“Had there been lots of role models out there living happy, fulfilled lives as out actors then I would absolutely have ‘come out’ sooner,” Peace says. “When I look around me now, I still don’t see enough role models for young actresses to feel much different than I did all those years ago. And I do worry that I won’t be cast in any straight roles.”
Margot James, the Conservative MP for Stourbridge, is one of only three out lesbians in Parliament and the first in the Tory party. She thinks the visibility of gay people does need to improve, but is grateful for progress that has been made in the past decade. “We could certainly do with more lesbians in the public eye, but I would not call myself a crusader on the subject. I probably have a different perspective than younger women – there are so many more openly gay women than when I was younger.
“Yes, compared with the number of men there are less, but I believe that’s because there are actually more gay men than women. It is difficult for women, but having said that, a lot of men who are in the public eye hold positions in advertising and media where it has been acceptable for a longer time. It is still very difficult for them too in certain sectors.”
Certain sectors might include traditional organisations, such as the Ministry of Defence. Sandra Docking helped to found the LGBT group for the MoD in late 2004. “The background was that until 2000, the Armed Forces’ social code of conduct made LGB service people stay underground as far as their presence within the services were concerned,” she says. “Civilian staff took the same stance – being gay didn’t happen at work.”
The purpose of the LGBT group was to raise the profile of LGBT issues within the department, Docking says. However she claims that, despite this, “we don’t get a large number of lesbians volunteering for the different roles in the group, apart from the lesbian rep role”. Asked why, she says: “It might be that volunteering is seen differently by men and women. Men see it as a way to network and develop their skills; women see it as a way to get work done but do not see the benefits to themselves – they are discouraged from taking the ‘selfish’ view from an early age.”
Docking also believes that it’s easier for lesbians to hide their sexualities: “The issue is that lesbians can be invisible if they choose to hide – as the Americans would say – they can ‘pass’ for heterosexual. Some of the experience of colleagues who are gay men is that they are visible – they can’t pretend to be something they are not and pass for heterosexual.
“This is from their reporting, not from an external assumption. That’s an issue about gay men’s culture and expression, and also about how people treat gay men. It’s also the result of some research I carried out in 2006 on gay men in the MoD. The position had to improve and gay men (generally), stepped forward to take the issue on.”
This agreed lack of visibility of gay and bisexual women translates to a worrying situation for young gay people. With education about sexuality still hugely lacking in British schools and the subject still a taboo in most families, young people look to the media and celebrities to identify their feelings and seek clarification. But a distinct lack of role models means that their exposure to lesbians and bisexual woman is limited, and when it does exist, is often unrealistic and one-dimensional. Butch characters or celebrities, for example, are almost non-existent on the screen, presumably because mainstream society still cannot accept and tolerate women who do not conform to preconceived notions of femininity.
“Society can generally deal better with lesbian storylines on mainstream TV – as long as the actresses playing the roles are straight and therefore the whole thing can still be a heterosexual fantasy,” says Peace. “Generally, mainstream TV doesn’t quite ‘get’ lesbians.”