Intimacies: Revelations: It hit me that living with a woman was a genuine alternative. It was absolutely terrifying
The time: Early Eighties The place: Manchester The person: Val McDermid, crime-writer and winner of the Golden Dagger award.
Wednesday 05 November 1997
It was complicated because for adolescent girls the reality of your emotional relationships lie in your female friendships. You might go out with a lad on Saturday night, but it's not real until you've discussed it in double Latin on a Monday morning. I thought we all felt intensely about our female friends, but it was just something you didn't talk about - like periods.
The first consciously public lesbian thing that I came across was The Well of Loneliness. That depressed me beyond belief. I thought: "I don't want to be a man, wear men's suits, be called Stephen, and I certainly don't want to slash my wrists. I can't possibly be a lesbian."
At university, I discovered the feminist movement and was exposed to real lesbians. I had a tutorial partner from another college in my second year at Oxford. She lived with another woman and didn't have a problem with it. That's when it hit me that this was a genuine alternative and one that felt extremely desirable. It was absolutely terrifying, I didn't know what to do. Where do you go, who do you speak to?
What clarified it all for me was falling in love with someone who fell in love with me. It made all the wondering and fear irrelevant. It was still scary, but at least we were in it together.
I didn't know how my friends would react. I'd read horror stories of people who came out and lost their friends, and I didn't even know how to start to explain. But being in love you walk around with a stupid grin on your face. You think you're being dead subtle; however, you're never out of each other's company and you sit and stare at each other across the table in the library when you're supposed to be working. Yet you're astonished that people notice! The first person I really came out to said: "Yes, so what, I knew."
Only one friend recoiled in horror. It really damaged out friendship. For another 12 years we didn't have any contact. We'd been very close and I think she felt threatened.
Telling my parents was a gradual process of getting them used to the fact that I was living with a woman. It was more acknowledged than spoken about.
I found it almost impossible to speak directly to my father. Fathers and daughters have a problem in this area. He'd listened to my lesbian play on the radio, but died before my lesbian crime novel was published. There was no hostility to my girlfriends, but actually talking about it was something he would have found very, very difficult. There was no pattern for emotional discourse in our family. It was all very buttoned up, Scottish and Presbyterian.
His death liberated me to be much more open with my mother. Now she is relaxed going on holiday with my partner's mother. Yet it is still difficult for my mother and I to say that we love each other. There's just an occasional embarrassed mumble at the end of a phone call.
I worked for The People newspaper, and tabloids are not noted for their liberal views on anybody's sex life - beyond it's all right to screw everything in sight if you're a man. It's more difficult for a woman in that kind of environment anyway. In 1979 there were 137 journalists working for the Mirror Group in Manchester and only two of us were women. I constantly had to demonstrate that I could do the job. It was hard enough being a woman, let alone a lesbian.
The assumption in the workplace is that everybody is straight, and people talk about what they did at the weekend with this easy assumption that everybody else is straight. It's very hard to find a point, without making it an issue, to be out. You have to ask how it will affect your relationship with the person who sits at the next desk who's a raging bigot - or your boss who's also a raging bigot. So for me, coming out at work was a gradual process. As I got to know them and they got to know me and they slowly developed a respect for me professionally, I let it be clear that the person I lived with was a woman.
There was an element who thought: "She's a tough ball-breaking woman, so she must be a dyke." I found the insecurity of the macho men amusing more than anything. I was confident of myself professionally and in my relationship, so that made it easier. If I was having problems it would have been very difficult.
I felt that the price of being out was far less than the price of the closet and what that would have done to my dignity and integrity. Hiding is not a grown-up thing to do.
However, I get annoyed about being described as a lesbian novelist. I am inevitably, to some extent, representative of my community, but I am an individual too. I was accused of selling out when I created my heterosexual heroine - Kate Brannigan. These people did not understand the commercial imperatives of the marketplace and the necessity of writers to eat. My local bookshop sells five times as many copies of my Lindsay Gordons [lesbian amateur sleuth] from the crime section shelves as they do from the gay and lesbian section. I forced myself out of the ghetto.
Because I am in the public arena, people know I am a lesbian before they shake my hand. Sometimes I wish it was not the first thing they knew about me, because they make judgements that are often based just on having seen Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit on the TV. I think: "Hang on, I'm probably much more like you than not like you."
I have heard it said that lesbians make crime writers because in the conventions of a crime novel, the detective is in some way an outsider. For much of our growing-up period, adolescence and young adulthood, the experience of being an outsider has been very strong. Particularly woman of my generation understand what it is to feel like a freak who doesn't belong. I suspect this is something I draw on when I write about the hunter, who is outside the rest of society because we turn to them to save us, and the hunted who by their anti-social behaviour are excluded.
I want to carry on writing books with both heterosexual and homosexual protagonists because I want my writing to reflect the world I live in and not just one corner of it. I certainly don't think of myself as an "ism". My partner has a very affectionate tendency to prick my balloon from time to time and remind me of who I am and where I come from. We have a standing joke in our house: "You're not an international lesbian cultural icon here!"
Interview by Andrew G Marshall
Val McDermid's new book is `The Wire in the Blood', published on 6 November by Harper Collins (pounds l6.99).
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