Written by Jen Brister


In The Closet: Part I

When she was 15, Jen Brister told her bedroom she was a lesbian and then climbed back into the closet for yonks. In the first instalment of a three-part series the comedian recalls what it was like in there.

In the closet

Illustration by Louise Boulter

I am a gay. A homo. A big ole lezza, you know, one of ‘them’ that bats for the other team.

As you can imagine, it’s a dream come true because I get to eat a lot of bulgur wheat, sport a tool belt every Saturday afternoon and exclusively listen to music played by a woman strumming her own vagina. I mean guitar. Still, it wasn’t always so easy. Back in the day being a lesbian wasn’t quite so fashionable.

I went to an all-girls convent school in Wimbledon. When I say that to people, particularly anyone who went to boarding school, there is a slight raising of eyebrows as if to indicate that some kind of lesbian mud pit had been built in the middle of the quad and us girls were happy to ‘experiment’ with each other’s breasts every Thursday afternoon after netball practice. Sadly no.

There were no lesbian, bisexual or even bi-curious girls at my school. At least there were none who were foolish enough to admit it. Being a lesbian in the late ‘80s in South London was the equivalent of walking into the classroom and declaring that you had anthrax in your pocket and you weren’t afraid to use it.

People were terrified of looking gay, being gay, knowing a gay, touching a gay, seeing a gay or even hearing a gay. What if you got gay ears? “Eurgh, Jen’s got gay ears everyone! Look at her gay ear lobes! Gross, don’t talk to Jen you’ll get gay ear disease!” Sadly the nuns at my school were as homophobic as my peers.

Fortunately for me I had no self-awareness around my lesbo tendencies; after all I was a teenager and weren’t teenagers supposed to be confused about sex and stuff?

I mean, so what if I fancied Lisa Stoddart and Jamie Wilson and Claire Bright and Hannah Ainsworth and that girl with a ponytail two years above me and that girl who worked in a café on Kingston High Street… All teenage girls fancy girls, right? Don’t they? Why are you shaking your head like that?

“The only film I’d watched with any lesbians in it was The Killing of Sister George and frankly Beryl Reid wasn’t helping.”

I must have been frustrated because I played a lot of sport when I was at school and I mean A LOT. Name a team and I joined it: netball, hockey, cross-country, athletics, swimming, rounders, squash, tennis. Weirdly I couldn’t even play tennis, I think I just liked hitting balls really hard whilst not thinking about girls in gym skirts.

It’s just as well I wasn’t into boys because boys weren’t into me either.

I did try to like boys, I did. I even went on a few dates, none of which ever progressed to a second. Two stand out in my mind, probably because they were so horrific.

One guy took me fishing, I say fishing, he took me to the bank of the river Thames where I watched him fish. I really don’t understand the appeal of wearing that much khaki whilst sitting on a campstool and eating endless cheese sandwiches; and I say that as a lesbian.

After being bored out of my mind watching him run his fingers through a bucket of maggots for two hours, he went in for a kiss. Panicking, I punched him in the chest causing him to step backwards into the river. You may think that’s harsh but the guy was wearing WELLINGTON BOOTS ON A DATE!

My last date with a boy was at the age of 15. He was in the sixth form which made him glamorous; what made him slightly less glamorous were his Hi-Tec trainers, stonewashed jeans and rabid acne. He took me to McDonalds because he had two sets of vouchers for a McChicken sandwich and a lemonade and if I was lucky he’d buy me a side order of regular fries. I never saw the fries, but I did get to watch him play Double Dragon in a kebab shop in New Malden for two hours. SOMEONE SHOOT ME IN THE FACE.

By the time I got to university I had buried myself so far in the closet I might as well have moved to Narnia and taken up the panpipes. It’s not like I didn’t know I was gay, I was certain of it. I’d even said it out loud in my bedroom at 15 before dry retching into my pillow. I just didn’t want to be a lesbian! The only film I’d watched with any lesbians in it was The Killing of Sister George and frankly Beryl Reid wasn’t helping.

It also didn’t help that in my first year of university I got fat. I don’t mean I put on a bit of weight; I mean I took a one-way ticket to lardy town, set up camp and stayed there, for five years. I literally went from a size 10 to a size 16 – OK, 18 – in less than a year. None of my clothes fitted me and I was now exclusively sporting trousers that favoured an elastic waist. The only other people I knew that had elastic in their trousers were Hulk Hogan and Rusty Lee, neither of whom I shared a great deal in common with.

“I really don’t understand the appeal of wearing that much khaki whilst sitting on a campstool and eating endless cheese sandwiches; and I say that as a lesbian.”

I hated my body. I didn’t recognise my newly acquired rings of fat and the weird orange peel marks on my thighs. I couldn’t bear to see myself naked, so I made sure there was never a mirror in my room. Even my face upset me, with its never-ending supply of whiteheads and the unforgiving dark circles round my eyes.

People always say it must be lovely to have olive skin. Sure, if you live in a country where you have the pleasure of experiencing something called sunshine. When that experience is condensed to approximately three hours a year, olive skin does not look good.

To this day, the only way my cheeks look remotely rosy is if you slap me vigorously and repeatedly in the face. Without this I look like I’ve been raised from the dead. As for my hair, we simply don’t have time to properly express how bad it looked. Let’s just say I was lucky that dreads were ‘in’ in the ‘90s.

I think I was depressed. The reality is, of course, I was just a lesbian.

Next week, Jen opens the closet door for long enough to see some terrible television.

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Written by Jen Brister

Jen Brister is a stand-up comic, writer and comedy actor. A regular performer on the UK and international circuit, she has also written for BBC Scotland and presented for BBC 6Music.