‘That day the photograph was taken we were at a disco after attending the first National Lesbian Conference in London. It was exciting – there was such a sense of solidarity. It was important to show people that lesbians weren’t just a ‘little group’.
Growing up, I knew there was something inside me that I really needed to understand but I wasn’t sure what. I knew that I needed to get away from small town expectations: working in the local factory, getting married – and having Christ knows how many kids. I wouldn’t call what I was doing rebellious.It was I think, desperation.
‘My subculture gave me a hook to hang my coat on for a while. It provided a sense of family but in hindsight it wasn’t truly me. The real me was that small town girl, and all of a sudden I’d met all these clever, student Feminist lesbians. I was very working class and they used language I only pretended to understand.
‘But it was through that subculture that I realised, ‘oh, I’m a lesbian!’ and it was important for me to have found that tribe. That particular subculture allowed one, true part of me to flourish but it wasn’t always in alignment with the other parts of me. People are more complex than
‘I think that’s why I’m still growing into myself, still trying to find out who it is that I am. And subcultures, those groups… it’s very easy to fall into them purely for that sense of belonging that
we all want. ‘There was a lot more discrimination back in those days. Lesbians were abused by people in the street. A neighbour put a burning magazine through our postbox once when we lived in a lesbian shared house. Subcultures make it easier for people to discriminate against you because they can then de-personalise you. People can act out dislike on a group. Whereas, if they know you as an individual, they have to question their own morals. Of course, you are providing yourself with some safety by attaching to a group but you are also making yourself a bigger target.
‘I was happy to be part of the subculture on the community rather than national level. On a community level in Hull we did a lot of things.We set up the first women’s centre and Rape Crisis line. That was a big thing at the time. Now, I realise I can’t change the bigger things. I can only live the way I think is a good way to live and hope that will influence other things, other people. It’s still change I think but on a much quieter scale.’
‘All I remember about that photograph was that I was trying to protect Carol, because about two minutes before she’d been freaking out a bit.
We’d been taking magic mushrooms, you know how it goes. Anita came up and said, ‘Hey, can I take your picture?’ and I turned round to say, ‘No!’ but Carol beamed and went, ‘Yeah!’
‘If I identified with a tribe then I’d say it was ‘Lesbian Feminist’. We did have some signs and signals: the haircut, the women’s sign badges, ties and braces and I wore them because I liked what they stood for, equality. But I also wore them because if you were in the supermarket and you saw someone else wearing that double women’s sign you’d think, ‘Thank god, I’m not the only one. Not everyone in the room will turn on the dyke and spit’.
‘As we get older we become more ourselves, individuals, and that makes us less tribal – less willing to just go along with things – more likely to ask questions. When I was 19 I hadn’t learnt the rules of the tribe and just said stuff. I wasn’t very popular. After a year or so I learnt to keep my mouth shut because asking questions was ‘Not Done’. But the thing I most disliked about the Lesbian Feminist ethos was The Collective: not just that we were equal but that we all had do exactly the same thing, no matter what your particular skills. Everything together all the time. It drove me crazy – it was ridiculous and just wasteful.
‘Since then, I’ve belonged to many tribes. I’m still part of the queer community here in the US, and different writers’ communities – science fiction, crip fiction, historical fiction. I’m doing research, and a PhD, so I also mix with historians and academics. There’s my neighbourhood community, the online crip community… I’m part of many subcultures now but don’t wholly belong to any.
‘Subcultural membership then and now is different. Back then, being part of the Lesbian Feminist tribe was critical to survival. Without that kind of support, well, it was dangerous. Police harassment, rape threats, arson. I was beaten and hospitalised. We kept each other sane, and found joy instead of living in terror all the time. Now, thanks to social media, you can find your people more easily. Sometimes its not just need but more of an affinity group. You can be a left-handed, blue-haired, dog owner and there will be a group for you. The downside of online communities is that they don’t bring you food when you’re sick, they won’t help paint your house, they can’t hold your hand while you grieve for your mother or a sister who died.
‘I also think it’s absolutely true that as a woman you become invisible as you age. The minute you look infertile you stop being a sexual object and prey. To men particularly you are no longer noticeable. That’s so not a problem for me! And in some ways I’m now in my fifties more visible than ever. I’m an Englishwoman in the US and I’m in a wheelchair. I’m an author who goes on tour: when a new book’s out I’m on the radio, in the paper, on TV. I get recognised, sometimes when I don’t want to be. But then there are those times when I’m not seen and I’m like – ‘Hey, why is everyone ignoring me?!’