I have long argued that the relationship between lesbians and gay men is a bit like that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. We fall out, disagree, and eventually get back together again when we realise we need each other.
And right now, we need each other. Lesbians have become the targets of extreme misogyny in the guise of progressiveness, and gay men are starting to speak up in our defence, which, in turn, puts them in the firing line. As well as this, our movement is morphing into an Alphabetti Spaghetti of identities that is more focussed on narcissistic personalities than politics.
When I came out as a lesbian at the age of 15 in 1977 I worked as a ‘Saturday Girl’ at a hair salon at which worked David, a camp gay man. There were no out lesbians across the whole of the North East where I lived, but David took me along to regional meetings of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality where I would at least get to meet one or two others. In those days, there were too few of us to fall out, which meant that lesbians had to put up with an awful lot of sexism in order to feel part of a community.
At those meetings I was shocked to hear stories of women losing custody of their children, in some cases to violent ex-husbands, for the simple reason that they were in a same-sex relationship. It was rare for gay men to engage in these discussions. I recall one man in his 30s say that gay men “have it much worse” than do lesbians because they “had to” have sex in public places which meant they were vulnerable to arrest. I had no idea how to counter his logic, being nervous and naive.
Lesbians have become the targets of extreme misogyny in the guise of progressiveness, and gay men are starting to speak up in our defence, which, in turn, puts them in the firing line.
I came to the movement not too long after the majority of lesbians had walked out of the Gay Liberation Front during its heyday in the early 70s in protest at the sexism of some of the gay men that were centrally involved. What led from this mini exodus were a number of autonomous lesbian liberation campaigns.
As we reached the 1980s lesbian feminists organised ‘Lesbian Strength’ marches as alternatives to Pride, which many of us considered to be nothing more than roller-skating nuns and macho men parading around in S&M gear.
Whilst lesbians and gay men have united in the past during campaigns against bigotry that affected both groups, such as Section 28, women have been marginalised despite doing most of the heavy lifting.
As we reached the 1980s lesbian feminists organised ‘Lesbian Strength’ marches as alternatives to Pride.
But what of today? The political movement for lesbian and gay rights has historically been about fighting institutionalised oppression and striving for legal and social equality but currently it is nothing of the sort. The so-called ‘rainbow list’ includes everyone who fancies being seen as a little bit Queer, which means loads of heterosexuals and geezers in gimp masks that reckon having a predilection for being spanked wins them a place in what used to be a proud and vital social justice movement.
This ever-expanding list including ‘asexual’, ‘sapio-sexual’, ‘questioning’, ‘polyamorous’ and, in a disrespectful appropriation of Native Canadian culture, 2S (Two Spirit) to describe some transgender identities will soon have to be spelt out in Sanskrit because we run out of letters.
But the fact remains that gay men and lesbians appear to have little in common except for being vulnerable to bigotry and discrimination. Our social scenes are very different, and lesbians are more likely to be coerced into heterosexuality than men. Punishment rapes of lesbians happen around the world, including the UK. There are far fewer positive lesbian role models in the media than there are of gay men.
We have more to fight for than an end to heterosexist bigotry. It is high time we won back our community from those that seem hellbent on turning it into a type of queer Legoland.
Prior to lockdown I visited Uganda, East Africa to interview young lesbians about the threats, abuse and violence they encounter. I was particularly interested in how this compared to violence experienced by their gay male counterparts.
“All the western world hears about it brutality towards gay men, and never lesbians,” Afia told me. “Which is why we are demanding of gay men that they speak out about what happens to us when they are interviewed by the press.”
The lesbians I met in Uganda understand that the subservient role of women and girls in East African societies significantly contributes to the violence and oppression lesbians face. “For gay men, the effects of homophobia are extreme,” Gloria said. “But they have the advantage of being a male in an extremely patriarchal culture.”
What needs to happen during these troubling times is for women and men with a solid commitment to liberation as opposed to identity politics to form a solid alliance, but one without the sexism or expectation that lesbians will take a back seat. We have more to fight for than an end to heterosexist bigotry. It is high time we won back our community from those that seem hellbent on turning it into a type of queer Legoland.
Julie Bindel is a journalist, author and feminist campaigner. She came out as a lesbian in 1977 aged 15 and has never looked back.