I was thirteen when I first had feelings for a girl. The butterflies battering in my chest both confused me and excited me. That first crush was the start of six years of grappling to understand my sexuality until I became fully comfortable with it. There were crushes on boys that made me question if I was simply straight, and crushes on girls making me question if I only thought I was straight, because everyone else was.
There were drunken kisses at parties that my friends thought were to attract the attention of boys, until they realised, they were happening too frequently (and too enthusiastically) for that to be true.
There was my outing, to most of my school year, forcing me to accept the label of bisexual before a time I was comfortable with it. There were tears explaining myself to friends, tears explaining myself to family, tears explaining myself to myself.
But there were also films and TV shows. There was a trip to see the film Carol in the cinema.
It was the Christmas holidays, and I was fourteen, very much still in the questioning phase. I went with a friend, a year older, who had been out as gay for a while. Carol was playing on the matchbox screen of Aberdeen’s Filmhouse with only three other people in the audience. I was nervous at first, being a year younger than the film’s certification but more from worrying I would run into someone I knew at a “gay film”.
But as the film started, I was swept away into the cold New York winter, entranced by the cinematography and setting of the film, but most of all by the performances of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett.
They are electric in Carol. It filled me with joy to see women in love on screen. I had never seen a woman kiss a woman in a film before. I had never seen a woman kiss a woman, ever. Seeing it normalised my experience, I realised what I was feeling was completely natural.
Yet, there were frustrations too. The protagonists didn’t end up together, but far apart. Their love was sparkler love, bright and beautiful, but soon extinguished. Carol may have taught me it’s natural and beautiful for women to kiss women, but it also seemed to suggest that women who kiss women don’t have happy endings.
Carol is a pitch-perfect Academy Award nominated drama. No longer being fourteen, and with the gift of hindsight, I realise now that the ending could never have reunited the lovers, it would have lost the film’s sincerity and devotion to its 1950s setting. But it has also undoubtedly become a trope of queer cinema to explore stories of love that are impossible and fated to fail.
Carol was the first lesbian picture of many. Some, like But I’m a Cheerleader, were more optimistic in the outlook of a happy ending, although with too much cheese sprinkled on to be probable.
Others like the much-debated Blue is the Warmest Colour, not only perpetuated the supposed impossibility of lesbians staying in love but also portrayed everything through the male-gaze, which is insulting to queer women (but also caused me some confusion, when I watched it too young, about what women do in the bedroom…). A recent addition to the list has been Brincando el Charco, a film about a Puerto-Rican lesbian coming to terms with her identity in the diaspora. Its Kissing Girls sequence portrayed women loving delicately and gorgeously.
I like it for its difference. It’s not about women falling in love and the difficulties of that; but a woman, who happens to be a lesbian, in a healthy relationship and living her life.
Seeing Mara and Blanchett kissing when I was fourteen affirmed that my sexuality was valid. It affirmed that I was valid. The following six years of watching lesbian films helped me understand my sexuality and beyond that, they made me feel seen and heard in the media. The growing amount of mainstream queer cinema and TV has allowed me to feel comfortable with who I am. I am bisexual, I am here.
Image via The Byre Theatre.