it.

So all in all it’s been a good start to the term and to my new role, and I am really looking forward to all the other events and activities that we have planned.

The network is here for anyone, staff and students, who want more information, support, advice or solidarity, about LGBT+ issues. We’re all one family, highly diverse and often radically different in our ways of seeing the world, but we have one thing in common. We all want the world to be a better, more inclusive place.

Contact the network on: lgbtplus@swansea.ac.uk

Bi Vis Day poster

September 25th, 2015

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