Beatrix Campbell is a writer, feminist, Green Party activist, playwright, broadcaster and social commentator.
‘But you don’t look like a lesbian!’ This has often been said to me as a kindly gesture…I don’t look like a journalist either, or a gardener, or a cyclist, or needlewoman, or a great aunt…in fact, I reckon I don’t look like anything – except that I look like a woman.
Lesbian Visibility Week has provoked some questions on the Visible Lesbian, and what that might mean. So, I’m going to reprise some of my ruminations from a while back.
When I came out as gay (a term I prefer) lesbian and woman may have been uncomfortable but they were hardly controversial. No longer. So, I want to affirm coming out as both.
Coming out as gay always takes guts, and it never stops, but there are only three excuses for not doing it that have any merit: you live in a place where it might get you killed, or you’d be sacked, or you can’t face telling your mother.
Coming out to my parents was worse than telling them I had been done for shoplifting, worse than telling them I had failed my A-levels (they minded for me), and worse than telling them I was getting married (to a man – no one was good enough).
It is worse because gay people have to do something no heterosexual person ever has to: draw attention to something you do not want them to have in their head, your sexuality and your sex life.
In the early 1970s, I told my mother I had fallen in love with a woman. I was 23, married, and intoxicated with the Women’s Liberation Movement. This new thing was tumultuous, such a surprise, such a thrill; and so seismic that it churned up everything, all the way to my mother.
She was good, as I knew she would be. Whenever anything homophobic was said in our house – only by my father – she would upbraid him: she was a nurse, she worked with gay people, they were part of her universe. What she struggled with was another loved one in my life who wasn’t her.
I dreaded my father’s reaction. I did not want to talk to him about my sexuality and I did not want to negotiate his political prejudice. He was a British Bolshevik who prized the muscular iconography of revolutionary heroism – homosexuality was a bourgeois deviation, a legend encouraged by spy scandals and upper-class fops.
Ultimately his working-class hauteur was transformed not by me, but by watching Quentin Crisp’s bewitching autobiography on television. The reaction I was not prepared for was from sympathetic relatives who congratulated me for not looking like a lesbian, and for not being evangelical about it. Oh, but I am, I thought – I had been undone by my good manners.
And I have never forgetten coming out to a boss. This was during the ecstatic swirl of 1970s sexual politics and the organisation was hot with scurrilous gossip about a couple of women who had fallen in love with each other. I went into his office and said I expected him to do the right thing, to support them. (I knew he had not.)
He had affairs, but his desk was crowned with photos of his wife. His reputation was intact. I also told him I expected him to do the right thing by me. Instantly, I saw a blush, not of embarrassment, I am sure, but of arousal. We all know about men’s fantasies about lesbians. I was revealed. He was not.
Some of my lesbian friends have come out to everyone – even the boss – except their mothers. One friend survived a cruel custody battle in the days when lesbians always lost their children. She survived grotesque humiliation, she was brave, because she loved and desired a woman. But she could never use the L word to her mother. Why? She couldn’t bear losing her mother.
Now that woman is confronted by another nightmare: losing her language, her mother tongue, lesbian and woman.
Every gay man or woman I know has a story of dread and courage that derives not from being a daughter or son, but from desire – or rather whose bodies we desire.
That is the beauty of gay: it is what you do, and with whom, not what you are. Gay is activity and affinity rather than identity. Gay is a relationship – it doesn’t exist without the subject of your desire.
So, let’s hear it for Lesbian Visibility: women loving women.
22nd April 2020