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Painting Myself Out of a Corner

I’m bisexual. Or at least, I think I am bisexual. As a reaction to the anxieties of the Covid-19 pandemic and multiple lockdowns, I’ve buried my head in books and study. I went from finishing my Master’s degree straight into a teacher-training course: mainly for future job security after years of instability, and a financial safety net during the pandemic. I also felt the need to fill my time with something that makes me feel productive. When I’m not reading or studying, I’m writing, editing writing, or attempting to paint or collage — new hobbies I picked up over lockdown. In truth I haven’t allowed myself time to just be. I am always reacting, critiquing, responding to the stimuli around me in any way that makes sense, whether that’s a poem, short story, painting, collage. There hasn’t been much time for self-reflection, to just be present. I’ve tried to use all this time to be as prolific and productive as possible. But I don’t know if that’s my reaction to the state of things around me, as an Autistic person who also has ADHD, or if it’s simply capitalism. There’s all this “free time” — why am I not using it? There’s been times when I’ve asked my partner if she thinks it would be okay if I played X-Box or watched a film, instead of writing, editing, making art, as if I need permission to take a break. My feelings of unproductivity are linked to feelings of guilt. I recognise how unhealthy that is. Trying to be present and practise healthier ways of living is to be in conflict with myself: my self-imposed, workaholic perfectionism. In Lockdown 1 I became obsessed with reading every piece of news to do with Covid: and protests for BLM, Kill the Bill, police brutality, Sarah Everard’s death and subsequent protests led by organisations such as Sisters Uncut: the violent oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government. I guess I was trying to keep the feelings of anxiety, stress, fear, anger and guilt to a background hiss by keeping on top of the news, by being “informed”. In amongst all of this, I’ve been having conversations with my partner about sex, sexuality, and gender, in an attempt to figure myself out.

Our first date, at The Apple in Bristol, about two months before the lockdown started. Warming our hands over a single candle on the table, my partner and I spoke about our sexualities. When asked, I told her I was straight. It wasn’t until months later, in both our relationship and the pandemic, she told me she was surprised I was straight. “I just got a queer vibe from you”, she said. I slowly opened to her, telling her about past experiences — kissing boys at house parties in my first year of university, an “accidental” (my phrasing) date with an older guy. She asked me if I had ever questioned my sexuality, and I said: not really. “I’m just a straight guy who has kissed a bunch of dudes”. In hindsight, the lack of self-awareness is laughable, but doesn’t take away from my confusion. I began pulling at threads. My musical heroes growing up were Brian Molko, Kurt Cobain — why? Men who wore sexuality and femininity on their sleeves, whether as transgressive androgyny in Molko’s case, or for ‘shock’. Cobain wearing dresses showed me that the genderisation of clothes is bullshit. Molko’s androgyny felt like an enticing grey area between gender binaries. Also, Bloc Party’s songs always felt queer. Kele Okereke’s lyrics and delivery were tender in a way I hadn’t heard in other macho indie rock, in the early 2010s while I was entering my teenage years. When I realised that Kele is gay, I remember revisiting all the Bloc Party songs I loved and rediscovering them with this new understanding. ‘This Modern Love’ is typically, seen as an expression of a heterosexual romance. But ‘This Modern Love’ — and ‘Kreuzberg’ off their Weekend in the City album — felt more sensual, more tender, as poeticisms of queer desire. These songs became a shelter, even when I didn’t fully know what I was sheltering from. I fancied male and female musicians and celebrities in equal measure, somehow convincing myself that it was perfectly normal for a straight man to recognise when another man is attractive, and this actually demonstrated how comfortable I was in my heterosexuality. This is not to say that straight men can’t be comfortable in their sexuality or reinforce positive masculine traits. This is all purely personal experience. When people ask me which male actors I crush on, I immediately think of Keanu Reeves and Jake Gyllenhaal. But when I try and recall female crushes, no one springs to mind. I imagine myself being intimate with men, but as a writer and creative, I put it down to me having a vivid imagination. This is all to say, I was delusional. Was I really turning such a blind eye to my own sexuality? I am aware of how quick I am to put myself down, and I’m trying not to be hard on myself as I am prone to. I’m not sure why I can be so harsh on myself. Maybe that’s something best discussed in therapy rather than a blog post.

With each new revelation, I have more questions. While searching for answers I came across The Bi-ble at Shelflife (Cardiff’s best radical, DIY bookshop). The Bi-Ble is a crowdfunded collection of personal narratives and essays about bisexuality, as well as pieces that deal with the intersection of sexuality with race, religion and chronic illness. I hate the use of this verb, but I consumed the entire book in one sitting. It felt like I was having a conversation with myself. Especially Robert O’Sullivan’s essay — ‘Stuck in the Middle: Being bi and non-binary’. O’Sullivan’s is a self-described “bearded bisexual non-binary bastard”. His essay resonated with me because he writes that gender [and sexuality] is a feeling. And, as well as bisexuality, gender is another minefield I’m tiptoeing through. Wanting to be seen as more femme than I am, weirded out by my hairy chest, my bald head. my facial hair that fluctuates between stubble to full beard and sometimes just a moustache, as I flounder for an appearance to settle on. Exploring my own ideas of gender by following femme-presenting people on Instagram and wanting to be them/lusting over them, and swapping clothes with my partner. But O’Sullivan writes “gender presentation is not gender identity.” Maybe I can just be whatever I think I am, in terms of gender and sexuality, based on what I feel. A concept I’m still trying to come to terms with. It’s easier said than done. Following your feelings is a path knotted with weeds and brambles. Toxic masculinity, growing up in a traditional, heteronormative family in a working-class Welsh town are all pressures I feel daily. But also, as an Autistic person, I have learned to mask myself to fit into the hellish, neurotypical landscape. I quite like being invisible. To express myself the way I want to is pull apart the restrictions of heteronormative, neurotypical society and to be ‘seen’. Which, in all honesty, is something I am in conflict with.

In her essay ’Going Either Way, Chitra Ramaswamy writes:

“You have chosen (or, if you prefer, been chosen by) an unfixed, untitled, and shape-shifting identity. One that by definition resists categorisation. Instead it commands flexibility, restlessness, the endless possibility of change. It is about who you are… as much as who you love.” As an autistic person, I am prone to thinking in terms of black and white. This isn’t true of all autistic people, of course, but it is true for me. Examples: “I have only been in relationships with women — this means I am straight.” “I have never been in a relationship with a man — this means that I can’t possibly be bisexual.” I am starting to realise this way of thinking has been damaging to my efforts to “figure myself out.” But also, those efforts themselves are misguided. I am quick to label myself. As Ramaswamy writes in her essay, identity is shapeshifting. This doesn’t necessarily have to just be about bisexuality. Identity in all forms can be flexible and infinitely changing. This is something I’m trying to keep in mind, gently encouraged by my partner. She points out to me that I have been supportive in her exploration of her gender and sexuality, so I should extend that support to myself. Easier said than done, but an attempt is being made. If this blog post achieves anything, maybe it will serve as a reminder to myself — and anyone else reading this — to go easier on oneself.

The Bi—ble has helped me figure out a lot of things and steered me in a more positive direction in terms of self-discovery: a continuous and continuously adapting process. After finishing the book, I responded in the only way I know how: by making art. While I’ve only been painting for the past six months, I’ve realised that I can respond to something more emotionally and with more immediacy through painting than through writing. When I write, it tends to come from a place of distance. The two paintings below are a response to reading The Bi-ble, but also an attempt to visualise my thoughts and feelings on my sexuality, toxic masculinity, and where I fit in heteronormative society.

This post may be slightly self-indulgent, while hundreds of thousands worldwide have lost their lives to Covid-19. Many Palestinians — including children — have died during Ramadan, in Israeli’s violence against Palestine. There’s a lot going on in the world, and I feel guilty for being so safe and privileged, writing this from the comfort of my bedroom in Cardiff, with a supportive partner and family. But this post felt too important for me not to write it. When she reads this, my partner will say I am being classic me: putting myself down again, not allowing myself to have this one nice thing. This whole paragraph could probably be deleted.

Thank you to Shelflife for stocking such brilliant, life-affirming books. Check them out for all your feminist, anti-racist, queer and DIY (and more) publications. Also a BIG thank you to Monstrous Regiment for publishing The Bi-ble, and all the writers, editors etc involved with putting together this book. It’s the sort of thing I wish I had when I was a teenager, but I’m glad my twenty-something self has it now.

Abstract Queerism 1&2, Oil & emulsion on watercolour paper (A4)

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