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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