A prime-time heroine on US television is openly gay; on Saturday night Bill Clinton met her at a formal gay rights dinner. In Britain, male homosexuals, cabinet ministers and all, enjoy a new era of acceptance. But, says Kathy Marks, lesbians remain largely hidden in professional and public life.
Rhona Cameron, the stand-up comedian, tells audiences that she and her girlfriend get fed up with being stared at when they are out together in public. She fantasises, she says, about marching up to straight couples in restaurants and telling them: "No, we're not interested in a threesome, and no, you can't watch."

Cameron, who co-presents BBC2's Gaytime TV, is one of a growing breed of comics who delight in subverting lesbian stereotypes. With their talent for self-parody, they go down a storm on the mainstream circuits. They are living proof, should it still be needed, that lesbian women are not the stroppy and humourless creatures of popular caricature.

Gays in Britain have never had it so good. After three decades of campaigning, many of the legal battles have been won and remaining inequalities look set to be tackled by the Labour government. Gay culture has permeated mainstream society and businesses are vying for the pink pound. The love that dared not speak its name can now be shouted from the rooftops, by latter-day Oscar Wildes and their female counterparts.

Or can it? Somewhere in this great social revolution, lesbians have been left behind. When people talk of a relaxed and self-confident gay community, they are usually referring to gay men. When they admire the vibrancy of the culture, they are thinking of male bars and clubs. It is gay men, chiefly, who have thrived as a result of the transformation in attitudes. They bask in the public perception of them as creative, exuberant, glamorous.

Women lag way behind in the image stakes. To a large extent, they continue to be classified either as butch, shaven-headed "diesel dykes", or, alternatively, "lipstick lesbians" - pornographic fantasy figures created for male delectation.

In the eyes of their detractors, lesbians represent an abomination of both femininity and motherhood.

Lesbians. Even the word itself has a harsh ring to it.

Consider the number of successful, high-profile gay men in Britain. Actors, designers, writers and musicians too numerous to list, not to mention three MPs. Well-known lesbians are thin on the ground. A couple of actresses: Sophie Ward and Pam St Clement. The novelist Jeanette Winterson. Maggi Hambling, the painter. And as of recently, one politician, Angela Eagle.

There was a short-lived vogue a few years ago - "lesbian chic" - which gave rise to lesbian storylines in soap operas and revelations of lesbian affairs by female celebrities. It coaxed the subject some way out of the closet, but ended in a froth of media hype. Genuine declarations such as Angela Eagle's are rare, and still send a prurient frisson through society.

Some suggest that lesbians appear to be inconspicuous because they are outnumbered by gay men in the population. It may be true, too, that they are less politicised and less outspoken. Peter Tatchell, the militant gay rights campaigner, believes that the lack of explicit criminal sanctions against lesbians has, while shielding them from overt persecution, made them less visible.

But the main reason why gay women have a low profile in society is that for them, "coming out" is a particularly daunting step.

For one thing, research indicates that they acknowledge their sexuality at a later age than men, by which time they may be married and financially dependent. For the estimated 15 per cent who have children, there is the fear, not unjustified, of losing a custody battle. Those who do take the plunge find that there is little infrastructure to cushion them; the support networks and public spaces are all male-dominated.

The workplace, too, is problematic. In conservative environments such as business and the professions, revelations of homosexuality can give the kiss of death to a career - more so for women than for men. "It's difficult enough to make it as a woman, without being a lesbian to boot," says one hospital consultant. "We already have to deal with sexism; why add homophobia?" One barrister says that if she were known to be gay, she would never be made a QC. "We have to conform to the womanly image as well as the professional one," she says.

In the media and the arts, one expects less intolerance. But even the theatre, home to so many gay men, is said to be unfriendly territory for lesbians. With so few good parts available for women, actresses dread the repercussions of coming out.

Jackie Clune, the cabaret performer, says: "There's this idea among casting directors that you can't have a known lesbian playing Cleopatra, because the audience won't buy her relationship with Antony. But no one has a problem with Ian McKellen or Simon Callow playing straight roles."

In theory, it should be gay men who encounter more bigotry. They are associated with so many negative things, such as paedophilia and promiscuity, as well as death and disease thanks to Aids. But the prejudice that lesbians face is complex and insidious.

Gay men may be more threatening to heterosexual men, but lesbians -real ones, not actresses in porn films - are more profoundly disturbing because they function wholly independently of men. "A lesbian is a kind of affront to men, a vexing thing," says Beatrix Campbell, the writer and broadcaster.

What seems certain is that lesbians will never escape the straitjacket of stereotyping until they become as commonplace in public life as gay men. Coming out, though, requires a degree of self-confidence found only in women who have reached an unassailable position in their careers. Martina Navratilova was already unbeatable at tennis; Angela Eagle waited until she was a minister. But few women manage to attain such heights.

Lesbians will never achieve equality with gay men until the glass ceiling is smashed to smithereens.