Tim, of ‘Tim & Leanne’ Gogglebox fame, tells OUTcast Podcast about being a gay Asian in the late 80s onwards and what it was like coming out to his Malaysian family.
Warning: this article contains some offensive language, quoted, in order to expose the intolerable racism our guest Tim has experienced.
When Tim Lai was ready to come out as gay, it was the tail end of the AIDS epidemic in Australia.
“One of the reasons I had such a hangup about my sexuality,” Tim tells Rosie on OUTcast, “was because when I was in high school coming to the point of wanting to come out, it was towards the ember end of the AIDS epidemic.
“Here in Australia there was this really God awful, bone-chilling advertisement that had the Grim Reaper spreading HIV and killing everyone.”
Being LGBTQ+ Australia at this time, which would have been the late 1980s, was very different from today.
“That was during my formative years. Anti-gay hate was at its absolute height then,” Tim explains.
“I grew up in a time when gays were bashed, beaten and murdered. And the police didn’t help, because some of the police were not innocent and were the ones who perpetrated a lot of the hate, in the name of law and decency,” he says.
Rosie describes having shivers down her spine as she hears Tim’s account on Episode 4 of OUTcast Podcast, out now.
Tim realised he was gay when he was around nine – purusing Myer and David Jones catelogues, of all things.
“I saw a few of the male models and I thought to myself, ‘ooh, they look good.’ It didn’t actually dawn on me what it actually meant, but I know that I wasn’t looking at the female models,” Tim smiles.
On OUTcast Podcast, Tim explains that his mum and dad were nonplussed about his sexuality, and much of his extended family – in Australia, and in Malaysia where he was born – were accepting as well.
In spite of the taboo around the LGBTQ+ communities experienced in 1980s and 1990s Australia and beyond, Tim was ready to come out when he was a teenager.
He spontaneously told his best friend’s aunt that he thought he might be gay, and she didn’t say anything but swiftly left the room the room instead.
“She just got up and marched out of the kitchen and I thought, ‘Oh crikey! What have I done?’ But then she came back, grabbed my mate who was still hungover, came in and she said, ‘you two need to talk, and be honest to each other’,” Tim says.
Support from a gay best friend
“So I told him I was gay and that I was struggling with it, and that I should have told him because I didn’t want to lose him as a friend,” he continues. “And at that point he then told me he was gay too!”
Tim’s coming out journey, then, became characterised by having the support and parallel experiences of his longtime best friend, and he was able to blossom into the proud gay man he is today – engaged and happily living in Melbourne with his partner Mark, and their beautiful Boston terrier, River.
Facing racism in Australia
Tim’s best friend was also incredibly supportive of Tim’s heritage and navigating the racism faced by many diverse people in Australia – throughout history and still today.
“I had this internalised racism against myself,” Tim poignantly reflects on the podcast. “I even recall recording Neighbours and Home and Away, and replaying the tape so that I could actually change my accent, so I sounded more Australian.”
“That’s how much I wanted to fundamentally change myself. And looking back in hindsight, that was absolutely so wrong.”
On top of the self hate caused by the despicable racism Tim reflects on, he also recounts how unaccepting the LGBTQ+ community in Australia was of non-white people.
”Discrimination within the LGBTQI community was even greater,” he emphasises. “And it’s hard to believe that when you’re on apps or you’re in clubs, that lines like ‘no Asians’, ‘no curries’, even ‘Gooks go home’ – I had that when I went to a gay club here in Melbourne – exist.”
Tim, who now works for the inclusive and diverse LGBTQ+ charity, The Pinnacle Foundation, shares his frustration that the community still lacks diverse representation.
“I just find it challenging, as well, when you look at boards and management teams and decision-makers for LGBTQ+ charities and not-for-profits, and the diversity ends with white cis-gendered men and women.”
He assures us things are getting better though. Slowly, but surely.
What can allies do to support the LGBTQIA community?
”I have an acronym for this,” Tim confides on OUTcast Podcast. “I call it my L.L.E., which is Learn, Listen and Educate.”
He explains: “Actively listen when someone comes out to you, or tells you about their life and their story; their struggles and tribulations.
“Be respectful when you ask your questions, and just use your own initiative and actually read up and learn about the LGBTQI+ community: about the struggles that we’ve had to face, and I think it’s through listening and educating yourself that you will put yourself in good stead with the LGBTQ+ community.”
Tim, who has starred in Gogglebox Australia since 2019 with his sister Leanne, has hope for the future.
What is the most hopeful thing about being LGBTQIA in Australia today?
“I’m proudly the byproduct of all my experiences: my trials, my tribulations, my pain,” he tells Rosie on OUTcast Podcast. “I’m the sum of my hangups, my self doubt, anxiety and victories, and if I change anything in my past, I’m not going to be who I am today.”
Tim lives in a traditionally non-diverse white suburban community in Melbourne, surrounded by retirees or young families with children.
“We’ve been embraced by everyone in my suburb and in this street,” he beams. “My neighbours have become my friends. We WhatsApp, we Facebook Chat, and we’re part of the street, we’re part of the community, and I think that’s what gives me hope.”
Rosie: Welcome to another episode of OUTcast, the podcast where we share coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people all over the world.
I’m Rosie Pentreath, your host. I identify as a lesbian woman, and I’ve shared my coming out story in personal settings, in online articles, and as part of LGBTQ+ panels on coming out and being queer at work. And now, I want to hear other people’s stories.
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.
That’s what it’s all about: OUTcast is me and my guests sharing stories, creating a space for us all to talk, to listen, and to celebrate being proud queer people in the world today.
You can follow us on social media at @OUTcastLGBT and you can find us online at outcastpod.com.
It’s great to have you with us.
Rosie: This week, we are joined by Victor Iringere. Victor is a Nigerian refugee who lives in Birmingham with his husband. He works at Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, and campaigns for refugee and LGBTQ+ rights.
He was born in Lagos in Nigeria, and was from a religious family. He has been subjected to conversion therapy, exorcisms, starvation and violence due to his sexuality, and he sought asylum based on his sexual orientation in 2017 in the UK.
He was granted asylum in 2019, but not before becoming homeless due to the current UK legislation preventing asylum seekers from having employment.
Victor’s story is honest, heartbreaking, shocking and just harrowing. But it ends with hope – he is happily married, a proud gay man, and living here in the UK safely.
Before I start this episode, I do want to warn listeners that Victor’s story does contain triggering details around mental illness, conversion therapy and violent homophobia. But it is also incredibly hopeful and loving. He’s truly an inspiring and beautiful human, and I feel privileged to have met him.
He also had some building work going on in the background of our chat, so there may be some fluctuation in the quality of this recording. But it’s not a story you’re going to want to miss, so I had to include everything.
Rosie: Victor – welcome to OUTcast.
Victor: Thank you. Thank you, Rosie.
Rosie: You have an extraordinary story to share – it’s heartbreaking, but I think it’s important that people hear it so we can spread awareness of what it’s like to be an LGBTQ+ person from Nigeria.
Rosie: Tell us a bit about yourself. You identify as gay, and you’re married and you live in Birmingham…
Victor: That is correct, yes. I’m a 27-year-old gay refugee from Nigeria with a mental health illness and I’m Black. I think I tick a few diversity points to be honest!
I was born in Nigeria to a medical doctor, my mother is a doctor, and my father, he never quite landed on any profession. He didn’t have a very easy life, so I grew up with my mother and my sister in Lagos.
And I lived in Nigeria until I was 19, when I came to the UK – Coventry, specifically – for university. And I did that for four years, and then went back to Nigeria for ten months and then, after that, I had to flee and come back to the UK and start over here and try to make it my home.
Rosie: And we’re going to find out more about your story as we chat. What was your childhood like, first of all?
Victor: There was a lot of love. My mother is an amazing, amazing human being. I think of her as a superhero, almost. You know, when we were very young, she never expected to be a single parent. She had to make the decision for her safety and for the safety of me and my sister, to become a single parent. And that was incredibly difficult for her, a young unmarried, or divorced woman, raising two children in the 90s in Nigeria wasn’t very easy.
We were under a military dictatorship at the time as well, and so even though she worked for a government hospital, there was so much corruption that sometimes she wouldn’t get paid for months. And so she had to take, at one point, two extra jobs, two evening jobs in clinics, and I think she did that for years, just to take care of us and ensure we got the best education and we didn’t suffer a lack.
So she worked a lot, she worked very hard and she gave us everything that we could possibly need. She kind of carried it all on her own, so, you know, for a large part it was happy.
Rosie: Mm hmm.
Victor: You know, it wasn’t without its challenges, especially as I started to hit my teen years. Things started to go downhill as I started to realise more and more that I was different from all the people around me. And I didn’t understand why, lots of people didn’t understand why, so there was a lot of pain as well, sort of in my later childhood. So it was very mixed, it was very mixed.
Rosie: Mmm, your mum sounds like an extraordinary woman.
Victor: She is. She is, absolutely.
Rosie: Yeah. So, you describe feeling different. When did it start to creep in that you knew you might be gay?
Victor: I didn’t have a word for it. Even before I knew I was different, everybody told me that I was. The earliest incident, or one of the earliest incidents I can remember, I was five, I was in nursery, and I remember I’d come to school wearing girl’s socks. They were very flowery. I don’t know why I chose that sock, or why those socks were chosen for me, but I liked them. And I got made fun of by my friends and teachers for wearing girl’s socks.
And through the years, there were a lot more incidents. People told me I acted like a girl, I looked like a girl. It wasn’t like an innocent observation, it was almost like an accusation.
Victor: I didn’t understand what I was guilty of. In school I wasn’t interested in a lot of the things that the other boys were interested in. I had no interest in football, I wasn’t as strong as they were, I didn’t want to play the same games as the boys wanted to play, so most of the time on the playground I’d be with the girls playing.
I remember one time, for example, while the other boys in the neighbourhood were out downstairs playing football, I was with the girls sewing clothes for Barbies. That was the sort of thing I was interested in, so I knew I was different. I didn’t understand why, and I didn’t have a word for it.
Victor: I think the first time I had a word for it was in church, when I was about 11 or 12, and they preached against homosexuality. And it dawned on me, “oh my God, that’s me.” But also, actually, when I got into secondary school at 11, that was the first time that people called me gay or homosexual. But I didn’t internalise it, I think, until I heard it in church, and they preached against it, and I started to think, “hold on a minute, I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”
Because when I started to hit puberty, I wanted to hang out with the boys, but not because I wanted to play the same games as them. I just, you know, liked them and I wanted to be around them, you know. That was when it started to dawn on me that I was gay.
And I will say, as well, that, up until I was 16 or so, even though I had had the language for it, and I’d understood it as a sin, I still felt very alone. I was convinced that there were maybe ten gay people at a maximum in Nigeria. I didn’t think that there was anyone around me who was feeling the same things, or who understood the same things, or who was the same.
Rosie: Yeah. Of course you know that’s not true now, and I think it’s so important to know that there are people going through the same thing as you, and that’s a crucial part of self-acceptance and coming out. In terms of the way they were preaching against homosexuality, was it quite passionate, strong preaching against it specifically? Or was it sort of more mentioned within sermons?
Victor: Oh, it was very passionate. I think the only thing that was more vilified than homosexuality was being transgender.
I was a Sunday School teacher, I think from the age of 14 or so. Before Sunday School, we would meet on Saturday – all the teachers – to kind of discuss the material and prepare the lessons that we were going to teach on Sunday.
And I remember one of those discussions, the topic was sexual immorality. When you talk about sexual immorality, the top thing that comes to mind is homosexuality. I remember they said all other sins are sins, but homosexuality is an abomination. And that was lifted from Leviticus, you know, so it was considered worse than any kind of other sin as far as I was taught. And the only thing that was worse than it was being transgender: the way that they explained it was that, when you decide that you are better able to create humans than God, and you’ve taken the body that God has given you and you’ve spat in God’s face and said that He’s wrong and you change yourself into something that God hasn’t made you to be, then you are a living, walking abomination.
Rosie: We have an incredible episode of OUTcast featuring a transgender Anglican priest, who explains her approach to this question really, really well. She explains how her belief in God works side-by-side with her gender, and how she made that journey, and it’s an incredible listen.
For listeners of the podcast as well, for context it is illegal to be homosexual in Nigeria. Victor, where do you think such a strong, anti-LGBTQ+ approach comes from, in Nigeria?
Victor: I think it’s a mixture of a lot of different things, you know. And I have spent some time thinking about it. One thing I know is that homophobia was not our culture, it was something that was imported with colonialism. That’s absolutely true.
However, as happens with a lot of trauma, I think one of the things that happens is, when you’re made to feel like you’re less than – for example, Nigerians living in Nigeria under colonial rule couldn’t do certain jobs, their lives were very limited, they were very much second class citizens – one of the only things you have to hold on to is the fact that there’s other people you are better than.
And, religion served up that scapegoat on a platter. There’s very much that sort of, “yeah, I might be suffering, yeah things might be bad for me, but I’m still better than that person, they’re a walking abomination. At least I’m doing my best to be right with God but they’re not.” So I think there’s that.
Obviously there’s patriarchy as well. The reason why – and this is something that is seen across a lot of homophobic societies, certainly in Nigeria – lesbianism is more permitted than homosexuality, because it’s not taken as seriously. But then I believe that’s also due to patriarchy, because patriarchy says that women don’t own their sexuality. Women’s sexuality is a tool to pleasure men, and so if a man thinks, “actually I can be okay with two women getting along, it gives me pleasure”, that’s more permissible.
On the reverse side, when you’re a man in a patriarchal society, and it’s almost like you’ve won the DNA lottery, you’ve kind of won a lottery at birth where you have more privilege by virtue of your gender. One thing that we know about oppressive power structures is that they are very, very weak, very, very susceptible to threats, because they oppress people by the very nature of being oppressive. So one of the only ways that you can hold on to that power is by keeping other people in line. So when a man does things that a man isn’t supposed to do, quote unquote, you know when a man decides to take on the role of a woman, sexually, in a relationship, what have you, it’s almost like a slap in the face to the patriarchy because it says, well, “why have you decided to give up power? What is wrong with you?” And then other people who are benefitting from that system feel threatened, as well. So I think that that misogyny is a big part of it, as well.
So there’s the religion, there’s that culture or there’s that history of trauma and oppression, and how Christianity and Islam were introduced into Nigeria, and how people were scapegoated. There’s that fear, there’s that patriarchy, and also, you know, there’s just the lack of understanding. We fear the things that we don’t understand.
When the only gay people that you’ve ever heard of are described as peodophiles or as abominations, people just think, “well if you’re that depraved, what else won’t you do?” So I think there’s also a lot of fear of the unknown, and I think it’s a very complex thing that can’t very easily be explained or solved, but there are a lot of factors that have created this system and those factors continue to feed it.
Rosie: Yeah, it is incredibly complex and I think it’s such a demonstration of how one issue leads to another issue leads to another issue, and this trauma that you speak about is creating this sort of will to survive in people. It’s almost like a survival mechanism to create that hatred and pulling people down, because you want to just get by, and that’s almost what’s happening in the leadership, by the sounds of it.
Victor: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Rosie: Once you realised that you were gay, you’ve spoken about confessing that to a priest, is that right?
Victor: The first time I spoke to my pastor about it, I think I was about 14 or 15, but I realised I was gay when I was about 11 or 12. So those years were years of silence, because as far as I knew, there was a sin inside of me. I had all these sins in the Bible that I had to take care of by praying, by getting closer to God, by practicing the things that I’m supposed to practice: speaking in tongues, and praising God, and dedicating my life to the service of God, and begging God to heal me of this sin.
I did that on my own for three or four years. The first time I spoke to my pastor about it, I think I’d gotten to a point where I’d been praying and fasting for a long time, and I felt like I needed some help, so I went to one of my pastors and I told him.
I will never forget the look on his face when I was explaining to him the things that I was feeling and what I was doing about them. It was almost like a puzzled disgust. It was almost like, I don’t know, it was almost like I’d been explaining to him how I go to the sewers every day and drink a bucket of poo. It was that kind of reaction that you would expect to see when you said something like that.
He said to me I needed to fast and that he was going to pray for me and help deliver me. And one thing that he said that puzzled me – and I don’t know why he said it – he said he wasn’t going to pray to God to take away my feelings, because taking away my feelings would make me inhuman. But he was going to pray to God to give me the grace to deal with them.
Now that flew in the face of everything that we’d been taught, that I understood, that they taught in church; that he taught in church. So I didn’t understand why God couldn’t just take away the sin. Even if I didn’t do anything about it, when I saw a boy I was attracted to him. I felt that I was committing the sin of lust, but it was worse than the sin of lust because I was lusting after another man. So it was the sin of lust and homosexuality. And so it’s like, “okay, but you’re not actually taking away the sin. You’re just telling me to cope with it.”
Rosie: Did it change your view of God? Did it change your religion?
Victor: No. No. No absolutely not. Absolutely not. Because one thing that I’d been taught about God was that God was loving and God was merciful and God was kind.
So by the time I got to 16, about two years after this, that was when I had my first relationship with another boy in my class. We became friends, we were very attracted to each other, and then we started to explore with each other sexually.
There was a lot of guilt around that, you know, I felt very guilty. And in all of this, of course I never blamed God because I’d been taught, I knew that God was perfect. It was described to me that when you consistently live in sin, God will turn his face away from you.
At the time I was dealing with a lot of depression, but I understood this as God turning his face away from me. So, really, I just kept going on and on trying to find my way back to grace with God. So I was not angry at God, I was ashamed at myself. I felt unworthy. I felt like a fraud.
It got to a point when, every time I would go to church on Sundays, and they would start the worship, which is the slow music that helps you to connect with the spirit of God, it would get too difficult for me to be there and I’d run into the bathroom and I’d stay in the bathroom for about half-an-hour just crying, because I felt so horrible, I felt so guilty, I felt so unworthy. How dare I stand in the presence of God, how dare I stand with all these holy people knowing what’s inside of me.
You know the Macklemore song, ‘Same Love’, that bit where it goes, “I’m not crying on Sundays”. That hit me, and I was like, “wait, crying on Sundays was literally my teenage life.” I was like, “I connect with this so much.” I was crying on Sundays because I would go to church and feel like I was unworthy.
Rosie: I’m so sorry, that’s so awful. It’s awful. That terrible choked up depression you felt. I think I can guess what the answer is to this, but are you still religious in any way?
Victor: I’m not religious, no. I consider myself a humanist. However, I have made my peace with religion. My husband is a Christian, and I’ve been able to come to a place where I can appreciate the benefits that it has for other people – the solace and the succour that they get from it. What I get from meditation or mindfulness, a lot of people will get that from religion.
I think I’ve got to a point where I can actually see the benefits of it for other people, while saying this is not for me. So, no I’m not religious but I’m not anti-religion either. I think it has its benefits for people certainly.
Rosie: Mmm, that’s really strong and inspiring – to see the value for other people, whilst you’ve made your peace and don’t necessarily need it any more.
So, going back to your story and to the battle inside you between religion and your sexuality when you were younger, what did the conversion therapy you’ve talked about involve?
Victor: There were quite a few, of varying degrees. The first one was obviously just praying and fasting, but they started to get intense after I came out to my mother at 16. That was when the conversion therapy started.
I don’t remember all of them. I think one of the first ones was, my mother had brought a prophet. He brought this bottle of very dirty water – I don’t know what he put in it – and he brought some really weird soap, and another small bottle of a more concentrated liquid. And so I was supposed to put that liquid in my bath, and I was supposed to shower with the soap, and I was supposed to drink that water every day, and those things were supposed to help cure me. Well obviously that didn’t work.
I also was taken to a church somewhere in Lagos where I had a one-on-one counselling with a pastor, and he put me onto the American-style conversion therapy. So this was actually run by a Christian ministry in America, and there was a number of courses that were supposed to help you change your mind and help correct what’s wrong inside of you. Obviously that didn’t work. That one was called Door of Hope, I remember that.
I was taken to another city where, as part of the conversion therapy, I had to fast every day for two weeks. And so I could only eat once in the evening. I’d spend the entire day in church about three times a week. There was all sorts of things. We’d put lots of denominations of currency on the floor, and there were little bottles of olive oil and I had to sort of dance around them, and break them against stones. I had to roll around the floor from one end of the church to the other. I was basted in coconut water and sand. There’s been a lot, there’s been a lot, and I think every time my mother would open up to someone else, they would suggest another pastor or another priest who they’d heard could cure me.
One of the ones that was probably the most dangerous – and I’m so grateful that I got to escape that – was, a priest was brought in from another city and my mother put him up in a hotel. And he’d come to our house every night and would do all-night prayers, but then he would talk about taking care of me. One of the first things he said to me is, “oh, are you on Facebook? We should be friends. I want you to be friends with me, I want us to be close.” And he also said to me, “I travel a lot, I go abroad for conferences and things, I can take you with me.”
He was basically trying to groom me, to take advantage of me sexually. And thankfully this happened shortly before I fled. One of the things that he had said was that I was going to have to come to his church in the other city, and spend some time after he gets back from his trips. I knew what was going to happen when I went there, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything to stop it. I just knew. This man was a creep.
And he was doing all of this in a guise of converting gay men into straight men, or running an ex-gay ministery or what have you. And I keep thinking about how many boys have been sent by their parents to their abusers, in the name of trying to find a cure for homosexuality? And, of course, there was nothing that I was ever going to say to anyone that was going to make them believe a homosexual over a man of God.
Rosie: Mmm. Exactly, it doesn’t really bear thinking about. It’s so infuriating and hypocritical and just terrifying, Victor. Let’s bring it back for a minute – in terms of first speaking to your mum, do you remember her reaction?
Victor: It was one of the most horrible things that I have ever experienced and I’ve been through some horrible things in my life. It was the first time I felt that my mother was done with me.
And when I told her, she didn’t say anything. It’s quite customary for her actually, when she’s faced with difficult emotion or difficult information, she goes away and she processes. And so the first time she spoke to me was, I think, later that night or a couple of nights later. She woke me up in the middle of the night, and she asked me, “what is it in boys that attracts you?”
And then I started talking about my, quote unquote, boyfriend. We didn’t call each other boyfriend, but he was the boy in my class that I’d been with. And I started talking about the things about him that attracted me, and I could feel my face lighting up. I could feel that there was a big smile on my face as I was talking about him.
And then I caught myself, and I was like,”what am I doing?” and then I looked at her and on her face was this look of horror; of disgust. You know, seeing me talk so deeply about loving another boy.
She tried, bless her, she tried. She tried to fix me, she tried to find help, you know. She told me that, “look, I know that you’re quite effeminate, and a lot of people have said to me that there’s something wrong with your child because he’s very feminine.” She said, “well no, some people are just creative”. And she said that when she was in uni, she had a classmate, and he as very effeminate, but he was a very lovely person and people used to say that he was gay, and she said, “well, no he’s not, he’s just a very creative person.”
So she said, there’s nothing wrong with being effeminate, it doesn’t mean that you have to be gay. I think that she believed that I had internalised the fact that people had been calling me gay because I was effeminate and then I’d manifested that in myself.
She was trying to correct that. She spent a lot of time trying to correct that, mostly with religion.
And then she got more… she would get more upset; more angry. I was 16 at this time, I left Nigeria when I was 19 for the first time, so over those three years, she would try. At first, she tried very hard. It didn’t work, obviously. And then she would get frustrated and she would get angry, and she would stop trusting me.
I remember when I went away to college for the first time, I sort of started to explore myself and the things I loved, you know, because it was the first time I was away from home. I actually met other gay people – I realised that there’s more then ten gay people in Nigeria!
One of the first things actually was I found a Facebook Group and there were over a thousand people. It was called Gay Men in Nigeria and I was like, “Oh my God, there are a thousand gay men in Nigeria?”
I actually made some gay friends. I went to a gay party. I started dating, you know, I was trying to explore myself. Obviously I was still conflicted with religion and all of that, but I just needed to find myself, you know?
And things went downhill when I got outed in class. And it became very dangerous for me, and people were plotting to kill me, and a gun was pulled on one of my closest friends: there were people trying to kill me in school because I was gay. And I had to tell them everything I’d been up to, and at that point, I think, that was when she just thought, “this child is incorrigible.” We’ve been trying to help you, and you just don’t want to be helped. I believed that she was done with me. And the more I grew to understand and accept myself, the more I grew away from the person that she hoped I would be. And I think it just kept breaking her heart over and over and over again.
Rosie: Mmm. Mmm. It does sound like you do have a deep respect for her, in spite of that. Did you gradually manage to rebuild a relationship over the years?
Victor: Yeah. We’re still working on it. It’s been very difficult, but one thing I know is that she did everything she did out of love. And, yes, I carried anger for a very long time, and I might still have some of it. We’ve had a lot of conversations, and recently I started to realise a lot more about myself and my mental illness, and so, that allowed me to put a lot of things that happened when I was growing up into perspective.
I think where our relationship started to turn around was about two, two-and-a-half years ago. I did an interview in The Guardian. It talked about the night shelter that I slept in when I came to the UK and sought asylum and became homeless. I was excited – ”I’m in The Guardian!” – you know? So I sent it to everyone, and I sent it to her.
And she didn’t respond. And then two days later I thought, “oh my God, you literally just told your mother that you were homeless on the streets of England.” I started to panic, so I called her and I said, “you haven’t spoken to me since I sent you that article.” And she was like, “how would you go through something like that and not tell me?”
And I got angry. And I yelled at her and I said to her, “how could I tell you? What has being honest with you ever gotten me, apart from pain and hurt?” It was the first time I was completely honest with her about the ways that she had hurt me, and the ways that she had taken my honesty and my trying to connect with her, and trying to share my truth, and used it against me.
We spoke that day, she called me the next day, and she was in tears and she apologised to me. She said, “I failed as a mother” and hearing her say those words broke my heart.
Victor: Because I knew that she hadn’t. As angry as I was – and I was angry, I was so angry at her – I knew that she hadn’t failed. I knew that my education, the person I am, my character, a lot of that comes from her.
I saw the sacrifices that she made, and she wasn’t happy. She had a very difficult life and she was carrying it all on her own. And hearing her say, “I have failed as a mother”, that completely took away my anger, because I love her, and she’s amazing. I know she didn’t fail. She made mistakes and it took me a long time to deal with a lot of the mistakes that she made, and there were a lot. I had to get to a point of realising that she couldn’t do any better, because she didn’t know any better.
She was as much a product of her surroundings, of her society, as anyone else. And she grew up in a society where she had been taught that this is the way to be a good, upright person.
She felt that she was trying to save me from wasting my life. I had to first of all heal from the hurt. I needed that apology from her, and then I needed to be able to forgive, and remember and realise that she did it all out of love.
And I think that’s one of the most complicated and difficult things about dealing with homophobia, or about dealing with injustice from the people around you who love you.
Somebody explained it like this: if you’re sitting in a crowded theatre, and you can see that there’s a fire, you’re going to try and save the people around you even if they can’t see it. If you say, there’s a fire, let’s go and they’re like, “well no, there’s no fire”, they’re going to stay, but you know if they stay they’ll die, so you’ll do whatever you have to do. You’ll punch them in the face if you have to, you’ll push them out, to save their lives.
But a lot of the time, what the people who are trying to save us from the fire don’t realise is there actually isn’t a fire. And so, you know, in that situation, yes they’re doing it out of the best intentions, but they’re still hurting you. This person I love is still punching me and pushing me and trying to shove me out of the theatre, when I want to watch this film.
Understanding that, it helps, but it’s still hard. There’s still a lot of hard work that has to be done with forgiveness and reconciliation and self love.
That’s one of the most difficult things I had to learn, was loving myself and valuing myself enough to put myself first.
Victor: And to say, “I’m not going to apologise for who I am. I’m not going to apologise for living my truth. When I’ve done that, and when I’ve made my space for myself, then I can be generous to other people and I can be understanding of them.”
Rosie: Yeah, mmm hmm.
Victor: Moving out, finding my own place in the world, starting to build my own life from scratch, that’s helped with that forgiveness journey.
Rosie: It sounds like the time and space that you have created moving away has allowed you to be incredibly generous. The way you’re speaking is generous, and so open and so understanding.
Victor: I think we’ve gotten to a point of tolerance, and it’s better than it’s been in a long time, but it still breaks my heart.
Rosie: It’s such a sort of powerful and heartbreaking demonstration of how damaging homophobia is.
Victor: Absolutely, absolutely. It destroyed my family. It cost me everything. It cost me my home, cost me my family, cost me my friends, and so many times, it almost cost me my life.
But I’m not the only one who’s suffering. The people around me, they’re suffering too, because of it. And then you multiply that by however many millions of people live in homophobic situations, or grew up in homophobic situations, and you start to appreciate just how much the damage it does in people’s lives is. It’s horrid.
Rosie. Mmm hmm. And it’s something… being gay, being LGBTQ+ is something that has nothing to to do with anyone else outside it, which is the most awful puzzle piece. Because, you know, who we love or who we are is our business, and we’re not asking anyone who’s not interested in; we’re not inviting them in. It’s such a nonsensical, devastating and just disgusting situation in the world, really.
Rosie: So much did happen to you in Nigeria. You willingly and unwillingly did this conversion therapy. I know you’ve talked about exorcisms and really extreme approaches, but let’s talk about your escape if it’s okay to call it that. Did it time with university in the UK?
Victor: To go to Coventry University, I got a scholarship from the state government to come to the UK for university. And that’s because English universities are just better than Nigerian universities. The government had this thing where they were trying to train young people who were going to help make the country better. They were trying to develop talent, so they thought, “we’ve got to send them to the best schools.”
So there was the UK, Canada, America, you know, the countries with better education. I sat the exams, I passed, I got on the scholarship. Before I left though, my mum’s best friend said, “I’m not sure if going to the UK is the best thing for him, because there, they celebrate this thing. What’s he going to become when he goes?”
In the end, they agreed it was best for me to have the best education, and that’s why I came to the UK. And coming to the UK really, really did change me. I was sat in a class with people who came from all over the world, who had completely different approaches to life than anybody else that I’d ever grown up with all around, than anything I knew.
It was quite a bit of a shock. It actually taught me, well wait a minute, there isn’t just one way to live and be good, there’s lots of people around you who are living good lives, and they’re happy, and obviously they’re good people, they’re not sinful people who are going to go to hell.
It caused me to question my religion. It was a lot of things that I was seeing. I remember going to my Nigerian church when I was in uni and noticing that pretty much everybody in the church was Black and Nigerian. And it just made me think, “wait a minute, if our gospel is as powerful as we say, Black Nigerians are the minority in this society, but they are the majority in this church, so clearly maybe this is more about culture than it is about what’s actually right or wrong.”
Through different lenses, because I was exposed to different information and different ways of life. There was a boy in my class, and we were friends, and he’s Indian and he’s Hindi. And he was talking to me about his Gods, and about his religion, and the fire, the passion, I saw in him as he was talking about his Gods was the same fire and passion that I had when I was talking about my God growing up. And I thought, well surely there’s not that much difference between us? Why am I right and he’s wrong?
So I actually started to question a lot of things, and that led me down a path of self acceptance. It was slow, it was gradual, it was painful. I had to unlearn a lot of things, but I did. And then it got to the point where I finally accepted myself, and I was like, “I’m a gay man and there’s nothing wrong with that. This was how I was made. This is who I am.”
And then going back to Nigeria, I started to have conversations with my mother, you know, hoping that perhaps she would accept me, or she would understand. I sent her some materials from the American Pediatric Association, some scientific research. She’s a doctor so I thought, okay, she’ll respond to science that shows that, actually, people are just born gay. So, clearly, it’s not unnatural like I’ve been taught. We’ve been wrong.
And so, going back home after uni, I really, really, really thought that finally I’m going to be able to have a conversation with my mother about who I am. And that, actually, I would be okay. That wasn’t what I got.
Rosie: What did happen?
Victor: I got more conversion therapy, more hostility, interventions… just horridness, which led by month seven of being there, to a depression and, you know, I was ready to die.
Rosie: Victor, it’s so hard to listen to. I’ve read about your experiences of ongoing conversion therapy and things that were as extreme as exorcisms, so it’s not surprising that you were in that place; that you were ready to take your life. What happened next?
Victor: My life was saved by my friend. When I reached out to him, he didn’t try to convince me that it was worth living – and I knew I was going to die that year; I was sure I was going to die that year. He just said, “well, you’ve got your graduation in a couple of months. How about you just do that first? Just hang around until then?”
I don’t know if he knew what he was doing when he did that, but I did. I decided I could give it another couple of months. What the heck. I’m going go to my graduation and have a good time anyways.
I’d been here for a couple of days. I was on a train. I was sat on the train, looking out at the fields, and I felt safe. I had forgotten what feeling safe was. I thought, “I can’t go back.”
It just, that was when it dawned on me: I can’t go back.
I didn’t actually leave Nigeria with the intention of fleeing or seeking asylum, you know. Just being removed from immediate trauma and constant re-traumatisation, and of course you know the people around me – the friends who kept encouraging me – it gave me hope and it told me, “actually, maybe there’s a life for you beyond 2017 afterall. Maybe there’s a way to do it.”
Rosie: I’m so sorry, it’s so so sad. It sounds like that friend did truly change your life; saved you. So, you sought asylum in the UK. You’ve described how, when you seek asylum, you’re unable to work, is that right? Due to UK legislation?
Victor: Seeking asylum and coming to the UK, I was safer. There was no immediate physical danger or immediate physical threat to my life. What I didn’t realise was how much re-traumatisation I was going to go through.
Because – I walked into the system that’s aptly named, ‘The Hostile Environment’. It’s a system that’s designed to keep people out, not to protect or save them.
And so the system works exactly as it is supposed to work. It’s a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of energy, has been spent trying to figure out ways to prevent people from trying to come to the UK to seek asylum.
You take away people’s right to work, you take away their right to free movement – you can’t live wherever you want to live, you’ve got to go to the Home Office and report once a week, or once a month, and each time you’re going there is a threat that you’ll be taken and put in a detention centre and removed. You’re working in a system where you are not valued as a human being.
There was not a single officer, in that system, who worked for the Home Office, or G4S at the time – now Circo – who I felt any shred of kindness from. Except one, one lady who worked for G4s. She only came around once and then she was replaced, I don’t know why.
And it’s a system that is deliberately designed to be hostile in every sense. And so, while fleeing homophobia, I was fleeing for my life, I then came into a system where my very worth as a human being was constantly attacked.
Rosie: It’s vile and it’s completely backwards that you would treat people like that who are fleeing a dangerous situation, or who need humanitarian help. It blows my mind that you would lack the humanity at that point.
Victor: Yes, I’ve struggled with the question of, “how do people who do that to other people sleep at night?” And then I realised that it’s just human nature.
Humans are humans wherever you go. Humans here aren’t better than humans back there. The government here isn’t better than the government in Nigeria. It’s humans, and human nature is selfish. And human nature has an incredible ability to be cruel. And all they need is a justification for cruelty.
And, you know, I used to think that I could run and find a place in the world that could be cruelty free. Now I don’t believe that anymore. I think all of us – myself included – we all have the ability to be incredibly cruel, because it’s easy to not think about pain when it’s not your own. It’s easy to not think about suffering when it’s not your own. It’s a lot easier to turn a blind eye.
Rosie: Yeah, Yeah.
Victor: And sometimes actually, it’s healthier, because you can’t carry all the pain and the suffering in the world. So I think that the only way to actually ensure we don’t become the monsters we claim to be trying to protect other people from, is by actually taking a look at our own behavior in our life every day.
And actually think, “who am I hurting, and is there a better way to do this?” Because, at the end of the day, the people who are pushing anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, they’re not doing it because they want to be cruel. All of those thousands of people who work in the system are not doing it because they want to be cruel. They don’t consider themselves cruel people, and so, if I actually start believing that these are cruel people, these are enemies that I need to fight, what’s going to happen is they’re going to get defensive and they will become enemies.
I do believe that while we all have a capacity for incredible cruelty – and I’ve experienced a lot of that in my life – we also all have a capacity for love. That’s what’s been able to help me make peace with my mother: she did a lot of horrid things to me, but she didn’t do them thinking that she was being horrid, or wanting to be horrid.
I do believe that, absolutely, there is a place for activism and I will help, you know, in any way possible to fight the good fight, for those who are less privileged than me, absolutely. I will donate money, I will go on marches, I will do all of that.
But I think the real value lies in talking to people. And in reminding them of humanity. If I actually go to somebody who’s voting in a way that continues to harm people like me, I want to believe that if I put my story in front of them, and I say, “look at me, am I less human than you?” And I say, “this is how what you are doing is hurting me.” And then I say, “can we try to find a way where, you can get the things that you want, you can feel that job security that you love, and you can feel that my being here isn’t taking anything away from you, but you can actually make space for me to be alive, and to be safe.”
I think that’s the conversation we don’t have enough. And that’s why I want to take every opportunity to tell my story to as many people as possible, and get them to think.
Rosie: Mmm hmm, exactly.
Victor: And, I still want to believe that there’s good in all of us. And that we all want to be good, and we just need to find a way to do it.
Rosie: Yeah, yeah. People who hear your story will be changed, it’s guaranteed. And I wish more people did think more, all the time, about how their decisions are hurting other people.
Victor, you’ve been through more than anyone should have to go through in a hundred lifetimes, let alone one. What would you like to tell anyone listening to this podcast who may have been through similar experiences, or who may be going through similar experiences now?
Victor: I want to say the first thing, and the most important thing, is to be kind to yourself and to love yourself. And to not blame yourself for the horrible things that the world has done to you.
I was listening to Oprah yesterday, with Prince Harry, and she was talking about what happened to you. She said, “rather than thinking about what is wrong with me, think about what happened to you. What are the injustices in life that have caused you to be in the place that you are?”
And I’m not saying absolve yourself of bad behavior. If you notice you have behaviour that’s hurting you, and hurting others, change it of course. But from a place of love and kindness. Because, as much as we can rely on other people, all that we’ve got is ourselves.
And it sucks, and it’s horrible to think that the person who’s going through those horrible things still has to be the number one person taking care of themselves, but it’s the harsh reality of life that I’ve learnt.
It’s not going to make all the problems disappear. But it’s going to give you the strength to deal with them, if you love yourself and you’re kind to yourself. So if you don’t know how to do it, learn. I didn’t know how to love myself, I’m still learning: I’m listening to tapes, I’m doing mindfulness, trying to remind myself of all the wonderful qualities that I have.
Rosie: Yeah. And now you’re in the UK, you’re married, you work for the Refugee and Migrant Centre in Coventry. You do have this life that, on the outside – and I hope it’s true – does have hope in it, hope and love. What gives you hope now, and what gives you hope for the future?
Victor: I’m a very broken person. Like you said, I’m a person who’s dealt with enough trauma for a hundred lifetimes: that leaves its mark on you.
But in those moments, it’s the people around me who care for me. It’s my husband who, you know, I mean no one’s perfect, we fight a lot, like any other couple. But it’s seeing the way he loves me.
It’s my friends who have got difficulties – I mean, when you’re a traumatised person you tend to be drawn to other people who share trauma as well, and so, my closest friends have had very difficult lives as well – and the way that they’re there for me and that I’m there for them.
It’s my boss, who is an absolute trooper! No matter how hard I try, because of my trauma, because of my mental illness, sometimes I’m just not strong enough. He tells me, “it’s okay, you know. You’ve got to take care of yourself first before you can take care of other people.”
It’s the people around me who, in little ways every day just renew my faith in humanity. That’s what gives me hope. That’s what makes me feel like, “you know what, the world is worth living in and it’s worth fighting to make better, because all these people are amazing.”
It’s the love that I’ve found, even after all of this or with all of this horridness. That’s what gives me hope.
Rosie: Absolutely, absolutely. Victor, thanks so much for sharing your story. Even if one person listens to it and it changes their life, that means everything.
You’re incredibly inspiring, you’re so strong, and, you know, you’ve been very open about your mental health as well, your mental illness – I hope you keep having that strength and you keep sharing and finding ways to be strong and to survive that, and to keep enjoying the love you have, with your husband and with your friends.
Victor: Thank you, Rosie. And thank you so much for just giving me the platform as well. Your time, and for this amazing work that you’re doing, I think it’s so important. And I really do hope that it helps a lot of people as well.
Rosie: Thanks so much.
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.
Victor Iringere shares his story of being gay in a country where it’s illegal, relenting to extreme conversion therapies, and becoming a homeless asylum seeker in the UK – showing us how colonialism creates the perfect toxic mix of fear, patriarchy and oppression that feeds violent homophobia.
What podcasts can’t show is when their hosts cry while presenting them.
When I interviewed Nigerian refugee and proud gay man, Victor Iringere, in Episode 3 of OUTcast, I was reminded of why I created the podcast in the first place.
Victor’s story, as hard as it was to hear, shares his experience of traumatising shame, conversion therapy, fasting, physical abuse and threats to his life – simply for being a gay man. It is essential we hear it.
Victor was born in Lagos, Nigeria. His childhood was defined by a hardworking single mother who is a doctor, and memories of happiness were mixed with increasing struggle due to his sexuality.
Victor was young when he realised he was different from the people around him, and he knew he was gay – although he “didn’t have a word for it” – by the time he was 11. He didn’t like the same things as the other boys, and in puberty he found he was attracted to them.
In Nigeria homosexuality is a crime, and Victor grew up in a religious family, so his life became increasingly difficult.
“When the only gay people that you’ve ever heard of are described as peodophiles or as abominations, people just think, ‘well if you’re that depraved, what else won’t you do?’” Victor explains on OUTcast Podcast. “In Nigeria, there’s also a lot of fear of the unknown, and I think it’s a very complex thing that can’t very easily be explained or solved, but there are a lot of factors that have created this system.”
In Nigeria, Victor was subjected, and subjected himself to, all kinds of punishments due to his sexuality.
“One thing I know is that homophobia was not our culture, it was something that was imported with colonialism,” Victor, who now lives in the UK and works for Coventry Migrant and Refugee Centre, reflects.
“However, as happens with a lot of trauma, when you’re made to feel like you’re less than – for example, Nigerians living in Nigeria under colonial rule couldn’t do certain jobs, their lives were very limited and they were very much second class citizens – one of the only things you have to hold on to is the fact that there’s other people you are better than.”
People hide behind imported religion, namely Christianity and Islam, in the country and use it to scapegoat anyone “other”, especially LGBTQ+ people, according to Victor.
There’s also the patriarchy.
“When you’re a man in a patriarchal society, and it’s almost like you’ve won the DNA lottery, but you do what a man isn’t supposed to do like take on the role of a woman, sexually, in a relationship,” Victor says, “it’s almost like a slap in the face to the patriarchy.”
“It says, well, ‘why have you decided to give up power? What is wrong with you?’ And then other people who are benefitting from that system feel threatened, as well. So I think that that misogyny is a big part of homophobia in Nigeria,” he says.
Homophobia is so rife in the country that the LGBTQ+ community is invisible and underground. “I was convinced that there were maybe ten gay people at a maximum in Nigeria,” Victor laughs.
After the cruel attempts to beat homosexuality out of him, Victor had the opportunity to leave Nigeria to attend university in Coventry, at the age of 19.
“The government had this thing where they were trying to train young people who were going to help make the country better,” he says. “They were trying to develop talent, so they thought, ‘we’ve got to send them to the best schools’.”
This included the UK, and in Coventry, Victor was exposed to cultures from all over the world. He also had the relative freedom and safety to explore his sexuality and there he came out as a gay man.
“It actually taught me, well wait a minute, there isn’t just one way to live and be good,” Victor reflects on OUTcast. “There’s lots of people around you who are living good lives, and they’re happy, and obviously they’re good people, they’re not sinful people who are going to go to hell.”
University in the UK also gave Victor cause to question his religion.
“I remember going to my Nigerian church when I was in uni and noticing that pretty much everybody in the church was Black and Nigerian. And it just made me think, ‘wait a minute, if our gospel is as powerful as we say, Black Nigerians are the minority in this society, but they are the majority in this church, so clearly maybe this is more about culture than it is about what’s actually right or wrong.’
“Also, there was a boy in my class who was Hindi, and he was talking to me about his Gods, and about his religion. The fire and the passion I saw in him as he was talking about his Gods was the same fire and passion that I had when I was talking about my God growing up.”
He concludes: “And I thought, well surely there’s not that much difference between us? Why am I right and he’s wrong?’”
Victor came to accept himself as the gay man he was, and when it was time to return to Nigeria having finished his degree, he had hoped he’d be able to stay an out gay man, and that things would be different with his friends and family there.
“That’s not what I got,” he sighs. “I got more conversion therapy, more hostility, interventions… just horridness, which led by month seven of being there, to a deep depression and I was ready to die.”
He continues: “It destroyed my family. It cost me everything. It cost me my home, cost me my family, cost me my friends, and so many times, it almost cost me my life.
“But I’m not the only one who’s suffering. The people around me, they’re suffering too, because of it. And then you multiply that by however many millions of people live in homophobic situations, or grew up in homophobic situations, and you start to appreciate just how much the damage it does in people’s lives is. It’s horrid.”
But then – a glimmer of hope.
“My life was saved by my friend,” he tells us. “When I reached out to him, he didn’t try to convince me that it was worth living, but just said, ‘well, you’ve got your graduation in a couple of months. How about you just do that first?’ and I did.”
When he attended graduation, it hit Victor how safe he felt in the UK. “I was sat on a train, looking out at the fields, and I felt safe. I had forgotten what feeling safe was. I thought, ‘I can’t go back.’” he admits.
He sought asylum in 2017, and, even though he was no longer in imminent danger for being a gay man, he was plunged into trauma again – because the UK asylum system made him homeless.
“I walked into the system that’s aptly named, ‘The Hostile Environment’. It’s a system that’s designed to keep people out, not to protect or save them,” Victor reveals.
“The system works exactly as it is supposed to work: a lot of time, effort and energy has been spent trying to figure out ways to prevent people from trying to come to the UK to seek asylum.
“You take away people’s right to work and their right to free movement, because each time you report to the Home Office there is a threat that you’ll be taken and put in a detention centre and removed.”
“You’re working in a system where you are not valued as a human being,” Victor summarises, heartbreakingly.
But, after facing the cruelty of the UK immigration system, there is hope now for Victor. He was finally granted asylum in the UK in 2019, and now lives in Birmingham, happily married and out as a proud gay man.
“It’s easy to not think about pain when it’s not your own,” he emphasises on the podcast. “It’s easy to not think about suffering when it’s not your own. It’s a lot easier to turn a blind eye,” he reflects.
And sometimes it’s healthier, the Nigerian refugee concedes. So, what gives Victor Iringere hope?
“I want to say the first thing, and the most important thing, is to be kind to yourself and to love yourself. And to not blame yourself for the horrible things that the world has done to you.” he responds.
“It’s the way my husband loves me, and the people around me, who, in little ways every day, renew my faith in humanity, that give me hope.
“That’s what makes me feel like, ‘you know what, the world is worth living in and it’s worth fighting to make better, because all these people are amazing’.”
Click here to listen to Victor’s incredible story of cruelty, pain and resilience now on OUTcast Podcast. Visit www.covrefugee.org to find out about Coventry Migrant and Refugee Centre’s work.
Rosie: Hello! 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’ll be more joy – and what gives them hope.
We all remember when we weren’t out as queer people, and in need of strength and inspiration to make the first step being open about who we are. It’s all about having role models and stories we can relate to, ultimately.
I’m Rosie Pentreath, your host. I identify as a lesbian woman, and I have shared my coming out story in personal settings, in online articles, and as part of LGBTQ+ panels on coming out and being queer at work. And now – I want to hear other people’s stories.
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.
That’s what it’s all about: OUTcast is me and my guests sharing stories, creating a space for us all to talk, to listen, and to celebrate being proud queer people in the world today.
You can follow us on social media @OUTcastLGBT and you can find us online at outcastpod.com. Do get in touch if you’re enjoying the show, if you have any feedback, if there are any guests you would like to suggest…
It’s great to have you with us.
Rosie: This week we’re welcoming Sarah Jones to the programme. Sarah is a transgender vicar, public speaker, singer-songwriter, and priest-in-charge at St John the Baptist Church in Cardiff.
Born in London, she grew up in the 1960s knowing she was “one of the girls”, but kept it to herself. She got married to a woman but divorced by her mid-twenties.
She then had gender confirmation surgery in 1991 after, in her words, she squared it with God. She’s always been religious and she was ordained in 2004, becoming the first person to have made a gender change then ordained in the Church of England.
Less than a year later, though, she was outed as transgender in the national press when somebody she knew tipped off a journalist.
Sarah has spoken openly about her experience of being trans and being in the church ever since.
Rosie: Sarah – welcome to OUTcast.
Rosie: It’s great to have you with us. Start by telling us a little bit about yourself: how do you identify?
Sarah: For many years I identified simply as a woman. The trans label was something that I had done and had finished, so it was about the crossing over, or establishing the true me in the world.
And in the last two or three years, I’ve had to pick up the trans label again, simply really because of the kind of pushback that there’s been: the anti-trans feeling in some quarters.
And at first I didn’t really even want to pick the trans label up to be frank with you. I’ve got more used to it now because I think we need to pick it up – or at least I felt like I needed to pick it up – and say, “look, here I am” so I’ve now… in my head I identify as a woman but on public things, the trans thing comes out a bit more.
Rosie: Let’s go back to the beginning. Where do you tell your coming out story from; where does your coming out story begin?
Sarah: Well, I suppose in common with lots of LGBTQIA people, we’re always coming out, even to ourselves in a sense. You know, sort of like “here I am as a person in the world” and sometimes you have to realise that you’re not the person that everyone automatically assumes you’re going to be – or even that you assume you’re going to be.
I did realise when I went to primary school, very early on, that although I was classed as a boy, in some way I just was more one of the girls. That was a big moment in my head, maybe when I was maybe six or seven at the latest.
But I never said anything to anyone, I never went home and told my parents, I never made a big fuss about it. And this was in the late 1960s, or mid-1960s even, so it’s just as well probably that I didn’t because it might have been a happy situation or I might have been sent off for some aversion therapy or something. Who knows what might have happened?
Later on, coming out wise, I made my gender change when I was 28, pretty much forgot about it and then having been ordained, I was outed in the media. So there’s a whole series of coming outs really. But I guess in my mid-twenties I began to realise that this was a massive issue in my life, and I had to do something about it. But it probably wasn’t until my late twenties that anyone else really knew about it.
Rosie: For allies that might be listening, or for even LGBTQ+ people who aren’t trans themselves, is there a way of describing how you knew you were “one of the girls”?
Sarah: Yeah, at school really, temperamentally, I just somehow was more one of the girls than one of the boys. I did play in the girls’ playground in primary school until an age where it kind of became unacceptable to do so. I don’t know what that was, but let’s say you know, the year below the top year or something. So maybe I was nine, maybe I was ten.
And every time we’d line up, you know boys and girls, I’d sort of think “well, I’m in this line, but I really should be one of those.”
And then even just in work life really, I remember once in my early twenties I was part of this fantastic troubleshooting team at work – I worked for a national organisation – and it was full of macho and really full of self-confident men. And there was me. And every time we got together, these guys would look at me, and like they couldn’t work it out. Because I was actually part of the team, and nobody actually disliked me, but it was kind of like, “this is weird. What is this about?”
And I was quite young looking – I have always looked younger than my years – and I used to joke that it was because I was on some sort of supercharged apprenticeship scheme, you know, still doing my A Levels. And we got around it that way, but I was definitely an odd appendage to the places I was in, you know?
Rosie: Fast-forwarding to when you were 28 then, what kind of support were you getting from friends and family?
Sarah: For me, and I think it’s true of a lot of trans people in as much as that we take a… often we take a long time to come to the point to say anything to anybody, because who wants to announce that they’re something in the world other than what is most obviously the case? You know, I mean it’s a big thing. How do you tell your boss? How do you tell a work colleague?
So I found, from my maybe mid- or early-twenties this was beginning to get a little bit more of an issue, but I didn’t feel it would dominate my life. I went to counselling, I told the counsellor let’s keep this in the box please. I don’t mind being feminine, but I don’t really want to do anything silly.
So I sort of worked away under the radar at it, but eventually I realised that I kind of needed to explore my femininity.
And I bounced around between the gender lines a bit. I thought I might be a gay guy, and as luck would have it, I met a lovely gay guy. And he phoned me up and invited me on a date, and I had this kind of like all of a second “well, what the heck do I say? Well say yes, why wouldn’t you say yes, give this a go” you know. Over a period of years, even though the relationship was good in many ways, we slid past each other because I wasn’t a gay guy.
I got to 28 and I realised though that I had to do something. So I quit my job, sold the house – I had been married and we’d split up very amicably because she’d said to me “look, I love you and all that but it feels like I’m living with a gay woman. And I’ve nothing against that, but I’m not one.”
“So we’re going to need to split. So we were selling the house anyway. I quit my job but I didn’t have any qualifications. No A Levels or anything, and so I went back to college essentially. I thought I could go to college, do some A Levels, because if I make a gender change, who the heck’s going to employ me? I mean this is the mid- to late-1980s, and there wasn’t really any trans representation anywhere. I thought I might be unemployable; I thought I might need some good qualifications.
So, I quit my job, I went to college, did A Levels for two years and nobody cares there how scruffy you are or what the hell you’re doing. And I basically just grew my hair. So it started really short and, at the end, the people who didn’t know me had no idea what I was at all.
I mean, they weren’t bothered by it. But I remember I went to the school office once to get a form, and the lovely receptionist said, “oh, there’s a young lady outside, wants so-and-so form”, and someone else stood up and had a gorp at me and came round and said, “that’s a guy!” And she said, “no, no it isn’t” and they both came and had a look around the screen.
And they weren’t being nasty, but it was just like nobody knew. I’d get on the bus with my girl classmates, and get chatted up by the bus driver, and they couldn’t work out what was going on. Only me – only I knew, you know.
So anyway, it was a long, long, long, long process. And honestly, Rosie, I tried to do anything I possibly could not to make my gender change, because I thought it’s the biggest of the leaps…
Sarah: … and I can only do it if it really is the right place for me. So, it took me nine years.
And along the way, I had some good advice and some bad advice. But the best advice was – I tumbled down to the doctor, and the doctor said “I’ve no idea. I don’t know.”
This was at the beginning of this whole thing, so this was maybe, mid-1980s, and he said, “I don’t know. But let’s work it out together.”
And I thought that was great advice, because if he’d tried to pretend that he was in charge, or he was some sort of expert, I could have ended up being shoved anywhere.
I was quite religious, so I went to see my parish priest, and he was great as well. He said exactly the same thing, he said, “I have no idea about this whatsoever…”
As it happened, he had a friend who was also a Roman Catholic priest, and a clinical psychologist. So he sent me to his friend.
Rosie: Wow. I love that. I really love this… “I don’t know. We don’t know” sort of attitude. Especially when the second part of that comes in, the listening. You know, “I’m going to listen to you. I don’t actually know, but I’m her to support you e and I’m going to keep listening.” It can be the best support that people give.
Sarah: It is.
Rosie: Yeah. In our lives, so many people want to give us their advice from their point of view, and it’s sometimes not quite the ticket, especially in times like this.
Rosie: Let’s talk about your faith for a minute… so, you were religious pretty much all your life…
Sarah: My mother was a Roman Catholic. I was a happy Roman Catholic. I went to a Roman Catholic school. It gave me a nice kind of grounding in religion, but as long as I can remember, you know, maybe six or seven, I would go to church with her every Sunday.
And we would sit right at the front so I had a front row seat and I saw everything that was going on. And it all made sense. I mean, in an age-appropriate way, but it all made sense. And when, you know, the reading was about Jesus doing this or Jesus doing that, I could always kind of just imagine it.
So I always pretty much went to church. I stopped going for a while in my late teens, largely because I was a musician, and I’d be out on a Saturday night gigging. And I’d get in at about two in the morning, or one, or something, and then nobody, you know, would want to get up for Mass. You know, first thing, so for a couple of years I didn’t go. But I missed it, and so I went back. And that was great.
And then when I was exploring my gender identity – this is going to sound really lame now, this is like the lamest thing anyone will say to you for a long while – I fell in with an Anglican crowd. I started running with the Anglicans!
So I went to church with a few of them. And this guy who invited me on a date, our first weekend away together, we went to church together on Sunday morning.
And I just… there’s something about the Church of England that I absolutely loved. So over the course of a few years, I made this commitment to the Church of England, and Anglicanism. I just love the way we debate things, and that it isn’t top-down. And that people can have different positions on women, or homosexuality, or “what does this verse in the Bible mean?”, or all of these things.
I absolutely loved it. I’m a very happy Anglican.
Rosie: That’s good to hear! [Sarah laughs]
In a recent interview with Attitude magazine, you described God as “beautifully non-binary.” I saw lots of people kind of picked up on that. I think it’s a beautiful concept.
I don’t know if you want to touch on that. But also, let’s talk about faith and how it directly supported your coming out journey.
Sarah: Faith in my coming out journey was very important to me because I did at my core believe that God loved me. Whatever that means. I mean, when we’re talking about God, no words suffice. And when I say “God loves me”… what do I really mean by that? I mean, even I don’t know what I really mean by that. You know, Philosophers have written thousands of pages on it.
But I do believe that God actually does love me. And the nights – and there were nights where I sat up in bed, crying in the small hours of the morning wondering if, when people knew about me, that they would hate me, or beat me up, or mock me, or, if I’d never work again, or whatever – I always held on to the fact that I believed that God loves me.
So, that was very important. And I also, in these times, would flick through the Bible and just see what was there. And I came across various passages. The Psalms are an obvious place for people in distress. I read a lot of those, and that was really helpful. So I prayed to God, I went on retreat as I was trying to figure out who I was and what I was. And I also had to square the really big question of “If God had made me a guy, did I have any right to change that?”
Because, the truth of it is that, if there’s a God, and I believe there is, if there’s a God we should live in harmony with God’s will. And if I was going to do something that was in direct contravention to that, I’m not sure I could have done it.
In the end, two things happened. A very, very, very old priest started off by saying to me exactly what the other wise people had said: “I don’t know, let me think about it.”
But on the last day I was in the retreat house, I had a meeting with him and he said, “I don’t really know anything about this,” he said, “but look, it seems to me, what you are is God’s gift to you, and what you become is your gift to God.”
And I just thought, “oh my word.” I mean, what he was saying is “don’t do anything stupid, don’t do anything cavalier, but if the way to be the most whole person you can be; the way to be a person who can love other people in the world, and all of this, if the way to do that is you need to make a gender change, then actually that’s what you might need to do.”
And the second thing was, I just really came to realise that, if I’d had, let’s say a liver problem, and I might die. Or a heart problem, I wouldn’t say, “well, if God had wanted me to be well, God would have given me a good heart.” I would go and get it fixed.
The thing about God being non-binary, there’s a couple of points.
One is just because we are sexed and gendered, doesn’t mean that God is.
Whatever we say about God, language is completely, um, failing us. Like I say, if I say “God knows me” or “God loves me”, what on Earth does that really mean? We can’t really fathom it.
I think one of our problems with God is that the Bible tells us that God made us in God’s image. But what human beings do is we flip that round, and we make God in our own image. So, for centuries if you’re a white, straight man, then God is a white, straight man.
Jesus did call God our Father, I’m not queerying that at all. But then he was using human language, for humans, in a human situation. Interestingly enough, though, our Bibles in the original Hebrew, or the original Aramaic, there’s lots of little indications of femininity in God.
I think the fact that we say “He” and all of this kind of business, I think that’s us limiting God. I think God has all the scopes, so, God is beyond our understanding. It’s lazy to think of some bloke in a cloud with a beard, who incidentally is not disabled, and does not have any inherent difficulties in one way or another with anything; perfect eyesight; square jaw; oh! All of these things, I think in a sense, small “b” are blasphemy. I think we’re getting it wrong.
So we just have to say we have no idea. But I would say, within the potentiality, God is neither male nor female, or both, so non-binary.
Rosie: Such a powerful concept.
Now, let’s come back down to Earth for a minute. You’ve been open about the fact that you were outed in the media, so the decision to come out was made for you, essentially, in 2005. This was just after you’d been ordained by the Church of England. Do you mind me asking what happened there, and how it felt?
Sarah: So I was ordained in 2004. And in the Anglican church, you get ordained as a deacon one year, and then oftentimes the next year you’re ordained priest. So I’d been ordained deacon, so I was working in a parish in a market town, so everyone knew me. I was really visible, been in services, et cetera.
And we always knew that I could be outed. Anything to do with sex and vicars, or sexuality and vicars, you’re a bit of a target. And I was sitting at my desk on Friday afternoon and I got a phone call – a very nice phone call – but a phone call from a journalist saying he was working for a national newspaper, he had all my old details and he said you know, “is it true?”
And we’d always had this long-standing plan that because I’m not a professional in dealing with journalists, I simply refer him to the diocese to say “look, just speak to so-and-so.”
Anyway, this is what we did. But, they wanted the story. It was one particular newspaper at the time. We had an interview – we gave them an exclusive interview – and they didn’t publish for various reasons. And after three days of them not publishing, the diocese said to me that we couldn’t live like that.
Basically, every morning I would wake up, go down and buy this particular daily newspaper, look at it to see if I was outed in it, and then try and live my life. So in the end we decided that we had to out me. So we sent the press release out on the wires. And then I had three days of the world’s press contacting me.
Rosie: It must have been a heavy burden to shoulder in the early days.
Sarah: Yeah. It was all quite difficult, because it was all sort of in crisis mode, in the sense that your diary just gets completely taken over by this. And I’d made my gender change many years before, and so there were a lot of people who didn’t know about my change, including some quite close friends.
So I had to scoot around a whole bunch of people, to tell them that they were about to see me in the newspaper. I interrupted some close friends actually eating their dinner. I knocked on the door and said “can I speak to you?” and they said “can you come back in an hour?” and I said “I can’t. Because I’ve got to be somewhere else to tell someone else something.” So while they ate their dinner, I sat down and told them, and it was a bizarre situation.
There was a lot of, kind of, “I need to tell you something; I need to tell you something now.” And, in fairness, most of the people hearing it didn’t need to hear it. They wouldn’t have wanted to hear it. It’s information that they would say, “too much information.” I mean, no one said that to me, but if you go to church, you might not want to know about the most intimate details of your vicar. You go to church, for a lot of reasons, not to think about someone’s medical history or their sexual preferences. It was a tricky time.
When I got this last posting now that I’m in at the moment in St John’s in central Cardiff, the diocese and the church were just great from the beginning. But they said to me in my first week, “look, we probably need to do the story again.” And I didn’t honestly particularly want to, because I’m already out. But their point – and they were correct – their point was “if we don’t do a newspaper article and put it out there, somebody else will and they might write it sloppily and get some of the facts wrong” and all this. So it’s just far better since we’re not ashamed of anything that we actually do a press release and do the story.
And they were 100 percent right, but it’s these little things that kind of… in one sense it takes it out of you because you’re giving and it’s more vulnerable again… but, do you know the good thing? The good thing is that, every time I’m outed, and every time somebody says something to someone, or every time someone writes a blog post, it’s almost certain that there is someone out there who says to themselves, “oh my word, I’m not alone.”
Being visible is a bit costly, but also, it really helps other people.
What is interesting too, is sometimes, particularly when I was outed in Ross, people sought me out for things nothing to do with sexuality and gender.
I had several people come to me with problems, such as gambling or addictions, and they said to me, “I’m coming to you because I saw you in the newspapers and I realise that you have been through a difficult time. I feel I can talk to you about my difficulty, because I know that you have your gender change, or had it.” So it was very interesting that actually, it’s not confined to LGBT matters; people see people – certainly they saw me, as a priest, as being more approachable because I’d had to deal with something big in my life.
Rosie: Mmm, and perhaps that level of empathy as well. That you understand the human struggle, and different issues. How’s the church reacted overall?
Church-going people have been really fine mostly. When I was outed there was no one in the congregation who actively sought me out and told me off or anything.
I do think that there may have been a couple of people who were uncomfortable and maybe didn’t agree with it and gracefully pulled away or maybe found another church to go to. I mean, there wasn’t a mass exodus, but it was nicely handled in a sense. Most people are fine because they knew me; they knew me first; they knew who I was.
The church has been, both fine, and not fine. I had great support when I was outed, the Bishop was wonderful. He’d always said to me, if you’re ever outed I will stand right by you because I’m backing you, because I do not see this as a, kind of, problem. And he was as good as his word.
But then senior leaders come, senior leaders go, management changes. And some of the later key players in part of the church where I were liked me perfectly well, but actually it was pretty jolly obvious that they were not really looking at me as one of the key pillars of what they were wanting to build.
I had one very senior person who I liked very much and who liked me just say to me, “is it really surprising that some people don’t want to consider you for the next post?” It’s a kind of wake up moment, isn’t it? That somewhere there in this really nice person, who liked me, thinking well there’s, you know… of course some people are going to be prejudiced.
On the other hand, there were lots of really good senior leaders who were very supportive. The diocese here when I applied for the job could not have been better – they support me along the way. So, it’s kind of mixed, and there’s work to do, but on the whole, I’ve had a lot more good than bad. But there’s definitely bits of the church where, really, it’s pretty obvious they don’t want a trans person around or anything.
Rosie: Yeah. I mean a lot of that will come into them sort of not taking that time to read the scriptures and to explore how the faith works so well in tandem with everyone being different. And I suppose some people just haven’t dedicated the time to that.
What strikes me, and what I hope listeners of the podcast take away from this, is that there is so much positivity in the church towards LGBTQ+ people, and I think that’s refreshing to hear. And it’s really inspiring to hear from you within the church about how you’ve been welcomed and about your experience.
Sarah: Yeah, thank you, thank you. And there is, there genuinely is. I mean, you can tumble down to your local church and if you’re unlucky, people will, you know, think badly of you. But, not so far away will be a religious group that would welcome you with open arms. So it is getting a lot better, and there is a lot more welcome and positivity out there than people might think.
Rosie: Yeah. Am I right in thinking in around 2017 the bishop of the Anglican church looked into welcoming transgender people, specifically?
Sarah: Yeah. [In] the Church of England, you have to use certain services. You can write your own bits within certain guidelines and rules, but essentially, you’re not free to start from an absolutely blank piece of paper.
And the Church of England realised that there were trans people coming forward, who were saying to them, look “I would love to be welcomed in my new name.” Even if that new name was, they’d made their change twenty years ago, or fifteen years ago. So the Church of England did repurpose an existing service, but having said they were going to do it, there was a conservative backlash. Lots of people wrote to the Church of England and said, “this is terrible, you can not do this” and in fact they backtracked. So it never actually happened. So that for me was one of the first indications that there was an anti-trans backlash on the way.
Rosie: It’s such a shame. I feel like for every step forward there are three steps back, which has been the case throughout LGBTQ+ history.
Sarah: Yeah. It’s true. And certainly recently, let’s say the gender critical movement, has really pushed back against trans people a bit, on different levels. And it’s been a bit unexpected, because when I made my gender change, I was just making a personal decision. This is not a movement, it’s not a political ideology, it’s not an anything. I was just saying “how do I live in the world without crumbling inside, or living a lie?” So I made my individual gender change based on how I was in the world.
But it’s sort of being portrayed now, by various groups, “oh there’s a big movement, you know there’s a trans ideology, and if you’re a kind of tomboyish potentially lesbian young girl, be careful because you’re going to come into contact with this movement, it’s going to convince you you’re really a boy because they’re sort of just trying to grow the movement.”
But it isn’t true. It just isn’t true. Like any form of prejudice, it’s just wrong as a prejudgement. I mean, you can say someone behaves badly if they behave badly. But don’t take a characteristic like their race or their sexuality or their gender or anything about them, and say, “oh, well you know, you’re from this country, you must be bad in this sort of way. Or your tans, you must be this…” It’s ridiculous.
Rosie: Exactly. And it feels like once you take an issue or an experience, and shed light on it, everyone’s suddenly so worried about it. There’s this magnifying glass. And I wonder if that’s sort of what’s happening with politicising the trans movement or politicising any kind of trans identity at the moment. Perhaps as more people understand it and see it, and experience it and more of us are speaking about it, there’s going to be those people that say, “oh, it’s suddenly taking over the world.” Well, it’s not. It’s just, as you say, someone having their experience and going through the experience they need to go through.
Sarah: Yeah, indeed. I remember when women were really not as visible in the workplace, certainly as managers, and I remember in the 70s and 80s, “oh women are taking over now, it’s all women this, it’s all women that…” and actually nobody really says that now. We’ve just realised that all that’s happening is the mix is getting slightly better and we’ve got a long way to go. So you’re right, there’s a kind of… because it’s lit up in lights at the moment, sometimes people are worrying more about it than actually the reality warrants.
Rosie: Exactly. And you mention this backlash, but what else has changed over the time that you’ve been out as trans? Have you felt a shift or a change in society?
Sarah: I think there have been lots of positive changes. I mean I made my gender change properly in 1991, and do you know, you could turn on the television or the radio and you would never hear a trans person on it? And now, there are people in the media, and we’re a bit more visible and things. So that’s kind of nice.
And also I think more people know someone who has questioned their gender, or is somewhere on this kind of spectrum and not necessarily making a gender change, but is being non-binary, or is somewhere here, there, or what have you. And it’s becoming more, kind of, normal because the world is still turning. And people realise that they still love their colleague, or their boss, or their friend, or whatever, and not a lot has changed in so many ways – even though this person has changed a bit about them. So yep, there are some good things I think.
But imagine now, you were in that place of having to think about, do you need to change your gender? Maybe you’re 12, or you’re 21, or you’re 7, and you’re just realising, and you catch some anti-trans backlash or rhetoric. Oh my word, nobody needs that, in exactly the same way that gay men and lesbian women for years, in the 50s and 60s, caught this idea that society thought they were disgusting or perverted. How much harm can come to someone because their very core identity is overloaded with this, well, rubbish. It’s dangerous, it’s very dangerous.
Rosie: It is dangerous, and I think speaking about it you attract that kind of criticism, feedback, horrible phobic comments. But then if we don’t speak about it, we can’t be the role models that help these people come out. So, it becomes this battlefield and I think it’s a battlefield that social media has completely… what’s the word? Well has given a platform to these kinds of battles, really – these battles of experience. Which is negative.
You mentioned in the same Attitude interview that I’ve mentioned, that it can just be exhausting to be a queer person in a straight person’s world. That resonated. I think, you know, we’re here on a podcast that’s talking about coming out. But coming out is a bit exhausting, and with all the good that we can do, the bad comes with it.
How do you keep your energy up? I know you do lots of public speaking, you do public engagements and you inspire so many people. How do you keep that energy up?
Sarah: Aw, that’s nice for you to say, Rosie. I mean, sometimes doing good things in the speaking, or something like the podcast here, actually that does give you a lift because you’ve done something. So I kind of like that.
But you know, there, honestly, there are days, even now, when I sometimes sit and cry. I’m just so tired and so exhausted and so fed up. And it’s not like I’m depressed or there’s a massive problem, it’s just the sheer exhaustion all the time of carrying this extra kind of load. And I’ve just learned that if there are days like that, then you go with it, because, you’re not making it up, it’s what happens. And you get up and fight the next day, you know, you just do it better.
I do find that my faith keeps feeding me, and I do find that actually I’d rather do something about a problem than be crushed by it. So I love doing the speaking, I love finding funny ways to introduce things, and make people kind of think, “Oh yeah, okay I get that now.” That, for me, is taking a bit more agency over what’s happening.
Rosie: What gives you hope for the future?
Sarah: Well, do you know what? I actually think the future is more accepting and more diverse. I think it is an argument we’re going to win. You know, we’re not going to win every single day with every single person, but actually, ultimately, most people on the LGBTQIA spectrum are fine people. And people will realise that. And also I am just a kind of hopeful person, to be fair. I think part of faith is saying that there are terrible times, and actually, ultimately, we will tend towards salvation.
Rosie: It’s such a positive note to end on.
Sarah: One of the reasons I wanted to do this podcast, is because I think OUTcast is all the things that we’ve been talking about today. It’s about being a positive influence; it’s about being a little bit of light in potentially a little bit of a dark place; it’s about supporting both the baby dykes and the people who’ve been doing it for years; it’s about sharing humanity and good stories, and all of this. So, I think OUTcast is going to be part of the reason I have hope.
Rosie: Aw, thank you so much.
Sarah: Thank you.
Rosie: It’s honestly so incredible to hear your whole story directly.
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.
Sarah Jones was outed as transgender in the national press after she became ordained in the Church of England. Now she speaks about her experience openly to champion diversity, inclusion and LGBTQ rights in the church and beyond.
Sarah Jones is a transgender vicar, public speaker, singer-songwriter, and priest-in-charge at St John the Baptist Church in Cardiff. She made history in 2004 when she became the first person to be ordained in the Church of England having previously made a gender change.
In January 2005 her name and story hit the headlines when she was outed to a national newspaper, in spite of having made her gender change more than ten years previously. The story was picked up in newspapers, on television and on the radio all over the world.
In Season 1 Episode 2 of OUTcast, Sarah speaks to Rosie about what it was like becoming aware of being trans in the 1960s, starting the journey to making her gender change throughout the 1980s, and what gives her hope as an LGBTQ+ person out in the world today.
“For many years I identified simply as a woman,” Sarah says on OUTcast. “At first I didn’t really even want to pick the trans label up to be frank with you. I’ve got more used to it now because I felt like I needed to pick it up and say, ‘look, here I am’.”
Sarah describes faith as being very important in her coming out journey, and she describes being trans as something she has ‘squared with God’.
“The truth of it is that, if there is a God – and I believe there is – we should live in harmony with God’s will,” the priest explains. “So I spent a long while just trying to figure out where God might be in all this, and what the right thing to do is.”
She says that in the end, two things happened that helped her take the step of making her gender change. She turned to an experienced priest for advice, and they shared the wisdom that, “what you are is God’s gift to you, and what you become is your gift to God.”
Sarah continues, “and the second thing was, I just really came to realise that, if I’d had a liver problem and I might die, or a heart problem, I wouldn’t say, ‘well, if God wanted me to be well, God would have given me a good heart.’ I would go and get it fixed.”
Can you believe in God and be transgender?
Guided by her innate understanding and dedication to the Anglican faith, and after some rigorous soul searching, Sarah is at peace with having made a gender change as a Christian.
In her understanding of an infinite, expansive God, Sarah sees God as non-gender specific anyway, and Sarah is known for describing God as “beautifully non-binary”.
“Just because we are sexed and gendered, doesn’t mean that God is,” the Cardiff vicar explains on OUTcast. “The Bible says God made us in God’s image. But what human beings do is we flip that round, and we make God in our own image.
So, for centuries, if you’re a white straight man, then God is a white, straight man. Jesus did call God our Father, I’m not querying that at all. But then he was using human language, for humans, in a human situation.”
She concludes: “Within the potentiality, God is neither male nor female, or both, so non-binary.”
“I actually think the future is more accepting and more diverse”
Following this insight into how open-minded Sarah’s faith allows her to be, we ask what gives her hope for LGBTQ+ people in the future.
“I actually think the future is more accepting and more diverse,” she smiles. “I think it is an argument we’re going to win. You know, we’re not going to win every single day with every single person, but actually, ultimately, most people on the LGBTQIA spectrum are fine people.”
She adds: “One of the reasons I wanted to do this podcast is because I think OUTcast is all the things that we’ve been talking about today.
“It’s about being a positive influence; it’s about being a little bit of light in potentially a little bit of a dark place; it’s about supporting both the baby dykes and the people who’ve been doing it for years; it’s about sharing humanity and good stories, and all of this.”
“So, I think OUTcast is going to be part of the reason I have hope,” Sarah says.
Amen to that.
Sarah has appeared on a number of television and radio programmes including Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 and The Heaven and Earth Show on BBC 1. In June 2021 Attitude Magazine honoured Sarah with their Pride Award.
Rosie: Welcome to the inaugural episode of 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.
You can follow us on social media at @OUTcastLGBT, and you can find us online at outcastpod.com.
For our very first episode, we are joined by Tilly Lawless. Tilly is a novelist and queer sex worker based in Sydney.
She’s passionate about sex worker rights and feminism, and she utilises her online platform – and now her debut novel – to speak honestly and revealingly about her real experiences within the sex industry, from a queer prespective.
Through writing and public speaking, she works to shine a light on the everyday stigma that sex workers come up against. Her 2017 TED talk on the importance of sex work to the feminist movement has been viewed nearly 80,000 times.
She’s also spoken at venues like Sydney Opera House, for their feminist and ideas festivals and series, including All About Women and Ideas at the House.
She studied history at the University of Sydney and got into sex work to supplement her scholarship, and cover the costs of living and studying away from home.
In 2018, she wrote a spectacular piece in Archer Magazine about her queer identity and her experience of being a sex worker – and about how identifying as both things has contributed to her being shut out of both communities on occasion. Confessing herself to be a bit of an outsider, then, she wrote, “I’m used to having to build my own spaces, by tooth and nail, stiletto and pen.” It sums her up well.
Her first novel, Nothing But My Body, was published in August 2021 and she’s already writing her second book, with a third underway too.
Rosie: Tilly – welcome to OUTcast. It’s great to have you on.
Tilly: Thank you. It’s nice to do something with my day.
Rosie: How’s lockdown been, is it okay?
Tilly: I mean, it was really awful in the winter. Like we went into lockdown at the end of June, and that was obviously awful because it was cold. But lockdown now is prime. I’ve been swimming in the ocean every day, I mean obviously it sucks in some ways and I can’t work, but I’m on Centrelink so I’m not too stressed money-wise, and I’m just really glad to be close to the ocean. And we’re probably going to open in about four or five weeks now.
Rosie: Oh, that’s good. Yeah, yeah. With this podcast I want to tell fascinating coming out stories, so I’m going to go to the beginning of yours if that’s okay.
Rosie: How do you identify, first of all?
Tilly: A queer woman, really. I use she-her pronouns. I’m cis. If I was asked, am I gay or bi I would say gay. Like I sometimes refer to myself as gay or lesbian.
I mean, I’ve only ever dated women. But I also in my private life sleep with trans guys and non-binary people so I just use the word, the term queer to be a little bit more inclusive of the diversity of the people that I sleep with.
Rosie: And when did you come out?
Tilly: When I was fifteen, so thirteen years ago now.
Rosie: Was it family, or – ?
Tilly: Oh no, so I came out – I realised I was into girls when I was fourteen and I think I told some friends first when I was fourteen or fifteen, I can’t remember the exact age. Like some close friends.
And then I kind of just randomly on a whim came out one day before science class, at the beginning of year ten. I don’t know, some guy was saying something to me, and I remember responding being like “Oh well, I don’t really care about that because I’m into girls.” And we were all queued up to go into class and the whole line went silent and he was like, “you’re joking right?” And I was like, “No I’m bisexual,” which was a term I was using at the time because lesbian just felt too confronting to use as a fifteen-year-old.
And so then suddenly I was out. I definitely hadn’t prepared for it or thought about it. I feel like I’m a very impatient person though, so it was just obviously something I wanted to say, so I said it.
And then of course it spread round the school like wildfire because I grew up in a rural area and it was quite a conservative area as well, and the school I was at was also an Anglican school, so there was no one out in my year, or even I think any of the years above me.
Tilly: So it was like a really big deal. And I remember though, interestingly people didn’t make as much of a fuss as you might expect. I remember a guy in my year was like to me, “Oh well, you know, we all knew you were weird anyway. So it makes sense you’re weird sexually to.”
Rosie: Yeah, I can relate to there not being that many people out at school. And that’s even talking about Western schools in the 2000s: British schools, US schools, Australian schools… And that guy’s comment sums up how being LGBTQ+ was associated with “being weird”, in air quotes.
Tilly: Yeah, when I’d been in year seven, some of the guys in my year used to tease me for being a lesbian. Looking back, they just teased me for being a lesbian because I didn’t give them the attention that some of the girls gave them. I don’t think they actually had cottoned on to the fact that I was gay because I didn’t even know I was gay when I was thirteen. But looking back now, I’m like maybe they did sense something in me. I’m not sure.
Rosie: Yeah. And how about your family, was that a separate situation?
Tilly: Yeah, so my dad when I told him was like… he wasn’t against it, he was just like “oh, maybe you haven’t met nice enough guys yet.” He was like, “how can you know?”
He was like, “you know, you’re living in a small country town. Wait until you get out into the big world. I’m sure you’ll be more interested in men then.” Which is so funny, because I feel like the more men you meet the less interested in them you are.
I mean, it’s also like so funny because I was like, “well, did you know you were into women when you were fifteen, and he was like “of course”, so it’s like well how come I can’t know I’m into women at fifteen?” Yeah, look he was like accepting of it, just a bit confused.
And I don’t have a relationship with my mum, so I’ve never actually told her. So I’m not sure how she would have reacted. And my extended family were a bit less accepting. My extended family is quite christian though. They were, I think, confronted with it from that point of view, but I’m also not close to my extended family so I don’t think it really bothered me.
Rosie: That was when you were around fifteen- to sixteen-ish. So fast-forward to about nineteen or twenty and you were at uni, and you started working as a sex worker, how did you get into that?
Tilly: Yeah, so I actually started when I’d just turned twenty. And I started because, yeah, I’d moved to Sydney to go to uni from the town I was at. And I had an equity scholarship, so I had to keep up a certain mark to keep my scholarship at uni, and I was really struggling to cover rent and things like that. So I needed a job that was going to be financially lucrative but wouldn’t cut into my study time.
And so obviously I feel like sex work is presented as this thing that is just endless money. It’s quite funny, I was sitting in this gender studies class with another queer girl next to me and we’d bonded over the fact that we were both queer girls when, you know at that time, there weren’t so many people out you know?
Tilly: And so we’d bonded over that and I confided in her one day and said “I’d been thinking of trying sex work because I really need the money” and she was like, “me too”.
So we just Googled an escort agency and went in together, did an interview and started together. And, like, yeah I’ve been doing full-service sex work for eight years now and part of the reason I think I’ve been able to do it so longterm is because I am not into men. So there’s a real delineation between my sex I have at work and sex I have in my private life.
I mean a lot of people struggled with my job once I was more public about it, but I think a lot of people also really struggled to grapple with the fact that I was sleeping with men when I’d always dated women. Which, to me, is so funny because to think that you have to be attracted to men that you sleep with when you’re paid imagines then that every straight sex worker is also attracted to every client she gets with. There’s no necessity for genuine attraction.
Rosie: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I mean, that was going to be my next question: how does being queer intersect, or coexist, with sex work? It sounds like any kind of interplay between the two is absolutely packaged up in people’s preconceptions that need to be smashed.
Tilly: Definitely. To answer your question, though, there’s also another huge interplay between queerness and sex work, because there are so many queer sex workers, both historically and in the now. For a lot of queer people, you know before it was legal to be a homosexual man, for example, before gay male sex was decriminalised, it was really hard for overtly feminine gay men to get work. And so sex work was an avenue of employment, and that’s still the same for a lot of trans people as well who suffer from discrimination in ‘normal’ industries, so sex work is still really, really populated by queer people. I can say that out of all the sex workers I’ve met, 50 percent of them would be queer, which is way higher than the percentage across the general population.
I think it’s partly because, yeah as I said, queer people are drawn into sex work because of their economic circumstances, and things like that, and hiring discriimination. I also do wonder if women who enter sex work straight, also become more open to other things, or become more in tune with their sexuality as they’re working, and maybe realise that they’re also into women because maybe they start doing threesomes at work or whatever, and realise “oh I actually really like this and I hadn’t really thought of myself in that way before.”
There are just so many gay women in sex work, and one of my managers has always said that lesbians make the best sex workers, because they can last longer than anyone else.
Rosie: Brilliant, brilliant.
Rosie: How do people tend to react when you say you’re queer?
Tilly: I feel like this has changed a lot in ten years. So much. I mean, I’m sure you’ve noticed the same. I feel like when I used to say I was queer in my late teens, people would be like, “oh, what? Really?” – especially because I’m so feminine.
When I was younger, also people just didn’t believe that I was queer. Like I would say I was gay and people would just be like, “Oh, you’re just saying it for attention…” or like, “you’re a fake lesbian” or whatever. All because I was really feminine, you know?
These days, because I’m kind of known in Australia, I feel like it’s very rare to meet someone these days who doesn’t already know who I am, and therefore already know that I’m queer. So I don’t get people questioning my sexuality in the way they did when I was younger.
In my work, I do still have people surprised that I’m gay. I mean, I don’t tell clients that I’m gay; I say I’m bisexual. Because if I said I was gay, it would ruin the illusion of what they were paying for. So I always say I’m bisexual to clients. And they’re often really surprised.
The rare times I do still experience overt homophobia, you know like someone being like “that’s disgusting, how could you do that?” or “that’s wrong” or whatever, is occasionally from clients, yeah.
Rosie: Yeah, I mean you can imagine I suppose if you’re getting a lot of heteronormative male clients, then that’s sort of the world they’re from.
Tilly: Oh yeah.
Rosie: It’s a good point. I wonder if there’s a notion… I don’t know if I can articulate this well… But I guess the more you have sex with heteronormative men at work, it’s not like you’re suddenly going to be converted to how brilliant it all is. They might all think they’re so magnificent that how could you possibly be a lesbian after that, you know?
Tilly: Totally! I had a client the other day that I actually ran into at the park, a man I used to see. And he knows my real name, he’s even read my book – he emailed me a few weeks back to be like, “I loved your book.” He knows I’m gay. And I ran into him at the park and he was like, “what are you listening to?” and I said, “ Oh I’m listening to John Prine” and he was like, “I wish I was twenty years younger,” and I said, “why?” And he said “because if I was twenty years younger, I would have turned you by now, and introduced you to the best music.”
Rosie: Oh my God.
Tilly: And I was like, “I can’t believe you’ve read my book and you’re still thinking you can ‘turn me’”. Like, this is so absurd, like, how… It’s such an ego thing.” I also thought the concept of turning had been let go at this point. And it was also just so funny, I was like, “dude, your age is not the problem. Even if you were twenty years younger, we would not be together.” And also, I can find my own good music. Like, I don’t need you to introduce me to it.
Rosie: Oh my God, there’s so much just in that. That packaged up a lot that’s, patriarchy, basically.
Tilly: Fully! Anyway, I wanted to put him in his place, then I was like, “he might be a paying client again in future,” so I couldn’t offend him. I have to be diplomatic all the time.
Rosie: What about colleagues? A lot of them are queer anyway, but do you ever get weird, knee-jerk reactions there?
Tilly: Definitely used to, but again not so much anymore. I think when I started I never had bad reactions from colleagues, more like slightly homophobic. Not like, “you’re gross,” but like, “oh, how could you? Vaginas are so gross.” You know? Stuff that I would say is more women having internalised issues about their own bodies and sort of projecting that, rather than finding me gross for being gay, you know?
Maybe I’m being too kind, maybe it was just homophobia.
Rosie: Yeah, I mean homophobia… internalised shame as well… there’s so much going on there. You know, women that think vaginas are disgusting like “come on dude, it’s like the centre of you.”
Tilly: Yeah, exactly and that’s why I’m like, yeah I see it more as internalised shame… but could have been a combo of both. But yeah, I definitely did used to get that when I first started working, but I really feel like stuff has changed so much in the last decade, with conversations around queerness and stuff, yeah.
Rosie: In terms of your relationships, the people you’re with, how do they deal with you having sex work as a career? From the outside, you can assume jealousy and things…
Tilly: Yeah, so most of the people I’ve dated whilst being a sex worker have been other sex workers. So, I haven’t actually had that as an issue because they’ve understood the work. Or not necessarily another sex worker, but someoone in the industry, so a brothel manager or something.
And I also think because I mainly sleep with clients, and I date women, women are less threatened by it because they don’t compare themselves to the clients.
Rosie: So I guess you do predominantly have hetrosexual male clients? Do ever have queer clients?
Tilly: I’ve probably seen in eight years maybe between 50 and 100 women clients, but most of them have been in couples. So often you’ll have bi girls who are married to a man, and for their fortieth birthday, or for their tenth wedding anniversary or whatever, they’ll book a threesome. That’s always really wonderful.
And then I’ve had maybe ten women who’ve booked me just one-on-one, which is always really, really special. I love women clients. Like, I wish that happened more. I mean, I also get very nervous when I get booked by women clients. I’m like, “oh my God, I’m being paid for this, I have to be so good,” which is so funny because I never worry about being good with a man.
And obviously also I’m also nervous around the women because I’m attracted to them. I had such a hot woman book me last year, and I had such a crush on her afterwards. It’s not kosher to text clients, unless they text you, but I would look at my phone like, “has she messaged me to see me again?”
But yeah, I wish more women booked me, but there’s just like… I mean there’s a few things around women clients. Firstly, it’s just not acceptable for women to pay for sex. And also, women have statistically less of an expendable income than men, so you know, men are more able to afford to book sex workers, yeah.
And I once actually got booked by a pregnant woman as well, which was amazing.
Rosie: What was that like?
Tilly: Oh, I mean I’d never slept with a pregnant woman before so it just blew my mind anyway, regardless of being paid for it. She was seven months pregnant, she was like two years older than me, so late twenties. She’d never been with a woman before and she wanted to try it before she had a baby. I felt so special to be even allowed into that moment in her life, you know?
Rosie: It does sound so special, that one. And so wonderful for her to explore her sexuality in that way.
Now, going to the slightly less positive… What are the most annoying questions you get asked?
Tilly: Oh my God. “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done at work?” That’s always an annoying question, because weirdness is relative anyway: one person’s weird is not another person’s weird. And I know when people ask that, they want me to talk about fetishes. The weirdest thing at work is if a guy wants me to do something for free. That to me is weird.
About queerness… oh God I used to get asked when I was younger – I’m sure you got asked this too – ”how do lesbians have sex?” People always ask!
Rosie: Yeah. It’s like, think about what you’re asking us! Apart from the fact it’s very private, it’s also homophobic and mysogynistic. Also, how could someone be that disconnected from their body that they couldn’t imagine what you do?
Tilly: Yeah! And I also remember I used to get asked, “then you must be a virgin right?” That was always the worst question. I was in a two-year relationship with a girl, from seventeen to nineteen, and I used to get asked that. And it’s so insulting because it completely discounts the validity of your entire relationship.
Rosie: What qualities has sex work, or being a queer sex worker specifically, given you, that you’d describe being proud of, or grateful for?
Tilly: Definitely being really shrewd, and being able to pick up red flags, in men’s behaviour specifically. When any of my straight friends start dating a guy, I can have a suss on the guy very quickly and assess what kind of man he is, and often notice things before anyone else does in the way he behaves.
I think it’s also given me really clear boundaries, especially in physical interactions, of knowing how to assert myself but knowing how to assert myself in a way that doesn’t escalate the situation. Because sometimes saying “no” to something can make someone reactive, and so I’ve learned to be tactful and diplomatic, as I was saying earlier with that client.
Rosie: You try and turn over negative and narrow perceptions of sex work. What are the most positive reactions you’ve had, or the revelation moments that you remember, that encourage you?
Tilly: In my early twenties I used to get lots of messages from people from my hometown being like, “I was gay all through high school, and I was too scared to come out, but I used to watch you being out, and it eventually gave me the confidence to come out.” Things like that.
And then also messages from people being like, “I was a sex worker ten years ago and I’ve never told anyone I’m so ashamed of it.” People being like, “growing up, my mum was a sex worker, and I never knew how to deal with that and reading your writing has helped me come to terms with her work.”
So just helping by my openness; having that help people in their own journey in coming to terms with their sexuality or their work, or other people’s sexuality or work, and their life. That to me has shown me that the things I’ve been doing have had some positive effects, or good or whatever.
Rosie: Absolutely, Tilly, absolutely.
Tilly: And you know, obviously striving for huge legislative changes and stuff that a lot of activists do, and a lot of community organising groups do, is so fucking incredible and important. I am just grateful to have made changes in people’s lives on a more personal level, you know?
Rosie: Mm hm, yeah definitely. It’s really powerful. Like that just one… you know, a post could just have one person’s life changed. It’s pretty amazing to think, really.
This is 2021, and unfortunately we’re still talking about the pandemic a lot… How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Tilly: Basically, like I guess any in-person physical labour job, my work was done last year. Brothels closed in March, and for three-and-a-half months I did OnlyFans while brothels were closed. Which I fucking hated. I do not like online work at all, for numerous reasons. And then this year, yeah brothels are closed again now; this year I’ve gone on Centrelink instead of getting OnlyFans.
Rosie: And you got to do a lot of writing I’m guessing… let’s talk about your book, Nothing But My Body, which was out this year. What can OUTcast listeners expect from the novel?
Tilly: So I wrote it from March to September, but I will say, like not all of it was written then. It’s 50,000 words and about 5,000 words of it, so a tenth of it, is bits of my writing over the last ten years that I put into the book. So I kind of used part diary entries on my Instagram as jumping-off points to write parts.
I took the structure from Mrs Dalloway. It’s a train of thought of one woman’s day as she’s going about doing stuff, but I instead structured it across eight days, across a year.
And it’s a young queer sex worker, so it’s partially based on me. But not all of it’s true. And each day out of the eight days is significant for one reason – so one day she’s going through a break up; another is in the middle of the bushfire season in Australia; another day is in working in a brothel when Sydney first went into lockdown; another day is Mardi Gras in Sydney. And it follows her train of thought through each of those days, and it was meant to show the fluctuations in mental health and the way the pace of your thoughts changes according to your mental health and the world around you.
It was really important to me to write a book that dealt with sex work but wasn’t just about sex work. Because I feel like sex workers… there’s always the drug addiction sex work memoir, and I was more interested in having sex work as a backdrop. So to me, it’s more about friendship, rejecting romantic love, queer community…
And the three main inspirations were all, interestingly, queer authors. So like obviously Virginia Woolf. Then one of the other inspirations was John Rechy, who’s a Mexican-American gay man who wrote in the 1960s and he had this incredible book called City of Night, which was about sex work and also queer community in New York, San Fran, LA. And then the other one was Djuna Barnes, who was a 1920s lesbian author in Paris, who wrote a really great book. People usually know her for Nightwood, but I like her for Ladies Almanac. This is so gay, but she wrote it for her girlfriend when she was sick in bed to entertain her. And it satirises all the lesbians they hung out with. I like to see myself as part of a continued queer literary tradition, because that’s very much what inspired it.
Rosie: And have I seen correctly that you’ve already written potentially a couple more things? What’s next in terms of writing?
Tilly: Yeah, I’ve written a second book, which I loved writing. I basically wrote what I would have wanted to read as a lesbian teenager. I’ve written a kind of Twilight, but queer and set in Australia, and way more sex and drugs.
So it’s queer young adult fantasy and it was so much fucking fun to write. And there is a mythological creature in it that’s very sexy, but it’s not a vampire. She’s not a vampire, I should say, she’s another kind of creature.
It’s so much fun writing for teenagers. The first book took me six months to write, and this one only took nine weeks. So yeah, it was really really fun. And also, I set it back when I was a teenager, so like 2009, 2010, so it was also fun to write something nostalgic and make references to things that don’t exist any more, like Myspace, you know.
Rosie: Yeah. Judging from your Instagram you read a lot. Have you got any book recommendations for our listeners, by queer authors or otherwise?
Tilly: I’ll give queer ones, seeing as that is what this is about. I’d really recommend Alison Bechdel Fun Home. That’s her graphic novel and it’s absolutely incredible. And I’d also recommend Leslie Feinberg Stone Butch Blues, which is about their journey as a trans man in the 1950s as a working class American, it’s incredible. What else? I read A Scarlet Pansy recently, which I really loved, which was about early 1900s queer community, about a trans woman in America.
Rosie: They all sound amazing. I for one am definitely adding them to my long list of books that I really want to read. Um, it is a massive list…
What gives you hope for the future?
Tilly: Oh, I think just seeing how much has changed in the last ten years gives me hope for the future. To see this much change in someone’s lifetime, let alone ten years, is a huge thing.
And… What else makes me hopeful for the future? I’m just kind of hopeful for the future generally I think. I don’t know, I think I’ve been through enough rough periods of my life that I have faith in the fact that no rough period lasts forever. You know, you might have a bad period again, but then you’ll have a good period again, and then you’ll have a bad period again, then you’ll have a good period again… you always do come back to some good times, you know? I guess that’s sort of what my book that came out this year was about. The fact that, you know, mental health and everything in life isn’t like a linear progression. It’s something that goes in and out, and fluctuates, and up and down… It’s just like you’ve got to ride it out, you know? Yeah.
Rosie: Yeah, yeah. I really like that, and I think a lot of people listening will appreciate that.
Thanks so much.
Tilly: Thank you.
Rosie: Thanks so much, it’s so good to have you on.
Rosie: Thank you for listening to OUTcast, a podcast with interviews and coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people.
Queer novelist and sex worker Tilly Lawless tells her coming out story, shares her thoughts on feminism in the sex industry, and expounds that Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ inspired her first novel.
“One of my managers has always said that lesbians make the best sex workers, because they can last longer in the industry than anyone else,” Tilly Lawless says with the frank openness she has become so well known for.
She laughs. As well as having a great name, Tilly Lawless has a great sense of humour.
Tilly is the very first guest in the inaugural season of OUTcast Podcast. She’s a novelist and queer sex worker based in Sydney, who uses her online platform – and now her debut novel Nothing But My Body – to speak honestly and revealingly about her real experiences within the sex industry. She is working to push back against the everyday stigma that comes with the job.
In 2018, she wrote a spectacular piece in Archer about her queer identity and her experience of being a sex worker, and about how identifying as both things together has contributed to her being shut out of both communities on occasion. Confessing herself to be a bit of an outsider, she wrote, “I’m used to having to build my own spaces, by tooth and nail, stiletto and pen.” This sums her up well.
“I kind of just randomly came out on a whim one day before science class, at the beginning of year ten” she tells Rosie on OUTcast.
Tilly identifies as a lesbian woman, although, at the time she came out she used the term bisexual because “lesbian just felt too confronting as a fifteen-year-old.” Similarly, she tells her clients that she’s bisexual, “else it would ruin the illusion of what they’re paying for.”
“I definitely hadn’t prepared for it or thought about it. I feel like I’m a very impatient person though, so it was just obviously something I wanted to say, so I said it. And then of course it spread round the school like wildfire because I grew up in a rural area and it was quite a conservative area as well, and the school I was at was an Anglican school, so there was no one out in my year, or even any of the years above me.”
Adjacent to her personal life dating women, non-binary and trans people, Tilly got into sex work while she was at university in Sydney, studying history on an equity scholarship. The job had suitable hours for study, and more than adequate remuneration.
“A lot of people struggled with my job once I was more public about it, but I think a lot of people also really struggled to grapple with the fact that I was sleeping with men when I’d always dated women.”
But, actually, sex work is full of queer people. It’s been a vital source of work for stigmatised people throughout history, and it’s also not unknown for people entering the business to become more open and exploratory with their sexuality.
Are there many queer sex workers?
“There are so many queer sex workers, both historically and in the now,” Tilly confirms. “Before it was legal to be a homosexual man, for example, before gay male sex was decriminalised, it was really hard for overtly feminine gay men to get work. Sex work was an avenue of employment, and that’s still the same for a lot of trans people as well who suffer from discrimination in ‘normal’ industries.”
Tilly shares that about fifty per cent of the people she works with in the sex industry are queer, “which is way higher than the percentage across the general population.”
“I also do wonder if women who enter sex work straight, also become more open to other things, or become more in tune with their sexuality as they’re working, and maybe realise that they’re also into women because maybe they start doing threesomes at work or whatever, and realise “oh I actually really like this and I hadn’t really thought of myself in that way before. There are just so many gay women in sex work.”
“One of my managers has always said that lesbians make the best sex workers, because they can last longer than anyone else,” she laughs.
“To think that you have to be attracted to men that you sleep with when you’re paid imagines then that every straight sex worker is also attracted to every client she gets with. There’s no necessity for genuine attraction.”
Activism through openness
Now 28, Tilly writes openly about her work and about her experience of being queer. Her reach and honestly has helped countless people come to terms with either coming out or with taboos around sex work.
“In my early twenties I used to get lots of messages from people from my hometown being like, ‘I was gay all through high school, and I was too scared to come out, but I used to watch you being out, and it eventually gave me the confidence to come out,’ things like that,” Tilly confides on OUTcast.
“Also, messages from people being like, ‘I was a sex worker ten years ago and I’ve never told anyone I’m so ashamed of it,’ or “growing up, my mum was a sex worker, and I never knew how to deal with that and reading your writing has helped me come to terms with her work.’
“So, just helping by my openness; having that help people in their own journey in coming to terms with their sexuality or their work, or other people’s sexuality or work… has shown me that the things I’ve been doing have had some positive effects.”
From Instagram diaries to debut novels
As well as a 2017 TEDx talk that’s been seen by thousands, much of Tilly’s openness comes from her Instagram, where she writes diaries and excerpts detailing her thoughts on the queer community, sex work, feminism and mental health.
She used these as jumping-off points for her first novel, Nothing But My Body. So, what else can we expect from the book?
“I took the structure from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway,” Tilly says on OUTcast. “It’s a train of thought of one woman’s day as she’s going about doing stuff, but I instead structured it across eight days, across a year. ”
She tells us it’s about young queer sex worker – “so it’s partially based on me, but not all of it’s true” – and each day is significant for one reason or another. One day she’s going through a break up, another she is working in a brothel at the moment Sydney first went into lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, then one day is set in the middle of the 2020 bushfire season in Australia, while another takes place at Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.
“It’s meant to show the fluctuations in mental health and the way the pace of your thoughts changes according to your mental health and the world around you,” Tilly says. “It was really important to me to write a book that dealt with sex work but wasn’t just about sex work.”