When she was 15, Jen Brister told her bedroom she was a lesbian and then climbed back into the closet for yonks. In the last instalment of a three-part series the comedian remembers when it was finally time to come out and play.
In the first two parts of this series, which can be found here (Part I) and here (Part II), a teenage and university-bound Jen did her best to ignore her 100% lesbian leanings before dipping her toe in reality thanks to the advent of Channel Four’s Dyke TV. In part three, she introduces us to the friend who introduced her to the coming out-side world.
I met my friend Kel when I came back from university, moved back in with my folks and got a job in a pub in Kingston, an establishment exclusively frequented by underage drinkers and raging alcoholics. It was a healthy mix.
Kel worked there too and we quickly became friends.
His acerbic wit and penchant for the absurd matched mine. He was funny, bright and very, very gay. I loved him immediately. As our friendship became closer I revealed to him at the ripe old age of 21 that I was in fact ‘bi-sexual.’ I wasn’t. He knew I wasn’t. I knew I wasn’t. We pretended I was.
It’s no surprise that it was Kel who finally managed to make me understand and accept my sexuality. Fifteen months after we first met we were to meet again, but this time in Sydney where Kel had emigrated.
During the intervening months I’d been avoiding life in the most middle class way possible by backpacking in some of the poorest countries in the world. There’s something incredibly obnoxious about traveling to a third world country and watching rich twats haggle, “What do you mean that solid silver ring is 50 pence? I’ll give you tuppence and not a penny more!” Oh do fuck off.
“As our friendship became closer I revealed to him at the ripe old age of 21 that I was in fact ‘bi-sexual.’ I wasn’t. He knew I wasn’t. I knew I wasn’t. We pretended I was.”
My arrival in Sydney changed everything.
It was the first time in 12 months I felt settled. I was no longer on the move and the subject I’d most wanted to avoid had come crashing to the forefront of my mind, thanks to my friend and traveling companion, Alia. We’d met at Richmond ColIege and her no-nonsense attitude to everything in life was both refreshing and fucking annoying.
The night before I was to leave we’d had dinner in our temporary dive of a flat in Melbourne. Sick to the back teeth of hearing me banging on about the various different men I found unattractive, she took the time between rolling her eyes and yawning to ask me this question:
“Jen do you think you not fancying men might be a sign?”
“What kind of sign?”
“Well if you only fancy women and you don’t fancy men, wouldn’t that make you gay?”
It’s pertinent questions like this that I’d managed to ignore in my own head for YEARS, but hearing it said out loud to my face with nothing but a bowl of gnocchi and a glass of wine separating us as friends, I realised something…. SHE WAS WRONG!
I’m was not gay! How could I be gay? What about that crush I had on River Phoenix in 1989? If I’m such a gay, why did I find Brad Pitt more attractive than Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise? EXPLAIN THAT!
Fortunately on arriving in Sydney, Kel was happy to oblige.
“Jen, you’re gay.”
“No, I’m bi-sexual.”
“No you’re gay.”
“No really, I’m bi.”
“Fine. So let’s say you are bi, but right now you’re interested in women, so why don’t you just try saying you’re gay? Obviously if you do go out with a guy you can call yourself bi.”
I never called myself bi-sexual again. Who knew it was that simple?
That six-month period was the gayest time of my life. I cut my hair, joined Pride and even marched in the Mardi Gras parade in little more than a gold lamé boob tube and gold body paint. Don’t judge me, it was the 90s.
I was gay, Kel was gay all of our friends were gay, apart from my Uni mate Jude who’d arrived and patiently listened to my announcement before nonchalantly replying: “I KNOW Jen, I’ve always known.”
Coming out was the best thing I ever did. The fat young woman hiding behind overly large men’s shirts, listening to Tracy Chapman and eating a lot of bread was gone.
I discovered a new me. I’m not going to tell you that I stopped being the cynical old bag I’ve always been or that I lost weight overnight, but I did like myself a lot more and as a result, I thought it possible that someone in the near future might like me too.
I was very lucky, not one of my friends even batted an eyelid when I came out. Not even a flicker. It wasn’t exactly a surprise to any of them, I’d never had a boyfriend, any sexual encounters I’d had with a bloke usually started or ended with me saying, “…honestly he was DISGUSTING…” and I exuded the sexual vibes of an elderly celibate nun.
Although I knew with great certainty that I was a lezza, that didn’t mean I was immediately comfortable telling people.
“I cut my hair, joined Pride and even marched in the Mardi Gras parade in little more than a gold lamé boob tube and gold body paint. Don’t judge me, it was the 90s.”
The truth is ‘coming out’ is a massive pain in the arse and you don’t just ‘come out’ once. You have to keep coming out every time you meet new people, start a new job, or go on holiday… and it can make a perfectly innocent conversation awkward.
“So, do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, I’m gay.”
“Right…yes…of course. My brother-in-law met Stephen Fry once, he seems like a lovely chap…”
Sadly with my visa coming to an end I knew I had to go home to London where I would have to ‘come out’ to my Spanish and Catholic Mum, whose rejection I feared the most.
I remember she was sitting in the living room, reading. I sat down next to her took a deep breath and said:
“Mum, I’ve got something I want to tell you.”
“Yes, I know but I need to tell you that I’m…”
“Is this because you’ve been traveling?”
“What? No, I don’t thinks so. Look Mum, I have something that you need to hear… When I was away I sort of discovered something about myself and…”
“Yennifer, I think I know what you’re going to tell me so please get to the point.”
“What? Oh thank God! I thought you were going to tell me you were a vegetarian!”
I couldn’t have asked for a better response.
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.