Tag Archives: Community

As Close as Our Voices Can Be

When my mother taught me to sing she gave me a headful of songs. She passed me down a dozen or so of her favourites, each one learned by singing and repeating back. I remember lying in our campervan carefully receiving verse and chorus and committing it to memory.

‘…If I had the riches/Of the East or West Indies/If I had the Gold of the African shore./If I could gain thousands/I’d lie on your bosom./You’d be my greenwood laddie/The boy I’d adore…’

At first I was only able to follow her, joining in and being carried along by the strength of her contralto. And each week we’d amuse the denizens of the folk club with a new outrageous song. My mother was anxious that the rest of the group shouldn’t feel the need to censor themselves in their choice of songs on my (eight year old) account and so she devised that we should sing at least one rude song each week, just to make them comfortable. So dutifully, I learned to reel off ‘Seven Drunken Nights’, ‘Maids When You’re Young’, ‘Firelock Stile’ etc. with great enthusiasm.

‘So come all young men, come listen awhile,/I’ll tell you what happened at Firelock Stile,/When a stump of a nail catched hold of her clothes/She fell down, and did expose…’

As I grew older I realised the importance of listening to the voices around you and learned to find the harmonies, those sweet places to lay down a variation on the lead voice and add texture and an extra depth the body of the sound.  And so I learned to harmonise with my mum, practising in our living room by holding hands and sending our voices up together, interweaving and entwining around the pattern of a careworn song.

‘…So far doe-ray-me/Sing to me loudly,/Serenade me,/Mess with the melody./Light and shade/All my eyes can see…’

Since leaving home I don’t sing with my mother so often, but when I do I’m always heartened by the ease with which our voices slide together, as I lean in to add my complement to her song; a comfortable return to a long tradition.

Yet, as is the way of things, new traditions spring up only a step or two away from the older root and now I find myself singing more and more with my partner. It’s a natural but entirely different fit as I place my lower voice beneath hers to give support and add weight to our sound. And while we don’t perform as a duo, we are often singing our way through the world, passing the time as we walk home or out to meet our friends.

It occurs to me that the union of voices is a symbolic representation of the meeting of our spirits, an ephemeral emblem of the ways in which we complement each other in our personalities, and a deeply personal connection.

This is possibly a source of our strength as a community choir. Although we rehearse in a friendly and supportive environment, to add your voice to the greater sound is to give something of yourself. Yet we give and receive in equal measure, as we accept the trust of the women who sit around us, hearing their voices and giving our response. Is it any wonder that the bonds we build are strong ones?

– Amo Rex, Oct 2015

Songbirds Choir meets at 7.30 every Wednesday at City United Reform Church, Windsor Place, Cardiff.

Advertisements

National Coming Out Day 2015: A Member’s Story

Growing up in a small town in the Valleys in the 70s was not the most conducive environment to come out (think of the film ‘Pride’ but a few years earlier!). The only visible role models were comedic and the likes of Danny La Rue and Dick Emery with, what seemed to me, no discussion of context or the issues involved, just sniggers. So despite having strong feelings towards women and female friends, knowing in my heart of hearts that it wasn’t just crushes, I didn’t. I didn’t share my thoughts with anyone, my parents being fairly ‘old school’ and dealing with my brother’s mental health issues at the time, I think subconsciously I didn’t want to burden them further. I genuinely didn’t know what the consequences of coming out would be, and it was fairly terrifying, and something I took forward for years. This was allied to a fear of losing friends and being further alienated.

Being a tomboy and not having originally been from the area, I stood out and was bullied at school. I changed schools at 14 and boarded in an all-girls school, potentially the perfect environment to come out. Not. In hindsight, I think had in stayed at my old school I may have come out in my teens – already being a bit of an outsider I may eventually thought “sod it”. Although I was much happier in my new school I think that being at an all-girls school actually made it harder to come out, especially as a boarder. Although I had strong friendships, many still so to this day, there was still the fear of rejection and uncertainty and I would have felt uncomfortable for the other girls in my dorm had I come out. I continued to ‘blank out’ my feelings and was quite shy as a result.

After school came uni in London, a fantastic opportunity and I fell in love, fairly quickly…with a guy. My first serious relationship. It was love, but perhaps we were propelled together as we were both fairly shy and lost in the big city. So, in time we married and have two great kids, but all the while I harboured feelings for other women, although I repressed these, and was not a happy bunny, maybe hoping for some romantic encounter over tea and cake at the NCT coffee morning! I did have a few brief semi-platonic affairs with guys, which in hindsight was probably me trying to find myself. I actually came out to my (at the time of writing, soon to be not) husband about 10 years ago and to a good friend, but I guess we never properly discussed the implications or my feelings, or indeed his, and muddled along “for the good of the children”. As time crept on I became increasingly disenchanted with life and gave up my career as I felt that something needed to give, the choice, I felt, being career or marriage (der!) but things still weren’t right and I was growing increasing disenchanted and unhappy and realised I had to resolve things.

Then I had a brief affair with a woman and although we weren’t together very long it was enough for me to realise that I couldn’t ignore myself any more and I had to be honest with myself and others. She was very kind, and a catalyst for me, for which I thank her. At that point I decided to move out of the family home. A hard decision as I couldn’t afford to move anywhere where the children could be with me, but I felt I had to take visible action and a positive step. I wasn’t far and managed to see the kids regularly. However, financial constraints and other factors resulted in me moving back into the family home after two years, but living separately. That has been a little more long term than intended and awkward at times but will resolve shortly and life will become more relaxed for everyone.

My friends have been very accepting and supportive throughout, some saying they were not surprised, others not quite understanding how I can have been married, had kids and be gay. I think that this is a common thread for many people, and also has implications for how lesbians previously in a relationship with a guy are perceived, sometimes regarded as ‘’not proper lesbians’’. Pahh!!! Since coming out I have realised just how many older lesbians there are who have very similar stories to mine. Being completely honest means that I know who I am, no one can hold any power over me and I am so much more confident as a result. As far as I am aware only one friend has blanked me, but possibly because they were a friend of my husband’s initially, who knows, but it’s surprising how people who seem so generous and broad minded can close down. The upshot is that most don’t and many will surprise you.

To my shame I didn’t pluck up the courage to tell the kids the actual reason why I’d moved out for about a year afterwards. My son (now late teens), was and is pretty cool with it, though my daughter is a different kettle of fish. She’s becoming more accepting, but I guess because it’s her mum maybe she feels a little more uncertain about her own sexuality, which is in no way a criticism of her. Sometimes I do think her offhand attitude is just because she’s a 16 year old girl. I just hope that she learns to talk about her feelings a little more freely, not necessarily with me but someone, as talking about things and sharing how you feel, what you think, etc. really helps to crystalise your thoughts and provide insight and clarity, however difficult or painful that may be.

Coming out has been difficult, but overwhelmingly been a good and positive experience. To really accept myself for me, to know who I am, has made me a much more confident and happier person. It really was a weight off my shoulders. If anyone says ’how do you know’ you’re gay/straight/bi/trans/whatever, you just know. How do people ‘know’ they’re straight? For me, being in relationships with women has been so very different to any other relationship. It’s just ‘right’ and the emotional connection is definitely much, much stronger and can be overwhelming. I do feel that I am able to empathise with people (whoever they are) much more now because I have experienced emotions that previously were unknown to me or repressed.

There are still issues, not least untangling a 30 year relationship, finances, and supporting the kids emotionally but even my parent’s in law seem to accept it (enough) now. Being outed to them is a story for another time! If anyone ever has any doubts about coming out, the fear is debilitating, but the relief of coming out is empowering. There will inevitably be fall-out and consequences, but life is short and unless you know who you are you can’t live it to your full potential. You will always find people who’ve been through similar problems (whatever those problems are and whether they’re gay, straight, trans. etc.) and finding a supportive group is an enormous boost whatever stage of life or coming out you are at. That’s what I’ve found with the Songbirds. A strong family where everyone is welcomed, no one is judged, everyone and every contribution is valued, each with a different story to tell, as unique as the individual but equally valid and accepted.

Songbirds Choir meets 7.30pm every Wednesday at City United Reformed Church, Windsor Place, Cardiff.

A letter to my 17-year­-old self

Dear Cath (for that is what you will be called until aged 28 when people finally start calling you Catherine),

By now, you will already know that people sometimes mistrust your sexuality. Not that long ago you will have revealed some feelings for girls to your work friends. Because you’ve had a boyfriend previously, they will have assumed you are just being an attention seeker. They will have responded by getting a (straight) woman friend to phone you up in work to ask you out, for a joke. They will have found your reactions to this highly amusing. They won’t have understood that, to you as a young woman trying to come to terms with yourself, it was excruciating. Try to remember that their cruelty wasn’t intentional; because you weren’t capable of articulating yourself to them, they didn’t know better. Don’t worry; you’ll improve at talking about this over time. (Although, if you’re hoping you’ll grow into a quiet, tactful person, forget it; you’ll always be opinionated, and you’ll put your feet in your mouth so often you might as well just keep your socks there.)

You’ll also probably be beating yourself up about now because you fooled around with a boy and not long after slept with a girl and this freaked you out a bit. Try not to be too hard on yourself, you’ll come to realise it wasn’t to do with them as people, but everything to do with how much it made you feel, and how overwhelming that was when you’re still not sure how to describe yourself. It will be a long time before you come across any positive representations of other bi women, so it’s not at all strange that you feel conflicted right now about being bi. I promise you, it doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to have a trusting and fulfilling relationship with someone (read on, honey).

You’ve got a lot of interesting things ahead of you. Next year you’ll go to Uni. You’ll start to see real representations of women in history, literature, politics, for the first time. You’ll realise you’re a feminist, and will pledge to yourself that you won’t ever be with someone who isn’t. (You’ll keep that promise, by the way). You will fall in love with a woman and get your heart broken. (Time for a plea: immediately after said heartbreak isn’t the best time to experiment with a one-­night stand, so if you could see fit to avoid that, adult me would be very happy to scrub that particular awful experience from memory.) You will also have a couple of short-term relationships with men. At various points, you will wonder if you’re gay or straight because of the assumptions other people make based on the gender of your partner. Do your best to try to hold on to yourself through it all, even though it will feel almost impossible sometimes.

When you’re almost 23, you will start dating a man you meet in work. It will take you some time to be completely honest about yourself, but he will make it easier to do so. He will react honourably and respectfully when propositioned by a man on a night out (he’s straight). He will introduce you to the novels of Sarah Waters. He will describe himself as a feminist before you say it. He will buy you tickets to see Jeanette Winterson at Hay and won’t care that you are so embarrassingly eroticised by her performance that you still can’t actually talk when you get to the front of the book-signing queue (hey, don’t judge me until you’re there hearing her read, okay). He will treat you with kindness, sincerity and caring. When you finally admit you’re bi, he will be the first person you encounter who doesn’t question if you’re confused or going through a phase or attracted to everyone or fundamentally untrustworthy. Because of all these things and more you will marry him.

You will go through some times where you feel you’ve lost touch with the LGBT+ community. A big part of this will be because your friends assume you’ve chosen to be straight by marrying a man. They will say you ‘pass’ as straight. This will at once both hurt you and make you feel guilty about not having the same everyday challenges same­-sex couples have. You will continue to support LGBT+ rights, but it will bother you to feel like you’re on the outside looking in. Living an ostensibly straight life will feel disingenuous because, even though you will have chosen to be monogamous, you will still have feelings of sexual and emotional desire for other men and women.

But I’m writing to you now (aged 40) because I want you to know those feelings get better, that nowadays I don’t feel that way so much anymore. It’s a little early on, but I think I might have found “the ones”; a big, beautiful, sometimes wonderful, sometimes dysfunctional, but always awesome extended LGBT+ family; my choir family, my ‘Songbirds’. I hope it works out with us because it will feel amazing to have a family I don’t constantly have to explain fundamental things to when I want to talk about my romantic and sexual feelings. All I have to do now is tell them that I’m happily in love with a man and hope they accept me… cross your fingers for me, dear Cath.

Sincerely, your future self,

Catherine

[Image above: “Briefoeffner mit kuvert und hand fcm” by Photograph: Frank C. Müller, Baden-Baden – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons]

Proud to be a Songbird

I have a lot of contradictory feelings about Pride. The left-leaning corner of my brain can’t help but be cynical as supermarkets and highstreet banks lift a rainbow banner with one hand and place a neat tick in their ‘community conscience’ box with the other. I see members of the public string a boa around their necks, but curl their lips at my tattoos and buzzcut, and I think – what exactly does queer visibility mean here?

But I remember being 18 years old and stepping onto the platform of Brighton station for my very first Pride parade. I had never seen so many LGBT* people in one place, I had never seen such a colourful expression of identity and difference, and I had certainly never seen support for that expression on anywhere near as large a scale.

As an event, Pride is politically complicated, but the fact remains that it is the one time of year when we can see some reflection of ourselves on every street corner. And it is an opportunity to show ourselves, like a message in a bottle to the young people who follow us, and a salute to those who went before; it is our chance to demonstrate our presence, to hold up all the variations and permutations of LGBT* identity, and to show that they are all so very possible.

11855841_1000014863377271_8048398565604957398_n

As a community choir, we are a mixed bag – in age, in lifestyle, in gender identity and presentation, some of us with disabilities, and some of us with families. So when we stand together, we are a bold handful of possibilities; and singing, we can open ears and minds to the complex beauty in the harmony of individual voices.

As August gives way to September and the rush of summer abates, we will go back into regular rehearsals, drawn together by our common love of music, our stories, and our laughter. We will look back with pride on the music we created together, but more importantly on having built a space which embraces many hues and refractions. And we will hope to add to it.

                                                                                                                                   – Amo Rex, Aug 2015

Songbirds Choir meets at 7.30 every Wednesday at City United Reform Church, Windsor Place, Cardiff.