My interest in Jacki started the moment I found out that her English project was about the history of lesbianism in literature. I didn’t know Jacki very well, but I knew she was really smart, and I liked her smile and her signature long dark brown curls. I especially liked the fact that she might also be gay, like me, but I was also terrified by the possibility that she wasn’t. Whilst my gay desperation was strong, my anxiety was stronger, so I decided that the one thing I absolutely could not do was ask Jacki directly about her sexuality and why she’d chosen that topic. Instead we chatted during study periods in the library, subtly flirting as we discussed the impact of homophobia and the patriarchy and why there were so few examples of queer female partnerships in the media that didn’t end in tragedy.
Looking back on the many examples of the ‘lesbian death trope’ in the LGBTIQA+ media I hungrily consumed as a teen definitely didn’t help my perception that queer love was supposed to be filled with violence and intensity.
Our study sessions began spilling out into grabbing coffee or a smoothie after school. Jacki would drive us to the nearby beach and we’d sit on one of the green wooden benches, alternating between whale-watching and people-watching. One time she mentioned that people always asked if she was gay because of her English project, including teachers and the school counsellor. I didn’t say anything and neither did she. Later she asked me why I hadn’t taken that invitation to ask her myself and my answer was simple; ‘what if you weren’t?’
Finally confirmation came when she took my hand in hers. My heart began beating outrageously and I was worried my hand would get too sweaty, but I grinned the entire way home. I had a girlfriend. Finally!
For years, I had been trying to figure out exactly why I didn’t feel like I fit in. I had always been a bit of a tomboy and whilst that left me vulnerable to some teasing, I honestly didn’t think much of my gender or sexuality. My first kiss was my childhood best friend who lived across the road. I was thirteen, he was fourteen. He became my boyfriend and that was that. Even though the other girls in my group got labelled as ‘the lesbian crew’ by a particularly wonderful group of boys from my year, my boyfriend was my ‘get out of lesbian crew jail card’. This strategy worked until I realised I was falling head over heels for a girl in my group. Even though I had no idea what it meant, I didn’t think that falling in love with a girl was much different to falling in love with a boy. Unfortunately, my friendship group disagreed. I tried sticking it out for the rest of year 9 but the constant weirdness and exclusion got too much, so I ended up moving schools.
After the disaster of my first attempt at telling people I liked girls, I decided to keep it hidden at my next school. I bottled up all my feelings and kept it hidden deep within me, allowing it out sometimes when I would guiltily watch the L Word or scroll through hundreds of Tumblr posts, where finally I felt somewhat validated and seen.
Now with Jacki, I could finally allow myself to ‘come out’ and be able to at least be with someone I could love. As one of the only openly queer people in my year group and with year 12 final exams fast approaching, I had honestly given up all hope of ever finding a girlfriend. I was so desperate to prove to everyone that I was queer, that that kind of relationship could work. That I wasn’t wrong. That I was normal. This relationship had to be perfect because we had to prove everyone else wrong.
I didn’t really notice it at first. There were the occasional snide remarks, comments or lifted eyebrows whenever I did something that Jacki didn’t fully agree with, but I didn’t think much of it. Besides, I knew her parents were fairly homophobic which must’ve been really stressful for her. But then came the line: “you know if I don’t get an ATAR of 99, my parents will blame you”. We were on our way to our formal, it was the end of all thirteen years of school, end of a year of exams and stress. This was a time of celebration, but I mostly remember that feeling of deep guilt and anxiety that settled in my gut. Over the past couple of months of us dating, Jacki had constantly reminded me of how her parents thought that I’d ‘turned her’.
“My mum will never like you. She thinks you’re a liar and that you force me to lie, that you made me gay. She will never forgive you for ruining my future”.
I caught the bus for hours just to see her. Sometimes I was a yoga lesson in Manly. Sometimes I was uni. Sometimes my name was Katie, or Maria, or Ella.
She often asked if I could get my friends to lie and back up her stories just in case her parents ever asked. I felt like she was ashamed of me. She never wanted to fight for me, I wasn’t worth it. The snide remarks and comments increased. I remembered how she jokingly talked about how she couldn’t be in close relationships with people who were “pushovers” as she “couldn’t stop herself from steam rolling over them”. I laughed along with her despite feeling increasingly uneasy. I didn’t know what red flags were back then, and besides, we were in love and that meant that everything was worth it.
Everything I was good at and she wasn’t suddenly became stupid, meaningless or childish. Shameful even. And things that I couldn’t do but she was brilliant at, experiences I’d never had but she had, became the benchmark of success – those were the skills and experiences that really mattered. She hated my friends and my family and constantly reminded me of why they were all terrible people who didn’t understand what was best for me… unlike her. Her nails would dig into my back when we meet new people.
“You have such a flirty personality. You always lead people on”.
Jacki would scratch at my back when she wanted to leave a conversation. I could tell by the way she stiffened. Her voice would change. That’s when I knew she was mad about something and I was in trouble. Jacki’s anger was special. She warned me about it, telling me that once something triggered it, she’d stay mad for hours, so I had to be careful with what I did so it wouldn’t ruin the whole day. It could be triggered by anything. Something so small: the way I dressed; mentioning someone she didn’t like; not being good enough; not responding enough; disagreeing with her. And it would ruin the entire day. Nothing would make up for it. The tension would fill the air and slowly wrap around me like a deep, black boa constrictor. It would start in my heart and throat, press into my stomach and squeeze each breath out of me. Her anger could be silent, constrained in pursed lips, loud breaths, teeth clenching, arms folded silence, but then it could explode at any point. I learnt to walk on eggshells. I learnt to choose my words carefully. I learnt not to speak at all. I had no opinion. I was nothing.
I’m not sure what everyone thought in that time. I’m sure people didn’t want to believe how bad it was. But they noticed. Some of them tried really hard to get me out. But most stayed silent, unsure of their place, unsure of how bad it could possibly be. One of my best friends sent me an article about the signs of an abusive relationship. I read through it slowly ticking boxes with a growing sense of realisation and recognition. I started Googling more examples and stories and that’s where the recognition stopped and the doubt began to crawl its way back in again: almost every story, article, resource and service talked about a him.
Besides it wasn’t really all that physical and what was the worst that could happen if I stayed? I was all too aware of the consequences of trying to leave.
My lifeline came in the form of my job. After my experiences in high school I really wanted to work in LGBTIQA+ advocacy or youth work so I could help ensure that other people didn’t have to go through what I did. Miraculously Jacki had left a queer magazine at my house that had an ad for people who wanted to share their coming out journey to high school students. Opening up about your most vulnerable moments to a bunch of year 9 students helps you process trauma and shame-filled memories like nothing else. It was difficult and awkward sometimes, but I knew it was making a difference to others. Having other queer young people come to me afterwards and getting the privilege of hearing their stories made me realise just how life-changing it would have been to have had an older queer person share their experiences with me. I wouldn’t have felt so alone and like I had to figure everything out by myself. Doing that job led me to more public speaking events and eventually I got offered an internship in a city interstate.
Jacki didn’t want me to go, but I had to, this was my way out and my way to my future. This job had finally given me a source of confidence and self-assuredness that Jacki had done her best to erode but had failed to. More than that, being surrounded by other queer people had helped me to realise that I still carried around a lot of internalised homophobia. I began to see that I deserved to be loved wholly and fully for who I was. I deserved to be in relationships that weren’t just safe (safety should be a given) but also allow me to thrive.
This article was written by Remy, who is 24 and living in Victoria.