Random Thoughts: Unexpected Guests

Janine Norris, Lesbian, Mental Health

By Janine Norris

We picked up Marjorie and she wriggled and fell. Straight on the floor. On her back. She squeaked, struggled to get up and eventually disappeared into a box. We were shocked. She was obviously badly hurt and we didn’t know what to do.

Rather like Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of The Hobbit (but not on such a grand scale), the start of Lockdown brought about some unexpected guests. The ‘guests’ were the school Guinea Pigs, Mary and Marjorie.

Nobody else working in the school could take them home for Lockdown, so I immediately jumped at the chance. It’s common knowledge that my girlfriend and I much prefer the company of animals than people, so our home was the perfect choice.

Marjorie

I had to dismantle the ‘run’ that the students had made for the girls for it to fit in the back of the car. I struggled with the hutch, carrying it by myself and, finding super human strength from somewhere (generally stubbornness and determination), I managed to get everything in the car. The pigs travelled in style in a cat carrier in the passenger-side footwell.

On arrival home, I carefully unloaded the precious cargo and struggled down the side path to the back garden. Could I have asked my girlfriend for help? Yes, but she wasn’t expecting visitors!

Once I had settled the girls in their hutch with bedding, fresh vegetables and salad, I called my girlfriend, Mel, who was still working at her desk in the house.

She came into the garden, a little unsure of what was in store – she hates surprises. I explained that nobody else could take the guinea pigs home, so I had offered to look after them. I rattled on and on about how I would look after them and she wouldn’t have to do anything so that I took responsibility. After all, on this occasion, I hadn’t consulted her on the matter. We usually make important decisions together, but this was an emergency. Nobody was allowed back on the school site after today and the pigs needed a home.

I introduced Mel to ‘Hairy’ Mary and Marjorie. She asked if she could hold one. I handed her Mary. A huge grin appeared on her face and she said, ‘I feel like I’m eight years old again and I’ve been chosen to look after the school guinea pigs for the summer holidays.’

And that is where my story begins.

Life in Lockdown for Mel and I threatened to be rather difficult. Mel has worked from home, alone, for the last twenty years. She is a Business Management Consultant working mainly with land-based businesses, mainly farms and farmers, so when she isn’t working at home, she’s out and about, in the middle of nowhere, advising farmers on how best to move forward with their businesses.


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As schools closed suddenly, there I was, sitting in the opposite corner of the lounge at a desk of my own, having no idea how I was going to cope. I’m not a desk worker. I’m a fidget. Similarities with some of my students with ADHD are prevalent in my personality. Mel is calm, professional and totally focused on her work. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it was better than either of us ever imagined: We no longer had to make excuses for not going out, we enjoyed each other’s company approximately 99% of the time, we learnt new things about each other, and we became interested in each other’s work. I was astounded at how knowledgeable Mel was when it came to advising farmers via Zoom, and she finally got to see me teaching and interacting with the students I had talked so much about.

However, what actually made Lockdown more memorable was the presence of Mary and Marjorie. We had no real idea of a guinea pig’s needs, so Mel researched everything we needed to know. We took advice from people we knew who had had (or still had) guinea pigs, and the girls began to thrive.

We also began to thrive. Our mornings began with a dog walk by the river, then coffee sitting in the garden watching the pigs explore their new items (boxes, tunnels, food, etc.) we had placed in their run each day. It was a peaceful time.

On the third Thursday of Lockdown we went into the garden to put the pigs to bed for the night. We picked up Marjorie and she wriggled and fell. Straight on the floor. On her back. She squeaked, struggled to get up and eventually disappeared into a box. We were shocked. She was obviously badly hurt and we didn’t know what to do.

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The next morning, we put the girls in their run, and Marjorie was moving but dragging her back legs behind her. This, for us, was a heart-breaking sight. We booked an appointment at the vet. When we arrived, we had to wait in the carpark for the vet to come out and take Marjorie inside. He returned with painkillers and suggested we wait a week to see what happened.

We decided to put them both to bed as normal and see how she was the next morning. Needless to say, we went to bed that evening sobbing. We had grown so fond of the girls and the guilt we felt was immense.

Our ‘Unexpected Guests’ have become a huge part of our lives and our daily routine, along with the dogs and the horses, and they have certainly had a huge effect on my mental health throughout the Pandemic.

By Sunday, it looked as though Marjorie was deteriorating. She couldn’t keep herself clean, so we were bathing her with cotton wool and warm water. She was still eating and moving about, but we were concerned about her quality of life.

On Monday morning, I opened the hutch door and she had clearly not moved all night. She was dirty and sorrowful looking. I made the decision to phone the vet and book her in to be put to sleep that afternoon.

The tears Mel and I cried over that little girl were huge.

In my usual fashion, at lunchtime, I left my desk and popped into the garden for some fresh air and outdoor stimulation. Something told me to look at the pigs. As I looked in the run, Marjorie was running around, playing, her back legs dragging behind her, but she looked much brighter. I cancelled her vet appointment. She lived to fight another day.

Mary

There were a couple more close calls, but she still seemed happy in herself and was eating. Eventually, we booked in to see the ‘Exotic Animal Vet’ (who knew guinea pigs were Exotic Animals?). She took her away, examined her and returned, saying she definitely had feeling in her legs and toes (as she had moved her legs when she pinched her toes). She couldn’t feel any broken bones, so really wanted us to give her a bit more time. She explained that if she was no better within the next month, we were to go back and she would reassess her quality of life. This vet actually said, ‘Don’t give up on her just yet.’

We took her home and began doing very small exercises with her back legs each morning and evening. Over the next couple of weeks, she began ‘paddling’ one of her back legs, and a few days later, did the same with the other.

Approximately a month after seeing that vet, Marjorie was 95% back to normal!

For me, this was a miracle. The resilience shown by this tiny creature was out of this world. Needless to say, the girls are very special to us. They are going to stay with us for the rest of their lives, and they continue to give us so much pleasure and happiness.

Marjorie has doubled in weight and is definitely the pig in charge; Mary doesn’t mind, as long as there’s food around.

Our ‘Unexpected Guests’ have become a huge part of our lives and our daily routine, along with the dogs and the horses, and they have certainly had a huge effect on my mental health throughout the Pandemic.

The power of guinea pigs is incredible. However, don’t agree to have them as pets until you’ve researched thoroughly. Their intelligence, curiosity and dietary needs are far more complex than people realise.

We will have Guinea Pigs for ever.

Janine was born in Leeds in 1970 to working-class parents, the middle of 3 children. She graduated from Teacher Training College in Lincoln in 1993 and has taught in Norfolk and Suffolk ever since. janinenorris70@wordpress.com

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Chronically Fabulous: The Critical Role of D&D in an Isolated World

By Josie Quinn: “In a year of isolation and fear, Dungeons & Dragons has not only kept me connected with the outside world, but given all of us the much needed chance to escape our current reality, even if only for a few hours.”

Giving Shame the Finger!

Louise Clare Dalton. “Let’s talk about shame baby, let’s talk about it and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the … oh wait. Hon, let’s not kid ourselves, there isn’t much ‘good’ to speak of when it comes to the shame surrounding sexuality and queerness.

Confessions of a Lesbian Cliché … The U-Haul!

Kirsten Leah, Lesbian, Relationships

By Kirsten Leah

two woman standing holding hands

U-hauling is up there with plaid shirts and undercuts as one of the oldest lesbian tropes in the book. As someone who’s done it with no less than four different partners, I put my hands up and admit to being an absolute card-carrying cliché.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that two lesbians who have been consistently shagging for three weeks will very soon feel the urge to move in together.

U-hauling is up there with plaid shirts and undercuts as one of the oldest lesbian tropes in the book. As someone who’s done it with no less than four different partners, I put my hands up and admit to being an absolute card-carrying cliché. What can I say? I easily swing into a comfortable routine with my partner. I get swept up in the rush of closeness and excitement. And, honestly, as a millennial, there are few things more appealing than having someone to split the bills with.

And why not? Your girlfriend’s at yours pretty much every night anyway. You’ve already fallen into the routine of date night dinners and drinks, stumbling back home together, and her waking you up the next day with a black coffee and a cheeky bit of morning sex. Rinse and repeat.

Needless to say, my prematurely living with partners ended in disaster three times. My first U-haul was when I was seventeen (as with a lot of deplorably bad habits, I started young). I moved to the Isle of Wight, of all the godforsaken places, to live with my first ‘serious’ girlfriend. We lived in a shitty flat, working shitty jobs to get by. It lasted less than three months. Swept up in each other, and feeling that this was what adults did, we dove in headfirst without considering what the reality would be. Anyone with half a brain could – and did – tell us it was never going to work, we were falling into the same ole trap that had consumed many lesbian relationships before ours. They were right. Obviously. The heady new relationship rush quickly subsided into bitchy bickering, both of us deeply unsatisfied with our lot. By the time we called it quits, we didn’t even like each other anymore.

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Having to move back to my mum’s house with my tail between my legs wasn’t, however, enough to stop me making the same mistake again. And then again. Third time was definitely not lucky in my case.

So I decided that I’d never rush into living with someone again. By this point I had bought my flat. I had to make a fresh start on all this. A new leaf had to be turned. I did up the flat and made space in it for me, and only me. I was dating, but nothing serious. I didn’t even want to commit to another relationship at that point, let alone move someone in after a month of knowing them. The ironic thing about my unfortunate U-hauling habit is that I actually love my own space. I relished it, at that time, and happily planned out the years I’d spend living alone, learning to love myself and my space and my freedom, casually dating but never taking it to that next stage.

I met someone three months later.

We kept it casual at first. That lasted a couple of months. And then we were in that wonderful familiar spiral of drunken date nights, decadent lay-ins, cozy rainy days spent on the sofa binging Netflix, and wow, babe, has it really been three weeks since you last went home?

cardboard box lot

I had a little word with myself. Told myself I couldn’t make the same mistake again, that this was something that felt a little too good to fuck up by rushing in. I was too old for this teenage shit.

(Even though this time it felt right. Even though, despite my flat being my own jealously guarded dominion, she somehow slotted into it just fine.)

And then 2020 happened. It’s been a funny old year, hasn’t it?

Sometime in March, the deputy chief medical officer of England stated the following:

“If you are two individuals, two halves of the couple, living in separate households then ideally they should stay in those households. The alternative might be that, for quite a significant period going forward, they should test the strength of their relationship and decide whether they should permanently be resident in another household.”

So there we had it – actual government advice for the entire country to try their hands at a lesbian U-haul. Could anyone have seen that coming? Not a fuck. And needless to say, she moved in a couple of days later. Here we go again.

Part of my mind was tensed up and waiting for the inevitable failure of the relationship. Past experience made me wary. But … it just didn’t come. Her changing the address on her driving licence wasn’t the death knell I assumed it would be. I changed my council tax status from single occupancy to full fat and we didn’t automatically turn on each other. We even went furniture shopping together, the peak of all domesticity, and things continued to tick along nicely.

Celebrating Female Desire. Artwork by Paola Rossi

There were small bones of contention, obviously. She likes listening to Town 102 in the morning. We have wildly different views on the art pieces we want decorating the walls. I’d rather die than use a jar of Dolmio, whereas the idea of cooking everything from scratch sends her round the bend. And if these things sound petty and wildly inconsequential, that’s because they are. Even though we plunged into the dreaded U-haul (government-advised as it was), it didn’t end our relationship. It deepened it. It strengthened it. It moved us on to a whole other stage of togetherness.

Maybe us lesbians have got it right. Despite how wrong it can and does go when we haul ass to move in with each other after the third date, there’s always the chance it’ll work out. Why waste time if the right relationship is there, waiting, and you’ve found a person you wouldn’t mind waking up with every morning? Life’s too short to spend years dithering just because ‘the rules’ say it’s too soon. And if it doesn’t work out, you can always try again. And again.

Me and my fourth U-haul have been together for ten months now. We’re still living together – in fact, we’re engaged already.

I never learn.

Kirsten is 28, gay, enjoys watching nerdy sci-fi films, embarrassing herself at open-mic nights, and strapping wheels to her feet and hitting people. Apparently, she also likes oversharing with people on the internet too.

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Postcards From Lesbainia – Fingering After Dark

Hayley Sherman, Lesbian, Marriage

By Hayley Sherman

person holding string lights

“I run downstairs for the butter, WD40, an organ grinder and eventually the fire brigade and trash the whole room trying to wrestle it off her while she miraculously stays asleep.”

It’s 3.30 a.m. and my alarm quietly bleeps on the bedside table. It takes a bleary second for me to remember why I set it, and then the magnitude of the moment kicks in and I’m all business. Tonight’s the night!

Sarah stirs a little beside me, so I don’t make a move until she’s found her sleeping rhythm again, making a noise that I choose to call a purr rather than a snore because I love her so much. It’s as dark as a room can be, so with all my stealth and cunning, I reach out and feel the carpet under the bed where I’ve hidden the secret tool I need for my covert mission – a loop of thirty steel rings strung together, designed to measure everything from a baby’s little finger to the devil’s own thumb. As soon as I touch it, it jangles like a set of jailer’s keys, but Sarah’s out for the count now, so, holding my breath, I dare to pick it up and put my plan into action.

I have to confess that when gay marriage was legalised, it never occurred to me that I might, one night, be awake in a dark, silent room forcing my unconscious girlfriend’s finger into a series of holes to measure her up for an engagement ring without waking her, but life is full of little surprises.  

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Take me, for example; I had been happily single for about nine years before meeting her and was perfectly content in life. I don’t want to say that I’d resigned myself to never marrying, because that somehow implies that my single life was ‘less than’, and that was never the case. In fact, it always pissed me off when well-meaning, loved-up friends would tip their heads on the side, pull the pity pout and say, ‘Aw, are you still single?’ as if asking if I still had piles. ‘Don’t worry, the right person’s out there for you,’ they’d add. ‘You just haven’t met her yet. You’re lovely.’ Bloody cheek! I spent years cultivating the single life I wanted.

Sometimes I’d get in there first and say, ‘Aw, are you still with Kelly? Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get your freedom back soon. You’re lovely.’

The frustrating/beautiful truth, however, is that they were right. She was out there all along, but if we’d met at any other point in our lives, we wouldn’t have been a fit. We’ve both lived just the right amount of life now to be oven-ready for each other.

Back to the dark bedroom, and Sarah’s working with me without even knowing it. She’s made a surprise big-spoon move and is draped over me. I’d wondered how I was going to engineer grabbing her hand, and now she’s handed it to me (so to speak). I have to be quick, though. I fumble for a ring from the middle of the jangly set, wishing now that I had a) chosen a few rings that might be close to her size when it was still light, b) taken them off the loop or c) taken the advice I read online about using cotton to measure her finger. But never mind. We’re here now. I have her hand and if she wakes up mid-manoeuvre, I’ll just hold on for dear life, thrash about a bit and tell her I was having a nightmare about Boris Johnson.

Celebrating Female Passion … Art by Paola Rossi

I get lucky on the first go. The ring doesn’t fit, but it’s close, just a touch too big, and more importantly, she hasn’t moved or stirred, but something’s changed: I can no longer hear or feel her rhythmic breathing on my back, so either she’s awake and just letting me do this, too polite to spoil the surprise, probably laughing her arse off at me, or she’s tragically passed away in the last few moments. I hope it’s neither and try to slip the ring off her finger, but before I get to the knuckle, the worst imaginable thing happens – she clenches a fist. I try to console myself with the good news that she’s probably not dead, but it seems little consolation next to the task ahead of getting the bloody thing off. Thankfully, she unclenches just as quickly, but I’m about as close to a coronary as a 43-year-old should be allowed to get by now.

I can’t help wondering if married life is always going to be this difficult.

I feel for the next smallest ring. Something inside is telling me that I should quit while I’m ahead, but I’ve never been one to listen to the voices, so I slide it on – or rather I force it on – over the knuckle, and this is definitely the one. Perfect! A little snug but definitely the one. And I know what you’re thinking. Is she going to be able to get it off or is this going to turn into an episode of Mr Bean, where I run downstairs for the butter, WD40, an organ grinder and eventually the fire brigade and trash the whole room trying to wrestle it off her while she miraculously stays asleep? Well, I’ll leave you to wonder how that part of the story ended and skip a few weeks ahead to the good bit … She said yes!

 

Hayley Sherman is a writer, ghostwriter, blogger and editor who just wants everyone to be nice to each other. Her blog smiles in the face of adversity, licks the cheek of the oppressor and generally reflects on her denial about being a middle-aged lesbian. hayleyshermanwriter.com.

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New Year, New Queer

Louise Clare Dalton on switching labels from Bi to Queer. But do we even need labels any more?

A Silent New Year’s Eve in a Field in the Middle of Nowhere

By Hayley Sherman: “At midnight, where fireworks exploded around the globe, just twelve hollow clangs of a cowbell sounded somewhere in the distance, then the disappointing toot of a depressed owl. Then more silence. Happy New Year to me!”

An Afternoon in Primark Changed My Life … Joni’s Story

Discrimination, Gender, Lesbian, Transgender

“It touched other aspects of my life for years to come: finding work was difficult because I was so searchable. Nobody wanted ‘that angry transwoman’ working for them.

I was standing in a queue of four or five women, all waiting to try on clothes in the fitting room in Primark, gripping a pair of skinny jeans and a couple of tops. It was only the second or third time that I’d bought women’s clothing and the first time I’d gone by myself.

“You getting those?” a sweet old lady behind asked me. “They’ll look really pretty on you.” I smiled and thanked her. I’m a magnet for old people, and we started chatting. I was glad of the distraction. It was still so early in my transition, and despite what people think about transwomen and changing rooms, it’s scary, especially with the discussions going on at the moment. TERFs would have you believe that transwomen are going into these spaces, helicoptering their genitals, doing a handstand, but I was really just interested in the clothes, and, of course, keeping safe and not getting myself beaten up, because using male spaces while female attired is dangerous. You’re in close proximity with men who do not take kindly to people wearing dresses. I don’t use female spaces to assert my femininity. I do it because it’s safe.

The queue went down slowly, and as I neared the front, I could see the young sales assistant manning the desk, giving out the number tags and hanging up returns.

Just ninja-in and ninja-out, I told myself. It had become a mantra for changing rooms, fitting rooms, toilets and any other all-female spaces. Don’t hang around. Just get in and out and hope not to be seen. My heart rate was definitely up a little now, though. I was already so uncomfortable in my own skin. But like any other woman, I can’t buy clothes without trying them on, and I’m not an easy size to clothe. I’m 6 foot 1 and built like a refrigerator. I’m not “woman-shaped”. I don’t have a face for make-up. I don’t ‘pass’. Passing is so important in society, but there’s nothing I can do to make myself look more like a stereotypical woman, and I was really trying then.

It was a huge problem for me, and none of the info I found online about how to be trans helped. It was all so ‘gatewayey’: Don’t choose a name like this because that’s a stripper name; you need to always behave in a dignified manner, be polite and courteous at all times; always wear a dress and makeup. I soaked it all in and tried to be demure and feminine and fit in. I tried to follow all of the advice, but it felt as if I’d gone from one body that didn’t belong to me into another. I had spent the first twenty-four years of my life acting as a guy, and now I was trying to fit into another box that was just as crippling. I would spend years in this place, desperately trying to find a way to fit in, throwing sparkly spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick, until I finally had to accept that this was never going to happen. And if you can’t change something, ultimately, all you can do is accept it, however hard that is. Life started to get better for me when I stopped trying to be what society told me to be and started being myself.

This was all of my worst nightmares happening at the same time. I turned around to see a long queue of women behind me, all looking around and over each other to see what was holding things up.

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I had always hung out with lesbians, most of them butch – I looked up to them; they were just so awesome and together, such a presence. They didn’t give a crap what people thought of them. Over time, I realised that I didn’t just like these women, I identified with them, I saw myself in them, and I was attracted to women, just as they were. Again, when I asked the internet how to be a transwoman, all the info online was geared towards being straight. But could I be trans and attracted to women? Could I be a transwoman without the flowery dresses and high heels? Could I be the opposite of everything the internet was telling me? Turns out, you can do anything you want, and at some point over the last seven years I stopped giving a shit and became a comfortable gender-non-conforming transwoman, or a butch trans-dyke, or transgender non-binary … if you need a label. Ultimately, my femininity isn’t defined by my attire or my body even, it’s just who I am.

But back in the early days, in Primark, I was just a baby trans, scared of being laughed at, scared of everything, still trying to fit in, with my flowery skirt and lipstick, and I wanted the moment over as quickly as possible. I wanted to try on the clothes and go, but it wasn’t to be. I finally reached the front of the queue and held up my clothes, smiling. “Just three items,” I told the sales assistant, who was about sixteen years old.

His face changed when he saw me, confusion and horror in his eyes, and he shook his head. “You can’t go in there.”

I found my voice to ask why.

“Because you’re a man. You need to use the men’s.”

This was all of my worst nightmares happening at the same time. I turned around to see a long queue of women behind me, all looking around and over each other to see what was holding things up.

“I’m not a man,” I tried, standing as upright as possible, talking in my calmest voice. “And I would like to try these on.”

But he shook his head. No, sorry. It’s not going to happen. I tried to protest further, but the words were sticking in my throat and I could feel my face glowing. All I could do was skulk away, leaving the women in the queue whispering behind me.

I didn’t leave the shop straight away. I spoke to a manager, but I was told exactly the same: if I wanted to try them on, I had to use the men’s. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but I didn’t argue or fight. In fact, in a daze, I carefully folded the two tops and the jeans and returned them to the shelves before leaving the shop, not quite knowing what to do with myself.

I was a million miles from the activist I would become, but I was so hurt and humiliated, and I didn’t want that to happen to anyone else, so I emailed Primark, but I got nowhere. They wanted me to name the kid who’d served me. I didn’t want some kid to lose their job over it because they didn’t know any better and there wasn’t a policy in place. I didn’t want to contribute to one more person hating trans people. So I wrote a post about what had happened. It went viral. I then got a call from the local paper, The Evening Star. They wanted to write a piece about me. It wasn’t going to be a big story – just a little piece about a little thing that happened to a little person. So I agreed. If it stopped it happening to someone else, then it would be worth it. A few days later, they interviewed me at my house and then asked if I would pose for a photo in front of my house.

Check out Artwork by incredible Asperger’s monochrome artist, Nick Copsey

“If you could just fold your arms, love,” I was told, and I obliged, not thinking too much about my natural resting bitch face, sparce makeup, the hairband and lucky hoodie I was wearing. It was, after all, a little piece about a little person … or so I thought.

The next day I got a text from a friend asking if I’d seen The Evening Star. I checked it out. I was on the cover, and that picture of me – which was horrendous and angry-looking – was huge. Not only was I outside my house, but they printed my address. The little piece about a little person had turned into something dangerous. I was now at risk. And it didn’t stop there. The local paper sold the story to The Daily Mail, along with the photo, and the Daily Star, and the Mirror, as well as papers in Italy and Kenya; I had a call from ITN; I even got a message from the South Korea Broadcasting Service, asking me if I could appear there. It was everywhere, and although The Evening Star had reported the story fairly neutrally, the likes of The Daily Mail obviously didn’t. I was still trying to find a way to exist, and now I was an angry-trans poster child. In fact, to this day, if you search ‘angry transwoman’ in Google Images, that picture comes up second, and I’m one of the least angry people I know.

“I now feel marked, as if I have to live my life differently because I’m labelled, and it will all explode again if I slip up – like ‘Angry Trans’ is at it again!”

My mum, bless her, was terrified that I’d get my head kicked in. I was scared too. I stayed in for three or four days. Then I started to lock down my social media because the deluge of abuse had begun. I was picked up by a TERF site that basically gathers as much information as possible about anyone in trans stories, including where they work, where they live, before rewriting them and switching the pronouns to misgender them. I’m still on there to this day. I set up fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to soak up the abuse, but my face was appearing all over the place: Steven Crowther, who’s a right-wing pundit, used my picture for a piece about transwomen opposing breastfeeding, which is bullshit. The Daily Mail has since used my picture online for an article about sex offenders. I have contacted them and asked them to remove it, but they said they don’t remove photos due to embarrassment.

And it wasn’t just abuse that I had to endure; it touched other aspects of my life for years to come: finding work was difficult because I was so searchable. Nobody wanted ‘that angry trans woman’ working for them. I eventually changed my legal name, but I now feel marked, as if I have to live my life differently because I’m labelled, and it will all explode again if I slip up – like ‘Angry Trans’ is at it again! I exist online under an alias and think twice about anything I post. It made me scared to engage in activism for a long time, but although it has been a painful experience, it did make a difference.

Not long after it happened, I ran into someone who asked if I was the Primark girl. She thanked me for speaking out, told me that it made her feel seen and made a difference to her. It also impacted Primark, who introduced a trans policy as a result of the backlash, so although it’s been hard, I’m glad it happened – if I could go back in time, though, I might not have folded my arms on that picture. I might even have smiled. Ultimately, if it’s made it easier for just one trans person to ninja-in/ninja-out without trouble, then it’s definitely been worth it. For me personally, however, I haven’t used a public fitting room since that day and I probably never will.

Joni Bendall’s story, as told to and written by ghostwriter Hayley Sherman

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Growing Up Hated … Shona’s Story

“I’ve been hated for my skin colour, for my sexuality, for my mental health, things I can’t change. People are going to hate me whatever, so I might as well be who I am. I don’t care what people think anymore”Read More

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“Had I been growing up now, ‘non-binary’ may have been a shoe that fit, but as I skidded through my teens in the nineties, gender was as fixed as the colour of your skin; you could change it no more than you could change the weather or Sporty Spice’s insistence that she was straight.” … Read more

         

Confessions of a Lesbian Cliché: The L-Word Fantasy

Growing Pains, Kirsten Leah, Lesbian, The L Word

By Kirsten Leah

Growing up (sort of) has taught me that mates are mates, gay or straight, and that being an unbearable arsehole will leave you alone very quickly.

Like every gay girl of my era, I was an avid fan of The L Word in my early teens. I’d download every season through LimeWire (never minding the 327843597 viruses that would accompany and ultimately destroy the family computer), and secretly binge them by myself late at night. As a shy, closeted baby dyke they offered a hopeful glimmer of an aspirational future. I could be out, cool, successful, attractive, and have proper relationships, however meaningful, with women. I could spend my days killing it at work and my evenings at some cosmopolitan gay bar with a close friendship group of fellow girl-loving girls.

The thing that drew me to The L Word so much – ok, besides the sex scenes – was the idea of having a group of gay friends like Shane, Bette, Alice, et al. People in the same situation as me, whom I could share my women woes with over a beer.

Because it’s lonely when you start out. In my high school of 750ish students, there was only one out LGBT+ person – and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t me. The idea of a don’t-give-a-shit, gay friendship group à la L Word was about as unattainable as walking to the moon. I had a good group of friends in school, but it was a group I had to put a mask on for. I’d pretend to fancy this actor or that singer, and I’d get off with the odd boy, to keep the mask in place. I loved my straight mates, but at the same time yearned for friends whose ~feelings~ were more similar to my own.

The search for such a group intensified when I came out – and coming out coincided with a definite increase in going out. Aged 16, I discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that I could get served in a few select venues in town. This included Betty’s, the local gay club. I’d persuade my (incredibly supportive and put-upon) straight mates to go there with me every weekend. I went there looking for new, exciting, gay people to match my new, exciting, gay life.

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And, yeah, I met gay people. Girls I had clumsy flings with. Guys I’d do shots with until kicking out time rolled around. I suppose I felt like I was on the way to getting what I’d craved so much as a teenager. I definitely felt cool when I walked into Betty’s on a Friday night and saw half a dozen people I recognised already propping up the bar. I might’ve even felt cool when I was drinking myself into oblivion weekend after weekend, waking up with zero memories of the night before, a questionable one-night stand, or both. Sure, turning up to my Saturday shift at Iceland still pissed, reeking of vodka and looking like something scraped off the bottom of a shoe wasn’t exactly living that L Word dream, but I was getting there, wasn’t I?

I guess I’m a cliché for falling so hard into that nightlife hole. I’m not beating myself up – being out and going out was a heady freedom after being closeted for so long. It took me a while to climb out of that hole again, though. When I finally did resurface – after a few deathly hangovers too many, a near-miss, and a ride home in a police car – I found I didn’t actually have that many friends left. My desperate search for a group of gay friends had alienated most of my straight friends. While I’d been sinking into gay nightlife, they’d been getting their shit together and becoming proper adults. And the friends I’d made whilst out drinking? In reality most of them didn’t impact my life at all unless I was out with them. My drunken, ‘romantic’ encounters with girls I met at Betty’s just made it increasingly awkward for me to be there.

The L Word was a sham. I was disillusioned with its promises. Either that, or I was a weirdo unable to form the gay-lady friendships so intrinsic to everyone else’s best lesbian lives.

… so I wallowed.

People say that, with love, we find it when we stop desperately searching for it. The same goes for friendships. It took me a bit of growing up, and a lot of getting comfortable in my own skin, before finding the relationships I’d pined for in my teenage years. I stopped drinking myself into a black-hole every weekend. I made grovelling apologies to my remaining friends, vowing never to take them for granted again. In high school I’d wished for another group of friends so I wouldn’t have to wear my straight-girl facade. Years later I realised the only person forcing myself to pretend was me.

Check out Louise Clare Dalton’s Performance of her poem, What They Told You

I’m now out in every aspect of my life. In my career (which has moved on from its inauspicious supermarket beginnings); with my family; with my friends. I still like a night out and a tequila or two, but now have interests beyond this. A year ago I started roller derby (which is probably, incidentally, the gayest sport in existence, but that’s another post, for another time), through which I’ve met some brilliant people. Through my partner, I’ve gotten involved with the local LGBTQ+  Women’s group. Even the knowledge that the group existed would have overwhelmed my gay little 13-year-old self with excitement.

The L Word made me strive for a cliquey lesbian friendship group. Growing up (sort of) has taught me that mates are mates, gay or straight, and that being an unbearable arsehole will leave you alone very quickly. It’s great to have your fellow lady-loving-ladies around you for a night out at Betty’s. But, sometimes, nothing beats getting wine drunk with your straight mate while you whinge about girls, she moans about guys, and neither of you envies the other one bit.

Kirsten is 28, gay, enjoys watching nerdy sci-fi films, embarrassing herself at open-mic nights, and strapping wheels to her feet and hitting people. Apparently, she also likes oversharing with people on the internet too.

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Random Thoughts: This is Not a Diary … Cursed!

Growing Pains, Janine Norris, Lesbian, Mental Health

By Janine Norris

So, ok, I’m ginger! There, I said it. I can deal with that. However, a test of my strength of (sensitive, ginger) character hit hard when I also realised I was gay. Come on! How unfair did this seem at the time?

I was born cursed.

“Cursed with what?” I hear you ask.

Well, let me tell you. I was born cursed with the ginger gene! To many of you reading this now, you may feel this is a dramatic over-exaggeration of my hair colour. Some of you may be ‘ginger’ and love it. However, growing up ginger in the 70s was no easy task.

When I say ‘ginger’ I mean ginger. Not ‘Strawberry Blonde’, not ‘sandy,’ but actual ORANGE. On top of this, there were 3 of us. Me, my younger sister and my older brother. All orange!

As kids, we would be out and about with our parents, shopping, on holiday, whatever. Wherever we went we would be stared at. I mean, literally, people would stop and stare at the 3 of us. In today’s context we would be chart-topping superstars as part of ‘The Greatest Showman’ soundtrack; we could all sing!

It wasn’t just the staring either. People would touch us. Touch our hair. Without permission. I’ve heard pregnant women say similar about strangers thinking they have the right to touch the ‘baby belly’; people they don’t know walking up to them and stroking their bump even in this day and age.

A colleague of mine has recently had cancer and lost all of her hair. She said that one of the most uncomfortable and almost distressing parts was when her hair began to grow back and people would stroke her ‘stubble.’ Generally people she knew, but some outside of the family.

I suppose the ‘Curse of Ginger’ could have caused me a lot more trouble. There were not so many gingers about in those days and many of our ‘community’ were bullied for their hair colour. On reflection, the targets of bullying were mainly boys with a ginger chip on their shoulder, so they would attack first in order to defend themselves. This did not usually turn out well.

My brother and I were both quite placid and easy going, so there was no real need for us to be singled out and bullied for our hair colour. I mean yes, there was the usual name calling—‘Duracell,’ ‘Carrot top,’ ‘Ginger nut,’ etc.—but I was never bothered by it. My sister was a totally different character, so nobody in their right mind was going to have a pop at her!

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An observation I have made about the ‘Ginger Curse’ is that, generally, if you are ginger, you hate it; if you are not ginger, you love it and want to be ginger.

Redheads (a polite way to say ‘Ginger’) are apparently the rarest ‘breed’ of the human population with only between 1 and 2 per cent natural gingers. Research has been taking place for years into the ginger gene. In the year 2000 it was discovered that the ‘mutation’ of a particular gene (MC1R/MCIR) causes gingerness and its unique characteristics.

Here we go again! Such negative connotations into the ginger gene—mutation! Come on! What about ‘Transformation,’ ‘Revolution,’ ‘Metamorphosis?’ These are all far more complimentary than ‘Mutation’. As it is, our gingerness causes us to be more sensitive than the rest of the world’s population (scientifically only physically more sensitive, but who knows, it could have an effect on our mental and emotional sensitivity too?)

Over sensitivity to temperature changes is a definite physical symptom I suffer as a ginger. In the winter, one minute I’m fine and within a millisecond I’m shivering like a Chihuahua being forced to walk in the rain. As a ginger, I am more sensitive to pain which is why, if you visit my home, you will find enough painkillers to stock a village pharmacy. During major operations as a child I required 20 per cent more anaesthetic than the kid in the next bed and I was far more susceptible to bleeding out as blood doesn’t clot as quickly. (I remember all these details from the doctors, nurses and surgeons from my weeks at a time in hospital.)

So, ok, I’m ginger! There, I said it. I can deal with that. However, a test of my strength of (sensitive, ginger) character hit hard when I also realised I was gay. Come on! How unfair did this seem at the time? I knew I was definitely not straight when I was 15 but it wasn’t until I began my teaching career in the early 90’s amid Section 28 that I knew I was most definitely gay.

Empowering Art by Nicola Copsey … Check it our

My first true love was a senior teacher (13 years older than me) and we were together for 9 and half years. However, for all of that time, due to Section 28, due to her not wanting to upset her elderly parents, due to her not wanting to attract attention, due to parents of pupils making derogatory comments following rumours around the village where we lived, we behaved outside the home as ‘just good friends’. This most definitely took its toll on our relationship and I ended it, feeling guilty. I left with nothing.

As if this wasn’t/isn’t enough, I have battled a severe anxiety disorder which presents (when unmedicated) in a range of ways: at worst, panic attacks so debilitating I can’t function enough to even get out of bed to take a shower; at best, I have extremely tidy, alphabetically-rearranged, colour-coordinated kitchen cupboards through an attack of OCD.

I am aware of an addictive personality which is not always a negative attribute (alcohol, food, self-harm), it can also have positive influences on my life. For example, during the recent lockdown, my obsession has been with maths! For me, this has been fabulous because, as a primary-trained, non-specialist maths teacher teaching GCSE maths to excluded teenagers, I feel that, at last, I am ahead of the game.

So, the ginger curse could have been much worse for me. I haven’t ever embraced it. I have yearned for my hair to turn naturally grey for years but it’s as stubborn as I am. I am currently rocking my natural colour, which is certainly less orange than it was when I was a child, and there are definite sprinkles of grey in there, so things are looking good.

In the grand scheme of things, I am in good health, have an amazing career and a loving, generous, kind partner. Curse of Ginger? I’ve got this.

Janine was born in Leeds in 1970 to working-class parents, the middle of 3 children. She graduated from Teacher Training College in Lincoln in 1993 and has taught in Norfolk and Suffolk ever since. janinenorris70@wordpress.com

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Postcards From Lesbainia: The Gender Dance-Off

Gender, Hayley Sherman, Lesbian, Non-Binary

By Hayley Sherman

“Had I been growing up now, ‘non-binary’ may have been a shoe that fit, but as I skidded through my teens in the nineties, gender was as fixed as the colour of your skin; you could change it no more than you could change the weather or Sporty Spice’s insistence that she was straight.”

When I was about eleven, I won a £5 Co-op voucher in a dancing competition in an old people’s home. I have no idea why I was there on my own, but it was a cake stall and tombola kind of day, and there were maybe five of us kids bopping to ‘When Will I Be Famous?’ by Bros in a threadbare-carpet clearing, watched by flossy-haired old dears – me in my shorts, Rowdy Roddy Piper T-shirt and floppy, mousey, boyish curtains. I don’t know if I even knew it was a competition until the music stopped and a middle-aged woman in a flowery number gave out the prizes.

“And in second place … (pause for tension) … this handsome young fella here.”

I looked around, and when I turned back, she was coming at me, lips first, and planted a smacker on my cheek. Me? A handsome young fella? But …

“Give him a round of applause,” she told the dusty crowds, and I blushed as the place erupted into creaky applause.

As she moved onto the winner, I was left gripping my voucher, not only wondering if the Co-op sold anything other than frozen chips and fish fingers (which was what I was usually sent there to get), but if I should correct her. I’m a girl! You kissed a girl! But at the same time there was something too delicious about it. I’d wanted to be a boy my entire life, and in that moment, I was. It wasn’t like at school, where kids I’d known since I was five would laugh and ask, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ in high-pitched voices. This was actually passing. Eighties disco-boy realness! It didn’t stop me running to spend my voucher before anyone found out and took it away, though.

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I joke now that I was a little boy until I was about twenty, when I became a woman. There was never a girl phase. I still wonder if the girls in my school had secret makeup, hair and giggling classes that I was excluded from. Without these classes (which I assume also taught appropriate walking, talking and breast management) the transition into womanhood wasn’t particularly easy, but what other option was there? I couldn’t remain the muddy, tree-climbing scamp that I had been as a child, and the secret ‘man classes’ at school also went on behind my back. I wasn’t particularly butch anyway; I was just other.

I occasionally tried to go undercover with women, drawing on my face and limping along in high heels, but I was always sprung, and I’m not a natural conformist, so more often than not, I would just do me, which thankfully always landed me good friends: initially menfolk who didn’t easily fit the man-mould and then other lesbians when I finally worked out where to find them. 

Had I been growing up now, ‘non-binary’ might have been a shoe that fit, but as I skidded through my teens in the nineties, gender was as fixed as the colour of your skin; you could change it no more than you could change the weather or Sporty Spice’s insistence that she was straight. And, to be honest, wrapping my brain around being gay was hard enough; not viewing myself as a proper woman was something that would occasionally make me feel shit, but it wasn’t the centre of my world.

Checkout artwork by Nicola Copsey

Now, many years later, I’m glad that the wonderful term ‘non-binary’ was unavailable to me, although I see that it fits some people, because I feel like I’ve won a hard-fought battle over the years to pocket the term ‘woman’ on my own terms, to wrangle and panel-beat it into something more comfortable. And the gender revolution has provided something that feels so much more useful to me than a new term; it’s given me representations of women that I can relate to … on TV, online, in the street, in movies; they’re everywhere, and seeing myself represented – seeing us all represented – is validating. As a younger woman I had such a fixed idea of what a woman should be – everything I wasn’t. Turns out it was my definition of the word ‘woman’ that was faulty, not me; my position on the vast sliding scale of femininity does not determine my success or even my qualification as a woman. We come in all shapes, sizes and flavours, all just as delicious as each other.

Hayley Sherman is a writer, ghostwriter, blogger and editor who just wants everyone to be nice to each other. Her blog smiles in the face of adversity, licks the cheek of the oppressor and generally reflects on her denial about being a middle-aged lesbian. hayleyshermanwriter.com.

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Who Am I, What is My Purpose? Art by Nicola Copsey

Art, Lesbian, Mental Health

It was my attempt to express all the elements of autistic sensory overload, for example light, sound and vision, to people on or off the spectrum, as many people have no idea what living with this aspect of life is like.

My name is Nicola Copsey and I am a forty-six years old artist. I was diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism/Asperger’s in 2014, following a lifetime of mental health struggles with depression and acute anxiety.

An example of my literal thinking is when I was asked if I would feature on this blog, a question that was posed to me was, “Where do you do your best thinking?” I responded, “In my head of course!” 

I have always gravitated towards technical drawing throughout school and college as I struggled with the freedom of expression in other forms of art. I never considered myself to be an artist because of this, although people said I was talented. Due to this, I have no recollection of what I class as my first creative piece of artwork. What I do remember at seven years old was attaching some of my “creative images” to a wire clothes-airer and then charging 50p to my relatives to view them.  My mum has subsequently told me “They weren’t that great!”.

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time on my own because of my conditions. This has given me the opportunity to reflect on all aspects of life. There is not one specific influence/artist that I can attribute my style towards as it’s a conglomeration of all that I’ve absorbed throughout my life.

Who am I? A visual typographical representation of the one question I constantly ask myself

After my diagnosis, I started to try and portray elements of autism and mental health in a visual way for other people on or off the spectrum to relate to and help them understand some of my struggles.

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Many of the pieces I have created are a visual representation of the struggles I have experienced within myself and continue to live with. Because of my technical background and the constraints within my autism, I have a tendency to use monochromatic colour within my pieces whilst experimenting with different art mediums. Therefore, each piece has its own individual style in the way it portrays its meaning.

I was asked, “how does being gay impact your work?”
Coming to terms with my sexuality has been another enormous mental challenge that I have and continue to deal with in addition to everything else.  It has not been overtly influential in my imagery to date but is an aspect within them. For example, my first piece was hand-drawn in pencil, ‘Who am I, what is my purpose?’ It is a visual typographical representation of the one question I constantly ask myself.

Fragmentation – Losing Control. Mental order falling into chaos.

The second image I have chosen is “Fragmentation – Losing Control” hand drawn with black pen (and a ruler for the squares!) When we are naked, we are at our most vulnerable, as portrayed by the woman falling through the black and white squares. These squares represent mental order falling into chaos with the body moving through them.

My third choice “Unclear” began with me doodling with a blue Biro. The scribblings created shading, and this developed into the final piece. It visualises the intense struggle of conflict in my head. This process of creation was unique to me, as most of my pieces are far more structured from concept to completion.

Unclear: The intense struggle of conflict in my head.

“Internal Dialogue” was my fourth choice. It is a handwritten typographical picture. There are two elements to this piece: the first is the concentric layers in a skull shape, the text representing the thoughts that swirl around in my head like a whirlpool, consuming me from the inside out.  When the image is enlarged enough you can clearly see that the second element, the whirlpool of text, is actually a multitude of quotes and thoughts that I have experienced throughout my lifetime.

Internal Dialogue: Thoughts that swirl around my head.

The final piece is a photographic montage called “Sensory Overload”. It was my attempt to express all the elements of autistic sensory overload, for example light, sound and vision, to people on or off the spectrum. As many people have no idea what living with this aspect of life is like.

Sensory Overload: Photographic Montage

I hope that by opening up to people through this blog, it will help others with their personal battles throughout life.

All artwork © Nicola Copsey 2020

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An Afternoon in Primark Changed My Life: Joni’s Story

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Confessions of a Lesbian cliché

“Growing up (sort of) has taught me that mates are mates, gay or straight, and that being an unbearable arsehole will leave you alone very quickly.” … Read More