Hindsight can be bittersweet for a queer person.
You may have countless what-ifs that you look back on, wishing you could change. Simultaneously, there are the sweet but slightly heartbreaking moments which now seem so obviously queer that younger you just didn’t clock at the time.
I was very clearly interested in women from a young age.
I remember a strange rush of excitement whenever I would watch the 2007 masterpiece St. Trinians, and the camera panned to reveal Gemma Arteton’s character Kelly leaning against the wall in her pencil skirt (to this day, iconic). I didn’t understand my feelings at the time, but they were definitely there. I obsessed over different fictional characters and the actresses who played them. I would watch fan videos or clips of kissing scenes they were in, without once glancing at their male co-star. I never questioned why I didn’t feel this same obsession for male celebrities. I was in my girl bubble and fine with it.
I knew queer people existed growing up, but only in the very periphery of my life and unrelated to what I imagined for myself. I was sixteen when gay marriage was approved in Parliament in 2013. I was overwhelmed with happiness, telling myself it was just because I was a really passionate ally (adorable, but silly).
Whilst changes were happening legally for the better, the attitudes of people around me remained mostly negative and unaccepting. I recall a girl from my class coming out as bisexual and witnessing people whisper about her in the changing rooms. They asked me if I too felt unsafe around her now that I “knew who she really was.” It made me feel confused and stuck, and I wasn’t sure why. Watching Heartstopper on Netflix early last year, I was shocked by the profound sense of grief I felt for my own adolescence. My teenage years took place in a weird middle ground: we had moved beyond blatant homophobia as the norm, but hadn’t yet reached the still slow but noticeable change. It was a complicated time and coming out as ‘queer’ simply wasn’t an option I considered.
As I grew and saw queer relationships showcased more in mass media, I became more aware of my own sexual desires; yet my expectations for my life remained the same. I knew I was attracted to women, but thought nothing could ever come from that attraction because I would have to marry a man. This wasn’t about religion or because I thought being gay made me wrong or bad, I just truly didn’t think there was another option.
I had no interest in men whatsoever, though. All my platonic friends were girls. I kissed boys at parties and wanted them to like me, but I didn’t care if I liked them. For a long time that was fine. No one ever questioned it, and it seemed like my group of friends felt the same. Dating boys was never a goal we discussed. When we were together, we were so obsessed with one another that it never even crossed our minds. They weren't as important to us as we were to each other.
But soon everything changed: my friends started going to university, sleeping with boys and enjoying it. I felt left behind. I went traveling with my best friend. We both tried to, and expected we would, lose our virginities by having intercourse with a guy.
The concept of virginity is such a damaging one, especially to young queer people. It is inherently heteronormative, as it promotes the idea that sex is only sex when a vagina is penetrated by a penis when in reality sex is whatever you and your partner want it to be. More than that, the implication that you ‘lose’ something in having sex for the first time creates a mounting pressure which is hard for young people to suppress. It becomes a race to see who can get rid of this shameful thing as quickly as possible, which is a dangerous mentality to adopt.
Ultimately, she crossed that particular finish line and I failed to, and I felt that failure in my core. I went away to Birmingham and made another set of friends who were all more sexually experienced, and they assumed I was, too. I felt embarrassed, like I was being refused access to some sort of secret club. But I didn’t take a moment to think about why it hadn’t happened for me. I didn’t understand that my friends started having sex with men because they wanted to. I thought sex with a man was something I had to check off if I wanted to be like everyone else; grin and bear it and think of England. My teens and early twenties became dictated by this intense shame. Shame for my continued state of virginity; shame for my attraction to women.
My quest to lose my virginity became more frantic the older I got. I found it to difficult to relate to, or be honest with my friends. Hearing about their antics only served to remind me how different my own sexual desires were to theirs. But, instead of embracing these differences, I was just desperate to fit in. I was so embarrassed by my virginity and put an insane amount of pressure on myself to do something I ultimately had no interest in doing. At least not in the way I thought I should be doing it.
Just before my 21st birthday, I was sexually assaulted outside of my student union.
At that point, my understanding of sex and virginity was binary and heteronormative. I did not grasp how integral consent was to sex, and so viewed the assault as the loss of my virginity. The apparent thing I had been so desperate to achieve, the thing I truly believed would change my life and finally make me normal, I then linked with the most traumatic experience of my life.
I know now that I am not to blame for what happened to me. I was dangerously intoxicated and had been led out of the club without my phone, purse, keys or any means to get back into the venue. Whatever I wanted or thought about losing my virginity, that night I was taken advantage of and assaulted. I was incredibly vulnerable and completely unable to consent.
For a long time, I buried my head in the sand. After the initial shock and trauma was over, I refused to acknowledge what had happened to me. All that mattered was that I considered my virginity gone, considered the assault to be sex, and I used the assault as a reason not to worry about pursuing men or sex anymore. If that is what sex was, I wanted no part in it.
For the remaining 18 months that I was at University, I hardly interacted with anyone male. I didn’t try to chat with them on a night out unless it was in a friendly way, and I absolutely felt no desire to have sex. Despite everything, I relaxed into myself and felt okay for the first time. The pressure was officially off. But ignorance is not bliss forever. Once back home and studying for my MA, I started to feel lonely. A lot of my friends were now in long-term relationships and I envied the type of love they had with their partners. I am such a strong advocate for the importance of platonic love, and truly believe that friendships are just as meaningful and impactful as relationships, but I knew I was missing out on something.
Whilst my brain would not acknowledge the trauma I had undergone, my body did. Iit would physically react if it became close to any sort of intimate situation. On one night out, I kissed a boy (I think because all of my friends were doing it and I had no one to dance with). The more we kissed, the more anxious I became. I eventually ran and hid in the toilet because I’d given myself a NOSEBLEED from the stress. The poor boy waited outside to make sure I was okay, and my friend had to go out and tell him to leave. Even worse than that, whenever I found myself near a man, if I could hear him breathe or walk behind me on the street, or sometimes even just sit next to me on the bus, I would feel like I was about to die. It wasn’t that I thought the man near me was going to actually kill me, but rather the part of me that registers fight or flight was tuned in to protect myself from further trauma. You know when you are young and you hear a noise in the middle of the night? And you convince yourself someone has broken in to murder your whole family (I actually used to think it was Lord Voldemort come to off me and the fam à la James and Lily Potter), your whole tummy goes tight and you can feel your heart in your chest and you think… this is it? That’s how I felt, all the time. I hid it well, but it exhausted me. Eventually the loneliness, fear, and physical trauma all got too much. I finally went to a therapist and began to confront what had happened to me 2 years prior. It was scary and it was sad but it really really helped.
Facing up to my rape, and learning to heal from it, forced me to investigate my sexuality seriously, and for the first time.
That is not to say I am glad it happened. I am not. I think I would have gotten there eventually, but how I lived with my assault definitely shifted my perspective.
I have always been a girl's girl, through and through. I love my friendships with women, and I find the presence of women comforting. I just get them and they get me. But now, unable to continue to make myself try and make men a viable option, I really examined my love of women. I loved that they always smelt nice to me, that they were soft and kind; I loved the clothes they wore and the jokes they told; I loved when they put glitter on their face and how they sang and danced when they were drunk. I loved how they made me feel when I was around them like it was meant to be. It dawned on me, why am I not pursuing the relationships and the people for them that actually make me happy?
I can’t quite pinpoint when I started to finally date women. I had always looked at girls on apps, had brief conversations and once or twice even arranged to meet up before bailing. It wasn’t until I moved to London though that I took them — and my feelings for them — seriously. Suddenly dating was exciting and fun, nerve-wracking, yes, but I was surprised by how easy it felt almost immediately. I was good at flirting with girls, I liked doing it and they liked it back. I finally understood what all my friends had been feeling for years. I finally felt like part of the club.
The funny thing is, being out and proud has also resulted in my loving men more than ever. I used to think I owed them sex, and I resented them for it. Now, I realize what they can give me. Men in my life are funny and kind, good at giving advice and supportive, they are my friends, my allies, not my enemy. It all seems so obvious written down, but I promise you it’s not.
Navigating your queerness as a young person can be terrifying.
You can feel so confused and isolated from your straight peers, especially if you are the only queer person in the friendship group. Add the usual concept of virginity into that mix, when you haven’t gained the confidence to live as you truly are, and figuring yourself out is even more difficult.
My sexual assault completely altered how I perceived my sexuality. I was forced to shift my thinking. It should never take that to get a queer person to accept who they are. I urge every young person, queer and straight, to fight against the pressures and expectations around losing your virginity, or however you frame your sexual debut. There is no shame in waiting for what you want — and for your desire — and there is no shame in wanting something different to your peers. Your feelings are valid, your queerness is valid, and your decision to wait on sex with partners until you are ready and presented with what you really want is valid.
Now, I am trying to find intimacy in ways where I feel fully safe and comfortable, and it is most definitely a work in progress. The big difference now is that I actually enjoy dating, I look forward to it and most importantly, I am proud of the fact that I get to date women. I am happy that I now live a life where being with a woman is the option I choose wholeheartedly. I remember about a year ago, once I had been fully out and dating publicly for around 9 months, where I had a revelation.
I no longer feel like I’m going to die. Ever. Anxiety can still crop up, and my body can still react, but that debilitating feeling that I had, the one I truly thought would haunt me forever is gone. I remember being so happy with that discovery that I burst into tears.