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 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, not only in the meetings, but in the office space as well. Despite the sheer audacity of the move to shut down the focus groups, to some it felt like a blessed release. Many of the women involved were drained by the effort, and submitted to burn-out or total disinterest in any further activism as a consequence.
Rumours abounded in mid-1994 that OutRage! wanted to set up another focus group structure. When myself and a few of the ex-LABIA members went to a meeting to check the rumours out, we were told that OutRage! was a group "for individuals" and that they could not make anyone attend who did not want to. Comments were also made to the effect that LABIA, in particular, had not done a very good job but OutRage! were doing very nicely thank you. The one alternative group raising the banner for "our" rights is Stonewall, a bunch of self-elected high flyers and celebrities. Formed shortly after Clause 28 (eventually passed into law as Section 28) completed its passage through Parliament (and thereby closing the stable doors after the horse had bolted), Stonewall initiated professional campaigns full of glitz and glamour that attracted those with hefty wallets and MPs with a mind open to change. Stonewall has tended to focus on issues that only affect gay men, although they claim that we are all "going to have equality within five years." I wonder just how feasible this is, particularly because the statement so closely echoes one made over twenty years ago by the GLF.
It is difficult to write about the efforts Stonewall have made for lesbians, because they been astoundingly lacking in attention to lesbian rights. One of the group's leading lights, Angela Mason, makes the excuse that,
"When you're actually involved in lobbying and campaigning it becomes clear that at each stage you have to think carefully about how you represent the issues and, unless you do that, it1s easy for it to dominated by male images."13
In order to redress the balance, Stonewall announced they were going to take lesbian issues seriously ("...before we initiate another major campaign, we will consult more carefully with the lesbian community and think through the way the issue impacts directly on women"14) and would hold a benefit concert to launch their new campaign. As with any Stonewall bash, the cheapest ticket was £20 and even those who could provide their own seating (namely wheelchair disabled) were charged £40. Over a year on, another benefit has been planned to raise awareness of employment rights, but the lesbian angle seems to have been dropped and there are no ticket prices on the adverts.
So far, Stonewall hasn't done much to follow up its new creed that "women's voices will be very important in a campaign to change laws and they are an important constituency which we need to mobilise".15 One group that has tried is the Lesbian Avengers.
The Avengers were set up in London in July 1994 following the lead of American Avenger groups, with some financial assistance from OutRage! - a contributory factor that was kept very quiet (even denied) at the beginning. Exactly why this happened is still unclear, although OutRage! had helped out before by distributing a questionnaire at Pride 1994, on behalf of the Avengers but not mentioning them, asking lesbians why they shied away from activism. As far as I am aware, the results were never publicised.
The Lesbian Avengers are fuelled by an equally strong sense of injustice and created an arena where they can not only voice their concerns but act upon them as well. The lesbian community have long had the tradition of championing everybody else's issues but never their own. Now, women banded together to try and address some of the issues important to them, ones that were not being tackled by gay male groups.
In essence, the Lesbian Avengers' statement of aims is similar to that of OutRage! (to fight homophobia and discrimination) but from a lesbian angle which now carries radical queer energy. However, they are really no more than a female-centred version of OutRage! without the campaigns around the rights to cottage and cruise. The fundamental driving force behind most OutRage! campaigns was gay men's right to have sex, wherever, whenever and however they wanted it, and to combat the obstructions placed in the way in the form of age and location.
The lesbian agenda has escaped the stuffy image of the knit-your-own-muesli wombyn-loving-wimmin of the 1970s and this is an undeniably positive shift. This is just what lesbians need, because it creates an atmosphere where women's opinions and ideas are not dismissed out of hand due to gender. Of course, The Avengers could not be allowed to get away with such a positive start, and received a rather absurd piece of publicity in their early days. The "Pink Paper" wrote dismissively that they were "the fashionable activists of the month." It has been pointed out that the press would never (and actually did not) wave away any zaps or lobbying by Stonewall, ACT-UP or OutRage! in this way.
Undeterred, the Avengers grew quickly, and performed a number of zaps quickly after their launch. The group protested against immigration laws at Heathrow Airport, petitioning for a change in the law to give partnership rights to lesbians and gay men. They disrupted the 75th Anniversary bash of Save The Children's to highlight their hypocrisy in dropping lesbian actress and mother of two Sandi Toksvig after she publicly came out. They performed an all-lesbian version of "Romeo and Juliet" outside Hackney Town Hall to support Jane Brown, the head teacher vilified by press and councillors last year for "failing to take pupils to see Shakespeare's play on the grounds that it was too heterosexual." The group also took over the right-wing Men's Group Conference in November 1994, objecting to their pro-family stance, and held a picnic at the home of Emma Nicholson MP, to highlight that she refused to sign the UN Year of Tolerance declaration while it included sexual orientation.
On a lighter note, the Avengers stood beneath a statue of Queen Victoria, waving banners that pointed out that if it hadn't been for the sovereign's ill-informed pronouncement, maybe a lesbian's lot would be a happier one. They also held a "snog-in" outside Channel 4's headquarters to protest at a screen kiss between lesbian characters Beth and Viv being cut from the Saturday omnibus edition of "Brookside" and stood in Oxford Street shop windows, identifying a number of stereotypes to dispel the homogeneity of lesbian chic, the "badge of glamour"16 that signifies acceptability from straight society. The action that caused the most publicity for the group so far came after the editor of "MX" magazine, Tony Claffey, wrote and published an article which attacked lesbians.
Supposedly an attempt to open up debate about the relationship between lesbians and gay men, Claffey repeated a number of stereotypical misconceptions about lesbians. He asked, "If dykes desire women so much why don't they want to look like women?" and forwarded the opinion that "bull dykes eat as much as possible, wear no make-up and try to grow moustaches." He followed this with the alarming assertion that, "If you go to a pub frequented by militant dykes there's bound to be a fight at some stage." He accused lesbians for the closure of the LLGC ("Hardly surprising that the centre closed down up to its neck in debt and wrought with scandal when you consider the attitude of those [lesbians] running it") and that "Hackney lesbians have a reputation for militancy." He concluded by saying that, "Many lesbians may find this feature offensive but it1s only stating what most gay men believe" and asked "Should we divorce?"17
The reaction to the "MX" ("One Scene, One Magazine") article was interesting to say the least. A letter to "Capital Gay" - signed by Stonewall, Regard, the Pride Trust and half a dozen others groups - pointed out that:
"The debate referred to in this article has been a feature of the internal frictions of the lesbian and gay community from the time of the Gay Liberation Front. To move forward and overcome these conflicts together, it is necessary to address the discrimination rather than repeat the prejudices which fuel it."18
Meanwhile, the Avengers decided to visit some 40 gay clubs (a figure hotly disputed by the publisher of "MX") to pick up every copy, leaving notes that read, "Due to misogyny, 'MX' is not available in this venue at present". The copies were recycled. The author of a letter, again to "Capital Gay", spun the coin and suggested that,
"The Lesbian Avengers, by attempting to censor 'MX', are insulting us and simply playing into the hands of those who seek to portray all lesbians as reactionary 'militants'."19
The Avengers arranged a debate to discuss Claffey's allegations and the response to his article. Claffey was delighted when at the last minute the group pulled out, as were a number of anti-lesbian gay men who attended the meeting. The organisers were critical of the lesbian group, saying that they were angry at the "extreme discourtesy" the Avengers had displayed by cancelling the event. The meeting itself went ahead and was held at Central Station some six weeks after the article appeared, and was, to say the least, a rather spirited two-hour confrontation. The points of discussion and responses from the audience were not always constructive, and backed by cat-calling from men at the bar. It was something of a non-event but broadened out to include virtually everything that lesbians and gays dislike about each other. It seemed to many women who turned up that the whole furore over "MX" had landed us back to square one. The action appeared to knock the Lesbian Avengers confidence for a while, and their recent campaigns have involved raising visibility by riding buses up and down Oxford Street, and attacking members of their own community when they voice opinions not congruent with the Avengers' own idealistic policies.
One important dilemma arises from the efforts of the GLF, OutRage!, ACT-UP and the Lesbian Avengers: how do we stop lesbophobia specifically in activist groups? As lesbians have burst into the spotlight, being far more visible than five years ago, it may mean that lesbians do not actually need gay men to fight their corner any more. We can do it on our terms, we have the skills already in place, we just have to utilise them on a wider scale. It means that we do not have to put up with the constant brickbats, in-fighting and knock-backs.
Maybe a short-term solution (as Claffey suggested but in spite of his derogatory diatribe) would be to have a trial separation - politically - until the next big thing comes along. If a crisis on the scale of Clause 28 cropped up in the future, dykes, after some experience of independence, would probably enter the common arena as a stronger force, having refound their political roots. Even if they insisted upon having a controlling interest, it would be mutually compatible and in this climate, gay men could not fail to recognise the benefits and necessity of lesbians input and energy.
No matter what, we have to accept that there will be moments when (politically) we need each other. If the fight for rights is aimed at one section of our community and was not aided by the other, then we would be divided and ruled. It is logical to assume that if lesbians and gay men had spent the energy we used screaming at each other and channelled it into fighting for our rights, we probably would have secured them by now.
* There were other communes in existence, including one of "radical feminists (gay men)" who adopted "radical drag" in rejection of traditional male roles.
1 A Community Of Interests by Keith Birch, from Radical Records: Thirty Years of Lesbian and Gay History eds. Bob Cant and Susan Hemmings (p55) publ. Routledge, 1988
2 Ibid (p57)
3 Getting Active: Lesbians Leave the Well of Loneliness by Emma Healey from Stonewall 25: The Making of a Lesbian and Gay Community in Britain ed. Emma Healey and Angela Mason (p89) publ. Virago 1994
4 Ibid, Separatism by Janet Dixon (p74)
5 Ibid (p74)
6 Ibid (p74)
7 Ibid (p75)
+ LINK = disabled members, ETHNIC = Asian and Black queers and LABIA = Lesbian Answer Back In Anger
8 Queer Notions by Cherry Smyth (p35) publ. Scarlett Press 1992
9 Ibid (p24)
10 No Time For Mincing Words by Maggie Davis, Pink Paper 2 August 1992
11 Out With The Bath Water? by Sarah Graham, Derek Jarman and Issac Julien, Pink Paper 13 September 1992
12 Queer Notions (p30)
13 Angela Mason, quoted in Diva, Issue 2, June 1994 (p13)
15 Ibid (p14)
16 Cassell Queer Companion by William Stewart, publ by Cassell 1994
17 Dicks and Dykes Divided? by Tony Claffey, MX Magazine, 9th September 1994
18 Letter, Capital Gay, 14 October 1994
19 Ibid, 28 October 1994
Since this article was written, the Lesbian Avengers have retired from the public eye and no longer seem to be active. "MX" was re-launched as "QX" but is no longer published. OutRage! are still campaigning and finally printed the lesbian t-shirts a year after LABIA was closed down, and made a tidy profit from the sale of LABIA's "scaremongering" safer sex packs for lesbians. The SOD Bill is due for another try in Parliament later this year, with a good chance of success, and the age of consent for homosexual men was recently lowered to 16, equal with that of heterosexual men (although overturned by the House Of Lords). Stonewall have mounted one campaign centred around lesbian issues, which unfortunately failed at the European Court of Human Rights earlier in 1998. And a recent book on OutRage! has been published and the author and the proof-readers managed to spell my name incorrectly throughout...
© Megan Radclyffe 1995
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