Lesbians: Fighting the wall of silence (Women’s Voice, 1979)

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Lesbian women suffer isolation and misunderstanding, even among other women. Here Mary and Rose talk to each other about their personal experiences, and make some suggestions about things Womens Voice groups could do.

MARY: How long did it take you to realise you were a lesbian?

ROSE: Well, it was a pretty long time. It’s very difficult to feel positive about your sexual feelings as a lesbian when all the images around you are so negative.

Old-style lesbians with tweeds and monocles are pointed out, warnings are given at school, words like dyke, butch and lezzie are all you have to identify with. or of course there is the wall of silence.

I was 20 before I talked to anyone else about being gay. For years I explained to myself all the emotional feelings I had towards women as hero-worship or admiration – making them sound OK.

MARY: Do you still feel negative about being gay?

ROSE: I felt quite a lot of guilt initially, but after talking to other lesbians and gay men I came to see that it’s not us that’s wrong, but society that warps people’s sexuality. You’re only allowed to be heterosexual – and then only in very restricted ways, him Tarzan, me Jane.

MARY: What kinds of reactions have you had from coming out?

ROSE: The strangest reaction I got was from some people I’d known a long time who said ‘Don’t be ridiculous – we know you!’ I got the impression that the women I shared a flat with were a bit nervous about being left alone with me, but I didn’t feel confident enough at the time to tell them how ridiculous they were being.

Parents are very difficult to tell. My mother just said I had a low sex drive, and so I could ‘do without’ men. Other women said their parents felt they’d done something wrong in the way they’d brought them up.

MARY: Have you talked about being a lesbian at work?

ROSE: It’s difficult. I feel as if I have time to catch exactly the right time. It’s a decision you have to make every time you change jobs, move area, meet a new person.

MARY: There’s no law against being a lesbian is there?

ROSE: Well no. But the state does still interfere in our lives. Being a lesbian makes mothers live in fear of losing the child they have brought up as a result of a custody case – fathers can get custody just because the mother is a lesbian. But people’s attitudes are what affect us daily.

Lesbians are often discriminated against at work. Recently a woman bus driver in Burnley was sacked for wearing a badge saying ‘lesbians ignite’. A passenger had said it was offensive to him, but then she refused to remove it. She lost her job when the union failed to support her.

MARY: Why do gay people wear badges?

ROSE: it may sound silly, but gay men and women are invisible unless they wear badges. People are always assumed to be heterosexual.

Some people say ‘What do you do in bed is your own concern and nothing to do with anyone else – so why make such a fuss about it?’ But in fact all kinds of people do try and stop gays leading their own lives – preventing them from being teachers, mothers and so on.

MARY: What’s lesbian liberation got to do with with women’s politics.

ROSE: We’re women. So we suffer the same oppression as heterosexual women/ I’m sure I’ve been refused jobs in case I was about to get married and have kids, but I’m also sure that if I’d said ‘well actually I’m gay’ I wouldn’t have got the job either.

Behind the renewed attack on abortion rights lies the assumption that women’s place is in the family, producing children and being provided for by a man. It’s the same assumption that’s behind alot of hostility towards lesbians.

People’s individual prejudice about homosexuals is fostered and encouraged by the male-dominated capitalist system we live in. Capitalism needs heterosexuals in neat nuclear families, the women housewives, the men breadwinners. It’s a picture that lesbians and gay men just do not fit into.

The idea that homosexuality is something odd or perverse is ridiculous if you contrast it with many aspects of ‘normal’ heterosexual life. Men never touch each other, except for the occasional back-slapping or pretending to fight. Men can often rape women with impunity – especially their wives. Women are still men’s property in many ways.

MARY: What do you think of the labels ‘gay’ and ‘straight’.

ROSE: At the moment everyone is just pigeonholed. I’m a lesbian, you’re a housewife and so on. The aim must be to move towards a situation where everybody would be able to have a breadth of experience, rather than a narrow socially imposed limit. If that happened, the labels would become irrelevant.

I don’t want to be tolerated as someone with an unfortunate affliction, or as an ‘honorary’ heterosexual. But at the moment, the labels do matter, and we have to speak out.

MARY: Have you told your children?

ROSE: They could hardly fail to notice! I think children need to learn about their sexuality. Often sex is shrouded in so much secrecy that children don’t even know the kinds of questions to ask.

It’s important that people who look after their children don’t just tell them about heterosexual intercourse as id that was the only kind of sexual relationship.

MARY: What about organising as gays?

ROSE: At the moment there are a few gay caucuses in the trade unions, mostly in white collar unions like NALGO, the local government union. As you might imagine, there are more men than women in the groups, and outside of the big cities the groups are tiny, if they exist at all.

Gay groups in unions are important to defend workers who may be victimised and for isolated homosexuals to get in touch. Gay groups can fight for equal rights motions, to be extended to gay people as well as women, blacks and the disabled

MARY: What can Womens Voice groups do?

ROSE: Many women don’t work at paid jobs, many aren’t in unions, and even those who are may well be intimidated about asking their union rep about a gay group. it’s important that Womens Voice groups take up the issue of lesbian oppression and provide support and information to individual lesbians and to the gay telephone counselling services which are now in many towns.

There are films which can be hired, slide kits, books, pamphlets and badges. Speakers can be invited to meetings, and gay workers or lesbian mothers who are being victimised need our support. There’s a new pamphlet called Gays At Work that groups can use.

MARY: We also feel that it’s important to organise a lesbian network for Womens Voice supporters, and are planning a meeting. Please contact us: Womens Voice Gay Group, c/o Womens Voice, PO Box 82 London E2.

Women’s Voice 33 – September 1979

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