The challenge of lesbian dating in suburbia: 'Am I the only gay in the village?'

Lesbian columnist Fay Barrett says meeting other women isn't easy outside of a big city. (Supplied)
Lesbian columnist Fay Barrett says meeting other women isn't easy outside of a big city. (Supplied)

Words by Fay Barrett

"Where are all the lesbians?" I hollered into the sapphic wasteland, aka my hometown in leafy Hertfordshire.

I’d moved back from London, three years ago, following a break-up. Having lived most of my adult life in the Smoke, been active on the queer scene and chalked up several relationships, I now found myself looking for love among the smaller town lesbians.

“Maybe I’ll wow them with my big city swagger,” I thought smugly.

It soon became apparent there weren’t many to wow, woo or whittle away hours watching episodes of Gentleman Jack with.

Hardly surprising when even London is lacking on the sapphic scene. I only found one lesbian bar in London. One. However, with a plethora of ‘meet-ups’ for queer women, I dated, made friends and built a little queer community.

Now, here I was in the sticks, doing a Google search for ‘lesbian events near me’ and coming up empty.

Fay Barrett says lesbian women seem to be 'mythic creatures' in her home town. (Supplied)
Fay Barrett says lesbian women seem to be 'mythic creatures' in her home town. (Supplied)

Is anyone out there?

And then it hit me: “I’m the only gay in the village”.

At least, it felt that way. Here, lesbians are some kind of mythic creature. Sure, people had heard of them but had anyone actually seen one?

There are no gay bars. None. Even if I found said fabled lesbian, where would I take her? The Harvester? Big Ken’s greasy spoon? Sure, there’s an occasional gay night at a random pub but there’s likely to be more gay men attending. Plus, there’s a raffle, which does not constitute a sexy night in my opinion.

Watch: Fay Barrett and other LGBTQ+ people share their powerful coming out stories

Is she gay or straight?

How will I know she’s queer? People don’t tend to walk around wearing ‘I’m a dyke’ T-shirts. Was there some kind of local lesbian spotter’s guide that would save the embarrassment of chatting up a straight girl? When you’re heterosexual you can meet the love of your life anywhere. A random night out, a bar… your eyes may even lock over the Tesco’s ready meals section.

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Unless I’m at an event clearly labelled ‘here be lesbians’ I have to do all kinds of mathematical equations in my head to work out if she could be queer. And, in a town with far less lesbians per square mile than London (and even that was lacking), my dilemma worsens.

Sure, I could swagger over, Don Juan style amid the chicken Jalfrezi’s in Tesco, but I’ll embarrass us both if my gaydar is off. Plus, I’d have outed myself publicly.

So, I did what any sane (I use that word loosely) 21st century singleton would do and fired up the dating apps…

…and quickly extended my search radius by several miles as it came up empty. Which brought the London lesbians back up. God dammit! Do I have to venture into London, pay uproariously expensive travel fares and leave a night out early, just to make the last train back?!’

I thought. Yes. Yes, I do. That’s the reality. To have any chance of finding a girlfriend, I’d have to visit the city I moved out of in the first place.

But let’s back up…

Who even am I?

Fay Barrett says lesbian dating in a straight bar tends to attract all sorts of unwanted attention. (Supplied)
Fay Barrett says lesbian dating in a straight bar tends to attract all sorts of unwanted attention. (Supplied)

Hi, I’m Fay, I’m 41 and I’ve been out and proud for eight years. I knew I was gay as a child but for various reasons (like growing up in the 80s under section 28) it took me a long time to embrace myself.

To understand the predicament faced by queer women living outside of cities, there’s a few things you need to know…

We’re fishing in a much smaller pool. Whereas straight folks have the proverbial sea to find their lobster in, we’re dealing with more of a pond. Or muddy puddle if you’re outside a city.

According to the Office of National Statistics (2019), Heterosexuals make up 93.7% of the population. The queer community just 2.3 %. Within that, there’ll be an even smaller percentile that are queer women. And how many of those do you think live outside cities?

Read more: What single adults in the UK are looking for in a partner

Lesbian dating in a straight bar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I go on a date with Laura* (name changed to protect her identity) and the chemistry is electric. We get chills every time our fingers brush and can’t take our eyes off each other.

Neither can the straight people around us. To be clear, we’re not doing anything. It’s not like we’re making out amid the Thursday special hot pot. We’re just two people on a date.

Only we’re not. We’ll never be just two people on a date because we’re both women in a small town straight pub. Our presence sends little thrills through the bar. We are a curiosity.

A straight man’s fantasy

A group of men leer at us, whispering and sniggering. They keep coming up to our table, inserting themselves in our conversation. Would they do this to a straight couple on a date? No, I don’t think so either.

There’s an uneasy undercurrent. I’m hyper alert, vigilant for trouble. I can’t relax because we’re not alone on this date. The attention’s on us and I know from experience, it can turn nasty. There’s often an aggressive sexual undercurrent from some heterosexual men encountering lesbians. We are not totally safe here. But, with no gay bars, what are our options?

This is not an isolated incident.

Fay Barrett says she has also dated several bi-curious women who are unsure of their sexuality. (Supplied)
Fay Barrett says she has also dated several bi-curious women who are unsure of their sexuality. (Supplied)

Meeting bi-curious women

The reality of dating in a town outside London is that I can’t. Not really. I can count the number of local dates I’ve had on one hand.

I matched with Sarah* online. She’s lovely, on a lesbian dating app and lives in my town – “Jackpot!” I hear you cry. Well, just hold your horses there, cowboy, there’s a catch.

We meet at a cute café by the river. The sun is shining, cows are mooing and chewing the cud (or whatever cows do). Then she lays it on me. The (non) lesbian landslide. She’s not actually gay. She thinks she might be bi as she’s attracted to women, but she’s never actually dated a woman before.

And I get it. I’ve been there. There’s anxiety when you’re dipping your toe in the water and on a date with a bona fide card-carrying lesbian (yes, there’s a membership card, it comes with a plaid shirt and a pair of crocks). It’s hard navigating lesbian ‘gatekeeping’ when you’ve only dated men. So, I get why she didn’t tell me beforehand.

Read more: No booze allowed – would you go on a dry date?

But, when dating is so much harder for queer woman, it’s endlessly frustrating not to have this info before meeting. It’s a time waste. Sure, I could meet someone amazing who’s not ‘out’ but I’m ready to settle down and find myself a wife. How’s it gonna work if someone’s just at the start of that journey?

This happened 5% of the time in London. Here, it’s more like 90%. I’m starting to think I’m some kind of newbie lesbian guru (which isn’t unappealing). One woman I matched with eventually told me she had a boyfriend but asked if she could date me if it didn’t work out. Erm no, I’m not a back-up plan.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve been dating the most incredible, intelligent, gorgeous, sexy, loving woman for three months now and I’m absolutely smitten.

Where did I meet her? London…