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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser