Lez Miserable: How to survive a lesbian protest march

Social awkwardness, men being disgusting, "feelings", bad vagina puns - Eleanor Margolis talks you through what goes on when large groups of lesbians gather to make their voices heard.

Rallies, marches, protests: if you’re a lesbian, you’ve probably been to at least one. Either voluntarily, or you were dragged along - possibly by your least hygienic friend (the one who insists that tampons are tools of the patriarchy). Last weekend, I got my stomp on, willingly, at Dyke March London – an annual celebration of fanny jokes and lesbian visibility. Having lived in Brighton for three years, I’d say I know a thing or two about what goes on at these scruffy girl-fests. For the uninitiated though, here are seven things that you’ll see at any lesbian demo.

1. Social awkwardness

“Did I meet her at a party, or is she that girl my friend briefly went out with who always brought pistachios with her on their dates?” is the kind of question you’ll ask yourself every time you clock a familiar face. She’s probably neither. Maybe she’s that girl you follow on Twitter who mostly tweets pictures of her lunch (lesbians are obsessed with lunch). Either way, you need to remember quickly, before she comes frolicking up and asks you how your second cousin’s ailing goldfish is doing. The lesbian scene is minute. You will have to make eye-crossingly goofy conversation with someone you know (from somewhere. . .).

2. Arguing couples

Gay Pride in particular is known to put strain on relationships. The atmosphere is thick with humidity and Rihanna, and all the rainbows are starting to hurt your eyes. You’re all riled up about feminism and stuff, then you and your girlfriend run into her most recent ex. The one who broke her heart. The one she still mentions at every opportunity. Looks like we have ourselves a situation referred to on The Scene as Lesbian Drama. There’s an old Lesbianese saying that roughly translates as: “Should a couple of dykes survive their first Pride together, they’ll get married and have nineteen cats.”

3. Rain

It’s common knowledge that it’s rained on every gay parade since the beginning of time. I’m sure the weather is usually great on Lesbos. But I bet that if Sappho and her mates had decided to shake things up a bit and smash some amphorae in 600 BC, it would’ve chucked it down.

4. Inexplicable communism

So, you thought this march was about dyke visibility? Wrong. According to a small but vocal group of attendees, it’s about liberating the proletariat. “But what if I once ate macaroons with a Tory and I sometimes sit in Starbucks when I have twenty minutes to kill? Am I not allowed to march for lesbian equality?” Apparently not. Go home to your Le Creuset casserole dish, bourgeois scum.

5. Men being disgusting

They’ll gawp. They’ll take pictures on their phones that they’ll send to their mate Craig (all men have a mate called Craig, who’s a dick). They’ll wolf whistle, even though that went out of fashion in 1943 after Mickey “Slim” Maguire did it to some broad, she didn’t take it so good and she busted his head with a flatiron. Certain men will treat the march as a kind of poorly choreographed burlesque show that’s been put on for their personal, sweaty-crotched amusement. If you’re part of a lesbian parade, chances are you’ll end up safely deposited in the wank bank of a guy with a popped collar and a photographic memory.

6. Feelings

Army of queer girls + gender politics + catchy chants = “feelings”. All sorts of feelings. Love for the sisterhood, irritation towards the sisterhood, indifference to the sisterhood. Something to do with sisterhood. Maybe the community spirit is turning you into a great, blubbery, joy-oozing marshmallow and you want to hug everything that has a face. Maybe the girl you’ve been trying to get with is having a worryingly intense conversation about the latest Jeanette Winterson novel with someone who isn’t you, and you want to kick everyone in the shins.   

7. Bad vagina puns

There are two things that lesbians love more than anything else in the world. One is vaginas and the other is puns. On special occasions we combine the two. Public demonstrations are the perfect place for us to show off our genital punning skills. At the start of Dyke March, I was handed a placard that read, “Snatch the day”. Such was my appreciation of its cleverness that I hung onto it and it now has pride of place in, uhh, my parents’ living room. I like to think there’s an unwritten “the more tenuous the wordplay, the more kudos you get” rule, but I try not to get too in-vulva-d. 

Women taking part in last year's Gay Pride march in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.