It is great being a lesbian. Without getting into the thorny debate about whether or not sexuality is innate, I consider being a lesbian a great gift and a privilege. Yes, same-sex attracted females do have to learn to live with the bigotry, social exclusion and risk of violence that are everyday facts of life. But, having been out since 1977, when I was just 15 years old, I could not be happier with my lot.
For many women though, both in the UK and elsewhere, things are very different. Whether in Uganda, where same-sex encounters are a criminal offence, in Iran, where some lesbians have been threatened with state execution, or within the religious enclaves that exist in a number of US states and in which lesbian conversion therapy is widespread, being a lesbian can mean a hard, lonely life. I am keenly aware that 45 years after coming out, and despite decades of campaigning for lesbian rights, much remains to be done before lesbians can feel truly liberated. Which is why, with Kathleen Stock and Martina Navratilova, I have set up the Lesbian Project. The idea has been brewing for a number of years — ever since I began to realise that the word “lesbian” was yet again becoming a dirty one, as many gay men and trans activists accused us of bigotry for seeking out our own spaces and setting boundaries.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
We want to explore why our needs and issues have been so thoroughly deprioritised that we are ignored, presumed indivisible from gay men and heterosexual “queer”-identified kinksters, and even — according to other “letters” of the ever-growing alphabet – the baddies?
The rot started to set in when the Gay Liberation Front split. Lesbians, despite having taken the lead in many ways, soon found that their own concerns were coming second to those of men. Sick of being marginalised and asked to make the tea, after three years the majority of the women walked out and began organising independently. These lesbians had become the stuff of legend by the end of the Seventies. And their struggle for liberation was indivisible from that of women everywhere: one of the seven demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement was “The Right to a Self-Defined Sexuality. An End to Discrimination Against Lesbians”.
I was at the first autonomous public lesbian event — the Lesbian Strength March — in London, in 1981, and the exhilaration that my 19-year-old self felt is hard to describe. Back then we understood that the one thing we did have in common with our gay brothers was discrimination on the basis of our same-sex attraction. We also recognised that one common anti-gay trope, namely the suggestion that gay men were not to be trusted around children, was also said of lesbians. But we were also well aware that a number of gay male campaigns, such as those targeting the legal penalties against cottaging and cruising, did not concern us.
Our issues included resisting what the lesbian writer Adrienne Rich called compulsory heterosexuality. Many of us were feeling coerced into marriage with men. I know I was. As a working-class girl hitting my teens in the mid-Seventies, my life had already been mapped out. I was supposed to marry and have kids with one of the men on my estate, and stay with him regardless of how unhappy or unfulfilled it made me.
At that time, and indeed well into the Eighties, it was commonplace to hear of lesbians who, having split with their husbands, then lost custody of their children through the family courts because they were lesbians. At one stage, up to 80% of the women dragged through the courts by disgruntled ex-husbands lost their children this way. It was clear that the issues affecting lesbians were worlds apart from those affecting gay men.
Coming out as a teenager was not my choice. Every girl at my school was deemed either a lezzer or a slag. And because I had rejected the boys in my class, and was clearly more interested in my female friends, by the bullies’ logic I must be a lezzer, so they stared to call me it. For once, they happened to be right. I was bullied and threatened, until my older brother stepped in. But being a teenaged lesbian was also a joy: going to nightclubs with the gay boys and observing the older butch/femme couples was fascinating.
The Lesbian Project is seeking an amicable divorce from our gay brothers. Being lumped in with men is neither appropriate nor useful when it comes to our priorities, and we can no longer pretend that it is. We have only once been targeted by the same legislation — Section 28 — and as women we need to ask ourselves whether we are being afforded the same attention as our male counterparts.
Not that all the issues affecting lesbians are the same. We are not a hegemonic group. If I were cast away on a desert island, with 50 indiscriminately chosen lesbians, we would fight like cat and dog and agree on next to nothing. But we would still share something precious and fundamental: our resistance to the path set out for us by whichever community and nation we were raised in.
There are other things we share. We are all gender nonconforming (despite the fact that prior to queer theory and trans ideology we didn’t ever use that term). We have defied sex stereotypes, and all of us have been major disappointments to those hoping we would grow up looking to marry a handsome, successful man and produce a brace of children. We were supposed to behave differently, even if raised within liberal or socially progressive families. We weren’t supposed to wear scruffy dungarees and play pool in backstreet bars.
Many lesbians will disagree with, even actively dislike, my views on certain issues. Some lesbians won’t be feminist. Others might prefer the term “queer” or “gay” — terms I won’t use to describe myself. But like it or not, we are a tribe. Our enemies are not discerning. We are bound together by our refusal to play by the rules. Every out lesbian has defied sex stereotypes and taken a huge risk in being public. Heterosexuality is not just the norm — it is also the method by which patriarchy flourishes. Whether or not we are conscious of it, lesbians are both a threat and a direct challenge to men’s superiority over women.
Today, I live a privileged, middle-class life, with a media career and a supportive family and friendship circle. Although I am relatively safe from bigotry and violence, I still feel that knot in my stomach when asked by a stranger, “What does your husband do?” Then there are the times I hear direct anti-lesbian sentiments expressed by colleagues, neighbours and others, and I can’t keep quiet. If we can come together to fight the oppression that affects us all, our differences will matter less than they otherwise might. A few weeks ago I was walking my dog in the park when a man, resplendent in tattoos, biker jacket and shaven head, approached me. For a split second, I wondered if he was friend or foe. But as we stood face-to-face, he broke into a big smile, and told me he recognised me “off the telly” and that “my mum loves you! She’s a lesbian too.” I was walking on air for the rest of the day.
Everyone involved in this project has their own history and perspective on what it means to be a lesbian. Joanna Cherry, one of the Scottish National Party’s most high-profile MPs, has been treated appallingly within her own party over her views on single-sex spaces (not just for lesbians but also for women facing domestic and sexual abuse). And Lucy Masoud, a former firefighter turned barrister, has spoken out about biological men identifying as lesbians on online dating apps, for which she was labelled a “bigot” and a “transphobe”.
These women join a long list of those who are fighting back against the new bigotry that has rebranded lesbians as irrelevant or not deserving of attention. Our enemies are the same as when I came out decades ago: misogynists. Above all, men who hate the fact that we reject them sexually and get on just fine without them. Some of our enemies are, unfortunately, young women, although we would never condemn or reject them. Having spoken to dozens of them, I fear these women are motivated by a desire to stay on the right side of the men in the LGBTQ+ rainbow, so they put their own needs aside in order to be accepted. One day they may come to us older lesbians for advice and support. We are here for them if they do.
The Lesbian Project will put us back on the map. Lesbians who are able to be out and proud share bravery, tenacity — and enemies. Whatever our differences, we all want things to be better for future generations of girls. Being a lesbian is to refuse to bow to convention. It is an act of resistance and resilience. And I for one am proud to use that label.