On the 5th of July, 1985, the day after we’d attended a Bruce Springsteen concert at Wembley Arena, I left my husband of sixteen years. I remember how he cried while listening to the music. I didn’t love him but nor did I hate him. It would have been so easy for me to reach for his hand and offer comfort. But I couldn’t afford to show any sign of weakness that might give him hope and lessen my resolve.
He’d been my first real boyfriend. We were eighteen when we got engaged and married six months later. It took me several years to grow up enough to realise that I’d married for all the wrong reasons. Essentially, coming from a toxic family background, I’d been overwhelmed by someone actually loving me, finding me attractive, funny, even cute! I was never ‘in love’ but I did think I’d found someone I could happily build a future with. I look at the photograph of me decked out in long white dress and veil; I look demure, innocent and just a little smug.
On the surface we got on well. We were both ambitious. Soon we moved from a rented flat to a house with a mortgage, changed his old car to a new one. We enjoyed shopping for clothes together, seeing ourselves as a smart young couple. But what became increasingly stressful for me were the nights. For most of the marriage, I pretended that sex was ok. It wasn’t, I found it oppressive, like moving from a pleasant dream into a nightmare. There were times when I wished he wouldn’t come home, that there would be an accident. I think that on both sides – for different reasons – neither of us wanted to confront the problem.
Over time I suffered stress-related problems, IBS and eczema. Years passed, every day very much the same and then just to find some time for myself, I joined an art class at my local Polytechnic. The tutor liked my work and advised me to apply to a London College. In my late twenties, as a mature student, I was accepted on a degree course at the London College of Printing.
Until I started college, my married life had been almost reclusive. Outside of my husband’s family, my brother and his partner; as a couple, we’d made no friends. I’d never been part of an environment, where sex, sexuality or gender would ever be mentioned but college in the late 1970s, and the early ‘80s opened my eyes. I was the oldest in the class by almost a decade but easily the most ignorant about what was happening in the world. Most of the students were the age I’d been when I married, yet their ambitions were very different. Nobody was ready to settle down, they had dreams to fulfil, choices to make.
As part of my course, I was sent to work in the BBC Design Department for six weeks and placed at a desk opposite a surly young woman. It was a case of mutual instantaneous dislike. For two weeks we sniped across the desks at each other. She hated everything about me from my frizzy perm to my flimsy footwear. I hated her superior manner and the way she made me feel like a fool. One evening, instead of hurrying home at five-thirty as I normally did, I joined the group going to the pub. The woman bought my drink and suddenly the ice between us broke. We talked. We found each other incredibly amusing.
“Actually she’s very nice,” I told my college friends. “But I think she’s depressed.”
“I think she’s a lesbian,” one of them said which made everyone laugh.
And there it was out in the open: the ‘L-word’. A few days later, she told me that yes, she was a lesbian and yes, she was also often depressed. Our friendship deepened. Very little work was done on either side during those six weeks because we both found so much to say to each other. My time at the BBC came to an end. I made no arrangement to meet up. I thought it didn’t matter, that I’d easily slip back into my own life.
I remember a sunny day in the garden – the college was closed for the summer holiday – I was washing a pair of pink satin shoes. With a smile, I thought, “She’d have something to say about these shoes.” As I set them on the patio to dry, I suddenly realised how much I was missing her. I had her address. I told myself that if I feel the same in a week’s time, then I’ll write. And thus began a five-year clandestine affair.
Alongside the passion and excitement of the new relationship came the constant fear of discovery. Although by then I knew that the rapport shared with a woman was emotionally and sexually right for me, I wasn’t ready. In fact, I was deeply hostile to ‘coming out’. I was unhappy in my marriage but the thought of leaving was a frightening one. What would become of me? I’d lose everything that I’d spent so many years building up. What would people say or think? Those five years were probably the most exciting in my life but most of the time I lived in fear.
One weekend morning, as I was getting dressed, out of the blue, my husband said, “You don’t love me anymore, do you?” His voice was so sad.
I answered, “No, I’m sorry but I don’t.”
The affair ended on the day I told my girlfriend I was leaving my marriage. Suddenly I represented a responsibility far more than an object of desire. It wasn’t easy but we did remain friends. With her help, I rented a one-bedroom flat in Stoke Newington. I was 35 years old and had never lived alone, never fully supported myself before. Yes, I was lonely. At a stroke, my social structure was destroyed, my married woman status disappeared but I never regretted that decision to leave.
Recently, I posted on social media, “I didn’t just ‘come out’, I crept out: a myopic, ground-hugging, fearful animal”. For a long time, I clung to the ‘just fell for a woman, could easily have been a man’ routine because owning up to being a lesbian was scary.
I joined a writing class and then a writing group. I began to make friends; some straight, others gay. With a group of women we staged cabaret nights, calling ourselves ‘All Mouth & No Trousers’. My confidence increased my stress levels evened out. I grew in self-knowledge, accepting that the first part of my life had been lived not quite as a lie, more a forgery.
These discoveries didn’t occur overnight, they emerged over years. It wasn’t easy but I always knew that I was on the path that was right for me. When my first novel, The Comedienne was published in 2000 (I was fifty by then) the heroine was a lesbian in her mid-thirties and set in very much a lesbian community. There was no more room for prevarication, I was out and proud.
– VG Lee
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