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Sarah Westwood

Why I support Diversity Role Models

Tuesday November 15, 2011

I was lucky enough to be at the launch of Diversity Role Models last week. I was standing, in fabulous surroundings, looking around the room at all the beautiful gay people, and I thought: "Where were all these people when I was younger?"

I never wanted to be a lesbian when I was growing up. Not once. I never sat in my bedroom, walls adorned with Athena posters of men gazing into the eyes of a new-born, and thought, "I wish I was a lesbian". A copywriter yes, a marine biologist once, and more often than not Madonna. But a lesbian? No. Never.

Growing up in a small parochial town I didn't know any 'real' lesbians. Back then there was only one other lesbian in the world: Martina Navratilova. I admired her tennis ability, but I was nothing like her. I was a girlier and I sucked at sport. The women I admired were glamorous and sexy - Maddie Hayes, or practically anyone on Dynasty - but they weren't lesbians. No. I couldn't possibly be a lesbian.

I also understood quite early on in my school life that being accused of being a 'lesbian' was social suicide. I was fortunate enough to not have been bullied, because I fitted in and was for all intents and purposes straight. That said, the negativity that clung to the word 'lesbian' was insidious. The prevailing opinion about 'lezzers' at my school was that they were too 'ugly' to get a boyfriend. Mental note: being a lesbian is a very bad idea.

Lesbians were also not hugely popular with my dad. I remember watching the womens' final of Wimbledon with him one day; Martina was meting out more punishment with her slice. He stood up, tea in hand, and snapped off the TV. Then he shouted, "bloody lesbians", and left the room. My dad, like my classmates, was 100% team Steffi. I didn't want to be someone my dad wouldn't like, so I learned to feel that way about them too - "bloody lesbians".

I didn't realise that there was a name for what I was feeling: internalized homophobia. It was only recently that I learned that this reaction is very common among young lesbians. It's the result of hearing and seeing negative depictions of LGBT people. We internalise, or take in, these negative messages.

The thing is, I think I knew early on I liked girls, but for all the reasons above I didn't identify myself as a lesbian. This negativity remained with me throughout my twenties. I didn't know why, but I felt a sort of constant low-level anixety. My first love affair was with another straight girl, which I was able to justify to myself, because she wasn't a lesbian either. If I slept with a lesbian that might make me one, and I definitely didn't want that. In my world two straight girls didn't make a lesbian. I know - ridiculous right?

That's why I am love what DRM is doing to challenge attitudes and provide positive role models. I would have loved to have a gay role model in my early life. Someone who was like me. Someone to show me, and my peers, that being a lesbian was okay. I've been very fortunate enough to have those women in my life since. You're never too old to need a role model!

It's taken me a long time to become comfortable with my sexuality, and be happy with who I am. I am now completely out to everyone, dad included, and they are all very happy for me. Life is good. Life isn't that different: I eat salad, I watch Masterchef, I go to work, and for the most part, I forget I'm a lesbian. The perpetuation of redundant stereotypes, and the negativity surrounding the word 'gay' or 'lesbian' is so very damaging for young people. The truth is that the lesbians I know are beautiful, funny, smart and sexy. They come in all shapes and sizes, they don't hate men, and most have never owned a pair of dungarees. They are just like me.

I wish I'd known all of this when I was younger. It would have saved me a hell of a lot of time and angst.

Sarah Westwood

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