Monday, 30 November 2015

Sharing the truth

Trigger warning: sexual assault, rape, self harm

There is never an easy point in any relationship to tell someone you've been raped. I remember sitting on a park bench under a blue sky in Brighton as I said it out loud to a friend for the first time. I remember sitting on the floor opposite a girl with a smile like all the colours of the rainbow, and standing up before she could kiss me. I remember the deep breaths before holding back tears as I told my mum, and she said we were always so careful when you were growing up as if it was her fault, and not his.

I don't remember the man who did it, I don't remember much really. Just that I didn't know for a long time, and that I was always triggered without knowing what being triggered was, and that even now that I know sometimes I wish that I didn't. I keep remembering more and more and more and more and more. And memories are often by touch. So when I liked this girl with this rainbow smile I pulled away, couldn't trust her to touch me, even though I wanted her to.

I've been asexual for most of my life, so when I started being attracted to people last year it was all a bit weird for me. And I've dated a fair few people in the past year, and that's always okay, but it becomes scary when I start to like a person, because then I don't really know what to do. Because if they like me back, it's usually impossible to let them know that things aren't okay without coming across as if I don't like them... either that, or handing them a huge truth about myself. How many dates does it take without kissing someone for them to think you're not interested? How many dates without kissing someone before you tell them you have a history of sexual assault, and talking about it is the only way you'll be able to continue spending time together like this?

Every guide on dating that seems to exist says keep it light the first few dates. But what if they try to kiss you, and your head becomes thick with pain, and you always pull away? There is no way to keep that light. And I'm always worried about hurting them, or losing them, or both. I have to really trust someone before they can kiss me, but in order to trust them I need to know they care. A few dates is usually too soon to care, and any further than that is the point of no longer being interested and everything is so complicated when touch is so difficult.

Sometimes I sit in my room, and it's sad as hell, but I write poetry about all the things that could have been different if I was normal and not like this. This word normal has haunted me my whole life. It's not normal to have short hair, it's not normal to like girls, it's not normal to cut yourself when everything seems fine on the outside. I hate the word normal.

I keep secrets inside of me like birds in cages, but I'm fed up of hiding. So I write. This blog is not a safe space. Anyone could read it, anyone could comment, anyone can read everything that makes me most vulnerable. But that's okay, because I'm a person, and I'm not normal, and this is my truth, and I'd rather share it than have it eat me up under layers of clothes. This is scary. But it will be okay, because nobody is normal, and we all have birds inside of us. And knowing that makes the world feel okay.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Thoughts from a Drag King night...

Trigger warning: sexual assault

I'm at a Drag King night in Dalston. There's still an hour for the show to start, the music is already blasting, and there's another queue of people being turned away at the door. We're eagerly awaiting 10 Drag King performances for what is the final of Man Up, a satirically named new competition. In the first round alone a group called Twigs in Wigs takes the piss out of the Backstreet Boys with some very on point dancing... and we witness a slightly hysterical act called Shesus and the Nuns. At a (very brief) moment of quiet between acts, I say to my friend that I am so proud to be queer. For all its weirdness, this random pub in Dalston feels like home.

After last week's very intense anxious spell, I'm happy to be feeling a lot better this week. I think it's safe to say that I am loving spending time back amongst the LGBTQ+ community.  I've been all over the place attending queer nights, from inspiring awards ceremonies to gay bars in Soho. I bought a funky-looking bow tie, and I've been wearing it with pride... and now that I'm comfortably on the scene again, I don't ever want to be off of it.

It hasn't always been like this - for a long time I was scared to go to gay bars for many reasons. I don't drink alcohol, and I can't dance, and I'm not very good at coping in loud dark crowded spaces, and I also simply don't have many queer friends in London to go with.

My first gay bar experience was a spontaneous trip with my "experienced" friend to the RVT. We were the only lesbians, amongst a sea of gay men, and I didn't dance. But it was still one of my favourite nights ever.

A few months later, and I've braved many many more bars. I've been to all sorts of places, and as someone who travels around the country a lot, I've dipped into a fair few gay bars outside of London too. I did three in one night in Brighton once and it was awesome. I am loving the queer scene.

Unfortunately though, there is no such thing as a safe space, and after being giddy on excitement at all the queerness, in July I was sexually assaulted by a much older gay man in a bar in Edinburgh. He mistook me for a teen boy, and he didn't understand no, and after it all happened I remember thinking to myself: not here. I was so used to things like that happening outside, somewhere else. It was worse because I wasn't expecting it. I just kept thinking: not here not here not here.

I was disappointed more than anything. I decided to try something different.

There's this women's bar in Soho - it's called Titania. The last two times I've been there, I've ended up hanging out with random women from a website called fetlife. Notice I say women's not women's only. And women's not gay women's. It's always felt perfect for me - gender-fluid, queer and feminist, but welcoming of all genders and sexualities - all those feeling overwhelmed in queer spaces that are predominantly cis and heteronormative.

I'm not into fetish, but the first night I was in Titania, I hung out with a group of older women from fetlife at a gathering called "Tits and Tats." And I took the bus home with a woman who sells sex toys for a living and DJs in her spare time. Not because I'm into fetish - or because I'm particularly brave or experimental sexually at all (I'm pretty terrified to be fair)... but because I could. 

A women's bar in Soho made me feel safer than a lot of places. And that's not because I identify as a woman, or because I was in a queer space, or because I followed the conversation... but because I felt like I could chat to anyone, and it didn't matter that we didn't have everything in common. Because it's different to everywhere else.

And that's exactly how I felt, on that night in Dalston, amongst a load of queer people, screaming over an Usher tribute, Gusher, on the stage. We watched a drag king shave their chest as they sung along in slow motion to Madonna's like a girl, and we celebrated this. And we thought about it. And when they won the competition, we cheered. Because it's okay to be creative and confused and expressive in the queer community. And no where is ever a hundred percent safe, but some spaces are safer than others. And in some spaces it's so easy to be proud.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Being anxious and queer and both of these things

Trigger warning - anxiety, self harm

Being queer is funny sometimes. I’ve been spending a lot of time outside of London in the past week, and it really is like some people have never seen a butch lesbian in a zebra striped tie reading the sex issue of Diva magazine before. I love watching people’s facial expressions, but most of all I love the absolute horror some people express when I ask them a simple question, like where the toilets are, or where I can get a cup of hot chocolate. I mean, I know being approached by a gay woman can seem like speaking to an alien, but realistically, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like I’ve got gay germs I can spread to you and all of your children…

I’m writing this while on a bus to the shops where I’m going to buy a bow tie. I’ve never owned a bow tie before... I feel like a bit of a traitor to the lesbians. I’m getting my first just in time for an LGBTQ+ event tonight. And I'm excited - about the bow tie, yes... but also because I can’t wait to be surrounded by queer people. Because as much as I joke about other people being weird about my gayness, sometimes it really does affect me. This week has been one of those weeks.

The thing is, I have anxiety. It has its pluses – I’m never, ever late for a train - and as a Londoner, I’m pretty proud of that. However… anxiety’s a real struggle more than anything, and something that is both pronounced and defined by my queerness.

One of the more unpleasant symptoms of my anxiety is the panic attacks. There are loads of different types of panic attacks – it generally varies from person to person. My kind come most often in very early hours of the morning. I wake up – my head is pounding and my thoughts become inseparable from one another, and more than anything – I just feel hot. My body reaches temperatures I’m sure must be unnatural – my insides feel like they’re being boiled in the tight wrap of my body. My skin writhes and pulses with heat. I feel trapped.

I’ve been having quite a few nights like that recently – Saturday night was the hardest. I was on a weekend where I was meeting new people. New people who weren't campaigners, or feminists, or activists, or queer... it made me realise how long I've been avoiding spaces where people aren't at least one of these things.

I was sharing a room with 7 young women. It was 1am in the morning when they all got in from the pub. This was not the time for my skin to start boiling - but it did. I lay still in bed, faced the wall, eyes open, focusing on not losing track of time, trying my hardest to pretend I was asleep. This is what intense social anxiety looks like. I couldn't move - not even for air.

It's not just shyness - if I was just shy I would have been able to go to the pub in the first place, not be lying in bed. If I was just shy I wouldn't be terrified to let them know I was awake, in case they spoke to me. If I was just shy I wouldn't be planning ways to escape through the window...

I often wonder how my anxiety would be different if I wasn't queer - or if it would even exist at all. I'm by no means saying that queerness causes social anxiety, or that social anxiety can't be felt by people who aren't queer... because that's just bullshit. But I wonder about myself - as an individual. Because my queerness and my anxiety feed off of one another. They are like two inseparable friends.

As soon as I entered the group at the start of this weekend I was terrified. Some of my thoughts:
They all know I'm gay
What if they're homophobic
What if they hate me because I'm gay
What if I make the women uncomfortable because I'm gay
They won't want to share a room with me because I'm gay
What if they find out I wear men's underwear
They all know I'm gay
They're probably homophobic
They definitely hate me
I'm making everyone uncomfortable
They are uncomfortable in their own room because of me
I just make things hard for people
They hate me
They think I'm disgusting

I was with the group for less than 24 hours in total. After the first few, I made an excuse not to go to the pub, I hid in the room while everyone else was out, and I read poetry aloud. I always carry a copy of Kate Tempest's "Everything speaks in it's own way" in my bag. So I showered, got into bed, and read the whole thing from start to finish. If I was just shy, I wouldn't need to read 72 pages of words just to keep myself breathing enough not to pass out. Then I read some of my poems. Then I read Geeked magazine. 

I couldn't sleep. I battled in and out of dreams. My body jolted me awake earlier than everyone else the next morning, telling me to use the bathroom and leave before they woke up, screaming get out get out. But I didn't get out on time. I couldn't think, just knew that I had to I had to get out of that room. I kept asking myself as they chatted amongst themselves, how do I, just leave?

If I was just shy, I would have been shy, not petrified. And if I was just shy, I wouldn't have been thinking of ways to break my limbs so that I could go to A&E because at least it would mean I wouldn't have to talk to anyone...

I was terrified this weekend - and maybe I wasn't anxious because I was queer - but my queerness fostered feelings of anxiety.

Having said that, my anxiety has made me more queer still. I keep thinking of ways to make myself more visibly feminist - more visibly gay - more visibly vegan - more visibly gender fluid - more visibly everything that I am. Because in a world where it feels like everyone is potentially a threat, it's the easiest way to make friends. I am so visible as a defence mechanism - because if people are hateful, they will undoubtedly say something - this tells me who to avoid. And if people are really open to these things - or identify similarly - they are more likely to talk to me. So I automatically avoid getting to know people who will hurt me because they don't understand my identity. In some cases, that means I just don't communicate with anyone - I'd rather hide from social situations than get hurt. 

On Sunday morning, I fled the room. I got to breakfast long before everyone else, and I sat on my own, and I tried to recite Kate Tempest's poetry in my head. And half way through eating, when more people arrived, they sat on another table. It felt like being at college again, I left college for lots of reasons...

I can't wait to wear my bow tie this evening.

Monday, 9 November 2015

It has always been just a haircut

There's this idea in the lesbian community about butches and femmes. Butches are the "men" of the gay community. They present masculine - they act with traditional masculine characteristics - toughness, anger, protectiveness... they're the ones who open the doors. Femmes present as traditionally feminine - they are less stereotypically gay, because they are closer to a binary idea of the female gender. They are the more sensitive, more caring, more "girly." Even within the queer community, we still binarise ourselves - there are still ideals to live up to.

I remember being 12, it was long before I had any idea what butch meant. I remember begging my parents for short hair. I remember the craving to chop it all of.

I had just started secondary school... it was the beginning of a struggle with appearance and presentation. It took me weeks to convince my parents to let me chop my hair to my shoulders. They were worried about me, and worried about how other people would perceive me - how that would hurt me. Because even now, there are still people who mistake me for a boy, because of the length of my hair. But back then, when I was pre-pubescent, it was constant.

It's funny how much a hair cut can change things. How many people I had to start correcting... no it's she. It's confusing when no one understands your identity, not even you.

I went through the typical phases of gay haircuts (hehe)... it was shoulder length, then Justin Bieber-esque, then a bowl cut, then a mohawk. I loved it. I became obsessed with making it shorter.

I have always appeared butch, but my personality is so much more femme. I'm pretty fluffy, all about sharing love hearts and kitten pictures. I'm not an angry person - I literally cannot get angry. Upset, yes. Frustrated, yes. But I have an inability to be angry, so much so that I had a conversation with my counsellor about how this is actually damaging for my mental health. Negative emotions manifest themselves in many ways, and neglecting one has made the others more dominant - fear, self-loathing, and particularly anxiety. Most of all, there's a numbness in a space that keeps filling itself with other things. I can't be angry.

When I realised last year that I wanted to date women, I bought a copy of Diva magazine. It was all very sentimental - I'd watched Ellen Page's coming out speech, and I was feeling slightly more comfortable about who I was as a human being, and I bought a copy of Diva. I love Diva - I still buy it now, and I refuse to subscribe, because I like to see the facial expression of the cashier every time I pick up a copy. But it did introduce me to something dangerous - the world of butches and femmes, lesbian language, and ideas within the community I was never aware of before.

I thought - I just like women, why does this have to be so complicated?!

But it was complicated. And I knew I felt more butch then femme, because I just didn't identify with "girlyness." So I started presenting as more butch. I started thinking about my posture, I stopped wearing any clothes that weren't baggy, I shaved the sides of my head. I shaved them again. I shaved them again.

I went to gay bars alone. I got harassed by an older gay man who thought I was a young boy. I felt unsafe in gay bars. I started going to women's only bars. I don't drink alcohol for mental health reasons... but suddenly I was drinking. And I don't smoke for many reasons... but I was smoking too. I would wear my rainbow laces with pride, marvel at the people, go home late, have baths at 3am in the morning.

I started to shave my own head. Just the sides. Each time it got shorter. Each time I promised myself it wouldn't get any shorter. The day I shaved my entire head for the first time, my sister found me lying on the kitchen floor. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw the angry part of myself. The part that wanted to present as angry. The part that was invisible to everyone, but I had to talk to. We had internal conversations. I hated looking at her, and not looking at myself.

It has always been just a haircut. It hasn't always been just a haircut.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Hi, I'm a butch lesbian (sort of)

I'm writing this blog because I bought a pair of men's boxer shorts. Weird reason to start a blog, I know... but here I am, sitting at home in my pyjamas, tapping away at the keyboard because of a pair of pants.

It's not so much the pants themselves that have got me writing... it's more the story behind them. And not to get too sentimental or anything... but buying them was a really big deal. It wasn't a hard decision to know that I wanted to wear men's underwear... but it took me years to finally go into the men's section, try on said underwear, and pick a pair to take home. This is because I was born a woman, and for the majority of my life, have identified as one. Going into the men's section of the store to buy anything has been a struggle. I've only recently started with shoes... trousers... shirts... hats... glasses... and finally pants. PANTS.

There has been a lot of talk recently in feminist communities about transgender issues. Some of it has been wonderful - signs of a community that is recognising more and more that inequality is not just about cisgender women being oppressed, but about multiple, intersecting oppressions. Many cis feminists are reassessing their spaces, their language, their theory... to try to understand trans issues. That's the positive.

Unfortunately a lot of what's been happening hasn't been so positive. It's not just TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) who are the problem - transphobia is rife - in the feminist community, in LGBTQ+ communities, not to mention mainstream and popular culture. I've had too many fallouts to count with people I once thought believed in equality, but are all of a sudden pedalling a transphobic and hateful agenda. The fact that trans equality is even being debated proves there's a problem - when we have to debate whether a group of people should have human rights or not - whether they deserve equality or not - we have lost what we're fighting for.

Caught between countless ridiculous debates, I'm tired of feeling frustrated. I want to talk about gender. 

I am not trans, in the widely talked about sense - I am not male to female or female to male transitioning. But like a lot of people - more than we realise - I am somewhere on the trans spectrum. I use she/her/hers pronouns because it makes my life easier, I tick female on the forms because I know I don't feel male, and up until very recently, I bought all my clothes from the women's section, including my underwear.

Gender is a really fucking complicated thing - and I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I know what it is, or that I know more about it than anyone else. I can hardly figure out my own gender, let alone place labels onto other people, or make wide sweeping assumptions about gender identity. What I do know is I have a personal experience of struggling with gender, and I think I want to talk about it.

Mixed in with all my confusion about gender identity, are even more weird ideas about sex and sexuality. I spent the majority of my teenage years trying to convince myself I was heterosexual, when I was actually asexual. When I was 16, I came out as pansexual, when I was still asexual. A couple years later, I started feeling sexual attraction to other people for the first time. I was pansexual, I am pansexual. But because of society, and patriarchy and power dynamics between the genders, I made a choice to only date women. It made it easier for me too, when you've survived so much sexual assault by men, it's less triggering and easier being with women. So now I say lesbian, gay, queer... because that's what I am.

Gender and sexuality are obviously two different things. But they do play into each other, and I constantly find myself asking questions. How can I identify as a lesbian if I only part identify as a woman? How can I identify as a woman, and also not identify as a woman? If I use they/them pronouns, does that mean I can't be butch?

Despite all this personal soul-searching about my own identity, I can never really escape the identity that others place onto me. I get a lot of people who think I'm a teenage boy at first glance. A lot of people who think I'm butch, then take it back once they get to know me. Anyone who knows me, knows I am the fluffiest, sappiest of human beings. And butch is typically associated with strength and grit and anger. So even though I'm now wearing men's underwear, and I'm sort of a woman, and my hair is shaved to my head, and I'm gay... am I butch? The answer is yes and no. Like so many aspects of identity, this one is also up for interpretation. It's tied up in gender and sexuality and both of these things are fluid. And I'm caught between them - too many labels, and none at all.

So sitting here in boxer shorts, I thought I'd start writing. And even though I have no idea who I am, I'll try to be proud.