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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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.