Insight: How splits are emerging in LGBT movement over gender issues

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As gay women fill our screens and win serious recognition, divisions in the Pride movement prompt Gina Davidson to fear for its future

Megan Rapinoe is the undoubted poster girl of summer 2019. The US football star, with her purple-pink-bleach-blonde hair and her feet of gold, wowed in the World Cup; her self-belief on the pitch as glorious as her goals; her attitude to Donald Trump winning her just as many fans as her football skills.

Pride in Edinburgh

Pride in Edinburgh

Then there’s also the fact that she is a lesbian, and not afraid to say so. As are her team-mates Kelly O’Hara, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger – who are engaged – and the US coach Jillian Ellis. In fact it was estimated around 40 lesbian and bisexual players participated in France this year.

Lesbians playing football. It’s almost a cliche. But for a long time sport has been the one arena where gay women – unlike gay men – have been able to plough a less-than-lonely furrow. Women’s team sports in particular have always had their share of lesbian competitors – hockey, netball, basketball (Rapinoe’s partner Sue Bird plays with the Women’s National Basketball Association) – and of course there’s tennis. Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova, Amelie Mauresmo… and this year many column inches were given over to the lesbian couple Alison van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen, who made history at Wimbledon when they played doubles together.

Lesbians in sport are most definitely having a moment. In fact more generally, lesbians have never been so visible in public life – Clare Balding is on our screens every night during Wimbledon while her BBC colleague Jane Hill reads the news, Cara Delevigne’s face is in countless adverts, politicians Ruth Davidson, Mhairi Black, Joanna Cherry are never far from the headlines, and of course millions are tuned in to watch Suranne Jones’ turn as a Victorian coal-mine owning lesbian, Anne Lister, in Gentleman Jack.

Yet ironically while on the surface it feels that right now is possibly a tipping point for societal acceptance of gay women, there has recently appeared a divide within the LGBT community across the UK – one which is either growing or non-existent depending on which side of the fissure you stand.

Lesbian protestors at Pride.

Lesbian protestors at Pride.

At its heart is the focus on trans rights by LGBT organisations, and resultant philosophical and biological questions around what defines a woman, and its impact on sexual orientation and therefore lesbianism. Is lesbianism a sexual attraction only to female bodies or is it attraction to feminine identity? Can it involve trans women who still have male bodies?

It would be easy to dismiss all of this as a rather niche argument among a minority community, but on a wider sense it’s indicative of the social upheaval the UK is going through, in terms of where is stands in the world economically and culturally.

It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall riots and for those growing up in the post-AIDS era, LGBT inclusivity is taken as read; yet protests about LGBT teaching in schools in Birmingham have been running for months, and in the absence of a Stormont government, it has taken MPs at Westminster to extend equal marriage rights to Northern Ireland, bringing the country into line with the rest of the UK.

Then there’s the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. Already politicians, and gender critical women, have raised concerns, both here and in England and Wales, around allowing the introduction of self-declaration (also known as self-ID), enabling people to change their gender in law without a diagnosis of the medical condition gender dysphoria. Those critical of this proposal say this not only erases same-sex protections, it changes the definition of the words “woman” and “man”. And for gender critical lesbian women, they feel their sexual orientation is also erased, if trans women are to be regarded as lesbian.

It is a complex, heated subject, with those backing the changes, and vocally supporting trans rights more generally, believing the issues raised by objectors are strawman arguments, pointing to the other countries who have already adopted self-ID for trans people.

The whole issue has been thrown into sharp focus during Pride month, a celebration of the protest movement for gay equality. Women were ejected from London’s National Theatre last week, ostensibly because a T-shirt bearing the definition of the word lesbian caused offence to a transgender staff member. The theatre itself reported abusive behaviour – denied vigorously by the women involved.

A new group Get the L Out has been making its presence felt at marches down south, and there are plans for a lesbians-only march in Leeds this September. While at this year’s Edinburgh Pride there was a small group of women protesting as part of the march earlier this month. Holding banners demanding “lesbian visibilty” and declaring “transactivism erases lesbians”, they said they faced abuse from a community they traditionally felt was their own, being called “bigots” and “TERFs” (trans exclusionary radical feminists – a term which has become synonymous with other slurs). One of the women, Jackie Mearns, has written about the day saying “lesbians are no longer welcome at Pride”.

“As long as we stay silent we can slip under the radar,” she wrote, “but proudly and unapologetically claim our space on a day that is meant to be about celebrating our love for each other as females and we become targets of hate”.

However, for one 40-year-old lesbian woman, who asked to remain anonymous, she felt “the only hatred was directed at me and my friends. I felt like crying when I heard them shouting about lesbian erasure,” she says. “I’m a lesbian and I don’t feel that trans rights erase me – I’m here, I’m very much present. The LGBT community is supportive of trans people, I don’t understand why those women can’t be inclusive too.

“I have no issue with including trans women as lesbian if that’s how they identify. Nobody is forcing anyone to have relationships or sex with trans women.”

She adds: “As someone who is a ‘butch lesbian’ I am more anxious than ever that because of anti-trans rhetoric I will be challenged when I go into public toilets, or am in the gym changing room. That’s what this gender policing has done for lesbians like me.

“I have never been made to feel unsafe by any trans women, but ironically now feel unsafe around anti-trans campaigners, who claim to care about women’s safety while seeking to divide us.”

Yet organisations like Get the L Out are unapologetic and unequivocal in their views. On its website it emphatically states that “lesbians are same-sex attracted, lesbians do not have penises, lesbians do not want to have sex with men who identify as trans women.” At Swansea Pride this year, Angela Wild, a founder member of the group, was removed from the parade by four police officers, while at last year’s London Pride a number left of their own accord after achieving their goal of lesbian visibility.

Their anger is palpable, and their website gives little hope to the idea that any rift can be healed. And it’s not just about trans rights, but moving away from a community which they say is dominated by gay men. As one member says: “Get the L Out means removing the already marginalised L from an alliance that is failing lesbians. But our activism is about more… it is also a call to lesbians to reconsider where we put our energy, who we work with, and what we want to work towards: women’s liberation.”

Next weekend will see Mardi Gla take to the streets of Glasgow, and organisers hope the event will pass with no protests – though they are watching social media to see if there’s any prospect of upset.

That kind of protest is not Claire Heuchan’s thing. The Glasgow-based gender studies expert and author says she’s saddened that at a time when it’s been “amazing” to see so many lesbians being celebrated in sport, “its difficult to celebrate this as a win for lesbian visibility when even acknowledging lesbian visibility is described as ‘dogwhistle transphobia’. Something within the LGBT community has gone seriously wrong when being for lesbians is interpreted as being against people identifying as transgender.”

Heuchan admits she’s been “on a journey” when it comes to what are now called “queer rights” – and it’s one that has put her on the same side of the fence as Get the L Out.

“Lesbian is again a contested category,” she says. “And the lesbophobia isn’t coming from social conservatism as it has in the past, but within the LGBT+ community, where lesbian women are now frequently demonised as bigots or dismissed as an antiquated joke as a result of our sexuality.”

One 37-year-old lesbian, from Dundee, who also wanted to remain anonymous, says the idea of one giant umbrella group for people of differing sexual orientations and none, as well as gender identity, has had its day. “I feel that it’s almost forbidden to say you’re a lesbian within the LGBT community these days. None of the mantras from trans people and their allies make any logical sense to me, but I’m not allowed to say that or I will be classed as a bigot or transphobe. It’s why I can’t even speak to this under my own name.

“The word lesbian has been stolen and made to mean something it’s not. It’s very hard to know how to deal with this. Lesbians have been persecuted for decades because of our sexual orientation – just look at the two women on the London bus who were beaten up – and now we’re being persecuted because we don’t believe that trans women with male bodies can be lesbians.”

It’s precisely that kind of statement that 27-year-old LGBT charity staffer, and queer clothing brand entrepreneur, Zoe Schulz would class as “absurd”. “The erasure of lesbians is just not happening. I think the issue here is that people seem to think there’s some kind of finite space for everyone. That if you’re supporting trans women and trans rights then you cannot be supporting lesbians – that’s just not the case,” she says. “There’s enough room in this movement for everyone to be visible and have equal rights.

“Whoever someone is or isn’t attracted to really isn’t anyone else’s business. There’s no right or wrong way to be a lesbian. Trans women are women so they can definitely be lesbians, and people shouldn’t police the word lesbian.”

She adds: “It’s never been more important for the LGBT community to stick together and support each other. I worry that the trans people in my community see all this hate. So we have to be louder than these women and shout our support for them.”

It’s also not just lesbians who seem disaffected with the LGBT grouping. One young gay man, who is active in the movement in Glasgow, says: “The split is happening, and as with most things is happening first and faster down in London. There’s a growing school of thought that maybe it is time for the groups to be represented individually as some are about sexuality, and others gender, which are not the same thing.”

Without doubt positions are increasingly entrenched. But for Tim Hopkins, director of the Equality Network, it’s nothing new. Indeed it comes with the territory.

“There has always been very wide consensus in the LGBT community about what equality means, from repeal of section 28, to equal marriage, to gender recognition reform,” he says. “But we’re a very diverse community, and there have always been small numbers who disagree.

“A small fraction of LGBT people actually supported section 28; some opposed equal marriage, and another small minority oppose gender recognition reform. The recent Pride events in Edinburgh and London saw huge numbers of lesbians, gay men and bi people demonstrating their solidarity and support for their trans siblings.”

Ask MSP Annie Wells about the issues driving the LGBT community apart and she says she’s saddened. “I’m a gay woman who no longer goes to Pride – but that’s because the last time I did I was on the end of shocking abuse because I’m a Tory. But I’ve never seen anything like what’s happening in the LGBT movement prior to now.”

She believes the Gender Recognition Act reforms have opened a can of worms, affecting many vulnerable people.

“I do understand people want their voices heard, and I understand concerns. I was 13 when I came out as gay, and quickly went back in the closet – but I did feel that it was just boys who liked girls. If trans had been around then would I have thought that was me? I do have that self doubt. But for me that would have been a big mistake. I’m a gay woman.

“But it’s time we stopped shouting, and started listening, and speaking to each other respectfully. People shouldn’t be defined by their sexuality or their genitals, it’s not really how I define myself – I’m Annie. That’s enough. It would be good to get to a place where everyone feels that way.”