Text by Olivia Graham, Imogen Woolley & Emilia Bona
‘Dear Dick, I wrote in one of many letters, what happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it's least described’ - Chris Kraus, I Love Dick
In the summer I was asked, ‘Where do you find yourself in the arts?’ and I found my response in one word ‘undervalued’, and it doesn’t stop with my art. Women, in society, are undervalued. We perform emotional labour to no financial gain. When the country was hit with cuts to services we felt the burden and, where possible, filled in the gaps and picked up the pieces. In society we’re not valued anywhere near as much as our male counterparts. Our job roles, expertise and opinions aren’t taken into consideration. We face street harassment, sexual exploitation, we are silenced, ignored and yet we’re still expected to ‘give smiles’ and keep the peace. There are innumerable aspects of my life that I feel undervalued because I am a woman and love, unquestionably, is one of them.
To be more specific, there are two areas of my love life that society, and those around me, have without cause or consideration, undervalued. Firstly, when I love women and we don’t have sex. And secondly, when I love women and we do have sex.
Due to the nature of being a woman, and experiencing womanhood, in a society that keeps everything honest about this area sacred, secret and therefore daunting and shit scary, so much of what I have learnt has come from other women. And while researching and reading externally has been invaluable, my real awakening and understanding has been continuing these discussions with the women around me. Another aspect of women’s lives that are undervalued, the opinions they share and explore in conversation with one another. And so, the focus of this essay will take place with two women with whom I’ve had these discussions, because it was through these conversations I found some answers, found my self and eventually found my handle on love. And the value of it. The collaborative nature of this piece is what influenced me to use other aspects of media and produce it as an audio essay. It has become, like most things in my life, a product of women working together. Figuring stuff out. Getting shit done.
Part one: Love with women when you don’t have sex
I love my friends. It is something I’ve said in diaries, on my Myspace page and in the early hours of the morning on fields in festivals. But truly, I do. They are everything to me. They are the people that without words handed me my favourite chocolate bar through a funeral car window. Held my hair back when I didn’t know my limits, and when I did. Went out with me, stayed in with me, fed me. Essentially, provided me with what I needed when I needed it.
Popular culture gives us a skewed portrayal of female friendships and these portrayals are categorically misrepresented. Society is dismissive of the weight, importance and strength in them. I can only account this to their nature being an act by women, for women, without men. It’s threatening and therefore must be dismissed. What we’re constantly being told is if it doesn’t involve, revolve around or lead to cock, it doesn’t exist. Or it does, but we must show the fragility and futility of it as being ‘bitchy’ or a relationship that revolves around conversations of the adoration of men.
This, as most women in strong friendships and Love, will tell you, is not the case. All these misconceptions and the persistent undervaluing of the love in female friendships leads us to dismiss matters of a woman’s heart when it comes to her friends. It was in Imogen’s Kitchen she talked me through the difficulties she faces returning home, after circumstances have forced her into a long distance friendship:
Imogen: It feels kind of shitty, mainly due to missing Tav, she's a rock in my life. We clicked from day dot and whenever I have to leave her it's just a big hole in my life and you inevitably crash from that. And it's hard cause people don’t really talk about it. It doesn’t really come up in conversation as much as, 'How's your partner, how’re they doing? How’s leaving them? It's just something that isn't really spoken about.
It's never been sexual, never even close. It has the intensity of what people might perceive of a sexual relationship but it's not got that label. We classify it as best friends but I think that doesn’t really have the weight to it. We're very very very close. With Tav it just kind of clicked, we've been together ever since and in many ways it's the best relationship I’ve ever had.
Olivia: Do you think there’s a difference here because you’re not having sex?
Imogen: Yeah definitely, I guess it's an easy fallback question, because when people have that significant other in terms of a sexual relationship it’s more widely known as a thing. Whereas with Tav it's just kind of seen as a best friend and that's it, nothing more. It's really limiting, it doesn't express that intensity in the same way as a relationship.
If people are in a relationship they get their alone time, they get to do things just them it's like, 'of course they want to spend time with just them' but then it comes to managing friends and managing relationships within those friendship terms people don’t tend to understand why I would want to be alone with her, they feel left out. It's just an interesting comparison when you look at why it's allowed for sexual relationships to be allowed that alone time and in friendships it just isn’t something that is recognised in the same way. It makes sense as well. It's just the categories we've created and how each has their own different definition and some things are allowed and some things aren’t. Which I don't think is cool.
Olivia: It's almost like a subset of rules for people who are in a sexual relationship are given space for that love to blossom kind of dictate their own direction and then when it comes to a friendship those rules are kind of withdrawn.
Imogen: Definitely, and that's made me fall out with friends, it’s made me get infuriated with them when they don’t understand. But they don’t understand because that’s not the way it is. It's not what people think of in terms of friendships and that’s not really their fault, it's just the way it is.
Olivia: Yeah, I guess we need to start talking about how we define friendships, and female friendships. I s there something there with the recognition of your relationship that bothers you?
Imogen: Since i kind of noticed that, it does bother me because it doesn't then fit. I think the term friends it's still valid and strong, but I see us in a relationship it's just without the sex and there is no real definition for that. It's like next level to best friends. I think it’s next level to best friends because in our society people don't really acknowledge it as a real thing in terms of giving. Society disregards female friendships, the term ‘Best Friends’ has inevitably lost it’s meaning. In the way we define us, we say it's best friends but in reality it's much more than that.
There are no words, or expressions for how I feel about it, except for maybe soul mate. But that's still very much relationship term, a sexual relationship term more than a friendship term.
Olivia: It’s almost like we’re left to define our friendships with default options, rather than having the options that give the relationship the weight and the consideration that they deserve. What do you want people to acknowledge when it comes to your relationship with Tav?
Imogen: I really want people to understand where I’m coming from and ask me about her. Do the same that they would in terms of a sexual relationship. Ask me how I’m doing, how I’m missing her, and just acknowledging it in itself and understanding what I’m going through is just as valid as someone who is in a sexual relationship.
Olivia: And what is it you want people to acknowledge when it comes to your female friendships?
Imogen: I want people to understand and acknowledge that this level of love exists without sex.
This girl, I’m falling in love with. And it’s clear, there are people around us commenting, openly asking, ‘is something going on between you two?’ And yes, there is. We’re coming into something amazing. We’re sharing, learning, we’ve been through death, hospital appointments, five in the morning taxis home and the bottom of bottles of rum. But it’s not taken seriously because it’s not about sex. And, let’s face it, because it’s not about sex between a man and woman.
Part two: Love with women when you do have sex.
It’s not easy being queer. When you’re growing up knowing that something, created by the standards around you, is definitely not right. And it’s scary, for so many people, having sexual and romantic feelings towards people of the same sex is terrifying. But there’s a saving grace when it comes to being queer and not gay, or in my case a lesbian, some aspects of you are ‘alright’. So you lean towards the ‘light’ and your queer awakenings take a back seat. And the queer you only exists in secret, dark places. The kind of secret dark places that shadow your thoughts way into later life.
I was in a feminist workshop when women in the room started discussing their sexuality, and how their queer sexuality is constantly dismissed when they’re in straight relationships. It was then for me I realised a big burden I had to bear was my own internalised heteronormity. That, because I wasn’t in a sexual relationship with a woman I wasn’t considered a woman who loves women in a sexual way. Something had led me to dismiss this aspect, this huge aspect, of my life once more. It was then I realised being queer wasn’t the same for me as being straight or gay, sounds so straightforward I know. But when you identify with a sexuality that is dismissed, undermined and basically non-existent in popular culture, where do you find your understanding and strength? I did the only thing I could do, I spoke to my female friends about it. I had to figure out what had gotten me to this point, and what do I do next.
I met Emilia in a feminist book club, through a friend who met her in roller derby. You can imagine the fierce impact this woman already had on my life. She talked me through what her queer sexuality means to her and how it was for her to come out to friends and family.
Emilia: Coming out is awkward. There’s never a good time to do it, and it’s not really the kind of thing where you can just send out a group Whatsapp and that’s it, boxed off. You come out every time you meet someone new. It took me until my twenties to start tentatively coming out to close friends, and it’s not because I was scared I’d get cast-out by them for my errant lifestyle choices. I was worried that they wouldn’t believe that I was actually queer, and when you’re only just starting to accept your own sexuality on a personal level you really don’t want to have to convince other people of its legitimacy.
I’m bisexual and my experiences of coming out aren’t unique. Bisexual erasure is a problem both within the LGBTQ+ community and in wider society. When I started telling people I was queer the reactions I received were entirely different to those normally portrayed in mainstream coming out narratives. I found myself having to prove my credentials as a queer person to friends who questioned whether I was sure this was real.
Olivia: And this need for proof and legitimacy is something we still strive for, no matter how long we’ve been ‘out’.
Emilia: Absolutely. Bisexuality is commonly derided as being a kind of a phase for experimental women to get out of their system, or for men it’s often portrayed as the final stop on the all-male express train to being a homosexual. Contrary to those tired misconceptions, some people are just bisexual. When I was coming out the problem was never close-minded bigots who were denying me the right to fuck whoever I wanted. Instead I was faced with an outright refusal to accept that I was a queer woman.
Olivia: And it’s a different kind of homophobia that makes our experiences something else entirely.
Emilia: Bisexual erasure isn’t this overtly aggressive force that you’d associate with homophobia in a way that sees people made victims of hate crimes, instead it’s a call for proof and this undermining of bisexuality is a toxic microaggression that isolates an entire section of the queer community. Rather than being oppressed and denied the right to express my sexuality, I was essentially finding myself having to argue its legitimacy – and that is really fucking frustrating.
While bisexual erasure doesn’t involve the kind of direct antagonism involved in homophobia, it does deny the existence of bisexuality and this is a dangerous microaggression laden with stigmas and it can have really negative effects on the mental health of bisexual people. I will never come out to my mother until I get to a point of wanting to bring home a woman because I’m really, really in love with her. That’s not because my mum’s a homophobe, she’s absolutely not – it’s because she just wouldn’t understand it. Having seen me with boyfriends and known me as straight for 23 years, she wouldn’t understand how I could suddenly love pussy or women without pussies.
Olivia: This constant need to prove your point and defend yourself makes this aspect of a queer sexuality exhausting. An exhaustion that you avoid by not bringing it to the surface when it isn’t necessary. But then, when you think of the bigger picture and lasting effect, it’s a contribution we’re making to our own marginalization and further invisibility.
Emilia: Bisexuality is marginalised even within coming out narratives because in general consciousness it exists somewhere between being straight and being gay – and the world doesn’t really know what to do with that. If it doesn’t fit neatly into the categories we’ve created to understand sexuality then it’s dismissed as some sort of phase or experiment, or not a legitimate sexuality.
Rather than being an outright rejection of bisexuality, I was faced with an inability to accept my queerness as legitimate. While no one was outwardly homophobic, and to be clear that was absolutely part of the privilege of passing that I has as part of being a femme queer woman. Instead of slurs and hate speech what I was met with were consistent efforts to undermine the legitimacy of my sexuality. Those experiences are part of a common theme of bisexual erasure, which de-legitimises the experiences of bisexuals and erases their presence from the LGBT community.
Olivia: How do you feel that your need to defend yourself has affected how you think of yourself when it comes to your sexuality.
Emilia: I felt like I almost didn’t back myself or didn’t believe myself as a queer woman and even personally until I slept with a woman I felt like I couldn’t say I was queer, like it wasn’t a label I was allowed to own. And even though I knew I was and knew I was attracted to women and always have been, I think that until I acted on it and was able to kind of say to people ‘look here’s proof I am’ I couldn’t accept it as my own. Which isn’t a nice way to feel.
I always feel that people think I’ve decided to be bisexual because it’s the latest thing after ‘I’m a feminist. I like growing out my body hair’ and now it’s like ‘and I also like having sex with women’. It’s because being queer is becoming more cool, or like queer culture is in Vogue that I think people think it’s something you’re doing. It’s the extension of ‘is it for attention’ when women have sex with women or when women kiss women.
Olivia: A friend of mine sent me a tweet today by that said ‘The perception that bi women are “experimenting” while bi men are “closeted gays” is some misogynist “all-roads-lead-to-dick” BS*. And it’s so true, heteronormativity is still patriarchy. It’s fueling a society that prioritises the needs and desires of cis-white straight men.
Emilia: Yeah, the all roads lead to dick bullshit is so legit when you look at the difference in the way bisexual men and bisexual women are treated. For women it’s fetishised, women are fetishised anyway, but it’s particularly intense in the bisexual realm because straight men manage to turn women’s sexual freedom into basically nothing more than something for the male gaze. You see that a lot in the relentless message that female-female-male threesomes are hot, and the masculine catcalls heard in bars when two femme queer girls get with each other. I think that’s very different to the way lesbians are treated. If expressions of bisexuality are performed for the gratification of men then they’re accepted, but still not legitimised as sexual acts in their own right. When we see bisexual women it’s usually for the arousal and entertainment of straight men – not because they are granted legitimacy and space in their own right. So it’s like, girl on girl is hot, but it’s not yours to enjoy. In erasing bisexuality you basically erase the unique oppression of bisexual women.
By contrast, bisexual men are almost entirely absent from most narratives. Bi men are marginalised and their either portrayed as being deviant or closeted gays. Whilst bisexual women are hot and hypersexualised, bisexual men are ignored or stigmatised, because essentially if straight men can’t wank to it, it has absolutely no value. Bisexual men are also less normalised in mainstream porn which I think is an issue in the way that we see bisexual women.
Within the queer community, bisexuals still don’t get a fair deal. Bisexuality is either dismissed as a phase or a stop on the way to being gay. No one should ever really have to explain themselves to gain legitimacy. If we spend all of our time flashing cards to get a pass into the queer club, we’re only really screwing ourselves over. At the end of the day, who’s in charge of the gates to the queer club? Is it cis white men who currently dominate the queer narrative?
Finding a queer community where I could finally talk about being bi was the only way I was able to finally start coming out, but I spent years questioning my own sexuality. I didn’t see it represented anywhere, and I wasn’t gay but I certainly knew I wasn’t straight. Bisexual erasure hurts us all and tainted my beautiful queer awakening. I’m not hiding under a duvet anymore, but we’re a long way from bi girls being able to confidently assert their terms.
These are two examples of the endless conversations I’ve had with the women around me. What I’ve learned through these dialogues is that although we may not be represented in popular culture, or our narratives aren’t always present in mainstream media, amongst ourselves we are represented, present, supported and valued.
Above all, it is important to acknowledge it is never acceptable to undervalue people, or the love that exists between them.