I wrote this for the Stonewall anthology, The Way We Are Now, published by Continuum in 2006. What I find particularly depressing is that it continues to need saying. And hearing. And action.
Seeing The Invisible Women
We live in a house, a London terrace, small front garden, two receptions, three bedrooms, back garden. We do not live in an especially salubrious part of London, we pretty much swapped a one bedroom flat in North London for this three bedroom house in South. We chose inside space and garden over location. This year the cherries and apples and tomatoes and single pear in our tiny town garden proved it was the right choice. The harvest from the two bedrooms-that-are-offices are equally prolific – we write plays, radio, novels, articles, ideas. This is a typical London terrace. And I have no idea what that typical means now.
My mother was born in a terrace just like this, a mile or so away in Kennington, in 1921. The house she lived in was shared – her aunt, uncle and cousins in one half, she and her parents and two brothers in the other. My wife Shelley and I share our house with a cat. We’d hoped to share it with children, we tried, they didn’t happen. We have been together for fifteen years, and in that time have lived through parental rejection, parental acceptance, three house moves, cancer, miscarriage, failed IVF, infertility, parental death, the births, deaths, weddings and divorces of friends and family, along with countless dinners and lunches and parties and barbecues and nights in with dinner on our laps and rubbish telly to be laughed at and not enough holidays and too many deadlines. We’ve had three weddings. The first a very small one when I was still exhausted from cancer treatments, was a celebration of ten years together and getting through the cancer year. It was at home, with our best friends, intensely private, and very emotional. The second was our Partnership Registration at City Hall, on a late summer day, with a view of Tower Bridge, in front of 30-odd family and friends, followed by a repetition of vows and party for 180. The third at 9.30am at the Lambeth Registry Office on December 23rd 2005, our Civil Partnership, granting us most of the legal and pension rights long enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. (Many of whom are often so blithely unaware of the privileges they possess.) To me, the most important right, as a woman who has (touch wood, so far) made it through a life-threatening illness, being that of next-of-kin. As my civil partner Shelley can, if necessary, make medical decisions for me. Further, having registered my own mother’s death, I know what an important thing that is to do for someone, to honour their life in the same way a birth is honoured, recorded, witnessed. We live in a witness culture. Since our Civil Partnership, my partner now has the right to honour – bear witness to – my life in this way, and I hers. It is a long overdue right, but nonetheless welcome for that.
When I was coming out in the late seventies and early eighties I was terrified, of my difference, and divergence, of being alone. Born in London, I grew up in a small mill town in New Zealand, the youngest of seven children in a working class family. For such a family there, then, we were well-read. But Orwell and Huxley, Austen and Bronte are hardly an introduction to gay life. At fifteen I hadn’t yet read the novels – many of which were still to be written – that might suggest being ‘different’ could also be special, be good. I didn’t know any lesbians, I didn’t know that what I was feeling had anything to do with being a lesbian. The one lesbian role I knew was Sister George, and I’d only seen that on TV because my father thought Beryl Reid was the funniest woman alive. The ensuing film wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Nor did it, with its classic doomed lesbian relationship, offer any hint of what my life would be. Not only that, but much as I was starting to consider working as an actor, I didn’t fancy being Susannah York, or Beryl Reid or even Coral Brown. I didn’t fancy any of them either. (Well, maybe Coral Brown, just a little.) There were no lesbians on television, in the movies, in my books, in my life. Or so I thought. Years later I was to find that my uncle’s sister had had a ‘friend’ all her life, that when the mother of the boy up the road moved out from their family home, she moved in with another woman. But these were secrets, hidden. These women were not able to be role models for me not merely because they weren’t out, but because everyone else refused to be out about them as well. They were there, and they were invisible.
Of course, at the time, there were very few women – as heroes, at centre-stage – anyway, so of course the chances that any of them would be gay women were commensurately lower. And yes, we have done better and times have changed and thirty years has made an enormous difference. We’ve come a long way babies. But … in terms of media visibility, of role models for young girls (or even old women), there’s still a very long way to go. Where gay men had Queer as Folk in the 90’s, lesbians had the grumpy boring dykes in Queer as Folk. Where gay men had John Hannah and Simon Callow’s happy (if doomed!) couple in Four Weddings and a Funeral at the movies, we had Sharon Stone portraying a homicidal bi-bitch. How many out gay men in parliament, how few out lesbian. Yes, there is the L-Word. On cable. Not even Channel 4 was brave enough to go there.
We’re simply not there yet, and feminism – as much as ‘gay liberation’ – still has a role to play in getting lesbians into the mainstream. With approximately 75% (at a conservative estimate) of British TV companies, theatres, film companies, newspapers, TV channels, film distributors, publishing houses, magazines owned and/or run by men (and not all of them straight men by any means) we’re a long way from lesbians owning or running the means of production whereby we might see ourselves reflected back. No wonder we so rarely see representations of ourselves we recognize, in our many forms, in our multiplicity. Nor do I believe this is all the fault of the men in charge, not entirely. The men running our media and government are there because they’ve always been there. Because it’s what we all – men, women, gay, straight, black, white, brown – are used to. Not all that long ago the Bronte sisters had to sell their work under men’s names. Change takes time. We’re doing better than we used to. Way better than seemed possible to this small town girl in 1978 – but not quite good enough.
One of the reasons this change is too slow is that not everyone is engaged in it. Not all the lesbians are engaged in it. I know several lesbians who work in the City and say it’s impossible for them to come out. Really? Harder than for the Muslim and Jewish and Christian and Sikh lesbians who are out to their religious families? I know so many women who say they can’t tell their parents because they’re too old or too sick or too religious or simply won’t understand. Well no, not without it being explained to them they won’t. I know way more out gay men than out lesbians. I suspect most of us do, whatever our sexual orientation. And yes, I do work in a ‘nice’ media world where (usually) people are fine about my being a dyke – but not always, not every time. And I don’t actually live in that world. I live in a South London terrace, between an elderly Irish couple and a bunch of French students. Our GP knows we’re together. Our dry cleaner knows we’re a couple – over the years he has become a friend, we talk about the weather and the world and religion. A Muslim, he’s asked me how Shelley and I reconcile our ‘lifestyle’ with our family faiths of Judaism and Catholicism. My answer is that it is no more a lifestyle than the colour of my hair or the freckles on my skin – my sexuality is both intrinsic and incidental to my life, but it is no choice. The guy at the petrol station where we buy petrol and crisps and drinks for long journeys asked if we were sisters. I said no, partners. When we bought our wedding dresses – together – (not meringues) and the sales assistant asked what was the occasion, we looked at each other, took a breath, told him. When the young and not-entirely-sober scaffolder sitting beside me on the train to York last year, asked what I do and where I was going, he eventually got around – as I knew he would – to asking didn’t my husband mind me going away for work so much. I explained that I was wearing a wedding ring as the wife of a wife. He then asked didn’t she mind me going away for work so much. Confounding both my expectations and those of everyone else sitting near us who had suddenly become ever so interested in their fingernails as they stopped talking themselves and listened for his response.
Yes, it is boring coming out all the time. The tedious predictability of the double take, of being – at best, at least – interesting. I’m 42, it is a very long time since I thought being ‘interesting’ was a career option. Coming out always feels a little more intrusive, like giving a little more information than is asked for. But then again, people will chat at bus-stops and in supermarket queues, they will ask about work and partners and children. And I will tell the truth. Every single time there is a moment of tension, an uncertainty, and not every reaction is OK by any means, but my black and Asian friends have no choice about being out as their ‘minority’ – we do. My choice is to be honest. I believe change will happen faster that way. I believe I have a duty to make change faster and being out easier for the next lot of fourteen year old girls looking for the lesbians in their world. Where are the lesbian pop stars and movie stars and soap stars, the lesbian business leaders, the lesbian entrepreneurs, the lesbian religious leaders? They’re not out. They’re letting the rest of us make the world safer and easier and better for them, while they lie. And I’m tired of it. I want them doing the work too. If everyone who has ever had a homosexual love, desire, or experience came out right now, the world would change overnight. We could stop being interesting or different or special because we’re gay, and get on with just being.
Meanwhile I live in South London. I live with my wife. My family speak of her as their sister-in-law. I go to Friday night dinner at my in-laws. Both my parents are dead, my in-laws see me as theirs now. None of this has been easily won, none of it was handed to us on a plate, none of it came without a struggle. We pushed for nine and a half years to be accepted as a couple in our families. There were six teenagers at our big wedding party, young people who may or may not find they are gay as time progresses, young people who saw that their parents and families both valued and validated our relationship. For me, the most important part of these (necessarily) self-made ceremonies was that we were witnessed. Before the Church took over marriage, and priests became involved, partnerships were always formalised in front of one’s community, whether that involved jumping over a broom or literally tying a knot. I have learned that the public declaration of love is remarkably similar to the public declaration of sexuality. Of course it is easier to be out in a couple than as a single person. Most things are easier with the support of a partner. It is easier for the world – which likes things in pairs – to accept us as a two. But I’m not always with my wife, and my work very often takes me away from home, and when I am working or traveling alone the questions that prompt me to come out now, are easily as frequent as they ever were when I was single. I look forward to the day when my wedding ring does not automatically imply that I have a husband.
With each small and personal and sometimes very hard and sometimes very simple declaration of truth we are honest on our own behalf and also, hopefully, make things easier for those young lesbians and gay men coming after us. Just as the lesbians and gay men before us made enormous and brave and sometimes small and often scared changes in their turn. Making it possible for us to be legally out. Making it possible for us to be Civil Partners. Making it possible for us to have tried to become parents. I know that as a lesbian in my forties I am enormously indebted to the women and men, both gay and straight, who came before and won for us the freedoms and rights that we – in the West at least – so often take for granted. I’m lucky, I have an interesting job, I like having an interesting job. In the rest of my life though, I’d be very happy to leave behind the double take. We are getting there. We’re not there yet. We need many more of us in the process. Come on out, the water’s fine.
© Stella Duffy 2005