I remember the moment vividly. The words that I’d held inside me for so long, churning around my head, rehearsing in the lonely silence of my room, came tumbling out: “I’m gay.” And then, overwhelmed with relief and the realization that my life would now change completely, I began to sob. My new friend, Rosetta, put her arms around me and told me that everything would be ok. The worst was over. I no longer had to hide. Three weeks previously, on a summer theater course, Rosetta had stood up in front of a room of strangers, swept back her luscious black hair, and proclaimed that she was gay. I had never witnessed such a courageous, proud statement of identity - it was life-affirming and transformative. Rosetta, I knew, would understand. Together, we could take on the world.
This was 19 years ago, and although I have seen Rosetta infrequently over recent years, she remains one of the greatest influences on my life. She gave me strength when I needed it most; she made me laugh through the pain; she showed me that there was hope, and beauty, even in the darkest of places.
Lesbians often get a bad rep from gay men. At the most basic level, the majority of gay venues are geared towards gay men. In London, there is just one bar solely for gay women. Moreover, stereotypes abound: I’ve met many gay men who dismiss lesbians as aggressive or 'butch' figures of derision to be avoided – or feared. Misogyny, sadly, is, in my experience, prevalent among gay men. And yet, I am not alone in counting a lesbian as one of my best friends. What, then, can gays and lesbians offer one another regarding friendship that other people cannot?
Rosetta has since gone on to forge very close friendships with other gay men. “Sex isn't in the equation in these friendships,” she says. “There is no chance of feelings stirring up and making the dynamics between the two of you complicated. There is a safety there, knowing you can be yourself and sexual attraction will not get in the way. Ever. In addition to this, you will never find yourself competing for the attentions of someone, because you'll never be attracted to the same person.
“All my gay male friends are close to me for different reasons, whether it be art, theater culture. Some became close friends because we had fun going out on the scene and could happily meet up for a coffee and have plenty to entertain ourselves with through conversations. Others I have met later in life.”
Jason Ford has known his lesbian best friend, SimMi, for over 12 years. They met when SimMi had a few extra tickets for Madonna’s Reinvention Tour in 2004, and she sold some to Jason. SimMi cites similar reasons as Rosetta for their friendship lasting: there is no sexual attraction so that they can be completely open and honest with one another. “We’ve also faced the same struggle for equality,” she adds. These are sentiments Jason agrees with: “We've been through break-ups, divorces, marriages, family illnesses, you name it, but SimMi’s the first person I call because we all need that touchstone to ask –‘am I being crazy?’ And to get an honest answer.”
But how do the pair respond to the frequently repeated claim that gay men and lesbians have little in common, beyond the fact that they are not heterosexual? “I can see why that can be, but I don't think one minority opposing another is a productive way to live,” says SimMi. “And indeed a waste of my time. I have never had experienced this. Most of my close friends are gay men.”
“I think in our case, SimMi is more like a gay man trapped in lesbian's body,” laughs Jason, “and I'm more of a lesbian stuck in a gay man's body. So we balance each other out that way. She's the yang to my yin. We've both had a stressful couple of years recently, and at times we have been known to scare our friends with fiery debates in public. Mostly it was about blowing off steam, but some people found it troubling, shall we say. But this is the woman I know inside and out, and her me.”
But, crucially, it’s not just sharing their personal challenges that have cemented their bond: it’s in their united response to events that have had an impact on all LGBT people. Together they’ve watched the monumental changes in gay rights over the years.
“Gay rights have come a long way, but we haven't won the fight. Orlando's tragic and needless attack is an illustration of that,” explains SimMi. “Now we have Brexit to contend with, where xenophobia and gay slurs are being shouted out in the streets of London because suddenly some people think they have permission to behave like that. We should always stand together in unity. Love should always win.”
“Lesbians are our sisters. We have a shared history,” insists Jason. “When gay men were dying of AIDS in the 80s, it was our sisters that looked after us and fought alongside us. We're a family. And in a world where we don't always have the love of our own blood, it's important to have someone in your life that understands.”
Real friendships, Rosetta adds, are those that endure despite the odds. “It's amazing how the gay scene can glue bonds together - and if one day all the gay clubs in your city or town close down - you then find out who the real friends are,” she says. “When that isn't there anymore, you are left with how well do you know this person outside of the scene queen framework? It's a sure fast way to tell if you will be friends, as friends should be to one another.”
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