I used to be afraid of the word ‘lesbian’.
How embarrassing is that? There I was, a fully-fledged grown-up feminist, who’d been married to another (rather brilliant) woman for five years, and I was still cringing whenever I heard the L word, or had to apply it to myself.
There were lots of complicated reasons for this, and some were more valid than others. Part of my discomfort was around the idea that it would put me in a box I didn’t fully fit in. My sense of self was still fighting a teenage battle with other people’s assumptions and expectations; I didn’t know if I could be in a relationship with a woman and still fancy Poldark, or wear floaty dresses to a gay bar, or keep my hair long but insist on wearing practical shoes. When I was 17, and I first told people that I was in love with another girl, I was terrified that this statement would come to define me and change, irreparably, other people’s ideas of who I was.
Not wanting to be defined by my sexuality is ok, I think. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a lesbian/bisexual writer, any more than I would want to be a ‘blonde writer’ or ‘a sort-of Northern writer’. But my squirmy-ness about using ‘lesbian’ to mark myself as an outlier from the ‘normal’ range of femininity… That came from a darker place. That place that keeps anxious records of the times when other people – friends or strangers – have used a word that belongs to you, and in their mouths it has become diminishing, or strange, or disgusting, or ridiculous, and sometimes it’s been done so subtly or unintentionally or it’s taken you by surprise at a pub table so that it punches you in the gut before your brain has time to step in and give you any rational protection. And then you have smiled, because that is what you do first, if you are a woman and somebody says something that makes you uncomfortable. You smile.
Some of you will know exactly what I mean, and others will have no idea.
I let these influences get the better of me, and I don’t doubt that some of the amazing women who came before me, and made my life as it is possible, would have been ashamed. Yet somehow, during the process of working on my latest playwriting commission, the word ‘lesbian’ became less scary.
As part of a theatrical double bill called The Burnley Plays, produced by Inkbrew Productions for LGBT History Month, I researched and wrote a play called ‘Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator’. It told the true story of a woman called Mary Winter, who stood up for herself when she was sacked from her job as a bus driver in Burnley in 1979 for wearing a ‘Lesbian Liberation’ badge.
It has been a wonderful project to work on in too many ways to list. Producer and co-writer Stephen M Hornby pulled together a fantastic team to bring the two plays to life, including my amazing director Helen Parry, and our brilliant cast. Meeting and working with our historical advisers, the people who ran our venues (especially Burnley Library), our ensemble from Burnley Youth Theatre, and hearing from our audiences has been an absolute joy. I could not represent such a great project, wearing my ‘Lesbian Liberation’ badge as the cast and crew led each audience outside to re-enact Mary Winter’s original protest, and not end my struggle with that word. I found that I could not repay Mary Winter’s bravery with my own cowardice.
In an attempt to tackle this head on, in an almost-final draft of the script, I wrote a speech that was essentially to myself:
“It’s about lesbian liberation. Alright? Lesbian. You don’t have to like that word… but that word is our bloody birthright. And we’d all better be here for the liberation of lesbians, and her right to get that tattooed across her bloody face if she wants to.”
Judging from the remarkable audience Q&As we had after the performances, I believe that our Burnley Plays may have helped some others to feel braver, too. I am constantly surprised by how exploring someone else’s life can have a deep and lasting impact on our own. Mary Winter – who I hope is still alive, but will probably never meet – has helped to free me from a small but heavy burden that I’d forgotten I was carrying. Without her knowing it, her hand has reached through history, and taken mine.
There are many forces at work in the world right now that are frightening; but we should not be afraid of words for love. We should name it – I am a writer, which means that I believe in naming the things you value – and we should wear it on a badge if it helps to stop us from falling silent.
Lesbian. (Darling Rachel – I love you.)
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