As a lesbian woman in my thirties, I feel lucky that I wasn’t born any earlier than the eighties. I am married, I have two children and I jointly own my home with my wife. Like many gay women my age, I remain acutely aware of how lucky I am to be protected by the Equality Act 2010 which allows me to live my life in this way, rather than being forced to either hide or live as someone I am not.
I imagine that daily life as a lesbian is mostly just as unexciting as it would be if I was straight. Work, laundry, childcare ad infinitum. The difference is that I am part of a minority group and therefore I am seen as ‘different’ by many in society. This is not to say that others see my sexual orientation negatively; in fact I have rarely been subjected to the disapproval of others. But being thought of as different can still feel like a tedious burden to bear. My wife and I were seen as the ‘lesbian couple’ at our antenatal class, are the token lesbians on our street and our daughters’ peers know that our family is different to their own and most other children’s. I cannot live anonymously or fade into the background, because there is something about me that stirs an interest in others. If we go out for dinner on Valentine’s Day, it is clear that we are the only gay couple in the restaurant and I can’t help but feel that our table stands out like a beacon. I am naturally an introvert, and so feeling like my personal life is under a microscope has not been easy.
People will often ask about coming out; how did you come out, how old were you, how did they take it? But the truth is that no-one ever comes out just once. Coming out is a regular occurrence. You start a new job; someone asks if you have a boyfriend or husband. You visit your GP with an odd list of symptoms; they ask if you are sure you’re not pregnant, and demand a pregnancy test just to confirm that you didn’t accidentally have sex with a man and then forget about it. You go to playgroup with your child; someone will ask your child if their daddy is at work. Each time I do a quick mental calculation to decide whether it is worth coming out, or whether I can just nod along without any repercussions. Sometimes it feels like I am denying an important part of myself, and I wonder if I am embarrassed to be gay. But coming out can be wearing, and at times it doesn’t feel worth the effort of enduring the reaction.
I still hold my wife’s hand when we walk down the road, and pretend that it doesn’t bother me when I register the lingering glances of those we walk past. I tell myself that they stare with the innocence of mild curiosity or surprise, rather than disapproval or disgust. The occasional blare of a car horn is harder to ignore, especially when it is accompanied by a lewd gesture. Not enough to prompt my hand to excuse itself from the grasp of hers, but sufficient to make me feel, for that moment, uncomfortable in my own neighbourhood.
I long ago accepted that a large proportion of the world was off-limits, especially if we wanted to travel anywhere as a couple. For a few years we did travel to countries where homosexuality was illegal, making sure that we always booked a twin room and avoided any physical contact whilst out in public. We became experts at pretending to everyone we met that we were just friends, and although I enjoyed these holidays it was difficult to relax and a current of uneasiness stayed with me throughout. Since having children, I have not wanted to visit the riskier countries and I have started to accept that there are some places I will probably never be able to visit as a lesbian woman.
My interest was drawn, recently, to a queer British art exhibition at Tate Britain in London. It explored lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) identities and stories from a time when male homosexual acts were a criminal offence. I also visited a ‘Gay Icons’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 2009. It was a celebration of gay social and cultural history, both historical and modern. Visiting the exhibition felt important and I almost felt a sense of duty to attend. I was in my early twenties then and wanted to know more about the LGBTQ icons who had shaped my cultural history, and helped to make it possible for me to live my life comfortably. It also felt imperative to recognise the straight allies who had stood beside the LGBTQ community and fought on our behalf for equal rights for us all.
As wonderful as it is to have these exhibitions, I couldn’t help remarking with a friend that it still feels like a real shame that we need them at all. Whilst I recognise that it is important to remember our history and reflect on the progress that has been made towards equality, it is hard not to feel slightly resentful that these exhibitions are necessary. When I think of the discrimination gay men and lesbian women faced even twenty years ago, my heart aches with the injustice. Although I haven’t personally experienced discrimination on the same scale, it feels like part of my history because I am now benefiting from the tireless work of those before me who have made living as a lesbian woman acceptable. Often I feel like I have the weight of history on my shoulders and I see this as a good thing; I will not become complacent nor forget how lucky I am to be living now. My life is not as straight forward as that of a straight person, and there are some things that feel more difficult or complicated. But the world that I am raising my children in now is a better and more tolerant one, and I am so grateful for that.
Hannah England is a freelance writer living in Bristol, UK. She has two young daughters and is currently writing her first novel. She regularly blogs for The Motherload and has also written for RUNR and Our Queer Stories.
She can be found online at https://workinglife2016.com/