Full disclosure – the beautiful, brave woman who agreed to be by first interviewee is in fact my partner. I could indulge myself here and talk of my fears about my first interview and how scared I was – if she hadn’t generously agreed to be my first I might never have conducted a single interview – but this is her story and the fear I felt pales in comparison to the journey she had the courage to share with me.
Born in Lima, Peru, she spent the first twenty years of her life in middle class suburbia with her deeply religious parents and three sisters. She remembers feeling that she was different from her sisters – whilst they were indoors playing with dolls she was outside playing with the local boys or her dogs – but she didn’t ponder this, or her feelings for other girls, she just pushed the thoughts from her mind. Her religion didn’t allow for sexual difference and Peru was conservative enough for her to have never heard of a woman loving another women.
“I had crushes on girls from an early age, maybe eight or nine, but I remember thinking that there was no way I could be with a girl in that way…I was resigned to the fact that only boys could have girlfriends”
What strikes me is that despite everything she had been taught about the wrongness of same-sex love and attraction, she knew she felt it. There was one advantage of her mother’s religious fervour however – she was wasn’t allowed a boyfriend until she was eighteen and her lack of interest in boys was welcomed, although she eventually caved to one of her suitors aged nineteen after he pursued her for three years.
Her family emigrated to Australia when she was twenty and but she maintained a long-distance relationship and married five years later. After training as a marine biologist, a stint working on a cruise ship introduced her to her first lesbian friends and something she had been trying to ignore her whole life suddenly fell into place. She jokes that she was literally dragged out of the closet by an ‘electric’ and persistent South African girl, and her whole world promptly fell apart. Her husband was devastated, her family inconsolable, and her religious convictions and whole belief system shattered.
Her parents believed she was mentally unstable and tried to persuade her to take hormones to ‘cure’ her of her same-sex attraction. Her sisters simply cried and refused to talk about it. Her mother accused her of being a monster and said she would always be alone. Her parents even hid her passport which prevented her pursuing her dream of studying great white sharks in South Africa, for fear that she would pursue a relationship with her first love. She was questioned by the elders of her faith and publicly rejected in front of her family’s congregation. With no support network she became depressed and isolated, saying sport was the only thing that saved her.
“I felt like I was falling into a black hole, crying every night, losing my mind. I didn’t know what was happening… I had no idea who I was anymore”
The ocean became her solace and there were days when she would scream underwater because she felt that was the only place she could truly be herself. But she says despite all of this, her feelings for women just felt right.
Today, nine years later, the picture is very different. She is happy with her Sydney life and is proud to declare that she is a woman who loves another woman.
“When I first realised I was actually gay I remember thinking – I didn’t choose this, why can’t I just be normal? Now I feel proud of who I am – I am so much happier and totally comfortable in my own skin”
Her family has also come a long way. They no longer abuse her, accuse her of being disgusting, having a mental disorder or a deviant lifestyle. But they won’t accept her as she is, and they won’t have anything to do with me. Coming from a family who have always accepted me as I am, there is no way I can know how this feels, but I imagine I would have walked away a long time ago. She took a different path and, despite what they have put her through, she forgives them. She believes they do what they do out of love – they fear she will not be accepted by god if she is gay so their actions are motivated by the desire to protect her. It is incredible to imagine that they may never realise how lucky they are to still have her in their lives.
I am in awe of this strength of character, and her proud acceptance of who she is despite the rejection of her family. This sense of self is inspiring to me and I hope it will be to others who are facing the same struggle. And there is hope. One of her sisters needs a place to stay in the city tonight and she is actually staying with us, if only for a few hours in the middle of the night. A small step but one in the right direction.
Her story is one that makes me even more certain of why I am undertaking this project; it needs to be told to remind the world that, whilst there may be laws to protect us from public discrimination here in Australia and elsewhere in the Western world, women who love women are having their lives, and their very selves, torn apart by those closest to them. I believe they deserve better.