I’d rather be labelled “another crazy lesbian” than treat my mental health as taboo

While dealing with the beak-faced bastard of her own depression, Eleanor Margolis worries she's a traitor for perpetuating the “crazy lesbian” stereotype.

 

The “crazy lesbian” is everywhere. From the dreary melodrama dragged out again and again by programmes like The L Word and Lip Service, to Natalie Portman sprouting feathers of the mind and having unhinged girl-on-girl sex in Black Swan; popular culture seems to have diagnosed all gay women with non-specific mental illness.

I’ve suffered from depression since I was a teenager and after a thankfully short and unsuccessful career as a tortured adolescent poet, I’m just beginning to get used to my status as “another crazy lesbian”. Girls I’ve dated have even rolled their eyes at me when I’ve opened up to them about head stuff (FYI, I try not to do this on first dates, but lesbian emotional over-sharing is a definite thing). For lesbians, the stereotypical deranged dyke has become an in-joke . But how much of my own depression and anxiety (which is far from derangement, incidentally) is actually rooted in being gay?

A number of studies have shown that LGBT people are more likely to have poor mental health than heterosexuals. According to the NUS, we are ten times more likely to commit suicide than straight people. With the huge pressure that often surrounds coming out and the prevalence of homophobic bullying, this is hardly surprising. As illustrated by the recent tragic case of Lucy Meadows , the country’s most widely-read newspapers are about as kind to the LGBT community as The Meat Trades Journal is to the cow community. There are even charities like MindOut (an offshoot of Mind) and PACE that focus entirely on the mental health of non-straight people.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression around the same time as I came out. I was nineteen and I’d been spending entire weeks in bed, wondering if I was ever going to stop feeling like one of those bird-masked plague doctors was trying to push my brain through a sieve. Depression is like a physical presence. A lot of people subscribe to Winston Churchill’s description of it as a black dog; for me, it’s more a beak-faced bastard watching indifferently through a pair of eyeholes. As a teenager, the trouble I was having accepting my sexuality was a major contributor to my fragile mental health. I was prescribed antidepressants (which I still take), I was given some counselling and things slowly started to level out.

But I’m certain that my depression wasn’t and isn’t entirely a by-product of lesbianism. I remember having my first major panic attack when I was about nine and I tried to comprehend infinity. I was a quiet, pensive kid. The word “daydreamer” always cropped up in my school reports and I had my first therapy session when I was eleven. When my older brother went through a Satanist phase, his goth friends liked me because I was “spooky”. To this day, Wednesday Addams is a style icon of mine.

So I was prone to rumination and depressive episodes long before my sexuality became a major worry. What’s more, when my family and friends were fully supportive of my coming out, and even when I started getting comfortable with my sexuality, the depression lingered on like a squatter in the attic bedroom. The problem I now have is that I feel like a traitor for perpetuating the “crazy lesbian” stereotype. Every time I bring up my mental health, I can’t help feeling that I’m letting the team down.

But I’ve come to realise that I can’t allow other people’s misconceptions about mental illness to silence me. I’d rather be labelled “another crazy lesbian” than treat my mental health as taboo. “Crazy” is only how the eye-rollers choose to see me when they hear buzzwords like “depression”. In reality, I use antidepressants in the same way that diabetics use insulin. They don’t alter my personality; they stabilise my mood and prevent panic attacks. In fact, an unexpected side-effect of my depression is that I’m never surprised by anything that goes on in my head. I just know it all so well. When you spend so much time locked inside your own mind, you learn to find your way around. You get to know every dark corner and the spectres that lurk there become less and less horrifying. Craziness is a lazy, superficial and ultimately meaningless concept that hints at being out of control. That’s exactly what I’m not.    

 

Natalie Portman as "yet another crazy lesbian" in Black Swan.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.