I can confirm that there were lesbians and they were quite definitely sitting on chairs.
On 11th May 2019, an audience of 160 (159 women & a bloke) gathered to hear words of wisdom from five lesbians: six if you add Anne Ruzlyo, who chaired the event. Speakers were Sheila Jeffreys, Julia Beck, Lesley Woodburn, Julia Long and Dovile Lapinskaite.
‘Lesbians on Chairs’ was organised by Standing For Women and, as now is the norm for meetings where women wish to gather and discuss gender and all its affiliated oppression, the venue was kept secret until the day of the event.
Our journey there was fairly uneventful. We took the tube, and coffee was involved at both ends of the trip. As the meeting wasn’t at an ungodly hour in the morning and only a short-ish journey from chez-Maynard, there was no mad dash and, sadly, no interesting anecdotes to relate about adventures on the way.
We surfaced into the sunlight at Euston Station and I stood on the concourse, revolving like a compass as I tried to work out which way Siri was trying to send me. As I strode off to the left, ‘it’s definitely this way’, speaking with more confidence that I felt, I hear a cry of “hey TERFs!” behind us and turned to see Natasha, for once not bearing her knitted ‘woman: adult human female’ banner.
“I have no idea where I’m going,” she greeted us cheerfully, looking around her to locate the women she was meeting.
Almost immediately another group of women arrived, including speaker Julia Long, so I slipped my phone back into my pocket and followed them to the Wesley, trying casually to look as if I’d been intending to turn right all along.
The Wesley describes itself as ‘the first ethical hotel in the UK’ and is evidently ‘committed to sustainable business and social responsibility’. Modern and airy, with spacious conference rooms, clean loos and friendly staff, it deserves to flourish.
It took less than ten minutes to walk from the tube station to the hotel, where we were ushered downstairs; a gilt-framed sign directing us to the Hilda Porter conference room. A starched, white table cloth at the back of the hall sported complimentary bottled water and for one glorious moment I mistook the Standing for Women merch stall for a coffee shop.
We had arrived fairly early so managed to get seats in the second row, close to the front. The room buzzed with chatter as women arrived and took their seats. A series of flags and banners adorned the speakers area, and the women seated there talked together, sipped at water and examined their notes.
My disappointment at the lack of coffee was short-lived, as Michèle discovered the hotel had a coffee shop upstairs. She disappeared and returned a few minutes later with a tray of steaming beverages. My coffee and I sunk down happily in our seat as the livestream was set up and the last few stragglers filed into the hall.
“How fantastic to see a room full of women… and a man,” began Ruzlyo, who introduced herself as a founder member of Lesbians on Chairs. She welcomed us to the meeting, told us where the toilets and fire exits were and asked those who didn’t wish to be photographed or filmed to make themselves known. She reminded us that the hastag for today was #lesbiansonchairs.
“Martina has joined us,” added Anne, with a straight face. We all turned- I almost believed it for a moment- to see Claire coming down the aisle with a life-sized portrait of Martina, which she carefully placed on a chair next to the speakers.
“A round of applause for Martina, there! Martina Navratilova is now a lesbian on a chair!”
And how we clapped!
Ruzlyo thanked Posie Parker and Venice Allan for supporting lesbians and putting on the event, and asked women to offer to take part in Kate’s video project, before introducing us to Tonya, who was filming for a documentary.
“I’m Tonje from Norway… it’s the same in Norway… freedom of expression is not for women… we need to make people aware of what is happening. I’m an artist, I have a lesbian performance band Hungry Hearts and we made the Vagina Anthem…”
Tonya was interrupted here by a well-deserved barrage of cheers and whoops. Have you heard the Vagina Anthem? It’s iconic. Here’s a link. Be warned, it will be stuck in your head for days.
Ruzlyo explained that speakers would have fifteen minutes each. Today I am strict!”Oooo, and we’re all going to the pub after. We’ll announce where at the end when we’re not being streamed. There’ll be a Q&A at the end,” continued Anne, as she introduced Sheila Jeffreys, the first speaker, “but any fan love should be saved until the pub afterwards or we’ll never get out of the door.”
“It’s lovely to be here with all these splendid lesbians!” started Sheila, referring to the panel, and going on to say how wonderful it was to be speaking on a panel with the women who were creating the next phase of lesbian feminism.
“I can’t tell you what it means in my heart to be part of this happening again. These are the women… who are doing it right now.”
Sheila said it was her ‘sad duty‘ to give a sketch of what the lesbian community had lost since the 1970s and 80s; that the lesbian politics of the time had enabled women to come out as lesbians with confidence and pride. Lesbian feminists were fundamental to the heart of the women’s liberation movement at that time,
“The literature and the theory and the women’s centres and rape crisis centres and the battered women’s refuges.. you name it, there were lesbians initiating those things and fully involved in all of them… There were lesbian and women-only spaces for lesbians to meet, dance,socialise, make music, art: we had lesbian tradeswomen, bands, novels, poetry, books of theory, we had philosophy. There were lesbian centres and groups all over the country. Now of course, there are trans groups all over the country… None of this included men who said they were lesbians.”
Sheila observed that these men were barely in evidence at the time and had not yet effected state capture. There were ‘a few strange cross dressers’ but she had only ever met a couple back in the 70s and 80s. Lesbians, she said, were not transgendered before the 1990s.
In the 1950s, lesbians didn’t come out. The lesbian community was underground, usually sharing its spaces with gay men, and lesbians were rejected by family, workplaces and society in general. They were often sent to mental hospitals if it was even suspected that they were women who loved women. Many lesbians engaged in butch/fem relationships “within the constraints of heterosexual forms.. to protect their safety, they lived entirely under an unrelieved hetero-patriarchal regime.”
During the 70s and 80s, this was not the case. From the late 60s onwards, the gay liberation movement meant that lesbians became more confrontational and outspoken; the vanguard of the Women’s Liberation Movement. They rejected heterosexuality as an enforced political system designed to extract women’s labour and keep women under control. Lesbians felt able ‘to say they were not freaks and pariahs, they were the very model of a liberated woman. Free of male control, creating their own lives, choosing to reject the enfeebling effects of femininity.”
“The idea that feminists could and should choose to become lesbians was an important part of our thinking,” said Jeffreys, acknowledging that this idea sparks controversy today more than ever. “Joy was absolutely fundamental to what we were doing.”
It’s hard to imagine, reflected Jeffreys, that back then, women were teaching in schools that heterosexuality was an institution, both political and compulsory. Now in schools, “young lesbians are being transgendered and any suggestion that this might be a problem is treated as heresy and potentially a sackable offence.”
“We said it was ok to be man-haters… We could not have been more ‘out’ in public. We were not some pale version of gay men… now prominent lesbians, and their frightened younger sisters on the verge of coming out, are afraid to use the word… they tend to hide themselves under terms such as queer, non-binary, bisexual or transgender. And in this way… we are going back to the 1950s.”
The ideas of the 70s are now forgotten and condemned, lamented Jeffreys, and women like her, who had sexual contact with men before becoming lesbian, are told by some that they have no right to call themselves lesbians. “We are straight-bians” said Sheila, with stern faux-seriousness, rolling her ‘r’ like a French school marm. “Any women not lesbians from birth, with no contact at any time with a penis anywhere near them except in the process of insemination before they were born- it is hard to get away from it, isn’t it?- are just pretending!”
Sheila was so funny when she said this that even many of those who disagreed with her perspective couldn’t help but laugh at her tone.
Jeffreys recurred that lesbians were at the heart of creating women’s culture of the 70s and 80s. Lesbians were writing books of poetry and novels, and these were published by women’s or lesbian presses. There were numerous theatre performances, poetry readings and cultural events, organised solely by and for women. Many spaces were ‘women only’ and there was no controversy about it. There were women’s political spaces, artistic spaces, women & lesbian conferences: woman’s discos were held practically every week night in London. Women ran bookstores and cafés. During the ‘Women’s Monthly Event’ a community centre would be taken over with rooms set aside for pool, chatting, political discussions, dancing and spaces for setting out wares for sale.
“Heterosexual women came in large numbers and because of the extraordinary erotic buzz, many of those women became lesbians- and some of them may be here today! …
The disappearance of lesbian culture took place over a several decades but caused enormous grief, says Jeffreys. The women’s presses and centres closed, the discos disappeared; the bands went mainstream. It was especially sad because “all of us believed that our culture would last forever”.
“Now there are almost no women’s spaces left and it is impossible for women to meet without the inclusion of men, some of them in dresses, some of them in trousers. No one would have imagined it would come to this in the heyday of lesbian feminism. Without our own space we cannot imagine the erotic and political joy of joining together with other women. We cannot create a lesbian perspective that allows us to see the world in a completely different way.”
Jeffreys spoke faster towards the end of her allocated time, the audience feeling both the power of the world she described and the pathos of its loss. Yet she concluded with a message of hope that had the audience burst into a cheer.
“The most extraordinary thing is that I’m standing here today and we’re going to create the whole thing again and it’s happening RIGHT NOW!”
Anne introduced Beck as “a writer and organiser from Baltimore, Maryland. She helps produce a monthly radio broadcast for Women’s Liberation Radio News. Last year she represented lesbians at Baltimore Pride and on the law and policy committee of Baltimore City’s LGBTQ commission. She’s currently at the forefront of the fight for women’s and lesbian’s rights in the USA – Julia Beck.”
Beck was met with cheers as she stood up and took the microphone and it was a minute before she could speak. “You’re a shero!” called out one woman, a cry met with whoops from another, and Beck seemed genuinely surprised at the warmth and ferocity of her reception.
Plans to march in the Baltimore Pride parade were hatched last May over dinner with lesbians in Baltimore City. “We wanted to cause a ruckus and a ruckus we did cause!” she said with a laugh. Julia says she was inspired by the actions of Charlie Montague and Renée Gerlich in New Zealand and by an anonymous woman at the 2018 Vancouver women’s march.
None of the women who marched with her that day were looking for notoriety but Beck was named on Twitter and ‘thus began my journey into the public eye.’
Julia writes about her experience here, in her article ‘How I became the most hated lesbian in Baltimore’.
Although she is a citizen, Beck prefers not to call herself an American, observing that there’s more to the Americas than the States alone. She pointed out that she, Marielle Franco and Megan Murphy and could all be called Americans but were all born in different countries. This year Beck has appeared on television and testified twice in Congress. She acknowledges that she was able to do these things not just because of her ‘absurdly true’ story but because of the privileges of race and education and the opportunities that she has been given. While education should be a human right, the US acts as if it is a privilege, and Julia describes academia as ‘the intellectual militia’. Access to social media and other digital platforms, she affirmed, are privileges that we need to use with honesty.
We should not be surprised that ‘the legacy of feminism in the USA is riddled with racism’ and Beck reminds us that the struggle of women is ‘ongoing and global’, while we live in a dystopia where ‘men can be whatever they want and women can be whatever men want’. Paula Giddings, Beck told us, writes in her book ‘When and Where I Enter‘ that in the year Martin Luther King was assassinated media attention to the women’s movement was focused primarily on a bra-burning protest at the Miss America pageant. ‘When the media is run by white people you can probably guess what makes the news’.
“Sometimes violence is the answer. Property destruction can be a political act, so I encourage women, especially lesbians, to become more militant.” A cheer from the back of the room. “But violence against people? That’s usually not so good. Male violence is a global problem. Men are killing women, each other and the planet at a seemingly exponential rate.”
Beck observed that while in the UK we are making strides in the battle to protect women’s sex-based rights, in the US there is a lot more ground to cover, partly because the US is so vast. She believes there are as few as two or three women working offline in most major US cities.
“Everyone else is ruled by fear, plugged in to the 24 hour news cycle, filling their minds and bodies with processed garbage. We are so complacent and pacified. I am disgusted. It’s almost as is US citizens are afraid of discomfort. We are afraid to think for ourselves.”
“When people come together they form groups, and groups equal culture. We do need to look inside ourselves to some extent: we need to know our own stories and the stories of our ancestors, these stories help us grow. When women talk to each other, especially when lesbians talk to each other and share our stories, we realise we have a lot in common.
This is how we raise consciousness. This is how we wake up.”
Most traditions in the States are capitalist, reflected Beck, the beauty industry promoting a world of make believe where celebrities are used to sell products to women who can never be good enough. Likewise, femininity is artificial, making women into products, marked as somehow ‘less than’ men and for the consumption of men.
“Femininity hinders our movement. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other to stop painting our faces and shaving our bodies. If we stop doing it then men will have nothing to mimic. Femininity is a male fantasy anyway.”
A murmur of approval ran round the room at this well-expressed and uncomfortable truth, accompanied by a small wave of slightly awkward applause, as a sizeable proportion of us were wearing make up.
Our bodies are all we have, continued Beck, our best weapons. That is why men want to control them. She called on women, especially lesbians, to learn combat sports, train their bodies for strength. Women who cannot do this should train their minds. Women need to know how to fight, and create connections and strong pockets of resistance. She compared women and lesbian communities to a germinating spore which needs protecting at the beginning.
“We need sisterhood for sure, but more than that we need sisters in war. The revolution starts with you, in your mind. No man is going to rescue you… say no. If feminism was reduced to one word it would be ‘No’.”
Beck concluded by referencing Stormé Laverie, the black butch lesbian who sparked the Stonewall rebellion, who called on her peers to ‘do something’.
“We need to do something, because it’s now or never.”
When applause for Beck had died down, Anne Ruzlyo reminded those who had bought the ‘super duper whopper ticket’ to pick up their pack, a box containing an ‘adult human female’ notebook, lanyard, stickers, pin, badges and pen.
The next speaker was Lesley Woodburn.
“You may have seen Lesley a few times just recently. Lesley is a socialist, Trade Unionist and community activist.”
You can read about why Lesley was in the news recently, here.
Lesley, who has attended many Mayday marches over the years, attended this year with a friend. On the march they carried a sign bearing the definition of woman: ‘adult human female’. The stewards on the march saw the transactivists, who Woodburn believes had just come out of the London School of Economics, heard what they said, looked at Lesley’s sign and were baffled as to why anyone might be objecting to it. Initially the transactivists were moved on by the stewards and prevented from joining the demonstration.
“I was called ‘black scum’ whilst marching. I was called ‘TERF’. We actually expected the TERF comment and the ‘transphobic’ comments, but the racist comments? I don’t think I expected that.”
Woodburn observed that the activists were very young, mostly white and seemed to be middle-class. These young people, she said, have never had to fight actual fascists. “That’s why they can call women ‘fascists’… because they have no idea about fascism or fighting fascism.”
There are people in this room, continued Woodburn, who fought to close down the British National Party headquarters in Welling, who demonstrated against the Poll Tax and marched against Clause 28. These young people are ‘resting in the rights which… we won for ourselves and we won for them’.
Trade unions, added Lesley, are colluding to ensure that ‘rape culture is actually enshrined in law’ and that trade union members need to call them out on it. Union members need to resist the ‘gender jail that they want to send us all to’ and bring the unions back into line; trade union bureaucrats have lost sight of the fact that people are fed up of living under austerity and holding down half a dozen jobs just to survive. People need to ask their unions what they are doing about this.
Woodburn praised the women who have fought back against the ‘gender jail’, women like Florida Macdonalds worker Yasmine Jones who was grabbed by the throat by a male customer and retaliated by beating him up; the Yeovil, UK students who smashed CCTV cameras in their school toilets and the Alaskan school girl who fought a young man who trapped her in the toilets. She mentioned the woman who was kicked out of her local pub for wearing an ‘adult human female’ T shirt, and emphasised the importance of passing on those stories.
“The only way to be resilient is the be visible as much as we can, take action as much as we can and to understand what our collective experience is and pass that on… we need to ring the alarm and ring the alarm now.”
When the applause died down, Ruzlyo reminded us that many trade union members are women and that unions are a good place to meet collectively and communicate.
“Julia Long is a lesbian,” said Anne, in introduction, “one of the old fashioned kind that doesn’t have a penis. She’s worked in education, local government, academia and the women’s sector and is currently a researcher in the field of male violence against women.”
Long started by saying she was ‘blown away’ by everything she had heard so far, and said she wanted to reflect on where the ‘gender critical’ movement was at the moment. Long is not a fan of the term ‘gender critical’ but acknowledges that it is hard to find an alternative. Because it is important to ‘name the reality in which we find ourselves’ lesbian feminists frequently have to use ‘the language of catastrophe and disaster’.
Long observed that while there had been a lot of talk about lesbian erasure; the demise of the lesbian feminist movement; the loss of lesbian spaces, we hadn’t spoken much about the harm being done to young lesbians and the destruction of young lesbian bodies. She wondered how we might bring a different reality into being, expressing concern that using the language of loss and erasure might have the effect of adding to that narrative. New ways of thinking and using language would be needed to do this.
“Women throughout history have this choice fall into two camps, to what extent do we want to resist patriarchy… to what extent do we want to create our own reality?” The gender critical movement uses so many euphemisms, for example saying we are ‘critical of gender identity ideology’ because we are afraid of being seen to be ‘anti transgender’.
Writing letters, academic papers, protests, talks, online discussions are all very well, but are actions taken in ‘response mode’. there is a lot to be said for trying to get men to change, but to some extent ‘what we resist persists’. Paying huge amounts of attention to inconsequential entities – these men who are being created as celebrities- perpetuates the problem. Long suggested that a lot might be gained by reading the works of Sonia Johnson who says:
“Women have resisted patriarchy with unsurpassed cunning, craft and passion for at least five thousand years. I don’t want to seem hasty but it seems that five thousand years is long enough to try any method, particularly one that doesn’t work.”
Sharing a phrase of her own coining, Long purports that to some extent ‘argumentation is validation’. Giving these men attention suggests that what they are saying is important; giving them our energy encourages them. Julia suggested that if we don’t want to spend our time in ‘response mode’ perhaps there are better things we can be doing with it.
“As a lesbian feminist I do not define myself in relation to men. It is not my responsibility to clear up the mess that men have made… to squander my time, my knowledge and my energy in what I increasingly believe to be a futile and pointless attempt to clear up the horrors that men have wrought, whether these be the horrors of transgenderism or any other form of male violence against women or against the planet.
What is my responsibility? As a lesbian feminist, my responsibility is to my Self… to be conscious of the significance of my Self… we are hugely significant and it is a challenge to us to really take that on board, be conscious of it and then to act and manifest that.”
Long spoke of the work of Julia Penelope, who spoke as long ago as the early 90s of how lesbian feminists had lost the sense of their own significance. Rather than spending energy arguing with men, Long feels, lesbian feminists could be spending that energy on greater things.
“Lesbian feminism IS women’s liberation.. my challenge is… to create more space, more possibilities and more potential for myself and for other lesbian feminists: to create more lesbian feminist consciousness and lesbian feminist reality in the world.”
Long suggests that one of the ways lesbian feminists can do this is by articulating a lesbian perspective in mainstream heterosexual environments. She reminded the audience that just because a woman is a lesbian it doesn’t necessarily mean everything she says is coming from a lesbian perspective; that many high profile lesbians support male supremacy.
‘The more we are worshiping in the cathedrals of patriarchy, the less available to us is the lesbian perspective. We need to ask unpopular questions. If you aren’t frequently being made to feel that you’ve said something unpopular, you are living a cramped and timid life.’
Long said she wanted to finish with a quote from Andrea Dworkin.
“Does the sun ask itself, “Am I good? Am I worthwhile? Is there enough of me?” No, it burns and it shines. Does the sun ask itself, “What does the moon think of me? How does Mars feel about me today?” No it burns, it shines. Does the sun ask itself, “Am I as big as other suns in other galaxies?” No, it burns, it shines.”
“Lesbian feminists,” Julia concluded. “Let us burn, let us shine.”
When the applause for Julia has died down, Anne tells us that the next speaker is Dovile Lapinskaite, a graduate in Politics, Philosophy and History of Art; a lesbian radical feminist activist and independent artist.
“Last but hopefully not least. Petrifying! I’m going to pick one woman and stare at her,” joked Dovile, “So don’t be scared if you encounter my deadly look.”
Dovile said she was not going to speak about lesbian erasure and bullying, as it was ever present but nothing new. She agreed with Julia that lesbians have always been the ones cleaning up the mess of patriarchy, but she saw hope in the fact that “when patriarchy dies in my consciousness, it dies everywhere… when we stop believing that we must do everything through and in relation to men and their system, we stop thinking of men’s control as a power.”
Lapinskaite said she had been involved in protests, direct actions and campaigns since her early 20s. She hoped, but doubted, that it had made much of a difference. She did not advocate for working herself to death for a better future ‘one day’. ‘Suffering teaches suffering’, she suggested and it is important to live now and for yourself. Working with men and in men’s job results in women having a larger stake in the ‘ugly, vicious’ patriarchal system. She emphasised the importance of being involved in creating a new world, physically, socially and economically. Lapinskate has three degrees and recently enrolled on a bricklaying and carpentry course.
“With each step I feel freer and freer because I don’t need to rely on men, their services and their created system… I believe that by freeing myself and being an example I make freedom more accessible to other women. So,” she smiled at the audience and was met with applause and whoops of approval, “Let’s speak separatism!”
Dovile believes that lesbian separatism is rarely acknowledged in the mainstream history of feminism and is often spoken of disparagingly. While it doesn’t necessarily work for all lesbians, it works for her and brings her happiness.
Lesbian separatism should be about putting lesbians first, and Lapinskaite acknowledges the power of the phrase coined by Alix Dobkin who refers to herself as a ‘lesbian connector’ rather than a separatist.
In contemporary culture, lesbian energy has been exploited and is being channeled into putting others first. Lapinskaite sees LGBT politics as being primarily for the benefit of men, citing the organisation Stonewall and Diva magazine as two examples of this in action. Whilst this is nothing new- she references the AIDS crisis of the 80s, when many dying gay men were cared for by lesbian women.
“I don’t believe in T and B,” she explains, “which leaves us with L and G- and gay rights are men’s rights. They (gay men) may be oppressed but because they are males they have privilege at the expense of women. Though gay men suffer discrimination in comparison with heterosexual males, they are still way more well-off, more respected and have more opportunities than women.”
At the recent Stonewall protest a young woman she spoke to was shocked at Dovile’s assertion that she didn’t care about the other letters in the LGBTQ acronym, she cared only for the L. But why, she asked, should she feel ashamed of this when most men don’t even want to hear about female oppression, let alone about lesbians? Why should she care about men? Men, she said, should start learning how to help themselves and stop sucking lesbian energy. So, back to separatism!
“The most important fact that I’ve learned as a lesbian: I live outside their system and I have my being. Only outside can I have integrity and therefore power. We cannot have power in a male system, because in order to be in it at all we must be like them, think like them, act like them and it’s always a lose.
Separatism comes from ‘the blaze within us’. The choice to be lesbian comes from fierce love, passion, protectiveness and commitment to our own kind. Sharing knowledge and skills is essential. Lapinskaite says she has no men in her life, they don’t really exist in her world, so they don’t distract her from creating a free and happy life for herself amongst other lesbians?
“It’s time to manage and heal our own bodies, to learn how to provide for ourselves, how to teach each other skills.. this is how I want to spend my life, my intelligence and my energy… not to sacrifice my needs, my time and my energy for someone else’s better world.”
Dovile was the last speaker and as she concluded a cheer rang out through the room and the audience rose in a standing ovation. Unfortunately I couldn’t join in as I dropped my phone and notebook on the floor due to cramp in my toes, managing only to bump my chair into the woman sitting behind me and almost- but not quite- sloshing the remains of my cold coffee on the carpet. (I also found I had mislaid my shoes, but that’s another story…)
It was time for the Q&A session. I dashed off to the loo and made it back before I’d missed anything. I do notice at these sessions that many women get so involved in what they have to say themselves that they lose track of the question they intended to ask the panel. That doesn’t make the discussion any less interesting but it does become more of a winding road through a forest than a Q&A session.
A woman- who had recently been permanently banned from Twitter- stood up and observed that many women felt they had been forced out of political parties. Is there room, she asked, for groups to form alliances and maybe form a central group, rather than wasting time arguing with trans identified men about why they aren’t lesbians?
Anne suggested telling the men to fuck off was probably the most productive thing to do. Panel members suggested that forming local groups would be a better use of energy than trying to support political parties, and emphasised the importance of being visible, even in spaces where lesbian visibility was not necessarily welcome.
Another asked how important it was to keep turning up at events and asking difficult questions. Julia said women had to make their own choices about that, but it definitely had its place. Organisers of these events don’t want a debate, said Lesley, but being visible is important because it shows that there is indeed a debate. Sheila said that it was important to be ‘insider outsiders’. It was observed that it was important to create spaces where young people could discuss issues and have female spaces. Young people caught up in the gender cult need to see lesbians creating institutions & creating culture. Lesbian feminists need to be at the heart of creating this revolution.
There was a brief discussion about the pros and cons of lesbian separatist communities and how difficult it was for some women to live apart from men.
“We have to be visible for the younger women- who know nothing- so that they can take on the legacy that is there.” stated Julia Beck.
A woman spoke of finding a book in her local library when she was a young teenager called ‘Am I a Lesbian?’ Finding this book was like finding a jewel, she said, and she returned to it again and again: the first book she had ever seen that was positive about the female body. In Waterstones recently she noticed that all the book were about trans: about young women who thought they were men and the story of their transition. How do we reach the young girls in that position, she asked, who need us to be positive and leave jewels out to help them? She told us that she planned to write a book of her own, and we cheered.
Creating communities and resources where there are none is so important.
Claire spoke of the importance to rape survivors of being able to name a penis as male and of the solidarity and comfort she felt with the women who looked after her after her own rape.
A woman stood up. “I’m not a lesbian” she said and in a quiet, faltering voice she spoke of her daughter who had started testosterone.
“Her voice has gone, and she… I don’t know, maybe she has a beard, because I haven’t seen her since June. And I can’t call her her real name.”
The room was silent.
“She changed her name. And someday she is going to realise there was nothing wrong with her body. And ever since an article came out and ten of thousands of people read about my personal story, my phone has been ringing non stop with broken mums from all over the country and America saying things like ‘tears are rolling down my face right now because for three years I’ve been watching this destruction of my daughter and everyone is telling me to be so proud of my son.’ I can’t ever grieve the daughter I have lost. I don’t even know what to do with that pain. It’s a sorrow and a tragedy. And that’s why I’m here. If any of you have any thoughts on what to do about this, I would love to hear it. That’s all I have to ask or say.”
I didn’t initially hear the responses from the panel because my mind was working overtime. That woman could so easily have been me, and I understood her pain, and the indescribable pain of the numerous parents who commented on my original article about a journey with a gender dysphoric child. I chronicle the responses and experiences of parents in my articles my mother heart bleeds and ROGD. Their tales are traumatic reading. Thoughts on what to do indeed. I have scores of unanswered emails in my inbox; DMs on Twitter. It is so hard to give advice, because every child is different and every relationship is different. Often I do reply but what can you say to give hope to these parents? I’m not a psychologist or a guru. The most important thing is to keep your relationship with your child open, have discussions if you can, and be honest. Does that help? Probably not.
I wish I had found this woman at the end of the event and told her about the gender critical parents forum. I wish I had told her about Transgender Trend. Maybe she knew about these groups already, who knows? Instead I stared into space for a minute and thought about how thankful I was that my own lesbian daughter had seen the gender cult for what it was before testosterone or surgery; that she had been young enough for me to still have had some control and influence, and how happy and confident she seems now. Selfish? Perhaps. Thoughtless. No? Thankful. Oh, yes. I don’t think anyone can begin to understand unless they’ve been through it.
Beck emphasised the importance of providing a place for these young women to come back to and to share our stories. “Turn your grief to fuel to do something about it.” Ruzlyo expressed sympathy and emphasised the importance of meeting other parents who were going through the same thing, of writing down your feelings and directing grief somewhere.
Sheila spoke of the young women who had set up Pique Resilience Project.
“This doesn’t necessarily comfort a woman who is in the situation of having lost her child right now, but I don’t think this phenomenon is going to go on very long… lots of lesbians are coming back to us. There’s not enough, I suspect, in it for them to carry on. For some of the men there is, it’s sexual excitement, they’ll go on doing it all their lives, whether we have them doing it in our toilets or in their private bedrooms, they’re gonna be doing it. But these women are realising their losses, they are coming back younger and younger, when they’ve been on these drugs for less time and with less damage done to them. What we need to be doing, apart from giving them all of our support, is what we’ve been talking about today on this panel: the community, the groups, the organisations, the places, the reservoirs of our strength as lesbians and feminists for them to come back and tie in and contact us… in the next few years they’re going to be coming back in thousands.”
The next woman to speak pointed out that being a lesbian feminist was a political act and that being ‘politically homeless’ was a phrase that divided the personal and the political. Long and others agreed that it was quite possible to be politically active without being linked to a political party.
Maya Forstater spoke briefly about her legal crowdfunder and was met with cheers. She said that last week she had asked Julia if she could come and do a ‘commercial break’ at the meeting: “a bit of a cheeky question because I’m not a lesbian,” but that in the end promoting the crowdfunder was not necessary as she had raised her stretch target in just three days. Maya hopes to establish that gender critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010.
The next woman raised the importance of all-women quotas and how they were enshrined in law under the Equality Act. She said all the female MPs agreed with this statement, and how important it is to establish the definition of what an ‘all-women quota’ is. “Because men are not women,” she concluded.
“We need to working above ground but we also need to work underground,” said Beck. “We need cells of women. We need hackers to take down porn sites, we need women writing graffiti on the wall. We also need women to go on TV and go into the houses of power. A diversity of tactics is really what we need.”
A woman spoke of the strength she found in reading the diary of Anne Lister. She also told a tale of a woman in the supermarket who was completely unable to accept that her long-haired, red-coat-wearing child was a boy, even asking “are you sure?” and the importance of telling children that it didn’t matter how they dressed. Another spoke of the difficulty of finding venues where women could meet and discuss important questions such as ‘what is a woman?’ without tapping in to patriarchy.
“Posie, how long have we got left?” asked Anne. “Ten minutes? There are a lot of people who want to speak, I haven’t got time for you all, so you’ll have to have your say in the pub and keep it brief… no more hands up, too late to the party!”
One woman asked for more information about separatism and how best to reach and engage more women: and Long suggested reading Janice Raymond’s ‘Passion for Friends‘.
Jeffreys said that as a separatist she often had to listen at length to women telling her how awful men are. “I just want to say leave, leave, leave, leave now!”
The next woman called for tolerance, pointing out that there was space in the movement for everyone. “How can we connect better with each other?” asked a third. Will there be a ‘Lesbians on Chairs’ network formed? asked a fourth.
“‘Lesbians on Chairs’ is going to be a podcast and the link to that will be shared online.” Julia told us.
“I’ve only got time for one more person to speak and that’s me,” quipped Anne. “For all those nasty misogynist men on social media, there are actually a hundred and sixty people in this room – a hundred and fifty nine women and one man! Thank you all very much for coming and thank you again to Posie and Venice for organising- and to our speakers!”
Two and a half hours had passed and it was time to pack away the chairs and head off to the pub.
The buzz of excited chatter on the way into the Wesley had been one of expectation. Now women were discussing the ideas and issues that had been raised, and many were ready to continue to bond and brainstorm at the pub. We were keen to join them… if we could just work out how to get there. After walking around the block twice and realising we were completely lost, I succumbed and ordered an Uber. We arrived at the pub in time to beat the crowd and order half a dozen portions of sweet potato fries and onion rings which we scoffed with enthusiam.
I bought a pint for the wonderful woman who saved my blog- thanks again Lauren! – and when the fries were all gone, we moved out into the evening sunset to sit with the women who had gathered outside.
Not every women in that pub that night was a lesbian, but they were certainly in a majority. Lesbians at the bar, lesbians in the loos, lesbians outside having a cigarette, lesbians hugging and making plans for their next meet up. Lesbians leaning against the wall; lesbians on chairs. Lesbians standing up for lesbians everywhere.