LGBT History Month

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:28 pm on 2 February 2023.

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Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee) 2:28, 2 February 2023

May I start by congratulating Dame Angela Eagle on securing this debate? I also publicly thank her, as I have done before, for coming out when she did in 1997. It was a very powerful moment for lesbians of my generation to see a Member of Parliament come out so publicly and so strongly, and I will never forget it. It was also good to hear her mention the abseiling lesbians. I remember seeing that on the 6 o’clock news 35 years ago when I was studying for my finals, just a couple of years after I first came out. It was a great moment of lesbian visibility. I also thank Sir Chris Bryant for his speech, which I found very moving—particularly the beginning. It is a great reminder to us that much of our focus as human rights activists should be on supporting LGBT people in countries where they are still put to death—that still happens, as we have seen in the middle east—and where they do not have basic civil rights. I very much endorse his plea for the Christian churches to take a more tolerant approach towards same sex love.

LGBT History Month should be a time of celebration, but many lesbians do not feel like celebrating. I would like to explain why, using the words of my constituent Sally Wainwright—not the Sally Wainwright who writes “Happy Valley”—who, like me, is a lesbian. Sally is a left-wing activist and author. In recent years she has spent a considerable amount of time volunteering to support refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. Last month, The Times published a column that Sally wrote about her fear that lesbians—women who love women—are being forced back into the closet. I want to read out some of what she said, because lesbians who feel like her do not have much of a voice in our current public discourse on LGBT issues. I want to give them a voice in this Parliament. Sally wrote:

“I choose to spend much of my free time in the company of lesbians and other women. This is essential for my personal happiness and wellbeing. I find women-only gatherings a world apart from mixed ones, gaining support as well as friendship.

The atmosphere, our shared experiences and understanding and much more, are unique — not only in the privacy of our own homes, but also in our social and cultural activities, even walking groups, that are open to all lesbian women.”

She continued:

“In 1988 the Thatcher government introduced Section 28, prohibiting local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. In response, a friend and I founded the Deckchairs Collective, which organised annual lesbian gatherings. The point was to assert our right to exist and to ensure lesbians were not afraid to be ‘out’ in the aftermath of that appalling homophobic legislation.

I was unprepared for the fear lesbians experienced. One woman rang to say she and her partner were teachers but hid their relationship from everyone for fear of the consequences of being discovered. She was too frightened to tell me even her first name or the town where they lived, but phoned just for the opportunity to speak to another lesbian.”

Sally went on to say:

“With the reversal of Section 28, changes in public attitudes, eventually the introduction of gay marriage, I thought lesbians would finally be able to live free from prejudice, and certainly without state interference. For a few years that was more or less true—homophobia persisted of course, but we were able to organise lesbian discos, bookshops, nights out, walking groups. Naively, I thought that we had achieved an unchallengeable right to live publicly as lesbians. How wrong I was.”

Sally goes on to describe the challenges that some lesbians now face while defending our right to meet as lesbians, without men who identify as women demanding access to our events. She said:

“For some years now, lesbian groups have been forced to organise and meet in secret, taking care how we advertise our activities or invite new members. Almost all our social spaces and meetings closed.”

I can vouch for that. You will not find lesbian bars anymore in the United Kingdom, which is a real shame.

She said:

“Women self-excluded from previously safe lesbian spaces and events which had, de facto, become mixed.”

Sally went on to describe how and why many lesbians feel unwelcome at Pride marches. She said that lesbians who feel like her have been betrayed by the political class. She sees politicians as happy to watch while lesbians who feel like Sally are erased from our culture and young women who are gender non-conforming are encouraged only to think of themselves as trans, rather than to acknowledge that they might just be lesbian. She believes some politicians are pandering to homophobia.

The experience of Sally and her friends is shared across the United Kingdom. Here is what a group of lesbians from Wales have said about it:

“lesbians are facing enormous challenges defending our rights to meet as lesbians. We hear the stories regularly. Online groups being assailed by demands for access, even if only to a book group.”

They said that dating apps are filled with males seeking “friends, maybe more.” They went on to speak of:

“Young lesbians, including university students, unable to find safe spaces without men telling them to hate their love of women. Events facing at best constant efforts to join in and at worst full scale picketing and aggression.

Lesbians have always faced challenges from men unable to accept our independent sexuality, but in the last five years we have seen such attacks ramp up every month. The number of assaults and the vitriol aimed at us has grown beyond many women’s ability to manage. The organisers of such spaces sometimes give in to these demands. Maybe they are not too concerned about lesbian boundaries, or they sincerely welcome male-bodied people into their organisations. That’s not a problem, so long as everyone knows what to expect… But we hear too often from women saying that they don’t believe they have any legal choice, but to allow men into women’s spaces. Or they are scared of the doxing and abuse that frequently follow when women say ‘no’. We are seeing lesbians forced into gathering in secret, meeting behind closed doors or passwords, and using false names in social situations.”

Those are the words of lesbians from an organisation called LGB Alliance Cymru. They say that they refuse to go back in the closet and to return to hiding. They think those days are over. Like Sally, those Welsh lesbians believe that lesbians who want mixed spaces are welcome to have them but, equally, those who want to meet, socialise and interact only with other lesbians must be allowed to do so.

I recently met in this House a delegation of lesbians from Women’s Declaration International, who shared those concerns and had come to lobby parliamentarians. Despite voices to the contrary, those concerns are widespread across the lesbian community in the UK. I do not say that all lesbians think the same, but I simply wish to give a voice to those who express such concerns.

I do not have time today to set out the solution to those concerns, but as a lawyer, inevitably I see it involving the proper application of the right to single sex spaces in the Equality Act, the recognition that sexual orientation is a protected characteristic, and lesbians not being discriminated against, harassed or victimised on account of their sexuality and their same sex attraction. The solution would also involve the recognition of the rights of lesbians under the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights to safety, dignity and privacy, freedom of belief, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Earlier this week, the Women and Equalities Committee heard some interesting evidence about the legal rights issues from the barrister Naomi Cunningham, who is an expert in equality law, and the constitutional law academic Michael Foran, himself a gay man. I commend it to those interested in learning more about the legalities around these issues.

My point today is that in LGBT History Month we should be able to say that lesbians are women who love other women. That is our history and we should be free to say it, so I am saying it here in this Parliament that is supposed to represent the voices of everyone in the United Kingdom. No doubt, because I have made this speech, someone will call me a transphobe and a bigot. In previous weeks, I might have expected to be shouted down, but after recent events, MPs have learned that shouting down their colleagues when they are talking about LGBT and women’s rights is not a good look.

Some lesbians have faced losing their livelihoods for saying what I am saying. They have faced threats of sexual violence and death threats for sticking up for their right to love other women. But they have stood up and fought, and they deserve a voice in this Parliament. I am thinking in particular of Kathleen Stock, Jo Phoenix, Julie Bindel, Shereen Benjamin, Allison Bailey, Rhona Hotchkiss, Bev Jackson and Kate Harris. Those two last women set up an organisation to represent the interests of lesbians who are same sex—not same gender—attracted. It is called LGB Alliance and it is currently facing what I consider to be a malicious lawsuit akin to a SLAPP to remove its charitable status. It is very important that organisations such as LGB Alliance should be allowed to organise on the basis of same sex attraction. That is their legal right under the Equality Act and human rights law. I believe that LGB Alliance will prevail and that lesbians will prevail. In this month of lesbian history and in future months, we will stand up for who we are and for our rights with pride.