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

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.