Like many lesbians, I have struggled in my life with shame. I have felt not that I have done something wrong, but that I am something wrong. I have looked at my friend, with whom I was more than half in love, and hated myself for what I felt. I have anticipated her reaction and her rejection if I ever told her how I felt. I have laid in my bed at night and castigated myself for my thoughts. I have wished that I were a man and not a girl, so that she might return my love.
I have slept with men in what was an elaborate self harm scheme, but which also was an attempt at conversion therapy on myself. It was awful. I hated myself even more for doing it, and exacerbated what was a cycle of shame about my behaviours. It cycled back on me, as to how I viewed myself and my body. It got under my skin.
Even now, at 41 years of age, I can still feel shame about things. I have been married to my wife for 17 years, but I can still feel shame that I want a woman like her. I can also still feel shame that I have had so many grubby hands pawing at me. I have cried in her arms, wishing she were the only person who’d ever touched me. Not feeling pure enough, good enough, to receive the gifts she brings. Feeling tainted. Ashamed.
It is under my skin, all that history. Those men. And then I can hear my mother’s voice. She warned me off “women like that” whenever we saw a butch lesbian in the street. “Women like that will get you in trouble.” It seems weird looking back. Maybe she saw me have a reaction to a woman, and knew what I was before I did. Maybe she, herself, had secret longings. Maybe she actually was that deeply homophobic that she was terrified I would turn out to be a lesbian. She certainly spent a lot of time trying to think of ways to introduce my wife to her friends in a way that implies we don’t have sex.
I can still hear the school yard voices. I can still hear the way that people used to talk about “lemons,” (Teesside slang for lesbians, although it can also mean “wally.” I knew which they meant for me). If anybody were a bit masculine, they used to get called a “lemon,” to their face, and people whispered behind their backs. I can still hear Old Square Head too, and see him, with his threatening body language yelling at me, “GAY? There’s nothing GAY about them! They lead VERY sad lives.” I knew, I knew it was wrong to be me, to love women the way I loved women. I was ashamed, and frightened.
Shame seeps into your pores and becomes part of you. Pride says no to that. Pride says, I am who I am. Pride says, “get this shame off my skin, get it out of me, I love who I love, and I am not ashamed.”
I think this is a very common experience for young people, growing up same sex attracted. Shame seeps into your pores and becomes part of you. Pride says no to that. Pride says, I am who I am. Pride says, “get this shame off my skin, get it out of me, I love who I love, and I am not ashamed.” Pride is defiance, it is boundaried, it is the “fuck you” to every homophobe who ever tried to bully and harass me.
When I was 17, I lay on the banks of the river Tees with my friend. It was late spring, and in the dappled afternoon sunshine, the blossom was falling on the grass around us. I turned my face to hers, in fear and trembling, to find she had already turned to me. I kissed her, and it was as pure as the sound of the water and the blossom falling. It was as green as the grass and as perfect as the spring. Pride is my refusal to be ashamed for how that made me feel. Pride is how I take that moment in the grass, and reclaim it from bullies and homophobes who want to laugh at me, call me a pervert, shame me. Pride is my defence against their dark arts. Pride is my shield.
I am proud too, to lie in the boundaried shelter of my wife’s arms. I am proud to go out in public with her, and feel those judgemental, shaming eyes on me. Fuck them. I am Teflon, it slides right off when I’m with her. It just makes me love her harder, shine more brightly. Pride is my shield against their stares, I surround myself with it and hold up my head and smile the smile that she put on my face this morning, after she brought me coffee, and forgive them. Pride is my strength. It is mine.
I have heard people say things like “it is ridiculous to be proud of your sexuality.” Generally, those people have not had to overcome the kind of shame I faced, many other gay people faced. Generally, those people are straight. I need pride, I need to place it consciously in my mind, in my way of being in the world, as an antidote to the shame that got ingrained in me growing up about who I am and who I love. I need pride as a reminder that I am not broken, I am not wrong, I should not feel ashamed.
I won’t be afraid of loving the woman I do, who is an absolute fucking icon and is everything to me. I am proud to be her woman. I will love her till I die.
The term “gay pride” caught on very quickly after the Stonewall riots, I believe for this reason. Pride is the antidote for shame. Shame hides in the shadows and turns its face from the light. Shame is small, dejected, broken. Shame dare not speak its name.
Pride roars it out.
The corporations and the blue fringed spicy straights and the fetishists have stolen pride from us, and twisted it to their purposes. No, you should not feel proud of wearing a gimp mask and a thong and handing out sweeties to a child. Really, dude, you shouldn’t. But I reclaim pride back. I reclaim it back as good, and pure, and true as it ever was. As effective an antidote to shame as it ever was. I won’t be afraid of loving the woman I do, who is an absolute fucking icon and is everything to me. I am proud to be her woman. I will love her till I die.
I am proud that my history is intertwined with the fight for the rights of lesbian and gay people. I will be proud to stand next to her next summer, and convert our civil union to a marriage, and having lived all the years past, promise each other the rest of our lives. I’m proud that she has chosen me to walk down all the years of my life with her until, hopefully many, many years from now, nodding in our armchairs, full of sleep, surrounded by friends and family at the last, one of us has to say goodbye and the other go on alone.
Ceri Black is a cofounder of the LGB Alliance Ireland. She got her PhD in feminism and queer theory in 2009, but since realised that the synthesis between the two that she hoped for was impossible. She tweets under the handle @FemmeLoves about LGB issues, child protection and recovering from childhood sexual abuse.
Top photo: Ceri with her partner Lauren.