Below is a Guest Post from Marsha Shandur, a Storytelling Coach and Networking Mentor.
Mid-way through telling the story, I looked at Steve, suddenly realised what was coming, and panicked.
I was 30 years old, and in my first queer relationship.
I’d first had an inkling that I might be into girls as well as boys with a small crush on someone in the year below me at school. She looked enough like Rosanna Arquette in Desperately Seeking Susan for me to want to kiss her (though I never did).
At university, I’d gone to bed with a girl. We took our tops off, but when I went to undo her jeans, she said, “Oh…I’ve got my period…” She didn’t go near my pants, and I was FLOODED with relief.
For years, I took that relief to mean I wasn’t really into ladies. I mean, I found tits HOT. I thought about kissing girls a lot. But, because the idea of going below the waist was so utterly terrifying – clearly, I must be straight!
(Years later, I worked out that I had almost the EXACT SAME FEAR RESPONSE the first time my first boyfriend took his trousers off… because new sex things just are a bit scary).
At some point in my twenties, the thought started to creep back in. Maybe I was into ladies as well as men. The only problem? No testing ground.
While I lived in London, with its vibrant gay scene, I just didn’t hang where the lesbians were. I was a radio DJ and TV music supervisor, who was deeply embedded in the London new music scene. And there just weren’t any other gay single ladies in it with me. None!
Ok, not none. There was one.
And eventually, she and I started dating.
We’d been friends for a year first. She managed a band that I loved and used to play on the radio – and whose songs I put in the TV shows I worked on. Integrity was EVERYTHING to me – as a female DJ, everyone assumed I only liked bands whose singers I was desperate to bang – so, for a long time, nothing happened between her and I.
Then it did, and it was glorious. We fell wildly in love – and spent almost all day every day telling each other exactly how smitten we were.
But there were problematic side-effects I’d never expected.
By then, I’d known that being in a relationship with a woman would be on the cards for me at some point. And I was excited about it. Partly because, well, it just is exciting (Women! They’re so soft! They have boobs! i LOVE boobs!).
But I was also excited for – and I now hear how this sounds, so please forgive my idiot only-just-left-her-twenties, newly-officially-queer self back then – the kudos I would get. I mean, what’s the point of being queer if nobody knows you are! And if you’ve never had a relationship with a person of the same sex, are you still queer? This was my chance to break free from being Schrodinger’s Lesbian!
When it came to other people, I just thought that they would think I was a bit cooler and more open-minded than they were – or, if they themselves were queer, part of the club.
(there is a club, right…?)
But things weren’t the way I’d imagined. For reasons I totally didn’t expect.
Back to my conversation with Steve:
He and I had known each other for over a decade. We’d done student radio together back in the day at neighbouring universities. We were never wildly close, but really liked each other and kept in touch. When I began working at the radio station and he at a record label, we would meet for occasional coffees.
The story I was telling him was about a Maximo Park gig I’d been to with my girlfriend the week before. As the story went on, I suddenly realised I was coming to the part where I’d have to say, “my girlfriend,” and I panicked. Bear in mind that, in the UK, “girlfriend” only ever means “lover” (that Prince song really confused us). I felt like the words were a train coming down the track towards me, and I was staring them down. Just as they were about to arrive, I paused, and said,
I’d jumped out of the way. I’d totally chickened out. And here’s the surprising reason why:
It wasn’t because I was worried about homophobia. The media industry in London isn’t exactly wanting for queer people. It was because I couldn’t handle what would happen next.
I knew that, when I said, “my girlfriend,” he would immediately stop listening to my story, and delve into his own internal monologue:
“Hang on – she’s gay? Is she a lesbian? I thought she was straight! Didn’t she go out with that Neil guy at university? Oh, I guess she did have short hair for a REALLY long time, so it makes sense. I wonder if she’s now, like, a ‘full-on’ lesbian*. Oh god, did I say anything homophobic?’
*(a lovely construct that straight people – including me, before this girlfriend – think exists, that clearly isn’t actually a thing)
I knew that this would happen because it’s exactly what always happened to me. The month before, a guy I knew from work had said within a story, “my boyfriend”, and I immediately stopped listening and thought, ‘Huh! He is into dance music and a snappy dresser’. Again – I’m not super-proud of this. But it’s what my little pre-queer, pre-activist brain defaulted to.
While there are absolutely damaging homophobic undertones to these kind of stereotypes (“short hair”; “snappy dresser”), they are often thought by people who would never consider themselves to be homophobic. At the time, I thought that this made it ok for me to avoid the issue.
Back then, I justified dodging the “my girlfriend” train to myself on the grounds that, when I tell a story, I want people to think, “That’s funny” or “That’s a co-incidence” or even, “That’s boring” – not “Oh yes, she DOES drink a lot of herbal tea”.
But that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason was that I couldn’t handle the awkward moment that they would feel and I would feel. I was being a coward. And being even more of one for not admitting that to myself.
It’s four years later, and I’m standing in the back of a grimy music venue with two friends, who I’ve known for years but not that well. We’ve all come to see Maximo Park play live. I was now living in Toronto, and had arranged a work trip back to London so that I could make the show.
I’d moved to Canada to be with a guy – also queer – who had introduced me to Dan Savage. Dan writes a column called Savage Love, that has sex-positive sex, love and romance advice. Reading the column – and listening to his podcast, The Savage Lovecast – was staggeringly eye-opening for me. In part, it made me realise how small my world is; I’d always felt like the kinky weirdo among my friends, but Dan was normalising fetishes and practises that made me feel utterly vanilla. In doing that, he validated a lot of my ‘unpopular’ thoughts and beliefs around sex. Finally, I wasn’t alone.
He also educated me on a lot of things to do with queer rights. One of those was the importance of being out when you’re bisexual, especially if you’re currently in a heterosexual relationship. This is how we squash bi-invisibility.
Back to the gig: I’m telling these two friends the same story. Again, I see the “my [now, ex-] girlfriend” train coming towards me down the tracks. This time, I square my shoulders and stand firm.
In fact, what I actually did was imagine jumping outside of myself for a moment. I’d press my lips together and, in turn, look each of them deep in the eyes.
“Guys,” I’d say. “I’m about to use the words, ‘My girlfriend’.
“Now, I know it’s going to be weird for you. I know you’re going to have a second where you think, ‘Hang on… didn’t she move to Toronto to be with a man? Does this mean she’s a lesbian? Oh, probably not a lesbian. Probably bisexual. Huh! All these years and I never knew she was bisexual! Oh, she’s acting like totally not a big deal. Maybe that means it is. Ok, look normal, face. Look normal. Uhhh-huh?’.
“And,” I’d continue, “Guys, it will be weird for a second. But,” and here, I imagine putting one reassuring hand on each of their outside shoulders, “It’s gonna be okay! We’ll get through this together!”
In real life, I got to the part of the story, “So, my then-girlfriend comes out of the room,” – and there, I sense it. A little ‘ngh!’ of tension in their bodies.
I push through, feeling awkward inside, but making my face and body act like this is the most normal thing in the world. Which, of course, it is. In teaching networking and storytelling, I’ve learned that people will always follow your physical cues; so if you pretend you’re comfortable, they’ll believe that you are, and think that they should be too.
The moment passes. Very soon, it’s like it never happened.
‘Well,’ I think. ‘That wasn’t so bad.’
Five years later, I continue to have those moments. As many as I possibly can. In Toronto, I have one foot in Activist Queer World, but the other very firmly in Straightworld. I attempt to normalise bisexuality whenever I get the chance, to try and dampen the subconscious homophobia of “othering”, and make more people are aware that we do actually exist.
And you know what? These days, the “my girlfriend” train just breezes right through me.
Marsha shows creatives and entrepreneurs how to be unforgettable, through telling their compelling stories and doing networking that’s actually FUN. This helps them make instant emotional connections with their dream future clients and collaborators – who are then begging to work with them.
She has been featured at World Domination Summit, Camp Good Life Project, on the BBC, Forbes, The Guardian, The Muse and Art of Charm. Transform the way you think about storytelling and networking – and see Marsha in a variety of wigs – at YesYesMarsha.com.
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