Emma Steer: Full Interview
Interviewed by Gill Crawshaw
20 May 2019
ES: My name is Emma Steer. I go by the pronouns she/her. I was born on 26 May 1996. And I currently live in Leeds. I identify as a cis bisexual woman who is also disabled.
GC: Very good, fantastic, do you want to sort of start at the beginning?
ES: At the beginning, the obvious point for that would be coming out. I actually had quite a positive experience coming out, I only came out fairly recently so sexualities that differed were more acceptable and there wasn't quite as much blatant prejudice against them. So, I didn't particularly live in fear as I was coming out and I was supported by friends and family.
I actually, when I came out to my parents I was, I was dreading it and I shouldn't have really because they're not homophobic at all, but I was. I felt nervous and apprehensive and I kind of sat them down one day, I'd cooked them a meal and we'd sat with my fiancé who is now my husband. And we all sat down together and I was like, 'Guys, I've got something to tell you' and I kind of prefaced it with all sorts about, I'd never got to explore this when I was a teenager because I was sick, and all sorts. And so, they were, they were kind of quite tense and I came out to them as bisexual. And my mum was just relieved and my dad started laughing, because they thought I was going to say I was pregnant! [laughs]. And I've never lived that down [laughs]. So, yeah, they were relieved I was bisexual and not pregnant! Not that they wouldn't have supported me had I, you know, had I been pregnant, it was just I wasn't in a particularly financially stable circumstance to be able to support a child and it would have been difficult. And there are also health issues to consider. So that caused a lot of laughter!
And then, a few months later I went to my first Pride.
GC: OK, OK, what year was that then?
ES: This was the same year, 2017.
ES: And I went to Leeds Pride and I went to, kind of, around the Aqueduct [Viaduct] which is the kind of gay area of Leeds. And there was a big party going on, a street party, and I went to that and there was some drag queens doing a really great show, they'd done some dances and stuff. And then one of them was kind of doing a stand-up comedy segment on the stage. And she's there and she's picking on random people in the crowd and just picking out silly things about them, the way they're dressed, and kind of light-hearted insults. And then she spies me, fairly at the front, in my wheelchair, and she goes, 'Oh, look, Davros has turned up!' And there was a moment of silence while everybody was like, is this going to be offensive, that she's just said that to the woman in a wheelchair? And I just laughed my head off, because it was so inclusive. Because normally people are so scared to mention the wheelchair that it becomes the elephant in the room, they ignore it so hard. Whereas actually, the fact that it was addressed and it was treated the same way everybody else was treated was the most inclusive thing I had ever experienced, it was amazing.
And so, yeah, I had a great experience that kind of first few months of being out and being open about my sexuality. And it was a really great time.
I think people are expecting you to have sad stories because you're disabled and you're LGBTQ+. So people expect you to be sad and oppressed. And that still holds true and I’ve been through some very difficult times with both my sexuality and my illness, but I think it's important to get the uplifting stories out there as well, to show how things have improved since 50 years ago. You know, I am someone who's LGBTQ in the modern era, and that is a very different experience to someone in the ‘60s or ‘70s. It's important to show how we have progressed. It's easy to get bogged down in how bad things still are, but actually, looking back, things have got better and things will get better. And I think that's important.
GC: Just going back to Pride, you know, that's great to hear, that, you know, you had a good time.
ES: Oh god, yeah!
GC: What else was going on, how easy was it to get around?
ES: It was fairly easy to get around. The street party, there were a couple of barriers but there was also a police, kind of, officer, just making sure everyone was safe and everything. So he just lifted the barrier out of the way, it wasn't a problem. I think they just realised they'd accidentally blocked something off, hadn't really thought about it and dealt with it straight away, so it wasn't a problem.
And then the next day I actually went to the actual Pride festival. So Leeds Council are really, really great at being inclusive for events. So they had this whole stage area set up, it had accessible portaloos, so literally, accessible disabled toilets that were just temporary. And it had this whole ramp and stage area rigged up so that we could see over the crowd. The only thing was, it wasn't very clearly signposted, and when you're in a wheelchair and you're in a crowd, you can't see. So I basically had to get my now-husband to kind of, just push through the crowds and I kind of followed him in my wheelchair trying not to run over people's toes. And so we got to the stage, and it was really great, and there were 20, 30 wheelchair users up there with their carers. And we were drinking, and we were laughing, and we were having a good time, just like everybody else there.
And then they said, there's the very last vehicle in the parade would be a wheelchair bus, one of the council ones. And they were basically filling them with disabled people who wanted to participate in the parade and represent disabled LGBTQ people. So I - not literally - leapt at the chance [laughs]. And yeah, I was on one of those buses and the very first Pride after coming out, I was part of the parade. And I was displaying disabled and LGBTQ people, it was such an honour and brilliant. And I still have the Pride flag from that parade on one of my kind of shelf of interesting things that I have in the lounge that we can see right now. And that still hangs, and when we move house that will still hang in our new house, so I won't get rid of it. And that was a really awesome thing to be a part of.
I've also been a spectator of the parade for 2018 and that was really great as well. People were respectful, I was right at the front of the crowd, so I could see. It was all very inclusive so it's been really good to be both disabled and LGBTQ+ in Leeds.
GC: Have you been to any other venues since Pride? Any sort of venues in the LGBT quarter...?
ES: It was a while ago but I did visit one of the kind of gay bar or clubs, I can't remember the name of it now, but down by the Aqueduct [Viaduct]. And it was in this tiny unit, it was absolutely full of people. And they still were so respectful and, you know, this tiny unit, it must have been costing them everything they had just to rent this place. And they still made it accessible, they still made sure there was wheelchair access up to the bar and that I could get in the club, which is so much better than some of the big, mainstream clubs where there is a massive flight of steps down and no lift. So, that was actually really impressive. That was one of the first times I really felt accepted as both disabled and LGBTQ, that I was there, in the club, with five gay men, because we were on a night out together and I happened to be the only woman who'd stayed around that long, just having a blast in this club! It was really, really great. And the bartenders were lovely as well. You can get judged sometimes for drinking if you're in a wheelchair, and it's quite nice just to be able to sit back, have a pint and not get judged for it.
GC: You just mentioned a little bit that linked being ill to coming out? I don't know if you wanted to say a bit more.
ES: Yeah, so, I should first explain that my illness started when I was 14, and before that point I was perfectly healthy, very physically active. I was in dance, netball, swimming, I went hiking quite a lot and I was very fit and very healthy, I'd never been really that ill before in my life. And then I got viral meningitis. That is pretty severe, it's as bad as it sounds. I was very, very ill and I never fully recovered. At first, they diagnosed me with post-viral fatigue syndrome. That then developed into what we call chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis. They don't really know what causes it, the current theory in 2019 is that it’s an auto-immune response on the neurones, possibly on the mitochondria within neurones, which are responsible for producing energy and therefore your neurones aren't getting the energy they need, they're malfunctioning and they're causing these symptoms that you experience where you're incredibly fatigued and in a lot of pain, headaches, itchiness of the skin and eyes, nausea, dizziness and all those sort of pretty unpleasant symptoms.
And so, the chronic fatigue syndrome can vary a lot between people and for me, I can stand up, I can walk, but not very far. If I'm in the local area, and by local I mean within 100 metres, I've got a walking frame that I use. Other than that, I use a powered wheelchair to get around. And that, essentially, gets me to and from work every day and around the office, because I work in a very, very big office up at the University of Leeds, so I really couldn't manage it on my walking frame.
And you're kind of stuck in this hinterworld with CFS because you are so obviously disabled when you're in a wheelchair but you can still walk. And you're kind of, not quite disabled, but not quite able-bodied. And you're stuck in the hinterworld and it's very awkward to find your identity and I struggled for years and years with that. And because I was struggling with that identity, I didn't get time to explore my sexuality. I just assumed I was straight, even though all the signs were there that I was definitely not straight. And so it took me till I was mid-way through my degree before I really started to explore my sexuality. And, I'd ended up, I’d been really ill, I'd had major surgery and I was having to get all fixed up. I was in a real mess when I kind of started to think about my sexuality and to pick up the clues that I liked women as well as men, and that was OK.
And so bisexuality, which is what I now identify as, again is very much stuck between two worlds. Even in 2019 biphobia still exists, from both the hetero and the LGBTQ+ community. The straight people will often say, just pick a side. And gay people will sometimes say that I kind of made a choice not to be a lesbian to make it easier on myself in life. So you're stuck in this hinterworld. And I was actually kind of glad that I had experience of this chronic illness where I was disabled but I wasn't, because I was now suddenly gay, but not gay. And it was almost exactly the same. And it helped me come to terms with it, helped me find my identity.
Biphobia is certainly less of a problem than it used to be. I remember when I was a school I had a bisexual friend and one of my other friends, a mutual friend, did say to him, 'Pick a side'. And at the time I just let it slide, and I shouldn't have done, I should never have done. But I did, because I was 13 and stupid, and this was like, 2011, and even in eight years, that's been a huge difference. So, no, not 2011, 2009, yeah even ten years ago, but that's such a difference. Now, that biphobia is less of a problem, but you do see it quite a lot. You do see, often promiscuous behaviours associated with it and that causes a very negative stereotype - not that people should be judging promiscuous behaviour anyway, that's up to the individual, but there is a negative association there. People assume that I am polyamorous whereas both my husband and me are monogamous and we're OK with that and you know, we talk long and hard about this and we're cool with that, that's absolutely fine and that works for us. I don't think either of us could cope with being in a polyamorous relationship, it's just not our style. There's nothing wrong with it and I respect the people that can make it work coz that takes a lot of communication and time management and, it takes a lot of effort probably not to get jealous and stuff, like. It takes a lot of work to make a polyamorous relationship work, but it's not for us. So there are these negative stereotypes out there which I am trying to dispel, but at the same time my main kind of work is in getting disability rights up in the mainstream and sorting out accessibility. And it's often quite hard to be, try and advocate for both at the same time. And then I'm a woman so I'm advocating for, you know, against sexism, so that can be quite tough.
But I think overall I've had a positive experience of being LGBTQ. I would say I'm liking that there's more positive representation in the media. Funnily enough, one company that you might not associate with good representation of LGBTQ+ characters is actually WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment Inc], but recently we have got an open lesbian wrestler who has a Pride flag tucked into the back of her pants every match she wrestles. And there has been a push from one of the biggest women's champions ever, she's broken so many records. And she’s had a push, even though she's not LGBTQ herself, she's pushing for LGBTQ rights within the company. So, there are bits of progression being made in 2019. I guess we can only hope that it goes even further.