The Mail refers to Kristen Stewart and her girlfriend as "gal pals". Photo: YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

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
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.