Formative Influences

Jun 2, 2024 | Real life, Sapphic | 2 comments

June is PRIDE month all over the world, when the LGBTQIA+ community celebrates coming out and living as our true selves—despite the dangers. In 2024 the Dutch city of Groningen, near where I live, is celebrating PRIDE well into August. Reading about my local PRIDE events reminded me of the influences that shaped my own coming out.

It all began when I was 15, a fifth-former at a girls-only school in Auckland (NZ), flirting with my classmate crush. Jax and I played a secret game* during boring lessons. I’d grab her hand under the desk, whispering, “Lez be friends” and Jax would pull away, pretending shock, “Homo you don’t!” Simple fun, you might think, but at the same time I was having weird homoerotic dreams. They worried me and eventually I went to my Dad.

“I think I’m a lesbian,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” Dad said. “It’s just a phase.”
Soon after, two gay friends, Marcus and Grant smuggled me into Mojo’s, the local drag bar. What an eye-popping time I had, admiring gorgeous Nicole and her glamorous chorus queens lip-synching to showtunes. Surrounded by theatrical gays, at once I felt at home.

Mojo’s Nightclub was unlicensed and couldn’t serve booze directly. Instead, “club members” had to buy coupons to swap for shots. Marcus sent me off to buy a set from the booth at the back of the club. And there, tucked away in the relative quiet, selling the coupons was Claire, small, dark and irresistible. I looked at her, she looked at me and something clicked. Before I knew it, we were deep in easy conversation. And soon after** I kissed a girl and liked it. Kissing Claire, feeling her soft cheek against mine, this felt so right I knew it wasn’t a phase and stopped worrying on the spot.

Next day I told Dad, “Guess what, I am a lesbian.”
“So what,” he said. And that was that.***

In the following period I read all I could about homosexuality, desperate to find positive role models to counter the dreadful lesbian stereotypes I’d seen in films. Think of The Killing of Sister George (Beryl Reid & Susannah York), The Fox (Anne Heywood & Sandy Dennis) and The Children’s Hour (Audrey Hepburn & Shirley MacLaine) (!!!). These Hollywood films have such a lot to answer for!

First, trawling the shelves of the public library I found Violette Leduc, La Batarde. Oh the passion, the fevered longing of her teenage lovers, Therese and Isabelle! I identified with their adolescent angst and kept this precious book under my pillow.

Then I had the good luck to come across The Pure and The Impure by another French writer, Colette. Sensual, visceral writing! Each word so perfectly chosen Colette made writing look easy. I found this book inspiring, went on to read many other works by Colette (all-time favorite, her short story collection The Rainy Moon) and wished that one day I’d be able to write as well as her (dream on).

A while after, I was delighted to discover Dr. Charlotte Wolff, Love Between Women. Unlike the above, this was a textbook, nonfiction, but not in the least boring. Wolff’s heartfelt study of lesbian theory explained such a lot of myself to me. These encouraging titles made up for the rampant negativity I’d fought against while reading that awful classic by Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness.

Then, years later, beyond the scope of these formative influences, I came across The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan (aka Carol by Patricia Highsmith) and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown and at long last! Happy endings! Yay! Being lesbian didn’t mean I was doomed to be killed like Sister George, a sad old dyke left abandoned at the end of the film. Thank the goddess there are so many positive stories around today (see my posts on Lesfic Pioneers, Val McDermid and Mary Wings).

True confession: I nicked Charlotte Wolff’s book from the library along with all the other dusty tomes hidden on the adults-only “homosexual” shelf. After I left school and dropped out of university to become an actress, I moved to another city  to take up an acting job. One day I was in the bath with my first real girlfriend when we heard a knock on our front door. I opened up to reveal a stern police constable “making inquiries” about the stolen library books. I still had them (of course), rushed to fetch them and thrust the stack into the copper’s hands. He took them in exchange for a summons to appear in court. I wrote a letter explaining why I couldn’t turn up (I was playing Viola in Twelfth Night and, you know, The Show Must Go On). I have to admit, my father took care of the fine issued in my absence and sad to say, I never paid him back. Sorry Dad!

* For readers wondering how autobiographical my novel writing is, the simple answer is: not a lot. My books are FICTION. That said, snippets of my life do creep in. For instance, two teenagers play this silly little game in Chapter 76 of  Becoming Janice.
** Hey, it was the early 1970s, the age of sexual revolution. Everyone moved in fast back then, even baby dykes.
*** Yes, I do know how lucky I am to have found parental acceptance so easily and even luckier that I entered a profession (the theatre) that relished camp**** and nobody cared two hoots about your sexuality.
**** Definition of camp style.

Queer Pride in Groningen 2024
Program in Dutch:
Pride in NL:

Featured image
That’s me in front (!), wearing a rainbow striped vest with other founding members of Auckland’s fledgling Gay Liberation celebrating our first PRIDE in June 1973.

Further reading (click on the pic)








    • rdw

      Thank you! Dad was a great guy… turned out he was bisexual so that may have coloured his easy acceptance. But both Mum and Dad were fine and treated my girlfriend like another precious daughter


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