On the warpath

Published in Diva, September 2008
POLITICS A new generation of gay women is getting ready to storm the hustings for the 2009 election. Kim Renfrew wonders whether Whitehall is ready for them.

‘Lesbian politics.’ Not so long ago, these two words were enough to make governments quake. After decades of suppression, the empowerment of the gay liberation movement from America, combined with an international surge of feminism, created the out, outspoken and sometimes outrageous figure of the militant lesbian. By the mid-1970s, everything, especially the personal, was politicised. You had women who chose the gay way as an explicit rejection of patriarchy, and self-sufficient, separatist communes sprang up, withdrawn from any male contact. There were lesbian-only publishers, record labels, language: ‘women’ became detached from any whiff of the male to become the satirists’ favourite, ‘wimmin’. It seemed for a while that a sometimes glorious, sometimes insane, but always entirely lesbian future was dawning. We had the power not just to change the world, but to be the world.

Fast-forward 20-odd years, and times have changed. Section 28 came and went, along with Greenham Common and its missiles. Aids needn’t be a death sentence. The spectre of the Loony Lefty Lezzie no longer haunts respectable society. In some ways, lesbians have become respectable society: we can get hitched (kind of); we can’t be sacked because of who we sleep with – though we don’t earn as much as our male colleagues; we can raise families, although some MPs still aren’t keen on fatherless children. Militancy doesn’t go down well in our own community any more, either. Look at the petition posted by ‘Angrylesbians’ on DIVA’s website against new film Lesbian Vampire Killers – because it is ‘demeaning to women, and lesbians in particular’. Less than 20 years ago, this would have prompted action — remember The Silence of the Lambs? Now it only attracts hoots of derision.

Lesbians’ own political attitudes are clearly becoming more mainstream. Does this mean that the mainstream is reciprocating by letting us into the corridors of power? Not exactly. Since Labour’s Angela Eagle came out publicly in 1997 – the only lesbian MP to do so since Maureen Colquhoun in 1976 – no-one has followed her example. So, how does it feel to be in such a unique position? ‘I don’t think too much about it,’ says Eagle. ‘It’s been more than 10 years now since I came out, and it’s just an aspect of the work I do. Although, obviously, I try to reflect those views at appropriate times, most recently the IVF vote. It’s a privilege to be able to represent that viewpoint.’

Although Eagle is the lone voice in Westminster, there is hope on the horizon, thanks to a new generation of politically engaged young dykes who link their thinking with their sexuality. One of these is 22-year-old aspiring Liberal Democrat Rachel Hamburger, founder of the Islington branch of Liberal Youth. For her, the connection was forged early on: ‘I remember being very young – before I’d started identifying as gay – and reading about Section 28. It immediately struck a chord with me and, as the Lib Dems were being very vocal on the Section, that really drew me in.’

Hamburger and Eagle both belong the traditionally gay-friendlier parties; perhaps one of the more eyebrow-raising recent developments is our being courted by the Tories, with party leader David Cameron speaking supportively of Civil Partnerships. This is unequivocally a giant leap for the party that, only 20 years ago, introduced Section 28 specifically to counteract ‘pretended family relationships’. Now the Conservatives are casting not just for the pink vote, but also for pink candidates, too. One of the most high profile is the party’s vice chair, Margot James, PPC for Stourbridge. She admits that her party’s LGBT record hasn’t been exemplary, and speaks of ‘the bad old days our party went through with introduction of Clause 28: that was really an attack on our way of life. Now we’re making great strides.’

Not everyone is convinced by the Conservatives’ new inclusive stance. Julia Brandreth is a 38-year-old trade unionist. She says, ‘More Tories than before seem to be falling over themselves to show their gay-friendly credentials. However, what is being courted is the (mainly white, gay male) pink pound. I’m not sure that working-class lesbians, white or black, are being courted by anyone’s political agenda.’ She doesn’t see a place for her beliefs in parliamentary politics. ‘I can’t see myself joining a mainstream political party in the near future,’ she explains. ‘I don’t think they represent the views and interests of anyone who isn’t rich and privileged. To me, the disaster of British politics at the moment is that the whole thing is set up to make people think that they can’t change what’s happening.’ For Brandreth, political engagement is more effective at grassroots level, and is evidence that, for those who feel frustrated with the mainstream, there is still space to get involved.

Although all these women occupy different points on the political spectrum, they all agree on one topic: role models. Or rather, their absence. ‘It’s shocking that we still only have one out lesbian MP!’ declares Brandreth. Since women were first allowed to stand for parliament in 1918, the total number of female MPs ever voted in wouldn’t even half-fill the Commons. Furthermore, according to recent research by the Electoral Reform Society, women occupy just 20% of the seats in Westminster, a proportion that hasn’t changed since 1997. At the rate we’re going, it would take around 400 years to achieve parity. And so few women naturally means even fewer lesbians.

‘There aren’t many lesbians in politics,’ says Hamburger ruefully. ‘And the influence of role models mustn’t be underestimated. It’s difficult when you can’t see anyone that’s like you [in politics]. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation.’

In May, Iain Duncan Smith’s (unsuccessful) amendment to May’s IVF bill – which tried to make the ‘need for a father’ an obligation for artificially-conceived children – rammed home the message that role models aren’t just about setting a good example, but also about having a say in the way we’re allowed to live our lives. ‘On the floor of the chamber, lesbians were completely absent from the debate,’ says Hamburger. ‘It could have changed our rights to have children, yet there was not one gay woman who debated the issue from that standpoint. It really struck me just how absent lesbians are from mainstream politics. And what a shame that is.’
‘It’s important that the perspective gay women can bring to society gets properly represented,’ says Eagle, who brought her influence to bear during the run-up to the vote. ‘Behind the scenes, I did a lot of explaining to colleagues that lesbians would be denied treatment, and I didn’t think that was fair. My colleagues in the Labour Party realised that once they’d been able to talk it through with me.’

Visible lesbian politicians can also incite more women to get up and do the same,  and it’s telling that even these politically engaged women don’t mention other lesbians as their inspirations. In fact, only James mentioned Maureen Colquhoun, and then as a cautionary tale – her political career was effectively ruined by the media and her own Labour Party, which offered little support – rather than as a figure to be emulated. Thirty years down the line, can lesbians expect better reception? Hamburger, a part of the generation that has reaped the benefits of legislative and societal shifts, says she’s never encountered homophobia. ‘My experience has been wholly positive from beginning to end. You have to be open about it from the beginning, though, which isn’t easy for everyone. I announced to my mother that if I go anywhere in politics, [my sexuality] will be out there. I’m lucky, because I haven’t had any problems with my family.’

Even the most visible lesbian has a generally positive experience. ‘I don’t think I have experienced homophobia face to face in Parliament,’ says Eagle. ‘I’ve had a few incidents in the constituency – you come across people who aren’t happy with it, or who comment, but actually the response I’ve had gives me a great deal of confidence in people’s general good sense.’ Margot James agrees. ‘I don’t feel there are any issues in the Conservative Party – I feel no sense of any problems.’ Where these two high-profile lesbians do see a bigger problem is from the media. Eagle says, ‘The way the media talk about it sometimes can be a bit irrelevant.’ James expands on that: ‘You get the odd hostile interview. Letters in my local newspaper suggested that, because of my sexuality, I’m not able to advance Cameron’s family agenda.’

In the unions, Brandreth says she sometimes comes up against stereotyped expectations. ‘Sad to say, people often still expect a trade union official to be white, male and straight,’ she says. ‘People are often surprised when I turn up!’ But she is very aware that one point of politics is to change attitudes – on all sides. ‘I think what’s great about the trade union movement is that you meet and bond with people at work who you’d never meet any other way. This changes your and other people’s perceptions.’

The other job of politics is, of course, to make the future a better place than today. And these women, although of very different shades of opinion, all agree that the way forward no longer involves single-issue campaigning, now that the major discriminatory hurdles have been vaulted. The future of lesbian politics will be more – that word again – mainstream. ‘I think that 90% of the issues facing gay women are facing all women,’ says James, ‘And probably 70% of those issues face all people.’

For Brandreth, what’s needed now is a drive towards addressing subtler forms of discrimination against lesbians. ‘A big issue is pay disparity between men and women, which obviously has a disproportionate effect on lesbian couples,’ she explains. ‘It impacts on the larger question of whether legislation, of itself, solves problems. The Equal Pay act was passed in 1970, and yet statistics show that, nearly 40 years later, women’s pay is 80% that of men’s.’ Which, of course, is where the unions come in.

In the period that covers the average life expectancy of a woman in the UK, we have made the journey from being allowed to mark an ‘X’ in a box to fielding out-lesbian candidates. But until we have equal wages, until homophobic bullying in schools has gone, until our parenting skills aren’t under fire, until we stop using the word ‘pioneering’ about women like Eagle, we still have a long way to go. The next generation of lesbian politicians is optimistic about the future of lesbian politics. ‘Perhaps,’ says Hamburger, ‘the first lesbian Prime Minister is just a few years away. Think about the leaps we’ve made in the last decade; if they happen over the next two decades, there’s a chance of it… I’m not naive – I think it’s a possibility.’

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3 Responses to “On the warpath”

  1. Paul Says:

    Poor example using Lesbian Vampire Killers because the word Lesbian was dropped from DVD covers on the insistence of retailers like Tesco and Sainsbury as well as the US distributor Harvey Weinstein and his brother. Of course the real insult to lesbians is that the word needs to be removed completely from the title before mainstream supermarkets or Hollywood paymasters are prepared to handle it.

    Of course, the movie itself, which attempts to lampoon the lesbian vampire genre features neither jokes nor realistic lesbian characters, but merely a few third-rate actresses and page 3 girls bumping and grinding as if in a lapdance club. It was voted worst Turkey of the Year by Sun readers who normally don’t care as long as there is T’n’A and even made it to a list of the ten worst films of the decade.

    The lead character Carmilla is borrowed from Sheridan Le Fanu’s seminal 1871 novella studied as much for its early feminist sub-text as well as its inspiration for Dracula, but none of these elements made it to this piece of trash.

    A forthcoming adaption of the novella called Carmilla which I am directing will attempt to do justice to the source text http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1351631/

    • renfrewmatic Says:

      It’s not really a poor example, because this article was originally published in Diva magazine in 2008, before the film was released and predating the DVD release by a long shot.

      I think the real insult is to everybody, because it is a comedy which is singularly unfunny.

      Thank you for your comments, anyway.

  2. Paul Says:

    Apologies, my google alerts only just pulled the article up and I didn’t look at the original publication date. Hindsight is of course 20/20 vision. Anyway, I fully concur on the assessment of the film. I am reminded of the reviewer who said “if it is meant to be a comedy, why didn’t they put any jokes in for Corden and Horne to deliver?”

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