I am reminded by the writings of others that I “came out” 25 years ago. I came out to a cacophony of raised voices, direct actions, angry spray-painted walls. Our rights were under threat by a right wing ideology enshrined in legislation. In the UK “clause 28” was a direct attack on the lives of lesbians. There was enough of a lesbian feminist movement to know that, as lesbians, we had to defend our own rights, that no one else would do it for us and that, if we joined forces with gay men, we would be subsumed by a male agenda.
We did join with them sometimes. We joined the big marches against clause 28 along with hets and gay men. But, more importantly, we carried out our own direct actions and we saw ourselves as separate and apart in our fight for liberation. As radical lesbian feminists, we had no interest in the gay male agenda of being “accepted” within mainstream patriarchy. We saw ourselves as subversives and we wanted to act like that’s what we were.
I was reminded by a tweet of Julie Bindel’s that we occupied the ideal home exhibition. I don’t recall her being there but there were a lot of women taking part in the action that day. It was mother’s day and the action mocked the idea that lesbians were “pretend mothers” (as stated by the Thatcherite propaganda). When we occupied the house and shut the doors, I remember one of the male security guards asking, in puzzlement, “How can lesbians be mothers?” and we laughed. I remember shouting from the top “There’s a lesbian in every woman” and the other lesbians laughed. I don’t even recall going with anyone I knew. A solitary figure casually joining in. There was a lesbian feminist existence to join. She was bold, transgressive, she wanted to scrap all the patriarchal rules and start again.
I look back over the next 25 years as if they are ruins of a forgotten time. Individualistic solutions took a hold in lesbian feminist communities as the fight against patriarchy started losing momentum. If you are fighting what is invisible, acceptable, it is much harder than if you’re fighting an obvious wrong, an obvious injustice. Counselling, alternative therapies and happy coupledoms and tight friendship networks began to be all-pervasive as fewer women were increasingly less overtly political.
There were pockets of resistance. Some of us held out in tiny parts of the UK. We protested when they threatened to cancel our lesbian poetry reading, to be held on council premises. We continued to identify as lesbian feminists and we built communities but, gradually, the fire in our bellies died. It became more and more difficult to fight apathy. The malestream had accepted some feminist reforms. Some of the activists got well-paid jobs and were assimilated. And time rolled by. In the midst of the surge towards individualistic solutions came a new theory. I understood why it appealed to so many lesbians. It gave them permission to merely indulge in oppressive gender roles, instead of fighting them. Don’t like how women are oppressed? Pretend that “gender” is “fluid” and that by dressing up as a man or a woman you are, somehow, doing something revolutionary. And so dragkings and “femmes” and “butch femmes” and goddess knows what were born. They are now enshrined in an apolitical, barely visible, tiny lesbian corner of the universe somewhere. Meanwhile, gay men are busy getting richer and becoming the acceptable gay face of the LGBT world. We insisted on the “l” being at the front; we, the lesbian feminists, who knew we had to fight to be heard; that we are women, as well as lesbians, and that women are hated under patriarchy.
Our movement was co-opted by queers, by “feminist” (sic) men, even by MREs (male rights extremists) – all of whom demand “gender equality” and, in their different ways, deny, trivialize and actively suppress the liberation of women. It’s happened gradually, slowly, over that 25 years so that, now, we have to fight for women-only “reclaim the night” marches, for women-only services, for radical feminists to meet and critique gender openly and without fear of personal recriminations. We are slowly seeing feminist victories of that era being eroded as funding for refuges and rape crisis centres water down political critiques and the funding itself disappears; lesbians are seen as less vocal versions of gay men with the same needs and aspirations. To the (mostly gay men of course) people writing how gay men (and lesbians) are much more comfortable with their sexuality now, 25 years on, understand how our feminist herstory is important. This is only so because of fragile reformist acts protecting rights. Conservatives have made very clear how much they want to repeal those rights. They could be gone in seconds and the attacks on lesbians (and gay men) resurface. It’s what is happening to women’s rights already and, as lesbian feminists, we care about the reproductive and abortion rights of our sisters (and ourselves). We see retrogressive attacks on all women, as a class, increasing, while gay men fight for the right to marry and fit into patriarchal norms.
All is not lost, however, because there is a growing movement of radical feminists who put fighting women’s oppression first, once more. Central to that movement is the right to openly and autonomously organise as women. Our oppressors will not liberate us. We have to pick up the sword of freedom from our sisters past and fight on until we achieve true liberation. Revolution, not reform, will win our freedom.