Back to the future: How LGBT history helps us move forward

image February provided me with two calendar markers that invited blog posts: LGBT History Month and Valentines Day. The problem is that both of these topics have been written about from so many angles, I didn’t really feel I could contribute much that was new to the discussion on either, and didn’t want to come up with a tenuous angle for the sake of it. But the more I thought and read about these topics, the more I realised I did actually have something to say. And surprisingly, I found a common theme between LGBT history and Valentines Day, which is this: That we really need to look to the past to understand the present, and to progress equality into the future, and that this needs to happen at both an individual and collective level. You can read my post on LGBT History and Ancestry on the In Eight Hundred Words blog, and my LGBT take on St Valentine on the Pink Lobster Dating blog. Hearts to your minds!

Why I don’t like internet dating but keep logging on

I wonder how many of us actually enjoy internet dating. I mean really take pleasure in the actual process as well as the result. Because I really don’t. It’s not just the anxiety and embarrassment of self promotion, the awkwardness of sending first messages, or the disappointment when you log in and see that yes, that person you really liked read your email and viewed your profile 5 days ago, and no, they haven’t responded. It’s not because it knocks my self esteem to be rejected by strangers (getting older has at least taught me that this is meaningless!). I dislike internet dating because it is so much effort.

Despite how this sounds, it isn’t laziness. I wish I could just happen to meet an amazing woman offline without trying, but this isn’t because I don’t want to try, or don’t think that effort is what makes something worth having (I do). It’s because I want to meet someone when I am just being myself, not trying to be – and when the other person is doing the same. This is when we will be most ‘ourselves’. And this is the effort that I begrudge having to make online: to be the best representation of myself I can in a few photos and paragraphs. Because that’s all a dating profile can be – a representation. It can’t be me. And it requires a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy to try and be a well rounded ‘me’ on the page, and to try and uncover what other people are really like. Whilst it’s true that writing can bring out an honesty and reveal parts of someone that they might be too shy to say, or not get an opportunity to demonstrate on a first date, it also allows people to put up defences. Words and pictures can’t capture the essence of a person. The way they look in a photo doesn’t show how their eyes light up when they talk or how their wonky smile is really attractive when they are animated. Words don’t convey tone of voice, or laugh – all of the nuances that are what usually make me fall for someone.

Another aspect of the effort that I don’t like is trawling through profiles. The femme world is small and a lot of the same people are on the same dating sites, so it can be hard to find new people. Then you have to remember who you has ignored your emails and who you haven’t replied to, and try and do the online equivalent of dodging down a different supermarket aisle when you skim past the profiles of the ones who got away or those to whom you sent the ‘I had a lovely time with you but…’ email. It can be a psychological minefield.

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I know some people find flicking through dating apps and profiles fun in itself, and I guess it partly depends what you’re after. If it’s the thrill of the unknown, or just sex, then I guess effort doesn’t matter as much, as you’re willing to take more risks and its not so important to be fully yourself, or have someone ‘get’ you. I think if you are looking for a relationship, it’s a trickier balance. You need to convey enough you and get enough of a sense of her to not dismiss it outright. But here’s the ‘however’… There only needs to be enough interest to instigate an email. So perhaps it doesn’t need to be such an effort after all. And despite resenting having to jump through theses hoops, I do still believe they are a necessary means to an end. If, like me, you aren’t very into the scene, or you just see the same people at most lesbian bars you go to, then internet dating is probably still your best bet. Specific dating events can also be a good alternative if you’re feeling a bit jaded with scrolling through profiles and sending another cringy email. At least at an event it’s easier to be yourself and suss out a connection, so in terms of effort, there’s more immediate return on investment!

Having established that internet dating is a necessary evil, here are my tips (which I’m totally unqualified to give, by the way) for anyone who needs a bit of motivation:

1) Remember why you’re doing this and what you want from it. It may help to remind yourself that you’ve still got a better chance meeting someone online than hanging out at bus stops hoping for a romantic encounter

2) Make a bit of an effort but try not to over-think it. Be honest and straightforward in your profile, chose nice but realistic photos and mention anything defining or deal-breaking, but don’t feel you have to represent everything about you, and don’t sound so rigid that people will be put off messaging you. Beyond that, try and act instinctively with who catches your eye and what you say in emails. Maybe extend your search criteria and just say the first thing that comes to you as you would if you met in a bar (I have tried this with mixed success, but at least it is genuine!).

3) For every email you send that doesn’t get a response, or every message you receive that makes you despair that anyone out there is on your wavelength, remember how different and exciting it feels to get those first texts where you think ‘this could be something’. Then hang in there with hope, as your inbox will see those again.

4) Try and meet up as soon as you can to see if there is any real connection, as the effort of making an impression and getting to know someone is put to better use in person than on paper.

5) If you’re feeling weary of the online scene, take a break from it. Hang out with your friends, pursue your interests and remember there is more to you and more to life than having a partner. And we know that being an independent person who enjoys life makes you more attractive, etc…

6) Keep pursuing any real world opportunities to meet people as well, and remember they can happen in the strangest of places (maybe at that bus stop after all).

Remember (note to self) that whilst not all good things require effort, most do. And sometimes it’s the effort that makes us value them more (I don’t mean finding someone who’s ‘a challenge’ – that often isn’t worth the effort. I just mean putting yourself out to meet and get to know people). As the song lyric goes ‘if you wanna find a head to fit your shoulder, you’re gonna have to go to the dance’. Even if you feel like staying in with Strictly.

If you liked this post, you might be interested in a related post on Vulnerability that I wrote for Pink Lobster Dating

Venturing out to work

I recently came across The Glass Closet website, where people share their stories of being out at work. It’s a fascinating insight into why and how people choose to come out (or not) at work and how important this decision is to personal wellbeing and equality. My own views on this are multifaceted so I decided to get them into some kind of order on paper/screen. Here’s the story I submitted…

How to come out and be out at work can be a minefieldimage whatever your situation, but I’m going to write about it from the perspective of being a single gay person in the workplace. To give some background, when I first came out (relatively late at the age of 26), it was a painful time as it was linked to the end of a very complex friendship. It was all I could do to hold it together at that time, and as such, the last thing I wanted to do was share my pain at work. Not being out at work was actually what got me through that time as I had to put on a brave face. But when I felt better, I still didn’t feel comfortable coming out as the culture was a very straight, corporate one.

My next job was for a charity, where equality and diversity was fully embedded in the organisational culture, and as such, I felt comfortable to be out and that it would actually enhance, rather than inhibit, my work prospects and people’s perceptions of me. I also had other gay friends in the workplace. However, it was a small organisation and I didn’t want positive discrimination to put me in a box any more than homophobia. I was happy to be out but didn’t want to be considered representative of a gay cultural or political agenda, so I only told people as and when it came up. This is how I still feel in my current job. I don’t mind people knowing that I’m gay – in fact, I would like them to know as then I don’t feel I am hiding part of myself or that I am doing LGBT people a disservice by not challenging the straight assumption. But how to come out is an issue, and for me, this is mainly due to being single.

If I currently had a partner, I would drop her name into conversations and whilst some people might still take a while to catch on, it would be a way of coming out without making a big deal of it. As it is, there’s only a certain number of hints I can drop – if a group of women are talking about male celebrities they like, I can joke that ‘that’s not my bag’ . I can also mention going to Pride or other LGBT events, films etc, and mention same sex friends who are getting married. But because I don’t live up to a lot of gay stereotypes, most people still don’t seem to guess. Or maybe they do, but don’t want to follow up with personal questions as they assume I will feel uncomfortable. This either assumes I am embarrassed to be gay, or implies that straight colleagues are embarrassed talking about being gay. Unfortunately, I think this is a common response – as if homosexuality is an inappropriate office topic as it is somehow linked more to the act of sex than being straight is. I think it is particularly hard to bring up sexuality with people you manage, for this reason.

My only other option is to somehow announce it, but if I was straight and single, I wouldn’t walk in and announce it, so this feels unnatural and contrary to my quite private nature (after all, wanting privacy is not the same as being ashamed of who you are). Another reason why I don’t want to make an announcement out of context is as I believe that homosexuality is just one part of me. To me, true equality in the workplace would just be being ourselves and judged on merit, with gender, ethnicity and sexuality as incidental rather than defining features. This isn’t to say that they aren’t important features or don’t contribute significantly to a person’s identity; just that we are about so much more than that, and shouldn’t be made to represent a whole group or labeled in a particular way. As it is, I am out to some of my colleagues, who I am friends with, and I will come out to others as and when conversations arise. In this way, I feel that I am being true to my sexuality, my personality and my context. But it is a constant tightrope to negotiate.

Happy Mothers Gay

Flicking through a newspaper left in a cafe yesterday, I came across a predictable opinion piece focusing on Mothers’ Day. What was less predictable about it was that it was aimed at women who aren’t mothers. It wasn’t a child-hating call to solidarity from a childless woman, neither a judgemental or pitying address from one mother to none. It was just acknowledging attitudes towards motherhood and non-motherhood. This made me think about how the word ‘mother’ categorises and stereotypes women in much the same way as the word ‘lesbian’. People derive from it assumptions about your role within relationships, your place in society, and your attitudes and values.

My own thoughts on motherhood can be loosely organised into three strands: 1) being a lesbian mum 2) being the mother of a gay child, and 3) being a lesbian who doesn’t want children, or isn’t sure. I should say at this point that I am speaking from opinion, not any kind of authority, on this!
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Some of the general mum stereotypes are that (on the positive side) you must be unselfish, caring and with your priorities right or (on the negative side) that you are constantly frazzled, can only talk baby and are uninterested in a career and unreliable as an employee. In addition to these, lesbian mums also have to contend with the constant coming out at nursery/school, and the equivalent of the idiotic question of ‘which one’s the man?’, being replaced with ‘which one’s the dad?’. They also face a greater level of intrusive, personal questions, which are somehow considered ok to ask a gay person but which you would never ask a straight person; such as ‘how did you get pregnant?’, and ‘how did you decide which one of you would have the baby?’, ‘Is [the other mum] ok with that/are you worried it will affect your relationship?’. When children of lesbian couples (or single parents) are older, there’s all the worry over homophobic bullying, not to mention the moral panic from fundamentalist Christians and right wingers about the ‘sanctity of the family’ and the presumed damage that a lack of father figure will do to a child. All of this ignoring straight single parent families, and despite the fact that a 2010 study following children of lesbian parents from birth to adolescence found that these children score similarly to children of heterosexual parents on measures of development and social behaviour. They even score higher in terms of self esteem and confidence.* This was regardless of whether the children had a single lesbian mum, or two.

Something that really is missing for lesbian families is more opportunity to socialise with others. There are some good Rainbow Families events in London, but (according to a lesbian friend with a child), these are often focused around high income brackets, and I doubt that such good networks exist outside of London and Brighton.

So what about being the parent of a gay child? This is something that we can all have a view on from being the child. As it’s relatively rare for a gay child to have gay parents, a friend of mine once commented that a lot of gay people don’t have ancestry for this part of themselves, which is partly why LGB history is so important. Yet, we do all have our own ancestry and it’s the family that bring us up that largely influence how we feel about our gay identity. We all know people with horror stories of parental rejection or disapproval over their sexuality, but it’s still interesting (and shocking) to me (and my parents) that parental homophobia overrides maternal and paternal instincts and also that it is so widely tolerated in society. For me, there is no condoning parents who forsake their children, but I have a lot of empathy with parents also being on a journey in getting their heads around their child being gay. Surprise, shock and worry are not the same as homophobia. Neither is wanting to examine the nature/nurture part of it. For people in their thirties and over, the parent generation was not brought up with gay assimilation and so it does take a shift for all of the facets of a gay identity to come into consciousness. For many parents, it isn’t that they think badly of having a gay child – they may just never have had to think before about what it means to live as a gay person, and challenging received or unconscious ideas about this takes time. When someone comes out, they have usually had a long time to process their sexual orientation intellectually and emotionally, whereas most parents won’t have, so it’s only to be expected that they may need some time to do this – but that doesn’t mean they don’t accept having a gay child or that they won’t come to embrace and celebrate it. So what I’m saying is that gay children should have some patience and empathy as their parents are also on the coming out journey. And they may also need to be educated about gay language, culture, rights etc, just as we had to educate ourselves – no one is born knowing this stuff just because they’re born gay.

Lastly, what about lesbians who don’t want children, or aren’t sure? This is an interesting one, as I’m not sure that lesbians who choose not to have children are actually judged as negatively by society as straight women who make this decision. If a straight woman doesn’t have a child, she risks being seen as obsessed with her career, selfish, or somehow unnatural if she doesn’t have biological or maternal instincts. Yet lesbians having children can also been seen as unnatural by some groups, so those who don’t have children are somehow seen to be ‘doing the right thing’. Another reason why lesbians might not be judged for not having children is that there is less expectation for them to – given the limits of some people’s imaginations about how this could be possible. Obviously this thinking is fundamentally flawed, and I think I’d rather be seen as selfish than unnatural, as at least the latter is a relative rather than fixed label. And yet, it’s the ‘selfish’ argument that actually bothers me most about being a childless woman, especially as it often comes from women who are mothers. I am neither career obsessed, nor (I hope) completely selfish. I give plenty of my time and emotional energy to my family and friends, and their children. I also like children and certainly have maternal instincts. I just don’t really have the biological instinct to have my own child, at least not now (which is probably just as well in terms of finances and relationship status). So this means adoption might be the best route in future, but this is one that is made harder for straight and gay parents due to the amount of social services hoops that (perhaps rightly when dealing with vulnerable children) have to be jumped through. Not to mention the homophobia that exists within some services, such as religious adoption agencies.

My obvious conclusion in discussing all of these strands is that we need to accept and celebrate diversity in attitudes towards motherhood, just as much as we do with female and lesbian identity. It takes all sorts, and all that!

I should add, at this point, that I am very fortunate to have a mum who is my unconditional champion in all areas, including gay rights, and friends who are amazing mothers, who neither conform nor subscribe to any of the stereotypes mentioned here. And I will celebrate all of them today. #HappyMothersDay

*TIME article on the lesbian parents study http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1994480,00.html

Why it takes many voices to sing a rainbow

My subject for this post (hopefully more a discussion than a rant) is competition between people who claim, or aim, to represent whole communities. I’m talking specifically about competition amongst bloggers or social groups to be the definitive ‘voice’ of their demographic. Like if I claimed to represent all femmes and set myself up in competition with every other blogger writing about femme life or issues. I’m not doing this, because: a) I really wouldn’t want that responsibility or pressure b) I’d have to significantly up my game to try and represent a group that is in itself so diverse, and due to this c) it would seem downright ridiculous, not to mention arrogant, of me to try.

The reason I take issue with this kind of competition where I’ve seen it exist within LGB social events and media is because working against each other and polarising is not practising what we preach, or embracing what we perpetually fight for: equality and diversity. The paradox of unity and ‘standing as one’ is that we risk losing the diversity within. Which is why we call ourselves a community – a collective of many individuals, which should celebrate many voices. It’s many voices that have power – it takes many voices to stand up for injustice, for example. Working together, yes, but as individuals rather than a homogeny, which is what we’ve fought against being seen as.

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When LGB competition rears it’s head, it’s like staking claim to part of the rainbow in a political or ideological coup. In the name of equality we wrestle this part as ‘our’ own, but then replicate stereotypical patterns in trying to have one, or few voices. It all seems a bit Animal Farm.

No one has put journalists, bloggers, or event organisers in a position of power or glory. We’ve just chosen to find a public outlet for our musings, interests or motivations. I’m not denying that a bit of ego comes into play. We all have one and all want to be heard in some way, whether publicly or privately; by word, action or indirectly. But this isn’t just about art, it’s about life, and I believe our own voices are heard and responded to better in discussion than monologue. Of course competition can be good when it increases choice and quality, but even with LGB businesses (events, venues, dating sites, services etc), partnership, cross promotion or just mutual support is mutually beneficial, as the target market is relatively small and interlinked. So I think we can afford to be a bit more generous with our words and our promotion. To be fair, there are a lot of bloggers and organisers who are, and in my own experience, I’ve gained so much for being entertained or made to think by them than I would’ve done just spouting out my own thoughts. In being mutually supportive, I do feel like I’m in an online community with diverse voices.

Icons obviously hold great power and influence but it’s the people we can relate to that can have the most impact. We can’t all be a Harvey Milk or an Ellen Degeneres, changing the landscape, or a Claire Balding or Gareth Thomas, influencing public opinion and culture through who we are. But the power that all of us have is to engage with others. Through being open about who we are and coming together as diverse voices, we can normalise being gay (any way) and (hopefully) make it that bit easier for the one or many people looking to find their own voice.

With a little help from our friends: speed dating, lobster style

Skinny jeans. Lips. Snoring. Writing. No, this isn’t a very British mash-up of The L Word opening theme. These were some of the words I clocked stuck to femmes in She Bar, Soho on Friday night. Just one of the many twists involved in Pink Lobster Dating’s ‘Fancy a Femme’ speed dating event.

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My feelings about attending a speed dating event were predictably mixed. Alongside a ‘nothing to lose/it’s just a laugh’ attitude, came ‘would I really prefer to be a cliche on Valentine’s Day than stay in with a Mike Leigh film, box of Creme Eggs and my best friend? What if I look desperate? What if everyone is younger than me and I look like a desperate cougar? What do I say to a stranger in less than three minutes? What if I seem weird? What if they’re weird? Argh!

The best thing about speed dating, of course, is that if they are weird, or it’s all horrendously awkward, you’ve only invested minutes of your life into the meeting, as opposed to spending an entire Friday night on a blind date with someone unsuitable and not even the ‘work in the morning’ excuse to bail early (I won’t make that mistake again). Another good thing about it is obviously meeting lots of people in one evening/ place, where it’s acceptable to work the room without reputational risk (cost effective too!).

The worst thing about it, from the only previous time I’ve been speed dating (well, actually I also went to a wine tasting one but don’t count that as it ended in chaos with everyone too drunk to circulate/ speak), is that no one really knows how to start the conversations. The pressure to say something insightful about yourself, ask questions that will give you some insight into the other person, and to express some kind of wit or charm whilst doing so is immense. As a result, people often go to one of two extremes: asking really factual questions (‘so, what job do you do?’) or going all maverick and asking ‘out there’ questions (‘would you rather be a frisbee or a space hopper?’)*. The first risks being boring; the second coming across as a bit affected. Neither are likely to give you the essence of the other person. Some people are so emboldened by the brief encounter that they go in for the kill with really direct (potentially scary) flirting, whilst some are so nervous they barely manage to say their name before the whistle blows. It seems the hardest thing is to be ourselves – not really surprising in an environment that’s pretty unnatural.

But here’s the ‘However’… The Pink Lobster event was different, and challenged my ideas about speed dating. This had much to do with the hosts, Pink Lobster Directors Juliette Prais and Emma Ziff. Obviously any event is only as good as the people there, but even if the attendees had been a bad lot (they weren’t, but more on this later), these two would still have ensured it was a good event. This is all about the vibe that they created – warm, classy, fun and laid back. As soon as I walked in, I was welcomed, given a free glass of pink prosecco and a goody bag (very nice freebies in there too) and adorned with a sticker with the answer to a random question I was asked written on, all in the name of ice breaking – which worked! Whilst waiting for the actual speed dating to begin, the women there started chatting without awkwardness. The atmosphere was one of meeting friends of a friend, rather than being treated as ‘clients’ whose dating needs were being catered for in an impersonal way. No one was made to feel at all pathetic for being at a speed dating event on Valentine’s Day, just like femmes who wanted to have fun. The people I spoke to weren’t depressed, desperate women who would be crying into their cat if they weren’t there. They were women who thought ‘why not?’, especially as invisibility often makes it hard to meet other femmes. Despite it being February 14th, a lot of people just seemed to want to suss out the femme scene, meet some likeminded people and be open to the possibility of something more.

Sex and Relationship Expert Emma’s introduction to the event was refreshingly honest and sound advice about not feeling pressured to do or say anything that didn’t match our gut instincts; acknowledging that we’re all there for a reason. It was just the sort of reassurance that you need from a friend before going on a date and was a great leveller. So much more helpful in that situation than the two-dimensional flirting advice that a lot of dating companies give! Next came the big twist – we weren’t actually going to meet people with a view to impressing them about ourselves. Instead, we were to ‘buddy’ with another person, getting to know them for the first ten minutes, and then rotate to meet all of other women there, with a view to finding a match for our buddy. Therefore, we were still talking about ourselves but ‘assessing’ for the buddy. It took a while for us all to understand the rules (maybe we were over-analysing!) but once we did, it worked really well. It was a clever way to not only feel less self conscious (therefore actually being more ourselves) but also to ask more insightful questions, based on trying to match other people. At the end, we wrote down the top three women for our buddy and for ourselves and handed in the results. Pink Lobster will now email through individual matches and also the buddy recommendations.

Obviously, this method could pose a problem if you had a buddy who you didn’t feel ‘got’ you (luckily I was buddied with a lovely lady who did – as much as you can in ten minutes!), but it wouldn’t really matter, as you’re still meeting all of the other women yourself and selecting your own matches too. Plus the after party provides an opportunity to talk to people in more depth.

I think having a wing woman is reassuring, and opens up greater possibilities to consider people you might have discounted but who your buddy thought would be a good match. Ultimately, there will always be the chance of ‘on paper’ matches not correlating to having the right chemistry, but Pink Lobster speed dating allows opportunities to explore both. And for those of us who are more slow burn than speed, it also offers the opportunity to make more femme friends and see where things could lead. As a good friend of mine always says, ‘if it’s not that person, it could be their best friend’. Which could be awkward, but true!

Pink Lobster Dating’s next speed dating event is in March. For more info, go to http://www.pinklobsterdating.com

*Example for illustrative purposes only. I have never been asked this question and have no idea what my preference would be.

New voices, different expectations

imageSo it’s a new year with new resolutions. Last year, I wrote about how we can’t ‘resolve’ to change things outside of our control – we can only hope to work towards these, so in a way, it’s more about new year hopes and efforts. But this year, I’ve been sent a guest blog post which has made me think about how far other people’s expectations, and our own expectations of ourselves, form the basis of unhealthy, unattainable resolutions – to look or act a certain way that doesn’t come naturally, or to impose arbitrary deadlines on life events that need to unfold in their own time. So I propose we just resolve to just be who we are, and to fight against any expectations to be otherwise. And now I give you the guest article by Lisa Blake, who discusses social expectation and why being visible as ourselves is so important… Thank you Lisa!

The Pressure of Social Expectation by Lisa Blake

Flicking through the pages of a book in a wonderful little bookshop I discovered in London a few weeks ago, I read a fascinating article which struck a chord inside me.

The bookshop – @gaystheword and the book ‘Homophobic Bullying’ by Ian Rivers featured a 30-something man reflecting on his formative years. The man featured inspired me to reflect more deeply than before with a growing self-awareness and realisation of the importance of visibility.

Similarly to the reflective man in the article, I too as a young teenager in the 1990s began to feel increasingly withdrawn, awkward and insecure. Easily dismissed as ‘typical teenager’ or ‘coming of age dramatics’ I hear you say, but I have (slowly, rather painfully!) come to realise that it was more than that.

I was that shy, scared person, perhaps not entirely but largely because I was a lesbian. ‘So what?’ I now scream at myself but in a world – my world – of white, middle class conservatism that influenced not just the environment around me but my own ideas about myself, I found it an excruciatingly difficult place to be. I don’t want to lament too much on this because I realise my struggle doesn’t come close to that of others. I grew up as a marginalised gay female but being white, middle class, living in a (relatively democratic and open) Britain, my life was somewhat privileged in comparison to so many others around the UK and wider world.

We are told/taught/instructed, as children from birth through influences all around us, as to just what our pathway through life will be. Little girls are groomed to expect that when they grow up they will meet boys, go on dates, get married and have a husband, buy a house and have children…oh and live happily ever after of course. As a child, this was never questioned. An alternative narrative was never offered or even seemingly available. It was never said that when you grow up you will meet someone (a boy or girl, man or woman) that you may fall in love with and you may be able to choose whether or not to get married and have children. It was and still is this absence of representation and the subtle and discreet indoctrination of heterosexuality, perhaps innocently but ignorantly, that blights so many young minds with repercussions that can last lifetimes that makes ‘visibility’ SO important.

Let’s not make our young minds ignorant. Let us lose the pre-determined social construction of heterosexuality and allow our young minds to grow and live freely and without the burden of heterosexual expectation.

Be gay….be any way…it’s ok! Walk tall and be visible!

Lisa Blake – on a journey through life and awareness. Come and join me currently on Twitter @lisamblake247 and/or with my partner @Kerry3Lisa