“Dyke!”, one single syllable word hissed behind my back as I stood in Aldi debating whether to buy a lettuce. I decided not.
I would like to say that I spun on my heel, looked my accuser up, down, then up again, before withering him with something clever and caustic. I didn’t.
I did what people like me have done in situations like that for generations; nothing. I acted as though I hadn’t heard. In truth I was frozen to the spot. It could only have been for a matter of seconds. Einstein once said “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” I was experiencing a hot stove moment.
When I moved to the other side of the vegetable display the aisle behind me was crowded with couples and families. There was no way to tell who the mystery whisperer was; and had there been, what would I have done? Almost certainly nothing. Been grateful it was nothing worse. That it had been in a crowded supermarket and not a lonely, poorly lit street.
A few weeks ago I heard the phrase “the coming out hokey cokey” for the first time and it was one of the most accurate descriptions of the process I have ever come across. If say, Beyonce, were to announce next week that she identifies as bisexual it’s fair to assume she would only have to say it once. It would be the coming out cry that was heard around the world. For the rest of us every day can bring a new coming out decision. New job? Visit to a new doctor? Kids starting school? Old man talking to you on the bus? Every one is a situation in which you have to decide what information to share and how.
If you are fortunate enough never to have experienced anything similar to my “Aldi incident” then you are likely to be an able bodied, straight, white male of average build. For everyone else you’ve probably had an unimaginative bully spit some obvious slur in your direction at some point in your life. Even if you had the presence of mind, at the time, to ironically commend them on their powers of observation, I think we can agree, it hurt. To a greater or lesser degree, it hurt.
Is it that important though? I didn’t get punched or kicked. No one was waiting outside to assault me. No one even spat in my general direction. I was physically completely unharmed. Walk it off, cowgirl up. I did, I promise you. I choked it down, forced my chin up, pushed my shoulders back a little and shook it off like a brave little lesbian. I didn’t tell a soul what had happened until a week ago. Not even my wife. After all what was there to tell? I hadn’t responded bravely, or wittily, or at all. I didn’t even know which perfectly normal looking husband, son, boyfriend or daddy had made the observation.
A few weeks later Todd Haynes’ film Carol was released on DVD. I was excited. Carol had been one of the first lesbian books I had read in my youth where one or both of the women didn’t end up mad or dead, or both. It didn’t have an unqualified happy ending but it did say that there was a possibility for women like me not to have to live out a life of lonely misery. It said “however lonely you may feel right now, you are not alone”. Not only that but here was a big screen adaptation by a gay director with two A list actors, garnering critical acclaim.
As I stood in Tesco and stretched out my hand to pick up a copy I faltered. Of its own accord my hand swerved away and picked up some nearby thriller, examined the slip case, pretended interest. Suddenly I was the terrified teenager who had bought three or four books and slipped Patricia Highsmith’s Carol into the pile, blushing hotly at the pay-desk, imaging that everyone KNEW.
The overriding emotion I experienced in these situations was shame. Shame that I could back slide so easily. That the closet door seems to swing both ways so readily. How could I be so weak and pathetic when I have been through so much already to get where I am? How was it possible for one word from a total stranger to make me feel like the lonely, queasy, ashamed teenager I thought I’d left behind long ago. I have a WIFE for pity’s sake!
Often people grumpily ask why being gay has to be a “big thing”. Who cares if an actress declares herself lesbian, a sportsman comes out as bisexual? It’s usually followed up with the observation that straight people don’t make announcements about it. That’s a debate for another time; but I would argue that the experience I’ve described here explains just why it is still a “big thing”.
It’s why having an LGBT group within the Constituency Labour Party is so important. For me it’s the reason I joined. The indication that I would be welcomed as a comrade and that our commonality as members of the Labour Party would be stronger than our individual differences. We are stronger fighting together and our broad range of backgrounds makes us stronger still; but we mustn’t forget that the open hand of kindness is just as valuable as the fist of battle.
Oh and after my initial wobble I reminded myself just who I was, put down the thriller and picked up Carol. It’s a beautiful film; you don’t even have to be gay to enjoy it, just a little romantic.