On being a Lesbian

The author Lynn Alderson pictured protesting Section 28 in 1986 (top) and during the women’s liberation movement in 1978

I guess I was curious as a teenager, the late sixties were famously explosive about sexual matters. And, like many young people today I was very attracted by androgyny and would have said that what was important was ‘who you love’, not the sex they were. One of my best friends at school was a lesbian and she and I went to the same secretarial college for a year, where she proceeded to cause mayhem amongst the ‘young ladies’. This culminated in a young man turning up on the doorstep with his fiancée saying ‘take her, it’s you she wants, not me’ – needless to say, my mate hadn’t the slightest interest in her, but that was the effect she had – dynamic, self-confident, androgynous and smarter than anyone else. Yes, she was my first, but it was only the once and I think we were both trying something out. We went to the Gateways together, she blagging the doorkeeper that we knew Maureen Duffy – which we didn’t, of course. But heck, that was a world I wasn’t ready for, butch and femme, behind closed doors, women worried that someone from work would see them, one or two men around, heaven knows why – I didn’t feel in any way the same and thought that perhaps I couldn’t be a lesbian if that was what it involved. It was just after they had filmed parts of The Killing of Sister George at the club – see for yourself. And it was no accident that lesbian clubs of that time were called things like The White Raven – we weren’t ‘normal’, it was underground and something of a secret society where you might meet married women from the suburbs, or women in the army or prostitutes or men that would proposition you to perform in front of them. It was sleazy. What you didn’t meet was hippy, alternative, political types like me. In fact, a little later, after a couple of feminists had tried to leaflet the Gateways, they were banned.

And then, I discovered the Women’s Liberation Movement. I fell totally in love with the movement, with women as women and with some individual women. All thoughts of possibly being bisexual left me and I made a commitment to women and to feminism. I would call that partly being a political lesbian. I had some friends who had always known that they were lesbians, but many did not see it that way. Compulsory heterosexuality means that we are raised never to question our sexuality, to make the assumption that we are all heterosexual, to think that we had no choice. I think our sexualities are very defined by the patriarchal societies in which we live and that it is perfectly possible to question those assumptions and to learn to respond in different ways. Indeed, the strength of that conditioning and the serious sanctions against deviation from the norm tell you a lot about the power of what they are repressing. The arguments made mostly by gay men in the 80’s that we are all ‘born that way and can’t help it’ never appealed to me, I always felt I had had more choice than that. But it was a way of justifying social reforms such as gay marriage and acceptance into the Church. But as the old joke in gay circles also had it ‘What is the difference between a straight bloke and a gay bloke? About six pints.’ also expresses a truth. As my politics changed, the women I met changed, what I found erotic changed, – the wonderful women I met just blew my socks off and I suspect we all know what nights of impassioned argument and discussion can lead to. If someone sets your mind, your heart and your soul on fire, then it’s not long before the rest is in flames too (well, in my case anyway).

We began to relate to each other as women in ways that were new. My mother’s generation did not, by and large, have free standing female friendships but tended to be family oriented and their lives determined by their husband’s choices. Consciousness raising, the sharing of the truth of our lives and political struggle are powerful game changers – sisterhood really began to mean something.

The magic combination of feminism and lesbianism made sense of the world to me, the way that women had to be controlled, defined in terms of the men in their lives, their roles, the absolute imperative that we did not lead autonomous lives but remained in service, whether that was work, sex, families and childrearing, domestic work, or simply the deference we were expected to show and which constituted normal and appropriate relationships between men and women at the time. The ways in which male violence and the threat of violence policed and controlled us and the damage done – oh, the damage done to women’s lives. Once you understand that, really see it, you can’t unsee it and there is no going back. Lesbians were often identifiable by their refusal to defer, their ‘attitudes’, and unwillingness to conform to feminine stereotypes. Of course, it led us into all sorts of areas of contradiction and difficulty – this trying to define our lives and our relationships away from the heterosexual norm. Monogamy or not? Was heterosexuality sleeping with the enemy? If you were ‘unfeminine’ did that mean you were ‘masculine’? What about celibacy, did we have to have sex at all, and if we did, how did we do it in ways that didn’t mimic patterns we had learned?  What was our authenticity? Big questions about all areas of our lives.

And, of course, there was a very hostile reaction to us, to non-conforming women as a whole, to feminists and above all to lesbians. The accusation of being ugly, hairy dykes was levelled at any women who stepped out of line and used to deter other women from identifying with us. And misogyny was rife in every part of society from the media to the Gay Liberation Front. I attended some of the very first meetings of GLF at the LSE in the early 70’s but left, as did many other women in successive waves, to concentrate on the WLM – the dislike of women was often palpable and our agenda, as always, was not considered important. Lots of women left the socialist groups of the time too, the IMG, IS – politically aware women realised that we needed our own movement and that there was no meaningful revolution without the liberation of women.

Many of the activists involved, like myself, were working class products of grammar schools, the first women (or people) in their families to get to university, the first generation who had been raised on the NHS – we were absolutely the beneficiaries of the post-war Labour government that had brought in such radical changes. Some of us argued for working within the party, and I remember one meeting in particular, around 1978 when I was at Sisterwrite bookshop where we held a meeting to discuss exactly that. So many women came we couldn’t get them all into the premises and had to shut the doors. The argument was fierce about the value of working within the party for reform or strengthening the autonomous women’s movement. Some did one or the other, some did both. Looking back, I can see the impact which women inside had and are still having, but their\our hands were greatly strengthened by having a loud and demanding grass roots movement that had an impact across the whole of our society, internationally, and which could not be ignored.

Anyway, I won’t go further into all of that. Let’s just say our lesbian feminist lives were radical in that nothing was left unscrutinised, painful, funny, joyous, full of surprises and truly discombobulating and we became very different people as we grew up together.  We set up women’s discos and clubs, hundreds of groups, newsletters, bookshops, revolutionary groups, legislative reform groups, groups against male violence and pornography, street theatre and arts groups, consciousness raising groups, health groups, writing and publishing groups, squatting groups, housing coops, conference groups, and groups were set up by black women, Jewish women, working class women, disabled women, often with their own newsletter and publications too.  You name it, some of the WLM were doing it. And lesbians were at the heart, part of every campaign. It took some years to get the right to define our own sexuality onto the list of demands and there was a fear that association with lesbians would ‘harm the cause’. But we got there. And none of that would have been possible without all the lesbians involved. And it wasn’t easy being a lesbian then, you could be insulted or attacked in the street or the tube, shunned by family, lose your children in a custody battle, and generally considered beyond the pale. One of my friends was shot in the chest by an air rifle when she answered the door to our lesbian squat in London Fields. We were disrespected, disempowered and considered to be all the undesirable things it was possible for a woman to be. Not proper women. It became our mission to redefine what a woman could be.

Personally, after being principally a movement activist through the 70’s and into the 80’s, I was involved in bookshops, magazines and publishing and many political groups, I went on to work in local authorities during the Thatcher years and Section 28. More battles. I had come from a tribal Labour family and worked for Labour authorities. They were then at the forefront of trying to bring in equality work on race, women, disabilities and lesbian and gay issues – where that was possible. We had to learn quickly how to take on change in large organisations, and very different ways of working in bureaucracies, unions and governmental bodies. Much was achieved over those years, the setting up of agencies against violence to women, refuges, lesbian and gay units that fought for acceptance in the teeth of an Aids epidemic (and lesbians played their part there too), and eventually Section 28 was defeated.  My story at the end of those years culminated in winning a high court case to be allowed to adopt my daughter as an out lesbian. My partner had had to go through really difficult custody battles in the 70’s to keep her daughter and many women lost because of their sexuality. This seemed to us to be an important and very significant change, though it had taken some years, as our case established the right for lesbians and gay men to adopt in England and Wales, until the next Labour government came in and changed the law. Sadly though, when I rang Stonewall to tell them about our victory, they were less than interested.

Now – well, now. I could never have imagined when we fought those battles in the 70’s simply to be able to exist as lesbians, to have some space and acceptance in society, to be ‘allowed’ to socialise, to do our politics as women, to make the sort of choices I later came to take for granted – that I would have to fight again, for a definition of women that meant women, for the meaning of the word lesbian to mean women and not men who ‘identified’ somehow although they have never had the experience of being women or girls let alone lesbians – that we would have to fight to be heard in our party, in the media, in our culture, that we would be denied any authority on our own oppression, our own language and our opinions, our reality as biological women. We were never biological determinists but denying the impact that biology has on our lives is entirely self-defeating.  I could never have imagined the levels of violence and intimidation, the sheer unbridled misogyny that has been let lose. I thought we had come further and changed things more profoundly.

After having fought so long for, and achieved important advances, I find the situation of young lesbians and gay men today really heart-breaking. I have nothing but respect for the detransitioners’ network and was immensely gladdened that the victory in the Keira Bell case has meant that some brakes are being put on that process which has driven kids from confusion and questioning to drugs, cross-sex hormones and surgery. That they have been told that there is something wrong with their bodies that must be put right; that such experimentation on kids, using drugs whose longterm effects or even assumed benefits are unknown, at a time in their lives when pretty much all of us have been at our most uncertain about our identities, is unconscionable. They have deserved better from us. When in my youth we made an art form of gender non-conformity, we wore ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ clothing often at the same time, DM’s teamed with a 40’s jumble sale frock, or long dangly earrings with a school blazer and tie. We made a point of entering the manual trades, playing football or rugby if we wanted to, riding motorbikes or entering professions that had been hostile to women. There were so many ‘firsts’. But we never mistook it for wanting to be a man. There were a very small number of transsexuals on the gay scene and one or two that divided women in the WLM – the Matriarchy Study Group was at odds about the inclusion of one member over a number of years. But there was no suggestion that you could really change sex, or that a man could become a woman. It’s still a biological impossibility, and being forced to accept that lie is one of the most disturbing aspects of this current political pressure to assert the reality of gender identity as a denial of and replacement for biological reality. Young lesbians no longer have the clubs and places we once had to meet. If they go onto a dating app, they are confronted with many men describing themselves as lesbians and are told they are transphobic if they are not interested in them. Predatory men are dangerous. The contortions involved in lesbians being told to accept the ‘female penis’ are Orwellian, deeply manipulative and destructive of our own understanding of our bodies and their meaning, and our struggles to define ourselves and live empowered lives.

Lesbians are, of necessity, at the heart of this struggle, as we always have been when it comes to fighting for women’s rights. It becomes crystal clear that when the chips are down, and they most certainly are at the moment, our allegiances are with other women, that our oppression as lesbians is part and parcel of the oppression of women and that we cannot rely on alliances under the banner of ‘gay’. It hasn’t really come as a surprise to me that much of this misogyny and the erasure of women and lesbians is coming from the LGBTIQ+ movement. The total disregard and disinterest in the well-being and rights of women from the male-dominated ‘gender identity’ lobby taps into a deep and ancient source – the distrust of women who will not put their rights second to those of men, gay or straight, who stand up and assert our autonomy in a world that is revealing itself anew as the patriarchy it always has been. The lobby groups that are intent on erasing the class of women are part of that patriarchy and have never truly challenged it but instead sought to assimilate, getting access to that power rather than dismantling it, they have become part of corporate life – just take a look at all the organisations that are Stonewall Diversity Champions and its sponsors and trustees. The ‘pink pound’ became important as a unit of capitalist consumption long ago. The refocusing of their agenda from broad-based gay rights to the singular trans activist one with its reliance on slogans such as Trans Women are Women, its refusal to debate and misrepresentation of the issues has proven to be wholly regressive and ought, by rights to have lost any credibility as a forward looking, progressive movement. It cannot be said to be grass-roots, is dependent on old-fashioned notions of sexual stereotypes and unscientific beliefs such as that we are born with an innate gender identity. But still the establishment defers to them and consults and accepts meaningless awards at fancy ceremonies. It’s far easier to gain a superficial credibility by becoming a Stonewall Champion than by actually tackling unequal pay or harassment at work, zero hours contracts or institutional racism. It should not find a home in the labour movement.

The radical agenda is held by feminists. By women who refuse, who persist, by women who know that the patriarchy, which we have always named and fought, is an oppressive, global structuring of power that takes many forms but which always seeks to control and to use in its own interests, and which damages not only the lives of lesbians and women, but every community, all sentient life and essential ecosystems, and the well-being and survival of the planet. We are not just in this battle for ourselves.

Lynn Alderson Feb 2021.