We’re all in the locker room, and I’m not allowed to look at anyone.
We have five minutes to change out of our netball tops and skorts before Biology, and I can’t look left, or right, or even up at all. I am allowed to look at the little patch of floor between Rose and Imogen’s PE bags, and so I study it intensely. My netball skort is too big for me; I am just turned fourteen, and I’m not eating as much as I should, and proper puberty is still a few months away for me. I haven’t got the hang of shaving my legs without cutting myself yet, so I feel like a lanky, hairy, impostor giraffe. I shove myself into my oversized school shirt to hide my training bra (humiliating) and pull on my secretly rolled-up school skirt (humiliating) and swing my rucksack onto my back and, huge sigh of relief, everyone is clothed now. But I still quickly weave myself between the other girls without looking as I leave. If I talk to them I’ll probably embarrass myself, and I want to get a seat at the front of the Biology lab, so that I can talk to Mrs West a bit before the lesson starts, and get noticed when I put my hand up.
The thing about being queer at an all-girls’ school is that you feel like a cuckoo’s egg in a nest full of other, perfectly formed, cisgender heterosexual eggs, and you’re always five seconds away from getting caught. There is a particular kind of platonic intimacy at girls’ schools — spraying each other with far too much deodorant after sport, lying with your head on a girl’s knee while you both revise Spanish vocab half an hour before the test, having your hair deftly but tenderly braided at breaktime. PE teachers would bounce into the changing rooms before swimming, cheerfully assuring any nervous ones that “We’re all girls here!”, thus implying, I suppose, that no-one is attracted to anyone else. If anyone was, they’d be a threat, they’d burst the bubble of safety. Thus if you detect some confusing, illegal-feeling emotions in you, you stamp them down until they sit at the bottom of your stomach and never emerge again. Your second priority is academics, but your first is heterosexuality, or, in any case, an obvious commitment to at least trying it. So, when you’re all changing in the locker room, you don’t look at any of the other girls, who are happily chatting and hugging and laughing with each other, in case you gave anything away, so instead, very heterosexually, you stare at the floor. You’re very grateful for the floor. The floor is beautiful.
We found out in Year Eight that allegedly, one in every ten people is gay or bi, which meant (if the stats added up) three of us per class. Everyone turned into amateur sleuths, making mental lists of incriminating evidence: being slightly too obsessive about your best friend, having hair shorter than your shoulders, being unnervingly friendly to the popular girls, having stubby bitten nails and stepmother’s blessings, not knowing any boys, being bad at makeup, being bad at sport. In Year Nine, we heard horror stories about Rebecca’s older sister, who was a lesbian and had a girlfriend, which meant — *gasp* — they probably touched each other’s boobs. The worst concept in the world. Rebecca would say she used to worry about being gay, too, because you know, it’s in the genes and all, but now she knew she was so into the lead singer of 5 Seconds of Summer that she couldn’t possibly be. Thank goodness.
I tried so hard for so long to mark myself as safe, and perhaps being bi made that slightly easier. The one in ten couldn’t possibly be me. I fancied Jack from Titanic, I fancied Arthur from BBC Merlin, I fancied 2012 Great British Bake Off Finalist James Morton (this one I continue to stand by). I went up and chatted to Year Ten boys at Model UN conferences and smirked proudly whenever they replied to me, as if I’d achieved something. I used to rattle off my list of male crushes like badges I’d won at Girl Guides, proof I wasn’t the one in ten, proof I was innocent.
Soon, it became even more sinister than that. In the early years of secondary school I had a best friend, who I used to follow around all the time because she was friendly and we had all the same classes. We’d go back to hers sometimes and play on the trampoline and design outfits in a cut-and-stick book that she had. Then I found out there were rumours that we were “lesbian together”, and so I cut her off without hesitation. I was ruthless. I scrubbed my record clean until it stung.
Yet bits and pieces dripped through the cracks, and stained me. One time after school, I shared a pack of Cadbury’s animal biscuits with a friend, and she picked out all the elephants for me, and I remember my heart doing a weird shudder. I felt like crying all the way home on the bus. When we later fell out, then made up again, and I heard her laugh, it felt like a tangle of fairy lights lit up in my stomach. I had diary entries where I’d talk about gazing at our form secretary as she read the notices out every morning. Hugs with pretty girls in the year felt like far too much, and I’d tense up without knowing why. I only worked out that these feelings towards women were attraction when I watched X Men First Class and saw Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique (look, everyone’s got to have an awakening some time), but it took a long time connecting the dots, working out that when I thought a girl was ‘cool’, I didn’t really mean cool. I don’t think I even meant cute or pretty or beautiful. I think I meant magnetic. Divine.
So then, all at once, it fell on me; I was the threat. I was the one in ten, the predator, and I could never touch or hug or maybe even look at another girl in case it turned me on. I couldn’t even get a boyfriend, to evade all suspicion, because, like I said, puberty had not really done its work yet, and so I just hid for a while. I’d heard about the boys at the neighbouring school who’d kiss them at drunken parties, or ask them for naked photos, and the idea of somehow taking advantage of girls, as they did, was terrifying. I instead expressed my affection for any crushes in small, sad ways. I permanently altered the way I drew bullet points, from dots into small arrows, in honour of the girl I sat next to in Geography. I became desperately infatuated with the only queer couple in the whole school, two sixth formers who I thought were the coolest people I’d ever seen and made me feel warm even though I barely knew them.
I hate that young queer women are so often made to feel ostracised and predatory by their peers, but I think the reasoning behind it runs deeper than just adolescent homophobia and cruelty. Throughout history, attraction to women has been viewed as an aggressive thing – something that happens to women, rather than with them; something that inherently oppresses them. And so when you discover you are attracted to other women, you so often imagine yourself in that threatening position and class yourself with misogynistic men who catcall women in the street, or follow them around nightclubs, even though that couldn’t be further from the truth. If this same attitude is being perpetuated by your classmates, it can be even more difficult to extricate yourself from this predatory stereotype. It can take the longest time to find that there is joy, rather than shame, in your attraction, and frequently that’s facilitated by those very nurturing, open, joyful queer environments and friendship groups that you were denied in your formative years.
It’s taken me a few years to really work through how all this has affected me. Dating someone in Y12 and 13 who back then presented as a man meant that it all eased off, relatively, and there was solace in looking straight rather than trying to explain bisexuality to my peers. I do think it’s why, after twenty-one years, I still hesitate to ask women out. It’s a lot safer to approach men, to talk about men I like rather than women, to indulge in attraction which can never be read as predatory. There’s a deep-rooted fear that if I were to compliment another woman, or ask a woman out, and have her say no, I’d have been acting like the boys at secondary school, the very ones who have paid me and many others unwanted attention. And I’m still finding things out from that time, like a secret agreement a few people reportedly had, after I rather unfortunately came out in Year 10, that they wouldn’t hug me. So mostly, I just want to give my former self, and every young queer person suffering at the hands of their peers, a massive hug; I wish I could travel back in time, and be there for myself. It really does get better — but it shouldn’t have to. We all deserve the best from the very start.
(Names have been changed)
Artwork by Emily Perkins