As someone who identifies as somewhere on the gay spectrum (I’m far more comfortable using the Kinsey Scale than with pigeon-holing myself into a particular box) the question of when I knew is one that I’m asked often. It’s a question that straight folks seem to be obsessed with – working out just when you become self aware enough to work out that your sexual preferences weren’t the same as theirs. I find that my response to these questions range from awkward (usually when it comes from someone I barely know) to desperate (when I am trying to make someone realise that being gay is not a big deal). It shocks people that I was 21 before I had come out to even myself.
As a child, I walked a balanced line between girlie girl and tomboy. When I was really little, I’d happily copy my mother, ironing dolls clothes with a play iron or making pretend tea and serving it using my plastic tea set. I had dolls – from Barbie to an almost life-sized plastic girl – and I would dress them, play with them and brush their hair. As I got older, my real comforts were school, reading and anything artistic or messy. I loved being in the kitchen – years peeling potatoes and making cakes have lead to a huge appreciation for having time to cook – and anything craft related. But it was books that held my attention the best – I would read anything – from The Famous Five to the Hardy Boys, books based in boarding schools, pony clubs or American High Schools. Narnia and The Magicians House were some of my favourite make-believe places, and I was rarely seen without a book in hand.
That being said, I could hold my own with my brother. He and I would often go out to play together – I could climb a tree better than most of the boys in our village – and I wasn’t afraid to race them on my bike or play a game of football with them either. I’m the second eldest of the grandkids on my mum’s side of the family, and whilst I wasn’t the most adventurous one, I had (still have!) a stubborn streak and would often be the first to do some activity, just to prove I could.
I guess what I’m trying to explain is that growing up, I was a normal kid who played with her friends and with her brother – who was just as happy in a dress as in a pair of football boots, who could hold her own. When I got to secondary school and the people around me starting talking about boys and boyfriends and hot male actors, I joined in. As far as I knew, that was what I was supposed to do. Don’t get me wrong – I knew about gay people, and I had no problem with it – it just didn’t dawn on me that I might be gay.
But when I was 13, I became friends with a new-ish girl at my school – F. She and I very quickly became best friends, incredibly close – and I doted on her. She was quite open about her bisexuality, despite the fact that she had a boyfriend at the time, which I was somewhat in awe of. I spent huge amounts of time with her, but of relationship was volatile and often dramatic. With hindsight it’s easy to see I probably had feelings for her, but at the time I just wanted to be around her all. the. time. Then I got a boyfriend who I liked, a lot, and who was really very good to me; again, it just felt like that was what I was supposed to do – but I can’t deny that I fell in love with him, and was devastated when we broke up and went to uni’s at different ends of the country.
When I met the girl who became my best friend at uni, I considered myself straight. I laugh at this notion now, as looking back to my first couple of years at St Andrews, almost every one of my friends was gay! My friendship with my best friend – J – was even more volatile and explosive than my friendship with F had been, and being older and living away from home made it even more dangerous. I still struggle to describe what my relationship with J was like – we felt like siblings and soulmates at the same time, for two years we were barely apart. We dated the same boy, we slept in the same bed, wore each other’s clothes, had baths together where she’d wash my hair and would occasionally get drunk and kiss and fumble against each other. A year after we’d met, we’d been at a party and got horribly drunk – we ended up back at mine, frantically kissing and pawing at each other – I knew she loved me, but I think I was also aware that she wasn’t gay. I think that’s when I knew.
After that, I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t get dragged into any more relationships where I wasn’t sure what I wanted, or where I was likely to get hurt. I started going to the St Andrews LGBT Society on a regular basis – it took a while, but eventually people realised that I wasn’t just there for the parties, and I met some of my closest friends. So many of my favourite St Andrews memories revolve around LGBT and the parties after meetings – dancing to the song Zombie by The Cranberries, going to the only gay club in Dundee (ingeniously named ‘Out’) and flirting with every girl in the society.
At this point, flirting and fooling around with girls was fun, was non-serious and a distraction. I’d managed to tell myself that I probably was bisexual, and whilst I might sometimes have sex with girls, I’d only ever be able to fall in love with a guy. It didn’t help that I was terrified about that realities of dating a girl – telling my parents, changing my Facebook status – all of that – but mostly I didn’t quite believe it myself.
And then I met Stacey, and all of the things that I’d been worried about paled in comparison with the thought of not being with her. From when we first started talking, I realised that I felt differently about her, and it drove me to distraction because I thought that I knew who I was and the path my life would take. I was 21 and just about coming to grips with who I was and who I could be.
So when did I know? Did I know back when I was 14 and following F around the school all day? (Is that why I found a boyfriend who I dated for the next three years?) Did I know when I met J and was horribly jealous of her boyfriends? Or how about that night that she and I ended up in bed together? Was it not until I met Stacey, she and I fell together and then started dating that I could say that I knew? Honestly, I don’t know. There’s been so much talk recently about making it better for young people who are gay, and I can’t support this enough. I was 21 before I came to understand and accept my sexuality, just because for everyone I knew, sexuality was black or white. You were gay, or you weren’t.
I still struggle to define myself (hell, I don’t feel like I should have to!) because I don’t want to deny the feelings I had in the past, or belittle how much my current relationship means to me. But at the end of the day, I don’t think it matters ‘when you knew’, or who you slept with in the past – or even who you date in the future. Everyone should be able to be happy, and fall in love with whoever they happen to fall in love with. For some people, sexuality is intrinsically flexible. For others, it’s less so. I don’t think this matters, just so long as we all have the chance to be happy.