Archives for posts with tag: feminism

We’ve had some fantastic television here in the U.K celebrating 50 years since the start of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967, (for instance: Patrick Gales’s Man in the Orange Shirt, Daisy Asquith’s Queerama.) It took decades to fully remove these vicious laws, the same ones which had put Oscar Wilde and countless other men behind bars and which were used to terrorise and humiliate so many others. As George Montague – the ‘oldest gay in Brighton’ – has made clear: it’s not a pardon from government that is now needed it’s an apology.

But – and, with notable exceptions, it’s an immense but – what of women, lesbian and bisexual…female homosexuals, gay women, dykes… throughout these last 50 years? Again and again our lives are ‘hidden from history’*. Did Queen Victoria really say “women do not do such things” and refuse to include women in the legislation vilifying gay men? Or was it male MPs not wanting to put ideas in women’s heads? (More likely.) Anyway, the silence surrounding lesbianism speaks volumes about social attitudes to all women’s sexuality. Those of us who have been around these last 50 years have countless stories still to tell, silences to break. No space here to go into the madonna-whore bind which all women have struggled with; suffice to say women’s sexuality has been defined for decades purely in relation to men. Not surprisingly then the 6th demand of the Women’s Liberation movement passed at the conference in Edinburgh in 1974 was two-fold. It included : The right to a self-defined sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians. The oppression of lesbians was always at the heart of all women’s oppression. Lesbian was the ‘accusation’ – unbelievably it still often is – levelled at any women who spoke up or stepped out of line, at groups of women getting together, acting autonomously.

As someone who became an activist in the seventies, I find it hard now to convey both how afraid we were and at the same time how hopeful of changing the world, how euphoric at challenging stereotypes. While huge gains have been made there is still so far to go, not least in the current political climates and with backlashes across the world.

The system of patriarchy squeezes everyone into a female or male stereotype. (Again unbelievably in the 21st century, one quick look at clothes for toddlers, sharply divided into tough camoflauge v fluffy pink, says it all). Lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer people don’t fit neatly into that system. That makes us ‘other’ (which means lesser) and since women are already other lesbians are doubly so. The wisest of gay men saw that they needed to make common cause with women. The hatred aimed at gay men for being somehow ‘feminine’ was part and parcel of misogyny and of the division into ‘real men’ and ‘real women’ with all the inequality that implied. Gay liberation and women’s liberation cannot be separate. You just can’t have one without the other. At best we feminists saw how intertwined all oppressions are, how class and race and gender divisions work like clockwork together and that we had to look beyond our own particular struggles to those of people world-wide and to consider the planet we live on itself.  I’m not saying we always succeeded. Sometimes we just turned in on ourselves and there was dreadful infighting (as in so many opposition movements, on the Left, the women’s movement, gay groups etc) which Monty Python sent up so beautifully in the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ sketch in Life of Brian. But there were also breakthroughs, solidarity and clarity, like the many lesbians who supported Asian women striking at Grunwicks, or the equal pay strike at Trico, the LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) Campaign, or the many lesbians who campaigned for women’s refuges, for women’s reproductive rights, for disability rights, for Rock Against Racism, for awareness about AIDS and so on as well as fighting back when the insidious Section 28 was brought in by the Tories in the late 1980’s prohibiting “the promotion of homosexuality” in schools.

There were also much more hidden battles which don’t fit into timelines or newsorthy events. Women who were open about their sexuality lost custody of their children, others lived for years in fear of that happening, were shut away in mental hospitals, lost economic security, were attacked on the streets or in their homes, coerced, raped, ridiculed and belittled. It took courage and strength to come out to family and community. One week ahead of the Lesbian and Gay Pride marches in 1980’s London there were Lesbian Strength marches. Looking back it seems obvious to me that we needed all the strength we could get. Here’s hoping stories from the last 50 years will continue to be told, that this isn’t it ‘oh we’ve done gays now’ and that women’s stories are given pride of place.

 

 

 

* the title of Sheila Rowbotham’s ground-breaking book published in 1975!

 

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In the late 80s when I was on a scholarship in Warsaw meat and chocolate were still being rationed, censorship was rife, dissidents jailed. In Russia the poet Irina Ratushinskaya had been arrested in 1982, convicted the following year of “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime” with a sentence of seven years in a labour camp and five years of internal exile.

In prison she wrote poems about love and Christian theology on soap, memorising them before they were washed away. She was released on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. Three years later the Berlin Wall came down and everything changed.

With artist friend Jola Scicińska we produced a book at that time called Postcards from Poland (Working Press). Travelling back and forth between Poland and England I felt a huge cultural gap and as usual found myself somewhere in the middle.  I was writing about the euphoria of banned books being suddenly available as well as the (inevitable but depressing) influx of Western porn. Things aren’t simple but then they never were.

Over two decades later, this August,  Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot were accused of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in a labour camp for their oppositional punk prayer in the Temple of Christ Saint Saviour in Moscow.

“Absurdity’s on the increase/spirit wanes” writes the Slovenian poet Iztok Osojnik in Mister Today (Elsewhere  by Iztok Osojnik translated by Ana Jelnikar and Maria Jastrzębska (Pighog Press). Clearly governments continue to feel threatened enough by musicians or writers self to respond viciously.  Moscow has also banned Gay Pride for the next century, Warsaw banned it a few years ago but the ban has now been overturned.

Sitting comfortably in front of my PC at home it’s humbling to think of those behind bars for their words. English Pen has published an e-book anthology of poems for Pussy Riot CATECHISM: POEMS FOR PUSSY RIOT, edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe & Sophie Mayer with an introduction by George Szirtes – a fitting title since the women are accused of being anti-Christian. I’m proud to have a poem in it.

http://www.englishpen.org/poems-for-pussy-riot-ebook/

On a smaller scale censorship succeeds when it gets inside our heads, whether in or outside the literary world.  I like writing workshops (both teaching them and going myself) – they’re a chance to trick the internal censor, to bypass authorial intention and discover things we might otherwise not have said. Here in the Developed World it’s impossible to calculate the exact weight of social/media pressure, except to say how profoundly it influences our choices, whether as writers or not.

“ …it is a

wonder we

can use the word free and have it mean anything at all to us. We          stand still let the cold wind wrap round …”

says American poet Jorie Graham in Dialogue/(Of The Imagination’s Fear) in P L A C E (Carcanet).

And it is no wonder that back in the 1970s and 1980s (in the West) revolutionary or separatist movements sprang up in an attempt to escape and create alternatives.  While in former Eastern Europe the concept of internal exile (self-created as opposed to state imposed) was developed. From the perspective of time we may see the task differently (apart from anything both literary and political styles change..) but having the word free mean something – that has got to be what do for ourselves.