The Price of Lesbian fish
Parli-Out speech 8th February 2017:
I am a long time blind lesbian feminist activist. I’ve been snarling at the patriarchy and agitating for inclusion since 1980. I am a founder member of a mirriad of lesbian led groups including: sisters Against Disablement; Women’s tape-over; Feminist audio Books, and an active member of a raft of other disability, women’s and LGBT rights campaigns.
I seek to cast all I do in a feminist light, believing that women’s struggle speaks to the experiences of all other marginalised groups. Liberation for one group must not come at the sacrifice of another discriminated against group’s rights. As best I can, I have applied these principles through singing, songs, writing and performance. Out in “the world” I have been a board member of Transport for London, the Met Police Authority; EHRC Disability Committee; chair of Inclusion London and vice chair of the Consortium of LGBT CVO’s. Currently I bend my energies for change as a Haringey Labour Councillor; An Independent Member of the Parole Board; and as a member of the board of Stay Safe East, a pioneering disabled peoples organisation dedicated to campaigning against DV and hate crimes experienced by disabled people. When not doing all this, I’m playing my guitar, talking to the trees and fancying birds. I am a lesbian. Lesbians have contributed hugely to the liberation of the LGBT community and to many other radical movements for change. It was a lesbian, Sue Sanders, who, with others in Schools Out, invented LGBT History Month. I remember her excitedly telling me about this great new idea, as we sat in a meeting in New Scotland Yard early in the noughties. Hail Sue Sanders, bossy dyke without comparison, who more than any one else has fronted, championed, nagged, pushed and dragged LGBT History Month onto the national calendar.
so Here we are in Parliament having an LGBT History Month event. Who’d have thought that, 20 years ago? 20 years ago; the end of 18 years of Tory Rule. 1997: The first of three Labour Governments who would be responsible for so many measures that changed the lives of LGBT people. Hail the activists within and without Parliament who made that happen, and especially the lesbians amongst them, Angela Mason, Linda Bellos Caroline Jones and Sue Sanders and so many others!
We are celebrating history here in the Mother of Parliaments, a place where lesbians have not felt able to openly stride the corridors of power until recently. In the seventies,Maureen calhune was forced to resign when outed. Last year, a member of the Government openly declared she was in a same-sex lesbian civil partnership. This year, an openly lesbian MP strove to become leader of the Labour party. We have come a long way; things have changed so much.
So here we are in LGBT History month, 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. But did you know that Lesbian Line is 40 years old this year. Lesbian Line, a response to the invisibility of lesbians, an acknowledgement that even if many people today and back then, would still like to collectively refer to us all as “gay”, the distinct and different concerns of lesbians, was needed then and still needs a place for expression, a place for nurture and celebration, now. Lesbian Line was one among many expressions of that difference.
Homophobia and transfobia, drives the oppression we face as LGBT people. It’s what unites us. Misogyny, sexism, racism, ableism and discrimination on the grounds of class, education, faith, are what divides us from each other, especially when the oppression comes from within the LGBT community. This diversity within our Movement is important to celebrate and respect, as richness, as beautiful, for it’s what makes us truly magnificent. Look at me! I am an unusual creature. I’m a disabled lesbian who occupies positions of power and influence. I well know who I am and how hard it is to be me, thanks to other people’s discrIminating ways. I am loyal to the LGBT community, but I know my safest place is often among the lesbians, and particularly my disabled dyke sisters.
But nothing I say today makes sense unless you understand this: forever it seems, disabled people have been blamed for existing. We are shunned, excluded and our right to exist challenged. challenged by attitudes that see us as less, inferior or even unaffordable. You need go no further than the assault on social care, equality and human rights that has been at the heart of government policy since 2010. In a time of austerity, we, disabled people, are so it seems, expendable. Benefit scroungers, malingerers, they call us, and the hate crimes rise as we are insulted, attacked and sometimes killed.
But the truth is this, it’s the world in which we live that puts up barriers to stop disabled people being equal, not our impairments. Being disabled isn’t the problem, it’s more the way the world is designed. . medical labels package us for non-disabled convenience and we are denied a right to exist.
If we want full equality in society, we must remove the barriers that deny inclusion and not attack disabled people for existing. Then we’ll have an equal world.
“Nothing about us without us”, we say. Yet others still speak on our behalf. “;Rights not Charity” we cry, as we are forced to again beg because what we had has been taken away from us because of the cuts. and the UN condemns the UK for violation of the human rights of disabled people. Whatever next!
What’s all this got to do with the price of lesbian fish I hear you say! Listen, This is all part of my history as a Disabled lesbian. When I came out as a lesbian, way back in 1982, I thought I was the only blind dyke in the world. Nowhere could I find signs of inclusion; Disabled dykes were consequently very thin on the ground. But not for long.
I soon found other disabled dykes. most often, I’d find them sitting outside the pubs, discos and conference, or within such events, existing on the margins, struggling to be included and feeling incredibly disempowered.
But you know, when disempowerment turns to rage, this fuels action. The Dyke led Sisters Against disablement, was formed to challenge that exclusion. Our aim was to make an inclusive world for disabled and non-disabled women. Our anger took political form; (pickets and articles) and our anger took practical form; (SAD access code).
The values of the women’s movement and of the lesbian feminist scene in which I was involved, tried to embrace the inclusion of disabled women. There were some lamentable failures; (Lesbian sex and sexuality conference and Feminist Book Faire); And some resounding successes; (audio versions of the London Women’s Liberation Newsletter, and using the SAD access code to plan events such as the Lesbian Line 10th birthday Social). The personal is political, and the political personal, the women’s liberation movement declared. The who we were was at the heart of what we did. This is why when we argued, it was so very painful. Our very identity was being challenged or so we felt.
As the eighties rolled on, I found myself working more and more in mixed Lesbian and gay campaigns. I had become a professional lesbian, (working for the Haringey Lesbian and Gay Unit).
Section 28 reared it’s ugly head. We united; we had to do something to stop it. It was necessary to compromise which I did for the sake of the greater good. For we were all in it together weren’t we?? After years working with gay men and trying to make events such as Pride London more inclusive of LGBT disabled people, what I found was that the compromise was made mostly on my side and we were as excluded as ever. They just didn’t get it.
They didn’t get it that the problem was the world and not us. Tied to their fiercely symmetrical, slim fit young look, anything that rucked up the smoothness of that image was and still is forbidden.
History tempered by our memories is always being rewritten. It’s fashionable to remember the last Lesbian Strength march as that time when dykes fought each other, over what, I’m not precisely sure, even though apparently, I was there. It’s fashionable to decry the whole of the second-wave women’s movement as a force for exclusion rather than what it was, a revolutionary movement for social change, responsible for so much that is positive about women’s position and rights today. It’s fashionable to believe that when we say LGBT, we really mean us all, but do we and does it. Does it really include lesbians, or have we been subsumed into some pink gay branding?
Our liberation as lesbians is every bit as bound up in the need to smash patriarchy as it is about our love rights. That’s what divides us from the gay bit. When we challenge patriarchy, whose outward manifestation is male domination, which is still at the heart of how our society organises, we set women free to love whom so ever we want, to dance fully with ourselves alone, with one or more partners, in temporary or permanent connection. when we challenge patriarchy, we set people free to be who ever they are on the continuum of gender identity, from female to male and back to female again and all points in-between.
Any attempt to recognise the diversity of our community must actively include us all. I am afraid that is still not happening for disabled LGBT people. We are able to speak for ourselves. We have the right to be heard. , no matter how we deliver our message or how hard other people find to understand us.
Despite that, I still want us to reach out to connect with each other, to celebrate what unites us, to respect what divides us. whoever we are. For history is a wise and loving teacher. We’d do well to listen to her wisdom.
And here are seven lesbian “teachers” no longer with us, I want to acknowledge. They helped make me who I am:
. Denese Marshall, who taught me that smashing patriarchy is key. . Caroline Jones, who taught me there is no shame in talking about same sex DV.
. Rowen Jade, who taught me that I don’t have to shout to be heard. . Nasa Begum, who taught me that evidence is powerful.
. Vijayatara Sharon Smith, who taught me that compassion is at the heart of activism.
. jenny Cook, who taught me that inciting revolution from a bed is possible.
. Tina grigg, who taught me that, when in doubt, sing.
Kirsten Hearn 8 February 2017