Post-Pride, three queer people discuss the difficulty of dating in secret, and how same-sex relationships are still not as accepted as we might think.
Imagine all the pain of a breakup; the tears, the anguish, the needing to talk about it over and over again until it sounds more like someone else’s story than your own. Now imagine being unable to tell the people closest to you about it: your parents, your friends at work, or even your best mate.
This is exactly what happened to Isabella when she broke up with her girlfriend last year. A few years ago, Isabella, now 21, had moved to London from Australia, and she only knew one person in the city, the daughter of a friend of her mum’s. Isabella and the daughter, let’s call her Hannah, began a gay relationship that would last two years, Isabella’s first. She’d known that she was gay since she was about 15, but she’d often heard her mum making extremely homophobic comments. "I think it was just her age to be honest," says Isabella over the phone. "She grew up in a time when it wasn’t okay to be gay, so while she can handle other people being LGBTQ+, when it comes to her own children, it’s different."
Isabella kept the relationship from her mother, meaning she was in a constant state of anxiety about the wrong thing being posted on social media. And when Hannah eventually cheated on her and they split up, she not only had to hide it from her mum, but endure questions like: 'How’s Hannah doing? You two are still friends right?'
"People encouraged me to do it a few times, to come out to my mum – they’d say, 'I’m sure she’ll be okay with it, she loves you'. I know it sounds bad but it was annoying. When you’re not ready, you’re not ready. And I did get very close to telling her, but then Hannah cheated on me."
Isabella’s story about dating 'in the closet' isn’t an irregular one. In fact, I went through it myself before coming out at 19, and while it was a relief, like ripping a plaster off, gaining my family’s full acceptance was a slow process of attrition over several years. In the interim, I’ve had long-term relationships with people who are not out to their families for religious reasons, and it’s put an added pressure on our relationship. There’s the one-sided expectation for them to come to my family events, which just remind them that their own family might not be so accepting; then there are the secrets, the lies and the hiding, as well as my guilt knowing that, when we broke up, they couldn’t talk to their loved ones about it. These are just some of the issues that come with the territory.
John*, a 33-year-old man from Stirling in Scotland, is bisexual, but although he’s known for eight or nine years, he’s never found the words to tell his parents (and his dad has since passed away). To make matters more complicated, John is married to a woman and their relationship is polyamorous. His mum might be accepting of these facts about his personal life, he says, but some people at work definitely wouldn’t. In fact, as a straight-presenting queer man, he’s been privy to a lot of homophobic comments from his coworkers.
I’m in Scotland; in certain age groups the world can be very small, I always have to weigh up the risk of who is going to know certain people that I know, or see me out.
"These are things they would never say to a gay person," he explains. "One of my colleagues made a homophobic joke about one of my other colleagues who is out, expecting I would laugh at it. In my head I was calculating what to do – it’s difficult to present yourself as a straight ally in that situation, because if I objected people would wonder why. I usually just change the subject."
John says that his reluctance to tell his mum might be something to do with internalised homophobia, but his reticence to come out at work is definitely to do with the environment. The impact is that he can never date in the town where he works for fear of being spotted. "I’m in Scotland; in certain age groups the world can be very small, I always have to weigh up the risk of who is going to know certain people that I know, or see me out," says John. "The safest place to date is through apps: a straight man from my work isn’t going to see me on a gay dating app unless they’re gay themselves, and if they are, they’re unlikely to out me."
John believes his experience indicates that we haven't come as far as we think in terms of LGBTQ+ rights. "In the town I’m talking about we’re only getting to the idea that gay is okay to begin with, but bisexuality is a whole different thing. They'd think you were gay and trying to cover it up. In my experience it’s more acceptable for women to be bisexual, but for the wrong reasons, because it has the male gaze attached to it. We’re a lot further along than we were 10 years ago, but it’s still at a level of mainstream tolerance, not mainstream acceptance."
Michael, who identifies as gay or queer, is 23 and also from Scotland, points out that some regions of the UK can be more conservative than others. He didn’t personally feel comfortable dating other men until he moved to London last year. Before that, at Edinburgh University, he had only tried a few hookups over Grindr, which he usually found intimidating. In London, where he met likeminded people with whom he could be himself, he was able to forge his first short relationship: "I think I would have been ready to do that earlier if I felt able to come out to my dad at, like, 15; I would have started dating sooner. Not coming out kind of set me back."
Despite knowing he was gay since he was 7 or 8, as a teenager Michael struggled to come to terms with this reality. "The gay population in the town I grew up in was so small and the gay men I saw weren’t a reflection of what I felt like – they were very flamboyant and loud," he says, adding that he is the opposite. "So because I had no one there to identify with, I never got round to coming out. I went through school having relationships with women. When I was 8 my mother died, and my dad came to look after us but worked a lot, so we never established a close bond. There was my last grandmother, but she died when I was 15."
Without anyone he felt he could talk to about it, Michael decided that forcing himself to marry a woman would be easier than ever living openly as a gay man. This perspective shifted slightly when his sister came out as being in a relationship with a woman – and his conservative dad took it surprisingly well. But the prospect didn’t make telling his dad any less daunting; if anything, he thought his dad might find it doubly hard learning that two of his kids were queer.
I think there’s this notion that it’s easy in this liberal modern age to be happy with who you are and come out and it not be a big deal.
"My sister makes people more confused about why I haven’t done it yet," Michael explains. "I guess I’m warming up to it. I think if he asked me I’d be able to have a conversation about it. But I don’t think I’ll do it myself until I’m in a relationship with someone. All I have right now is seedy hookups, guys I’ve met once or twice, or people on Tinder. I guess I don’t have a reason to."
While Michael waits for the right reason to come along (and it shouldn’t take long – he describes himself as a "serial dater" now, which he attributes to making up for lost time), he reminds us that there’s not one typical coming out story. "I think there’s this notion that it’s easy in this liberal modern age to be happy with who you are and come out and it not be a big deal. I appreciate that but I think the fear of coming out itself is a difficult one for a lot of people and so personal that you can’t expect people to all do it in the same way," he says. "But it doesn’t have to be showy, and you can do it when you’re 25 or 35, not 15. Waiting also doesn’t have to mean you’re not happy: I’m incredibly happy whether or not I’m out to my dad, and I’m incredibly proud of my sexuality."
For Isabella, six months after her breakup with Hannah, it felt like the right time to come out to her mum. "I got sick of lying, so I wrote her a message on Facebook. I couldn’t send it so I got my friend to press send. It took seven hours for her to reply and I was having a panic attack for most of those hours. She said she had a feeling. She said she still loved me. But I found out later that she had said some not very nice things to family members."
As Isabella’s mum hopefully comes to terms with her daughter’s sexuality, Isabella has found community support with other LGBTQ+ people on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr, by going to marches for LGBTQ+ rights, and to concerts of LGBTQ+ artists where she’s met people who understand her experience. But for those who have yet to come out to their parents, friends or coworkers, she offers some parting advice: "Just do it when you’re ready and only if you’re safe. Try to surround yourself with people who will be there for you regardless and not rush you. You can choose your real family and friends."
*Name has been changed