Lesbian Visibility Week – Part 2

The lesbian battle against s. 28

For Lesbian Visibility Week here’s the second of our articles in which supporters of the Labour Women’s Declaration share their personal experiences of being a lesbian on the Left.

Let me take you back to 1988, the year Section 28 of the Local Government Act received Royal Assent. Section 28 prohibited Local Authorities and schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’ and also prevented them from funding lesbian and gay initiatives. The Act received a majority vote in Parliament on 24th May. Margaret Thatcher said: “They think they have an inalienable right to be gay.” The day before, four lesbians disrupted the BBC 6 O’ Clock News – shouting “No to Section 28!”. The 9 O’ Clock News then reported the story. (The lesbians spent some time in a police cell before being released.) In February of that year, another group of lesbians got into the House of Lord’s public gallery. Two of them abseiled into the chamber, using a washing line they’d bought in Camden Market. 1988 was also the year children’s book Jenny lives with Eric and Martin became famous as a threat to the State and was banned from schools, along with a book for teenagers called Young, Gay and Proud.

Lesbian protesters at the BBC (Pic credit: BBC)

In 1988 I lived in North West England. I was at Lancaster University and was a member of the Uni Lesbian Club. People often think that a North West lesbian and gay world didn’t exist outside Manchester – but it did. There was strong, working class lesbian life present in many towns beyond Manchester. Sunday night was often disco night, as women travelled to pubs where the landlord had let women take over a function room. The ale flowed, the dancing could be manic, relationships started or ended and there was always some woman crying in the toilets! Many of us were not out – not even to our families. There were few lesbian role models and lesbians with children could lose custody of them as Courts agreed with angry husbands that there was a real danger we could ‘indoctrinate’ these children to a life of homosexuality.

Section 28 was known about in the North West, but I only remember talking about it with Labour Party friends and in the Uni Lesbian Club. Despite the apparent lack of awareness, the notice of a demonstration against Section 28 in Manchester on 20th February was being talked about at the discos. I went on a coach that started in Chorley, went through Preston and picked up in Blackburn. We marched through the centre of Manchester to Albert Square. Tom Robinson sang Glad to be gay and Jimmy Somerville sang There is more to love than boy meets girl. I don’t remember who spoke, or what was said, but my most abiding memory was thousands of lesbians – some holding hands and some kissing. “You can’t put put us back in the box,” I thought. Stonewall was established in 1989 and became the main campaigning organisation for the equality of lesbians, gay men and bisexual people.

Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and the rest of the UK in 2003. Lesbians were not put back in the box. We grew to be a significant part of the gay rights community, campaigning and successfully achieving a reduction in the age of consent (2001), adoption rights (2002) and civil partnerships (2004). Many of us would have said we had a place at what would later become the ‘LGBT’ table and the advances made were won by all of us working together. Section 28 was repealed because it was obviously discriminatory but also it was senseless trying to pretend we, lesbians and gay men, did not exist.

Was the campaign to repeal Section 28 the same as today’s transgender campaign for sex-self identification? I would say the campaign I was involved in during 1988, and the subsequent years, was about the collective desire for equality, the rights of millions of people to be accepted as they were: same sex attracted. The transgender campaign for self-ID is not about accepting who someone is, but is based on a belief that by simple declaration you can change your biology and become a something different: the opposite sex. This then gives a man the right to call himself a woman, to take the space of a woman, to take prizes and awards meant for women and to speak for women – all examples of male dominance that feminists have been campaigning against for centuries. Lesbians are campaigning with others to stop the loss of sex-based rights, services and spaces – and we are also fighting for ourselves and our rights to love our same sex: women. This women’s rights campaign seems to me to have more in common with the fight against section 28 than the campaign for self-ID does.

About the author, Carol Angharad. “I would not change the twists and turns of my life. I’m a proud lesbian and LWD campaigner.” Carol went travelling straight after leaving school and worked in shops and offices upon her return. She got married at 23, then had three lovely children, found feminism, in the shape of Spare Rib and the Women’s Press, and fell in love with a woman. She lost her children in a custody battle (but they chose to live with her as soon as they could). After university, she trained as a child care social worker – a career she followed for more than 20 years. She now lives in Derbyshire with her partner of 30 years and is blessed with grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Lesbian Visibility Week – Part 1

How I joined the Labour Party

For Lesbian Visibility Week here’s the first of two articles in which supporters of the Labour Women’s Declaration share their personal experiences of being a lesbian on the Left.

The last thing on earth I was going to do was become a member of the Labour Party. They weren’t nearly radical enough for me.

I came out as a lesbian in the early 1970s and was part of one of the first Gay Liberation Front groups in the UK, spending exciting evenings thrashing out political theory. It was so new – things we now take for granted were revolutionary and challenging ideas then.

My main focus gradually shifted from GLF to women-only groups. My political roots were absolutely in feminism – what we now have to call second-wave feminism, to distinguish it from the individualistic and apolitical version that passes for 21stcentury feminism. But I voted Labour.

Alice moved to rural northern England in the 80s
I moved to the rural area where I now live in the early 1980s. Many of the women I sang with, discussed life with, put on two political revues with (one about nuclear weapons, one about feminism) were members of Labour. Yet I didn’t join. I still saw it as somewhat behind the curve, not really ‘getting’ feminism, although it understood a lot more than other parties. Not only that, but it supported lesbians and gay men. That was more than important – in Thatcher’s UK, it was crucial. A very good friend of mine, a gay man, died of AIDS early in the spread of that disease, and the Conservative Party’s attitudes were grim. I continued to vote Labour.

Labour’s adoption of all-women shortlists in the 1990s made me feel more warmly towards the Party. I still didn’t join, being more interested in things directly focussed on women, and on lesbians.

The policies of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition were ‘shocking and disturbing’. Pic courtesy Cabinet Office.

And so life went on. What was a lesbian community here dwindled as women moved away, but I was in close touch with lesbian feminists I’d known for decades, as well as locally. Then in 2010, the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition whose policies became more and more shocking and disturbing. I kept discussing with a long-term Labour friend about whether I should join Labour, but there was so much against it (she agreed). I even joined the Greens – very briefly, because the moment I tried to link up to the lesbian and gay grouping (inevitably “LGBTQI”), and posted something about women (differentiating women from transwomen) on a forum, I was termed a ‘terf’ and informed by the Equality spokesperson that my views were not those of the Greens. It was obvious that the Green Party was not the place for me.

This was in 2015. The Tories gained a majority at the election, but wonder of wonders, it looked seriously possible that a left-wing leader might get voted in for Labour. I joined. To my amazement, I discovered that two other lesbian friends joined at much the same time and for the same reasons – that things were desperate, we needed the Labour Party to get into government and reverse the sheer ghastliness of what was happening to the country.

We thought Labour understood about women’s sex-based rights. It turned out that the Labour Party had forgotten what a woman actually is. All Women Shortlists were explicitly opened to any man who ‘identified as a woman’. I brought a motion to my CLP asking Labour to pause and listen to women’s organisations before confirming this decision. At this point I discovered that most members of my CLP believed that transwomen are women. I was in a Party that thought lesbians should be attracted, not to the same sex (the very definition of ‘lesbian’) but to those of the ‘same gender’.

Naively, when I’d joined, I’d imagined that young people, not least young lesbians, would want to get involved in the dynamic and radical Labour Party I thought I’d glimpsed. It turns out, it’s yet another dangerous place for young lesbians, where they’re expected to believe that a man who claims to be a woman can be a lesbian, someone who they should accept as a prospective sexual partner, being of the same ‘gender’.

But I’m in the Party now, so I’m staying unless I’m expelled. I’ve met many other women (especially in the Labour Women’s Declaration working group, where lesbians are well-supported) as committed to women’s rights as I am, as keen as I am to see a government which can reverse the punishments inflicted on so many by this Tory government. My place is with them, as a woman, as a lesbian, working in the hope of establishing a Labour government with effective policies – and a renewed understanding of women’s sex-based rights. To be visible as a lesbian needs more than a day or a week of ‘visibility’. It needs a government and society-wide understanding of the reality of discrimination against women, and women’s material disadvantages – and a wish to change that for all women.

About the author: Alice Bondi has worked as a temp typist, teacher, shepherd, footpath officer and (finally) a psychotherapist. Now retired, she remains very busy with everything from vegetable gardening and local organisations, to the LGB Alliance and – of course – the Labour Women’s Declaration group.

Karen Ingala Smith rejected by Labour Party

In support of Karen Ingala Smith

Karen Ingala Smith (pictured left) is the CEO of nia, a London-based domestic and sexual violence charity working to end violence against women and girls. She also founded and carries out the Counting Dead Women project – which records all the women in the UK killed through men’s violence.     From this came The Femicide Census, which is now established as a leading articulation of men’s fatal violence against women in the UK.

Karen has recently been refused membership of the Labour Party and told she is not wanted within its ranks. Below is our statement in support of and in  solidarity with her.

“We wish to express our outrage that Karen Ingala Smith has been barred from membership of the Labour Party. Karen is a long-standing and well-respected campaigner for abused and vulnerable women as CEO of the charity Nia. Her Counting Dead Women project is a unique, moving and sadly all too necessary exercise in the highlighting of male violence against women, reminding us all that women who die at the hands of men are not just statistics, but individuals in their own right; irreplaceable daughters, sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers, cousins, nieces, friends, colleagues and loved ones. So well thought-of is the project by Labour MP Jess Phillips that each year she uses Karen’s tireless research to read out the names of these victims of male violence in the Commons. Thus they are recorded in Hansard and not forgotten, while Karen (and others like her) campaign to end the male violence that makes it necessary to undertake such a grim roll call.

While Jess Phillips may value Karen’s contribution and her legacy (as do many female survivors of male violence) it raises serious questions of the Labour Party that her application for membership has been declined. The reason given? Because Karen has apparently ‘engaged in conduct online that may reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility based on gender identity.’

We call on the Labour Party to provide evidence of this supposed hostility, what gender identity is and how apparent hostility towards it is a factor in determining membership of the Labour Party. Gender identity is a concept which has not been defined and has no basis in UK Law. How can it be used to justify exclusion?

We agree with Karen; the Equality Act 2010 and the Labour Party 2019 Manifesto that women have the right to access properly-resourced single-sex spaces and services which meet their needs. (Karen’s evidence at the Commons Equality Committee on the need for single sex exemptions, and all her speeches at Woman’s Place UK meeting are available online).

The Labour Party needs to reconsider this rash decision. If Karen is barred from membership, then the Party also needs to bar all 4,500 signatories of our Declaration, including scores of Labour councillors, CLP Chairs, Women’s Officers and three MSPs.

We are members of the Labour Party. We stand in solidarity with Karen. Sex matters. Defend us or expel us.”

#ExpelMe Rally – speeches

Defend me or expel me rally

The #ExpelMe rally (on Mon 9th March 2020) was organised by London supporters of the Labour Women’s Declaration (LWD) and held in support of Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) and the LGB Alliance.

The sold-out rally was attended by around 300 people and was a response to some of the Labour leadership and deputy leadership contenders signing the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights’ pledge. One of the twelve points of this pledge labelled WPUK and the LGB Alliance ‘hate groups’; another called on the Labour Party to expel anyone who supports women’s sex-based rights.

Below are links to PDFs of some of the speeches given at the event.

 

Bev Jackson speech 9 Mar 20            Kiri Tunks speech 9 Mar 20

Lachlan Stuart speech 9 Mar 20      Lucy Masoud 9 Mar 20

Labour women galvanised

Labour women galvanised by revived women’s liberation movement 

This article originally appeared in The Morning Star on 7th February 2020

Supporters of the Labour Women’s Declaration are taking action on all fronts to defend their sex-based rights, ALICE BREAN reports from their inaugural meeting.

When women come together, particularly when it’s to defend our sex-based rights, there is a palpable feeling of energy in the air. Such was the atmosphere at the inaugural meeting of supporters of the Labour Women’s Declaration (LWD). 

The meeting, held in London on the day after the Women’s Liberation Conference organised by UCL Women’s Liberation Special Interest Group and A Woman’s Place UK (see Lynne Walsh’s feature, Morning Star online, 2 Feb), was timed to make the most of women being in town for the event.

From Devon to Dundee and all points in between, some eighty Labour Party women, and a couple of male allies, gathered to build on recent successes in the battle to preserve sex-based rights and free speech – but also in solidarity in the face of the backlash against their efforts. 

As well as more than 3,000 signatories supporting the declaration and a commitment to women’s sex-based rights featuring in Labour’s 2019 election manifesto, recent successes include Tottenham CLP’s free speech motion, which was carried 47/12. It takes as its starting point that, ‘There are legitimate concerns to be addressed when balancing the need for support and dignity for trans people with the need to maintain protection for women’s sex-based rights, as enshrined in the Equality Act 2010.’ 

Among other things, it also resolves, ‘to make clear [that Tottenham CLP] supports the right of women to self-organise and freely campaign and advocate for women’s sex-based rights’. The motion further suggests there’s no place for intimidation, aggression or abuse when discussing the issue. 

Quite why such a motion could be considered controversial is anyone’s guess. The matter concerned is entirely a proper one for debate, so the question must be asked: Why are members of a party which is based on comradely behaviour and working collectively kicking off when they are asked to behave in a comradely fashion? And why are they being allowed to get away with it? 

The Labour Women’s Declaration meeting confirmed that the hostility is far from the odd isolated incident. Attendees were asked to stand if they’d received abuse, trolling, threats, complaints to their employers or malicious complaints and investigations within the party merely for raising concerns about women’s sex-based rights and sex self-ID. More than half of those present got to their feet. 

But nobody was in the mood to wallow. Instead the meeting proceeded with its aims to establish and strengthen mutual support networks – in regional, country and trade union groupings – to ensure gender critical views are heard and represented in decision-making and policy formation bodies. Plans to organise at CLP, branch and women’s branch level, and within relevant national networks and conferences, were also on the agenda. 

The challenges faced by lesbians in the party was also discussed, with lesbians joining forces to organise via an autonomous group. 

“The meeting was a first step within the Party towards addressing the extreme fear and anxiety that feminists – and lesbians in particular – are experiencing within Labour,” said an LWD spokeswoman. 

She added, “Until senior politicians follow the example of the three MSPs in speaking up for free speech, this misogynist and lesbophobic abuse will continue – which is why there’s huge disappointment at the responses of nearly all the candidates for Leader and Deputy Leader on this issue.”

The three MSPs referred to are former Scottish Labour leader and MSP for Glasgow Johann Lamont; Elaine Smith who represents Central Scotland; and North East Scotland MSP Jenny Marra. Although they were unable to attend the meeting, all sent messages of support. 

Johann Lamont said: “Women are now finding their voices in greater and greater numbers in a debate about understanding and protecting women’s sex-based rights. These rights were won after a hard fight and they are now under threat – but we know these rights are needed as much as ever.” 

She added: “We owe a debt of gratitude to those who were first to speak up and speak out. Some have paid an all too heavy personal price. They deserve our commitment to ensuring we all play our part in speaking out for the rights of women and girls.”

The meeting also provided an opportunity for Labour activists to support their Scottish sisters, who are currently working to ensure gender critical voices respond to a consultation on a proposed Gender Recognition Reform Bill north of the border.

The Bill proposes that anyone aged 16 or over will be allowed to change the sex recorded on their birth certificate – which would have the effect that the material and biological meaning of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ would no longer exist in law. 

Anyone may respond to the consultation – not just those who live in Scotland and the deadline to do so is 17th March.

“This is the most urgent action right now,” said an LWD spokeswoman. “Those who want this Bill to become law have mobilised support for it at an international level, but unfunded community-based groups will not be able to mobilise on such a massive scale. Yet they speak for the majority who do not support the idea of sex self-ID.”

Despite the hostilities and difficulties women face when raising the issue of sex-based rights and concerns about sex self-ID, the outcome of the LWD meeting had much in common with the closing session of the Women’s Liberation conference of the day before. The meeting may be closed, but Labour women are galvanised.

● The Scottish gender recognition reform consultation closes on 17th March 2020. Guidance on responding can be found at: https://forwomen.scot