Lesbian with a vengeance

'Hello, we're lesbians, we can spot your homophobia ...' Alex Spillius meets a highly visible protest group

Alex Spillius
Saturday 01 July 1995 23:02 BST

ABOUT half-way through our interview, Lynn Sutcliffe couldn't resist the urge to get something straight, as it were. "Are you gay?" she asked me, with a curious tilt of the head. I said no. "Oh, I thought you were." Apparently the ring on the little finger of my left hand is a common gay token, and short hair and round glasses merely added to the impression.

She also had a notion the newspaper would have sent a gay man on the story on the basis he would have had a better grasp of the issue. I am not so sure. Gays and straights alike might at times struggle to discern what the Lesbian Avengers are about.

The group celebrate their first anniversary at the end of the month, and it has not been a dull year. They have staged a tea party-cum-protest on the lawn of Emma Nicholson MP's Devon fastness; raided gay bars and "recycled" thousands of copies of MX, a free gay paper which ran a rather bitchy anti-lesbian article; burst into a Save the Children meeting attended by the Princess Royal, after the charity excluded lesbian comedian Sandi Toksvig from the event; and took vengeance on Time Out for a review of a book on black women perceived as racist.

But their piece de resistance was a tour of the West End on an open-top bus a few weeks ago to mark the seventh anniversary of Clause 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. About 50 women announced to shoppers and tourists that they were very glad to be gay - not so much a love that dares not speak its name as one that shouts it full blast from the top of a Routemaster. A megaphone taped to the side of the bus was used to address passers-by. "We were talking to specific people from the bus, saying, 'Yes, you in the brown coat, hello, we're lesbians ... we can spot your homophobia,' " says Ms Sutcliffe, one of the prime movers of the group, with some satisfaction.

Several stop-offs were made. A kiss-in was held by Rodin's The Kiss, at the Tate; in a branch of Laura Ashley they mocked the pretty dresses and thrust their leaflets on customers; in Marks & Spencer's lingerie department they distributed more information and mucked around with the underwear. Ms Sutcliffe asserts the staff and shoppers in M&S were far from put out.

"They loved it, they were very friendly. We were posing with the models and showing people we buy pants here too. It was the day after the Beth Jordache verdict, and we were saying, 'Free Beth Jordache' and this old woman came up to us and said, 'Don't forget Mandy!' "

The idea behind all this is to promote "lesbian visibility", also the theme of the recent Gay and Lesbian Pride event, when lesbians were given pole position in the march and the Avengers a spot on stage in front of an audience of at least 150,000 in Hackney's Victoria Park.

As a pre-recorded video was played of three women talking about their lives as lesbians and the organisation's manifesto, 25 or so Avengers marched on to the stage and unfurled a couple of banners, waving eagerly at the crowd. "And they waved back to us, thank God," says Niki Morrigan, a group member.

Their cameo, however bemused many in the crowd. "I couldn't really hear what they were saying and it was all a bit amateurish and cringey, everyone was chatting on and not really listening," comments one observer.

No one was expecting a slick floor show, but that reaction raises the legitimate question of what exactly the Avengers are trying to put across.

Megan Radcliffe, a lesbian journalist, argues that in the absence of anti-lesbian legislation to oppose, the Avengers campaign on lesbian visibility, which "turns into a freak show on wheels, which doesn't help the cause. I don't know if jumping up and down and banging a drum is a good thing."

A gay activist asks of the Oxford Street action: "What's the point of behaving like football supporters, chanting, 'We're lesbian, we're lesbian'? It's just exhibitionism. It doesn't do anything for anybody. Where's the statement of intent?"

There is one: "The Lesbian Avengers is a non-violent direct action group committed to raising lesbian visibility and fighting for our survival and our lives."

The emphasis is undoubtedly on visibility, and explaining that lesbians exist in many walks of life and are like others except in private. Paradoxically, perhaps the message is too simple to grasp or communicate properly.

Can it be achieved by prancing around the knickers and tights sections of high street stores? Non-violent direct action has won considerable public sympathy when practised by anti-roads campaigners, the disabled and opponents of live animal exports, but each of those focussed on a specific grievance, and have sensibilities to tug at, which the Avengers do not.

"It's a myth that it's annoying to people, those sort of people are those we need to educate and reach. This way we can talk to them and let them read our leaflets," argues Roz Hopkins, who was moved to start the group after editing a book for Cassell by Sarah Schulman, the founder of the original American Avengers.

The Avengers are a typical campaign group of the 1990s: a sexily-named, young, energetic, quick-response unit, campaigning on a single issue with a combination of naivety and media awareness. Their profile is so far disproportionate to their numbers - about 400 women have attended the Tuesday meetings at the women's centre in Kingsway, central London, and there are small chapters in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. But it is the only strictly lesbian pressure group.

I didn't expect Ms Hopkins, 25, and Ms Sutcliffe, a 30-year-old drama teacher, to bite my head off for being male (and straight) when we met at a pub in Chelsea, and indeed, they were both charming, and nothing like the bullet-headed, man-hating, militants of Daily Mail perceptions. In fact, their preoccupation seemed to lie with media portrayal of the group rather than problems confronting lesbians at large. When I inquired what made them angry, Ms Sutcliffe cited the Daily Mail.

I asked what the Avengers were campaigning on. They had drawn up five points originally but had trouble remembering all of them. (They were: equal immigration rights for gay partners, education, combating lesbian chic, health care for lesbians, and parenting and fostering rights.)

This is not to say they did not feel strongly about those issues, but they did have to be drawn out rather. On lesbian chic, Ms Sutcliffe exclaimed: "It's not very chic having your children taken away or losing your job ..."

On health care, she explained that lesbians' shyness about revealing their sexuality to GPs means many miss out on smear and checks for breast cancer. "I do feel very angry, and activism has been part of coming out completely. But it's about channelling anger or hurt constructively," she said with conviction.

The group appears to exist as much to foster self-confidence among its members as to forward the cause of lesbianism generally. "I don't even care if people come to find a girlfriend - if that helps them be a lesbian then fine," Ms Sutcliffe says. As grievances, both picked out not being able to hold hands with their girlfriends in the street and abuse from men, which apparently rises in relation to a lesbian's butchness. "I don't get much because I'm quite femmy," says Ms Sutcliffe, who has long blond hair. Ms Hopkins's look is more typical: a boyish cut, checked shirt, jeans and Doc Martens. And yes, they both drank pints and at one stage Ms Sutcliffe belched like a sailor.

Well, do appearances matter? Much as lesbian activists disdain the press's tendency to classify them as either "diesel dykes" or "lipstick lesbians", gay women delight in the nuances of their image. One Avengers action involved members dressing up as different types - femme, butch, boy dyke - which was supposed to be a parody of media perceptions but sounds like more of a celebration of their own sub-culture.

As male gay London has exploded over the past three years, that sub-culture has struggled to keep up. There is still no everyday lesbian-only bar. In fact, being an addendum to male gay causes has contributed to the rise of the Avengers.

"I remember being at the age-of-consent demos outside Parliament with lots of lesbians. All the news was about angry men, I felt invisible," says Ms Sutcliffe.

Lesbians are not mentioned in age-of-consent legislation, being lumped in with all women at the age of 16. Such lack of statutory recognition means there is nothing discriminating against them but nothing specifically guaranteeing their rights, which creates the problem for campaigners of whether to press for legal recognition which may be turned against them.

They are also left out of the Aids issue, as female-to-female transmission of HIV is very rarely heard of. When some have demanded research into the issue, gay men have accused them of trying to muscle in on funding, and gays, probably rightly, argue lesbians do not attract as much violence, prejudice or discrimination.

This may be because lesbians are less detectable, or less threatening to straight men in power, or because there just aren't that many of them, which is the great unmentionable in lesbian circles. Lesbian Avengers like to cite the guesstimate of one in ten used by gay men, though the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which polled 19,000 people between May 1990 and December 1991, found only 1 per cent of women living in London had had a gay partner in the past five years (compared with 4.3 per cent of men), and only 6 per cent said they had ever had a homosexual experience.

Committed lesbians argue that many "straight" women are yet to come out; they may be right.

Without wishing to belittle the challenge of coming out or the risk of prejudice and assault, this statistic, if true, might help explain why the Avengers have been so long avenging.

But to leave them the last word: "However many of us there are doesn't matter. We just want to be able to be ourselves without worrying about it."

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