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A long journey to the woman I really am: After 51 years, Deirdre Haslam faced the truth privately about herself. Now the hounding of the headteacher of a Hackney school leads her to say publicly: I am a lesbian and proud of it

It did not happen overnight. Since childhood, I had managed the difficult feat both of being aware that the objects of my most passionate feeling were other girls and women while, at the same time, attempting with single-minded determination to be part of the heterosexual world.

I was educated within the heart of the establishment, going to a public school, although as a scholarship girl whose mother was a widow I was definitely suspect from the first day I arrived in a red plaid dress rather than the sober grey of the other girls. In those days I had one idea in mind: to be as like everybody else as I could manage.

Never mind that it was acceptable to be 'gone' on an older girl, which I was fervently, and yet unacceptable for the head girl to be found with a younger girl in her bed; I knew that if I valued my tenuous place in that world I needed to keep my confusions to myself. Never mind that although I held hands with my best friend as we went for walks together, we knew instinctively that we had to drop them when we came across anyone else, even though I could not understand why it was wrong.

Never mind that I mistrusted boys and was completely inarticulate in their company apart from when we were messing about doing boys' things such as building bonfires or making tree houses. And never mind that the first time I kissed a boy I was so appalled by the experience that I felt I never wanted to kiss another in my entire life. To be accepted meant having a boyfriend and being normal.

Oddly enough, I was the first of my friends to have sex with a man, even though the experience seemed wildly overrated to me. I rapidly decided that it must be because I was frigid, since I never seemed to enjoy it, and I continued to have passionless and unsatisfying sex in the hope that one day I would discover whatever it was that would make everything all right.

In my early twenties I had what I now recognise was a breakdown, but because I was used to periods of intense depression I just soldiered on, managing to avoid suicide by a hair's breadth. A friend, whom I guessed now was also lesbian, rescued me from this state and introduced me to a group of her friends who were as exotic as rare birds to me: they were working-class, creative artists and Communist and, most wonderful of all, they accepted and even appeared to like me. My depression disappeared.

But at the age of 29, I found myself married and respectable at last. I was willing to do anything in order to be acceptable to my husband. I contorted and twisted myself into any shape he demanded, but the one thing I could not do was be roused by his love-making.

I then took the then unheard-of step of seeking help from an analyst, something I kept hidden since I knew that if any word of my doings got out I would lose my job as a teacher. But I was desperate to keep my marriage together, even when I became a battered wife. My analyst would tell me that I had to let my husband know that if he hit me again that would be the end. I never seemed to be able to get that message across.

Thus we staggered on for eight years until a miracle happened: I fell in love with the most beautiful, most vibrant woman I had ever encountered. Nothing else mattered for me except being in her company. I stopped caring about what my husband thought, introduced her as my friend into the family house and insisted she become part of our circle of friends. We had not at that stage become lovers because I was far too inhibited to make any moves towards her. But she eventually seduced me - on a bed of nettles as we were walking through an overgrown wood near my home.

I had by this time stopped analysis, but I returned because I could not reconcile myself to what was happening. How could I be in love with a woman? My analyst suggested that it had to do with unresolved issues with my mother and I went along with that. At least I felt less guilty, although it did not stop me from being torn apart with jealousy if she so much as looked at another woman.

The inevitable happened: after an angry clash with my husband we parted company. Perhaps it was inevitable that my new-found relationship did not survive the breakup of my marriage, although I had left my husband with the firm belief that we two would set up house together and live happily ever after.

From then on, I found myself drawn towards women, although I never made more than the most tentative move towards any of them and continued to seek sexual satisfaction with men. The affairs I had were desultory, sexually unsatisfying and, with one honourable exception, invariably emotionally, physically or sexually abusive - sometimes all three. This culminated early last year in my becoming so frightened by the man I was living with that I was driven to get an injunction against him.

I was finally forced to recognise that I no longer wished to have anything further to do with men sexually. I have never felt such annihilating despair or a stronger desire to be dead, although I never contemplated suicide.

I had extraordinary help, love and support from friends and from the Friends, my local Quaker meeting. The police were impeccable and I shall always be glad that I went through the trauma of making a statement, emotionally exhausting though it was. The process of telling my story proved to be cathartic and helped, along with all the other support, to rescue me from the trap I had been in for so many years.

The turning point came on a walk when I fantasised that by touching a certain bush I could simply cease to exist. I found that even in my fantasy I could not touch that bush. From that moment it was uphill all the way. It was finally clear to me that my attempts to be part of the heterosexual world were a thing of the past. My leap into full acceptance of my lesbianism came through the simple expedient of falling passionately and hopelessly in love with a woman for the second time, and the cure for that was to look long and hard at myself and accept the reality of myself with joy and with love.

Recently, after my latest foray into a feminist bookshop where I had managed to stand openly in front of the lesbian shelves, eventually coming out armed with a pile of books and magazines, I walked down the street and realised I felt as though I had been sprung from a trap. I felt so light I was almost floating off the ground. I wanted to shout from the rooftops: 'Hey, I'm a lesbian]'

Why had it taken me so long? Why was it only this new year, at the ripe old age of 51, that I could make the resolution to come out?

Until recently, I had an overwhelming need to be accepted by the people around me and this led me to deny my own perceptions in favour of theirs if we saw things differently. I have spent my professional life first as a teacher and, since 1983, in the field of counselling and therapy. When I was a teacher I did not know a single person who openly admitted to being lesbian or gay, and the accepted theory during my training as a counsellor was that homosexuality was a sign of psychological and sexual immaturity; that if one had enough analysis or therapy one could eventually be cured. The main training institutes, with few exceptions, would not have taken anybody on who was open about their homosexuality.

All around me I see people who cannot, for whatever reason, openly acknowledge that they are lesbian or gay, even though we have laws to protect us from discrimination. What angers me is the waste. Since I have come out, I have found my voice: in the poetry I write and now in taking, for me, the huge step of writing this article in solidarity with those women who are being hounded for something that I now proclaim with pride and joy.

(Photograph omitted)