On my very first date with Harriet, with whom I still live, I rocked up with two black eyes and a broken nose. I had been punched in the face by a man who had clocked me as a lesbian. I suppose my T Shirt with the slogan, “Lesbian Nation” may have given him a clue.
It was 1987, and the entire gay community was under siege. The AIDS epidemic had incited the worst bigotry we had ever experienced, and a pernicious piece of legislation known as Section 28 was being concocted by Thatcher’s government.
I’ve been reminded of that atmosphere of hatred recently. It feels like we lesbians are being treated to that same sort of shit all over again — in many ways more vicious than before. But this time the attacks are coming from those who we thought were once allies.
I became a campaigner for lesbian and gay rights at the same time I got involved in active feminism, in 1979, but I quickly became disillusioned. Women who had come before me clearly felt the same. In 1973, the majority of lesbians involved in the Gay Liberation Front in the UK decided to leave the male-dominated movement en masse, sick of the sexism they were experiencing.
Four years later, in 1977, the year that I was outed by school bullies as a lesbian, the newly elected Labour MP Maureen Colquhoun came out as “gay and proud of it”. But, despite both the gay rights and Women’s Liberation Movements being in full force at the time, Colquhoun’s constituency soon showed its disapproval. The party refused to support her and there were calls for her deselection. The local party chairman, Norman Ashby, said: “She was elected as a working wife and mother … This business has blackened her image irredeemably.”
It is interesting to record that the next member of Parliament who came out as gay was Chris Smith in 1984. Far from being vilified like Colquhoun, Smith received a standing ovation for his announcement and was wrongly credited with being a “pioneer” of gay rights in Westminster.
My first foray into lesbian culture was in the working-class bars of Newcastle, in the north-east of England. I was terrified of being kidnapped by predatory butch lesbians. Kids at school had labelled me a freak and a pervert, and said that I must really be a boy, and these slurs had stuck. I had not yet met the feminists who would disabuse me of these myths.
In those days, lesbians were divided between feminist lesbians and “bar dykes”, meaning traditional lesbians who organised into butch and femme identities and socialised mainly in the dingy bars and clubs, away from “normal” people.
There was a distinct class divide. The bar dykes were mainly working-class, and veterans of lesbian culture. Many had previously been in the Armed Forces, often as a way to avoid men, marriage and children. On the other hand, the feminist lesbians were very political about their sexuality. Understanding heterosexuality to be bad for women under patriarchy, we saw our attraction to other women as liberating and positive. We were comrades in arms as well as lovers.
I soon chose my tribe, but it was not without angst. I was solidly working-class and well out of my comfort zone having dinners with the feminists. I was having to endure stodgy baked potatoes with vegan spread and chewy aubergines — a vegetable I had never previously heard of. Asking for salt or ketchup would have been as appalling as whipping out the latest copy of Playboy.
But these lesbians were beyond inspirational. They taught me to feel pride in myself, and to feel anger about male violence and dominance over women. They rejected sex stereotypes and were critical of butch and femme role-play while offering support and friendship to women embedded in that culture. I came to learn that rejecting heterosexuality was a dangerous but exhilarating thing for feminists to do.
By the early Eighties, most feminist lesbians who I hung around with were practising non-monogamy (what the kids call “polyamory” today). We rejected the exclusive couple relationship, and put friendship on the same scale as romantic and sexual relationships. These were revolutionary times and, when women at Greenham Common began speaking out in the press about how many of them were lesbians, the issue became more high profile. During the miners’ strike, many of the women who had become politicised as a response to Thatcher’s government, finally admitted how unhappy they were living with men. So, they packed a rucksack and joined the women at Greenham. This was a landmark moment because these women clearly saw lesbianism as an opportunity to be liberated from drudgery and inferiority to men.
By the late Eighties, with the AIDS epidemic in full swing, and gay men being vilified by most of the mainstream press and the Thatcher government, many lesbians joined forces with the boys, offering support and solidarity. Then came Section 28 and our reunion was fully cemented.
However, with Section 28, most gay men were defending an essentially gay identity, the “we were born this way” attitude. While many lesbians were doing the direct opposite, chatting about how proud we were to be lesbians, inviting other women to join us, wearing T-shirts proclaiming “We recruit”. The difference was that we recognised that lesbianism could easily appeal to women if they were not closed off to the idea.
During that time, which was unsurprising when you recall that many lesbians had adopted gay male culture by campaigning so closely alongside them, the UK saw the emergence of a pro-pornography and pro-sadomasochistic lesbian culture, which had long been part of the gay male clubbing and sex scene.
A sex toy business aimed at lesbians, called Thrilling Bits, marketed vibrators named after anti-porn feminists and, equally shockingly, a black dildo named ‘the Whitney’. Intersectional feminism had not yet reached the lesbian sex toy market. Other lesbians tried to join the party by wearing leather and chains, producing and consuming pornography, practising extreme body modification, donning drag and adopting the gender-neutral “queer” label. Lesbian culture was becoming so much more male, and the commercialisation of sexuality as seen in gay clubs began to be emulated in some lesbian joints. For example, the Candy Bar in Soho had an evening every week at which a female stripper performed for women.
The misogyny of trans activists
At the same time, it was becoming fashionable to be a lesbian — or at least to pay lipservice to the idea. But only if you were young, conventionally attractive and, ideally, famous. The August 1993 edition of Vanity Fair kickstarted the trend, with its front cover featuring singer k.d. lang dressed in a man’s suit and enjoying a barber-shop shave by supermodel Cindy Crawford, who was wearing a high-cut swimming costume and heels. The shift into lesbian chic happened in part because of the heavy duty sexualisation of lesbian leisure, which filtered through into the mainstream.
But for some of us, it was not very chic or cool to be beaten up, lose our jobs, or to have our children removed by the family courts, literally because we were lesbians.
And so, in 1994, the Lesbian Avengers was founded. In its mission statement it described itself as a “non-violent direct-action group committed to raising lesbian visibility and fighting for our survival and our lives”. Refreshingly, the Avengers were critical of mainstream gay male culture, including the normalisation of prostitution and pornography. And it would also “combat lesbian chic”, otherwise known as “lipstick lesbianism”.
The Avengers was set up to assert the rights of lesbians to challenge the gay male domination of the entire so-called queer movement. Lesbian culture was disappearing, and, by the late Nineties had become “lesbianandgay” with a focus on hedonism rather than politics.
Things changed dramatically when lesbianism became more entangled in gay male culture, with a focus on clubbing, consumerism, social acceptance and sameness. The focus shifted from demanding our rights and liberation as proud lesbians, to asking for tolerance. Lesbians now wanted the same as heterosexuals, so the campaigns focused more on equal marriage and coupledom than direct action. Suddenly, the turkey baster, an instrument used since the Seventies by lesbians wishing to have children without the involvement of men, was swapped for a trip to the IVF clinic and, often, the sperm donor becoming a hands-on father.
As lesbians bought matching wedding outfits and began to emulate traditional heterosexual family life, the political focus of lesbians as front-line warriors against patriarchal heterosexuality waned. We crossed from the picket line to the picket fence.
Those women who had begun as a marginal and marginalised subgroup of sexual outlaws, paving the way for other feminists to resist compulsory heterosexuality and male dominance, were morphing into a tame, apolitical version of our foremothers. Movements do evolve, and battles are fought and won, but in my view, Stonewall in particular defanged the movement by making it all about attaining respectability, such as seeking the right to marry. But now, something is brewing in Lesbian Land. Under attack, we are rising again.
The uncompromising and in-your-face butch lesbians I met in the Seventies are back. Lesbians have been ignored and our rights ridden roughshod over by certain gay men who demand we adopt the new Queer alphabet, and capitulate to trans ideology. We are told we are transphobic bigots if we refuse to accept that some lesbians have a penis and, worse, we don’t want to have sex with them. Meanwhile, our ‘L’, the letter we fought so hard for, has been subsumed in a word salad of ever growing proportion, currently standing at LGBTQQIA2S+.
Many of the young lesbians I interviewed for my recent book on feminism told me they are often told by men whose advances they spurn that they are “unfuckable”, despite having previously made their intentions plain. It takes me back to a few years ago when, having enjoyed a couple of drinks with the crime writer and lesbian Val McDermid, we decided to form a rock band called “2 Ugly 2 Rape”, so often had we both heard that phrase from disgruntled men.
Lesbians are cool and edgy, not because we pose in swimsuits and lipstick (although whatever floats your boat, girls), but because we understand the revolutionary power of defining our own sexuality. And, as a result of the misogynistic backlash against us in recent years, we are once again becoming a force to be reckoned with. The next generation of lesbians will doubtless be the warriors we felt we were back in the day.
I’m not about to give up the fight. Though it is a shame we have to keep up the struggle. But for the next generation of lesbians, I hope they follow the words of the great Audre Lord: “The true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women.”