Growing up as a queer, masc woman in a small town wasn’t plain sailing – but it wasn’t all bad

Heff VanSaint, a white masc presenting woman with short brown hair

Growing up queer in a provincial city like Aberdeen can feel like a confusing road to navigate, writes musician Heff VanSaint.

When you grow up in a small place, representation tends to be few and far between and where it is identifiable it tends to present itself in only one form.

For me, the lesbians that I knew growing up were always of a certain type. They wore a certain style of clothing and listened to mainstream music, both of which as a teenager didn’t interest me.

I didn’t listen to P!NK or take an interest in women’s football at that time. I felt more androgynous and gender non-conforming and this was what I wanted to lean into, but because I was surrounded by queer people who didn’t have that relationship with their queerness, I didn’t feel like I was able to express those parts of myself.

Heff sits against a railing wearing a blue shirt and chinos
Heff VanSaint. (Soy Prabhawat)

As we know, queerness isn’t a monolithic identity, but at times growing up it was definitely presented to me as such. It led to me feeling as though in order to find queer community, I had to dress and act in a certain way.

It can be stifling, feeling as though you can’t truly express all aspects of who you are and marry together the different threads of your personality to be a whole and authentic being.

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For a musician, it can feel even harder. I wanted to flesh out my queer identity and present that fully on stage. It was important for me to translate my queerness through my music and be confident in who I was in order for that to filter down into the story-telling aspect of my songwriting.

I think this is one of the reasons queer people are always drawn to bigger cities and the bigger pool of LGBTQ+ people that exist there. I think this is often the issue: in small towns with smaller populations of queer people you are less likely to find the version of queerness that works for you and therefore feel free to explore that identity.

Small towns aren’t necessarily ‘backwards’

Although I struggled to find the space to be the version of queerness that fits who I am, I never experienced homophobia in Aberdeen growing up.

That’s not to say it isn’t something that happens, but the straight people I knew from school and from working in bars never made me feel like I didn’t belong. The first time I experienced that aggressive, rampant insult-hurling homophobia was at a house party in Battersea after I’d moved to London in my 20s.

That might shock some people but when we look at the recent statistics, London consistently ranks higher for the number of hate crimes perpetrated against LGBTQ+ people than the likes of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

So often, smaller towns and cities get portrayed as these backwards regressive places, which I think fits a certain narrative, but in reality it’s often the most unlikely communities that can be accepting.

The digital age has brought about increased connectivity and more and more people have insight into those different from themselves and are able to put a face to communities that were once pushed underground.

This Pride Month, I released my debut EP, Odes of Hope for Sad Bois, which examines what it means to be a masculine-presenting female in these current times. Each song examines different everyday, contemporary themes such as the cost of living crisis, situationships, the poverty cosplay of trust fund babies and plain old, regular heartache.

But what the songs have in common is that each of them is written from my own personal perspective and therefore filtered through a queer lens.

In recent years I’ve felt emboldened to explore gender identity and how being masculine-of-center gives me a unique vantage point. I don’t think there are many artists out there writing honestly about their experiences of everyday life from a queer standpoint.

I think representation matters for all of us and it’s empowering to see yourself depicted in pop culture, and if someone feels seen when they listen to my music, then I would feel like I have made a positive impact.