The L word: Lesbian. Loaded. Loving it

A new survey reveals a generation of rich, successful gay women who are smashing stereotypes with their glamour and spending power. By Liz Hoggard
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The Independent Online

The pink pound is no longer just a male thing. Gay men, long thought of as the free-spending masters of the consumer universe, are being supplanted by "Power Lesbians" - and advertisers are cottoning on fast.

According to a new survey, seen exclusively by The Independent on Sunday, more lesbians own their own homes, cars and computers than gay men. They visit the gym, go to restaurants more and spend more on mobile phones, DVD players and satellite TV. "The myth that lesbians don't invest a significant proportion of their monthly pay packet on travel, leisure, fashion and beauty products is about to be blown out of the water," said Jane Czyzselska, editor of the lesbian glossy magazine Diva, which co-commissioned the research with Gay Times.

The stereotypical image of an earnest soul with cropped hair, dungarees and a rainbow jumper has been eclipsed by the new Power Lesbian, as she has been dubbed, who owns her own property, travels widely and increasingly runs her own business. In the past advertisers assumed that lesbians had no money and ignored them. Now we have brands as high-profile as Patrick Cox, Harvey Nichols and Gucci flirting with lesbian imagery.

There are nearly three million lesbians and gays in the UK and around 70 per cent are in a committed relationship, according to Ian Johnson of Out Now, the Diva and Gay Times Readers Survey. Within five years of the Civil Partnership Bill becoming law on 5 December, he estimates that as many as 275,000 lesbian and gay couples will walk down the aisle, creating a booming industry in wedding services. Seventy per cent of the Diva sample intend to take a honeymoon, compared with 57 per cent of Gay Times readers, opening up a £600m potential market. No wonder "wedding venues" such as stately homes and National Trust properties are actively targeting wealthy lesbians, advertising in the pink press and taking space at gay festivals.

Gay professionals and businesspeople have enjoyed an unprecedented level of publicity and acceptance in recent years, but lesbian high earners are threatening to take over. Nearly one in 10 Diva readers earns £40,000-£75,000, according to the survey, which also found that 13 per cent earn £30,000-£39,000, compared with 11 per cent of Gay Times readers. The average wage for both lesbian and gay respondents was higher than the national average - £24,783 for lesbians and £28,841 for gay men; but when it comes to disposable income, lesbians spend more.

In addition, more high-earning lesbians are daring to come out. Role models include the playwright Bryony Lavery; Eileen Gallagher, who co-founded the independent TV production company behind Footballers' Wives, Shed; Margot James, who co-founded the Shire Health Group, Europe's largest healthcare PR company; and novelists Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters. Chic lesbian members' clubs such Lounge at Teatro and networking groups for City professionals such as Citypink are also on the increase.

"When I started out 10 years ago, very few gay women had a good income or were very driven," says Emma Basden, who runs Pink Management, a PR company. "It was all about the scene, getting a girl. Now gay women are becoming more independent, starting their own companies and having a voice themselves. And if you're in a relationship where you're both earning, where you're both ambitious and hungry to make a mark, then of course you can experience a nicer lifestyle. Only five years ago it was gay men who were driving the convertibles, opening the bars and restaurants, one was a banker, one was a doctor ... but now women are part of the pink pound."

Where once lesbians, like radical feminists, saw money and luxury as taboo, gay women have become enthusiastic consumers. The richest indulge in second homes and million-pound property portfolios, regularly treat themselves to luxury spa trips and mini-breaks, and rely on a network of staff - cleaners, secretaries, landscape gardeners. Winterson talks openly about owning a Georgian house in Spitalfields, a house in the Cotswolds and another in France, while Waters has bought her girlfriend a flat around the corner from her house. There is less guilt about doing well, says Jay Hunt, a broadcaster and fashion stylist, and partner of Margot James. "Years ago, if I said, 'I'm gay and I live in South Kensington', there would have been an outcry."

According to Zoë Strachan, who lives with fellow novelist Louise Welsh: "There's definitely less guilt about pleasure, because we now see treating ourselves as a right - which it is, of course. Although I would worry if spending and owning became our only raison d'être as gay women."

Thanks to donor insemination, these couples increasingly also have children, creating a whole new class of yummy mummies. But in defiance of the stereotype male earner and his stay-at-home-with-the-kids wife, still prevalent among the middle classes, both lesbian partners are often influential in their own right: couples such as the BBC sports presenter Clare Balding and her partner, the broadcaster Alice Arnold, or the novelists Joanna Briscoe and Charlotte Mendelson.

"I think it's a completely different dynamic if you're in a gay relationship," says Ms Hunt. "I think of my partner Margot's money as hers to spend rather than a joint pot, unlike many married women I know."

"You really want each other to succeed," says Helen Chalmers, 42, a management consultant, whose girlfriend runs a design agency. "There is no competition."

Ms Hunt says: "In my twenties lesbians used their clothes and haircut to make a political statement. Everyone was very dismissive of the lipstick lesbian movement. Now you can have pretty girls, girls who follow fashion, girls who don't follow fashion. It's much less judgemental, so women feel OK about saying they've bought a Prada jacket or that they went down to Portobello Road and found a fantastic vintage top."

Lesbian culture has never been as visible and confident as it is now. Things have come a long way in the seven years since the US comedian Ellen DeGeneres had her TV show cancelled after she came out as a lesbian. Programmes such as Fingersmithand Hex have opened up gay culture, and The L Word, a glossy American soap, is peopled by wealthy lesbians in designer clothes bathing in palm-fringed pools.

"The cultural climate is more accepting," says lesbian singer-songwriter Belinda O'Hooley, 33. "Ten years ago, the only visible gay musicians were people such as kd lang and Melissa Etheridge. Now we have more alternative role models, such as the Scissor Sisters and Antony and the Johnsons. There are many of us out there."

And a more tolerant society means greater sexual choice. "Women such as Rebecca Loos and Abi Titmuss have openly admitted they have lesbian tendencies, and most of this year's Big Brother contestants have labelled themselves bisexual," says Ms Czyzselska. We are seeing a more accepting and fluid approach to sexuality, highlighted by the rise of "bi-try" relationships - earlier this year the tabloids had a field day about the reported menage à trois between Kate Moss, Sadie Frost and Davina Taylor.

"My girlfriend had a boyfriend when I met her," says Ms Basden, "In fact, most of my partners have been straight or bisexual, whatever you want to call it. More and more women are becoming open-minded about female-to-female partnerships. Perhaps its introducing a new type of woman on to the scene."

All the women interviewed for the survey were quick to stress their privileged status. Kate, 37, is the co-founder of an independent financial advice company. "My girlfriend is an archaeologist, so we have two good salaries and a lot of freedom," she says. "It's very different from being a lesbian single parent living on benefits. Of course, there are still major issues we need to tackle such as homophobic bullying, but how fantastic for a 15-year-old gay teenager to see independent, successful lesbians in the media. It gives out a great message of hope."

Rena & Sophie

The actress and mother of two Sophie Ward left her husband, Paul Hobson, in 1996 for Rena Brannan - a year after playing Alice, a married woman who embarks on a lesbian fling, in the TV adaptation of Joanna Trollope's 'A Village Affair'. In 1999 she 'married' Ms Brannan, an American writer, during a ceremony at London's Groucho Club.

Alex & Jill

Alex Parks, 21, won the BBC talent show 'Fame Academy' in 2003, before releasing her debut single 'Maybe That's What it Takes'. She met Scottish rock singer Jill Jackson, 25, the lead singer of Speedway, on a daytime TV show shortly afterwards - they now have a flat together in London.

Joanna & Charlotte

Joanna Briscoe's first novel, 'Mothers and Other Lovers' - about a girl having an affair with her mother's best female friend - won a Betty Trask Award in 1994. She and Charlotte Mendelson, whose novel 'Daughters of Jerusalem' won the 2003 John Llewellyn Rhys prize, live near Hampstead Heath with their two young children.

Margot & Jay

Margot James, a self-made millionaire, co-founded the Shire Health Group, Europe's largest healthcare PR company. This year she became the first openly lesbian Conservative Party candidate when she stood for election in central London. Jay Hunt is best known for appearing on BBC2's dating show 'Would Like to Meet' and BBC3's 'Spendaholics'.

Emma & Jen

One of TV's real estate queens (BBC2's 'Safe as Houses' and Channel 4's 'Houses for Auction'), Emma Basdenwas named as Rebecca Loos's ex-lover in 2004. She recently set up a PR company, Pink Management, and signed Ms Loos as a client. Both Ms Basden and her partner, Jen Whiting, are directors of the property company Apple London.

Clare & Alice

Clare Balding, a popular racing commentator, has become one of BBC Sport's most familiar faces over recent years. She was 'outed' by a Sunday tabloid in 2003. Alice Arnold, an actress, Radio 4 presenter and formerly the voice of the shipping forecast, is the ex-girlfriend of comedienne Sandi Toksvig.

Fiona & Saffron

Actress Saffron Burrows, 32, is a rarity in entertainment - an openly bisexual feminist with a successful film career who doesn't shy away from lesbian relationships in her work or life. In 2002, her relationship with director Mike Figgis ended and she began an affair with actress Fiona Shaw, 47. Last month, however, rumours began circulating that the UK's most high-profile lesbian couple had agreed to a trial separation.