When I was just four, one of the littlest pupils of Miss Perry’s dancing school in South Norwood, I took part in a show. I was supposed to be a chick, dressed in a yellow satin costume with a cute little peaked cap (I still have the photo). At the right moment I should have burst out of the egg, a hoop covered with tissue paper, ripping the paper with my little wooden spoon. Unfortunately it didn’t tear and a large grown-up hand had to smash through it for me, whereupon I stepped through the hoop with great delight and called out, “Oh look, there’s my daddy.” I don’t remember saying that. What I remember most clearly is being fascinated by a large basket of fruit on a table in the centre of the audience – presumably a raffle prize. My memory has been aided by a piece from the local paper about the show: clearly the journalist enjoyed my debut as much as I did.
Although I can’t say that all my comings-out – of whatever kind – have been as well received as that one, coming out in the widest sense seems to be a theme right now. As well as literally coming out after being confined at home for weeks with a bad back, I seem to have been emerging in other ways too. I’ve been sending work off to magazines and competitions – no luck so far – and to my amazement have been writing several poems a week, thanks to the wonderful online poetry group that I’m part of. If I’m not careful the group could become a full-time occupation. Some of the poems people post are amazingly beautiful and many more are amazingly honest, taking the most raw and difficult experiences as material for poetry that’s eloquent and heartfelt. It’s enabled me to make poems about things I never thought I’d share on paper and to feel part of a community of creative, generous, witty, insightful people, some of whom already seem like friends, even the ones I don’t know in real life. The great thing about writing for the group – and writing poetry generally – is that no-one bothers about whether their work is commercial: people are just themselves in all their quirkiness and individuality, which invites others to be themselves too. Of course they want their poems to be published, and many have had poems published, but there’s a great freedom in not writing with one eye towards the market.
Having said that, I realise a novel is a very different animal from a poem or a collection of poems. It has to tell a story, oh dear yes, as E M Forster said, and it has to draw the reader in. Although I don’t write novels solely in order to be published, being published does matter and that means doing all I possibly can not only to make the novel better but also to make it more engaging for the reader. The one I’m writing at the moment has some rather dark themes and I will have to be careful it isn’t so grim and gloomy that it simply puts people off. In that sense I do need to think about the market in a way that I wouldn’t if I were writing a poem, which could be as grim as it liked. It also means stepping back and seeing the book as a whole – seeing it as though I were reading it and not writing it, which of course is necessary with a poem too. I’ve got to a point with the first novel now where I could imagine myself as a reader actually wanting to read it, though I’m not sure I’ve moved away completely from my infatuation with it as the writer. Whether I have or not, I’m about to submit both novels to a publisher who is having an open submissions month and have entered the new one for yet another competition, shelling out more money in pursuit of the dream. There’s persistence for you, and the continuing hope that this time someone at last might want to read what I write. At least the publisher isn’t asking for a fee: competitions come expensive, if you enter a lot of them.
This far from the first time that I’ve written about coming out with my work. Perhaps what’s different now is that more of me seems to be coming out with it. I’ve been feeling a bit like a champagne bottle that’s just had its cork popped, which is how I often felt on the MA course. Not all the time, though. It was strange to go back to Bath Spa University just a week or two ago to hear Tessa Hadley’s inaugural lecture as professor – in fact a beautiful short story. The event was held at the university’s main campus, not at lovely Corsham Court where we studied for the MA, but nevertheless it was good to be breathing that inspired atmosphere again. I didn’t feel so much like coming out there, with so many fellow-students around who had already published books or were about to do so. “Well, no, I haven’t actually got anywhere yet. Oh yes, I’m still writing. No, I’m not going to give up,” I managed to avoid saying, and pushed the cork firmly back in. However, it’s soon popped out again as I unrepentantly continue to post poems in the group and make comments, appropriate or not, on other people’s work.
When I say that more of me is coming out, more seems to be emerging into the public domain. For the poetry group I’ve written Jewish poems, a Buddhist poem and a therapist poem – all aspects of myself and my background, none of them unknown to people who know me and all of them in some way woven into the fiction I write. I’ve admired other people’s courageous poems about their own backgrounds and families, and applauded those who have come out more directly about themselves. I’ve been reluctant to do that – though again these things have been part of my fiction and on the whole are not hidden from the people I know. When I posted a piece not long ago about gay conversion therapy I said very little about myself. I did refer to ‘those of us who find ourselves elsewhere on the sexuality spectrum than at 100% heterosexual’ but deliberately left it at that. However, the urge to come out more fully on this blog hasn’t gone away.
If asked, I’ve usually chosen to define myself as bisexual, though over they years I’ve fallen in love with more women than men. I have been and still am attracted to men, but when I fell in love again recently it became very clear that I’m more attracted to women and that probably isn’t going to change. When I’ve told people about the experience I’ve tended to fudge it by saying ‘the person’ and ‘they’ (dead giveaways in themselves), but then I’ve thought, “What the hell? The sky isn’t going to fall in if they know.” If anyone couldn’t deal with it, they probably wouldn’t be the kind of person I’d want as a friend. I think my carefulness says more about my own lack of acceptance, which after all these years of therapy has rather surprised me. I still cringe a bit at the thought of defining myself as ‘a lesbian’, especially with that stigmatising ‘a’. If I use the term, about myself or anyone else, I prefer it to be an adjective rather than a noun: that way it doesn’t label the person as a whole. In the same way I wouldn’t want to define someone as ‘an epileptic’ or ‘a schizophrenic’. ‘Gay’ still seems to me easier and more manageable, though, perhaps because it doesn’t have to be gender-specific.
One of my concerns about coming out on this blog is not only that I’m making my sexuality public – though this isn’t very public. The blog only has about 50 followers, whereas the poetry group has over 500 members. It’s also that if I do so people may start to pigeonhole me as a ‘lesbian writer’ rather than simply a writer. I do write about lesbian relationships in my novels, among other relationships, but I would like to think that the novels are about more than sexuality. I’m glad Sarah Waters wrote Tipping the Velvet as an explicitly lesbian novel but I’m also glad some of her later books include other themes and relationships – and that her work is popular with the public at large. Although Alan Hollinghurst writes about relationships between men, he too isn’t seen simply as a ‘gay novelist’, perhaps because the quality of his books takes them out of that niche. While I’m obviously not comparing my novels with theirs, I would also want mine to be read by people who could see past the label.
So there we are. I’ve said it and I’ve yet to see whether the sky will fall in. And I’m continuing to enjoy coming out, as a human being, in all the ways I’ve mentioned above.