We had a beautiful chat (all things coming out, the importance of visibility and accessibility and poetry) with Bec Jessen, a published Poet, who identifies as a lesbian and lives in Meanjin (Brisbane). Bec uses she/her pronouns, has been doing her pHD in Poetry and published a poetry book called “Ask Me About The Future” in 2020 (and that isn’t her first published work either)!
Thanks for chatting with us Bec! Where did you grow up?
I grew up in South-West Sydney, Green Valley to be exact. The closest town people may have heard of is Liverpool, which was about 20 minutes away. I moved to Brisbane when I was 21. People assume that because I grew up in Sydney it must have been great because it has the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but Green Valley was not exactly Oxford St. It was over an hour from the CBD. It was incredibly culturally diverse, but in many ways quite conservative too. Growing up there in the 90s and early 2000s there were very few visibly queer people. Even now when I go back to visit my family it looks much the same. I definitely stand out when I’m back there because I don’t conform to traditional conventions of femininity. When I had first come out and my girlfriend from Brisbane came to visit we attracted a lot of unwanted attention and verbal abuse from people who were clearly not used to seeing public displays of queerness and that’s still something I’m very much aware of today, no matter where I am.
Were you out in Green Valley?
Nope, not until I finished high school. I went to public all-girls school and I didn’t feel like it was an environment it was safe to come out in. There was blatant homophobia across the board. I didn’t know anyone who was out in my school—which is kind of amazing in a school of 1,000 girls! Sometimes there’d be talk about girls hooking up at parties but that wasn’t associated with queerness so much.
…that sounds very isolating?
Definitely. I remember my first year of high school in Year 7, we had this music teacher who had short hair, and kids made the assumption that she was gay because she looked different to people in our town. Kids would call her ‘Miss Lemon’ and I felt so bad about it but of course was too scared to say anything. She left after a few months and part of me always wondered if it was because of the way she was treated there.
Is that why you left Sydney?
I did the classic ‘I’m moving interstate for a girl’ thing. I met her on Myspace back in the day. Y’know, quite the cliché. I decided a year into the relationship to move to Brisbane to be with her. Once I had a girlfriend and it seemed kind of serious, I decided to tell my friends and my family. It almost felt easier to come out when I could point to someone and be like, ‘see!’.
How did that go?
I was very lucky, it went quite well. Although the first thing my mum said was “thank god you can’t get pregnant”. After that, there were the classic inappropriate questions like “but are you sure, have you been with a man, do you know?” At the time I didn’t want to talk to her about the logistics of sexuality or ask how she knew she was heterosexual, but perhaps my older self would be more cheeky about it! My dad was chill, I got up the nerve to call him one night and he basically said “as long as you’re happy, then I’m happy”. Before coming out to my mum, she had been quite openly homophobic, with off-hand comments here and there. So while I didn’t feel unsafe at home or think I would get kicked out, that environment I found myself in did prolong the process of coming out for me. I knew very early on that I was a lesbian but it just felt like there was nothing I could do about it, I couldn’t imagine a life for myself.
Did you have any lesbian representation growing up?
I can think of very few instances on mainstream TV growing up, probably less than five. The show Neighbours had a brief lesbian storyline, which was super exciting to me as a 16-year-old. Of course, now when I think back to it, I also recall that in the show, the day after the kiss, the character was outed at school and relentlessly bullied. So while it was initially exciting to see representation on TV, it was really a double-edged sword in terms of the response to it. The OC also had a fleeting lesbian storyline. With both these shows, when the TV ads hyped up the lesbian kisses I made sure I’d watch those episodes in my bedroom so my family couldn’t see my reaction, and also so I wouldn’t have to hear my Mum’s reaction either.
In terms of reading, I wasn’t a big reader during high school but after I’d finished high school a friend got me on to the wonderful world of fan fiction and I started reading fanfiction for shows I was interested in such as The OC. Fan fiction felt like a space in which people could write the stories they wanted to see, these queer arcs could go beyond the few episodes afforded to them on TV and actually develop into meaningful relationships. I was a total nerd and would stay up till the early hours most nights reading queer fan fiction. I didn’t see any queer representation in the books we were given to read at school, and I didn’t have the resources or knowledge to seek those out for myself. I had the internet once I was in Year 8 but looking back, I just had no idea how to use it haha! It didn’t even occur to me to Google gay stuff!
How do you feel growing up in a conservative place affects access, visibility, knowledge for Queers?
People in Australia don’t want to acknowledge class differences. Where I grew up, I’d say it was predominantly working-class families. I grew up with a single mum on Centrelink payments and I had three other siblings. I feel where we lived, so far out from the center of Sydney, meant that I didn’t have access to visible queer spaces and none of that was on my radar as a closeted queer young person. I also didn’t have anyone in my life who could have told me about these things, and I know that makes a big difference. All of these things in some way or another can be tied back to class and how that affects access—who has access to support, representation, resources, community etc. The background of my parents and my upbringing meant that my parents perhaps weren’t as politically minded or as educated on these issues as those of some of my peers and kids growing up in other parts of the country. Which is no fault of their own, but it is a hurdle to access and support. There’s so much stuff that I never knew about the world until I went to university, and that in itself is such a massive privilege that I try not to take for granted. Even though I grew up in Sydney, where I lived meant that I wasn’t aware of youth services for queer kids such as Twenty10 in Newtown. I do feel that this support needs to start at school level, so kids are seeing themselves reflected back from a young age—especially if they’re not getting that at home. In high school, it would have made such a difference to have sexuality and gender discussed in Sex Ed and to be educated about queer sex. Queerness is erased from so many contexts in our lives when we’re growing up that it’s almost invisible. It’s only later that you realize how valuable that information and that support could have been to your younger self.
I did some insta-stalking and saw you publish poetry…how did that come about?
Growing up, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life (I still don’t, which is a whole other thing entirely!). I studied visual arts at TAFE, which I absolutely loved, but during that time, my stepdad died and there was a lot of family stuff going on that made me feel very isolated and alone and more and more I felt that visual art wasn’t the right medium to express myself in. I started writing in a journal—very bad, messy feelings stuff—and eventually that evolved and I realised that writing was a medium in which I could express myself better. I completed my undergrad in creative writing at QUT in 2011 and have been writing ever since.
Is this your job or a side gig?
Last year I started my Ph.D. and I’m focusing on poetry for that and working on another poetry collection.
Did you feel lonely and disconnected in Brisbane or Sydney?
Definitely more in Sydney before coming out. There were a lot of factors contributing to that—partly I think that might be my default mode already! I lived in Toowoomba for a while, and that was a quick path to depression for me. Toowoomba was a whole different type of ‘conservative’. Being a visibly queer person in Toowoomba was difficult because you stood out so much. In saying that, I’m back in Brisbane and I am quite a loner anyway. I have a lot of queer friends, but I’m not a big part of the queer community in Brisbane. I tried going to the uni Queer Collective but didn’t feel like it was my scene. Everyone is so different, you have to find what works best for you. I’ve kind of been lucky in that getting to know the poetry scene in Brisbane and making friends that way, it turns out most of my poet friends are also queer, so we have that common ground.
Is there anything you’d tell your younger self?
On some level, I do wish I was able to come out in high school. I know people who had queer friends in high school and I think ‘wow imagine how different that would have been!’ With more visibility, content, and representation easily available, I do hope that young queer people of today have a smoother path towards realizing their identities. Which is not to say that there won’t always be struggles for queer people, I wish I could imagine a world where that won’t be the case but I think it’s going to take many generations.
To have a read of Bec’s incredible words in various mediums and platforms, Check out her portfolio HERE.
We hope you enjoyed this inspiring interview with this creative soul. Please leave a comment and tell us what you're favorite part was. We'd love to hear from you. Stay Queerious.