Some of the UK's most prominent female writers, comedians and presenters, and one MP, are chatting over coffee and biscuits in a smart London bar. The topic of conversation isn't the latest play at the National, the current publishing sensation, or a piece of controversial legislation. No, these women are talking about sexual abuse; about insults scrawled on toilet walls; hate-filled letters published in newspapers; name-calling in the street: in short, about the harassment they have suffered as a result of their sexuality.
Like an estimated 1.8 million women in Britain, Stella Duffy, Rhona Cameron, Amy Lamé, Angela Eagle and Sarah Waters are lesbian or bisexual, and as some of the country's few prominent lesbians, the are fronting the gay rights group Stonewall's latest campaign, entitled: "Some People Are Gay. Get Over It!".
Timed to coincide with the start of the new academic year, the simple slogan was the idea of school pupils and is intended to highlight the problem of homophobic bullying in schools.
"A taster campaign of the billboards saw some defaced with homophobic graffiti – reminding us that prejudice is still very much alive in Britain today," said Stonewall's Ben Summerskill.
This sentiment is backed by recent research by YouGov, which revealed that one in five gay people in the UK has been a victim of hate crime in the past three years. These statistics indicate that, while gay rights in the UK have improved dramatically in the 20 years since Stonewall was founded – decades in which Section 28, the controversial legislation that banned teachers from talking about homosexuality in schools, has been repealed, civil partnerships have been introduced, and the age of consent has been equalised – the struggle to eradicate homophobia from the streets and schools of Britain may not be over yet.
Leading the fight against homophobia...
"I was brought up in a small town in New Zealand, where there wasn't a lot of gay identity being paraded. I would have felt a lot less lonely if there had been. There are about 12 'out' lesbians in the public eye. I think it is less socially acceptable to be a lesbian. In the world of entertainment we've had pop stars like Elton John, Boy George and Will Young as cultural icons, and that helps. Gay men didn't have the problem of invisibility; they had a law against them that gave them something solid to join and unite against. We are still living in a culture that wants women to get married and have babies. They don't know where to put us, especially lesbians who look like me. I haven't been bullied, but I've suffered everything from sexual harassment to other, minor inappropriateness. I went to another civil partnership last week. If these are so great, then we should scrap marriage and everyone should have them. I've been with my partner for 15 years; we had a civil partnership three days after it was legal, but I want to get married."
"We fought to equalise the age of consent, to repeal Section 28, but there is still more to do in terms of legislation. We need a law dealing with incitement to homophobic hatred, like the law against incitement to racial hatred. If something leads to violence against people in a certain group, then that shouldn't be tolerated. There is a group in Parliament who'll be hostile to legislative change around the issue of gay rights; around 70 per cent of the Tory Party. You need a progressive majority of MPs to move on. I'm the only lesbian in Parliament. The only 'role model' in terms of sexuality in politics I had is the MP Maureen Colquhoun, outed in a disgusting way by Nigel Dempster in the mid-1970s. She lost her seat at the next election. I got to the stage where I was willing to risk losing my seat if that's what happened. I didn't know what to expect, but luckily I was supported by my then boss, John Prescott. Tony Blair was also extremely supportive. My constituents were fantastic."
TV presenter, 38
"I came out in my final year of university, and the bullying was shocking. It was a systematic hate campaign; from horrible letters printed in the school paper to graffiti on toilet walls. My academic work suffered as a result of it. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey – a cross between Essex and Liverpool – an hour out of New York, but it might as well have been a world away. I had no lesbian role models when I was young, and it wasn't until I started reading feminist books as a teenager that I found a channel for my feelings. I know what it is like to be isolated and feel as if you are the only one. I did a series called My Big Gay Prom with gay teenagers, which is one of the things I'm most proud of doing. Things have changed dramatically because people like Stonewall have worked hard to change laws, perceptions and mindsets. Rights and freedoms in the United States now pale in comparison to the UK. I've been in the UK for 17 years and have been with my partner for 15 years, but we couldn't go to live in the US because our civil partnership isn't recognised there."
Comedian and author, 43
"Let's remind ourselves of a few things that have happened in the past year: in Liverpool a young boy was killed for being gay; elsewhere in the UK a man watched his partner stabbed to death and called faggot; and in South Africa a promising young footballer was gang-raped and killed for being a lesbian. The idea that these things aren't going on is just wrong. Statistically, homophobic bullying is still a big problem in schools, and a big factor in teen suicide. I was bullied for a time at school. I lived in fear of people turning up at my house and shouting stuff. Events that happen at school can scar you. I hadn't heard of any lesbians when I was at school; I used to look up 'lesbian' in the dictionary as I didn't know what it meant. It is disappointing that there are so few athletes out. If you are at a rough comprehensive, you're not going to know about some novelist, but you'll know about sports stars and pop stars. There are at least six gay Premier League footballers who are closeted; some of the female sporting legends of all time were, and are, gay."
"Lesbianism is a part of life, but young people who are gay can feel isolated and like freaks. I think it is both easier and harder for young people now. Because of the greater visibility of gay people, they are also more of a target: there is a climate of homophobia that wasn't the case in my day. I don't like the way that the word 'gay' is used as an insult. I use the word 'dyke', though. I feel we have reclaimed it. Offence comes from the way words are used, not the words themselves. We're more protected than ever in law, but now more cultural and social changes are needed. We see far more gay men in the public eye than women. This is partly because gay culture on the whole is more flamboyant and glamorous. For me, as a writer, there are quite a lot of lesbians around. Literature feels like a lesbian-friendly place. I doubt young lesbians look up to people like me, more to people like Beth Ditto; it is healthy and exciting that there are role models like her."
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