Lesbian Feminism into the Mainstream – Lynne Harne

‘How to become a lesbian in 35 minutes’- Municipal Lesbian Feminism and Lesbians in education. Lesbian History Group Event 5/12/2015

The 1980s saw the development of a new phenomenon – municipal lesbian feminism, when some lesbian feminists in London began to work for and influence local government – most significantly the Greater London Council (GLC) and the Inner London Education Authority. As well as addressing sexism, the GLC adopted the concept of ‘challenging heterosexism.’ Funding was given to some lesbians projects and training was developed for staff on how to challenge heterosexism in the workplace. The concept of challenging heterosexism also impacted on the Inner London Authority most significantly in the youth service through the development of girls work and some young lesbian groups. The talks discuss what lesbians involved in this work were able to achieve and the opposition to it.

Municipal lesbian feminism in London 1981-1987

Dr Lynne Harne became a lesbian feminist activist during the l970s. In the l980s she worked as a research and policy officer for Rights of Women on lesbian and child custody issues, then became an equal opportunities officer with specific responsibility challenging for heterosexism at the GLC and then worked for the ILEA and was a member of the feminist lesbians in education group. In the l990s she became an academic.)  

I am going to talk about a brief moment in the l980s when lesbian feminism became mainstreamed in London focussing on the Greater London Council and its sister organisation the Inner London Education Authority. The Greater London council (GLC) was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in l986, but the Inner London Education Authority survived another 4 years before it too was abolished in 1990.

The wider political context

The wider political background to this is that the Tories had won the general election in l979 but many local authorities were being run by left wing labour councils. Ken Livingstone became the labour leader of the GLC in l981 and decided to open up the work of the council to improve equal opportunities for working class people, black and ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities and lesbians and gay men. It was known as the Rainbow Coalition.

The GLC Women’s Committee and the Funding of lesbian feminist projects

Initially, there was a lesbian and gay working party which was heavily dominated by gay men and gay male interests but lesbian feminism began to have an influence when the Women’s Committee was established in l982. Several lesbian feminists went to work for the women’s committee support unit during this time and established that lesbians had different needs and interests from gay men.  The Woman’s Committee began for the first time to fund lesbian projects – for example it funded the lesbian custody project at the women’s legal organisation Rights of Women and also funded some workers at Lesbian Line (a phone line for lesbians only) as well as funding other women’s projects mainly run by lesbian feminists such as Women in Manual Trades. It even purchased the lease of buildings so that they could be women only and provide women only services. One of these was 54 Featherstone Street (now called Tyndall Manor) and as far as I am aware remains the only building in London just for women and women’s services, today.

However the committee also gave funding to more libertarian feminist organisations such as  English Collective of prostitutes and later loaned money to Sheba publishers which began to publish lesbian porn in the late l980s.  In addition, it contributed to funding the setting up of a lesbian and gay centre which ended up never being used by lesbian feminists because it was taken over by the BDSM  brigade and  was probably the first so called lesbian and gay centre to allow male trans to use the women’s toilets.

The influence of lesbian feminism and the battle against heterosexism

Following on what had already happened in the women’s liberation movement the women’s committee underlined identity politics which became viewed as a series of separate oppressions or isms i.e. sexism , racism, disablism and later heterosexism. Within this approach, however lesbian feminists were still able to have an impact on the policies and some of the practices of the GLC through, for the first time challenging anti-lesbian attitudes and discrimination. On a broader level we raised the idea of compulsory heterosexuality as a social institution, through the concept of heterosexism and challenged ideas that lesbians and gay men are ‘born that way,’ and are sad victims of their biology.

Heterosexism the last ism to be addressed represented the first political and ideological confrontation between lesbian feminists and gay men at the GLC, highlighting the difference between lesbian feminist politics and the increasing libertarianism of gay male politics at the time.   Already working in the GLC was an established gay male mafia who believed they were born that way and could not help being gay and this was the approach they wanted to take in challenging lesbian and gay discrimination.

However the lesbian feminists argued that in tackling heterosexism we should state that sexuality was socially constructed, and that heterosexuality was a compulsory institution and was coerced. 

How Heterosexism was defined.

The lesbian and gay version was set out in the leaflet ‘Harrassment of lesbians and gay men..and how to challenge it at the GLC’ (l985) this leaflet was circulated to all 15 thousand GLC employees at the time

This is an extract from it

‘Lesbians and Gay men exist in all cultures, races and classes and religions and have existed throughout history.

People are not born with a particular sexuality they acquire it

Heterosexism is a set of ideas and practices which assume that heterosexuality is the superior and therefore only ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ form of sexual relationship.’

The gay male mafia strongly objected to the wording that ‘people acquired a sexuality’ rather than being born with it and tried unsuccessfully to get this phrase removed.

The Women’s committee version on challenging heterosexism went even further to include an analysis of the coercive nature of heterosexuality and encapsulated contemporary lesbian feminist analysis. This was reflected in the handbook called ‘Tackling Heterosexism: A Handbook on Lesbian Rights’ which was published just before GLC abolition in l986.

‘In the same way (as sexism), it has become clear that heterosexuality liked the assumed superiority of men is not natural but acquired. The fact that a majority of women and men choose it as their preferred form of sexuality has more to do with persuasion, coercion and threats of ostracisation than with its superiority as a form of sexuality.

In a heterosexist society the pressure is on right from childhood through adolescence and into adult life to ‘choose’ heterosexuality. So intense is that pressure that most heterosexuals do not even experience any sense of making a choice and so universal is it that most do not even experience it as a pressure. Women’s magazines, for example are full of information on how to be heterosexual – and rarely give an alternative…People are rewarded for fitting into the heterosexual model and punished for not doing so. Such a dominance spreads far beyond what happens in individuals personal and private lives, into every aspect of the way society is organised.’ 

It also spelt out the relationship between heterosexism and sexism in the following statement.

‘Mainly because of the impact of the women’s liberation movement, sexism has over the past 20 years received increasingly serious attention. Because many lesbians have felt they have more in common with heterosexual women in the struggle against sexism (men’s power over women) than gay men, much less attention has been paid to heterosexism with which sexism is intricately related.

While gay men are often under threat of violence from heterosexual men, lesbians are even more likely to be attacked and in addition they experience sexual harassment, whether or not their sexuality is known. While gay men are often despised or mimicked for not being real men, Lesbians arouse anger for challenging the assumption that women need a man emotionally, sexually and financially. They are accused of trying to be like men by rejecting what are regarded as essential feminine mannerisms or ambitions – infact any woman who refuses to acquire and display these is threatened with being labelled lesbian, whether or not she is.

‘Lesbianism represents for most men and many heterosexual women the least attractive and most threatening type of womanhood. To call a young woman a ‘lessie’ is very common at school if she steps out of line by showing affection for girls or women or does not focus on making herself attractive to boys or men in the modes laid down by heterosexism. ‘Lessie’ ‘lesbian and ‘dyke’ are tantamount to forms of abuse used to control the behaviour of all women. For this and many other reasons heterosexism and its relationship to sexism are issues for all women.’ (GLC Women’s Committee, Tackling Heterosexism: a Handbook of Lesbian Rights, l986; ps 5-7)

Much of the women’s committee analysis was also reflected in a training manual on challenging heterosexism for use with workplace employees, which it was hoped would be used by other local authorities on abolition. (GLC Equal Opportunities Group, Challenging Heterosexism in the work place: a training resource pack for Personnel and Training Staff in Local Authorities, l986)

The mainstream response

Perhaps not surprisingly, more than any other equalities policies developed at the GLC, the women’s committee policies to tackle sexism and heterosexism, became the main target of the Tories in arguing for its abolition and were taken up by the rightwing media.   To quote from Linda Lee Potter of the Daily Mail in an article entitled ‘Now Big Sister is watching you,’ in l984.

‘Militant GLC feminists are said by the Tories to be launching a £700,000 campaign dedicated to proving heterosexuality can chain, fetter and oppress our lives.


They’ve already worked themselves into hate over pretty models in bras and suspenders on the underground, tried to get beauty contests banned and want to install women watchdogs in factories to censor and preferably sack any man who dares to wink at a female colleague. They would at a stroke abolish eyelash curlers, coloured nail varnish and makeup.


Literature described as subversive would naturally include anything escapist like Barbara Cartland. Instead we’d be encouraged to strip down and reassemble a lorry.’

On the abolition of the GLC some inner London local authorities did set up their own lesbian and gay equality units, but the radical influence of lesbian feminism on municipal policies and practice had stalled indefinitely.

Lesbians in Education and the Inner London Education Authority

The Inner London education authority (ILEA) which controlled and funded school education for the inner London boroughts was much more cautious and conservative and never took up the GLC policy of challenging heterosexism. It did fund research into discrimination against lesbian and gay students in schools and published a report on this, but took the approach that ‘they were born that way,’ and therefore could not help it.  Unlike the GLC it also dealt with lesbian and gay discrimination together, rather than separately.

At the same time the ILEA  did not have an employment policy which prevented discrimination against lesbian and gay teachers or nursery workers. Openly lesbian or gay staff could still face dismissal because of the power of head teachers and school governing bodies. Following the abolition of the GLC, the ILEA did adopt a policy to prevent discrimination in employment against lesbian and gay teachers in l986, but in practice little changed since it was left to headteachers and governing bodies to implement it.

The Sexuality and Relationships project

Following the report on discrimination against lesbian and gay students in schools the authority funded a Sexuality and Relationships project which was headed up by a heterosexual woman and had one part-time gay male member of staff to develop resources on lesbian and gay issues to be used in schools. This meant that inevitably lesbianism was hardly addressed.  One of its most unfortunate  resources on parenting was a book entitled Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, which was taken up by the rightwing press, to argue that ILEA was promoting child sexual abuse, by having such a book. The book was not supported by lesbian mothers who were demanding that schools provide appropriate resources on lesbian households for their children.

On the more positive side the ILEA did fund a Women and Education Resource Centre which did provide resources for use in schools and youth projects and included books for children of lesbian mothers such as ‘I have lots of Mommies.’

Girls and young lesbian  groups

The most innovative work involving lesbian feminists was developed through the ILEA youth service which was prepared to fund girls groups and young lesbian groups. The youth service was less constrained than school education because it was a non-statutory service and could argue that it was meeting the needs of girls and young women whose participation was voluntary. This is discussed in the following talk by Elaine Hutton on girls work.

Feminist Lesbians in Education

The group feminist lesbians in education was set up to act as a support and campaigning group to challenge heterosexism in education in London. It consisted of teachers, youth workers, students, lesbian mothers and others interested in changing education policy and practice. In 1987 it produced an issue of Gen a journal produced by the women and education group in London It documented the continued resistance of ILEA to challenge heterosexism in schools, the problems for teachers, school students and lesbian mothers in being able to be open about their sexuality to schools, as well as the more positive developments in youth work and in the development of lesbian feminist resources.

The backlash

But by l987 the writing was on the wall. The Tory government was looking for an excuse to abolish the authority and the very limited work it had done on developing resources for schools on lesbian and gay issues became the prime target and the authority was not even prepared to defend this work. The Jenny lives with Eric and Martin book also served as the rationale for the government to introduce legislation (section 28) which would make it illegal for local authorities to intentionally promote homosexuality or publish materials which promoted homosexuality or promote the teaching of homosexuality as ‘a pretendedfamily relationship’. Lesbian feminism was also under attack from sexually libertarian lesbians who wanted to imitate the gay male lifestyle and the demise of its influence was reflected in the joint lesbian and gay campaign against section 28 and the subsequent development of ‘queer politics.’

References and resources

GLC Women’s Committee, Tackling Heterosexism: a Handbook of Lesbian Rights, l986

GLC Equal Opportunities Group Challenging Heterosexism in the work place. A training resource pack for personnel and training staff in local authorities.

Gen Challenging Heterosexism, l987.

Lynne Harne ‘Dangerous Liaisons Reasserting male power through gay movements’ in Lynne Harne and Elaine Miller    ‘All the Rage Reasserting Radical Lesbian  Feminism’   Womens Press, l996




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