Name some high-profile gay British men. It can be celebrities, musicians, actors, presenters, politicians, whomever you wish. Now try and do the same thing with lesbians. The likelihood is that the second list is noticeably smaller. One only has to look at the big screen, the small screen and the media to see that there is a distinct lack of openly gay women in the public eye.
The ones who are are few and far between: Sue Perkins, Clare Balding, Sarah Waters, for example. So why is it that lesbians are so invisible? A quick look through the archives of the Independent on Sunday’s Pink List reveals there has never been a female in the top spot of ‘the most influential gay and lesbian people in Britain’ rankings. In fact, there are several instances when a woman isn’t even in the top ten. For example, in 2007, only Sandi Toksvig makes the top 20 at number 18.
Is it that lesbians purposefully shy away from attention about their personal lives and operate under the radar, or is that they are deterred from being open about their sexuality because of discrimination and dominant social norms? Or do television and the media dictate an agenda that under-represents gay women?
PinkNews.co.uk spoke to four gay women, all with differing profiles and levels of responsibility – the actress and musician Heather Peace, the Conservative MP Margot James, the feminist and journalist Julie Bindel and co-founder of the Ministry of Defence’s LGBT group Sandra Docking – and asked why they believe lesbians are lacking visibility in today’s society.
“There’s no question that lesbians aren’t visible enough, especially if you make comparisons with gay men,” says Bindel. “Both in the public eye and in real life. You can go to some towns in England and there are virtually no visible lesbians at all. It’s an absolute disgrace.”
Bindel believes it is harder for women to come out because women in general, regardless of sexuality, are more tied to traditional notions of femininity. “There are few women able to be seen as human beings without a specific label,” she says.
Heather Peace, who starred in the BBC3 drama Lip Service, has forged a successful career as an actress and now a musician. She was the only gay actress in the show, despite it being about the lives of a group of lesbians living in Glasgow, and it has brought her a large lesbian following. “I’m under no illusion that before Lip Service, I’d have about 40 people at gigs, and now I’m selling out nationwide tours,” she says.
But being open about her sexuality required courage: “I was never in the closet as such, but I would actively ensure I didn’t do the kind of press coverage that would require me to talk about relationships because I didn’t want to lie about it, and I also didn’t want to talk about my girlfriend because I thought it would affect my acting career.”