[Image: Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, known as the the Ladies of Llangollen via Wikimedia Commons]
This is a guest post from RadFem_Kat. You can follow her on Twitter.
In honour of everyone’s favourite lockdown activity, this blog post is going to begin with a mini quiz about lesbians in popular culture. Easy, right?
1) Which of the actors below, famous for their portrayal of a lesbian character on TV/film, is also an out lesbian?
2) Which of the films below originally contained a lesbian characterisation/ lesbian storyline that was removed before the film was released?
- Natasha Lyonne (the actor of Megan in But I’m a Cheerleader)
- Katherine Moening (the actor of Shane in The L Word)
- Laura Prepon (the actor of Alex Vause in Orange is the New Black)
- Annette Bening (the actor of Nic in The Kids are Alright)
Answer: Trick question (sorry), they all had lesbian characters or storylines cut before release.
3) When was the first lesbian kiss shown on British TV pre-watershed?
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
- Bend it like Beckham (2002)
- 101 Dalmatians (1996)
- Love Actually (2003)
4) And final question (for lots of points here), name as many out lesbian women in pop culture as you can.
Answer: This can’t be answered really over a blog post, but count them up. Get over 5? Over 10? How easy was this to do?
So did any of these questions surprise you? I hope so. Despite being the first letter of the LGBT, lesbians and lesbian culture are not often at the forefront of Pride month, or of LGBT campaigns. Why is that? Well, there are lots of misconceptions around lesbians in today’s society. Lots of people have the opinion that lesbians have it ‘easy’ in comparison to other people in the LGBT, that lesbians don’t face persecution or homophobia as frequently as other LGBT people, or that the homophobia that is faced is less dangerous. Part of this is due to the lack of UK legislation that ever criminalised lesbianism. Whilst true that lesbianism was never illegal, it was not socially accepted. Politicians did also try and pass laws to criminalise lesbianism alongside male homosexuality, but the laws failed to pass as people didn’t actually believe lesbianism existed, rather than viewed it as more acceptable. Lesbian relationships when they did catch the public’s eye (Ladies of LLangollen, we see you) were framed as immature ‘romantic friendships’. Women were threatened with convents, or married away to men, to separate them from the same-sex partners they had chosen. Lesbianism was used as a political tool to attack women, Marie Antoinette being a prime example. It was a sign of loose morals, of poor judgement, or of childish behaviour.
Another myth is that, given that there has been a 400% increase in women participating in same-sex experimentation since 1991, that lesbianism is clearly accepted and lesbians are abundant in number. However, this is also not true. In a survey in 2016, it was found that 4% of women identify as lesbians or bisexual, however there was no distinction made between these two. In fact, there is no survey in the UK that separates lesbian women from either bisexual women or from homosexual men in its results when collecting data on the experiences of the LGBT. However, given that the number of lesbian exclusive bars has significantly decreased in both the UK and the US, and that there has been a notable rise in young women choosing to identify as ‘queer’ over lesbian, it can be suggested that lesbian culture is not quite as abundant as first thought.
All of this, of course, also comes from a UK focus. What about globally? 73 countries have laws still against homosexual ‘activity’ or relationships. Of these countries, 45 have laws that specifically prohibit sexual relationships between women, or actively mention lesbianism (although that is not to say that in the other 38 countries, lesbians are safe). 12 countries have the death penalty for both male and female homosexuality. In addition to legal punishment, lesbophobic rape is a threat, reported on in at least 16 countries Worldwide. Lesbophobic rape, previously called corrective rape, is carried out with the aim of making the victim heterosexual through sexual assault. First reported on in South Africa, it has been reported in countries such as India, Haiti, the Netherlands and the US amongst others. Lesbians globally are threatened with violence. The UK was shocked with the report of a violent attack on a lesbian couple in May 2019. Statistics state that 90% of lesbians experience verbal abuse in their lifetimes, with 40% experiencing sexual assault and 20% experiencing physical assault for their sexualities.
These statistics are shocking, and hopefully go some way to challenge some of the myths that exist about lesbianism and the challenges lesbians face still in 2020. This is not to say, of course, that there hasn’t been progress. One of the most important progressions has been lesbian visibility, especially historical lesbian visibility. To continue this, below are just a few lesbians from history who deserve to be more well-known.
The Ladies of Llangollen
Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were aristocratic Irish women who eloped in 1778 to live together for the rest of their lives in Llangollen, Wales. Their relationship was not accepted by either of the families, with Eleanor’s family threatening to send her to a convent and Sarah’s attempting to marry her to a widowed family friend. The two women were unable to work due to the social situation of the 18th Century (a situation that forced many lesbian women in this era into heterosexual marriage), and so instead made money by allowing visitors to their home and garden. Through this, Eleanor and Sarah became seen as novelties of the area and attracted guests such as political thinker Edmund Burke. Eleanor’s diary provides historians with the daily events of their lives together, including the affection they clearly felt for each other, with Eleanor referring to Sarah frequently as her ‘other half’, and the ‘darling of my heart’.
A more well known lesbian of the 19th Century is Anne Lister, who has achieved recognition recently with the TV series Gentleman Jack. Anne Lister has often been referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian’ for her understanding of her own sexuality during an era which did not accept ideas of female homosexuality, and her sexual expression. Anne Lister was a landowner during a time which frequently denied women the right to own property, an academic, a seasoned traveller and a businesswoman. In addition to this, she spent her life in pursuit of a ‘wife’. She engaged in multiple semi-public relationships with female friends, including a long-term relationship with Marianna Lawlor that continued even after Marianna’s marriage. Anne Lister eventually settled with her neighbour, Ann Walker, a local heiress. The marriage was one of convenience as opposed to love, but they lived their lives together publicly, with Ann Walker moving into Anne Lister’s home, Shibden Hall. Anne Lister’s strong lesbian identity was recorded by her in diaries that spanned her entire life, and allowed historians to understand lesbianism in the 19th Century.
Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper
Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper were a lesbian couple who worked within the early women’s Suffrage movement to encourage working class support in the North of England. They worked together, alongside other Suffragists, to draw the link between the poor working conditions of the cotton mills of Lancashire and the need for women’s suffrage. Eva and Esther’s work inspired Christabel Pankhurst, who later began the militant activism of the Suffrage group, the WSPU. Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper’s relationship was recorded in Eva’s poetry, and the two women lived together from the late 1890s until Eva’s death in 1926.
No list would really be complete without Stormé DeLarverie. Stormé was a butch lesbian who has been held by many to be the instigator of the Stonewall Riots, the 1969 riots against the homophobia of the American police at the Stonewall Inn. She performed as a drag king during the 1970s, having performed in a famous American circus for much of her teenage years, as well as performing at many benefits for victims of domestic abuse. Stormé saw herself as the ‘protector’ of the lesbians in New York and worked as a bouncer for many lesbian bars. People reported that she frequently patrolled the streets to prevent homophobic attacks on lesbian women. Stormé maintained an active presence in the New York LGBT scene for her entire life, working still at bars until she was 85 years old.
 ‘Why Men Are Less Sexually Fluid Than Women’, Huffpost Canada, 2014