Radical feminist campaigner and author Sheila Jeffreys has been at the forefront of lesbian rights and the women’s liberation movement since the 1970s. Last autumn she published her autobiography Trigger Warning, a fascinating account of lesbian and feminist history in the UK over the last 50 years. David Bridle spoke to her about the autobiography, the new rise of lesbian activism and why transgender policies which damage lesbians’ and gay men’s lives must be challenged.
Why did you write Trigger Warning?
I wrote Trigger Warning because I felt I needed to do an autobiography. And that’s because there is extremely little on record about lesbian feminism in the 70s and 80s or about the history of radical feminist activism generally, certainly not from Britain and Australia. I was very aware that there’s a whole new generation of feminists and lesbian feminists coming on stream right now – which is very exciting – who don’t know anything at all about the women’s liberation movement. My book before this was called The Lesbian Revolution and that was actually a history of lesbian feminism in the UK in the 70s and 80s. That was a more academic one where I’d actually set out the record and used all the archives and interviews. This book was more about my personal history, how I fitted into it all. There really is little else, all of this history is just gone.
Was it hard for you to go back to that period?
Doing both books was emotionally quite tricky because there’s nothing now. We are in such an anti-feminist moment. There’s this most extraordinary anti-feminist dystopia developing where women are not even allowed to call themselves women, where nothing of what we had exists anymore. In the 70s and 80s the lesbian feminists were the very beating heart of the women’s liberation movement and the crucial politics of that time which was fighting violence against women in all of its forms, fighting against pornography, fighting for an egalitarian sexuality against sadomasochism, for what we called the eroticising of women’s equality; not as in sadomasochism, eroticising the inequality of male domination. So lesbians and lesbian feminists were absolutely at the heart of all of that.
The most important thing we were doing is discovering our history. We set up the London Lesbian History Group and we did the first book on lesbian history in 1989 called Not a Passing Phase. We couldn’t construct ourselves as lesbians unless we had some kind of history.
Can you tell us about the lesbian culture at the time?
I think people really don’t know this, we created the most extraordinary culture. Gay men were creating their own culture as well at the time. We had groups for lesbians against pornography, lesbians against sadomasochism, we were crucial setting up all the refuges. The most important thing we were doing is discovering our history. We set up the London Lesbian History Group and we did the first book on lesbian history in 1989 called Not a Passing Phase. We couldn’t construct ourselves as lesbians unless we had some kind of history. I was involved in the London Lesbian Archive and we had all kinds of talks. So we were creating a basis within lesbian feminism for our history of literature as well as our history of involvement in politics. At that time, particularly in the early 80s, there were lesbian groups for poets, for literature, there were poetry readings, there were lesbian groups for absolutely everything that you can imagine.
Sheila on the steps of the student union building at Manchester University in 1967
Can you say more about this?
We were determined at that time that there was a ‘lesbian perspective’. There was a completely different lesbian way of looking at the world which saw heterosexuality as a political construction, which looked at the world from women’s eyes in understanding male supremacy. Lesbians were in everything trying to put this point of view forward. We had Jewish lesbian groups, black lesbian groups, working class lesbian groups, lesbians in trades unions. Whereas now it’s almost impossible to use the word lesbian. Not ‘gay’, gay men can remain gay men but lesbians have been pretty much disappeared. They’re all calling themselves non-binary or queer. It’s as if the word lesbian is itself a little bit rude these days.
Why is it so different now for lesbian activism?
What happened is that at the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s there was a big change politically towards a right-wing politics – Thatcherism of course – and there was a kind of defeat of the Left as well as feminism. Also gay men developed their own very hostile to feminism movement. The development of queer politics in the early 1990s was very supportive of all of those things that feminists had been campaigning against: sadomasochism, pornography, prostitution and so on. In the 1980s lesbian feminists, like myself, were in this massive struggle to transform sexuality. We considered it to be crucial then and I consider it to be absolutely crucial now.
We don’t have groups, we don’t have organisations, we don’t have clubs, we don’t have discos. Back in the 70s and 80s we had women-only discos pretty much every night of the week. An extraordinary time that you simply can’t imagine now. All of them are gone.
You talk about lesbians having disappeared. Are they just hidden from view?
We don’t have groups, we don’t have organisations, we don’t have clubs, we don’t have discos. Back in the 70s and 80s we had women-only discos pretty much every night of the week. An extraordinary time that you simply can’t imagine now. All of them are gone. I think gay men still have a few places to go but for lesbians these places have pretty much been wiped out. I don’t think it’s that lesbians have so much deliberately chosen to hide themselves as there is absolutely nothing left for us. I mean there were bookshops usually run by lesbians that formed the basis of lesbian and feminist community at that time; of course none of that exists. We need to totally recreate that culture in order to be a force within the culture. We need to be a force not only to allow women to become lesbians but because we have to change the culture. Once again we have to fight against compulsory heterosexuality, against the sexuality of cruelty.
There was a lot of conflict around sadomasochism then?
There was a huge conflict around sadomasochism. The sadomasochists were out there dressed in black leather, dressed in swastikas very often, because they eroticised all systems of domination, so Nazism was an important thing for them. They were on our marches with their banners, destroying those marches. They were coming to our meetings and saying, you know, we have a right to be here. It was a very oppressive politics. And of course, they deliberately wore this frightening costume. The biggest explosion was about the Lesbian and Gay Centre which was set up in London with money from the GLC in 1984 and immediately there was a question of whether sadomasochists would be able to meet there. A friend of mine set up lesbians against sadomasochism because we wanted to be able to have the lesbian floor sadomasochism free. We wanted women to feel safe and happy there, to be able to take their children along without seeing swastikas and handcuffs. We were defeated and after that I and other lesbian feminists ‘girlcotted’ the Centre because we were not prepared to use it anymore, but it was a terrible loss.
READ AN EXTRACT FROM TRIGGER WARNING ABOUT THE LONDON LESBIAN AND GAY CENTRE AND SADOMASOCHISM: EROTICISING RACISM AND ANTISEMITISM
What is your view of the whole development of transgenderism?
During the 2000s I have written quite a lot of articles and papers and a book, Gender Hurts, in 2014 trying to create a feminist critique of the politics of transgenderism. Way back in the 1970s we were aware that there were one or two men – just one or two because there was no movement then – trying to get into women’s discos because heterosexual men who cross-dress regularly like to think of themselves as lesbians. They get very excited sexually by that. It’s the same sort of heterosexual men who consume the so-called ‘lesbian pornography’. We were absolutely furious about these men trying to do this in the late 70s. What happened in the 1990s and thereafter was the development of a transgender rights movement by which mostly these heterosexual men who are autogynephiles – that is sexually excited by the masochism of supposedly pretending to be women, wearing women’s clothes and so on – they created a great movement for themselves. They had a huge influence on the medical profession.
Can you tell us more about the history of transgenderism?
Up to the 1970s there was just transvestitism, there wasn’t even transsexualism. It was understood in sexology that men wore women’s clothes for sexual excitement. It was a fetish, it was a paraphilia. In 1980 or so, there was the invention of something called transsexualism. Some sexologists got very excited that they could use hormones and surgeries to turn some of these men into actual women and that’s the point at which desexualisation started. These men started saying it was nothing to do with sex and the medical profession started doubting the fact that it was to do with sex. Now you can’t get anybody even talking about the fact that it’s about sex, even though if you look at any of the social media threads, they are absolutely horrendous. There’s all these men searching out used tampons in the women’s toilets and stuffing them up their anuses, trying to pretend they’re menstruating, wanting to breastfeed. We have reached an extraordinary point at which nobody must talk about the fact that it’s sexual. These days because the transgender rights movement has been so effective in creating laws, we are in a situation where for feminists to actually try to draw attention to the fact that men obviously can’t become women, that’s silly, and that it’s actually based upon a sexual fetish, you could be in trouble legally.
The vast majority of children who are being converted at the moment – and it is a form of conversion – are girls and the vast majority of those are girls who love other girls. They are being given terribly dangerous puberty blockers, then they’re given hormones.
Can you tell us about the conversion therapy laws being introduced in Australia?
The state of Victoria in Australia passed its conversion therapy laws this month. Conversion therapy laws which are being promoted everywhere internationally by the transgender activists are supposedly based upon the fact that you should not convert gay boys into being straight boys. But of course that hardly ever happens in most countries. So that’s actually not what it’s about. Conversion therapy legislation is about making it impossible to actually try and find out what’s happening with the girls who are being converted into supposedly straight boys. They’re mostly lesbians. The vast majority of children who are being converted at the moment – and it is a form of conversion – are girls and the vast majority of those are girls who love other girls. They are being given terribly dangerous puberty blockers, then they’re given hormones. Under the new conversion therapy legislation in Victoria, even questioning it for a psychiatrist, could now be seen as illegal. That is where we have got and it’s an extraordinary point to have reached because what’s being done to young lesbians is a major human rights violation. It’s like going back to all that we criticised in the 1970s. Lesbians and gay men were talking about the terrible history of lobotomies and shutting up lesbians and gay men in mental hospitals. What’s going on now is a most horrifying kind of violence in plain sight and yet legislation is being passed to make sure that we cannot even speak of it.
That’s the extraordinary thing about the difference between a transgender rights movement and a lesbian and gay rights movement. The lesbian and gay rights movement never used threat. We never created an atmosphere of fear. We always thought we had to use reasonable argumentation – can you imagine that!
Why do you think the medical profession has given up its normal professional approach in the area of gender dysphoria and transgenderism?
That’s a very interesting question. In the 1990s – 2000s, the campaign against doctors was rather extraordinary. All kinds of terrible tactics were used against doctors and a lot of force and threat. That’s the extraordinary thing about the difference between a transgender rights movement and a lesbian and gay rights movement. The lesbian and gay rights movement never used threat. We never created an atmosphere of fear. We always thought we had to use reasonable argumentation – can you imagine that! Whereas what’s been going on from the transgender rights movement is to create an atmosphere of terror in which anybody who goes against them will lose their livelihood, will suffer all kinds of terrible harms. There was supposed to be a conference back in 2011 in Britain, that I write about in Gender Hurts, of lesbian and gay psychiatrists to talk about the issue of transgenderism. It didn’t go ahead in the end because of the threats from transgender activists. The threats were: We will do in your reputations, you will never work again. Now, that’s an extraordinary thing. So you ask me why these doctors are doing this? I think that they’ve suffered this reign of terror. I think they’re very afraid. I think they are very timid but not all of course; Dr David Bell from the Tavistock, now that he’s retired, has really spoken up. There are psychiatrists, there are doctors out there who are very concerned.
What is your view of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act?
Women’s groups were never involved in the consultation. They were not asked to say anything and I don’t think there was anything in the media saying that this could have any relevance to women. Not relevant to women? A panel set up by the government to instantiate an idea that gender – which is actually sex stereotypes about what women be like, what they should wear and so on, that have oppressed women throughout history. That this thing called gender or sex stereotypes would be written into law, adjudicated by a panel, so that men could say that they were actually women and go into women’s spaces, be in women shortlists for politics, be everywhere. That was an extraordinary piece of legislation, apart from the fact that it put women’s oppression into law. Gender is women’s oppression.
Sheila with Rosemary Auchmuty in the early 1980s. They went on to set up the Lesbian History Group.
Why are women-only spaces important?
The very basis of the women’s liberation movement was women-only space. For centuries men’s view of the world through religion, through science, has dominated and constructed who women are and how we’re to think about ourselves and the culture and morality of the world in which we live. Not until feminists started creating their own understanding and taking apart those ideas, did we begin to see that it could be different. So the very basis of women-only space, apart from anything else, was that we should be able to think differently, view the world differently.
How did lesbian-only spaces develop?
Back in the 1970s thousands and thousands of women became lesbians because there was lesbian and women’s space. We were able to go into dances where women would be dancing bare-breasted in circles – yes, it really happened! – and the excitement that was created there. The erotic excitement of being in those rooms full of marvellous, marvellous women creating extraordinary ideas, that created lesbianism. And of course that is simply not allowed now. Women should never be just with other women so that that erotic excitement could be created. Men should always be there controlling us.
READ AN EXTRACT FROM TRIGGER WARNING ABOUT THE LESBIAN HISTORY GROUP AND NOT A PASSING PHASE, THE FIRST BOOK ON UK LESBIAN HISTORY
What’s your message to lesbians and gay men?
What’s very important for lesbians and gay men is that we need to fight to assert the fact that we are actually attracted to people of the same sex – and not people of the same gender. Homosexuality is not about attraction to gender, to sex stereotypes. And yet in all of the documents like the Yogyakarta Principles, drawn up to try and influence law, we’ve got the replacement of sex by gender. Once homosexuality is seen to be about gender, it disappears. I think some gay men are waking up to this now. It’s becoming obvious that this has an effect on whether you can be homosexual or not. You can’t be homosexual with the new language and with the new understanding. The very basis of many gay men’s lives will be whipped away from under them, that’s really what’s happening now.
Do you think lesbians may be starting to get more involved in campaigning again?
It’s just the beginnings of the creation of lesbian feminism again. We’re coming from a very low point where it is so difficult for woman to even use the term lesbianism. So a great deal has to be created. I think that a lot of young women are becoming lesbian feminists now. In the Women’s Human Rights Campaign we are meeting feminists but also many young lesbians from all over the world.
What’s very important for lesbians and gay men is that we need to fight to assert the fact that we are actually attracted to people of the same sex – and not people of the same gender. Homosexuality is not about attraction to gender, to sex stereotypes. Once homosexuality is seen to be about gender, it disappears.
Can you tell us about the Women’s Human Rights Campaign?
The Women’s Human Rights Campaign was started in 2019 as an organisation to promote the Declaration on Women Sex-Based Rights and we wrote the Declaration because we were aware that all of the pro transgender legislation that was being passed and the pro transgender politics that were being accepted at the EU, even at the UN, were actually against very basic women’s human rights. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) sets out certain rights for women: women are supposed to have political rights; it’s supposed to be possible to actually discriminate in favour of women because women have been so kept out. Whereas in this country right now we’ve got men who wear dresses getting into the Labour Party’s women’s shortlists. The right to assembly and the right to freedom of political expression, all of these things are threatened by men saying that they are women and getting in there or creating a huge fuss, which makes it impossible for women to assemble.
This directly affects women’s free speech?
In terms of free speech, women’s speech is now hugely curtailed by the development of the transgender rights movement. The best example of this is the elimination of words for women. You’ll be aware that Nancy Pelosi has said in Congress that language which identifies women such as mother, sister, must be eliminated. All language must be gender neutral. The fact is if language is gender neutral it is not possible to talk about women; it’s not possible to talk about women’s health, women’s safety. It’s not possible to have feminism. There are so many basic areas of concern to women politically in terms of violence, in terms of statistics, in terms of meeting, in terms of free speech where the transgender rights movement is really curtailing the rights of women, and the rights of lesbians, and the rights of children with the transgendering that we’ve been talking about of young lesbians. Every Saturday the Women’s Human Rights Campaign hold webinars that have hundreds of people coming to them. We have speakers from all over the world, many of them young lesbians, who are particularly concerned about this. It’s fantastic that we’re able to have a younger person speaking from countries where they say that they don’t know anybody else. They don’t know how to meet up with anybody because so terribly oppressive is the rule of “queer” or of other kinds of repression, to make it impossible just for them to speak.
You can sign on to the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights at: https://womensdeclaration.com/en/
Trigger Warning by Sheila Jeffreys is published by Spinifex Press.
You can buy Trigger Warning from Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trigger-Warning-Lesbian-Feminist-Life-ebook/dp/B08CK6PJYF/ref=sr_1_2?qid=1613383449&refinements=p_27%3ASheila+Jeffreys&s=books&sr=1-2
Book cover photo by Hyebin Shin.