What women owe lesbians

I wrote this because I don’t think straight women always realise what a debt of gratitude we owe to lesbians. This is my attempt at saying ‘thank you’.

I was born in the spring of 1984, three years after Prince Charles wed Lady Di and three years after my eighteen-year-old mum waved goodbye to her sleepy midlands town and caught the Intercity train to London to work with young homeless people. There she met my dad and soon after I was on my way into being. A photograph of my mum, dark-haired, freckled and barely twenty, smiling shyly at my dad behind the camera on the dunes at Camber Sands is the first picture I am in. She was not aware of my presence at the time it was taken.

My mum, my dad and their two labrador retrievers, Arfer and Guinness, were living in a mouse- and damp-infested house on the Isle of Dogs when I was born; their downstairs housemate was a heroin-user. At night, mum snuggled me up in a Moses basket on top of the built-in cupboard in the alcove behind their single bed, thick winter coats blocking the streetlight coming through the curtainless windows.

A couple of months later, my mum and dad were offered a ground floor flat on a council estate in nearby Poplar. Built in the interwar period with walls a full foot thick, sunny South-facing windows with wide windowsills and a nursery for the baby, it was worlds away from their squalid rooms on the island. My mum was a dedicated feminist, attending consciousness-raising circles, rallies and Embrace the Base. She made friends with local radical-feminist lesbians. A diverse group, some single, some partnered, some with kids, some with cats, some separatist (from men, not from cats I don’t think).

My mum was only twenty-one and things with my dad were beginning to turn sour. After a while he moved in with another woman but it took some time for my mum to finally make a clean break. He was drinking heavily and his behaviour was increasingly erratic, even frightening. One time he barricaded himself in my mum’s bedroom with me. My mum was frantic with worry, not knowing what he might be capable of. He was from an abusive family, beaten by his father, sexually abused by his elder brother. She kicked the door in to retrieve me.

My mum cared about my dad but it was becoming apparent that he did not know how to care about anyone but himself. Her feminist lesbian friends were there for her with empathy, radical feminism, cups of tea and roll-ups. They babysat me so that she, still so young, could work and occasionally go out and let her hair down. She knew I was in safe hands. Safer even than those of my own father.

When I was three, my mum walked out on my dad for good, taking me and Arfer with her. She went to her lesbian friends and they celebrated with I Will Survive loudly on repeat. One friend, a butch lesbian who lived on the other side of our estate and was dating the mother of my childhood friend, Louie, switched the lock to her flat with ours so my dad would not be able to let himself in.

Growing up, I had lesbian women in my life every day. I remember going to stay at with Dru in her eleventh floor flat with its wrought iron security door and panoramic views of Canary Wharf when my mum was working night shifts. She affectionately nicknamed me ‘Supersonic’ and let me watch Dangermouse on TV AM before we glided down the slight hill to my primary school on her pushbike with me balanced precariously on the handlebars. Still one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

I spent the first part of my life not really questioning the impact my mum’s lesbian feminist friends had on me – I don’t suppose we really do when we’re young – but I now believe that having women in my life who role-modelled a radical separateness from men, freedom from the nuclear family structure, tight-knit community and political awareness made me so lucky. I grew up straight (I think my mum is still a little bit disappointed) but never thought I had to be. I grew up knowing I did not have to have children, that I could pursue my academic and artistic ambitions, that I did not have to view myself through men’s eyes, and that I did not have to accept male violence. In short, I grew up knowing that I could just be me.

I lament the loss of radical feminist and lesbian spaces because they are wonderful but also, from a self-centred point of view, I wonder what would have become of me and my mum had she not had those friends as my dad revealed himself to be manipulative, mad and abusive. I may be heterosexual but I remain reassured by the visible presence of lesbians in society and enriched by my friendships with lesbians.

Choosing to live without a man will always be a radical act in a patriarchal society and women as a social-class and as political stakeholders benefit from the empowerment of women who love women. We should cherish lesbians and recognise that their disempowerment and their erasure is the canary in the coalmine for women’s rights. Radical lesbians have always been front and centre in the women’s liberation movement, pushing for the rights of women to have sexual autonomy, freedom from male violence and protection for their children. I am convinced, my mum’s own skills and supportive family notwithstanding, that my life would have been poorer and scarier without her lesbian friends and her radical feminist community.

What damage are we unleashing on women as a whole when we stop lesbians from being able to form their own communities, learn their history and culture and organise politically? I dread to think.