In the interest of privacy, names have been changed.
For a while now I’ve had this project in mind to try to define what it’s like to live as a young gay person in Europe. After a tumultuous summer and a chaotic autumn, I’ve finally found some time and clarity to get over the notes of the testimonies I gathered. Eight people have agreed to put their trust in my hands and have opened themselves to me. Living in France, England, Spain, Germany and Hungary, they’ve accepted to answer a set of questions related to their coming-out, their approach towards sex, their acceptance regarding themselves. At first I had hoped to get both men and women to share their stories, but it quickly turned out to be mainly women, having less contacts within the gay men community. Yet, I wish this survey to be representative of the whole of the gay community, for gay rights cannot, in any circumstances, be divided between lesbians and gay men.
In a time where gay rights are put on the front line more and more all over Europe, I am hoping this modest project will answer some of the main interrogations people have towards gays, and will show that, despite a fierce radical opposition, we, straight or gay, all carry similar claims and desires to live under the same human rights, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender.
“Since I’m a child”; “I think I’ve always been gay”; “8 or 10, maybe even earlier than that”. First thing I noticed when I re-read the testimonies of these women, is that similar moment when they’ve come to realise they were more attracted to women than men. With retrospective thinking, some of them even recognised to already bear a tendency in their very early childhood. By talking to them, I indeed quickly realised they had that one thing in common: they all became aware of their sexuality at a very early stage in life, probably much earlier than most straight people. Forget the so-called choice theory, then (unless you think a child can decide what gender to love). “This isn’t something we choose, it is something we are. Someone is straight for the same reasons I am gay: attraction and desire” says Claire, who wants to emphasize on the fact that it is neither the socio-cultural environment nor genes that determine her attraction, but simply nature.
For some of them, the ‘awakening’ was natural, logical almost. They never thought to fight it, nor to think there was something wrong with them. “My family is really open so I grew up in a very eclectic and tolerant social environment, which obviously helped me to quickly understand who I was, and to put words on it. At 16 I had my first relationship with a girl, which lasted over a year. I really don’t suffer from my sexuality, except within the homophobic perception of people, which I often associate to a lack of culture” says Alice, a young French woman. Yet, by hearing the other women, I can’t help but thinking that this example remains an exception, sadly. For Emily, a British student, the acceptance/coming-out process lasted longer: “it was quite awkward at first. I didn’t really feel comfortable talking to my friends about it at the time, as I was at an all-girls school. I only ended up telling people when I was in college, 5 years later”. For Camille, it was a totally different level: “this whole part was a really difficult moment in my life. It didn’t last very long, 6 months maybe from the time I accepted it to the moment I outed myself, but it was painful. I think I was particularly afraid of what my parents would say, which brought back on the table some delicate moments of my childhood. But in the end, you do it and you realise it was much worse before being out”.
As I keep reading through my notes, one part catches my eyes, especially. As Claire explains it, the acceptance and coming-out parts are deeply interwoven, which seems not to always be acknowledged by young gays and lesbians: “you’ve got the acceptance part, and the coming-out part. Most often people manage to get through both, but sometimes it happens that they can’t push themselves to do the second one. They start to doubt and step back deeper in the closet, thinking they’ll be safer, unconsciously sacrificing their own happiness. But both parts go hand-in-hand together. You cannot fully accept who you are until you are actually out”. As I understand, coming-out is not ‘simply’ saying to some friends that you’re gay. It implies a much more global approach: at work, in the family, with people you meet. It is somehow a never-ending process that you have to do over and over again every time you meet new people – something straight people can’t imagine its extent – simply because society has been formatted to be heterosexually-driven and led. “Yes, I have to re-do it rather regularly at work but luckily it’s never been a problem to me: as soon as I feel comfortable with a team, if I appreciate them and conversations get friendlier, I talk about it easily and it’s always been well accepted” says Eva from France. “Honestly, it was easier when I didn’t know about it; now I feel that without knowing that I am gay, people don’t know me” admits Zsofia, from Hungary. I nod. It must be somehow exhausting to constantly come out. I suppose you get used to it at some point, so that it becomes almost natural, evident. But how long does it take to reach such level of disregard?
I move on to the next subject; sex. What does it represent to them? Are these stereotypes of one-night-stands and ‘everyone has been out with everyone’s ex’ actually real? “I think it is partly true; but it only populates a tiny percentage of the gay community” says Emily, who points out that she’s not particularly fan of these specific aspects, preferring to get to know the person first. For Eva, it clearly doesn’t go without feelings: “to use big fat words, I’d say it’s quintessential or transcendental or something : it’s all this affection and attraction you hold for that one person and you can’t help but being drawn to her and craving her, so you want more and you want it all ; it gets you closer to the absolute, I guess. As Hemingway puts it, it makes you ‘feel the earth move’ “; “sex is not the most important thing for me, it is something I really can do without” says Flavia from Spain. Wait, where have all the witches and spells, brooms and cauldrons gone? I had imagined something diabolically satanic, that would measure up to the fundamentalist claims. Well, nothing that differentiate them from straight people, to me. Just like anyone, they share the same approaches towards sex. Might be time for extremists to mellow things a bit? Just saying.
And how about dates, then? Is it more difficult for gays and lesbians to find dates than heteros? “Of course it is. When you meet someone you like, the probability/potentiality that this woman is gay as well remains tiny” explains Marine. “Yes, in my opinion it’s much more difficult. There aren’t as many places to meet other gay people, other than in places like LGBT societies or gay bars, which isn’t somewhere I would personally imagine finding the love of my life” recognises Emily. Tricky, indeed. I suppose you often hit on straight girls and get rejected, then. “Well that’s where you’re wrong. More often than you’d think, straight women are open to it. We lesbians may even have more success than a typical ‘lambda’ guy who would behave like a typical lambda guy. To me, it confirms my saying that it has nothing to do with gender but really is about the person per se. It all depends on how you behave with the other; and in this case, lots of women won’t even care whether you have a penis or not, but will be attracted to the way you act towards them”, Alice tells me. That reminds me of a placard I saw during a pro-gay-marriage protest a few weeks ago in Paris, saying the following: ‘The lesbian threat: they will marry your daughters, sisters, wives… and even your dog‘. That sums it all up. Beware of casting the first stone to lesbians though, for I doubt there exists a ‘deviance virus’ that would contaminate straight women at all.
When asking about gay rights, especially with what’s going on in France with the pro and anti protests at the moment, Eva perfectly summed up what the other women said in their testimonies: “I think it’s one of the great civil rights battle of our time. And it’s only fair! To me it’s about equality. I want to be able to get married like my brother, like my friends and family before me, and I deserve the same civil representation for that union. I want to be able to have a family like anyone else; that’s something I want to be able to offer to my partner. And I want this family to be acknowledged as one, I want my children to get the same legal protection as other kids, should anything happen to me or my wife. We just want equality; and that’s about rights, but duties as well – I don’t reckon we’re asking for any special treatment. I really don’t understand straight people who think we’re taking something away from them; our being able to get married and have kids doesn’t affect their marriage or their kids in any way! Why on earth wouldn’t I deserve the right to start a family and raise my children peacefully?” One very inspirational speech, and some food for thought, for sure. I don’t even feel the need to add anything, for it gave us a great lesson of tolerance and love, beyond the borders of an artificially constructed gendered society.
As this survey comes to an end, one last question yet remains. What does it mean ‘being gay’? Does it mean anything, actually? “It implies a lot of questions, which constantly give me the power to get to know myself better. It’s another way of approaching things and people. Accepting and outing myself has impacted my life on many other aspects, and I now feel I am more in harmony with my self”; “it’s being different, a little bit like an outsider looking through a window. Inside, everyone is having a party but outside you can see some things that people inside can never see nor feel”; “liking other women? Not a lot. I don’t really see it as such a big thing. It isn’t what defines me, and I wouldn’t want it to be”; “this question is never asked to straight people because ‘what does being straight mean to you?’ seems just dumb; well it doesn’t make much more sense to me the other way around. Honestly we’re the same, we just don’t sleep with people from the other sex and that’s all!”; “to me, it means taking a route that hasn’t been pre-designed for us. If it were given me the choice between being straight or gay, I wouldn’t change a thing”; “this isn’t a question we should ask ourselves. There will come a day when the notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality will become obsolete. I’m proud of who I am because I am part of an evolution; that’s what’s important”.
An evolution. Maybe that’s the one word we ought to remember. An evolution of culture; of society. An evolution that would lead us to think and act beyond sexuality. An evolution that would shape a heterosexualised-free society. Big words, indeed. Paving the way for this evolution will be one of the great civil rights battle of this time, as Eva put it. But a battle that will last much longer, I believe. “Will I ever be on the same level of equality before the Law as my sister?” asks herself Claire; “honestly? I doubt it will happen in this lifetime”.
The Living Interlace wishes to thank the interviewees for their kind contribution and reliance on this project.