“I overheard her talking about being gay and I felt my atoms split and rearrange.”
Jemma Hendricks, a 22-year-old actor currently residing between Melbourne and Los Angeles, is explaining the moment she met her now-girlfriend, Monique. They met while they were touring on a show together in the Middle East, where same-sex relations are bound by strict conservatism.
“That was interesting to say the least,” she reflects, “but we went on a desert safari toward the end of our tour. As we sat on sand dunes underneath millions of stars, in the middle of nowhere, we took the time to discuss what we saw for us in the future. I think the desert was full of romantic magic and we just got blessed with it.”
This sense of ease has not always been the case for Jemma. She started to think about her attraction to girls, as well as guys, when she had her first serious boyfriend at 16. She’d brush it off as physical fantasy; a mere fleeting curiosity. She thought it would be too hard. “I think the complete lack of lesbian role models and media coverage while I was growing up, especially concerning non-stereotyped lesbians, holds a large part of the blame for this,” she reflects. “All it took for me, though, was meeting the right one.”
Enter Monique, and their show together in the Middle East. Then freshly 21, Jemma quickly came to discover a previously unexpressed part of her sexuality. “Knowing I had her there to support me, no matter what anyone else said, meant everything,” says Jemma.
Her subsequent coming out, with Monique by her side, was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Her parents were loving, albeit fairly surprised, and her sister told her that everyone should be able to love who they love, and that there was nothing weird about that.
“One of my Nans said, ‘I love you whether you’re gay or straight, black or blue, but you can’t just date one girl and decide you’re a lesbian. You know there are even some people who are bisexual and like both.’ I nearly died,” she recalls.
With this acceptance, though, came some trials. Jemma speaks frankly about the continual struggles her and Monique face in terms of having to prove their relationship in social situations. “Misogyny is part of a girl’s everyday life,” she says. “It’s horrifying, but it is true. I didn’t realise how conditioned I was to accepting it until I left high school.”
In the 18 months they’ve been together, nearly every night out has resulted in men trying to hit on them. These men often think Jemma and Monique are lying about their relationship in a bid to let them down easy. This, according to Jemma, almost always ends in cat calling or verbal abuse, especially if they spot any indicators of their relationship.
“Thanks to porn, men are faced with what they perceive as an ultimate fantasy for them,” she says.
This misogyny doesn’t stop inside bars and clubs; they’ll often not admit to their relationship because they perceive that it would be unsafe to do so. “We have been yelled at in the street numerous times, “ she adds. “We have been approached and threatened, and a handful of times we have been physically grabbed when attempting to walk away.” It is a firm reminder that it is often female same-sex partners who face a continual struggle to legitimate their relationships amidst a misogynistic setting.
In terms of her acting career, Jemma says that she was initially worried about the impact her personal life would have on her opportunities, especially when brought into public politics. At the end of the day, she explains, one’s success often relates to their marketability within a certain fan base. If the majority of an individual’s fan base is made up of people who are attracted to them, in a setting where a wider audience leads to greater profit, it’s often common protocol to keep marginalised relationships quiet. Thus, a stigmatism for sexual minorities remains embedded into the acting industry, especially when considering female actors and certain networks and shows.
“There has been an enormous shift in this over the past few years,” she notes, “but I know for a fact that I’ve been labelled as ‘the lesbian’ by behind-the-scenes executives relating to casting decisions. However, when we’re talking about getting a name in lights or the suicide rate for LGBT+ teens, our community will always take precedence.”
With last year’s plebiscite debate and the contestation of the Safe Schools program, Jemma and Monique knew there needed to be as much support, and content out there, for the LBGTQIA+ community as possible. Recognising the need for further advocacy, they recently started their own YouTube channel together, and have already been inundated with messages from young girls and boys asking for advice. “Monique and I both know how confusing teen years can be for any kid,” she says, “let alone those questioning their sexuality at the same time, so we will always be here to fight for them in any way, publicly or privately.”
When asked what advice she would give to a young girl struggling to come to terms with her sexual identity, Jemma says that “at the end of the day, the only person who can explain or feel your experience is you”.
She continues: “If you recognise that you’re ‘not straight’, don’t feel the need to label it anything beyond that. Advice is great, but don’t let anyone tell you what you are.”
“I know that you may feel very lonely and confused,” she concludes, “but there are so many people who are ready to love you when you are ready to embrace your own fabulous self. While it may be hard to know that you might not have the same relationship with certain people, it won’t compare to how amazing it feels not having to hide anymore.”
Although she won’t let anyone tell her who she is, one thing is clear: Jemma’s a leader, championing for women’s LGBTQIA+ rights and bravely transcending the norms that have consistently sought to label and confine her.
She is a role model; name-in-lights and all.
Louis Hanson has also written for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Australia Times, Archer and Acclaim magazine, is a student at the University of Melbourne, and an LGBTQIA+ youth advocate. Website: louishanson.com & Instagram: @louishanson. Jemma’s Instagram: @jemhendricks & her YouTube channel with Monique: @samesamebutdiff