To celebrate Pride Month, we asked Melissa Lenhardt, author of LGBTQI+ romance The Secret of You and Me to write a blog piece for us. Our previous blogs have focused on authors’ views on their genre and writing around their journey as an author.
Instead Melissa wrote a powerful and emotional essay that we, at Mills and Boon, are proud to publish. This essay, her personal journey, is inspirational and we are delighted to share it with you in Pride Month.
I wrote my lesbian romantic novel, The Secret of You and Me in 2018. It seems like a lifetime ago. In a way, it was another lifetime. Another life, at least. At the time of writing The Secret of You and Me, I didn’t identify in the LGBTQ community. Now I do.
I wrote my first coded queer female character in 2015. Since I wrote my first on-the-page queer couple in Badlands, every book I’ve written has been queer. When I started writing The Secret of You and Me, a book about coming out late in life, I didn’t recognize the parallels between Sophie’s fears and my own. (No, The Secret of You and Me is not auto biographical.) When I started writing the novel that will be released by Mills and Boon next year (as yet untitled) I abandoned three drafts. Why? Because all of my characters were turning into lesbians. What the hell was going on? Why was every story I told about women wanting to escape their lives, and discovering their fluidity at the same time?
I’ve always been a little clueless, especially when it concerned sexuality and fluidity. By 2019 when I was drafting my upcoming book, full of lesbians no matter what I did or how many drafts I abandoned, I knew exactly what was going on, but I was too terrified to admit it. If I wrote that book everyone would know my secret, and it would blow up my life.
Understanding and admitting my sexual fluidity took years of introspection and therapy. How could I be sexually attracted exclusively to women after decades of being attracted exclusively to men? I still don’t have an answer to that question, but does it even matter? I was my authentic self as a straight woman, and now I am my authentic self as a lesbian. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I was attracted to women. It was a gradual change, one that, with the benefit of hindsight, started happening well before I was ready or able to admit it to myself. It was definitely not a choice.
There aren’t many stories about fluidity like mine, at least not that I can find. Theoretically we exist. Sexuality is on a spectrum, after all. But, falling in love with women in general, becoming sexually attracted to women after years of being attracted to men, at mid-life with no inciting incident is side-eyed by many, heterosexuals and queers alike. Most stories of late-in-life lesbianism are of a woman who has been closeted since childhood, or a straight woman who falls in love with another woman. People can wrap their brains around those narratives. Oh, you’ve always known. Oh, you fell in love. I knew I was a lesbian without having kissed or been intimate with anyone. How does that happen? I have no idea. It just did. But how do you know? The same way I knew I was attracted to men for years, the same way you know you’re attracted to the gender you’re attracted to. So, you might be attracted to men again? No. The first time I kissed a woman I knew without a doubt I wasn’t bisexual.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have positive experiences with everyone I’ve told, save one or two, and the men and women I’ve befriended in the LGBTQ community have been lovely and supportive and, in some cases, have become better friends to me than the ones I lost. There have also been comments along the lines of, “You’re a lesbian? You sure don’t look like a lesbian.” There are gatekeepers in every community. But I have the privilege of being a 51-year old woman, dependent on no one, and with zero fucks to give about what people think about me or my sexuality.
I’ve been out to a few friends and family members since last June, and out to my sons, the two people who mean the most to me in the world, since January. Their support, understanding, and love is all the “approval” I’ll ever need. A few times since, I’ve started and stopped writing a coming out essay. I’m glad I didn’t finish those versions. I needed time and space from the emotional trauma of my divorce, and the ability to separate that experience and my past from my present and future. To say I’ve never been happier isn’t true or fair; I had so many moments of happiness and joy in my past life. They were real and wonderful, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. But this is a different kind of happiness, one not hemmed in by expectations: societal, personal, professional. This is the first time in my life I’m able to be 100% myself without pressure or influence from my parents, a church, my friends, my spouse, my children, or my community. Maybe the truer statement is I‘ve never been happier with myself. Oh, I still have insecurities and body issues and tend to blame myself for everything bad that happens in my life and deflect my part in anything good that happens. That’s what therapy is for because no matter where I am in life, I’m always a work in progress.
I’m sure this isn’t the essay my Mills and Boon editor expected when she suggested that I write one for Pride. But it feels right to share this during my first Pride because I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of the strength I gained after a year that was personally terrible. I’m proud of not acting on multiple ideations, of not giving in to grief and anger, or at least only giving in to my baser emotions in private. I’m proud of my books, and the representation of queer characters. I’m proud of surviving, and I’m excited and optimistic about what the future holds for me, professionally and personally, and that’s what Pride is about.
Thank you Melissa for sharing your journey with us and our readers.
You can read Nora and Sophie’s story in The Secret of You and Me by Melissa Lenhardt here!
Watch our conversation with Melissa Lenhardt and Mills and Boon Editor Becky Slorach – where they chat about The Secret of You and Me here!