Real Life: Women in love: more than just a fashion statement: Gay chic is in vogue, but lipstick lesbians aren't the full story, writes Linda Grant

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HEY girls] Guess what? It's hip to be gay] Your coolest fashion accessory this season is your girlfriend. Who says so? Harpers & Queen, the Sunday Times, the New York Times and every other paper that can scramble on the bandwagon and get a couple of sultry entwined lovelies on their feature pages before the deadline.

Why are lesbians getting their 15 minutes of fame? The usual hodgepodge of reasons which usher in a 'trend': last year's Vanity Fair cover featuring k d lang and Cindy Crawford in a clinch; a new novel by Jeanette Winterson; Go Fish, a new lesbian film about to open; lesbian storylines on Brookside and EastEnders. We've had Aids awareness and gender bending, so what's left? Lesbians - but they'll need a lot of airbrushing first. Because up to now haven't we been under the impression that they are hairy-legged, with shaved heads, clad in dungarees?

Not as reinterpreted by the media. 1994 has been the summer of lipstick lesbians, in the words of Harpers & Queen, those 'beautiful things; waifs straying across the sexual divide with no hint of the butch about them. They are subtle seductresses, alive to a light touch or glance at a party, soft skin, and perfumed silk.' In other words, a six-stone weakling with no mouth or attitude, who won't give any trouble when homophobia is back in fashion.

If lesbians have until now avoided the limelight of media vogueishness, it is because male editors and journalists don't know what to make of them. Here's Harry Carpenter writing in the Sun recently on the news that Sixties tennis star Maria Bueno was not what she seems: 'I was utterly appalled when I found out the Brazilian star was a lesbian. I couldn't help thinking it was such a waste. She had stunning natural black hair and a beautiful face with a flawless complexion.'

When confronted by the rumour that a beautiful woman is gay the male brain finds the information does not compute. It's not as if she can't get a man, it puzzles, though no one ever suggested it was impossible for Rock Hudson to be homosexual because he was a hunk.

In New York, according to Christine Vacheron, executive director of Go Fish, 'the 15 minutes of fame for lesbian chic has already begun to fade. The film has tremendous potential to cross over, but it was a film made by and for lesbians, and if that's where it stays, it's okay by me - and if it can use the sudden interest in dykedom, then that's fine by me too. I don't complain. But there's always been a titillation factor in movies if you look at some of the things that Garbo and Dietrich were allowed to get away with. Look at perfume ads, look at pornography. It's just that, at the moment, we're flavour of the month.'

When the media attention recedes, and the Harpers waifs dump their gay friends to move back in with their boyfriends, some women will still be lesbians. How do they feel about their current status as fashion accessory?

Sophia Chauchard-Stuart, 25, works as a secretary and writes for the gay press. Round the dining-room table at her flat in south London are three other friends, Sadie Lee, 27, a painter with a one-woman show opening in September in Manchester, Emma Hindley, 32, and Jo Smith, 25, both working in television and film.

'You have the illusion when you see all this stuff in the press that it's never going to be a problem again,' says Jo. 'But it's a form of sexual titillation dressed up as political correctness.' For Emma, 'the thing about designer dykes is that it's not dykes who are setting the agenda, it's straight journalists. A lot of my straight friends say, 'You're in the press, you're on telly, now what do you want?' '

To be able to walk down the street holding hands with their girlfriend without being screamed at, not to be treated as a freak, they say. Putting up with everyday discrimination a truer picture of life as a gay woman than the sexual tourism promoted by Harpers & Queen. Emma has had bricks thrown through her window by local kids. At the news this week that a lesbian couple had made legal history by winning a High Court ruling making them joint parents of a 22-month-old child, MP Emma Nicholson retorted 'I am immensely unhappy when adult sexual behaviour inflicts a distorted lifestyle on children. I believe strenuously that every child deserves a mother and a father.'

A social worker tells of her experience with a local authority continually pilloried by the media for its so-called 'loony left' policies. A 14-year-old boy came out to her when she was employed as a residential care worker because he knew she was gay herself. She advised him to contact a teenage gay and lesbian group to talk through his feelings, and to get some sex education. She was subsequently accused of encouraging him to become a rent boy and after she left her post she was banned from ever seeing again the children who had once been in her care.

Another woman recently came out of a club in Smithfield, London, and hailed a taxi. When it arrived, she briefly hugged and kissed her girlfriend goodnight before getting in. As they drove off the driver told her that it was all right for her to kiss her friend in this way, but what he couldn't stand was lesbians. He then began a tirade of abuse. When she told him she was gay, he screeched to a halt and ordered her out of the cab, leaving her stranded. 'You're always reading about queer-bashing,' she says, 'but I know lesbians who have been driven into alleys by gangs of thugs and beaten up.'

Certainly attitudes towards gay women have softened in the past two decades, partly because of high profile lesbians such as Martina Navratilova, k d lang, Jeanette Winterson, Sandra Bernhard, painter Maggi Hambling, journalist Bea Campbell and soap stars Pam St Clements and Polly Perkins. But many remain closeted because they fear discrimination in their careers. 'We know who they are because we see them at our clubs,' says Sophia. 'The actresses say they won't get straight roles if they come out - so what roles will they get? It's hard for older actresses to find parts anyway. A lot of powerful people in the theatre are gay, but they're men who aren't interested in women.'

At the moment there are no openly lesbian woman politicians. In Portraits of the Hall: Historic Lesbian Lives Unveiled, author Rose Collis dusted off the memory of Maureen Colquhoun, Labour MP for Northampton North from 1974 to 1979. Before Tony Marlow took her seat for the Conservatives, she barely survived attempts by the Labour Party to deselect her, apparently because she had left her husband and was openly living with Barbara Todd, founder of a lesbian magazine.

After an unsuccessful attempt to be nominated as the Labour candidate for Brecon and Radnor in 1981 Colquhoun served as a local councillor in Hackney and has since retired. At the Labour Party press office, no one had heard of her.

'Why is it acceptable for Chris Smith to be an MP and Michael Cashman to apply to be a candidate, when, in the 80s and 90s, the nearest out lesbians can get to political office is as unsalaried leaders of councils?' Rose Collis asks.

If Sophia, Emma, Jo and Sadie represent the image of what a lesbian is allowed to be - young, attractive, metropolitan, working in the safe haven of the trendy end of the media - what is life like for older lesbians? Stella, 41, until recently was employed by the BBC. When she tried to tell her colleagues that she was a lesbian, she found her career was thwarted.

'The BBC is still largely run by men,' she says. 'One boss really took against me when he discovered I was gay, and that served as a lesson to me. What it means now is that people you work with are perplexed by your silence. They don't know what's going on in your life and they don't like that. I don't believe there are all these confident young women about because I don't see them. It's interesting that the Brookside storyline is not about a lipstick lesbian. Someone is telling them what's what, about the real agony of coming out, which is not in the least bit chic.'

Sally Hunter, 48, a social worker in East Anglia, has cast her eye over the summer's features. 'When one sees the approved photographs of the new lipstick lesbians, they are invariably young and beautiful if not also rich and famous. I'm glad for them, but I have very mixed feelings about their happiness if it glides over the day-to-day difficulties of what it's like for the rest of us.'

Last year Lesbian Line, a London-based telephone helpline, dealt with 6,500 calls and hundreds of letters from women too frightened even to pick up the phone. 'If lipstick lesbians are now finding life a little easier, it's not because of articles saying that lesbianism is in vogue,' according to Bev, a spokeswoman for the organisation. 'Women who look beautiful will always have an easier time, whether they're gay or straight. But the reality here is women crying on the phone every day of the week.'

Wimbledon ends today. With or without their lipstick, lesbians wonder if their image in the media will ever be more than a silly-season filler that's over when Martina leaves London and makes her way back to Aspen. When their 15 minutes of fame are up, they will still be dealing with discrimination.

(Photograph omitted)

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