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.