We’re waiting to order at the on-campus uni bar. I'm in my favourite pair of stilettos and my go-to false lashes. It's the first night of freshers. I’ve noticed everyone in the bar is wearing trainers. Being the first one from my family to go to university I didn't get the memo: you do not wear heels to the campus bar.
I'm the last one back at the table and the conversation has turned to who we all find attractive in halls. From people’s answers it is clear that some of us in the group are queer. Excited to admit that I felt a vibe with a girl we met in the lift earlier, I’m taken back when it’s my turn. I’m immediately asked, “So what are Leeds boys like?” My eyes roll and I yet again feel angry with myself for not looking or sounding queer enough - whatever that even means.
This assumption that I only dated men was one I knew too well. And, after that moment in the bar, the automatic assumption that I was straight carried on through my time at university. On my study abroad year, I hadn’t had chance to come out to my new, middle-class friends before I got referred to as “the straightest person” they’d ever met. I did not get it. Other people in the group were fluid; no one seemed to assume they were straight. They did not have to come out because they were never in. But it was different for me, as a femme working-class woman. Why? Representations of queer people like me are few and far between.
Like other marginalised groups, straightness has always been and still is a survival tactic for many working class people. It’s part of the reason why so many people don’t see us as part of the queer community, yet we’ve been here all along. For femme and working class women, we have historically been represented as anything but gay. I never saw any femme queer women on reality TV growing up. Dating shows never featured two femme women, neither did storylines in mainstream TV back in 2010 when I was first realising my queerness.
Realising my queerness
I already knew I liked girls as well as boys from as far back as I can remember. On our annual family caravan trip to Bridlington, I was on the sofa, with a full and happy stomach after one of my mum’s famous teas. A female singer had just come out as bisexual and it was on the six o’clock news. These were the years where coming out stories dominated the media. Before, I was unsure about what it meant if girls liked girls. After seeing the news report, the idea of coming out to me seemed beyond scary. I still remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach – it stayed with me throughout that holiday and on and off for the rest of my childhood.
By my early teens, I was denying my sexuality to myself. It was not something to be explored, especially not at a special measures school in South Leeds. The homophobia I saw my best friend Oliver endure every day meant passing as straight became a survival tactic for me, something that was made much easier by getting the attention of men. It was not just me that wasn't out - no girl in my year, or the years above and below were anything but straight until after we left school. This meant my high school years were filled with MTV’s Geordie Shore, which taught me that if you’re northern you love two things: nights out and men. And certainly, by the latter half of my teens the first was true.
When I went to university, I was finally around people who were out. Yet there still seemed to be an invisible barrier to queerness for me that my middle-class peers did not have. I often thought this was self-inflicted and my fault, due to all the years I’d spent at school trying to pass as straight. They were well versed in cultural capital and queer theory from the books they’d read. They’d so freely state they had their dating apps open to all genders, and brag how they “could always tell” when a woman was queer. Little did they know I was also queer; I just didn’t have a mum and dad that were artists. And I hadn’t had access to the same books.
Being working class and non-binary
I know I am not the only one that felt like to be accepted as queer you needed to look, talk and present a certain way. Daisy, 18 from Wimbledon, says that as a working-class non-binary person, they rarely see their experiences represented. “Freedom of gender is usually sold to us in the form of middle-class cisgender men/women in non-conventional clothing”. This shows that if we do not see representations of queer working-class people we start to believe they do not exist. Daisy says not being in the financial position to do so really halted their coming out. “It’s almost as if I couldn’t afford to be the identity I wanted to.”
Khaleel, 21, from Manchester, comes from both a Jamaican and British working-class background. “Conversations around queerness were never had in my area,” he says. He adds not having access to queer resources also made him rely on mainstream media for representation, “Seeing somebody such as Laverne Cox on TV is amazing but at same time it could not be further from my life on a council estate.” This seems to be a common experience for younger working-class queer people, this sense of not feeling legitimately queer because they do not have access to resources.
The lack of representation of working-class queerness in university settings can be explained by Dr Simon Lock, Associate Professor and Director of Sexual and Gender diversity at University College London. He says we know there are more barriers for working-class communities to access higher education, and that studies also suggest as students they experience a lower sense of belonging, perceive a less welcoming campus climate, and report less social involvement. It’s no wonder, he says, that their experience of and involvement in LGBTQ+ spaces will also likely be affected.
Fortunately, there are more online spaces and resources than ever before - which means we don’t have to depend on mainstream media or classist institutions to teach us about our own queerness.
Resources for queer working-class people
If you are a young LGBTQ+ person aged 16-25 and are living in an environment that is hostile or struggling with your housing, AKT can help.
We Create Space is a non-profit offering free online self-help workshops for LGBTQ+ people. If you are struggling to find a community of queer people in your life, you’ll find it here. I attended three of their workshop and left feeling empowered and supported.
Daisy says using Mind Out was life-changing. The Brighton based charity can be accessed anywhere in the UK and they provide online mental health support for LGBTQ+ communities. They are currently prioritising funds for more mental health support for queer, trans and intersex people of colour.
I know everyone has their own, complex journeys to accepting their queerness. For me, learning I am not the only working-class queer person who has felt disbelieved and invisible has been instrumental in my journey to self-acceptance.
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