What does your love look like?

We stand with Orlando ribbonSo here I am – driven to leave my quiet-ish hiding place (of late) and send some comments out into the world. It’s hard to have anything new or powerful enough to say about the atrocity in Orlando, FL, USA this weekend, but I must register my voice of grief, outrage, solidarity and connection with LGBT+ communities and allies everywhere. My thoughts are with all those who have been affected directly through the loss and injury of loved ones, and through the weight of being witness.

Some facts are clear. A heavily-armed man murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others at the LGBT+ Pulse nightclub. This was an act of hatred and homophobia (also biphobia and transphobia), and the majority of those targeted were people of colour during a Latina/Latino/Latinx night. All believed themselves to be in a safe place of celebration during a month of worldwide Pride events.

Here are some other commentaries which say far more than I can:

Latinx LGBTQ community response from Isa Noyola interviewed on Democracy Now (warning – this video contains a shameful clip of Donald Trump taking advantage of the massacre to spread anti-Muslim hate speech).

Orlando is just the tip of the iceberg – a powerful article by Jane Czyzselska, editor of UK Diva Magazine for lesbian and bi women.

Statement from the British Psychological Society recognising that members of LGBT+ communities experience high levels of abuse, discrimination and psychological distress.

I’m sad and angry and confused. It seems to have been a default position of mine recently. But at least these emotions make sense in these circumstances, even if I will never be able to understand how someone can plan and carry out such an attack. I am unable to understand any crimes of hate, whoever is being abused and killed. I have empathy beyond the communities I specifically identify with. It’s important I say this because some despicable individuals are already using the Orlando shooting to encourage different marginalised communities to turn against each other. We must not let that happen.

News sites are reporting (surmising) today that Omar Mateen was most likely gay himself and therefore chose to kill people in a LGBTQ venue due to intense self-loathing. As if this somehow stops the attack being an act of homophobia! As if it’s suddenly explained and means all others in wider society need take no further responsibility and can file it in a tidy box which requires minimal scrutiny: Oh, that’s alright, then – it was just one queer of a certain faith we can’t be bothered to understand killing a load of other queers we can’t be bothered to understand. They only have themselves to blame!

Don’t you see? No person starts out hating themselves or others. It comes from years of indoctrination and prejudice, where instead of  being embraced and celebrated, difference and diversity are viewed as the enemy. When you think of love, what do you see? Who do you include?

On Sunday 12 June, I posted this on Facebook:

Fuck! Why do some of us care? And the rest are intent on destroying the whole world. You don’t have to understand me to not want to kill me. I’ve spent my whole life trying to hurt no-one but myself. I shouldn’t even want to hurt myself. If there was more empathy for diversity, far more of us may survive.

All of my Facebook friends are trying to comfort each other right now.

I understand something about self-hatred. I really do. The agonising attempt to explain to yourself why recognising you’re different from a so-called ‘norm’, and regularly being misunderstood, can make you feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with your whole being. That your very self is the problem. It’s sad enough when that personal inner struggle only destroys the individual experiencing it. But where does the destruction end when fear and hate is routinely justified? No-one decides to hate. It is taught and it is validated by legislation. The Orlando massacre comes after lawmakers in the US filed more than 200 anti-LGBT Bills.

This fear of difference goes way beyond sexuality. I have experienced this feeling of self-doubt, self-sabotage and insecurity around my mental health. Some of my close friends will know of a new journey of self-exploration I’m just embarking on. It’s not the time to talk about that but, ultimately, this will be positive for me, and I will write about it when I’m ready.

Actually, I’m not sure I have ever *hated* myself for being a lesbian. I just feel as if I’ve been bruised and punished a lot, and that is why the poem below refers to “being a lesbian / would be one / prompt apology.” I am who I am. I’m proud of that. I have not, do not, and I never will apologise. But I have always had to be ready to defend myself which can sometimes amount to the same thing.

It’s another blackout poem, taking words from an interview with author Emma Donoghue which appeared in the Observer Magazine on 8 May 2016. It makes a lot of sense to me, but I wish it didn’t mean so much. I wish I didn’t have to write about being sad, confused and fearful.

It was two weeks ago when I chose to highlight these words and create a new personal commentary. It doesn’t help much with understanding the atrocity in Orlando. But in light of the terribly sad events, perhaps I can ask you to read between the lines to find another space which invites connection, remembers to begin with love, and doesn’t have to end on hate.

Newspaper blackout poem from interview with Emma Donoghue

Susan Calman and Me

Cheer Up Love book cover by Susan CalmanThere’s nothing going on between me and Susan Calman – honestly! It’s just we seem to have a number of things in common.

Susan Calman is a lesbian, she lives with depression, and she resigned her job back in 2006 to become a stand-up comedian. If you don’t know much about me yet, let me be even clearer about the fact that I’m a lesbian. I also recently resigned my job in order to locate a new quality of life because I need to find better ways to manage my own experiences of depression and anxiety. There’s more! Would you believe we both adore cats? And most importantly of all – it seems we’d both be ecstatic to find ourselves within the world of Cagney and Lacey.

I wonder if it may please Susan to see I have a Scottish name, even though I’m English. Susan is definitely Scottish, and she’s shorter than I am. We’re both aged in our forties, but I managed to be born first, in the 1960s (just), so I have at least some experience of that decade. Susan has published a book. I haven’t published a whole book (yet). All or none of these things may be significant.

I’m not going to become a stand-up comedian. I’ll just put that out there. I may become a stand-up poet, but that’s hardly a new career because it doesn’t happen too often; just every now and then at an open mic.

I say there’s nothing going on between me and Susan Calman. However, I did spend this last weekend in her company in fantastic sunshine – the first time my shorts saw an outing this year for something other than trying to keep fit. My bare legs should certainly have impressed. Sadly, Susan made no comment. You see, she was only there in book form. Well – digital form, actually, on kindle – so options of physicality were further reduced. I usually like to stroke a printed book cover. But there are times when the bevelled buttons on a kindle can be equally fascinating.

The important thing is that Susan Calman doesn’t have to be impressed by me. I’m writing this blog post because I found some calm, comfort and camaraderie in her newly-published book, Cheer Up Love: Adventures in Depression with the Crab of Hate (Two Roads, 2016). That’s the point of all this. And maybe I would have experienced that even if I wasn’t a depressed lesbian adorer of cats (with a Scottish name) on the cusp of my own latest journey of (re)discovery.

Depression gets to us all. That’s the other point of this. Depression doesn’t discriminate. It’s part of being human. And Cheer Up Love is a very human book. Susan invites the reader to engage and then immediately ignore what she’s just shared, because she knows this is a very human trait. That in itself is extremely engaging, and why Susan Calman should not be ignored. Cheer Up Love is for all humans, and I encourage everyone to read it.

There is, of course, an extra joy for me in identifying the lesbian visibility in Susan’s book. That is why I started sharing my writing online. Susan Calman and Me. We know about lesbians on TV and in popular culture. I was one of the first to write in-depth about Beth Jordache and the lesbian kiss, after all! I therefore thank Susan for writing this:

You may not know this but as a lesbian with mental health issues I am in one of the highest risk groups on television you will ever encounter. If you watch a TV show and a character wears sensible shoes and feels a bit down quite a lot, then she will either a) get murdered b) kill someone c) kill themselves d) kidnap a child e) burn something down f) all of the above. In fact, some writers seem to believe that if you have a lady gay character in a show they automatically have to be mad in some way. Which doesn’t reflect reality of course. I have many heterosexual friends who are far more disturbed than any lesbian I’ve met. But it suits a traditional narrative that to be gay you have to be, in some way, a little bit wrong.

Susan Calman and Me. We might just be a little bit right.

Susan Calman and Me. She has inspired me to poetry. Newspaper blackout poetry, to be precise. These words below are borrowed from the book extract which appeared in The Observer Magazine on 24 April 2016, in order to create a revisioning of our combined truths.

So let me recalculate. That’s two (albeit non-consecutive) weekends I’ve spent in Susan’s company. MrsCalman (@LeeCormack) need not worry. All I wanted to say is (and this comes without criticism, or inappropriateness of any description): #SusanIsAwesome. And now Susan Calman will know I really did read her book.

A newspaper blackout poem by Nicki Hastie from an article by Susan Calman

Some of us are Literary: Get Over It!

Gregory Woods was invited to talk about his new book Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning. You can catch the interview for the next 29 days from 02:47:25 into the broadcast.

Sarah Montague is in the Today chair, and she is joined in the studio by Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall. Greg participates on the phone from Nottingham. So an interesting dynamic is created, where what Sarah Montague can see – the facial expressions of Ruth Hunt next to her – become more important than what can be heard. This is radio and it is my place to listen. I soon find myself feeling that Sarah Montague and Ruth Hunt would do well to remember this.

Does any interview go to plan? I’m not sure. But I was struck by how little the book and its contents were referred to, and how Greg was sidelined in an interview which was surely only set up because of the book’s publication. Here was an opportunity to focus on LGBT culture, history and heritage and to celebrate examples of cultural production during the twentieth century which might otherwise remain hidden or distorted.

There are worthy reasons for including Ruth – three voices in a discussion can provide additional texture, and also allows for the involvement of a lesbian as well as a gay man. However, there is no real value in an additional guest if that person has preconceived ideas of a book she has not read and appears to have no inclination to engage with it further. Given her position as head of an organisation which campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across Britain (and she was invited onto the programme in this role), I felt Ruth (aided considerably by Sarah) did a disservice to LGBT communities and Radio 4 listeners today.

Anyone can be forgiven for not having read the book. The point is it is being talked about because it has only just been published. I haven’t read it yet either. So isn’t it worth listening to the author and hearing what the book offers a readership? And I know we all have our biases. I, for instance, consider Greg to be a friend. I already attended a book launch event at Fives Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham last week, I have bought (a signed copy of) the book, and I have undertaken my own research on LGBT literati. But I also consider myself an activist for LGBT equality. So I feel the need to speak up.

Stonewall’s strapline is “acceptance without exception”, and yet Ruth is determined to find and focus only on what she perceives as a negative stereotype in Greg’s study. She says:

I think the benefit that historically has come from the arts is that lesbian and gay people – and it was mainly lesbian and gay people,  rather than bi and trans people – were able and permitted to indulge in the arts, if you like. That was a kind of permitted institution for gay people. But it kind of has created an idea, in the same way that we think black people are good at sport, we presume that gay people are good at art because those were the institutions we were allowed to flourish in. … Imagine if gay people had been allowed to flourish in different institutions. We may not have been quite so restricted in the arts.

No-one has asked Greg why he spent years researching this particular book. No-one gives Greg the chance to step in here and explain he has concentrated on the arts because as well as being an Emeritus Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies, his area of expertise happens to be literature and culture. What else would he write about? Leave the influence of LGBT people in science and engineering, or the security services, to someone else. There are other scholars to do this work. And yes, scholarship – even if sometimes privileged – is necessary for the progression of the modern world.

As for it being lesbians and gay men, rather than bi and trans people, who have been permitted to indulge in the arts, I think we need to go back and check the historical facts and context. Who is doing the excluding here? Stonewall has worked very hard to integrate the B and the T into its equality work and I don’t think it helps anyone that Ruth draws attention to such a distinction at this moment. Many of the people Greg writes about were known to have relationships across boundaries of gender. In today’s terms, some might be identified as bisexual and others, given a longer life in the modern world, may well have felt more comfortable with a trans or genderqueer identity. It is this fluidity of gender presentation as well as sexuality which Greg would hope to explain has so influenced (and possibly ‘liberated’) the modern world.

Indeed, he does try. Greg is beginning to explain (with references) the important stage between the wars when “homosexuality was seen as being very modern, and modernity and homosexuality went hand in hand”. Only he gets cut off by Sarah who seems to have agreed an agenda in advance with Ruth.

There is a palpable sigh from the studio when Greg quotes someone not many listeners will have heard of. No – I haven’t come across this Icelandic novelist either. But I do understand that just because we haven’t heard of them doesn’t mean these ideas don’t exist. It is part of the work of the LGBT professor to uncover our history. It doesn’t even have to be done in an academic way. I believe it is part of my life’s work to uncover LGBT history. I would hope this is part of Stonewall’s work too. In fact, this is a time when we should all recognise we are in this together.

Just as Greg begins to introduce the appeal of wider presentations of gender available within the arts, citing the character of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Sarah encourages Ruth to interrupt him. Perhaps the Today programme has already decided this is a conversation heading down the road of male literary privilege. I think we would get somewhere else if Greg was allowed to continue, as I know him to be a feminist who ensures that reviewers are reminded there are also women in his book. But for now Sarah and Ruth have the microphone …

In a certain area, in a certain genre, gay people, as now, are considered to be very fashionable and that was the case in those inter-war years. Of course what it ignored was a huge population of gay people living in poverty, living outside these regions who weren’t allowed to be cool. I think gay equaling fashionable is a very overly simplistic analysis of gay people’s place in modern Britain and it kind of presumes that gay people didn’t have a role in any other area of life. And I think it’s sometimes a little romantic to consider that LGBT people took this role.

But there’s another thing that struck me as well – sorry. [Greg], you’re talking about gay people liberating the modern world. Surely there are so many gay people who perhaps even now don’t feel liberated.

No, quite. I think if you had the income, the independent means and a penchant for poetry, then you probably did play some part in the modern cultural world but the reality is most LGBT people don’t have that luxury. Also it suggests that most LGBT people grow up thinking that the arts is the only area for them, and as a young lesbian the only thing that The Well of Loneliness struck me as was an utter depression about my possible future identity. The Well of Loneliness is probably the single most dull book, for a young lesbian coming out in the 90s certainly.

I don’t believe Greg is implying that LGBT people are all liberated now. That’s a misreading of the book’s title. Greg says himself he is “not for a moment suggesting that all gay people are liberated and have been since the 1920s. I mean, that’s ludicrous.” Instead, he is making visible the efforts of some LGBT people who have encouraged the modern world to break free from some of its restricted viewpoints – particularly around gender – and to question constructions of social and cultural norms.

Clearly lesbians have not flourished that well (or not famously enough) in the arts if the only example of lesbian literature Ruth could find to read in the 1990s was Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. This is exactly why we need Greg’s book to keep more examples of LGBT cultural production alive today.

I did manage to find other examples in the 1980s when I was first coming out. I read books in order to learn about other books, and then I did my best to track them down. I did this through libraries mainly. Books were all I had. Lesbian role models in my life felt non-existent. Lesbian appearances on TV and film were rare and there was no internet.

Books and the arts kept me alive. I didn’t see this as a luxury. There are other novels from the 1920s onwards that Ruth could have been reading. I write about a few of them in my 1989 undergraduate dissertation which has a decent bibliography, even if I say so myself. Yes, I unashamedly hoped to have my own little literary and lesbian influence on modernity, and I couldn’t have done it without the pioneers before me.

I enjoyed Greg’s defence of  The Well of Loneliness. It has its admirers, is held in “high esteem and in great warmth and affection by a lot of lesbian women, even now” and  it has an incredibly iconic role in lesbian culture. Greg suggests this is “to do with the very fact of Radclyffe Hall writing about woman-loving women. But also, I think, about the offering of a different way of inhabiting one’s gender. This matches the portrayals of camp gay men in male writing. This idea that you didn’t have to be a feminine woman. That seems to me to be a very important aspect of the influence of gay culture.”

It’s important that we’re not all the same. I also feel it’s important to emphasise that one person won’t react to one book in the same way at all stages of their life. That’s part of what makes the arts exciting. We get to determine who we are.

If we didn’t have anyone writing about, making films, taking photographs of different gender presentations and same-sex love, where would we be today in 2016? What books would Ruth have to turn to then? Where would Stonewall be without the arts?

None of us would have a platform to speak  from a LGBT perspective if we weren’t prepared to acknowledge what may have been produced out of ‘privilege’. This doesn’t have to marginalise or deny other experiences and struggles. The modern world needs those mentors in order to get to the point where more books are on shelves and where there is a move to greater equality, so that anyone with access to the internet in a democratic country can now publish their art to the world or comment via social media.

When Greg first introduces his book, he manages to say that the Hominitern is “a camp joke” and not intended as anyone’s enemy. It’s certainly not the enemy of the modern LGBT experience.

A new book on LGBT history and culture which helps readers find other books and works of art is good for us all. Isn’t it? Maybe it can help to promote “acceptance without exception”. All I wanted was for Ruth and Sarah to acknowledge that.

[I go on, I know. I use a lot of words. But that’s what us literary types with a penchant for poetry are like … Get over it! I will, now that I’ve written this … ]

Lost and Found: the importance of archiving for personal and cultural memory

Archive boxMy depression has returned and it does an amazing job of punishing the memory and subjecting me to self-doubt. As I sit at home, wondering who I am, I’m trying to remind myself of all that I’ve done in the hope this will help me recover a more solid sense of self.

It’s as though someone has rummaged through my mental folders and thrown their contents all over the floor, leaving confusion and disorder. I’m almost certain I have been robbed of something which goes way beyond my self-confidence. Its very likely that I have, but can I know for sure? Because if I ever did make an index or inventory, that’s one of the things which has now disappeared.

What’s harder is that a lot of the activity I might wish to recall has taken place in the online world and much of that has been moved or deleted over the years. So now I’m a mess of broken and missing links, and we all know how infuriating those are. ‘Page Not Found’ could be my default setting right now.

We’re nearing the end of February and the end of another LGBT History Month. This is also significant to my notion of self-identity, especially as I haven’t felt able to participate in the way I intended this year. If we don’t honour our cultural heritage, if we don’t take efforts to remember and redefine, so much gets lost. It’s quite common these days to hear younger people in LGBTQ settings say they have never heard of Sappho or the Stonewall riots. They are keen to find out and to learn, but you can’t know where to look or what you’re looking for if you don’t know what parts of your history have holes.

Not that I’m suggesting everyone’s history is the same. It certainly isn’t. Context and perception provide personalised histories with importantly diverse viewpoints. The process of uncovering, questioning, challenging, reviewing and reenvisioning is part of what can be celebrated during LGBT History Month. Sometimes a shaking up of society’s ‘normative’ folders and their subsequent re-ordering is exactly what’s required.

But where does this leave me today? I’ve been rearranging my own mental folders for a long time through therapy, believing in the neuroplasticity of the brain, and recognising how important it is to my mental wellbeing that old habits and connections can be deconstructed and rewired. This still doesn’t stop me wanting some things to stay in the same place, where I can easily find them. So I can revisit and highlight them and make new sense of them when I’m ready.

Some people are worried that their past actions will remain among internet archives forever and come back to haunt them when aiming to be taken seriously by employers. I’m actually more disturbed by the fact that some of my online history appears to have been lost or deleted permanently. I’ve always quite liked being a whole, transparent person online. My view is that if I put something out there it’s because I want people to find it, and that it contributes to me being a more trustworthy human being with a stronger outline. I have intentionally directed potential employers to look me up, and not just via a sanitised or overly boastful LinkedIn profile.

There are aspects of my online history buried in outmoded code and technology which may be rescued and restored again one day when a ‘safe’ and ‘sympathetic’ repository is identified. I am hopeful that this will happen with the archived version of the trAce online writing centre. I’m not alone with my sense of loss here. Many people from the trAce community of old are mourning this terrific resource. See the Facebook group at www.facebook.com/traceonlinewritingcentre.

I held a Writer’s attachment with trAce between November 2000 and February 2001 and remained part of the community until its closure in 2005. The attachment involved keeping an online journal to which I gave a road movie theme, demonstrating my love of the film Thelma and Louise. I also created my own online magnetic poetry library and invited others’ contributions. Most importantly, I met some fantastic people – in both physical and virtual spaces – and retain friendships to this day. So I will always have mementos of this experience, but there was something about having that history preserved in full, allowing me to browse through and reference at any time, which made the reminiscence of these people more real – and myself more real to me.

As the Facebook group states:

This open and generous group of people supported and influenced the development of new media writing worldwide and promoted lively debate about the impact of the World Wide Web on the future of text and literature.

The trAce website evolved its own distinctive artistic ecology. When it closed in 2005 as much of it as possible was collected in an archive website hosted by Nottingham Trent University.

Like the original website itself, the archive attracts many different kinds of visitors, including practitioners, researchers, teachers and general audiences.

Sadly, that carefully archived website is no more. Fortunately, there is still something to see thanks to the British Library’s snapshot, because the trAce website was archived as part of the British Library’s E-Publishing Trends Special Collection. However, these snapshots don’t include all pages and resources. I’m pleased still to find my name on this page and some parts of the journal will appear if you click through. I’m surprised by how much it means to me to have this proof that I really did create this work, as though its existence is integral to my integrity and my feelings of self-worth.

I’ve mentioned already how my online creativity has served to give me a stronger outline to present to the world. So that when parts are erased or just a patchy sketch remains, losing context and the flow of secure navigation pathways, it seems that I somehow retreat from myself and become a lesser version of me. As if I have to physically see my words and ideas reflected back to me before I can really grasp them and believe I generated them.

I played only a very small part in trAce’s history. Another lost project took far more of my personal energy, care and commitment between 2005 and 2008. This was the Woman-Stirred blog, a collaboration with four American women writers, which aimed to showcase lesbian and bisexual women’s cultural production, both new and from the past. My own digital contribution to LGBT History.

I understand how everything evolves and certain experiences are only transitory. The only constant is that things change. Life moves on. I get that. The Woman-Stirred blog went through various iterations and necessary changes of focus, and I had my own self-preservation reasons for moving on from it. But I would never have chosen the final deletion of all the original posts. I can’t remember when I first noticed it was no longer there. It could have been some time early in 2015 or further back in 2014, and I’m aware I am possibly still grieving its slipping away without warning.

Maybe I am grieving for the loss of some of my ambitions and dreams, however idealised they may seem now. Thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine which allows a snapshot of a webpage to be captured as a trusted citation in future, I have been able to recover something of the spirit of Woman-Stirred. It’s here: the Woman-Stirred snapshot as of 18 May 2008.

What did the Woman-Stirred collective believe it to be in the beginning?

I’d like to see Woman-Stirred be many things at once: a connection to lesbian and bi women’s literary resources and markets, a forum for literary discussions, a collection of profiles of literary dykes and bi-dykes to provide role models and networking, a place to showcase and promote our own work, and even a bit of a queer women’s literary journal.

I also see Woman-Stirred as a beautiful garden of flowers and fruits. Some, like Lillian Faderman, are in full bloom. Some, like Charlotte Mew and Virginia Woolf, are pressed between pages of books. Then there are some of us who need to be tended carefully so that we will reach full bloom. I would like our garden to be a pleasurable and nourishing place where visitors can slow down and enjoy the sights, scents, and tastes of woman-stirred poetry, art, photographs, essays.

The way I understand Woman-Stirred is that we started off as a way to support each other and promote our work, through strength in numbers. But there was always an aim to go beyond that and look outwards. I see a shared celebration of lesbian and bi women’s writing – woman-stirred writing – as the foundation stone. There are many voices, our own among them, that we want to be heard. I remember that’s why I started writing poetry – in case my voice wasn’t heard, because there were times in my history, even, when it was a real struggle to find other woman-stirred voices.

I guess we want to point the way to other writers and artists who deserve more attention than perhaps they’re currently getting. Then celebrate or otherwise constructively comment when attention is given. We want to assist the woman-stirred browser to find something new – or if not so new and unknown (take Virginia Woolf, for example), perhaps see that work in a different light. Put the woman-stirred spin on it! That involves spinning other voices in and through our own. So we’re not just a quartet, we’re part of a network that sparks off in many directions. We are a resource, but I also want our passion and personality to come through, so that our commentary (plus that of guest writers) encourages more discussion – here and elsewhere.

From http://web.archive.org/web/20060206105112/http://woman-stirred.blogspot.com/2005/10/what-is-woman-stirred.html

Lofty ambitions, perhaps!

And why so meaningful to me now?

Because this is evidence of who I used to be, who I may possibly become again. Someone who feels connected, purposeful, and excited about life. If my online history evaporates, perhaps I see my hope fading with it.

The depressed version of me needs as many reminders as it can get that I am part of something larger than myself, that I have shown myself to have value, and that I can develop new potential. I need these prompts to help me feel I’m out there in the world, connected with it all, and not just living in my head.

Archive box photo courtesy of and copyright Free Range Stock www.freerangestock.com and Stuart Miles.