London, 1971: The Gay Liberation Front's manifesto was radical and uncompromising. Photo: Getty
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Julie Bindel: There's no gay gene – and I love the idea I chose to be a lesbian

If I had a piece of North Face clothing for every time a straight woman has said to me, “I wish I were a lesbian, but I just don’t fancy women” I would be able to open a Dyke Wear Emporium.

I heard Cheryl and Mary say
There are two kinds of people in the world today
One or the other a person must be
The men are them, the women are we
And they agree it’s a pleasure to be
A lesbian, lesbian
Let’s be in no man’s land
Lesbian, lesbian
Any woman can be a lesbian

So sang Alix Dobkin in her 1973 song, Every Woman Can Be A Lesbian. I came out, or rather was outed, aged 15 while still at school in 1977, and favoured Marc Bolan and The Jackson Five over feminist hippies strumming guitars. It was not just folk music I felt uncomfortable with. The word “lesbian” was so steeped in negative connotation I could not bring myself to use it. Watching The Killing of Sister George with its gross characterisation of lesbians only compounded my self-hatred. There was no one to talk to, and I knew no other lesbian or gay person.

I had been outed by horrible boys at school who I refused to shag. They had noticed the rather blatant signs of my massive crush on my best friend. As I was enduring heckles of “lez be having you” and “dirty lezzer” in the school yard, my crush, who had been my best friend, was off asserting her heterosexuality with several of the boys.

I have no idea what would have happened to me had I not met David. My Saturday job was in a hair salon in my home town of Darlington, where David was a trainee. In between sweeping floors and washing heads we would tentatively size each other up. One day I said to David, “I like girls” and he said, “I like boys”, and linking arms we strolled down to the gay bar in the next town, using each other for protection.

Today I am a very happy lesbian and would recommend it for any woman. I have gone from self-doubt and loathing to sheer militancy and pride, and I have the pioneers of Gay Liberation and feminism to thank for my happy state.

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded in 1970, and its first meeting comprised of 19 gay men and lesbians. It took its inspiration from the early days of second wave feminism, was radical and uncompromising. Its manifesto was revolutionary and uncompromising, and eschewed the accepted explanation for homosexuality, ie that same sex attraction resulted from a rogue gene:

The truth is that there are no proven systematic differences between male and female, apart from the obvious biological ones. Male and female genitals and reproductive systems are different, and so are certain other physical characteristics, but all differences of temperament, aptitudes and so on, are the result of upbringing and social pressures. They are not inborn.

The GLF fizzled out, with most of the lesbians leaving the men behind, complaining of sexism. Many of those women began to campaign for women’s liberation, which, they argued, would automatically result in women being free to escape the confines of heterosexuality.

By the time I was dancing to Ring My Bell in the gay disco with women so butch they looked like they could kick-start their own vibrators, the Gay Liberation Front’s hey day was over. But feminism was at its peak, and it was in 1979 that I met the Leeds women, all of them lesbians, all speaking about their sexuality as a benefit of women’s liberation and freedom from what Adrianne Rich named “compulsory heterosexuality”.

In 1981 the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group published the pamphlet: Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism (LYE). “All feminists can and should be lesbians,” the group pronounced. Appealing to their heterosexual sisters, the group urged them to get rid of men “from your beds and your heads”.

The publication of LYE was the one of the first times that the notion of sexuality as a choice had been publicly raised in the UK women's movement. Most feminists at the time believed that sexual attraction was innate and that there was no possibility of exercising choice over one’s sexual preferences.

If I had a piece of North Face clothing for every time a straight woman has said to me, “I wish I were a lesbian, but I just don’t fancy women” I would be able to open a Dyke Wear Emporium.

The Leeds feminists were not the first to pose the question about sexual preference being a liberatory choice. Indeed, they were inspired by a book by Jill Johnston, an American writer, who gained international notoriety in 1973 with the publication of her collection of essays Lesbian Nation: the Feminist Solution. Johnston argued that women should not sleep with “the enemy” (men), but should become lesbians as a revolutionary act.

I loved the sense that I had chosen my sexuality and rather than being ashamed or apologetic about it, as many women were, I could be proud, and see it as a privilege. In those days I would wear badges proclaiming “We recruit!” and “How dare you assume I am a heterosexual?”

But things have changed, and, these days we appear to have returned to the essentialist notion that we are either “born that way” or will be unthinkingly heterosexual. We have given up our choice for a medical diagnosis with no scientific basis.

When US actor Cynthia Nixon announced that she was a lesbian in 2012, having previously been in a heterosexual relationship, she proudly added, “I've been straight and I've been gay, and gay is better.” Nixon, despite being a positive role model for those in the closet, and a massive challenge to the bigots who like to assume we are full of self-loathing, was pilloried by some of the LGBT community who accused her of playing into the gay-hater’s hands. If you can “choose” to be gay, they will argue we can “choose not to be”.  

I and many other lesbians do not wish to dance to the bigot’s tune. Despite the prejudice and bigotry lesbians face, even today after 45 years of gay liberation, being able to reject heterosexuality can be a positive choice under patriarchy. In the brave words of Cynthia Nixon,

“…for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.”

“Straight Expectations”(Guardian Books, £12.99) by Julie Bindel is out now

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.