Archive for the ‘LGBT’ Category

3. Fetisch, X-mal Deutschland

July 13, 2017

Or: I was a teenage goth.

I was a teenage goth

As soon as I picked this out of its cover, I thought: I bet I don’t like this as much as I used to like this, and I was right. It all seems quite the dirge now – same pace (plodding), same drum beat (pounding), same guitar (fuzzing)– and I don’t really remember what any of my standout tracks were then. I can barely muster a standout track now.

It seems laughably downbeat today. Sample lyrics from ‘Young Man’: “Young man may die” (repeat three times). All this gloom and death was a natural progression from macabre-obsessed early adolescence: reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards, witchcraft, spontaneous combustion and the part-work The Unexplained. Maybe being a goth was just about coming to terms with your own mortality.

Being a goth was definitely about coming to terms with your own sexuality. What does pop music do for adolescent girls and boys? They say it’s about belonging, being in this tribe, not that one. It’s also about separation. Pop let me to quantify my difference and protect myself, projecting a self that was something else. It let me to keep the world at arm’s length while I tried to understand it. Being a goth and a punk and a psychobilly were place markers along the track to the biggest difference of them all. I’d made it clear I was weird already. They’d get used to it.

So would I.

To like Scottish-German industrial bands made one a sore thumb in a world of Wham! (never liked them then, don’t like ’em now).

It’s also why I sound a bit posh, when I’m not a bit posh: little gradations of separation. It’s no coincidence that in my old goth circles there were plenty of us who ended up L, G and T.

Which one of these do I wish they’d play at the disco? I have no recollection now of what song I wanted to dance to but I do remember the kind of disco I wished I could dance at.

One day, me and my friends were were sitting on some steps by the beach, on a sunny afternoon (it’s hard being goth at the seaside: so much physical activity; so many healthy glows), discussing what we’d call our nightclubs. I don’t remember what theirs would be but mine was going to be called the German word for “prison”, whatever that was. I didn’t know what the German word for prison was but I knew that it beautifully captured what a disco should be.

Now I have a working knowledge of the language and I do know what the German word for “prison” is, I know damn well it doesn’t. (Look at those lyrics though! More hilarious gloom: ‘Verrachte dich/mishandel dich’, a snippet from ‘Kampfen’, one of the numbers I think I liked best then, though don’t ask me why.)

I only dipped my toes in the rusty waters of industrial pop. No Einsturzende Neubauten for me (though I know these were the most interesting and enduring), only Xmal and the disco-din of SPK. My heart really belonged to Siouxsie and Peter Murphy.

Would I buy this record now? Hell, no. Sex moans, echo chambers, pulsing drums – at best, it sounds like a series of Bauhaus b-sides.The cover is a po-mo delight though, with gorgeous typography. I would copy it over and over with my calligraphy pen, with dreams of being a record cover designer.

Fetisch by Xmal Deutschland

Label: 4AD.

Release date: 11 April 1983.

Chart position: This didn’t trouble the upper or the lower reaches of the album charts

Run-out message: Bubo Tapgore (?)

PS: The band were quite pretty.


Jack Wolf on Literary Trans-gressors

January 28, 2013

jack wolf

When? Saturday 23 February
Where? M-Shed, Bristol, Princes Wharf, Bristol BS1 4RN
What time? 2.30 pm

Jack Wolf explores characters and writers who were (probably or possibly) transgender and discuss his research into real life 18th/19thC women who chose to live as men. He will also discuss the challenge of writing a trans character in a historical novel whose experiences are as real as possible yet still make sense to modern readers. Jack’s novel, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, has just been published by Chatto & Windus to much acclaim and was recently praised on Radio 4’s Open Book..

Free but donations to OutStories Bristol project welcome. Tickets via or on the door

Michael Dillon: The Man Who Invented Transsexuals

January 17, 2013

Michael Dillon


When? Saturday, 16 February
Where?  M-Shed, Bristol, Princes Wharf, Bristol BS1 4RN
What time? 2.30pm

Michael Dillon was the first person in the world to undergo medical gender transition from female to male. Oxford educated, he trained as a doctor and played a key role developing the modern medical view of transsexuals. He also assisted with the UK’s first male-to-female gender surgery. Cheryl Morgan explains how the modern history of trans people began here in Bristol, and how two World Wars helped make this gender revolution possible.

Free but donations to OutStories Bristol project welcome. Tickets via on the door

Diana Souhami on Lesbian Lives: Bristol 2 February

January 16, 2013


When? Fri 8 February
Where? Bristol Central Library, College Green, Bristol BS1 5TL, 0117 903 7200
What time? 7 pm

Diana Souhami’s biographies explore the most influential and intriguing of 20thC lesbian (and gay lives). The subjects of her unflinching eye include Radclyffe Hall, Garbo, Cecil Beaton, Gluck, queens of the Parisian demimonde, Natalie Barney and Romaine Brookes, and Violet Trefusis, who had a passionate, eccentric affair with Vita Sackville-West. She has also written about the nurse Edith Cavell, and the story of her stay on ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island.  Her latest book, Murder at Wrotham Hill, examines the case of a murder that took place in Kent shortly after WWII. All her books from Gluck to Coconut Chaos are being rereleased by Quercus in February, in paperback and Kindle formats.

More information on Diana Souhami’s website.

Book via eventbrite, at the library or on the door.

Neil Bartlett at M-Shed Bristol on 2 February

January 14, 2013




What? A talk by Neil Bartlett

Where? M-Shed, Bristol

When?  2.30pm, 2 February 2013

A writer, director and performer whose work is steeped in gay men’s histories, Neil Bartlett’s first book, Who Was That Man? about Oscar Wilde was published in 1988. He has also written several novels, including Mr Clive and Mr Page (which weaves together incidents from the lives of Gordon Selfridge and Rock Hudson) and numerous plays, including A Vision of Love Revealed In Sleep, about gay Jewish East End artist Simeon Solomon.

Anyone who is interested in LGBT literature and history must come to this event.

Donations to OutStories Bristol gratefully received. Book via or turn up on the day.


December 13, 2012

Published in Diva magazine, May 2008

INTERVIEW Sandra Bernhard, the Michigan motormouth, is revving her rage for a one-off Manchester revival. Words Kim Renfrew

Sandra Bernhard has a reputation. The all-round artist and entertainer is known for being tough, intimidating and no mincer of words. In the past, targets such as Mother Theresa and the Bush children have all fallen foul of her acid tongue.

So it’s a bit of a surprise when the Bernhard I talk to over the phone in New York is charming, discreet and even a little cautious, naming no names and skilfully batting away queries about the Kabbalah (the Jewish esoteric practice to which she is rumoured to have introduced Madonna and Demi Moore). Could it be that the Michigan motormouth has mellowed in her middle years? ‘That’s the last thing I’d have done! You can’t live in this life and be mellow. Day to day, I’m mellow: I love my family, I love my life, my girlfriend [Vanity Fair exec Sara Switzer], my daughter… but when I look outside my window and I see the crap going on, you’d better believe it gets my back up.’

No, that razor edge hasn’t been blunted, and it’s clear that Bernhard still rages at the many inadequacies of the world. And boy, can she talk. She leads me through a passionate tirade against the wars in Vietnam (bloodshed, which ultimately, she says, just enabled us to buy underwear stitched together in the Far East) and Iraq, the current futility of American politics and — the hot topic on the day we speak — the presidential race. ‘We’ve had the same sort of patriarchy running this country from the beginning: white men with a narrow view of the world and all their fears and desires to serve the master, the corporate structure. In theory, I would love the idea of a woman president, but I don’t think Hillary Clinton represents the change we need right now.’

In fact, Everything Bad & Beautiful, the album of her current show, is shot through with politics of every kind. Traditional politics is there, in the imagined meeting between US Secretary of Stare Condoleeza Rice and Rosa Parks, the woman who sparked the American civil rights movement in the 50s after refusing to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. There’s a guitar-driven femi­nist rant against the bland – though dan­gerous – conformism of fashion in Undressed, And there’s also tender, yet impassioned, material like The Flame, addressed to her daughter Cicely, now nearly ten. Motherhood has changed Bernhard’s worldview: ‘Certainly I’m looking to the future,’ she says. ‘The world I want to create for my daughter, and the world I want her to live in.’ And it’s seems that some of Mom’s idealism has already rubbed off: ‘She wants to be a hippy, she wants peace, she wants love, she loves John Lennon…’

Everything Bad & Beautiful is Bernhard’s eleventh record, and her umpteenth show in a career that spans 30 years. There’s something very old-fash­ioned about the honest, hardworking route to fame that Bernhard followed, playing the clubs, plugging away at a bit of this and a bit of that, climbing through the ranks. The opposite, in fact, of the shallow promises of instant fame and for­tune promoted by the likes of Pop Idol and its multitude of copyists, a concept that, unsurprisingly, she has little time for: ‘It’s part and parcel of what I’ve been talk­ing about, this sort of immediacy. You don’t have to work for anything, we’ll just hand it to you and – guess what? – it all comes back to bite you on the ass in the end, because every five minutes there’s somebody new.’ It’s troopers like herself that she really admires. ‘Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithfull, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, the great voices of the past who were destined to be great singers and artists.’

Destiny, though, also involves a hell of a lot of hard graft, and Bernhard is no shirker. After touring Everything Bad… around the UK last autumn, she’s back at Manchester’s Queerupnorth festival on May 9th, something she’s relishing: ‘I love place and the people. You Brits are just a whole other breed.’

And, thrillingly, she’s reprising her legendary 1988 work, Without You I’m Nothing. Why? Because she can: ‘The show really put me on the map, and we just thought it would be great to bring out a classic for a new generation. There’s really nothing to say, other than it’s a great show and it touched on a lot of things that are still relevant.’

And for this performer, lesbian and gay audiences have changed immeasurably in the time since Without You… debuted. After all, back in the day, when Bernhard played her all-nighter at The Scala in London, she bemoaned onstage the fact that lesbian promoters were perhaps a little on the stingy side, expecting her to do something for nothing. But now ‘the whole gay experience is completely different. People feel much more comfortable and I think that acceptance in general society has changed people.’

As well as looking back, Bernhard is still being carried forward by her compulsion to create. She’s just started writing a new book, she’s touring, doing some music  and TV work, and she clearly adores it all: ‘I love being a performer and an artist. It’s really the most fulfilling thing in the world.’ So, is she ever going to stop, or will she still be at it when she’s 90, held together with ostrich feathers and safety pins, like Marlene Dietrich? ‘Why not?’ she says. ‘But I hope I won’t fall off the stage.’

Thirsting for Waters

December 8, 2012

This was the second time I interviewed Sarah Waters, just before Affinity was televised. It was originally published in Diva, April 2008

ITV’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ second novel, Affinity, follows a South Bank Show special on the nation’s best-loved lesbian author. Kim Renfrew’s cup runneth over.

You know you’re important when Melvyn Bragg selects you for scrutiny on his highbrow ITV arts digest, The South Bank Show. That’s exactly what’s happening to Sarah Waters in late March, when she’ll be profiled by the bequiffed peer, and it surely marks another step towards lesbian culture nudging its way into the establishment. ‘Everybody’s been saying “Ooh, you’ve arrived!”‘ says Waters. ‘I really like The South Bank Show because it has such a spectrum of popular culture as well as highbrow stuff, so I feel very flattered and excited to be on their radar.’


The show is part of the build up to the transmission of the Andrew Davies’ (he also did the screenplay for Tipping The Velvet) adaptation of Waters’ dark and difficult second novel Affinity. The programme takes us back to 1870s’ London, where we follow Margaret (Anna Madeley), a wealthy woman who, in the wake of her father’s death, becomes a do-gooder visitor at Millbank women’s prison. There, she’s entranced by Selina (Zoe Tapper, set to become the next big lesbian pin-up), a psychic who’s been jailed for fraud and assault connected to one of her seances. A bond – an affinity, in fact – develops between the two women, who embark on a romantic friendship-cum-romance proper, complete with much heaving of stays. Without giving too much plot away, Margaret is lured into a world of spiritualism, charlatanry and betrayal. (And watch for the traditional  cameo: as Margaret mounts the steps to the dressmakers’ shop, Waters can be seen walking down them.)

Perhaps it’s the transfer to the screen that does it, but the love-in-a-women’s prison theme – a juicy genre stretching back through Bad Girls to Prisoner, 1970s’ sexploitation movies to 1950s’ pulp fiction — seems foregrounded. Was there ever a cheeky element of homage in Waters’ subject choice? ‘My girlfriend thinks we should have had Bodybag from Bad Girls [in the programme],’ she laughs. ‘Actually, every depiction of women’s prisons draws on the same sources: women pent up together, passions building up like a kettle. It’s impossible to write a story now about a women’s prison and not invoke it. But of course,’ she adds, ‘I wrote Affinity before Bad Girls‘.

Stylistically, too, this TV adaptation is different from Waters’ others, as it’s a single-episode drama: quite risky for a slow, brooding and –  literally – haunting book like Affinity. But Waters is unperturbed: ‘I always thought it would work better as a one-off because the narrative is tight. I think Andrew’s structure is brilliant. It’s quite fast, but that’s the nature of TV, and audiences are used to that.’ Inevitably, though, simmering 350 pages down to 80 screen minutes is bound to entail changes, and this drama does rather romanticise the ending, which in the book, as Waters herself freely admits, is ‘quite brutal, really.’ But she likes what Davies has done, which certainly takes a kinder view of women than Waters ever has in any of her novels; they hardly paint a rosy picture about communities of women. All her novels, in fact, are riven with the betrayals and cruelties that women heap upon each other. ‘I keep thinking that people are going to start getting at me for this,’ she laughs, ‘I’d hate my books to feel misogynist – that would be awful! We tend to think about feminism as celebrating women, but I’m more interested in fractures across women’s communities. I suppose, as a writer, I’m drawn to people’s darker motivations. But when my women are nasty to each other, I hope I show it as part of a larger system influenced by other forces, like class.’

Another difference is that, unlike Tipping The Velvet and Fingersmith, Affinity won’t be broadcast on the home of costume drama, BBC1, but on ITV, a move that may well raise Waters’ profile even further and open her up to whole new audiences. And although it’s been – astonishingly – nearly ten years since Affinity was first published, Waters is very glad to revisit it. She says, ‘It’s been really nice to see it given a second life,’ – or perhaps that should be ‘afterlife’, given the subject matter – ‘but my main interest is always the book I’m working on.’

Currently, she’s busy with her brand-new novel, which she describes as ‘a post-war crumbling country house, rather gothic, full of class and gender tension.’ When I ask about the new book, she groans then quickly says: ‘I don’t know why I’m groaning, because it’s coming along quite nicely. I’ve been working on it for a year and a half, finished the first draft last year, and now I’m doing the first rewrite. It’s a much more traditional sort of story and I hope that people aren’t going to be shocked but,’ and here she lets loose a bombshell, ‘there’s no lesbian element at all.’ But she does hint that there’s a ‘rather mannish’ character in the book.

In the meantime, we still have the gothic girl-on-girl action of Affinity to relish and, beyond that, a screen adaptation of The Night Watch is also in the developmental stages. With so much Waters around, we need never thirst for quality lesbian screentime.

Because the Night

December 5, 2012

Published in Amsterdam Weekly, May 2007 (the Rock ‘n’ Roll issue)


It’s one of the most rock ‘n’ roll things imaginable: making a living from writing, often very rudely indeed, about lesbian life and selling it to the masses. So did Sarah Waters ever think she would get rich and famous from peddling dirty lesbian books? ‘No,’ the author laughs. ‘I never knew there was so much money in being a lesbian!’

It’s a flippant assessment of Waters’ short – her first novel, Tipping the Velvet was published in 1998 – but stellar career. She’s one of Granta’s prestigious Best Young British Writers; two of her novels were adapted into hugely successful TV series; she’s won 11 awards including the Betty Trask and John Rhys Llewellyn and been nominated for many more, notably the Booker and Orange prizes – the latter for both Fingersmith and her most recent, The Night Watch, which Waters was in town to talk about as part of the Amsterdam Literary Festival.

But it isn’t an inaccurate assessment. Waters has changed the landscape of literature – and quite probably lesbian life – forever. For many, reading Tipping the Velvet, her extraordinary debut about a cross-dressing oyster seller who conquers Victorian London first as a music hall star and then as a rent boy, was an epiphany. Here was an author who portrayed lesbianism in unflinching detail, and on its own terms, then got it – hand-tooled leather dildos and all – on prime-time BBC. And her books sell by the cartload. No one, not even Jeanette Winterson – the writer to whom Waters can most closely be compared, and to whom she feels indebted – has done that.

So, is the fact that she’s made lesbianism mainstream something to do with herself, or with the times? ‘I think it must be something to do with the times, really,’ she says. ‘It’s not like I came from nowhere. [Jeanette Winterson] is a writer who [did] such a bold thing: write ambitious literary fiction which was also completely lesbian, and there was no problem with that. In something like Tipping the Velvet, I think I just did the right thing at the right time.’

This modest response (she and Winterson must part company here) goes some way to explaining why, in London publishing circles, Waters has a reputation for being one of the nicest people in the biz.

But to ascribe her popularity to the zeitgeist alone would be to underestimate waters’ power as a storyteller – she’s up there with Fielding and Dickens in terms of page-turnability – the very thing that ensnares readers and which allows her to slip in often esoteric, and sometimes eyebrow-raising, aspects of women’s sexuality. ‘It’s a very old-fashioned sort of storytelling,’ she explains. ‘All my novels are in a way. They’re very accessible fiction, and they’re completely relaxed about lesbianism. Lesbianism is both completely important in them and also totally incidental.’

Although all of Waters books are historical, she denies that this is a distancing tactic: ‘I’ve never wanted to make lesbianism palatable by setting it in the past. If I was a historian, nobody would ever say to me: “Why do you bang on about the historians all the time?”’ In fact, it could be argued that the historical contexts of her stories are a way of connecting with the present: they sniff out the reasons for why we’ve ended up where we are now.

That’s certainly the case with the The Night Watch, whose very narrative structure – it begins in 1947 and ends in 1941 – explores where people have arrived by tracing where they came from. It’s a complex, tricksy, formidably researched book (as you’d expect from someone with a PhD in historical fiction), which all at once manages to capture the horror and after-shock of war, tell several love stories across every shade of the sexual rainbow, while also examining shifting patterns of gender. It’s also the most contemporary of Waters’ novels, though she’s slowly creeping towards today. ‘I’m doing a lot of thinking and reading and I have plans to write another book in the post-war setting. Maybe about 1950, that sort of period,’ she reveals. ‘I think I’m going to stay in this post-war world.’

Can she ever imagine writing something set now? ‘If I did write a contemporary novel it would have some sort of identity of its own – it might be a ghost story or something more gothic. I’m as interested in genre as I am in history, so that could take me into the present. For now, it’s still very much the past that inspires me.’

And from that fascination with the past, Waters has achieved a very modern version of success. Could all that fame have gone to her head? What, for example, is the most rock ‘n’ roll thing she’s ever done? ‘I did a gig with the Indigo Girls. That’s the closest I’ve ever come – I was on stage with people with electric guitars!’ she says.

Good answer. But did anyone throw their knickers onstage?

‘No, unfortunately.’

The Leather Boys

February 3, 2010

“Oh my Gawd! Big Mary’s on that ship, darling. You’ll ’ave to do just what she says. She’ll draw a knife if she’s upset.”

This edition is from January 1969, from the New English Library. It’s a reprint of the original 1961 edition, which was published under the nom de plume Eliot George (get it?).

I think I bought this in the mid-1990s, when I was a student at Essex University, but I don’t remember exactly. Normally, I inscribe the date and the place I bought a book on the fly-leaf, but I haven’t with this one. It probably came from a charity shop, which Colchester was rich with at the time. I think I remember reading it, if not acquiring it, around the same time as Cruising by Gerald Walker, in which I also omitted to jot a time and place, but I see cost me 40p.

The covers a bit of an oddity, because there aren’t any biker babes in this book; in fact, women don’t feature large in it at all. It was probably issued under this cover to lure in a straight male audience (who may have been in for a bit of a surprise when they read it) and perhaps was cashing in on the cult appeal of the film The Girl on a Motorcycle, released the year before. By then, this book had already made it to the big screen,  with a Sixties Britflick cast that scores a perfect 10: Rita Tushingham, Dudley Sutton, Betty Marsden from Round the Horne, Mike Baldwin off Coronation Street, Dandy Nicholls.

Dick and Reggie are two 18 year olds who hang out at a bikers’ greasy spoon that is no doubt meant to evoke the Ace Cafe on the North Circular (and where, in fact, scenes from the film were recorded). Dick loves his nan and dressing sharp. Reggie loves his motorbike and hates his wife. Both boys end up loving each other.

They inhabit an era when young thugs said ‘smashing!’, Primrose Hill was a shabby backwater, a Perry Como haircut was a sign of youthful rebellion and the working classes began every aitch-word with an apostrophe, meaning the page ’as a ’orrible, ’ard-to-read look, as if someone ’oo ’as really shakey ’ands ’as scattered ’undreds and thousands over the ’ole page.

They aren’t wrong ’uns, really, Dick and Reggie. Rather, they are good boys who have fallen in with a bad crowd. They don’t like the violence but they have to do it because they are trapped by their own masculinity. Their whole existence fetishises machismo: the bond of the gang; the casual hatred of women; the tight leather clothes and throbbing machines between their legs. They love male things and societies of men but don’t know what to do with that love yet.

In the course of the story, they do over a church-hall dance and pour a pint of milk over the head of a vicar.

They do over a janitor’s shed just for fun.

They do over a newsagent’s for a share of the dosh.

They plan do over a picture house then run away and join the merchant navy. Go to Australia, get a new life together.

Freeman’s prose is clunky, workmanlike and with none of the verve or sass of American counterparts from the time, but it’s a nice enough little portrait of a world on the cusp of a big change. The working classes know their place, know they don’t like it and are bloody well about to change it through hire purchase and pop culture and holidays abroad.  It draws a neat comparison between parallel criminal underworlds – gangland and gays, explored to its fullest and best effect in the work of Jake Arnott – and how young men could and did drift between the two. It also dips its toes into the secret life of the merchant navy, with a cameo from the obligatory parade of shrieking pansies.

Women don’t come out of it well, though: they are thick and vain and nagging and avaricious, with insatiable sexual appetites. They will ultimately betray you. As a portrait of gayness it’s not too bad, capturing the thrill of first love as it flings you round like a switchback railway. It is mercifully free of handwringing and guilt – which perhaps made it endure longer than the other dimestore paperbacks that came out at the time – and there isn’t much furtiveness, which makes it a refreshing read. But the book can never let the reader forget this is the 1960s, when homosexuality was a problem and as such, needed a solution – still the case to some extent in representations today (look no further than Brokeback Mountain for an example of this). The solution, of course, had to be death for one of the young lovers. I’m not going to tell you which.

On the warpath

January 28, 2010

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.’