The Mail refers to Kristen Stewart and her girlfriend as "gal pals". Photo: YouTube screengrab
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No more "gal pals": why do we assume lesbians are confused, attention-seeking, or man-boycotting straight women?

The stock tabloid phrase for women who are dating, "gal pals", is irritating at best and backward at worst.

As far as euphemisms for “lesbian lover” go, “live-in gal pal” is a funny one. In both the “Haha” and “WTF?!” sense. Its faux naivety conjures images of a pair of tomboyish 1920s aristos shacking up somewhere secluded on the French Riviera, amid whisperings of them being a pair of “inverts”. My, how sensational.

The phrase “gal pal” is a tabloid favourite for “a woman’s girlfriend”, and I can’t help finding it adorable. So when the Mail took it up a notch this week, referring to a woman regularly seen getting “touchy-feely” with Kristen Stewart as her live-in gal pal” I practically wept tears of joy. Bless the Mail. No really. They just can’t bring themselves to accept that two women living together and seen kissing in public could be anything more than “pals”. Good pals. Like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Or Thelma and Louise.

But, in all fairness, “live-in gal pal” manages to be simultaneously squeamish and salacious. It’s a bit like calling an orgy a “nude dinner party” or a dominatrix a “bossy coitus lady”. Not, of course, that being a lesbian is inherently smutty. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Why is “lesbian” still a rude word? Why, in certain chunks of society, do I have to have “gal pals” and not girlfriends? A “gal pal” is someone you go for long walks with. Someone you drink white wine spritzers with, if you’re feeling a bit naughty. And, at the same, someone you probably hump in public toilets.

I remember one of my ex-gal pals telling me that when her dad found out we were dating, his words to her were: “I hear you have a new lady friend.” Pretty harmless really. And a lot better than, “never darken my door again, you godforsaken dyke”. We both had a good laugh about it, that’s for sure. But friend. Always friend. There’s this lingering notion that lesbians are just women going through an experimental phase, in which they finger their closest mates. The same certainly doesn’t apply to gay men, around whom there’s hardly ever any perceived ambiguity. “Boy pal” isn’t a thing. If two men are seen kissing in public, they’re gay. Two women doing the same are confused. Or attention seeking. Or “on a break” from men.

“Gal pal” or “lady friend” may be quite sweet in their naivety, but they’re anachronisms. They’re throwbacks to a time when lesbians hid behind green doors and wrote a lot of sad poetry about one another. OK, we still do that. But at least these days we can be out and write bullshit sonnets about vaginas.

I really couldn’t give less of a shit about Kristen Stewart’s sexuality. Sorry KStew, in the extraordinarily unlikely event that you’re reading this, I wish you all the best, but the gender of whoever you’re shtupping is only slightly more interesting to me than a bag of lentils that’s been sitting at the back of my parents’ kitchen cupboard for 18 months. What I would like though is an embargo on the phrase “gal pal”. It’s irritating at best and backward at worst. There are two acceptable alternatives and they are “girlfriend” or “woman with whom the woman in question is engaging in sexual relations.” And, clunky as the latter may be, it’s still infinitely better than “gal pal.” 

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

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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