Rumour has it that this all started in the early 1970s with the Gay Liberation Front. With the profound and fiercely held belief that everything could change, the GLF wanted to re-define sexual politics. They gained inspiration from the Women's Movement and black civil rights, with a dash of libertarian philosophy and a smidgen of socialism. Utopia beckoned.
A number of hardy souls found themselves disgruntled by the self-defined lesbian and gay sub-cultures and by the mainstream political and social structures that ignored their sexuality. The GLF ideology - the affirmation of sexuality as individuals and as a political act - was deemed to be "revolutionary" because it was visible and aggressive. The group wanted to present a challenge to the the Left, who had lost sight of the real issues around sexuality, and to blast apart sexism and heterosexism. The view that "the personal is political" was expanded by GLF to the point where a commune ("a group of gay men") was formed to bring together the two central areas of GLF: consciousness-raising and coming out.*
"Our belief in personal and political change through this process of living together led us to hope that the differences we had, in background or objectives, or on the level of whether we actually liked one another, could be overcome."1
Once the GLF commune had been set up, the real problems began. Conflicts arose over payments of bills, washing-up and a rotting sack of brussel sprouts. These were small fry compared to the confrontations the GLF had with their "sisters", and the group "never quite managed to bridge the gap with the mainstream gay and lesbian communities."2 The women's strand of the GLF newsletter, "Come Together", bore this out:
"We share the experiences of our gay brothers but as women we have endured them differently. Whereas the men in GLF partake of the privileges of the male - you have been allowed to learn to organise, talk and dominate - we have been taught not to believe in ourselves, in our judgement, but to act dumb and wait for a man to make the decisions."3
n the winter of 1971, many lesbians left the GLF, primarily because of arguments over left and right-wing politics, but also because they were annoyed by the way gay men were behaving. A large number of women joined the Women's Liberation Movement, feeling that they had been "struggling against thinly-disguised misogyny."4 By the end of 1972, the London GLF began to crumble but at the same time, other GLF groups were springing up in other major cities. An anarchic lack of leadership was partly blamed when the GLF could no longer keep the fragment groups under its almighty banner, with women present during the disintegration of the GLF specifically citing,
"...basic differences in the sexuality of gay women and men, at that time, which eventually led to the split.... In the end, once again, women were servicing men, women were raising the consciousness, women were giving their energy to men."5
They complained gay men ignored them, viewing the women as an intrusion. It is perhaps understandable, given the narrow-minded naivety of the commune philosophy that many lesbians had "began to abandon the GLF dream"6 as they, "...gave up expecting GLF to solve our problems because... it was essentially a movement built around the freedom to choose and practise your own sexuality. Whatever your sexuality, if you are a woman you are second best. Gay men, under pressure, could return to the closet and regain all the privileges of being male. Where could the lesbians go?"7
Good question. For many years, it seemed that any real effort to begin a "Lesbian Liberation Front" was non-existent. Perhaps it was unfortunate that the strength of the Women's Liberation Movement carried so many away from the GLF to fight for (straight) women's rights. It's possible that this started the rift that still exists today, but as so little has been written about the acrimonious parting (that period of our history has, for the most part, been written by gay men), it could only be viewed as an assumption.
If lesbians were seen to be demonstrating anywhere other than beside gay men during the early eighties, it was usually by the fences at Greenham Common. Then came a strange hiatus where lesbians were seldom seen while gay men were in the spotlight - mostly due to the ravaging spread of HIV and AIDS. Dykes were in the background, working with groups like ACT-UP to increase awareness, writing letters, managing telephone trees, developing strategies, attending conferences, handing out fliers, waving banners, collating information, handling mail outs, licking stamps and rubbing backs.
I have no compunction in saying that lesbians formed an incredibly strong and integral part of the back bone of the AIDS movement, and still do. Lesbians did not see AIDS as an issue solely affecting gay men and did not turn their backs, using the knowledge gained through the Women's Movement and applying it to the AIDS crisis. And as anyone who has even sniffed charity work knows that the criticism is heavy and the praise light. Lesbians were not only affected by the amount of work they put in, but by the number of friends and family members who were dying.
Despite the threat of burn-out, the zeitgeist of AIDS activism heralded a new epoch of radical, direct action, queer activism. This was a gloriously heady time when "Dyke + Fag = Queer" and we were all equally as "Queer As Fuck". The problems of separatist politics were brushed away by the sheer force of the anger felt by many lesbians and gay men. In the United States, Queer Nation became the first of the radical direct action groups who espoused the merits of civil disobedience. They demanded that lesbians and gay men should let themselves "be angry" and "bring forth the rage" which had been bubbling under the surface for a number of years. Rather slick in style and very media-conscious, Queer Nation grabbed maximum attention with planning and executing a string of highly visual protests with highly organised lobbying. Within two years, the groups set up across the US began to fragment as the various factions involved began to resent the controlling power of white gay men but information about the opening of this chasm has rarely been documented.
In May 1990 in London, a similar group - named OutRage! - was formed by a small group of lesbians and gay men in response to the death of an actor called Michael Boothe who had been queer-bashed to death (and despite subsequent claims, Peter Tatchell was not a founding member). Protests around Boothe's murder brought attention to the fact that the police had been tardy in their endeavours to solve the murders of other gay men. Swearing to "defend the dignity and human rights of lesbians and gay men" through a truly democratic structure, OutRage! followed Queer Nation's example of civil disobedience and embarked on various campaigns designed to alert the British public to homophobia.
The first stumbling block was the adoption of the term "queer". Some of the members did not like the term. A flurry of letters between Chris White - a virulent objector - and members of OutRage! began in the pink press. OutRage! claimed no-one was being forced to call themselves "queer" - that was a personal choice - but that lesbians and gays should reclaim the word so that the society at large could not abuse us any further with its use.
After this initial furore died down OutRage! campaigned their socks off. They took a bus to Brighton to call on the Congress for the Family and held queer wedding ceremonies in Trafalgar Square. They created the infamous Whistle Patrols (made possible by 60 people threading pink shoelaces through whistles) and held a kiss-in by the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus. They gave themselves up as "sex criminals" at Bow Street police station and minced up and down Oxford Street in tacky drag. The affinity groups set up to organise one-off "zaps" ran riot. The Whores of Babylon exorcised Lambeth Palace, home to the Archbishop of Canterbury, while the Isle of Man group hopped over to the "Isle of Wanx" and fought for gay rights. The London Underground was hijacked by a group "asserting the right to ride every line safely" after an increase in homophobic attacks. A group called SISSY tried to hand out information on sexuality outside schools, and were splashed with vinegar by irate mothers. A media group successfully infiltrated the "Evening Standard" Film Awards in protest at its homophobic editorials and cleaners were despatched to Hampstead Heath to pick up the condom wrappers. Arduous work indeed in a single eighteen month period.
The OutRage! membership - "irrespective of gender, race, age or social background" - was and still is mainly white, gay and male. The few women who regularly attended in 1991-2 began to feel disgruntled at being boxed out of discussions and having to continuously strive to gain attention. OutRage! bowed to a small amount of pressure and created a group called Ladies' Excuse Me to deal with "lesbian issues" - and in particular, visibility: it was small in size and short-lived. PUSSY (Perverts Undermining State Scrutiny) evolved, a mixed group (but predominantly attended by women) who were assigned to fight censorship and sexism, and to promote queer sex. Most of the work the group did were in reaction to censorship within the community by supporting Della Grace's book "Love Bites" and the pro-sex magazine "Quim". The group also zapped the Brief Encounter, an established gay male drinking hole, as (on the telephone to a gay man from OutRage!) the manager cheerfully acknowledged that the management ran a "Bring A Fish" night, supposedly a weekly event which allowed gay men to bring in their female friends. About fifteen lesbians and a half dozen gay men (drafted in "just in case there was any trouble") ran into the bar, blowing whistles and waving placards with angry cartoon fishes on them. Some bar patrons ran out, while others stayed and screamed abuse at the protesting lesbians, and a number of the men's female friends were particularly vocal about the attributes of lesbians. The "raid" was considered a success as the bar soon stopped running the night altogether. Of course, the group was only too well aware that few attitudes were shifted that night.
OutRage! was gathering momentum with a clippings file that began to outgrow its space in the cabinet. Still, there were some women who were disappointed that the lesbian angle on the OutRage! campaigns was being left out. To try and address the continual problem any high-profile group has, OutRage! set up four "focus groups" to bring racism, sexism, classism and ablism out into the open - not only in the lesbian and gay community, but within OutRage! itself. And so LINK, ETHNIC, Working Class Queers and LABIA+ were born, employing less than a tenth of the people who attended meetings to run the groups.
The groups were small: three only had one member each and LABIA only managed to up the profile of lesbians within OutRage by a dozen or so, but more women did start to attend and get involved. But LABIA still found it rather difficult to get their point across and women found themselves being blocked out or shouted down: one member calmly suggested that if one lesbian speaker was "a little less aggressive, then people would listen." In addition, the excitement created by the potential publicity of the zaps would sometimes mean that vital considerations were left out, and OutRage! was also partially hampered by a continual and frantic rush to find lesbians to take part: invariably, a few of the actions were represented (photographically at least) by the gay media as male-only. When this fact was pointed out, OutRage! took the step of deliberately pushing lesbians and black members to the front of any crowd shot, but this bright initiative didn't always work. On more than one occasion, organisers were "persuaded" by photographers that a line of gay men would make a more striking image for the papers than a mix of dykes and gay men.
In early 1992, OutRage! had started to plan the "Equality Now!" campaign - the brainchild of Peter Tatchell. A consultation paper had been handed around in October 1991 detailing a 12-point plan. It included the "repeal of... anti-lesbian laws" (although there isn't a single British law that mentions lesbians) and planned for a "Buggery Ball", a "Cruise-In" and "Procurement Party" - not exactly events for the ladies. "Anti-gay job discrimination" was called for and a march for an equal age of consent was planned. OutRage! also provided "figures of shame" - 3,500 gay men prosecuted, 2,700 jailed, £12 million wasted on prosecutions etc. Nowhere were there listed figures for lesbians regarding any discrimination, be it in employment, health or law. The issues were either male-only or it was heavily implied they were male-only.
"At several meetings I attended, it appeared that it wasn't only the law for whom lesbians are invisible. The only issue of lesbian equality on the agenda was lesbian custody, and there seemed a common assumption that the women present would have a thought-through agenda, with more experience and interest than the men... 'Lesbian issues' seemed to be tagged on to the end of agendas and invariably postponed until the following week, due to lack of time."8
One action - unconnected to the "Equality Now!" campaign - that was intended to be lesbian-only came with the case of Jennifer Saunders (then 18 years old), who was jailed for six years for "dressing like a man" and having sex with two other 17 year-old women, a sentence that was longer than most men get for rape. As the age of consent law could not be used against Saunders, she was charged with indecent assault, and Judge Crabtree claimed she was a "menace to young girls". He also opined that "I suppose both girls would rather have been raped by some young man" - a comment he later refuted. LABIA took up Saunder's case and held a five-hour picket of the Lord Chancellor's office, demanding the dismissal of Judge Crabtree and a change in the laws concerning the age of consent and the definition of consent, and calling for Saunders to be released.
"Without LABIA, the press would have ignored the fact that the case had anything to do with lesbians. And indeed there was a distinct failure of other lesbian feminist groups to rally to Saunder's defence."9
LABIA admittedly had more failures than successes. LABIA's initial zap of a concert by Michelle Shocked (a lesbian icon who had made derogatory comments about the community which made her famous) was attended by one person because no-one else could get tickets. A women-only tube zap to highlight assaults on the London Underground only managed to muster six women. An attempt to set up lesbian cruising on the Heath (originally suggested by OutRage! members when women decried the lack of cottaging for dykes) was roundly criticised in the press and fell flat. Efforts to promote safer sex for lesbians were stymied by gay men who accused LABIA of "scaremongering". The group designed a set of T-shirts with logos such as "Dykes Fuck - Get Used To It" and "Lesbian Visibility" but funds ran out due the costs of the "Equality Now!" campaign before they could be printed.
OutRage! put the final nail in the focus group coffin in June 1992 with what some consider to be an unconstitutional move. Although OutRage! claimed to be democratic, it was essentially run by a few loud gay men. A motion was put forward without consultation by one of them, Steve Cook, to close down LINK, ETHNIC, Working Class Queers and LABIA because - among other reasons - they wasted time in the meetings, were "boring", and frittered OutRage! money away. None of the groups had spent much money at all: LINK, ETHNIC and Working Class Queers couldn't even zap anyone because no-one turned up to their meetings to arrange it. Most of the work was done by a few people using equipment at their work places, a policy that was positively encouraged by OutRage! for all groups. Members were quoted as saying that the focus groups made them feel "uncomfortable" and "guilty". To myself and others, that proved we were fulfilling one of the tasks the groups were set up to do, and pricking their collective consciousness.
"OutRage! men were sick of being guilt-tripped, an admission that they will only make off the record... Could it be true that... OutRage! wants chivalry and the civilising influence of women, without the comfort of troublesome groups that challenge sexism, racism and ablism?"10
Ironically, OutRage! notified the press that the first action after the focus groups closed was to include the crucifixion of a lesbian. In an article by Sarah Graham (a regular attendee), Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien (the former had been at one meeting in 1992, the latter at none), it was claimed that "virulent reports based on inaccurate accounts" which led them to conclude,
"Is the future of OutRage! being sacrificed by the poison pens of people who may have hidden agendas?"11
A hidden agenda? What of? Equal rights? It seems odd that they should shut down the focus groups, therefore banning any discussion on sexism, racism and ablism. OutRage! have made no attempt to explain where exactly that left women, ethnic communities and the disabled, or how they could ignore the fact that the issues around racism, ablism and sexism cannot easily be separated from homophobia.
Since then, any efforts that OutRage! have made to entice more lesbians, black, Asian or disabled people in have not really worked, although group members consistently claim they are a fully integrated organisation. To others, it was fully understandable that simply because OutRage! (and Stonewall) had a handful of women "actively involved", it didn't mean that lesbian issues were being promoted. The lesbian community per se had not attempted to form a line and voice its own concerns unless forced to take a stand. As author Cherry Smyth asked:
"Is it also the case that lesbians have yet to initiate a queer agenda that is pro-active rather than a reaction to feelings of exclusions?"12
LABIA and the other focus groups were almost certainly a reaction to a lack of consensus and democracy within OutRage! and I believe they did suffer for that. The lesbians involved felt as if they were always on the defensive, having to prove their motives for campaigning around issues other than reproductive and custodial rights. Small scale battles over funding and time ensued on a regular basis. There was pressure from OutRage! to show the outside community that they were dealing with lesbian issues, but weekly discussions took place on the focus groups right to exist within the structure. Lesbians did not feel that they had been invited into this circle, and even had to ask if lesbians were needed to go on zaps. It began to feel as if there was a sex war in microcosm being waged...
© Megan Radclyffe 1995
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