Belén Bale discusses her personal experience of growing up queer, and finding her confidence in her sexuality at Pembroke.
It’s impossible to ignore Pembroke’s recent presence in the national media, which has unfortunately been for worse rather than for better. Sometimes it seems as if the many positive aspects of college, particularly those which persuaded me to apply here, are overshadowed by the negative picture which makes its way into the papers. If anything, though, this only makes me appreciate those positive elements which can often be taken for granted, not least how personally accepted I feel as a student who is queer.
I came out publicly the day after the legalisation of gay marriage. It was the 14th of March, a date I’ll never forget, in part thanks to the cringey Facebook status that went with it. It is fair to say that it became the central part of my identity for a long time afterwards. I was always in fishnets, denim jackets, and boots, complete with a bowl haircut which I thought was edgy but actually just looked like a bird’s nest that I had to keep flicking out of my eyes like a punk Justin Bieber. I listened to obscure riot girl bands from the nineties, and wrote angsty poetry about the many intense crushes I had on all my straight friends. I let my friend tattoo me on her bathroom floor just to be grunge, and I watched all the LGBT films on Netflix wishing I was a Parisian lesbian with dyed-blue hair.
During that time, I felt like I did this all out of some intense pride - but now, looking back, it was more because I was trying to compensate for still feeling nervous and uncomfortable underneath. Although I knew I was queer from a young age, I sometimes felt that I came out too young, too quickly, and under too much self-imposed pressure. As a consequence, despite appearing to the world as incredibly confident, I was still coming to terms with something that felt too big to deal with. Although these feelings faded over time as I genuinely became more confident and comfortable in myself and my body (and grew out my hair), I couldn’t help but feel nervous driving up to Cambridge in early October that I wouldn’t be accepted, and that my insecurities would come back.
However, I quickly realised that all of these fears and nervous feelings which I hadn’t felt since being sixteen were completely unnecessary. People here just didn’t care. It was a non-thing. It was so blasé in conversation that I found myself speaking about past relationships without giving a thought to what I was saying. It was the most freeing thing to be able to sit in the library and talk about a great date I’d just been on, with the only thing to worry about being Pat catching us talking. I didn’t have to wait for - or worse, anticipate - someone’s double take. Instead of my sexuality marking me out, it is just another part of my identity, and doesn’t define me as particularly different. It’s become something to be celebrated along with everything else.
As a fresher, I know I have a long way to go - but coming here has furthered my sense of self-acceptance. Something as simple as being able walk around college, holding my girlfriend’s hand, with hardly a look from anybody means the world to be, not least in such a traditional place where change occurs painfully slowly.
Everyone should have something that makes them happy to be here. For me, it’s how included I feel. I’m seen as just me, with sexuality being almost wholly insignificant. Of course there are problems, and I would never claim that my rose-tinted experience of Cambridge applies to everyone. But this is my personal account of life as a queer woman, and I feel is well-worth talking about with the positive aspects of Pembroke in mind. I finally feel completely confident, and not like I’m faking it half the time. I can save that for my supervision essays.
Belén Bale is a first year HSPS student and part of the Pembroke Street editorial team. She is the JPC women's welfare officer.
Photo by Tasha May of Lord Chris Smith, Master of Pembroke College and one of the first openly gay MPs