The Importance of Being (Coming, Staying) Out

I wrote this for the Stonewall anthology, The Way We Are Now, published by Continuum in 2006. What I find particularly depressing is that it continues to need saying. And hearing. And action.

Seeing The Invisible Women

We live in a house, a London terrace, small front garden, two receptions, three bedrooms, back garden. We do not live in an especially salubrious part of London, we pretty much swapped a one bedroom flat in North London for this three bedroom house in South. We chose inside space and garden over location. This year the cherries and apples and tomatoes and single pear in our tiny town garden proved it was the right choice. The harvest from the two bedrooms-that-are-offices are equally prolific – we write plays, radio, novels, articles, ideas. This is a typical London terrace. And I have no idea what that typical means now.

My mother was born in a terrace just like this, a mile or so away in Kennington, in 1921. The house she lived in was shared – her aunt, uncle and cousins in one half, she and her parents and two brothers in the other. My wife Shelley and I share our house with a cat. We’d hoped to share it with children, we tried, they didn’t happen. We have been together for fifteen years, and in that time have lived through parental rejection, parental acceptance, three house moves, cancer, miscarriage, failed IVF, infertility, parental death, the births, deaths, weddings and divorces of friends and family, along with countless dinners and lunches and parties and barbecues and nights in with dinner on our laps and rubbish telly to be laughed at and not enough holidays and too many deadlines. We’ve had three weddings. The first a very small one when I was still exhausted from cancer treatments, was a celebration of ten years together and getting through the cancer year. It was at home, with our best friends, intensely private, and very emotional. The second was our Partnership Registration at City Hall, on a late summer day, with a view of Tower Bridge, in front of 30-odd family and friends, followed by a repetition of vows and party for 180. The third at 9.30am at the Lambeth Registry Office on December 23rd 2005, our Civil Partnership, granting us most of the legal and pension rights long enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. (Many of whom are often so blithely unaware of the privileges they possess.) To me, the most important right, as a woman who has (touch wood, so far) made it through a life-threatening illness, being that of next-of-kin. As my civil partner Shelley can, if necessary, make medical decisions for me. Further, having registered my own mother’s death, I know what an important thing that is to do for someone, to honour their life in the same way a birth is honoured, recorded, witnessed. We live in a witness culture. Since our Civil Partnership, my partner now has the right to honour – bear witness to – my life in this way, and I hers. It is a long overdue right, but nonetheless welcome for that.

When I was coming out in the late seventies and early eighties I was terrified, of my difference, and divergence, of being alone. Born in London, I grew up in a small mill town in New Zealand, the youngest of seven children in a working class family. For such a family there, then, we were well-read. But Orwell and Huxley, Austen and Bronte are hardly an introduction to gay life. At fifteen I hadn’t yet read the novels – many of which were still to be written – that might suggest being ‘different’ could also be special, be good. I didn’t know any lesbians, I didn’t know that what I was feeling had anything to do with being a lesbian. The one lesbian role I knew was Sister George, and I’d only seen that on TV because my father thought Beryl Reid was the funniest woman alive. The ensuing film wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Nor did it, with its classic doomed lesbian relationship, offer any hint of what my life would be. Not only that, but much as I was starting to consider working as an actor, I didn’t fancy being Susannah York, or Beryl Reid or even Coral Brown. I didn’t fancy any of them either. (Well, maybe Coral Brown, just a little.) There were no lesbians on television, in the movies, in my books, in my life. Or so I thought. Years later I was to find that my uncle’s sister had had a ‘friend’ all her life, that when the mother of the boy up the road moved out from their family home, she moved in with another woman. But these were secrets, hidden. These women were not able to be role models for me not merely because they weren’t out, but because everyone else refused to be out about them as well. They were there, and they were invisible.

Of course, at the time, there were very few women – as heroes, at centre-stage – anyway, so of course the chances that any of them would be gay women were commensurately lower. And yes, we have done better and times have changed and thirty years has made an enormous difference. We’ve come a long way babies. But … in terms of media visibility, of role models for young girls (or even old women), there’s still a very long way to go. Where gay men had Queer as Folk in the 90’s, lesbians had the grumpy boring dykes in Queer as Folk. Where gay men had John Hannah and Simon Callow’s happy (if doomed!) couple in Four Weddings and a Funeral at the movies, we had Sharon Stone portraying a homicidal bi-bitch. How many out gay men in parliament, how few out lesbian. Yes, there is the L-Word. On cable. Not even Channel 4 was brave enough to go there.

We’re simply not there yet, and feminism – as much as ‘gay liberation’ – still has a role to play in getting lesbians into the mainstream. With approximately 75% (at a conservative estimate) of British TV companies, theatres, film companies, newspapers, TV channels, film distributors, publishing houses, magazines owned and/or run by men (and not all of them straight men by any means) we’re a long way from lesbians owning or running the means of production whereby we might see ourselves reflected back. No wonder we so rarely see representations of ourselves we recognize, in our many forms, in our multiplicity. Nor do I believe this is all the fault of the men in charge, not entirely. The men running our media and government are there because they’ve always been there. Because it’s what we all – men, women, gay, straight, black, white, brown – are used to. Not all that long ago the Bronte sisters had to sell their work under men’s names. Change takes time. We’re doing better than we used to. Way better than seemed possible to this small town girl in 1978 – but not quite good enough.

One of the reasons this change is too slow is that not everyone is engaged in it. Not all the lesbians are engaged in it. I know several lesbians who work in the City and say it’s impossible for them to come out. Really? Harder than for the Muslim and Jewish and Christian and Sikh lesbians who are out to their religious families? I know so many women who say they can’t tell their parents because they’re too old or too sick or too religious or simply won’t understand. Well no, not without it being explained to them they won’t. I know way more out gay men than out lesbians. I suspect most of us do, whatever our sexual orientation. And yes, I do work in a ‘nice’ media world where (usually) people are fine about my being a dyke – but not always, not every time. And I don’t actually live in that world. I live in a South London terrace, between an elderly Irish couple and a bunch of French students. Our GP knows we’re together. Our dry cleaner knows we’re a couple – over the years he has become a friend, we talk about the weather and the world and religion. A Muslim, he’s asked me how Shelley and I reconcile our ‘lifestyle’ with our family faiths of Judaism and Catholicism. My answer is that it is no more a lifestyle than the colour of my hair or the freckles on my skin – my sexuality is both intrinsic and incidental to my life, but it is no choice. The guy at the petrol station where we buy petrol and crisps and drinks for long journeys asked if we were sisters. I said no, partners. When we bought our wedding dresses – together – (not meringues) and the sales assistant asked what was the occasion, we looked at each other, took a breath, told him. When the young and not-entirely-sober scaffolder sitting beside me on the train to York last year, asked what I do and where I was going, he eventually got around – as I knew he would – to asking didn’t my husband mind me going away for work so much. I explained that I was wearing a wedding ring as the wife of a wife. He then asked didn’t she mind me going away for work so much. Confounding both my expectations and those of everyone else sitting near us who had suddenly become ever so interested in their fingernails as they stopped talking themselves and listened for his response.

Yes, it is boring coming out all the time. The tedious predictability of the double take, of being – at best, at least – interesting. I’m 42, it is a very long time since I thought being ‘interesting’ was a career option. Coming out always feels a little more intrusive, like giving a little more information than is asked for. But then again, people will chat at bus-stops and in supermarket queues, they will ask about work and partners and children. And I will tell the truth. Every single time there is a moment of tension, an uncertainty, and not every reaction is OK by any means, but my black and Asian friends have no choice about being out as their ‘minority’ – we do. My choice is to be honest. I believe change will happen faster that way. I believe I have a duty to make change faster and being out easier for the next lot of fourteen year old girls looking for the lesbians in their world. Where are the lesbian pop stars and movie stars and soap stars, the lesbian business leaders, the lesbian entrepreneurs, the lesbian religious leaders? They’re not out. They’re letting the rest of us make the world safer and easier and better for them, while they lie. And I’m tired of it. I want them doing the work too. If everyone who has ever had a homosexual love, desire, or experience came out right now, the world would change overnight. We could stop being interesting or different or special because we’re gay, and get on with just being.

Meanwhile I live in South London. I live with my wife. My family speak of her as their sister-in-law. I go to Friday night dinner at my in-laws. Both my parents are dead, my in-laws see me as theirs now. None of this has been easily won, none of it was handed to us on a plate, none of it came without a struggle. We pushed for nine and a half years to be accepted as a couple in our families. There were six teenagers at our big wedding party, young people who may or may not find they are gay as time progresses, young people who saw that their parents and families both valued and validated our relationship. For me, the most important part of these (necessarily) self-made ceremonies was that we were witnessed. Before the Church took over marriage, and priests became involved, partnerships were always formalised in front of one’s community, whether that involved jumping over a broom or literally tying a knot. I have learned that the public declaration of love is remarkably similar to the public declaration of sexuality. Of course it is easier to be out in a couple than as a single person. Most things are easier with the support of a partner. It is easier for the world – which likes things in pairs – to accept us as a two. But I’m not always with my wife, and my work very often takes me away from home, and when I am working or traveling alone the questions that prompt me to come out now, are easily as frequent as they ever were when I was single. I look forward to the day when my wedding ring does not automatically imply that I have a husband.

With each small and personal and sometimes very hard and sometimes very simple declaration of truth we are honest on our own behalf and also, hopefully, make things easier for those young lesbians and gay men coming after us. Just as the lesbians and gay men before us made enormous and brave and sometimes small and often scared changes in their turn. Making it possible for us to be legally out. Making it possible for us to be Civil Partners. Making it possible for us to have tried to become parents. I know that as a lesbian in my forties I am enormously indebted to the women and men, both gay and straight, who came before and won for us the freedoms and rights that we – in the West at least – so often take for granted. I’m lucky, I have an interesting job, I like having an interesting job. In the rest of my life though, I’d be very happy to leave behind the double take. We are getting there. We’re not there yet. We need many more of us in the process. Come on out, the water’s fine.

© Stella Duffy 2005

Responses

  1. Hey Stella, just found your blog from tartcity which I used to visit a while ago and just found again.

    I just wanted to say how much I loved this piece, funnily enough I was having a discussion with a colleague the other day about the simple fact that coming out does not happen just once and yet how important it is that we do keep doing it.

    I shall be directing her here to read!

  2. thanks Tui. the more the merrier – in the reading blogs as well as the coming out! x
    (ps, went to look at your blog – as one of a couple for whom the baby thing didn’t work out, huge good luck to you both.)

  3. Hi! I’m french and I don’t really speak (nor write) english fluently… but… I need to write this to you.

    Thank you because when I was quite lost, thinking “hey why am I attracted to girls? strange… ” I just had to go on Internet to find you and other writers. Then I found something I didn’t like either, a world were no heterosexual girls were accepted.
    Then I created my own environement…

    When I met my girlfriend, I saw people looking at us… Now I don’t care so I don’t see. When I get to tell that I’m hers I’m so proud.

    I hope someday I will marry her. I hope she will give me children.

    So thank you for what you do every day and what you wrote (I can read english better that I write it).

    And may I ask… I would like to see you act… I don’t know where, nor when. How can I know when you do play? I would like to be inform.

  4. … I’m so sorry. I think what I wrote was quite rude…
    I don’t read you’re books because some of the characters are gay (well, that might be the reason I started…). I really enjoy them.
    You’re a great writer, I was moved and inspired by “State of happiness”.

    Grmf… I’ll come back when my words come easier…

    Thanks for everything you do, for who you are.

  5. hi Lévy, no I didn’t read that as rude! I read it as, you don’t read my books because some of the characters are gay, you read them because you like them? which is fine with me! I don’t write them because some of the characters are gay either! On the other hand, I do write gay characters, straight characters, black, white, asian, old, young etc etc characters because I try to write a mixed world of characters – one that is actually more varied (and real, and closer to the one I live in) than the many books I all too often read with only a narrow band of characters who are only one race, one class, one gender – I personally am as little interested in a novel populated only by lesbian or gay characters as I am in a novel populated only (or primarily) by white, middle class men – and as we all know, there’s certainly been plenty of them! (and sadly, most of the time, neither the reader nor perhaps even the writer notice they’re reading/writing such a narrow view … that’s the price for writing the ruling class, I guess!)
    and I can assure you, your English is far more readable than my French!
    I rarely act these days, my theatre work is more in directing, but I often do book readings/events (in the UK) that feel like theatre!
    thanks for your messages. x

  6. A writer friend directed me to your blog the other day and I just wanted to say, after my first visit, how grateful I am for it. Funny that I should look today and see your post about too many actors, writers etc and not enough outlets for them, especially the women – I went to a Women in Theatre conference last week, I’m an actor, and have had a busy head with it since. There aren’t enough roles for women, they get even fewer as women get older and of the roles that there are they tend to be very stereotyped, and not protagonists. I’m 38 and don’t seem to fit into any of the brackets so it all rang very true – I’ve been trying to work out what to ‘do’ since going to the conference – change needs action – still mulling it over, but the one certain thing is to be certain and proud of who I am and not try to conform or second guess what casting directors are looking for, if we do that then the brackets will get even narrower.

    And the same with being open about sexuality – really clarifying and strengthening to read your ‘The Importance of..’ article. Role models are so important, and unfortunately so few – I really struggled with that and was so grateful to find the occasional ray of light from any source – from a newspaper article years ago about Fiona Shaw/Deborah Warner, to a lady in her 60s that I worked with and who thankfully mentioned her female partner of 20+ years, they’re now good friends of mine and still inspire.
    Thanks again for the wise open writing – I’ll continue to look in.
    Miranda

  7. thanks Miranda, glad it was useful to you.
    I have to say, especially with the roles for women/thinking about women on stage, I truly believe the only way to make change is to keep on about it. Keep on pointing out how rarely we see ourselves onstage, how rarely we see the multiplicity of women – we need to get over our fear of being seen as aggressive or ‘difficult’ and just get on with it. For too long we were shut up, and now we still shut ourselves up – same with being out. The more we all do it, the sooner change IS. good luck!
    (and in terms of community, I heartily recommend the Open Space/D&Ds run by Improbable – check Improbable’s website.)
    x

  8. Hi Stella

    I echo all the sentiments in this piece. My daughter, now 22, struggled with all what seem to be the common fears, confusion and societal invisibility as she went through her teens questioning her sexuality. Through some great moment of serendipity, her father and I ‘sensed’ what was going on in her life and somehow managed to support her enough to get her through some ‘dreadful years at school’, so bad we struggle to understand the hatefulness of some teenagers. Anyway, having refused to ‘come out’ because why should she when we didn’t have to, our only way forward was to show her in no uncertain terms that we loved her no matter who she was, because of who she was. At 18, when she finally had some sense of pride about her sexuality, she willingly came out quietly to her father and I, having gone so far as to change her name to put the past behind her, to become the person she now thought had value.

    Through the experience of our family we realise the world is not the accepting, beautiful place we raised her to believe in, perhaps that’s why it was so hard for her. So now we fight for her and others, the same fight she is fighting, to be treated equally, to not have to keep ‘coming out’, to not have to be afraid to walk down the street holding hands. Thankfully she has grandparents whose eyebrows didn’t go too high when told and for whom there has been complete acceptance from the start and her Nanna even changed churches because the vicar was forced out for being gay. But there are other ‘friends’ in our circle who may no longer be friends the first time we tell them she actually has a girlfriend…maybe there’s hope for them, I hope so. Anyway, I am a beginning writer and, having worked with people with disabilities, I see my writing as a way of showing the world the place that all people have regardless of difference. I’ve learnt early that if I can make people laugh, which I apparently can, I have a much better chance of getting the message out and I have just completed a full length play in which the two women end up in love, not to make a point but because it worked. It is a bit farcical, but then it’s comedy and if my English farce loving mother can love it, and give constructive feedback about the swearing or the drama overtaking the comedy, but not once question the bisexual relationship, then hopefully, some other Grandmas & Grandads will one day see it and realise that love is love in any language, gender or sexuality.

    I wonder if you have any advice on how to avoid the stereotypes, something I try to avoid for all my characters but as you say, lesbians are sadly so invisible in our society that I don’t have a lot to call on. Do you know of any books that are about gay people without the story itslef being about their sexuality. I want to write characters that are multifaceted and whole like yours are.

    Sorry, I’ve rambled on like I always do when something is important to me. Thank you Stella, because if it wasn’t for people like you, our daughter and our family might well be trapped in the cycle of secretive self-loathing instead of embracing all the world has to offer in all its diversity. I also have to thank the Seinfeld writer for the ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that’ episode which came at the time when the three of us knew there was an elephant in the room but she refused to talk about it, it gave us an outlet for letting her know how we felt. I can’t wait to see my daughter holding hands with a woman she loves.

    My very best wishes to you and your wife.

  9. thank you so much for this Nicola.
    I really hope that the many young people I meet who are concerned about coming out – as all of us have been at some points in our lives – will see that there are plenty of accepting and generous parents (and grandparents!). You speak of the grandparents and I recall my own parents, who would have been 90 this year, who were generous and kind about my sexuality (as far as a good old kiwi bloke like my dad was able!) and who – today being ANZAC Day – were very aware that the freedoms they fought for in WW2 were most certainly freedoms of sexuality and gender as well as all the others.
    I often feel for parents who don’t know if it’s ok for them to bring up their concerns for their children, worried that their children need to say it first – that’s why I always encourage people coming out to speak to their families. Chances are, the family will already know and be waiting for you to come out!
    And, of course, we do all know it isn’t always easy, and there are heartbreaking stories, whatever community we’re from – but the more we’re all out, the better we make it for those yet to come out. (Some of whom may even be the Grandmas and Grandads themselves!)

    Now, as for the writing of gay/bisexual/anything-but-stereotyped characters … I’d say the main thing is to ask yourself, does the story stand without this particular sexuality (gay, bi, straight, whatever) – ie, am I writing a CHARACTER or am I writing a cipher-holding-an-issue. I’m fine with agit-prop work and polemics, as long as that’s what they mean to be, and don’t pretend it’s actual theatre or drama or story. What I personally am not interested in is an issue masquerading as a character. Gay people eat, work, sleep, have pets, kids, freezers, favourite tv programmes, irrational hates, absurd predjudices and gorgeous foibles, just like straight characters. All too often though, we see LGBT characters whose job is just to be L, G, B or T. If they’re a character, then they need a lot more than a sexuality going for them. Give them that, and you’re half way there. Give them a STORY as well, and you’re home and dry. (Well, bar the actual writing and selling it and getting it made and all that!)
    In terms of who’s writing this work – loads of great writers are, check out Bywater Books (US lesbian fiction imprint), the Green Carnation list from last year (gay writing prize), but beyond just those suggestions there are so many more writers who are trying to just write good stories and, hopefully, their good stories aren’t just about white, middle class, middle aged people living in an enclave of the same, (we’ve had quite a few of those already!!) hopefully they’re writing about the real world and real societies, where we all live – in all our multiplicity of race, ethnicity, age, faith, sexuality, gender …
    All that. Good luck. And there’s NOTHING wrong with farce!
    x

  10. Hi Stella,
    I am just reading “La settima onda” (with Molly and Saz, not sure of the original title…yes I am Italian), actually can’t put it down, and googled you to find out more about you and your books. So I found you here, what a lovely surprise. I am reading your posts and really enjoying them. I particularly enjoyed this one. In Italy we are still miles behind, unfortunately…

    Thanks for everything!
    I will keep reading you here as well now.

    Ciao!
    x
    Lisa

  11. It’s called Wavewalker in English. And you’re not years behind in the Saz books, all 5 are published in Italian, you just don’t have the other novels – yet! I’m so glad you enjoyed, thank you for telling me. X

  12. I’ve just come across this in the book and I am so glad that it’s available online to share with my lesbian (and not so lesbian friends!)
    You cover so many truths in coming out and staying out, about self-acceptance and the continual ‘battles’ associated with being a lesbian and living that ‘lifestyle’. I came out 2 years ago and have been fortunate in the support that I have had. Reality hit me when my partner (now ex) didn’t have the support from her network like I did and this impacted on our relationship. Another tragic loss of love due to additional societal pressures. One day I hope to have the support of another and we can face the world as a team and be as inspirational as you are to the next generation.
    Thanks again xx

  13. thanks Jen. I hope you do find that support eventually. I’m very aware it can be a hard road to walk alone.

  14. Dear Stella,
    Just heard you read at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, this evening (still getting over the very strong gin and tonic!). Thoroughly enjoyed your spirited and entertaining reading and discussion, and I was particularly moved and inspired by your comments about why it is so important to be out. Then I found your blog…and this post. Thank you.

    Rosie Miles

  15. thanks Rosie. I’m delighted you enjoyed the event, do come to one of the others during the next month and/or say hi next time. Thank you for responding. x

  16. [...] Stella Duffy writes movingly about the importance of coming, being and staying out while my fellow linguist Anna Marchi writes about the importance of visibility. Neither of them have found it particularly easy but both speak of coming out as a duty; they recognise that their relative privilege allows them to come out in safety, if not without difficulty. [...]

  17. […] year I read this wonderful blog post by Stella Duffy. It’s about coming out and this bit really stuck with […]

  18. […] To come back to the beginning question, I subscribe to Stella Duffy’s belief in ‘The Importance of Coming, Being, Staying Out‘ (I may not agree with her on everything but I like that blog post, and her books) that if […]

  19. […] place. It was boring answering the same questions day after day (just like Stella Duffy says in this fantastic blog post), but it was very, very […]

  20. […] and there are circumstances where it feels impossible.  Stella Duffy wrote a fantastic piece on being out and staying out, which says this […]

  21. […] and there are circumstances where it feels impossible.  Stella Duffy wrote a fantastic piece on ‘being out and staying out‘, which says this […]


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