How I learned to ignore the ‘straight bully’ in my head and become a ‘bad lesbian’

Eleanor Tiernan. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Hi, I’m Eleanor Tiernan, woman and stand-up comedian. Until February I was in the closet and unable to find a way out. But at last I overcame the ‘straight bully’ in my head

Watching TV presenter Phillip Schofield come out was, for me, like being a prisoner of Shawshank hearing about Andy Dufresne’s mad dash for freedom. You want to be happy someone has made it over the wall but when you’re in the closet yourself, all you feel is shame at how willingly you’ve accepted your own incarceration.

Hi, I’m Eleanor Tiernan, woman and (for context) stand-up comedian. Until February this year I was in the closet and unable to find the way out.

For decades I wrestled with the question of whether or not I was gay and if I was, how I would survive without, among other things, straight men in my life to give me validation. This is my story of what it’s like to have a “straight bully” in your head and how I eventually managed to give mine the slip (just in the nick of time before everything kicked off by the way. And yes, I was in lockdown before it was even a thing).

The first lesbian “thought” I had came when I was about 21. You could say I was not overjoyed about it. I’m sure the makers of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin didn’t mean it to be a horror movie but the way I felt watching Penelope Cruz in it frightened the life out of me.

I had absolutely no idea I might be gay. No ma’am. Not this chick. I was a straight woman whose vibe was more the “understated womanhood” one that I thought men loved. I didn’t say much but when I did ... Oh boy, devastating! Fellas were going to start lapping it up any day now, and no burgeoning lesbianism was going to get in the way of that.

So much about being a lesbian did not appeal to me. My taste in fashion lacked the sophistication to appreciate the queer aesthetic. More so, there was little in society’s treatment of lesbians that served to empower them.

I racked my brain to find a moment in my early life where a lesbian was publicly celebrated. Zilch! All that emerged were instances of it being used as a term of abuse – one so powerful that it doesn’t even need a qualifying adjective to support it.

Contrast that with what I quite liked about being straight, ie, having a route to the power men could bestow by fancying me. Being a lesbian might get in the way of that.

I’d be mesmerised by her form until suddenly I’d get a clip around the ear from my alter ego

And that’s how the battle between this misbehaving sexuality of mine and the straight bully in my head began. On one side, a curious child whose attention would be drawn this way and that; on the other, a neurotic adult terrified of how the child’s inability to perform straightness correctly would reflect on them.

All through my 20s and 30s the struggle continued. Days would go by and all would be well. I’d think, “Yes I’m nailing this. No lesbian thoughts here!” Then out of the blue I’d be sitting in the audience at a play and my eyes would get drawn to one of the female actors.

I’d be mesmerised by her form until suddenly I’d get a clip around the ear from my alter ego. “Her Straightness”, as I called her, would bellow “And what do you think you’re doing? Is that how a woman should look at another woman? That poor woman would be disgusted by you. It was the play. The play made me gay!”

I’d respond before focusing on some of the male actors to placate her. Somehow, however, it didn’t work. It’s almost as if there’s more to sexuality than the direction in which you point your head.

She policed my behaviour like the Stasi. If I found myself standing in the LGBT section of a bookshop I’d get my marching orders back to fiction or some other more acceptable genre. If I got a gig in a gay bar, I’d be told to find ways to signal to anyone who saw me that I wasn’t there to pick up. Internet search history had to be deleted regularly.

If I ended up in a conversation with a real-life lesbian I’d be instructed to boycott her immediately in case lesbians had some special way of spotting their own (note: Her Straightness assumed they were interested enough in me to do so).

Eleanor Tiernan, Irish comedian in London. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

Her stance, however, was completely incoherent. Most of the time she’d admonish me for not conforming but once I started to contemplate the notion of coming out she’d shift position to questioning whether I was gay at all.

Once, at a time when I was really suffering with the weight of it all, she compromised and allowed me to confide in friends that I thought maybe, I might, in a certain light, when the wind blows southwest, be ... bisexual. The goal was to allow me to pursue same-sex relationships without taking on the identity of lesbianism, which to me seemed heavy and alienating.

It didn’t work. The word “bisexual” felt uncomfortable in my mouth and saying it did nothing to unload the burden of shame I’d be carrying. I made no attempt to see any women. I quietly never mentioned it again. Her Straightness, of course, found the whole episode hilarious.

The effect of the whole internal struggle was to create a constant low level of depression that I could never deal with because on some level I blamed myself. They say depression is anger turned inwards, and I can attest to this.

I’d been furious with myself for years for how hard I found it to arrive at a clear answer. I wondered if I lacked the intelligence to solve this. Am I just a big homophobe?

Gradually the problem became so all-encompassing that I would relate every aspect of my life to my failure to address this one issue in my life. If I was creatively blocked, financially lacking or just plain old lonely it was my own fault for not doing the right thing and coming out of the closet.

I started to realise that I wasn’t going to be able to live like that any more

Her Straightness has shape-shifted over the years. The growth and visibility of LGBTQ+ culture in the past decade had stripped away some of the strangeness of the lifestyle. This has forced her to pivot, to adopt a more nuanced approach.

Her opposition to me coming out used to be founded on her fear of the label of lesbianism. Now it was founded on the notion that coming out wasn’t necessary in these more forgiving times. “It’s something people had to do in the bad old days,” she’d say. “Now it’s all a spectrum. Everyone is bisexual on some level y’know. Stop being such a basic bitch.”

She really is an awful cow.

As I clicked on Schofield’s Instagram link on February 7th, the instructions from my straight bully were clear. I was allowed to stay long enough to gather as much useful information as I could about Schofield’s struggle but leave before I got any grand ideas about coming out myself. Like Tom Cruise’s efforts not to touch the floor in Mission Impossible. In my case however it was a complete failure.

Everything Schofield described about his journey seemed to resonate. From the relentless strategising and self-bargaining that being in the closet demands, to the lack of personal integrity he felt while trying to carry out a public-facing role, it all chimed.

There were however two circumstances around Schofield’s coming out that took a sledgehammer to the main load-bearing walls in my closet logic. The first was that there’s no point in coming out if you’re over 30. In a post-Schofield world I could no longer use my age as an excuse to stay in.

The second was that you can’t be a functioning person and be in the closet. Looking at this man who anchored a daily TV show watched by 60 million people and handled the huge fame and pressure that comes with it, admitting he had a whole other secret conflict, I could only respond with “Blast! Maybe, just maybe, anyone can be gay”.

With bomb-disposal-expert levels of adrenalin coursing through my veins, I closed down Instagram and started to think about how much harder it was going to be now to stay in the closet with all of this new information. I started to realise that I wasn’t going to be able to live like that any more. It seemed like, in this new vista, there was only coming out or perhaps something much worse.

And then it hit me. Maybe I could just, for the rest of my life, be... a bad lesbian?

Like the evil Terminator in Terminator II, however, Her Straightness had one last play left. “You’ll fail. You’ll be just like that Anne Heche, who went out with Ellen DeGeneres and then went back to dating men afterwards. The LGBT identity isn’t something you can just pick up and put down whenever it suits you. You’ve got to come out forever or not at all.”

This was new. Schofield’s coming out got her to a point where, instead of having it in for me for being a lesbian, she was now fretting I’ll be bad at it.

And then it hit me. Maybe I could just, for the rest of my life, be... a bad lesbian? Just really lousy at it. God knows, I’d been a terrible straight person for years, how would being bad at being gay be any worse?

I’d still be a failure, but the dignity of facing her down might be enough to see me through. This was the bespoke route out of the dark place I had searched for for so long. Finally I had found a way of living with myself.

As a bad lesbian I’d forget when Pride weekend is. I’d grimace at the sight of a vagina (if anyone wanted to show me theirs). I’d probably even fancy the odd man. Problematic as all hell but still a lesbian. Still failing, but from a mental health perspective it makes all the difference to do it within the realm of reality.

And so I just did it. While the straight bully in my head took her eye off the ball for a second, I ran the other way. I came out. Told all my pals. One by one. No particular order.

Then, on March 2nd I travelled from the UK to my parents’ home in the Irish midlands and, over a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit, I told my mother and father that their only daughter is a lesbian.

Their response was loving and supportive to the extent that in the days after, my Mum ended up getting frustrated with me for not being speedy enough at telling some extended family, so eager was she to do the rounds with her own circle of friends.

I told my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram followers my news. I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested, but it seemed necessary to give the jokes I had to tell about it a bit of context. The reaction was immense. People from pockets of history all through my life congratulated me and wished me well. It made me feel special and warm and protected. It was as if they were saying “We have your back” and is hugely reassuring that I’ve done the right thing.

The most meaningful support however came from LGBTQIA+ people who have been out for a long time, many of them complete strangers to me. I find it incredibly gracious of them to support me now, given that I sat back and let them do the heavy lifting for me for so long.

Anna Nolan who, in case anyone needs reminding, was an out lesbian and visible on UK TV back when it was a million times more difficult to come out, was one of the first to wish me well. It’s too late to take that burden from them now, but the least I can do is pass on what Anna and others gave to me.

Which brings me to the reason why I’ve written this. I sometimes hear people wonder what the point of coming out is at all now. “The world is gone mad. Why do people feel the need to make public statements about their sexuality? Who cares? It’s really done for attention” is what someone tweeted at me (grammar corrected for legibility purposes).

It bears repeating that the reason is because – like when I watched Schofield on TV – there will be someone reading this today who is in the closet and will find it to be both a scary and an exhilarating read. For them, this could be not just a scream for attention, but one of the weapons they use to defeat the straight bully in their head.

All we ask is that you be a dear and don’t get in the way of that please.