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Lesbians speak up – we can’t see you

July 12, 2011

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.”

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“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.”

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As an openly gay actress, does she feel this is a burden? “I do feel a responsibility,” she says. “And it has been a conscious choice for me to accept the responsibility. When I took part in Lip Service, I made the decision to talk openly and answer all questions about my sexuality. I don’t want to be part of the problem. I feel good about who I am, and honestly, I’ve never been happier.

“I think I’ve genuinely given a lot of gay girls someone to identify with in the public eye. And yes, I think that gay women always want to know who is genuinely gay.”

Bindel says this is a subject that gay women themselves must address and bring awareness to. “The straight people aren’t going to fight this battle for us. We’ve got to stop excusing those who are privileged enough to be in the closet. These are the worst types of positive examples for young people – unless they have a very good reason not to come out and be proud.

“We have to get in and do our bit. We’ve all got a responsibility. If we’re lucky enough to have a job, a partner’s support, money, social status, and so on, we’ve got a responsibility to advocate and speak about it for the sake of others.

“It’s down to us who have a bit of clout. We owe it to others like us. Otherwise, how on earth do young people find out about what it’s like to be a lesbian? From family? From straight friends? From bigots?”

She also says to conquer the issue, we must acknowledge the influence of feminism. “Women’s rights campaigners, some of whom were lesbians, fought for our rights as females – whether it was the right to access abortion, to vote or the right to express ourselves freely in a relationship, gay or otherwise.”

And Bindel says positive examples of lesbians will help this: “We need people who will say ‘it’s great to be a lesbian’, and not apologise for it. We must say ‘it’s great girls, dip your toe in the water and see how wonderful it is’ – there’s an alternative to the status quo.”

As an MP, James comes under public scrutiny at the best of time, but she maintains that the decision to come out publicly is a difficult one for anybody. “I have sympathy for those in the public eye and those who aren’t who don’t feel able to come out. And I don’t believe in bullying people to come out.”

When asked if she feels like a role model, James says: “I wouldn’t do interviews like this if I didn’t feel a responsibility. My role is very time-consuming, and covers a lot of areas, such as business, health, employment, etc, and a huge part of my job is working in my constituency. But I do make time to speak about issues for the gay community.”

The MoD’s Docking says it’s not just role models that are lacking, it’s the variety within them. “I think young people may wonder whether there are any older lesbians who can act as role models and also whether they are even relevant to their lives. I was speaking to an older lesbian recently, and she did wonder if we were putting boundaries on ourselves and also, when we get older, we become doubly invisible. It’s not just young lesbians who need role models, we need them at every stage of our lives.

“We need them in every walk of life… teachers, nurses, cooks, shop assistants are all lesbians and have legitimate lives. I think the question is why do we want visibility and who needs to be visible – and not just as a young romantic interest in a soap opera to gain viewers.”

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Access to positive role models, however, is just one way to promote the visibility of lesbians in both public and private life.

“To overcome the problem, we need to be lesbians in a political way,” Bindel argues. “The only way to change is to get more people who are bothered about and interested in lesbianism to be working in the media and TV. We need more female MPs to bring up women’s issues in Parliament.”

Bindel has strong views about what she sees as a lack of political awareness among particularly young lesbians today. “I watched the Candy Bar Girls programme on TV and all I see is just pure hedonism, apolitical airheadedness,” she says. “These women totally don’t get it; it’s not acceptable. This needs to be a revolution. Just get off your fucking arses and do something political. We haven’t won the battle yet. We need to be political about lesbianism.”

Increasing the profile of gay women is a hard task to tackle, says Peace. “But we’re talking about legislative changes that need to be made, how we teach our kids in schools, the addition of gay characters in soap operas and dramas, so many things. I think there is a greater problem in how lesbians are dealt with in the press and that comes down to misogyny. I am a woman first and foremost before anything else.”

It appears the issue of visibility is both acknowledged and worrisome for many lesbians. Yet the reasons why and the solutions to tackle the problem are complex. There is no obvious fast-acting remedy to improve visibility, save from imposing quotas into public arenas, which would be as unpopular as it would utterly unlikely.

So instead, we must take a slower, more piecemeal approach; calling for a greater number of women and lesbians in parliament, on television, in power positions and in the public arena. We must use our votes wisely, and we must support those lesbians who are brave enough to be out in public and private, particularly those championing our rights, remembering that it should not be a job left for the few who already carry this responsibility.

Bindel says we need a ‘revolution’. It sounds intangible, but being part of it is easy: just start talking. Talk about being gay, talk about sex, talk about relationships, talk about coming out, talk about our experiences as women and lesbians. We need to normalise the word ‘lesbian’, break down myths and stereotypes surrounding sexuality and gender, and above all, try, where possible, to be open and positive, and not be ashamed to be ourselves, regardless of what others might think. Only then, can we and the rest of the world begin to be acknowledged, supported and seen.

Chloe Setter is a freelance writer and sub-editor. Contact: [email protected]

More: Clare Balding, heather peace, Julie Bindel, Margot James, Sarah Waters, Sue Perkins

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