OUTcast S1, Ep 5 • 25 Oct 2021 • 42:04
Rosie: Welcome to OUTcast, the podcast where we catch up with some of the most engaging, courageous and inspiring LGBTQ+ people from all over the world.
We ask our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer guests where their coming out journeys began, what they’ve gone through along the way – the joy and the pain, but we promise there will be more joy – and what gives them hope.
I’ll be interviewing people from all walks of life, from hardworking queer people behind the scenes, to more familiar faces you might have never known even had the coming out stories they’re about to share.
You can follow us on social media @OUTcastLGBT and you can find us online at outcastpod.com.
This week we’re speaking to Jessie Grimes.
Jessie is a clarinettist based in London. She balances a busy schedule performing as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player with teaching, presenting on TV and radio, and leading workshops. She teaches at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, and is a contributor to BBC Radio 3 as well as presenting on BBC TV.
When coronavirus hit in 2020, she used lockdown to establish Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam, which is eight live-streamed concerts performed in her fruitful London garden. It looks big in the videos – it’s very tiny apparently, but abundant nonetheless. It has garnered thousands of views online, and some passionate and loyal fans. And in 2021, Jessie won the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Trailblazer Award for the series.
Jessie was born in Dublin, in Ireland, and came out to her parents when she was still in School. She’s now married, and they’re about to start their journey to having a baby.
Rosie: Jessie, welcome to OUTcast. Where does your coming out journey start?
Jessie: Oooh, um, well first of all, thank you for having me on. This is lovely, and I’m always excited to talk about all things queer. My journey began – it’s quite a typical one… well, I don’t know, there’s no typical anymore… When I was in school. I thought I was doing everything right, I had a boyfriend, and then I kissed a girl in my class, and it absolutely blew my mind.
And I came home to my mum, and I was like, “okay, I’m going to do it. I’m going to do this.” And I said, “Mum, I’m breaking up with Andy to go out with Emily!” in this big kind of drama way, and Mum just kind of looked at me, and went, “You’ll do a lot more than that to shock me.”
And it was the best kind of response or rebuttal for this huge thing that was in my mind, I think I was 15 maybe, and it was all over. I’ve got a stack of journals from when I was a kid. I think I started doing diaries maybe when I was 12 – if I need some content for therapy I know where to go.
I am very much trying, as a kid, to assimilate, I’m trying to just be part of the binary and the normal, and “I really want a boyfriend”, and “why can’t I blah blah blah?” And I talk all about all these boys that I want to kiss, but I’m not really interested in it. And I never talk about the people, I never talk about them apart from a boy’s name. That’s as far as it ever goes.
And then suddenly this person that I meet in school appears, and then it’s totally different. All of the energy is different, and I’m suddenly like, “Oh I don’t know what to do” and it’s this huge turmoil and angst.
And yeah, so I split up with this lovely guy, and then went into the stereotypical secret relationship.
I think kids these days are so – in most British schools anyway – so lucky that, you know, there’s LGBTQ clubs and stuff happening in schools now. It’s so much more normalised, and out in the open. But when I was a kid, we were holding hands under the table, and it was a big secret. And in that trope that’s there in so many queer films, particularly from the 2000s, of the, “oh, we shouldn’t.” If you think of any kind of queer literature even, like Tipping the Velvet, it’s all about this shame stuff, and hiding.
I had that experience and, I’m sure she won’t be listening so it’s fine, we went away on a trip to Italy, and on the trip we were secretly together. And we were put in a room, sharing a room, oh my God the excitement of it, and then on the plane home – I was Head Girl, humblebrag – she sat beside, and snogged, Head Boy. Can you imagine?!
Rosie: That’s horrible!
Jessie: Right?! It was awful! And, to be fair now, I think they’re married and have kids and they live in Australia, and they’re still together. So, like, I’m happy for her that that happened, and whatever. But I also often have a laugh at the idea that, if I was the last relationship, there’s so much unexplored things for that person.
But anyway, that was my first big gay experince, and the coming out, I was like, “will you tell Dad?” to my Mum.
Rosie: It always feels harder to tell Dad for some reason. The secret relationship, definitely I can relate to that. The, “I need a boyfriend”… In my diary I had ‘Top 3 Hottest Boys’.
Jessie: Nice, yeah.
Rosie: Yeah. I don’t remember actually attributing any kind of value to these people. We just perform heteronormativity I think, just to fit in. I think things are difficult enough as you’re sussing yourself out anyway.
Jessie: Yeah. If someone had to give me a million pounds to go back to being that age, I would absolutely say “no” because it’s all of this thing of trying to survive socially while understanding, like, you’re sprouting from everywhere, and everything’s changing, and there’s all these insane hormones.
And then on top of that, to try and discover who you are within a sexuality that’s been, particularly growing up in the Naughties with the Spice Girls and all of this hypersexualised girl power, which wasn’t really real feminism – it was a sort of a wave of it, but it was completely heteronormative and as a kid that age you’re just trying to survive. And I didn’t have the language for it either.
Jessie: You know, my uncle is gay. And I’m from a very open and accepting family in terms of that sort of stuff. I have a very strong memory of twigging and realising as a kid that Carl’s friend Tom wasn’t his friend, when they came over. And I think I maybe was 8 or 9 or something, and they came over to visit, and I remember I hid in my room. I was scared of the difference and Mum had to come up and say… I don’ t know what she said or what I said, but I kind of was like, “Are they gay?” It really weirded me out as a kid because it was not something I saw anywhere.
I grew up in Ireland, which was still kind of under the spell of Catholicism that it’s finally starting to shake off. I had never seen it on the telly or anywhere else and it was, “oh my gosh, this is in real life”. And maybe in the Naughties, the only gay person you might see is the sort of tropey, flamboyant gay man.
And I remember the reality of it being in my head as freaking me out in a way that I find really interesting now. It resonated quite strongly with me. Then I was like, “okay, I’m going downstairs”, and then I was like, “oh, that’s just Carl and Tom. That’s fine.” I know, I think there’s a lot about having a model as well, when you’re a kid, or having something there to see.
Jessie: That certainly wasn’t there when I was a kid.
Rosie: So it’s kind of coming out to yourself, like we all kind of do that I think. We kind of slowly realise. I wonder if perhaps if you’ve never had to think about it, if you’re straight and happy and just it’s not on your radar, you probably don’t appreciate that I think for most of us, we have to overcome this perceived shame – or it’s real shame, actually I think.
I feel like it took until 2012 or so, before there was more diversity in the kinds of queer people you were seeing. So suddenly the supermodel Cara Delevigne was with a woman, and suddenly there was that slight variety, and lots more men of different fields were coming out it felt like, instead of just having a stereotype to kind of say, “well, that’s not me, so I don’t really know what I am, and what’s happening.” Or “I’ll have a secret relationship”.
Rosie: I did the same – I had a secret relationship for about four years. It’s really damaging. If you haven’t gone through it, it’s hard to explain how damaging it is and how much shame it creates. And I think it lasts – I think even being out now, it’s a painful memory of having to hide that.
Jessie: Yeah. There’s loads of things in that. For a start, we grew up in different countries – where did you grow up?
Rosie: So, I grew up in Cornwall.
Jessie: Not in England England, that’s a different place, Cornwall. Culturally and all that sort of stuff.
But Ireland, again, is definitely a different country! Particularly, during that time. And it may be the same for you, but to be called a Lesbian as a slag was like a really dark slur. Like, I grew up… we did – I know this is definitely similar in the UK – that, “that’s so gay” as a thing was said all the time.
Jessie: Oh, her shoes are so gay. And now, and you’re probably right – there was a little shift in maybe 2012 – where I started being like, “is it gay, is it?” I started calling it out when people would say it casually like in an office: “Is that gay though?”
But there’s such a heaviness, for particularly an under-18-year-old, to hear that in the environment they’re in, that to be gay is a casually thing is the same word as shit. To be a lesbian has got this dirty, masculine, like, really bad connotation.
And even still I often when I’m identifying myself, I’d probably say I’m gay or I’d be queer, before I might say lesbian. Even in the way we use language, you are “a lesbian” and you’re “gay”.
Rosie: Yeah. I think in the context of the patriarchy, lesbian is the ultimate way of pushing back against a male power structure, or a male preference. So it’s deeply offensive in that way and it was always used as such an insult. I still struggle to say lesbian. And I sometimes struggle to say wife, because I’ve been told that introducing yourself as having a wife is subversive – it took me a long time to realise how homophobic that was.
As women, as gay women and lesbians, we’re often minimising ourselves in the way that we are just as women I think.
Jessie: Yeah, yeah. And this is a thing that I’ve been really thinking about because I’m reading it at the moment, about the use of the binaries. Like, I’ve found to say my wife is the easiest way. We’re permanently coming out, all the time. If you don’t fit into a heteronormative place, you’re permanently having to explain yourself, justify yourself, come out, in every new scenario. Particularly as a musician, you meet new people every other day.
And I have that moment, and I find it’s like a power thing to be able to say, “my wife”. Because it immediately identifies, a) I’m comfortably with my sexuality, and b) it’s clear I’m gay, becasue I have a wife and there’s no two ways about it.
But I do feel slightly uncomfortable about having to set into those kind of heterosexual norms in order to justify myself, because I also think in terms of gender, which is not the same as sexuality, but there’s an intersectional thing happening there, that it’s possible that in another few years my wife won’t want to identify as wife.
She’s on a threshold of ‘she’ to ‘they’. It’s all so complicated isn’t it? You’re identifying yourself within a binary that might not necessarily maybe a binary that you identify with. But for everybody else that identifies generally with that binary, it just makes life almost easier for them. My wife – there you go, let’s just say that!
Rosie: It’s like we have to translate constantly, and try and slide into different ways of understanding things. Maybe one day everyone will speak our language, or there won’t have to be a language; we’ll all just be accepting and not need binaries.
Rosie: It would be interesting to talk about being out in classical music, or otherwise. How do you find it?
Jessie: I have had a big old journey with this. I did a degree in Ireland and then I did a degree in Music Education – it was a weird mishmash, basically qualified music and history teacher, whilst also having a performance major, almost in an American style.
And then I was like, “okay, I don’t want to teach. I’m going to go to the UK”, and I went to the Royal College [of Music in London] and I was like “I’m going to do a Masters”.
And I remember standing outside it. It’s quite an imposing building, as well, if you stand on the steps of the Albert Hall and look at it. It’s like, “oh Jesus”.
I tried very very hard to assimilate – it’s the same thing again as in school. My goal was to kind of succeed in terms of what I thought people wanted. And I did very well. I graduated with a Silver Medal.
But I think about it alot now because I would always perform… the name on my passport is Jessica. And I think for the longest time I used that name, Jessica, as sort of my stage name because I assumed, in this wealthy, white, privileged world of classical music that the audiences and people who were giving me marks, or awards, or whatever wanted to see what was most palatable – which was going to be a femme, posh, kind of person. That’s definitely not me.
I would filter myself quite a lot. You go to these sort of mingle-y events where you’re supposed to meet people. I was always hopeless at it. Now thinking about it, I was trying to filter myself, and trying to not be me in order to be what I thought they wanted me to be.
So, on the one hand in the recital-y, get to know all the big wigs in classical music so that you get gigs and stuff, I was trying to be a concept of posh that I didn’t really understand what it was. And then, on the other side of trying to get gigs, all of my teachers – every single one was a straight white man. They all were the people who had the jobs, and I know there were a couple of women in different colleges who were amazing in that they managed to battle through that, twenty years ago to get to the top of their game. But everyone that I came across was a straight white man.
So I’m trying to fit into what they want of me, as a young, twenty-something. I didn’t go the flirting with them route, but the whole thing is, don’t stick out, fit in and go to the pub so that when you get booked for the gig, they’re going to want to have you back.
All the way through college, things went well, but I wasn’t me. And even up until… I was in a trio since I started, so that was in 2009 and we went on an won all sorts of big chamber music prizes. It was pinned on my Twitter for a long time, us winning Overseas League, which was not that long ago, and I’m in a big old dress. And I’m still Jessica I think, probably, on programme notes and stuff.
And it probably wasn’t really until I met my wife, Emma, which is now nearly seven years ago. She’s from a different world. She went to Cambridge, so another white, privileged world, but within that she found a pocket of gay women, and played rugby with them, and had an incredibly close, tight community.
We just came back from a wedding with these guys and they’re all like super high-flying doctors and all sorts of stuff, but proud, confident gay women, and that was just part of who they were. And they connected. I didn’t have a queer comminity like that, so I think Emma was a lot more confident within her queerness, that she would happily walk into a meeting room – she ran a business with her sister for a long time, she makes films now – would walk into a room and completely be herself. Sometimes mistaken to be a boy, you know if she was from an Indegionous community somewhere, maybe she might have been identified as two spirit, or third gender, or something. She just doesn’t sit in your standard binary.
But she always held herself quite confidently in that space, and I found that really inspiring.
And it wasn’t until probably five or six years ago, I went on stage for the first time in a suit, and I played better than I’ve ever played. There were these super high-flying, classical music people at this festival, and Emma was with me – she stayed with me at the festival. So I was publicly out, I would go to the concerts of other artists with my wife. It was the first time I just stopped filtering myself, and I was finally just Jessie, and the students that I taught knew about my wife, and I performed on stage in a suit. It was like everything just changed.
Jessie: It was such a struggle, and it took a long time within classical music for me to stand in a place of authenticity and say, “this is who I am”.
Jessie: And it was terrifying! There’s a voice of a standard audience of classical music, the traditional audience, that says, “why does it matter that they’re gay?” But they’re also, I think, offended by it as well.
So, there was some post – it was on Classic FM – about trans opera singers or something, and there was this big pile-on in the comments, of like, “it doesn’t matter. I don’t care what they had for breakfast”. That sort of voice.
Rosie: Yeah, it’s really complicated. So, for listeners to the podcast who might not listen to classical music, who might not know the kind of ins and outs of being in it, it feels like it’s a decade or two behind where you might place mainstream society with pop culture, or media role models we might have. So that’s the context.
These comments where classical music lovers say, “So what? We don’t care who you’re sleeping with, we don’t care who you used to be”. They’re exactly the people who have made it that it matters that we’re that thing.
These straight white heteronormative people have made it illegal to be gay throughout history, have made it a completely punishable offence. And now that the tide is turning, and we talk about it openly to try and make ourselves genuine and be the people we are, or be role models for other people who might be struggling to come out, it’s suddenly our fault that everyone’s talking about who we have sex with or how we identify, or whether we’re binary or not.
Rosie: It’s the only time I’ve ever been at work, looked at social media comments… this was when Classic FM had a new show for LGBTQ+ composers, presented by Rob Rinder – quite a well-known music producer jumped onto Twitter to make that very arguement: “who cares who these composers had sex with?” And it’s the first time I lost it at work.
Jessie: I think it’s the same argument as, “I don’t see colour” when you’re talking about racism. You can only say that when you come from a place of privilege. “I don’t see colour because I haven’t had to. I don’t see colour because I haven’t had to ever move through the world, and be othered, or experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racism”. So it’s very easy for someone who is straight and never had to question. But it’s from this place of privilege that you can say, “it doesn’t matter”, because why would it matter? Because they have moved through the world and no one’s ever given a shit, or challenged or made them feel awkward about being different, because they’re not. They are perceived as the norm, so they walk through the world – they glide through the world – with no issues whatsoever. And then they can’t get their heads around why it might feel important to make things like these incredible trans artists, who have struggled so much to try and get a foothold into a career, and have gotten there.
Jessie: It’s not the same, but these amazing women who, when I was studying, were at the top. Janet Hilton’s a clarinet player who is Head of Woodwind at the Royal College of Music. She was in a world of men and that is baller that she got there. The same as, I’ve got a really really talented Black student at the Royal College at the moment, and I know that her mum – her mum is awesome – basically has to say to her, “you need to be twice as good in order to get half as far, because you don’t look like the rest of these kids”.
Jessie: And there is slowly a tide is turning, but it’s not turning quick enough for them. But that’s the reason we need to shout about amazing trans singers, or you know like this Garden Jam I just did, in drag, celebrating queer composers.
There’s a small side of the argument that’s also true. It doesn’t particularly matter that Samuel Barber was gay, in how you listen to the music, but it also really really really does. Because of all of the struggle of the LGBTQ community throughout history, it is important to find important, prominent figures, and say, “look, they have succeeded and managed to move through the world” and understand within their expression of emotion, or whatever, within their music there is a struggle that they did go through.
I just know, as an artist – I’m still struggling to say that! – that bringing my identity into is 100 percent part of it. So it is inextricably linked, it cannot be separated, and it is important.
Rosie: If anyone is tempted to use that argument, I think remember that the prejudice made it matter. We didn’t choose to make it matter, we only have to make it matter now that we are open about sexuality, or gender, or whatever it is, because you guys made us do it. We’re just simply responding, and then, yeah, the third step is perhaps it won’t matter any more, but we’re not there yet.
Jessie: What I’ve decided now, and I can do that, it’s also from a place of privilege having worked and stablised my career enough, that I can confidently be like, “okay, all I’m going to do from now on is stuff that has an integrity to it.”
If I have any say in a programme, it has to have a certain number of women in it and on the list of composers. You know, it has to fulfil a criteria and I’m never going to not speak up when I get approached to do something, and I’m shown a cast list, and it’s all white people.
I’m always going to be the person now who says, “that’s bullshit”.
Jessie: And if it means that I don’t get a gig, or I get sacked from it or whatever, it’s from the place of grafting enough that I feel comfortable like I can do that now. It’s really difficult, I think, for younger kids, or kids coming just out of college, to be able to have that same kind of ability to hold strong, and stick with what you believe in. Because it’s so difficult, particularly in the classical music world. There’s always going to be somebody else – there’s always going to be another flute player or another clarinet player that’ll do the gig.
Rosie: That’s so true I think it takes having a certain level of power or achievement within your field to then be able to start making those decisions.
Jessie: What you said about it being like twenty years behind is totally true. You have to be brave, in any sort of – not that we’re huge whistleblowers or anything – but in any sort of whistleblowing scenario, there’s a real risk to that for the person who’s going to call out bad behavior. You can only do that if you can be confident enough that you can deal with the consequences.
Rosie: The trouble with classical music is the powers that be do tend to be of a certain generation, even still. I mean, we’re kind of – I think we’re a similar age – but we’re still sort of the new new guard, almost.
It sounds crazy, but at our age even though it would be relatively mature in other industries, it’s almost like we’re sort of the new kids, you know, sort of able to have tattoos, able to be gay, able to talk about feminism all the time.
The other problem is, the audiences we cater for are traditional audiences. So, whereas the, say, pop music record labels, they have the old guard protecting the brand, the old men at the top still, which is what we have, but at least they have to change – because their audience demands it. Whereas we’ve always got the excuse not to change, in classical music, because we might upset Old Mrs Miggins, and Old Mr Noel, or whatever his name is, so it’s very frustrating. But there is hope, there are such inspirational people and there are so many arts leaders and classical music leaders that are gay, and that are trying to open it up a bit more. So, it’s getting better.
Jessie: It definitely is and I think the more us crazy tattooed people get to the top, or suddenly become in positions of being able to hold some power and privilege, I do hope the people who get there are willing to share the platform and share the power. Because that’s the most important thing to be able to do is to share what you have.
Because, I think again, in classical music, and in a lot of industries, the kind of cut throat nature of it, and the fact that you can be easily replaced, means that people don’t want to take a risk.
But if every person, no matter what industry they’re in, gets to a place where they have some sort of power, that they can share that platform instead of saying, “well, I’m going to take it”, and it might mean that you end up getting a little bit less, but it means that then your actions are much more meaningful as well.
Rosie: You mentioned your Drag Kings and Queens Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam episode. What’s it all about?
Jessie: Lockdown. Let’s take you back to summer 2020… We had no work, there was no music, there was nothing. But more kind of importantly, for me and my community, we weren’t getting to play together. More than a lot of industries or whatever, being a musician is also a bit of a vocation, and when you don’t get to perform you sort of lose a sense of self.
A lot of orchestras and a lot of organisations were presenting stuff from home, but I was asked to do one early enough in the pandemic that it was still a bit of a novelty. And I volunteered the garden, because I was terrified of COVID and didn’t want to do anything inside – because my wife has quite bad asthma and health stuff, so I was like, “I definitely would rather not kill my wife to do a live-streamed concert”.
So we did it outside, but it was really fun and silly and it rained. I put the bassoon player in the shed, the oboe player balanced her music on courgettes, so it was really fun and really funny, and it got quite a lot of attention within that small art community.
And I then spent another couple of weeks being like, “maybe I could do something from the garden”. For years, I’ve presented things for other orchestras, so I can be Jessie Grimes on behalf of the Ulster Orchestra, or whatever, and created things – even writing songs, I do a lot of creative workshop leading. But I’ve never really done something as me, just presenting something – this is my stuff, this is who I am.
And I called it Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam. Little pun… it’s wholesome, and it’s a really long hashtag! I have regrets about that.
Jessie: I want to do something completely different. So basically it became sort of a madcap, vegetable garden-themed show. My first season was sort of my good friends, and we played music but we also did really silly games. We got funding from the Royal Philharmonic Society, which sounds very posh but actually is run by some real legends who are looking to support the kind of outliers and the people who are doing something a bit different.
We did a jazz episode and we had people who are amazing musicians, from Ronnie Scott’s; we did a toddler one where we wrote songs for people, with an organisation I work with; we had a very well-known, prize-winning string quartet to do a more posh, classical one, but even then we got them doing silly stuff; and the most recent one we did was Drag Kings and Queens of Classical Music.
And my good friend Lynton Stephens and I came up with a programme of all-queer composers, and we performed all in drag. And, I might be wrong, but I feel like it was the first classical performance in this country all in drag. It was awesome! It felt really great, and I had one of my students from the RCM came – they’ve watched all the way through, all thirteen episodes we’ve done, they’ve been a really loyal fan of the show – but they came in person to this one. And it was so amazing to be there, like fully in drag, talking about all these queer composer who, when I was growing up or when I was studying, I had no idea that these people were gay. I had no idea!
The one argument of “I don’t see race” or “why is it important?” can’t be correct, because it was such a profound realisation for me to find out that these composers of pieces that I’ve played for over twenty years now – Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, Bernstein, Copland – these people have huge concertos, or big pieces for us, that I teach regularly, and I didn’t know half of them were gay. That has to be important.
Rosie: It’s so important! I really struggled with being gay. I did a music degree as well, and I’ve moved in the same sort of circles that it sounds like you have and, if I’d known that Bernstein, Ethel Smyth, Copland, Barber, et cetera, were gay, I know I would have felt better. I know I would have done.
Jessie: Yeah. And I’m really kind of angry about it, actually, because I can remember sitting in these stuffy lecture halls with people talking about Hugo Wolf, or Wagner or whatever. A lot of these composers who are venerated are actually really shit people.
Yes, they wrote masterpieces, whatever, but lots of people wrote masterpieces! So, it shouldn’t just be those people who get to be celebrated.
I had to work really hard to find queer women. We programmed Jennifer Higdon, who’s an incredible composer. She’s finally getting the recognition she deserves, that she doesn’t have time to teach at the Curtis Institute, like she’s a big deal, Pulitzer Prize winning.
But, I hadn’t heard of her. I’m a queer teacher at the Royal College of Music, my job is to also research music for my students to be able to play, and I hadn’t heard of her.
You know, I can name the men – because they’re men and they’re from the past, so at least the men got somewhere – but the fact that Ethel Smyth… I get stuck after that, to find people who are like me, from the past, or even the present.
Jessie: You’ve mentioned that you guys are thinking about starting a family. For people who might not know, what is it like being a lesbian couple – can I say that?
Jessie: Yeah, I think so.
Rosie: Yeah. What’s it like thinking about starting a family, and what are you guys going through?
Jessie: Well, before I say anything, I want to say that it’s even harder for men. For men, currently if they want to have a family with kids, they have to go through a legal adoption process still.
At least for me and Emma, when we finally do have a baby, both of our names will be on the birth cert, and we don’t have to go through that legal shit. So, for the first time, maybe, women are actually slightly more privileged than the men in this scenario of trying to have a family when you are not straight.
But it’s really really really hard. We have also chosen, maybe, a slightly more complicated route, but when I loop back to it, it also shouldn’t seem complicated at all.
From a position of straight privilege, also saying that with an awareness that a lot of straight couples really struggle and go through a lot of heartache and cannot conceive, but the general standard of, “let’s have a bottle of wine, have sex and the, hey presto, have a free baby!”
I have a brother, who’s a beautiful human being, and we asked him would he donate? And I have also always wanted to carry the baby – therein lies the problem! Because it’s my brother.
The way we’re going to do it is the closest to sort of genetically how a straight couple may have a child: Emma is donating her eggs, it’s going to be my brother’s sperm, and I will carry. So I’ll be the surrogate, kind of, but in all the paperwork, Emma is named as a donor, which is also difficult, even in the conversations we have – Emma is a donor, my brother is a donor, and I am the birth mother. So even in all the language it’s difficult.
It’s also knowing where to start is quite overwhelming, and even friends that we do know who have started a family have all done it in different ways. We’ve got friends who have adopted, we’ve got friends who just bought sperm and have done what you call IUI so just kind of ‘turkey baster’, and we’ve got friends who have done IVF.
It’s a bit like if you want to get your two friends dating, you can either set them up, give them each other’s phone numbers and say, “go for it!” You could arrange the date, so bring them to the place. Or, you could literally hold their hands and put them in bed together, and that’s kind of the three steps within baby-making.
You can either just shove some sperm in there and hope for the best; you can have the next step which is IVF, which is petri dish, sperm and egg in the dish; and then you’ve got the next step again, which is injecting the sperm into the egg, which is called ICSI.
So what we’re going to do is called Reciprocal IVF, so hopefully just IVF – sperm and egg in petri dish – and then it’ll get implanted into me, and hopefully it won’t fall out. And then we’ll have a baby, that’s the plan.
We ended up choosing King’s Fertility, which is connected to King’s College London, because it’s the only place that we in our research – we may also be wrong – but in our research, one of the only places that doesn’t take any profit, all profit goes into research so there’s nobody getting a Masarati out of all the fucking thousands of pounds that we have to spend. Because it does feel strange to pay money to get a human life, so at least the money is going into research for fertility science.
But it’s been an absolute struggle from the beginning, because we didn’t go maybe to a gay women’s fertility place, where we would be seen as normal. We’ve gone to somewhere that is still basically a heteronormative environment. There’s no kind of, “urgh, two women!” But when you get a little beyond the surface of it, it still is quite awkward and difficult and has been challenging from Day 1.
With the caveat that I know that they’ve been stressed out with COVID or whatever, but it’s been really shit. The whole way through, it’s been really hard to say what we want, to have anybody talk us through or walk us through. There’s sort of an assumption, maybe, that you already know what’s going on. I don’t know, like we sort of expected at some stage we might get, you know, a leaflet or a welcome conversation, but none of that really happened. It was like, “Yeah, you need to pay £500 is the first thing you need to do, so that you both get yourselves checked out to see what your ovarian reserve is like”.
And all of it was kind of, “you need to pay money before you have a consultation”. “But I don’t know if I want to be with you guys yet”.
Rosie: From the outside, you imagine that you kind of get inducted, lots of explanation, yeah.
Jessie: You’d think! We’ve gotten to a stage now where we’ve gone so far we’re like, “fuck it, we’re just going to continue here”. It’s easy to get through from where we are, and that’s an important element of when Emma has to go through her getting her eggs out, she has to be in and out quite a lot. So you also need to choose your clinic based on your ability to get there as well.
So there’s lots of stuff, like there’s a list, an A4 page long, of problems we’ve had. As for my brother, there’s an extra complication in that he’s in Ireland. It’s weird, I feel like I need to justify. “We’ve chosen to make this a bit difficult for ourselves, just so we can be genetically related, so we have made it hard for ourselves, so that’s why it’s difficult.” Like, I even feel that within what we’re doing there’s some sort of inequality that’s making me apologise for how we want to make a kid, and why it’s so difficult and complicated. It shouldn’t be, but it seems to be.
So my brother finally managed to get over in February this year, after fucking months of trying, booking, and then COVID cancelling or whatever. So he came and donated. That in itself was a weird experience, to have my brother stay for a week and know that at the end of the week he’s just having the most high-pressure wank of his life.
We had to have counselling – it feels like I’ve had to be turned upside down, shaken and explored in every option, in order for them to say, “yes, fine, we can do this”.
Jessie: There’s all these ethical questions about like, “have you considered who the legal guardian of your kid is?” Our kid’s not fucking born yet, but you have to basically tick their boxes in order to satisfy them that you have thought enough, that you’re responsible enough. It’s shit. You have to be tested in all sorts of different ways.
Rosie: You can be heterosexual, have sex and accidentally get pregnant, even if you’ve got no suitability and no planning behind you.
Jessie: It’s really shit, and it takes so long. I know, and I’ve been told by straight and gay friends, that IVF is brutal. We haven’t even got to the IVF process yet – it’s been a year-and-a-half of battling and fighting to be recognised and to be respected, or whatever. And, there are elements that are nothing to do with the fact that we’re two women – it’s COVID and everyone’s back-to-back – but it feels just so invasive, that we have to compulsorily do all this counselling, you have to compulsorily have all these blood tests. And I know again it’s covering their backs so they’re not legally going to get sued.
For example, if we don’t put down on a form if either of us have any family members with a disability, our child can sue us and-or the clinic, if they then have a disability. So it’s all this shit that we have to basically tell them every single thing about ourselves, in order for them not to get sued. And it’s really awful.
And maybe there’s probably somebody listening who runs a welcoming queer fertility clinic who’s like, “fucking hell, they should have come to us!” And maybe we should have, but that’s also a thing – even researching it is difficult. You don’t know where to start – like, what do you Google? “How do I make a baby? London”.
Jessie: Any time I talk about it with my therapist – I’m a massive advocate that everybody should have a therapist and look after your mental health – she just is just angry on my behalf, and annoyed that I’m still having to go through this, and every single step feels like a fight to get to the next stage.
Rosie: I’m a massive advocate of therapy and things. I think talking about things helps you purge the hurt and things that are really impacting on your mental health. Yeah, it sounds like a huge, huge challenge; a minefield. Is there any other way that you and Emma have found that you can kind of unwind from it, and support each other?
Jessie: Both of us are separately in therapy. I journal every day as well, so I’m still doing my three A4 pages in the morning. For me, I run and I meditate. And then, for Emma, she is a writer. She’s written three books now – they’re all brilliant. That’s her creative outlet, is writing. So it’s definitely creativity. And then doing the garden. I’m out there every day, you know, battling squirrels!
My biggest piece of advice for anybody who’s trying to go through it is to take it one step at a time. At the same time as saying take it one step at a time, I’m also hoping I might be pregnant by Christmas. But the problem with making that, “I hope I might be by this time” is that you’re setting yourself up for even more disappointment.
And this is a debate I have a lot within therapy – is it better to defend yourself in advance by not thinking these things, and hope that the disappointment won’t be so big, or is it just reality that it will be a disappointment anyway and you have to ride through it, and maybe having those little glimmers of hope help you get there. I don’t have any good answers for it yet. The big advice is try and take it one step at a time.
Rosie: It sounds so hard.
Rosie: What one or two pieces of advice would you give allies to LGBTQ+ people?
Jessie: The first thing that comes to mind is don’t assume that you understand what somebody’s experience is. And don’t assume that you know what they want or need. I think communication and consent is really really important. And being aware that everything is on a spectrum that’s always moving.
And perhaps just because you fit quite neatly into a binary of, for example, identifying as a cis female who is straight, doesn’t mean a) that at some stage in your life that might change for you and that spectrum might shift too, but also that my experience might shift, and the person you knew ten years ago – Jessica who wore a dress – not making an assumption that the person you know a few years ago is not always on a journey and shifting and changing.
And always just to ask, and if you’re in doubt, ask what somebody’s pronouns are. But also, if you use your pronouns or make them visible on social media, or whatever meeting or work that you have, it just makes that space a little bit easier for someone who might need to use it.
Whether it’s because their name is not from this culture, and somebody British might not know whether they’re male or female. There’s so many reasons why, for example, using pronouns can help lots of people. Also, not assuming that everybody wants to use that as well!
It’s kind of just about consent and communication, and that everything is always changing. And some people also don’t want to be put in a box.
My other advice is probably to do the work yourself. Don’t rely on the person in a marginalised place to inform you – do it yourself. It’s great to have conversations, but maybe the trans, or the gay, or the bisexaul person that you’re talking to is fucking sick of talking about it, and just wants to have a coffee.
You know, go and read.
Rosie: Yeah, that’s amazing advice. Let’s end on a really positive note – what gives you hope for now and the future?
Jessie: Young people. The kids that I teach. Our younger generation who are just open to everything. The fact that I did a Drag Kings show, and my young, talented Black student came, because there’s all sorts of tropes about race and homosexuality and everything. Just that everybody is, of that younger generation – most of – are just so much more educated and open, and willing to step out of a binary and understand that things are more nuanced. That gives me hope. And that there are a lot of people in older generations that are trying.
Rosie: Yeah, definitely.
Well, thanks so much. Thanks so much for coming on to OUTcast, it’s been amazing having you.
Jessie: Pleasure. Thanks for having me on!
Rosie: Thank you for listening to OUTcast, a podcast with interviews and coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people.
I’m your host, Rosie Pentreath. I hope you can join us again next week.