My name is Bella and I live and work in London predominantly as a writer and performance poet. Being a performer, I get booked to share my work with all kinds of live audiences ranging from the quiet, attentive library groups, to the loud, clicking, late-night open mic crowds.
For me, variation is the spice of life so I thrive on this thrilling and unpredictable mix of listeners.
What follows is a story about one audience’s reaction to my work, and to my sexuality.
It’s the Summer of 2018 in London, I have been booked by a fellow poet, and friend, to perform my poetry for a student-led evening event at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I am excited but nervous as I enter the large, dark basement room and immediately feel I made the wrong fashion choice.
The students simply ooze cool. High top sneakers, scuffed up boots and low-slung jeans are everywhere I look, and as I enter, wearing a floor-length skirt, a tight top and sandals, I feel myself shrink.
But I’m here now, my friend is welcoming, and ‘at least it’s a fun skirt’ I tell myself as I get a drink.
The event begins with rock music and the audience is loud and energetic, getting up on their feet repeatedly to dance and sing along with the bands that play before me. I slowly ease into the energy and begin to enjoy myself, tapping my sandalled feet to the beat.
One of the bassists is a lesbian and clearly has a huge following in this crowd, every time she saunters to the front of the stage, fingers expertly thrumming her vintage-looking bass guitar, the audience is unhinged, going wild.
Watching her, and the reaction to her, I am envious.
My nerves – already doubled – begin to multiply with the awareness that poetry offers a very different entertainment experience to rock music…
But eventually it is my turn on stage. My friend gives me a flattering introduction that I’m not sure I can live up to, and I begin my set of spoken word pieces that charter waters of patriotism without citizenship, self-belief within depression, and, lastly, romantic love across distance. (Because what kind of poet would I be, without a love poem or two?)
Throughout the first 10-minutes, the audience is kind and attentive, but quiet. (Think library group.) But as I begin the final piece, the love poem, I feel that they are on my side and we have built a gentle rapport. Mid-way through the piece in which I am missing and yearning for a far away lover, someone even tuts and yells out “He’s not worth your time!”
I smile internally, knowing that the next line reads: “you will always be the first woman to have loved me without disclaimers.”
When I get to the line and speak it (with some emphasis on the word ‘woman’) there is a sudden, terrifying uproar. The whole front row of the audience has risen, cheering. Loudly exclaiming their pride.
My body seizes up in fear
For a split-second my body seizes up in fear, misreading the heated joy as targeted anger (perhaps this is a residual reaction I carry from previous situations encountering homophobia) and I fight the internal urge to run to safety, before I realise with relief that this is praise. This is a celebration… This is acceptance.
In the afterglow of my performance, still beaming at the reaction my sexual identity received, feeling a warmth fill my whole body, I go to sit backstage with a group of other performers, including the sexy bassist and some audience members.
A few of them come up to me and state their excitement about my being a lesbian and getting to hear lesbian poetry live at their school. I am grateful and we share a laugh about heteronormativity in entertainment, before I correct them that I identify as bisexual, and not as a lesbian.
Immediately, the energy in the room shifts.
A coldness seems to wrap itself around me as these women simultaneously take a few steps back from me. I feel suddenly shunned, ashamed. The implication being that I am not gay enough for them.
I am left alone to mull on the whiplash of this emotional u-turn for the rest of the evening until I feel it is okay to leave. As I walk home, cold, trying to comfort myself with the thought that at least they weren’t homophobic, I cannot help but feel that this is still a kind of discrimination.
The notion that to live the bisexual experience is to constantly be under the headline of “Not ‘blank’ Enough” is widely recognised and understood. But it bares repeating that that this lack of acceptance – and even rejection – from fellow members of an already marginalised group, creates divisive wounds within our queer community.
To be a niche within a niche can make bi-babes feel isolated, misunderstood, and undervalued. We can become afraid to speak up about how we identify for fear of this very reaction, both from straights and gays and so many of us deny parts of ourselves with disclaimers about who we are.
We stay closetted in heteronormative relationships, or come out but wearing the ‘wrong’ label in same-sex relationships, allowing the world to define us based on the gender of the person we are dating at that moment, stripping ourselves of part of our identities.
I still share that love poem about my first girlfriend (now best friend.) It’s actually become a popular request in some spaces. And the line that received the ovation feels ever more potent to me since that performance. It makes me appreciate even more the fact that she, a lesbian woman, was and always will be “the first woman to have loved me, without any disclaimers.”
Written by Bella Cox