CW: Sexual Assault, mental illness, suicide
Like many people out there, the recent ‘Me Too’ campaign on social media that was started by actor Alyssa Milano*(I stand corrected it was started by Tarana Burke, ten years ago, see link below) has had quite an impact on me. I understand that the ‘Me Too’ campaign (in it’s current form) originally had a focus on showing up men’s abuse of social, cultural and institutional power, but reading all the ‘Me Too’ posts and subsequent responses, it has had quite an impact on me. It was not only that campaign, it is also the current Australian plebiscite around Same Sex Marriage and the upcoming local pride festival ‘Springout’ combining to make me feel a huge growing, internal emotional pressure. Hopefully, sharing my story, or part of my story, will be like lancing a boil and I will feel much better for it. (As I come back to edit this before posting to my blog, I already feel much better).
Recently I have been reading Clementine Ford’s book ‘Fight Like a Girl’, and reflecting on how different my experiences with men are to hers. There’s clearly also generational differences as I am probably around 20 years older than her. I can understand why so many younger women particularly, see her as a hero. She clearly, and in plain language explains why women are treated as second class citizens and how pervasive rape culture and misogyny is. She reaches a huge audience.
As I write this blog and reflect on my past, I use language that expresses my gender and sexuality as it was at the time of the events occurring. It is not reflective of where I am now.
When I was growing up and was a young woman I didn’t experience the amount of sexual harassment that my peers did. I was however conditioned in that I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t experience this ‘attention’. I am glad now I didn’t, but the impact of the conditioning has been life-long. Through my teens and early 20s I saw myself as invisible and not a highly desirable woman (like the rest of my friends). This is probably connected to my undiscovered queerness. When it came to my friend’s boyfriends, I was always the last one to meet them. My friends were quietly scared of the ‘judgement’ I would pass on their boyfriends. I was always the one to point out that he was ‘a dickhead’ and ‘you can do better’. This was often not in words but in my lack of verbal response when asked what I ‘thought of him’, but passing by me was a litmus test. If Megan liked him, he was a good bloke (there were very few ‘good blokes’).
Thinking about it, the reason I didn’t notice how obnoxious some men can be, was because I was a combination of oblivious of them and scary to them. I didn’t notice their attentions if they had an interest in me, and yet at the same time if I was interested I could be way to direct for a ‘nice’ girl in the mid-1980s.
Step forward around 20 years and I have ‘come out’ as same sex attracted. It was great, I was having a ball. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was enjoying life. I had found my people. In a fairly short period of time I had rocketed forth from being a shy wall flower, to someone who was well and truly centre of attention. Right in the middle, front and centre of the local lesbian community. I had had many years work experience and training in community development and education and I used these skills in the community to ‘help’ to bring it together. I ran a course for seven years, as a volunteer with a local organisation, which was focussed on helping women who were coming out and/or questioning their sexuality. I also ran a social coffee group for women and I did numerous other things. I was also a local celebrity, in that I was a drag king performer and had begun performing with a group of kings, after they had come along to a workshop I had organised. Everyone knew me, and I knew everyone.
People told me I was popular, was I? I had no perception of this, or understanding of how front and centre I was at the time. For a few years after I came out everything was lots of fun. Coming out really is like a second adolescence and it does take some years. Much longer than you think it does at the time. I had lots of friends, who wanted to be sociable with me and I was never short of friends to hang out with. My community awarded me several times, with literal awards for my contributions. Who and where I was, was in extreme contrast to where I had been before coming out.
There came a time in there where things turned nasty. It was a few years after coming out. The odd comment from people I met, made me realise that the way people viewed me was very different to who I was – I remember having one conversation with one woman who was calling me the ‘Shane of Canberra’. This being a reference to Shane a character on the popular lesbian soapie, ‘The L Word’. Many lesbians I knew lusted after the Shane character. The character was known for her incredible sexual prowess. This was very far from the truth. Other people thought I was being ‘snobby’ if they saw me and I was not overly friendly. Truth was that I was beginning to become very anxious about the projections being cast on me.
I had met my partner and began identifying as polyamorous. One of the things that continually shocked me and made me feel quite upset, was the closed mindedness of many of the people in the lesbian community. I thought, being a minority, they would be open to other types of minorities, but quite few women I had met, weren’t open at all. There was racism, there was phobias against bisexual women/people, and a lot of transphobia. It was also the point in time where the kink community in Canberra was expanding and interest in this was spilling into the lesbian community. I worked hard at trying to break some of these barriers down and reached out to trans people and bi women and tried to make the work I was doing in the community more inclusive. I hit quite a few barriers and prejudices. Thank goodness this has shifted significantly since then.
In identifying as polyamorous I had had my first ‘other’ girlfriend. It was a relationship that lasted about 6 months. My ‘first’ girlfriend had also had other lovers in this time, before and after. There were many people in the lesbian community that were very judgemental of this. There were also plenty of others that came to my partners and I ‘secretly’. To get advice on how to do relationships ‘differently’ because they weren’t into the who U-Haul thing, which seemed more the norm at the time. This judgement meant that I would go out and must deal with sidelong glances and talking behind my back. It meant getting signalled to ‘leave my girlfriend alone’ from other women. There was a big contrast between the ‘oh so amazing drag king stage persona’ and how I was being treated at other times, it was one extreme to the other. Really, on the inside, I was just trying to make sense of it all. I was still working myself out.
Towards the end of this time, which was about 10 years ago now, I had a year I refer to as the ‘year of the suicides’. One of my very best friends took her life early in the year. I had seen her the day before and she had told me that she loved me. I didn’t realise she was in such a bad place. Time passed, and I had no less than about 3 other friends all very unwell. Statistics for mental illness are much higher for LGBTIQ folk. It’s basically the discrimination we face that makes us more vulnerable to illness. I have lived these statistics and continue to do so.
As I was ‘the one’ trained in ‘working with people’, I was often the one ‘sorting out the mess’ or making that phone call to make sure my friend hadn’t harmed themselves. By the end of that year the impacts of all that had been before me were taking effect. I was living in a bit of a state of panic and kept thinking something bad was going to happen, and when, when do I get a rest and when, does someone look after me. My partner was with me this whole time and these things were impacting her too. I see this as the beginning of my mental illness story. That is another story.
About a year after this, I was on stage performing doing my drag king thing. There was a woman in the audience who was making it very clear that she was interested in me, fucking me with her eyes would be the most accurate description. Later that night she introduced herself to me and was flirting outrageously. With me, people need to be clear they are interested, basically they must tell me, otherwise I revert to the wall flower of my late teens. Something in me tells me I am ‘not worthy’. She was being very clear. I was feeling quite apprehensive and holding back because I had copped so much shit from the community by this stage and I wasn’t sure what she ‘wanted’. At that time my experience had taught me that, many women seemed to see me being polyamorous as an open invitation to simultaneously bully me for my clearly amoral behaviour and hit on me. I had no idea where this woman was at.
She continued to be cute. She friended me on Facebook and liked lots of my pictures and was a flirt. I liked the attention. After not long I arranged to meet her, go on a date, I guess. She was charming and cute and won my attention over. I continued to see her, she told me things like she hadn’t felt like this in a long time and I believed her. She also told me of other annoying women who wouldn’t leave her alone even though she had said she wasn’t interested. She knew I was polyamorous and was keen to find out what this meant asking me questions etc. It continued. She ‘won’ me over. I thought she was cute and kept pursuing her. Yes, in the first instance I was thinking with my loins, what I hadn’t realised is that she had preyed on my low self-esteem. She was saying all the things I wanted to hear and behaving in all the ways of the person I wanted her to be. She was an expert at manipulation and control.
I don’t know when it got nasty, but it did. She had started to manipulate me. She used the way she spoke to me, tone of voice etc, what she said, body language and actions to manipulate, bully and get what she wanted. Going between sweet as pie to cruel. She would do things like invite me over and expect me to stay, and not lend me any of her towels for a shower. She would play music, there was one track ‘Poison’, (Beyoncé, I think). She repeatedly told me the song was about me. That I was poisonous, one minute it would be a good thing and the next minute it would be a bad thing, I was some evil person who had taken over her. She would get on her phone and stalk other women on Facebook while she was with me and laugh and carry on at the interaction she was having with them. The whole time she was also questioning my poly status and pushing that. Expecting me to get jealous of other women. I was never jealous of the other women, but was hurt by her behaviour because the usual poly ‘rules’ were not there. She tried very hard to get me to lie to my partner, which I wouldn’t. She also told me ridiculous (they seem it now, they were real at the time) lies about herself, to excuse her behaviour. This included some story about her having a brain tumour and she could die at any moment and some other story around this which explained her behaviour. She even threatened to harm my cats at one point. I was completely lost. She had gaslighted me and I had no clue what was real and what wasn’t. I know now that she also had many other women going as well and she was playing us off against each other. Divide and conquer.
She had also hurt me a few times. Physically. I wondered in later years if she had caused actual damage. Did I tell anyone, no. Each time she would also do something that made me forgive her, but the overall impact on my psyche was that I was drawn down more and into a confused fog. At some point I knew it wasn’t okay, but I was stuck. I hadn’t felt that I could tell anyone the true extent of what she was doing, because her behaviour was so hard to explain. I covered up for her many times.
There was a night after our relationship had ended where we were standing outside a local bar. She was quite drunk. I ‘consented’ because I was afraid and scared of her. There was no ‘consent’ I was coerced.
The next bits I am going to leave out for the sake of privacy and it’s detail you don’t need.
Sometime after all this, I still hadn’t told many people, I certainly hadn’t gotten help over it. I didn’t know what to do. How could this have happened to me? I worked in helping people, I gave other people support and information on what to do, surely, I should have known. But I didn’t. Because it was abuse. It was gaslighting and bullying from the word go. I had wanted to call local support services but because I was quite well known in the local community services I was worried I wouldn’t be anonymous. I was worried I would turn up at the service and know the staff. I couldn’t even pick up the phone to make the appointment because I was worried about being overheard.
More time passed and eventually I talked to a counsellor about it. By then a lot of time had passed and I was feeling more removed, but knew it remained ‘undealt with’.
In the time between ‘it’ happening and where I am up to in my story, I had also slowly moved away from the LGBTI communities. I had had a thesis to write and cut myself off to do that. This was timely in overall scheme of things because I had to get away from this horrible person and the community that had continued to bully me. I didn’t feel like I had any support there because it felt like, so many people would have ‘blamed’ me and felt that I had it coming or simply not believed me because they had so many problems with my polyamorous status. By the time I emerged from writing my thesis, I had cut myself off well and truly. I tried to reconnect with some people, but everyone was ‘busy’. What happened after this was that I became physically and mentally unwell, which is why I ended up at a counsellor. I went from being the centre of a community and apparently much loved, to forgotten, there was only a couple of people who had time for me.
Did this ‘experience’ affect me?
Yes. Deeply. It affected my relationship, it affected my sexuality and desire. It affects my relationships now. Every year since then I have feared the Reclaim the Night Rallies, something I used to be heavily involved in, even organised, because for a few years I was worried ‘she’ would be there. I have been fearful of LGBTIQ events, especially ones with lots of women, because of the trauma of what happened and because of the way the community I loved had not only forgotten about me but turned on me telling me I was ‘wrong’.
This brings me to the present. It’s time to tell my story. The current plebiscite has had a big impact on me. I now identify as pansexual, polyamorous and non-binary (among other labels) I was feeling very invisible and struggling with gender before the plebiscite. Not that I have a problem with my gender, I have no problems with any aspects of who I am. This combined with a few other factors makes me feel very invisible and like my voice no longer matters. So, when the plebiscite debate started to happen I had absolutely no spoons to deal with it. Me. The person who was once such a strong advocate, who did so much for my LGBTIQ communities. I had to try and hide from it all and let others do the talking. This inability to speak makes me feel even more powerless.
So, the plebiscite has been happening and that is hard. That and a shitty year in general. Then the ‘Me Too’ campaign hits. After a few interactions on social media about the ‘Me Too’ I became very triggered, because it’s all my horrible triggers or hard things, or worlds colliding. At first, I didn’t want to say, ‘Me Too’ because I felt like a fraud, because I was, in the main, talking about a woman and the campaign is about men, so where was/is my voice in all this?
Then there’s the up-coming pride festival. This year after many years I am going to go to one event, the women’s event. It is momentous for me. More than what most people know or understand.
I haven’t spoken about some of these things to anyone, but they need to be said because I can feel their deep impacts on me. I also hope that by telling my truth it might resonate with others and they might get help or talk to someone.
*I stand corrected. #Me Too was not started by Alyssa Milano, it was first used by Tarana Burke.
‘Fight Like a Girl’
one of a zillion articles on the Same Sex Marriage debate in Australia