I came out late – only to find that lesbians had slipped to the back of the queue Kathleen Stock
| Kathleen Stock: ‘I grabbed the word lesbian with both hands.
LGBTQ+ activism is everywhere in modern Britain. Alongside lesbians, gay men and bisexual people, each year new orientations and identities arrive to shelter under the rainbow umbrella – from trans and nonbinary to intersex, asexual, polyamorous, queer and beyond. At a distance, it all looks admirably progressive. But when considered a bit more closely, it seems that lesbians – the “L” ostensibly at the front of the LGBTQ+ movement – are badly missing out. In policymaking, the charity sector, academic research, data collection, media representation and political attention – to name but a few areas – lesbians have fallen to the back of the queue.
Pride is the emotion usually associated with the rainbow coalition and there are certainly many historic achievements for LGBTQ+ activists to feel proud of. Still, not much attention has been paid to the question of how well the interests of distinct member groups are identified and prioritised, once they are under the rainbow umbrella. A lot of money, resources and public attention flow into this sector – but how exactly are the spoils divided?
Early in 2022, my friend Julie Bindel, the feminist campaigner and journalist, asked me to think about forming a new organisation with her, dedicated to the understanding and enhancement of lesbian lives in the UK. I jumped at the chance. I had just left my academic job under difficult circumstances. Whatever I ended up doing, I knew I wanted to be able to keep speaking my mind about what mattered most to me. And one thing that mattered a lot was being a lesbian.
I had come out relatively late, at the end of my 30s. This was the defining moment of my life, changing everything in it for the better and sprinkling the world around me with Technicolor magic. I grabbed the label “lesbian” with both hands, viewing it as psychically connecting me with a world of exciting, bold, brave female adventurers and warriors before me, proudly doing their own special thing. But when I looked around me, I was disheartened to see that other lesbians, and particularly younger ones, didn’t feel the same.
I already knew from living in Brighton that the once-vibrant lesbian-only social scene of the 80s and 90s had all but disappeared, with few opportunities for young lesbians to meet each other separately. I also knew from teaching days that a stigma surrounded the word lesbian among young people. I had heard from those expressing distaste at the L-word, seeming as it did to them to carry a hint of unkindness and exclusion about it, or else putting them uncomfortably in mind of a porn search. For most of those students I would still think of, in my old-fashioned way, as same-sex-attracted females, the word lesbian had been replaced by terms that were vaguer and more deniable; words that could be shared with the male sex, like “queer” or “bisexual” or “nonbinary” or “trans”.
In practice, all of this vagueness about who, exactly, is being talked about, means that there are big questions about contemporary lesbian life that we just don’t know much about. The data is not good enough. How do lesbians feature in the UK labour market? How are they faring in same-sex marriages and civil partnerships? How does the lesbian experience of motherhood differ from the heterosexual one? What are lesbians’ specific health needs? These are just a few of the big questions we have relatively little reliable information about. What information is out there, meanwhile, is often highly ideological, and produced or funded by activists with certain strategic goals in mind. Across LGBTQ+ academia, there is a dearth of methodologically sound and free-ranging inquiry.
And then there’s the LGBTQ+ charity sector. Despite some high-profile lesbians leading mainstream organisations over the past several years, in practice campaigning energies have rarely been directed towards the interests of lesbians in particular. Dedicated funding for lesbian-only projects is now vanishingly rare, which means that information about lesbian needs is reduced. The word lesbian is fast disappearing from LGBTQ+ charity annual reports, while other identity terms are in the ascendency. And government equalities bodies are not much better. Initiatives in the name of LGBTQ+ people don’t tend to record data about sex, so that once again lesbians disappear as a group with interests in their own right.
This then, is the work of the Lesbian Project – to put lesbian needs and interests back into focus, to stop lesbians disappearing into the rainbow soup and to give them a non-partisan political voice. Same-sex-attracted females are not going anywhere, but public understanding of them is disappearing and younger lesbians in particular are paying the price – however they identify, and whatever they call themselves. We think our task is urgent. We are keen to get started.
Kathleen Stock is a philosopher and writer
Tags: Coming Out
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