Role Models

I’ve written about my feeling as a young person that gay and lesbian people don’t exist after 30.  I’ve written about how I thought I had nothing to say about race… but was wrong.  What I haven’t talked about is something you could say falls between the two.

I was thinking a couple of days ago that, at least as far as examples from my personal life go, I have no idea what I will look like when I’m old.  This is because the oldest mixed-race person I know is just 41.  The girls and women I saw on TV shows in my early teens seem to have vanished (although, to be fair to the BBC etc., I rarely watch TV).  While there are many examples of what white (and black) people might look like aged, there are not so many images of mixed-race people past the age of about 45.  Will my hair go white or gray?  Will my curls loosen?  Will my skin wrinkle, or will I go dark under the eyes?  These are mysteries I have yet to solve.  Search results for “older mixed race actresses” include such gems as “28 Celebrities You Probably Didn’t Know Were Mixed Race” and “50 Hottest Biracial Celebrities.”  Not quite the information I was after.

I understand that part of this is because mixed-race people were slow to enter the cultural lexicon.  For example, in the USA, black and white “biracial” people are often referred to as “black”.  In the UK, mixed-race people and relationships have been around for hundreds of years (Olaudah Equiano married a white British woman in the 1700s, and here is a more recent example, from WW2).  But these relationships and the resulting children were not always in the public eye, and were simply not as common as white/white, black/black, Asian/Asian relationships.  So it’s not always a matter of erasure or stigmatisation… in a sense, we were just “late to the party.”

When I started primary school in 1992, I was one of very few mixed-race kids.  And I lived in a very multicultural area of London.  There were definitely black kids and definitely white kids, and just the one Asian kid, but barely anyone who shared my heritage.  At the same school now, the number of mixed-race kids is huge.  It makes me feel proud, unnerved, and responsible, that for some of these children, I might be the oldest mixed-race person they have ever met!

As a child, I wasn’t (usually) unhappy about my skin colour and I was proud of my heritage.  But looking back, every time I did feel uncomfortable with my race, it was due in part to not feeling like I had examples of people who looked “like me.”  I can even remember, quite clearly, the first time I noticed that a black woman was beautiful- and it was pretty late in my childhood.  The images I was bombarded with were almost never of non-white, beautiful people, so it didn’t register with me that I could be someone beautiful.  When people said my skin was light, or other things that aligned me with “whiteness”, I often felt proud- not just because “whiteness” seemed the thing to aspire to (even the mixed-race models in teen magazines tended to be as light-skinned as possible) but because white people grew older.  White people seemed to have futures, in terms of appearance, that I could not imagine for myself.

One of the main (and stupid) reasons given to discourage mixed-race romantic relationships, was that “the children will be confused.  It’s not fair on them.”  I was lucky- I wasn’t that confused.  “Mixing races”, like mixing paints, seemed to me to have pretty obvious results (that included more interesting dinner options and a wider selection of songs).  But let’s be honest- confusion is definitely made a lot easier when your image is not repeated, and repeated, and repeated, like everyone else’s.

Times have changed.  CBeebies (BBC for little kids) is full of images of all kinds of people, with all kinds of accents and appearances.  Mixed-race people appear on all kinds of TV shows and usually their race isn’t even mentioned because it isn’t a big deal and doesn’t add anything to the story.  We are one of the UK’s fastest-growing populations… we are everywhere (if the news is to be believed- cheers, Google).

Maybe the older mixed-race people are around after all and I haven’t noticed because they slipped in and became part of the story while no-one was looking.  Maybe if I count the white-haired heads, I’ll find some that are my shade.  But for a long time this seemed impossible, and since we all know now that representation is important, I don’t think I can say that I haven’t been affected by that fact.

It’s cool, though.  I’ll get older and find out for myself.  And I’ll let you know.

Mental Health Awareness Week VI: LGBT

According to the LGBT Foundation, LGBT people are twice as likely as their straight counterparts to experience suicidal thoughts and feelings (according to Young Minds, 44% of young LGBT people have considered suicide).  LGBT people are two to three times more likely than heterosexual people to suffer from depression.  And according to various sources, between 40% and 50% of young LGBT people self-harm.

There are so many factors involved in this: homophobic bullying, societal and familial pressure to “conform”, negative perceptions of LGBT people in society.  Things have changed, people say.  Things are not as bad now as they were in the past.  Yes.  I agree.  Things have improved.  But with statistics of mental health problems so disproportionately high for LGBT people, can we honestly say that they have improved enough?

On top of this, you have to understand that the mental health system—in which many LGBT people find themselves because of the abovementioned problems—is not always very LGBT friendly.  I read once about an LGBT care home for older people in Brighton.  A few people said that it isn’t necessary to “segregate” LGBT older people from their heterosexual peers.  And indeed, it shouldn’t be.  In an ideal world there should be no need to even consider this.  But this isn’t an ideal world.  The truth is that within these peoples’ lifetimes, being gay has been illegal.  Can you really blame someone for wanting to be around people who might be more accepting?

Meanwhile in the mental health system (in fact, the health system in general), LGBT people face discrimination and, more often, are faced with a simple lack of understanding.  I am one of the above statistics: I am a lesbian, I have a mental health problem and for years I self-harmed.  I am not going to speak for everyone and I am well aware, writing this, that millions of people have gone through much, much worse things than I have been through.  I can only talk about my experiences, and these are they:

At fourteen, I was in hospital receiving treatment for suicidal ideation/ intentions/ attempts.  I tried speaking with one of the nurses there about my feelings.  “How can you be a lesbian?” she said.  “Have you been in a relationship with a woman?”  I said no, and that was the end of the conversation.  “You’ll meet a nice man one day, get married, have children and forget all this nonsense,” she told me.  At the same hospital there was another nurse who I believe was a lesbian herself.  Put off by my first experience, I was very hesitant to mention my own experiences.  And as I recall, she was very reticent about her own personal life.  She was the first person I ever heard using the word “partner” and she blushed when she said it.  The moment passed, she went off shift and we never spoke again.

If a society can make a nurse feel uneasy about coming out in the workplace, how much more of a disaster is this for the LGBT patients who in turn learn not to talk about themselves?  I came out at work not that long ago and since then the rapport I have had with some of the residents (who identify as B or G) has built rapidly.  I think they find that they can trust me not to judge on certain topics, and that we naturally have something in common which makes it easier for them to open up on the subject.  It wasn’t an easy decision to come out and, in fact, it was a decision largely made for me by overheard comments and shady answers to direct questions.  But I am glad, so glad, that I did.  If it helps even one person to feel less alone, it’s worth it.  Mental health services are there, in part, to let people know that they are not alone.  If we can’t even talk about ourselves, how are we going to make that happen?

When I was at school, Section 28 (which states that “a local authority shall not promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”) was still in place.  Professionals working with children and vulnerable adults were edgy about getting into trouble.  A teacher once told me that “we’re not allowed to teach you that” to which angry seventeen-year-old me responded “Section 28 is dead” (I think it actually had been repealed by then).  Imagine not even being allowed to talk about something so important?  Leaving people vulnerable to the doubts they have, the stereotypes they have built up in their heads, the in-built prejudice, the fear? In a school where a child in the playground can say “that is so gay” and a teacher can’t even tell him why that isn’t an insult, how does it feel for the gay kid in the corner when he is told “don’t say that” but it is never explained why?  I know how it feels.  It feels rubbish.

We need to talk about mental health.  And we need to talk about mental health not in a Broad and General Way, but in light of the specificities affecting mental health and mental health services. Race matters.  Religion matters.  Gender matters.  And being LGBT?  That certainly matters, too.

(For more about my experiences coming out as a lesbian: Here you go!)

Mental Health Awareness Week II: Coming Out

I came out as lesbian when I was sixteen and yet I am still coming out- every day- to people who presume I am straight until proven otherwise.  Even to people who don’t presume anything at all.  Every single time I say “my girlfriend” or “my partner and her family” or anything like that, to someone who doesn’t already know I’m gay, it is a kind of coming out.  Coming out is not a one-off thing, it doesn’t just happen between you, and family, and friends, and then just stay where it is.  It’s an ongoing process, and it happens every time you meet someone new, every time you enter into a new relationship, any time you do anything that “gives away” your sexual orientation. So, too, with mental health.

Provided I am relatively stable (and even if I am outwardly showing signs of an inner turmoil) my mental health diagnosis is not necessarily obvious to the rest of the world.  A person in the street wouldn’t look at me and say “she has bipolar disorder.”  I have written about the ongoing struggle with colleagues (I work in the mental health sector) referring to “them” (those with mental health problems) and “us” (those without) and the daily conscience-prick I face nodding or shaking my head at the so-called appropriate times.  I take medication and at the moment I am (relatively) stable, and you can’t tell that I have bipolar just by looking at me.  And so every single time I tell somebody, it is a kind of coming out.  With a new friend, or a new partner, it eventually becomes inevitable that you will have to tell them something about yourself.  When your “About You” section is so closely intertwined with the DSM-V, it becomes hard not to spill the beans about your mental health as well.  And, unfairly, if you choose not to share you end up feeling like a liar, because such is the black-and-white world in which we live.

Recently, I was introduced to another self-harmer (I have not self-harmed in two years but I refer to myself as a “self-harmer” here in much the same way that an alcoholic will refer to him/herself as “an alcoholic” following ten years’ sobriety).  She told me about how her scars were often misjudged and that every time someone sees them, it is a new kind of explanation.  Another dredged-up story. That’s how I feel about mine.  Today at work I was wearing a pair of ripped jeans- nothing inappropriate, nothing revealing- and a resident asked what happened to my leg.  I looked down and there it was- a scar.  Faced with the choice between that particular kind of “coming out” and the closet, I chose the closet.  “Old story,” I said, and put the scar away.  Because it was not an appropriate story for that moment.  But when is it?

When is it OK to speak about mental illness and when not and who says so?

It took me a while to come out as gay at work, because I feared judgement and a lack of understanding.  In the time in which I find myself now, in the place in which I find myself now, it is so much harder to come out as a person with a mental illness.

A-Z Challenge: F is for Freedom

Inspiration for this post comes from mixedmuppet, a “religious lesbian social worker” with a lot to say and a lovely way of saying it.

Any suggestions for G?  Again, I’ll take the first one and go with it.


In the UK, yesterday was the day of the 2015 General Election.  66.10% of people voted.  That means that 34% of potential voters didn’t.  I used to be passionate about compulsory voting: at least go and spoil a ballot!  People have died for your right to vote and for your right to keep it a secret.  So exercise it.  In many other places, people are desperate to vote and can’t… so make sure your vote is counted.  But more recently I’ve been thinking, who am I to tell someone to go and spoil a ballot if they genuinely aren’t even remotely interested in politics?  Do spoiled ballots really tell us anything and if they did, is that a reason for voting to be compulsory?  I’m not sure.  If we have the freedom to vote, conversely we have the freedom not to vote.  Freedom is measured by the things we are allowed to do, not by whether we do them or not.  In the UK, we are free to practice whatever religion we like.  That doesn’t mean we have to do it!  It’s more a matter of recognising your privilege- if you have the freedom to vote or not vote, acknowledge that that is your prerogative and respect it, irrespective of whether you use it or not.

Aside from the freedom to vote, freedom means so many things to me.  In the UK, I am fortunate enough that being a lesbian is not illegal.  I have the freedom to love whomever I want, however publicly I choose to do so.  I have read so many articles in which people say that because our “sisters of colour” don’t have the choice to hide or not-disclose their skin colour, we should be vocal about our sexuality because we have the privilege of being able to share or not share that, and should exercise our right to do so. I think that’s rubbish.  We are lucky enough to live in a society where being LGBTQI+ is accepted (at least legally- the day-to-day ins and outs of life are always trickier).  We have the privilege of being able to express our sexuality should we so choose… and we have the freedom not to.  There are hundreds of reasons a person might not want to “come out”: religion, career, family pressures, fear, or the feeling that it’s nobody else’s business.  So yes, it’s horrible for people to face discrimination for things that they can’t hide: race, some disabilities, even an accent.  But that doesn’t mean that our right to come out about something we could conceivably hide is something that we have to exercise.  Like our freedom to vote (or not) it is something that we need to respect, but it is our right to choose whether or not to exercise our freedom.

Finally, there are the things that people don’t have the right to do, that impact upon my personal freedoms.  People do not have the right to incite racial or homophobic hatred.  That doesn’t mean that those hatreds don’t exist on a quieter level, but nobody has the right to go on TV and tell somebody else that my life is worth less than theirs.  Therefore I have the freedom to go about my daily life without the fear that a person can completely legally harm me due to my race, religion or sexuality.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that an attack can’t happen.  But in some places such an attack would be legal or even encouraged, and another person’s right to violence becomes dangerous to my freedom to walk the streets.  Like everything else, this relative freedom makes me believe that I live in a privileged position and I need to treat my freedom with the respect it truly deserves.

Brighton Pride

Going to Brighton Pride at sixteen was the best thing I could have done.  By then, I had come out.  I wasn’t ashamed of my sexuality- or, at least, not as much as I had been.  But I had a black tunnel where my future should be.  Just as I rarely saw older mixed-race people, it seemed to me that I never saw older lesbians.  When I tried to envision my future, I never got past 24, because that’s the oldest I could imagine being and still being gay.  It’s not that I thought my sexuality would change.  It seemed like one of the few certainties in my life at that time.  It’s just that I couldn’t see it as a thing with a future, or think of myself as a person with a future.

Brighton Pride was revelatory.  I saw families there.  Gay couples with children, straight couples who were proud to bring theirs along.  I saw lesbians of thirty, forty, fifty, sixty.  Gay guys of all ages, too.  I was there with my second proper girlfriend, and we held a rainbow flag.  For maybe the first time, I felt genuinely accepted and understood by all the people around me.

I’m 27 now.  Sometimes I wish I were more “obviously” gay.  I get urges to shave my head or dress boyishly to prove myself.  Part of that is a feeling of wanting to be more visible to other lesbians.  It annoys me that I am so often an “invisible” lesbian.

Part of it is that, when I get older, I want to be able to show that lesbians can, and do, live past 24.  We exist, and continue to.  We grow up, have families or don’t, have partners or don’t, have jobs or don’t.  We are real.

At some point in my life, I would like to work with younger LGBT people.  I would like to say that it’s OK, that there are more people like us, that we do grow into real adults, and that we come in all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of fashion sense.  I would like it if the need to prove these points would become redundant, and young people could accept themselves and envision their futures easily.  But I doubt that the need will disappear any time soon.  I am responsible.

Jaywalking, Shoplifting, Self-Harm and Booze

Our behaviour is as absurd and incomprehensible with respect to the first drink as that of an individual with a passion, say, for jay-walking.  He gets a thrill out of skipping in front of fast-moving vehicles.  He enjoys himself for a few years in spite of friendly warnings.  Up to this point you would label him as a foolish chap having queer ideas of fun.  Luck then deserts him and he is slightly injured several times in succession.  You would expect him, if he were normal, to cut it out.  Presently he is hit again and this time has a fractured skull.  

Within a week after leaving the hospital a fast-moving trolley car breaks his arm. He tells you he has decided to stop jay-walking for good, but in a few weeks he breaks both legs.

On through the years this conduct continues, accompanied by his continual promises to be careful or to keep off the streets altogether. Finally, he can no longer work, his wife gets a divorce and he is held up to ridicule. He tries every known means to get the jay-walking idea out of his head. He shuts himself up in an asylum, hoping to mend his ways. But the day he comes out he races in front of a fire engine, which breaks his back. Such a man would be crazy, wouldn’t he?

– P.37, the Big Book

As the Book acknowledges, the illustration might seem extreme.  Ridiculous, even.  But that’s the point.  My behaviours, and my attitude towards them, have been ridiculous.  Despite repeated warnings- friendly and light at first, then desperate and serious- I have continued along these self-destructive paths.

Some people can pinpoint the exact moment at which their power of choice was lost.  I can’t.  I have been walking in front of traffic compulsively for as long as I can remember.

Before I started drinking, I used to shoplift.  From big supermarkets, small shops, market stalls.  I would steal absurd things.  Things I didn’t need, or even want.  I kept them hidden under my bed.  I was ashamed of my behaviour but I didn’t want to stop.  Warnings were frequent: I was once chased by a Camden Market stall-holder.  I was banned from every Tesco in Great Britain (as it turns out, they don’t actually check- but let that not be an encouragement to you).  I was caught thieving a silver necklace.  That day, I threw my loot (including a pair of rainbow shoelaces) into the tracks at Ilford Station.  I vowed never to shoplift again.  And, as I recall, I never did.

Then, of course, there was the self-harm.  Again, there were multiple warnings.  Stitches, scars, a hospitalisation.  I heeded none of them.  I was determined to destroy myself and I would listen to nobody.  I carried on self-harming until very recently.  Again, I took up my tools and, one by one, threw them away.

Throughout university, I would have sex with anyone (female) who felt like it.  I cheated compulsively, though I never lied about it.  I hurt people without necessarily meaning to- I was drunk, I needed affection, I wanted to prove something to myself.  I think part of that was wanting to prove how gay I was- being repeatedly told that you “look” or “seem” straight does nothing for your self-esteem as a young lesbian.  Then, one day, I decided not to have sex unless I actually wanted to.

Finally, I put down the bottle.  Bottles.  Glasses.  Cups.  Jars.  Jugs.  It is the hardest thing I have done.  It feels like looking at yourself in the mirror, naked.  You want your clothes back on, your beer goggles back… but they have stopped working.  They distort you until you look bloated.  Ugly.  Until even with them on, you can barely stand the sight of yourself.  But now they’re off and you don’t know what’s worse… you can barely look yourself in the eye.  Worse, you feel everyone else can see you naked.  Drink was a safety blanket you wrapped around yourself.  It’s slipped.

Change doesn’t come easy.  The path to recovery doesn’t run smooth.  I’ve slipped up, I’ve screwed up, I’ve opened up.  I’ve started again.

The last few days have been hard.  I feel boring, uncomfortable in my skin, because I can’t (or choose not to) do the things that other people do.  “Normal people drink to feel different… alcoholics drink to feel normal.”  I keep trying to convince myself that I could drink to feel different, to have fun.  But I couldn’t.  I would only return myself to that normality that is abnormal, unmanageable.  I would return my life to chaos, snatch it back from the care of whatever is caring for me.  I would let people down (not least myself).

So I’m struggling.  But I have love around me.  For that, I can only be grateful.