Angela Eagle didn’t endear many with her all-pink-everything Labour leadership campaign launch, did she? It had echoes of Labour’s pink bus, tinges of Little Britain’s Fatfighters, and a glimmer of Impulse spray. But I got what she was trying to do. An out lesbian, with close-cropped shaggy hair and a swagger was trying to feminise herself, to neutralise her butchness. Yes, it was akin to ironing a blazer with a steam-roller, but what I saw was a well-intended attempt by a lesbian to “pass” in a world where even her straight, female contemporaries are barely tolerated.
Shortly before announcing the end to her campaign, Angela received abuse from within her own party, including a death threat that has seen a man convicted. And in a report released this week it was confirmed as “highly likely” that a brick put through the window of her Wallasey constituency office was in retaliation for her part in the woefully-nicknamed “Chicken Coup” against Jeremy Corbyn. The report declared that much of the abuse, directed to Angela’s email address and on social media, was “homophobic”.
However, just as many people tried to deny that the brick was real, they will deny something else: this abuse is misogynistic. It goes without saying that women MPs from across the board receive a disproportionate amount of abuse compared to their male counterparts, but the abuse of Eagle proves there is a special kind of hatred reserved for lesbians.
When your identity is interwoven – I’m yet to wake up wondering if I’ll be a woman or a lesbian today – it’s sometimes hard to tell which side of the coin’s being flicked at you. The coin’s metaphorical, for now, but that’s not to say lesbians don’t live with fear of abuse.
Sometimes, you get treated like a deviant. “Unnatural” is how one man put it when he accosted a female couple holding hands on their way out for New Year’s Eve. He shouted at them, jabbing his finger in their faces. Sure, this could happen to a gay couple, but it’s worth remembering that while being out after dark alone is intimidating for lone women, when you’re a lesbian, you don’t actually feel safer with your other half, just twice as much a target.
These abuses are so frequent and low-level that so many of us don’t talk about them; when we fear being disbelieved, it’s not just because we’re women, but because we’re queer people
And it’s not just for abuse, but a sexualised harassment. Thanks to porn, lesbians who, by definition, don’t want a man involved in their sex lives, have been re-branded as so male-friendly, they look over their shoulder towards a man while kissing one another! Any glance of mine, though, is not with lusty anticipation, but to make sure a man’s not there – too many times, after my girlfriend and I kiss in public, we’ll be requested to do it again. Once we were offered a cigarette as payment. A year ago, a man in a 24-hour McDonald’s asked me and my girlfriend to go home with him. When we said no, he shouted, threw bags at us and said we were “white slags” and he could “finish us off”. The police refused to see it as a homophobic incident, because, despite his pleas to take us home, we weren’t obviously a couple, and unfortunately, the Metropolitan police is yet to count misogyny as a hate crime.
Policing how lesbian or straight-passing a lesbian looks doesn’t only happen by the actual police, but by the people lesbians trust to keep them safe: gay clubs! In its quest to remain an LGBT-friendly space, G-A-Y has supplemented its pocket-change drinks deals and pop-EDM jukebox with a stringent door policy, where “regulars” are prioritised. Letting in all manner of men, bouncers regularly refuse feminine lesbians entry. The cruel twist is that, the whole reason some lesbians grow out their side-panels and crew-cuts and replace the plaid and dungarees for sharp tailoring, is to get by in the big bad world. But by neutralising ourselves in a bid to “pass” as straight, we end up too straight-looking for the club that’s designed for us.
And then, there are times when your lack of desire to be looked at by men, deliberate attempts to make yourself attractive only to women, are penalised. A butch friend – who has been beaten up twice for appearing so masculine, a woman punished for daring to rise above her station in life – was on her way to a meeting in an Uber. The driver asked her why she “looks like a boy”, and “why would anyone find that attractive?”. She had to mumble that she was straight, closeting herself, feeling 16 again, scared of what he might do if she couldn’t give the right answer.
These abuses are so frequent and low-level that so many of us don’t talk about them; when we fear being disbelieved, it’s not just because we’re women, but because we’re queer people. Fear of abuse permeates our professional and personal lives. One survey says 73 per cent of lesbian and bisexual women won’t come out at work, meaning we can’t be our true selves. Even lesbian doctors, regularly mistaken for nurses or midwives, can face homophobic abuse in the NHS. But I can’t really blame any woman for wanting to stay closeted – even in their personal lives – when it’s such a useful defence mechanism.
Hate crimes against LGBT people have risen 147 per cent since Brexit. I’d like to think this is because of a spike in reporting after the Orlando attack, but as Angela Eagle knows only too well, there’s hate from all quarters right now. And this is all in the UK, the third best place in Europe to be LGBT apparently. In the 44 countries globally where lesbian and bisexual female behaviour is criminalised, as a recent report from the Human Dignity Trust shows, lesbians and bisexual women will be subjected to “corrective” rape, sham marriages (where a lesbian married to a straight man will always be more suppressed than a gay man married to a straight woman) and “honour” killings.
At the launch of the report, called Breaking the Silence, activists said there could be hope, and that the West has an opportunity to show itself as a shining example of equality. Yes, lesbians and bisexual women have a lot more social cache these days: thanks to the Cara Delevingne, St Vincent and Kristen Stewart love triangle alone, we’re seeing that female same-sex attraction – beyond the saccharine “girlcrush” – is for women who live outside stereotypes of porn categories. And the younger generation is so open that 50 per cent of them self-identify as something other than heterosexual. But real change is going to take a concerted effort to not let women be left out of the fight for LGBT equality, and for lesbians to not be left out of of the fight for women’s equality. The first step? Acknowledging the problem for the specific issue it is.