A moment that changed me: a lesbian pool party taught me how to be a better person
The year was 2000, and some regulars from Soho’s legendary lesbian venue Candy Bar were planning a trip to Lesbos, which they advertised with a flyer titled “wet pussy pool party”, which somehow got on to the desk of the island’s mayor. In translation to the Greek, it became a bit more formal – a Greek friend translated it back to English for me as “suppurating vagina swimming event” – and the mayor of Lesbos banned the lesbians from the island. It turned out he didn’t have the authority to do that, and they went anyway. This is why local government is harder than it looks.
I went over to cover the event for London’s Evening Standard. Frankly, it would have been better to send a gay woman. I meant well, but I had only the very sketchiest notion of inclusive language, as in, I didn’t know whether I should call it a “lesbian bar” or just say “gay bar” and then indicate later that it was full of women.
Anyway, I arrived in Lesbos a wreck. I’d gone to bed at 3am the night before a 6am flight; the photographer had to wake both my downstairs neighbours to get me up. I left my flat with only a passport and the clothes I’d fallen asleep in. I definitely didn’t have any swimwear, I don’t think I owned any. But, by lunchtime, there I was, on Lesbos, at the pool. It was idyllic. When I try to conjure the image, it’s like remembering a dream of a perfect holiday, or an advert. Baking sunshine, piña coladas, men beetling about everywhere trying to bring things, languid laughter erupting from different loungers, like a Mexican wave. Everyone knew I was a journalist, obviously, since we’d all been on the same flight, and there was an element of suspicion, as there would be, right? Would you, if news of your planned holiday had made it into the papers, leading the mayor of the town to try to ban you, want a random person standing about, next to a photographer, surveying the scene, waiting to craft your beano into a narrative for a newspaper that didn’t have a clue? Not really. It’s amazing, looking back, that I wasn’t more embarrassed. I thought I was Martha bloody Gellhorn.
The problem with this kind of journalism is that it’s bullshit. Most people are not bigots. With Lesbos’s economy reliant on tourism, most people were really happy about the visitors, and would no more think of being rude or disrespectful to them than they would deliberately give them food poisoning. So I’m trying to “cover” a clash of cultures – rigidity meeting modernity, prejudice versus humanity, old hatreds facing down new love, yikyak yikyak – but that doesn’t really exist, except in the mind of the mayor; if I managed to find any conflict, it would have been by looking so hard that I basically created it. And that would be really ugly, and not at all funny. And while we’re here, are we absolutely sure that the mayor really said that? Because he’s unavailable for comment, so realistically, he can’t be that upset.
Anyway, I pulled it together, interviewing waiters and naked deck chair vendors and such, filed the Evening Standard piece down the phone on day two and it came out on day three. The internet existed then, we also had phones, but nobody had any reliable means of reading a British paper. Thanks to the vagaries of the flights in and out, we were all there for the week.
Someone called home to ask what the piece was like, and her friend said, “Oh, it was fine. There was something about you being ugly, but otherwise it just sounded like you were all having a great time.” All hell broke loose. “We’re ugly?” one woman shouted from the deep end, as I traversed the poolside without a care in the world. “Do you want to know what you look like?” “You’ve been wearing the same shirt for three days!”, someone else pointed out, not unjustly. There was some really loud speculation about whether or not I’d ever heard of sunscreen. It was true, I wasn’t looking my best. But the actual quote had been something like – it was a young waiter, with exquisite, rather purple English – “People say lesbians are ugly, but these are all beautiful women and it is an honour to serve them.”
It was fine, I got the piece faxed to the hotel, everyone read it, agreed that neither I nor any Lesbos residents thought they were ugly. A question mark remained over why I couldn’t perform basic self-care, but after that, I was part of the group and ended up duetting Moon River at 2am with a woman I then tried to get off with as a gesture of goodwill, and she told me to sod off, but in a nice way.
I didn’t learn anything about my sexuality, by the way. I learned something about work: that there is no such thing as a subject and an observer in journalism. Every interaction has two equal humans in it, and if, in your mad hubris, you’ve arrogated the power to tell the story, you have to use that power with complete humility, because otherwise you are an idiot. I also learned to always pack the night before, but that lesson’s been a bit more hit and miss.