Sophie. Kumeu. Your Story Matters.

Sophie. 23. Kumeu. North Island.

How do you identify?

I identify as queer or lesbian sometimes. I also identify as a white cisgender woman.

Where are you currently living and where are you originally from?

I’m currently living in Ponsonby. Technically it’s Freeman’s Bay or Herne Bay but I usually just tell people I live in Ponsonby.  Before I moved to Ponsonby, I grew up in Kumeu which is about 20-25 minutes north west of Auckland. It’s kind of awkward to explain sometimes because it’s technically two towns. There’s also Huapai, a town, where no one really knows where the boundary of. My school was called Huapai and sometimes my school would consider where I lived to be Huapai and other times Kumeu. We had a school song that was meant to teach us Te Reo Maori that sang about both Huapai and Kumeu. So no one really knows what the difference between the towns is.

What does Kumeu look like?

Well, there’s a small town centre and that was just shops–not a mall or anything, though. We just got traffic lights which was kind of a big deal because people didn’t want to be “town”. They wanted to be “rural” and the lights threatened that image. Outside of the centre, there was lifestyle blocks that were around 18 acres and then spanning out, there would be more farms. Some of the kids I went to school with lived on farms but not too many of them did at all. They lived in suburban housing sections and lifestyle blocks. It’s definitely a popular place for horses because it’s an upper-class rural area which is part of why I don’t really consider Kumeu all that rural–because it’s wealthy.

Can you talk more about why you think Kumeu isn’t a “rural” community?

So growing up my mom was really “horsey” and I started riding when I was four  and did pony club until I was twenty-one.  A lot of my friends and neighbours rode. Like there are heaps and heaps of people in Kumeu that rode horses. Owning a lifestyle block shows that you’re pretty wealthy so it’s quite a wealthy area. And while it was  kind of an isolated area,people had cars and would drive to the city quite often and that stuff. So yeah–not that rural.

Thinking back the stop lights, it sounds like there were people in Kumeu that still want to hold onto this image of a “rural” town though.

There’s a lot of trades people and people who do “rural” types of jobs, I guess. So that kind of rural, physical labor. People live out there to escape from the city. There’s other people there too like that. There’s people who want the rural lifestyle for their kids so they can have a lawn, a pony, a couple of sheep, or have chickens for eggs. So it’s like that sort of feel–wealthy people who want to do the glamorous farm life.

When did you come out to your parents?

I actually came out to them quite late into my second year at uni–so when I was nineteen. I had come back from an exchange to study in Canada for a semester.  I used that time to have my first trials of coming out there so if anything bad happened it would be away.

“Away” from what?

I guess away from…real life? It wasn’t real life in the since it was so temporary. So yea, I came out to friends while I was abroad and it went fine. I messaged my high school  friends from back home on Facebook and came out which gave me the confidence to come out properly. When I came home I came out to my parents….well I thought that I came out to my parents then.

What do you mean, ‘ you thought that you came out’?

My family doesn’t really talk about stuff and I was a really awkward teenager/young adult so I wrote them a note which is embarrassing. I left it outside of their bedroom. It was like 3:00 AM after a party and this note was like:

“I’m gay. If you wanna talk about it cool, just don’t wake me up because I’m tired. But I’ll be outside cleaning vomit up from my car and we can talk about it then if you want.”

So I left them that note but then nothing happened. They didn’t talk to me about it. So I was like “Sweet!” At first it I kept wondering if  they had seen it. Some time passed and I was like “Nah. They must not have questions. Cool.” So I carried on with my life as if I was “out” and didn’t hide any of my queer tumblr blogging and carried on as “out”. And then a year and a half later, I started seeing my partner and I was living at home which made things a  little awkward. I was over her house a lot since I still lived with my parents. Finally I was just like “Let’s get this out of the way and you’re going to meet my parents.” So a few weeks later, I ask my parents if I can bring my partner over for dinner and they were asking “Who’s that?”. I told them it was a girl I’d been seeing and they were like “Huh. Okay”. And fine with it. Later, I find out that they didn’t understand the note as me coming out. They thought “I’m so gay” was slang for “I’m so silly”.  So for a year and a half I thought that I was out and wasn’t.  During that time, I was so obvious too. I even had an undercut so like half of my hair was shaved–like there were a lot of signs. I even kept bringing all of my queer friends over.

Why didn’t you talk about stuff?

I don’t know.  Maybe if I had been more confident with myself and my sexuality I wouldn’t have had to up those walls and navigate space in the same way. Then again, I didn’t have any any tools to cope with emotions and puberty and all the stuff associated with that. I think that that walls were an easy solution.

Why do you think you were so unable to talk about gender and sexuality?

It was tricky. From an early age I was very much a tomboy. I had very early experiences from when I was about eight years old and onwards of people questioning my gender. People  would ask me why I was wearing boy’s clothes and wondering if I was a girl or a boy. So since early on my gender was always something that was very obvious to me but not to other kids who were so caught up on why I was wearing boys clothes. Going forward, I joined a soccer team when I was eight which really gave me a space to be a tomboy. I was fast and strong–like faster and stronger than most of the boys–and that gave me a positive outlet for that sort of stuff. It was positive identity for me to be beating the boys. You could say that from an early age I took great pleasure in doing better at stuff than boys. I wasn’t competitive in the sense that I wanted to win. I just wanted to beat the boys. I was told by the other kids that boys were smarter than girls so I couldn’t be the smartest in the class since I was a girl and that I couldn’t be the fastest on the soccer team because I was girl. So I was like “Here I go! Watch me be smarter and faster than you!”

Who did you hear most of this stuff about gender from?

It was definitely boys. Like on my soccer team there was more of that culture that celebrated boys being faster and the tough ones on the team. I think they only let girls on the team because of “equality”. The message there was that femininity wasn’t valued in the spaces that I was in. Even as a kid, I knew that disidentifying with femininity could let me be recognized for being smart and powerful. When I’d see sexist ideas it wouldn’t make me challenge femininity. Instead I’d just be like “Well yea, I’m obviously not feminine then so I’ll be like the boys and hang with them on the field.” I didn’t want to identify with the girl stuff. I wanted to be out there kicking the balls around

My tomboy identity became a big challenge for me as I started to get older–like eleven or twelve. Our school was smallish. The primary and intermediate were together so when I went to high school I went to a different school. I had very distinct memories of that time since it was when I didn’t find any value in sport, being masculine, or one of the boys anymore. I really started to lose those things I identified with, and I had more friends that were girls which made me engage with my gender a bit more since everyone was getting to more of the mature stage where sexuality was being talked about. So I started to more be feminine. I remember when I  was ten I asked my mom for girls clothes for Christmas instead of boys clothes. That was really sad.  I wanted to fit in so I wanted to do whatever would help me fit in. But looking back those clothes would not have helped me to fit in. They were ugly clothes. I mean my mom picked them out since I didn’t even want to wear or buy them!  I just wanted to be more accepted by them.  But it never stopped the bullying properly. I was still bullied quite a bit afterwards. They’d be like “Are you a lesbian?” and I would be like “Ew no.”

How old were you when you experienced the most bullying?

I was in intermediate. By high school I already had put up some of my “walls”, and people were a bit more tactful. But when we were eleven or twelve years old in intermediate I was directly confronted with the fact that “lesbianism” was a thing that you didn’t want to be. So I tried to fit in in other areas. I was always the rough and tumble one of the girls and I was and still am the masculine, tomboy one. I was fitting in a bit more at that point.  I hung out with a group of eight girls. We  were quite popular and sort of ran the show since we were all quite clever. We always knew what was up on the playground. I realised I could get a lot of social power if I  stopped being such a tomboy and  was a bit more feminine. That continued through high school–that being feminine thing. Ironically, having a uniform was helpful to me since I didn’t have to choose clothes for school. Even though I didn’t like having to wear a skirt, I could tell everyone that I didn’t like it and it was fine. I always felt like an outsider to femininity, though. I really wanted to fit in. There was a lot of mixed messages from my peer group about how to be feminine.

Did you have a sense of your sexuality at that point?

No, I mean some people talk about how they knew at the back of their minds but I didn’t know. I never had it in the back of my mind. It was just sort of blank. I had some boyfriends–one in year seven and one in year eight for very short times. I really wasn’t into it. I don’t ever remember feeling pressured to date, but more that dating was just what people do and that I was going to do it too.

How about girls?

I probably had some crushes here and there but I didn’t see them as crushes at the time. I didn’t really have any framework for what being queer was, so I was just like “That person is really cool so I am going to hang out with them!”.

There wasn’t really a reference for me to look to about my sexuality. I knew there was the possibility of being queer as I got older. There was always people who were out in high school but I thought things like “That’s not me”.

I didn’t really have an understanding of my sexuality or an understanding that it might be something other than friendship which was reinforced by images I saw in the media. My friends read Cosmopolitan magazines that had these narratives of really intense female friendships. I just thought that I wanted to be friends with these people and never really thought to extend it past that.at.

Were there places or spaces in Kumeu that you could go to where you felt like you could take your “wall” down?

Well kind of. In high school I belonged to a friend group of about twelve girls who had wider connections with other people  outside our central circle. I didn’t really fit into either group that well, so I was just always on the fringes. I had some friends on that were outside of the circle who I now wish I would have considered to be better friends, but at the time I was trying to be cool. I would hang out with these friends on MSN messenger after school. The internet was was one of the only places where I got social interaction in the sense that I was a vulnerable, actual person and not just guarded Sophie. But other than that, I didn’t really have a place.

Did you try to make friends outside of school other than online?

Yea. I had some friends through soccer.  At the beginning of high school I was intensely playing soccer like–like four games a week with different teams. Over the summer I was on a team that would travel to tournaments. That experience of being on that team and traveling was an awful time. Looking back, there was some homophobia going on. There was a tight knit group of young women on the team. They were really unfriendly but they were the core of the team with a lot of social power since they were the best players on the team. I was part of a fringe group of people on the team that didn’t really fit into that core group’s ideals and we were sort of excluded. I didn’t really have any friends in the excluded group either so I just didn’t hang out with anyone. Everyone I got along best with was in the core group so I tried to get along with them and they resisted allowing me to interact with them.

Why do you think they resisted you?

I don’t really know why. It was never explicitly like “Sophie, you’re queer”.  I think I just wasn’t fitting into their ideas of femininity, and I didn’t want to talk about boys. I couldn’t really play their “game” . Maybe they thought I was a bit too manly or uninterested in what they were talking about. I felt excluded. After that, I ended up going through a period where I decided to stop soccer and was just playing for a casual team at school–nothing else. I lost touch with any of the friends I did have on my club teams. Even though I still had the social soccer club with the school team, I never really felt like I identified with them.

What about the pony club?

Yeah, there were people there too. But as you get older more and more people stop going. So I had some friends there to start with but from about the time I was 16 or 17, at that same time of stopping soccer,  a lot of my friends stopped going. At that time most people are in need of lessons. If they have wealthy parents, then they can get private lessons to train for competitions.

It sounds like such a class-centred thing, aye?

Yea, it’s a really wealthy environment where you can buy your way to the top if you have enough money. It’s definitely a world of money and I couldn’t afford lessons outside of pony club so that was the only place where I could get an instructor every week. The fee was like three hundred dollars for the year whereas with a private lesson, it’s $50-$60 per hour. So it was the only thing that my family could afford to help me keep improving.  And as I got older, I became interested in representing my pony club at tournaments which also kept me riding. I had a feeling for the last three years I was there, though, that I didn’t really wanna be there.

So class was a huge part of riding. Did gender and sexuality ever come up when you were riding horses?

With gender, there was always a few boys here and there but not a lot because they would get picked on. Like my brother went until he was ten but then he got bullied for riding horses because it was girl’s sport and he stopped early. There were boys around, though–like always one or two. Now that you mention it, there was this one guy that still at pony club when I was sixteen. When I was there a lot of girls would chase after him and try to hang out with him so they could interact with a boy. You could tell that they were interested in that sort of stuff. So he had a lot of social power in the sense that people respected him and wanted to be with him.

In horse riding there’s like this thing with gender–nothing explicit–where boys would also get a lot of support from parents and coaches since they figured that being a male in this “girl’s” sport was challenging. When you get to the top level of equestrian, you’ll see that three quarters of Olympic teams are men because they get more support and encouragement. Since they’re males, they are expected to jump higher and are just seen as “cooler”. So men really excel in the sport despite the fact that it’s more popular with girls.

Slightly shifting topics, but why did you move to Auckland? Uni?

Kind of. I used to commute from Kumeu for the first three of four years, and then I got sick of commuting. I had met my partner at this point so I moved in with her which also cut out the commute. I have been living in town for about a year now.

Did you ever come to the city much when you were younger before uni?

Not when I was younger but when I started going to uni I did. I didn’t really do the city life since I drove, was cheap, and poor. I would park in a free park where you can only park there for three or four hour slots. So after classes, I’d just go right back to my car and go home. That deterred me from engaging in any sort of uni life or city life until maybe like last year or the year before.

What does your interaction with the city look like now?

I’ve moved soccer club. I had been apart of club back home for about 15 years so this year was the first year I switched clubs. I also can do stuff at uni like go to meetings or casually hang with people at labs.  I also joined RainbowYOUTH’s board. I never had much access to that.

Do you feel like your thought about gender and sexual identity have developed or changed since you’ve moved to town?

Maybe. I think I feel that way, just because my move to town coincided with moving in with my girlfriend.  So yes, and no. Now that I’m in town a lot of  cringe factors left over from HS feel more distant now. I can be more queer and doing queer things that I want to do instead of trying to fit in with my high school friends. So yea, I guess it’s allowed me a lot of space to explore and be out.

What is it like being out as queer in Kumeu?

Well, I still living in Kumeu when my partner and I met.  Putting my sexuality and my relationship with my girlfriend into my childhood space was awkward. I still feel really weird thinking about it. If I go to the supermarket in Kumeu with my girlfriend and hold her hand, I feel like someone is going to see. I’m fine being out in all other contexts but when I’m at the supermarket, I know I might see people from my childhood who I never really had any intention to come out to or have discussions about my sexuality with. I mean they’d probably be fine with it but I have a cringe whenever I go to the supermarket.

So do you think there is this sort of taboo about sexuality in a childhood setting or you just don’t feel personally comfortable with these people knowing?

Partly both. My childhood identity was very much a non-sexual identity. A lot of people in the community were blue collar and knew even if the community didn’t talk about sexuality, but understood that “sex happened” with young people. People quietly acknowledged sexuality though, because you would hear jokes about heterosexuality, like about boys chasing girls, or that teens were expected to start being in relationships around fourteen of fifteen. I was never that kind of teenager, though. I was sort of chaste and focused on other things. I’m a very high achiever so I don’t have time for frivolous things like relationships [mocking self]. It was tied into that sense of identity.

So what I am hearing is that when you go back to your hometown, you’re known as somebody who is the determined, high-achieving, almost asexual person.

Yea. I never saw myself or had other people see me as fitting into that classic idea–that narrative–of being a teenager testing out relationships.

That idea  sort of supported me not having to think about my sexuality. I formed this image and idea as I got older that I was too determined on achieving things to be interested in relationships. So being accused of being a lesbian for wearing boys clothes never really came up in the same sense as it did when I was younger. I didn’t have to think about relationships–especially the thought of being in queer relationship. I was too busy with achieving other things and maintaining that identity.

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