It might sound strange in a story about a woman who loves women, but the major focus of Emma’s life for the past eight months has been a man. Although admittedly he is a very little man.
Her son was born to her partner late last year and he has literally taken over their lives. He is learning new things every day; this past week he has discovered he can communicate by screaming. Their smart Sydney apartment has been transformed into a riot of toys, books and baby paraphernalia, and they are now considering whether to stay put or move away from the city. They both grew up in environments where they were free to play outside and they’d love for him to have that freedom too.
Although she was born in the suburbs of the South Australian city of Adelaide, Emma’s family moved to Tasmania when she was two so she spent most of her primary school years outdoors tree climbing and bike riding. She was the second of four children, with two sisters and a younger brother, and describes this time as happy and sheltered “as in happy clappy churchey”. Her family were committed Christians and went to church every Sunday, with the children attending Sunday School and taking part in church plays, and it felt as though they were part of a supportive and happy community. Emma was very independent and did well at school, and she had a group of girlfriends who were inseparable.
This sheltered childhood continued once the family moved back to Adelaide when Emma was nine; she remembers not being allowed to listen to commercial radio or watch popular TV shows like Neighbours. She attended several state high schools; her parents had wanted her to sit the exam for a local private school but until she started having problems with her friendship group she refused. The problems started because of a screenplay Emma wrote when she was 15.
“The central character in the screenplay I wrote was a gay girl who was struggling with being accepted, and clearly it was probably me, but at the time I didn’t realise that.”
The reaction to the screenplay from her friends involved name calling and back-stabbing; the message was: “we don’t like you anymore, you’re gay”. Emma doesn’t believe it was really about her being gay (she didn’t even realise she was at the time), just general school girl bitchiness because she was smart and a bit different. She doesn’t remember anyone ever coming out as gay or talking about it at high school or the girls’ school she went to next, although much later she bumped into an old school friend who had in fact been gay and had been dating another girl from their class in secret.
Despite her sheltered upbringing, Emma remembers knowing that gay people existed because of Madonna. When she was 12 or 13 she was a big fan; she knew that Madonna had gay male fans and was and advocate of gay rights. She remembers discussing the issue with her dad and questioning why gay people should be treated any differently to anyone else, she couldn’t see what the problem was.
“My dad’s response was that it was ‘a sin, god doesn’t want it that way’. My response was ‘if god made us all, why would he make gay people if he doesn’t want them to be like that?’”
This was around the age that she started to rebel, having regular arguments with her parents over anything from wearing school colours to who she could be friends with. It was a very combative time and she realised she felt very differently to them on so many things – “it was the beginning of the end of church for me”. She began to challenge her parents on her right to choose whether she attended church and in the end she succeeded. If her younger sister was able to make the decision to get baptised aged 11, why couldn’t she decide to step away from the church? Emma felt there were gaps in the logic of the church – it seemed to her that people were accepting things just because they were told to accept them. She disagreed deeply with what was being taught and even began feel physically sick when she was forced to sing hymns.
Although by this time Emma knew what it meant to be gay, she never considered this applied to her. She remembers being quite popular with boys at a young age as she got boobs before most of the other girls, getting attention from them and valentines presents. But later when friends were starting to talk about boys she just didn’t understand what it was all about, she just wasn’t interested. When she was about 14 she had a boyfriend because everyone else seemed to have one, but when she first kissed him it felt like it was just mechanical.
“When my first boyfriend kissed me I remember just opening my eyes and thinking, when is thing going to end? I just didn’t get it”.
Then about two or three years later she had a female friend she began to feel nervous around and she became jealous of her other friends. She remembers wanting to be better friends with her, though nothing more, and not understanding why she didn’t reciprocate her feelings.
Emma went straight to university following high school, but after six months she left on a student exchange, in part inspired by her feelings for this friend who had left a few months before to undertake an exchange in Denmark.
She applied to go anywhere in Europe, and when she was assigned to go to Latvia even the staff at the student exchange office didn’t know where it was. It took a long time to learn the language (which she discovered was in fact Russian and not Latvian) and make connections, but Emma developed a close friendship with a girl in her class called Katya, someone with whom she had a connection despite the language barrier.
On her return everything had changed for Emma; she no longer wanted to study biology or psychology or drama as she had before, instead choosing Russian for which she moved to Sydney as this wasn’t an option in Adelaide.
Her 21st birthday came around and her parents asked what she wanted as a birthday gift – they had thrown a huge party for her older sister but Emma’s friends were now scattered across Australia (and Latvia) so a party just didn’t feel right. Instead she convinced her parents to help her to bring her Katya to Australia for a year.
Her parents agreed and she moved in with Emma who partly supported her while she learned English and looked for work. As Emma says:
“It was a very very confused friendship. Looking back it is so clear – why else would anyone get their parents to buy someone a plane ticket to have them move halfway across the world?”
Towards the end of Katya’s year in Australia Emma worked out what was going on and what her feelings might mean. She says she knew Katya also had feelings for her but Emma knew that in Russian society it just wasn’t acceptable and is still considered an illness.
All this was unspoken until one night Katya drunkenly said to Emma that she thought she was in love with her. But Emma just didn’t believe that it would happen. She says the last three months she was in Sydney were so messy and complicated she can’t even confidently piece together what happened, just how she felt. They were both scared by it all, “she slept with a guy, I slept with a guy, and we were both just confused and hurting”.
On her return to Latvia Katya told Emma that she loved her and could see her as her girlfriend which Emma didn’t know how to respond to – she was telling her everything she wanted to hear but it was too late, and in the end she was so hurt she cut off all contact.
At this point Emma was 22 and, although she had never dated or even kissed a girl, she knew she was definitely gay. About six months after Katya left she met her first girlfriend through her part-time job at the cinema chain Hoyts. She was funny and lightened everything up during a hard time for Emma, but after three months and the girl ended it suddenly, and Emma doesn’t know to this day why.
A short while later she took the decision to tell her parents she was gay. She says she had always had a fairly distant relationship with her father so she decided to invite her mum to Sydney to tell her first, although right at the last minute she invited her father too. By this time they knew something was going on and they were expecting to arrive in Sydney and be told something – they had narrowed it down to gay or pregnant – and given that she had lost a lot of weight during her recent traumas they realised pretty quickly what was going on.
Even before she actually told them she remembers feeling very calm, that no matter what their reaction it was their problem and not a problem with her – it was their beliefs that would cause them to be distressed and not her or her actions. Her mother was just quiet, then burst into tears and left the room. Her father’s response was to ask questions. They wanted to know about Katya and whether Emma had been involved with her.
“My father even asked me how girls have sex, to which I responded ‘do you really want to know?’ There were no more questions after that.”
Her parents struggled with this for many years. The rest of her family were largely supportive, including her aunt, her grandmother and two of her three siblings. Her older sister believed at the time she was going to hell, although she has mellowed over the past 15 years. Later her parents wanted to know how she knew, as they were not aware that she had slept with a guy before coming out. She thought about how she could convince them that she really knew she was gay. Eventually she told them this:
“Imagine you are back in high school and you are sitting on the bus next to your best friend. You are just chatting and their leg could be touching your leg but you are totally oblivious to it as they’re just a friend. Then imagine you are sitting next to someone you like and you are totally aware of everything they do; your body is responding to their every move. I cannot help it but that person is always female.”
After the chaos in her life had subsided a little and she had finished her studies, Emma began her career working for an audio-visual copyright non-profit based in Sydney. She didn’t date anyone for the next six years – she says had been so hurt by her experiences that she simply didn’t put herself out there. She loved her work and became increasingly busy, and she also developed something of a minor obsession with the lesbian TV show the L-Word so most of her spare time was spent teaching herself to code so she could build the show’s Australian fan-site ‘the L-Word Down Under’.
“I didn’t feel like I needed a girlfriend, I was quite happy being on my own, but my friend and I had joked about the idea of lesbian speed-dating so when we heard about the first ever event in Sydney we were compelled to go just as a bit of a laugh”.
The evening arrived and they climbed the many stairs up to the top floor of Zanzibar, a well-known lesbian hangout in the Sydney suburb of Newtown.
“There was no one that took my fancy, which was fine as I didn’t go speed-dating hoping I was going to find someone…but being there forced me to open up and start conversations with people that I didn’t know in a really short space of time. It made me more confident and put me in a different headspace than I usually would be on a night out. Later that evening I met Sarah. I thought she was way more interesting than anyone I’d met upstairs”.
Emma found that her experience earlier in the evening had given her the confidence to be herself and talk freely. They chatted about the dramas of their mutual friends, the website Emma was running, and a little-known lesbian US TV show that Sarah wanted to see and Emma happened to have… On the pretext of lending her a copy Emma asked for her phone number. It was the first time she had ever asked for someone’s number.
She called Sarah a few days later and they met at another bar in Newtown. The hours passed while they chatted, but at the end of the evening they went their separate ways. Sarah then invited Emma down to the South Coast of NSW for the weekend where she was living at the time – she knew she wanted more but she didn’t want to push it faster than it needed to go, and she duly slept on the couch in the back room. The next day Sarah took Emma out for a ride on her motorbike “she was hoping it would impress me…and it did”. She remembers the moment when Sarah leaned back into her and put her arms on her legs and thinking:
“Oh f**k I hope she likes me, I’m falling for this girl fast.”
She found out later that Sarah remembers that exact moment. She describes it as the most beautiful day, but still nothing happened and she returned to Sydney still unsure of Sarah’s feelings for her. Some texting ensued which did little to clear up the mystery, so she invited Sarah to Sydney again to a monthly lesbian party known as ‘Lemons with a Twist’.
“Sarah went to the bar and I followed her and put my arms round her, and that was, you know, the moment when we both just knew.”
That night they went home together. Three months later Sarah moved to Sydney to live with Emma, and just a few months after that they moved into the apartment we are sitting in today.
Sarah found a job in her field of social work and has since retrained as a horticulturalist, although she has taken some time off more recently following the birth of their son late last year. Sarah had always talked about wanting to have a baby when they were together, but they started seriously discussing it as a couple after a few years together, and they started trying soon after, about four years ago. Sarah tried to conceive first and when that wasn’t successful Emma also tried. She describes it as an extremely emotional process, wanting to stay positive but not too positive each time, not getting your hopes up so you don’t get your heart broken every time it doesn’t work. They decided to take a break for a while, but after hearing from friends about another doctor who used a different technique Sarah tried again and she conceived on the first try.
For them the decision use an anonymous donor was a no-brainer – they could have asked friends, but they just didn’t want what she describes as ‘messiness’ for everyone involved. They have a baby photo and some background information on their donor but little else, although donors in Australia are required to consent to the release of their information when requested.
Like many new parents she says they don’t have much time to think about anything at the moment, but the question of where to bring up their son is at the forefront of their minds, as are the possibilities for school choices. She says right now the best part of her day is coming home from work and watching his face light up when he sees her.
Emma believes that being gay and feeling a bit different from everyone else caused her to question things earlier on in life and to think things through for herself, for example Christianity which simply did not resonate with her, whereas if she had not been gay perhaps she might not have questioned it and been carried along. Now she just can’t imagine being any other way.