Jennifer Cerys is demanding more representation of queer women on stage. She writes about finding our identity on our own terms and how to inspire the younger generation.
When I was growing up, there was just one gay bar in Canterbury – Limes. It had the very pivotal location of being on the edges of the town, right by the ring road. But being on the fringe of everything was exactly what it felt like when I came out as bisexual. Before coming out, and for a long while after, I had just heard people discuss the LGBTQ community in relation to sex and nightlife, so I decided going to this gay bar was the only way I’d find my community.
Yet as soon as I walked in, I immediately walked straight back out.
I craved finding this brilliant community, but the reality was, in just going to the club, I had seen very little of what being a member of it was really like. Panicking, I had gone to the first thing with ‘gay’ in front of it, forgetting that I had never been someone who loved going to nightclubs and, just because I now ticked a different box on applications and doctors’ forms, that didn’t mean every other thing about me was going to dramatically change.
Instead of nightlife, my world consisted of books and theatre, yet I had rarely seen characters that were like me here. I been fed just one, singular narrative about LGBTQ people enjoying getting drunk and being ‘promiscuous’. Obviously, this is absolutely fine for some people to do but, for me, going into that club just felt incredibly intimidating. I was introducing myself to not just one, but two brand new, scary worlds: being in the LGBTQ community and being in a nightclub.
Wrapped up in this comfort blanket of books and theatre, I had only ever seen one character who was a queer woman, and that was in Sarah Walters book The Paying Guests. It’s not exactly a coincidence that, a few months after reading this book, I came out. Reading a character in a brilliant book that was not only deemed publishable, but was widely known and praised, gave me a sense of validation in my sexuality. Why did I need to be validated? I suppose it made it easier to say I existed. Because I existed in this book.
The impact of reading a lesbian character for the first time still sits with me today, mostly because I have still read few books with queer women as the protagonist (and when I have, I’ve actively sourced them out). Similarly, with the stage, I’ve seen just one lesbian character in a play, and that was in Damsel Production’s play Grotty at the Bunker Theatre earlier this year.
Watching Grotty, which explores lesbian subculture in London, made me think of walking into Limes years ago. It reminded me about feeling ‘other’ in a community that already is ‘other’. The play was dark, bleak and honest. It didn’t sell me sunshine and rainbows, but still provided the feeling that Sarah Walters’ book did. That feeling of being less alone.
Some queer women that I spoke to, who had seen Grotty, found the play too dark, and felt with so few lesbian plays being staged, we shouldn’t be showing our community in such a bleak way. But that’s the burden of representation. There are so few plays about queer women that those staged are judged as representing the entire community.
We have seen an increase in queer characters in theatre recently, but mostly they’re still centred on gay men – Angles in America, The Inheritance, My Night with Reg to name a few. Any developments in showing gay men on stage is welcome but we truly need to show queer and gay women too.
I thought I needed to go to that club because that’s what people like me do, right?
Theatre must show people that there is no ‘right’ way to be gay and that people can find their LGBTQ community in the one they’re already a part of. That’s why I’ve written the show Dandelion. Set in 1988 and exploring the impact of Section 28, the protagonists are queer women and it centres on living in that ‘other’ box. I wouldn’t have written this play if I hadn’t read Sarah Walters, or seen Grotty, or been lucky enough to interview the lesbian activists who campaigned about Section 28 – if I hadn’t experienced that honesty from all those wonderful people. All this honesty tells us that finding your queer identity is unique to everyone and you can do it in any way you want. So I read about it, and then I wrote about it.
When I originally walked in and out of that nightclub, I thought, ‘Well I may be queer, but I don’t need to be a part of the LGBTQ community’. Now, it’s scary to think that I believed the narrow idea of what being LGBTQ meant, because I was fed the suggestion that anything gay in my town had to involve this nightclub. Then I read more queer characters. I saw Grotty where the lead character was also struggling with finding her queer identity and I moved to London which opened a whole new world. I could go to queer comedy nights like the LOL word, see Pecs drag perform and go to talks about LGBTQ history.
You don’t (and shouldn’t have to) move to London to learn that there is no right way to be gay, but considering London was crowned the most LGBTQ friendly city in the UK earlier this year, it’s no surprise that I feel more myself since moving here. The difference in being that 18-year-old who got scared in a nightclub in a town she felt lost in, then moving to one of the world’s ‘queerest’ capitals, seeing a show like Grotty and now writing my own queer play feels, well, surreal.
Without seeing lesbian characters in books, and on screen and stage, I don’t know if I ever would have become comfortable enough in my queer identity to create a show like Dandelion and this is exactly why we need more shows like it, so another young girl can see and learn the same thing as me – your sexuality is valid, there’s a whole community out there for you to get to know and, importantly, you can get to know it on your own terms.
For more information on Jenny’s play, Dandelion, check out the King’s Head Theatre website here.