For the second part of our Pride Month series, we interviewed art historian Alice Procter about sexuality, queerness, and finding love right before lockdown. We also talked about what it’s like to support a partner who begins transitioning hormonally.
For the second part of our Pride Month series, we interviewed Alice Procter, art historian and author of the book The Whole Picture, about sexuality, queerness, and finding love right before lockdown. We also talked about what it’s like to support a partner who begins transitioning hormonally. We interviewed Florence Low, her partner, in the first part of our series, so check it out for the complete story.
Alice, to start, can you tell us a bit about your sexuality and dating history?
I can say with a lot of confidence that I wish to avoid heterosexuality for the rest of my life in whatever form that takes.
I have often identified myself as bisexual because that's one of the first terms that felt appropriate to me, but I don’t feel totally comfortable in it.
Nowadays, I massively prefer to just call myself gay or queer rather than bisexual. There's a really fun and comfortable expansiveness to queerness, but it's not specific or pinned. It's just a way of being which I really enjoy.
It's funny, Florence said some similar stuff.
We have a shared enthusiasm for people being playful with their gender and sexuality. For both of us, there's this idea that being comfortable in whatever term you define yourself is the most compelling and attractive thing.
What was your dating mindset before meeting Florence?
I was coming out of the intense period of writing my book and I was doing a master's so I had been very work-focused for a long time.
I feel like I cursed myself because I came into 2020 with this mindset of “I'm ready to start meeting people again.” I had some questions about my sexuality and what I want from relationships, so I thought, “it’s going to be a great year for me to experiment!”
Flo was actually the first date that I went on in several years. I wasn't looking for a relationship and I didn't expect to feel as strongly as I did as fast as I did. I also expected that I would be, you know, legally allowed to leave the house! I met Flo and within a month, the UK went into lockdown.
What kind of questions did you have about your sexuality?
A lot of my feelings about my sexuality are wrapped up in the classic and, I think, very boring discourse about bisexuality. This question of what makes it real or imaginary. I'd only dated one person who was a straight, cis man, and I didn't know how I thought about that label.
I was reevaluating my sexuality and working out what it actually was. I knew I'm not straight, but I didn’t know how far that extended. I find a lot of the conventions of socialized or heterosexual masculinity unappealing. Not masculinity as a broad category—that can be flexible and include a huge range of behaviors. But, I started thinking that maybe I don't want to date men anymore. I thought that if I find this nice, perfect little box that fits me, everything else will fall into place.
There’s this idea that you have to be able to pin down exactly how you define yourself and get your little label and flag. It’s something that I told myself I wanted because I thought I was supposed to, but I’ve matured into realizing that it doesn't interest me at all.
There's still so much gatekeeping, and it's very easy to get suckered into micro-identities. I think identities are useful if you are using them to change axes of oppression and create solidarity, and for me, queer is enough.
So you met Florence on the dating app Lex, right?
[Laughs]Yes. Which is kind of embarrassing. It’s a very cutesy, twee way to meet someone. Lex wasn't exactly what I wanted, but I also knew from experience that I find the swiping style of apps deeply uncomfortable. The simple gesture of swiping squeaks me out. It starts to feel just like a carousel of faces.
Then in January 2020, I was temporarily living with my parents because of construction going on in my apartment. I posted something like, “Is there anyone else in this weird teenager situation and wants to meet up and remind ourselves that we are actually adults?” Which is what Flo responded to.
So then you and Florence went on your first date. How was that?
I was unbelievably nervous, even though I was trying to be in a mindset of “this is just a trial run.” I was in the middle of recording the audiobook of my book. I'd been listening to the sound of my own voice for the previous three days and felt not really human because of that.
I got there early, and Florence came straight from a job interview, which was very funny. So I'm sitting here feeling like a nervous little nerd and my overwhelming thought was, “This person is too hot for me, and they're going to realize that I am actually just incredibly boring and anxious.”
Spoiler alert, but we know the date went well and you saw each other a few more times after!
Yes, although it was weird. We were both living with our parents so we couldn’t hang out easily. For me, it felt like going back to being an immature teenager. Like I was sneaking around a little bit, which I never did as a teen.
There was something quite funny about saying, “Oh yeah, my parents want to know if I'm staying at yours tonight.” It meant that I didn't take myself too seriously. It created a sense of fun and levity that helped me not get into my head and freak out.
And then the lockdown started. Florence mentioned a note….
They were talking about how they were worried about not seeing any friends. I wrote something like, “Don't let yourself get too weird.” Make sure that you leave the house and stuff like that. It wasn’t something I thought about at all at the time, but in hindsight, it’s quite funny.
Part of the joke was that we'd been talking about how we're both quite weird. It was more just like, keep your weirdness in check. I enjoy your weirdness, but let's make sure that we still know how to make eye contact and hold a conversation without completely losing our minds.
How was the actual transition into lockdown for you?
It was hard because suddenly everything felt unreal. We didn’t even know each other that well, but I really missed them. We dated for a month and then didn't see each other for two months near the start of lockdown. I wondered if I was feeling that way because I had feelings for Florence or because I was literally in my childhood bedroom and not leaving the house.
That lockdown experience was very difficult for me, at least because it meant that I started second-guessing myself and wondering if I was making good decisions. I was overthinking, and I started to overthink my overthinking. Luckily, we already knew we really liked each other and felt quite confident and comfortable with each other.
So things still worked out. Did you have any tricks that you think helped?
Neither of us enjoys doing virtual dates. I hate doing video calls so that was really stressing me out. I remember telling Florence, “If one or both of us starts to not feel great, then let's be able to say stop everything and when this is over, let's catch up and try again.”
I needed to know that if I feel scared or stressed, they wouldn’t take it personally. They’d understand that it doesn't mean I don't like them, it just means that I don't want to date someone via the phone. It was just about knowing that the option was available, like a safety blanket, even though we didn’t use it.
Eventually, you moved out of your parents' place, as did Florence. Then how did things go?
As soon as we were able to see each other again, it was like, “Oh yeah, we want to be in a relationship.”
We fell into patterns that were shaped by lockdown. Not necessarily in a bad way. Because we couldn't really see anyone else, we've had this very long honeymoon phase. Like, when you start a relationship and you're so wrapped up in the other person that you don't see your friends, except we were doing that out of necessity.
It was a good thing and a bad thing. It meant that it got super intense, super fast, but it also meant that we had space and luxury to get to know each other, which is quite good fun. We could really get comfortable with each other before having to introduce each other to friends.
Can you elaborate on the difficulties of lockdown?
It's hard to go from not seeing anyone to suddenly having someone in your house. I have habits and behaviors that are shaped by the fact that I live alone. Switching from “I’m alone” to “my partner is here” is quite difficult.
It was a learning experience for me and it was intensified by the fact that we couldn't see each other casually. It was like, we are planning to spend time together and Flo will be here for a week, you know?
We can’t go on dates or to a pub and have a casual evening. We have to cook dinner and we have to spend time together because there's literally nowhere else we can be.
What helped you navigate that?
Being able to find the limits of our energy, which comes with not taking requests for space personally. If I have something going on and I can't see Flo, then I need them to understand it. I can say “Actually, no, I can't see you this week. I've got work to do.”
And if they are really busy and can't see me, then I need to be able to understand that. And also not be like, “Why don't you want to spend time with me?” which is such an easy trap to fall into. For me, it was about feeling confident that they wouldn't be offended if I had other priorities while also learning to not be offended myself.
During lockdown, Florence also started hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Could you talk a little about that?
By the time Flo was ready to talk about it, I wasn’t surprised at all. It made so much sense. We talked a lot about gender and sexuality, and particularly the ways that it’s socialized. Interestingly enough, we had very parallel experiences as teenagers, particularly in terms of our struggles with femininity, and finding forms of gender expression that we were comfortable in.
I found a way of creating for myself a type of femininity that I felt accepted by. Femininity that was queer and independent of my sexuality. Flo found out that they had a different gender experience and a different way of being in the world that could give them the same kind of satisfaction.
I was lucky that a close friend of mine and their partner had gone through a similar experience, where one partner was non-binary and starting HRT and the other was cis. They were both willing to talk to me.
I wanted to know how to be supportive of Florence and also deal with the inevitable gender feelings that it brought up for me. It was really useful to be able to talk to my friends because I could take up all the space in that conversation. Then, when I was talking to Flo about it, it could be all about them.
How did their transition impact you?
I realized that there are some things that I take for granted about my gender and my experience of gender. It was nice to be reminded not to do that.
The main thing for me was working on understanding my sexuality. I started to get in my head. If Flo is trans, then what does that mean for my sexuality? How do I make room for my partner's shifting and fluid gender experience within the limits that I have given myself?
But then, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who also identifies as bisexual. I remember asking, “Was I ever bi? Was I actually gay, but gaslit into thinking I had to be attracted to men? Why am I only capable of understanding my sexuality through my partner’s gender?“
I told myself it mattered and I had been taught to believe that it mattered. I’d gotten this idea that I had to commit to a label from friends, the media, and the culture at large. A lot of this has to do with the discourse around bisexuality or pansexuality, this idea that you'll figure it out and you'll make a decision about one gender.
And my friend’s response was basically “Calm down. You’re happy in a relationship with Florence. That's your sexuality for now.”
As things are starting to open up in London, do you have any expectations for the future?
We’re both consciously trying to get back into the habit of spending time with other people. I neglected some friendships, because it was just so hard to see people. Now that that's possible again, coming to terms with the fact that we have different pulls on us from different directions is a process. It's an adjustment, but that's not a bad thing.
We haven't had much chance to socialize as a couple, or as one half of a couple. You relearn how to be one half of a unit, as some people see you, and you also get the flexibility to exert your own privacy sometimes.
So finally, how would you describe your relationship model? I asked Florence and I enjoyed their answer, but I'm sorry because I’m asking you for a label...
This is cheating because I know what they said! I think I'm quite monogamous, so it's nice to be in a relationship that is very committed and secure. We are committed, but not necessarily to the exclusion of all others. There’s room and adaptability in our attraction to each other, which is lovely.
I know Flo said something about being “monogamous but attracted to hot people” or something. It's a really nice place to be, to know we have comfort and trust in each other to negotiate and renegotiate the definitions. And also obviously capable of appreciating hot people.
It's always important to appreciate hot people! Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
I would say that starting a relationship and then immediately going into a pandemic is not something that I would recommend, but if you're going to do it, it's worth it.
You can find Alice’s book through most online bookstores, and follow her on Twitter @aaprocter.