Lesbian Ethics Part 4 – Expanding Lesbian feminist communities – Angela C. Wild

Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016

Lesbian Ethics Part 4 – Angela C. Wild PDF

I am going to talk about Lesbian ethics, anti-political lesbians and expanding Lesbian feminist communities.

Because this particular topic has been discussed online in more or less heated debates I want to clarify that my position here is a political one, I am after deconstructing an ideology, not individual women who recognise themselves under that name

I am going to discuss here where the “born this way” narrative is coming from, what it is doing to women who are not “born this way” lesbians, what impact it has on women’s ability to access a political awareness of sexuality and their sexuality, the impact it has on women ability to reach a stage of self determination and the impact it has a the wider movement. And how this particular rhetoric seems to prevent a sense of lesbian feminist community   or makes it harder to expand our community.


A few definitions:

Born this way lesbians : otherwise known as essential lesbian, natal lesbian…:

That theory defines sexuality is innate, sexuality is sometime defined as a genetic reality or a mix of genetic/ social constructivism.

Women who agree with that narrative say they were lesbians from birth, lesbianism is said to be an essential part of themselves, something that was always in them since birth. These women knew very early they were lesbians and have had very little or no sexual experiences with men.

The issue isn’t that some women say they are born lesbians, but that the only way to be a lesbian, is to be born a lesbian, you cannot become one later in life.


Political lesbian: I use the term political lesbian rather than lesbian feminist because it is most of the time misunderstood for meaning “lesbian” and “feminist” As if these two things have nothing to do with one another.

A Political Lesbian is a woman who has chosen to become a lesbian because or thanks to her politics. A woman who has chosen to put women first in all aspects of her life including romantically and sexually.

Political Lesbians define sexuality as socially constructed, it is uncompromisingly anti-essentialist,  it comes hand in hand with a political critique of heterosexuality as an institution and defines heterosexuality as politically enforced on all women by violence and a relentless propaganda, to ensure each men has access to women for sexual but also domestic servitude.

Political Lesbian define lesbianism as political act of resistance because it is denying men access to women. It often means that for the women who call themselves Political Lesbians, politics got them to lesbianism, they couldn’t have been lesbians without the feminist process.

As sexuality is socially constructed, it can and should be deconstructed, women forced in heterosexuality should be freed from it.



The born this way narrative is an ideology that actually comes from the gay men movement. In the 70’s, the gay liberation movement and Lesbian feminists were together challenging that ideology that sexuality is biological.

In the 80’s there was a big return to the biological model to explain homosexuality. It is an argument that is directly drawn from the Victorian sexologists (who were notoriously not very pro women)

Homosexuality is according to that model a deviation from the norm (the norm being heterosexuality), a perversion.

In the 80’s the gay men’s movement makes the strategic decision to argue that homosexuality is innate. The shift is supposed to attract mainstream sympathies on the basis that homosexuals have to be accepted for who they are as they cannot help themselves.

Lesbian feminists at the time disagrees and opposed the move because it didn’t represent their experience and was anti feminist and counterproductive.



One of the opposition to Political Lesbianism by women who call themselves “actual Lesbians” on the basis that they have been lesbians since very young is that it is appropriating and insulting to Lesbian who have suffered from anti lesbian oppression since they came out. Supposedly, women who came to lesbianism later have not suffered from that oppression because they were straight.

If we go back to a critique of compulsory heterosexuality by Adrienne Rich and how she describes the “pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness, “. “within which women have been convinced that marriage, and sexual orientation toward men, are inevitable, even if unsatisfying or oppressive components of their lives.”  we can see that this assumption is completely unfounded.

No woman is heterosexual.

The one amongst us who are or have been in heterosexual relationships are the ones who Patriarchy anti lesbian oppression has successfully formatted.

These women have experienced precisely that: Anti Lesbian oppression and Compulsory heterosexuality are one and he same thing and no woman straight or lesbian has ever escaped it.

Talking about appropriation in that context is dividing women and prevent us to see our common experience of oppression.




Another anti political lesbian argument that we hear a lot is that Political Lesbians desexualise Lesbianism.

The famous line from the Leeds pamphlet “Love your enemy” that states that “political lesbianism doesn’t mean compulsory sexual activity with women

This line has been used and twisted to prove that political lesbians are not real lesbians, because it has been understood to mean political lesbians don’t actually have any sexual activity with women and that lesbianism is about holding hands while reading feminist books with women. This is of course ridiculous as political lesbians defines as loving women and putting women first in every way including emotionally and sexually.

The born this way narrative basis the very definition of lesbianism on and ONLY on sexual attraction and sexual activity with women.

That is problematic.

Political lesbians argue that lesbianism is more than just about sexuality. It is about culture, politics, building communities, sisterhood, revolution etc. Sexuality is one part of that.

Because political lesbianism  has by definition a political analysis of sexuality, we get named anti sex by anti feminist men. Why would women who call themselves feminist use the same argument as our oppressors?

One of the way non political lesbian justify being more lesbian that political lesbians is by saying they “lust after women’s bodies since they were teenagers”.

It is one of the effect of basing ones definition of lesbianism on men’s culture and men’s values, then we have the incredible situation where women who objectify other women get to be more of a lesbian than women who actually made the decision to love women in a non objectifying way.

Political lesbianism  rejects the definition of lesbianism as women’s right to objectify and prey sexually on other women. This is what men do. It is misogyny.

The point of saying “Lesbianism doesn’t mean compulsory sexual activity with women” is obvious.

No woman is sexual all of the time, women don’t walk around in a constant state of sexual heat. Further more women are constantly assumed to be straight whether they are having a relationship or not, one do not loose ones sexuality if we do not have a sexual activity at one point of our life!

Does a lesbian who has broken up with her lover stop being a lesbian?  As Ann Tagonist asked Do older lesbian who do not have sex anymore stop being lesbians?


Very ironically I have read recently that political lesbianism’s view of sexuality is creating a hierarchy amongst lesbians. The idea is that political lesbians would be more worthy lesbians than the born this way lesbian.

In my opinion, political lesbianism is the most women inclusive movement within feminism. It argues every women is shaped and oppressed by hetero-patriarchy.and that it is possible for every women to fight that conditioning and escape what patriarchy has build us and name us for.

The idea of an essential sexuality on the other hand is an invention of patriarchy. That some women are innately straight and some other women (a minority) are innately lesbians both serve the patriarchy.

Arguing that some women are innately heterosexual mean these women are biologically determined to be sexually used by men. this is deeply misogynistic and anti feminist idea.

Ironically the hierarchy of lesbian does exist and is an invention of the anti political lesbian propaganda and lesbians who are not feminists.

In that model, lesbians are judged to be more or less worthy according to how much contact they have had with men. It is nothing more than a cult of purity and how women are deemed as unworthy if they ve ever been touched by a penis

Typically it goes like this:

“GoldStar Butch / Butch Lesbian / Fem lesbian / ex het lesbians / heterosexual women”

In this model women who have had any kind of sexual activity with men are called sells outs, traitors and collaborators.

In contradiction to that, political lesbians acknowledge that women have been coerced to be heterosexual in the first place and recognise that heterosexuality is the core of the oppression of women. The closer to men the more in danger.

Blaming women for their oppression is anti feminist.


It is not surprising that some of the opponent to political lesbianism are stating  “lesbianism is not a threat to patriarchy.” 

  • Indeed if ones definition of lesbianism is male centred it is not a thread to patriarchy.
  • If ones definition of lesbianism is condemning women to a lifetime of heterosexuality, it is not  a threat to patriarchy.
  • If ones definition of lesbianism is that of an elitist club one can only access by being born into, it is not a threat to patriarchy.
  • If ones definition of lesbianism is about blaming women for their oppression it is not a threat to patriarchy.

A Lesbianism which is part of a conservative patriarchal gay movement isn’t threatening because it argues homosexuality is innate and cannot be promoted.

Political Lesbians argue that Lesbianism can be promoted and indeed it should be.

Surely conservative male government officials were feeling threatened enough by lesbianism when they passed Section 28.

Why else would they push a law forbidding the promotion of homosexuality and pretend families (read Lesbian mothers) in primary and secondary education? This followed a time in the mid l980’s when Lesbian feminism had been at its height, challenging compulsory heterosexuality in the mainstream in London local government.


To conclude, the born this way / anti political Lesbian narrative, has become stronger and stronger over the decades. Women used to choose lesbianism more in the 80’s, now its harder and harder for women to challenge their heterosexual conditioning because the world lesbian is locked to define the ones who knew they were lesbians since they were born.

The born this way anti political lesbian argues that women who were once straight should never call themselves lesbians if they became lesbians later in life as a result of their political awareness.

its a political problem for women who are looking for their way out of heterosexuality and are pushed out of lesbianism and bullied to call themselves “celibate or “Female exclusive bisexual”, forever outsider to the wider lesbian community.

As a woman who was once straight and who survived heterosexuality I am grateful I once heard one didn’t have to be born a lesbian to become one. I am grateful I had sisters around me who had walked this path before and told me it was possible.

As we are trying to free ourselves from men’s sexuality and colonisation over our bodies and minds, as we are trying to redefine desire, love relationships while the whole wide world tell us it is impossible to do so,  it would be good to have the support from our sisters.


Copyrights © Angela C. Wild / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




Lesbian Ethics Part 1 – Sheila Jeffreys

Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016

Lesbian Ethics Part 1 – Sheila Jeffreys PDF

What is lesbian ethics?

In the 1980s Lesbian Ethics was a hot topic in a way that is unknown today. In the US the journal Lesbian Ethics was published from 1984 into the 1990s. In the UK the journal Gossip: a journal of lesbian feminist ethics was published from 1986 onwards by Onlywomen Press in response to the US version. Lesbian ethics was understood to cover analysis and theoretical exploration of issues concerning lesbian personal lives, sexuality and relationships. There was not a clear distinction between ethics and theory. Indeed the UK publication, Gossip, covers a wider ground of lesbian theory with much material on lesbians in fiction and in the movies, for instance. The US journal is a little more limited in scope.

Origin in the male left?

Lesbian feminists in the WLM considered that the personal and the political should reflect each other. They were not alone in thinking this. Many had come from the left where thinkers in the 1960s and 70s talked about what they called ‘living the revolution now’, how activists and revolutionaries should conduct their ‘private lives’ in consonance with their political beliefs and aims. They talked about prefigurative forms, i.e. creating forms of practice that would prefigure what would happen after the revolution. For those on the left this related to issues such as squatting, non-monogamy, sharing resources. These ideas travelled over into the WLM as we saw last meeting in relation to squatting.


In particular, the idea that the correct politics of relationships entailed non-monogamy was adopted by some within feminism and particularly lesbian feminism. This idea had its origins with sexist men who wanted widespread sexual access to women and were able to lecture non-compliant women that they were too hung up on seeking ownership and property in another person and deeply bourgeois ‘romantic love’, rather than ‘free love’. Within heterosexuality these ideas benefitted men but not women so much.

So, some of the ideas of living the revolution now came to lesbian feminism from the male left, though lesbian feminists added their own interpretations. Other ideas came specifically from lesbian feminism and included radical critiques of the male left ideas. Lesbian feminists agreed with the radical feminist understanding that the personal is political, i.e. issues of personal life are shaped by political structures. Lesbian ethics could be seen as a way to turn that around and accept that the political is personal, i.e. political values should form the foundation of the way in which we live our personal lives. Lesbian feminists often took these ideas very seriously indeed. The idea that we should not be looksist, for instance, was interpreted by some to mean that we should not ‘fancy’ other women but engage in sexual relationships with them solely on  the basis of their right on political ideas.

Feminist philosophy

In the 1980s, lesbian feminists in the US in particular, began to address these ideas within discussion of what was called ‘lesbian ethics’. From 1984 an important journal was published by Jeanette Silveira in California, called Lesbian Ethics. This published articles by many of those involved in discussing what we in UK were probably still calling the politics of the personal, such as Julia Penelope, Bev Jo, Sidney Spinster, the UK novelist Anna Livia, and the Bloodroot Collective which ran the feminist vegetarian café and bookstore in Connecticut and first delivered their paper at the W.I.T.C.H. lecture series in Boston, Women’s Intellectual Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

Lesbian Ethics featured a regular “Readers’ Forum,” offering short pieces by many contributors on special topics set in advance. Memorable topics have been “Non? Monogamy?” (1: 2, Spring 1985); “Lesbian Therapy” (3: 3,Fall 1985); “Femme and Butch” (2: 2, Fall 1986); “Sex” (2: 3, Summer 1987); and “Separatism” (3: 2, Fall 1988). Articles covered topics such as lesbian nuns, sado-masochism, Dyke Economic, fat oppression, lesbian violence and the possibility of lesbian community.

Gossip, in the UK, republished some of the articles from Lesbian Ethics in the US, notable Julia Penelope’s series The Mystery of Lesbians, but also pieces by UK lesbians like me on butch and femme, separatism, AIDS, fat oppression, lesbian movies and literature.

In the late 1980s in the US, lesbian ethics became a field of teaching and literature in philosophy departments in universities where lesbian feminists were teaching. Philosophy in the academy seems to have taken a rather different form from here in the UK, where universities have not nurtured feminist philosophers. In the US however, a number of academic lesbian feminists were been able to incorporate issues such as sadomasochism into the remit of philosophy in a way that I think would have been unthinkable in the UK. These remarkable and exciting US academic lesbian feminist philosophers include Marilyn Frye, Sara Lucia Hoagland, Claudia Card, Joyce Trebilcot and Jeffner Allen. For example, Sarah Lucia Hoagland published her book, Lesbian Ethics, in 1988, Claudia Card published Lesbian Choices in 1995, and Jeffner Allen’s collection Lesbian Philosophies and Cultures was published in 1990.



Lesbian feminist ethics was concerned with how lesbians related sexually with each other. In concert with the idea of living the revolution now, there was some outrage and horror when, in the early 1980s, the ideas of a lesbian sado-masochist movement were imported from a group of San Francisco dykes who called themselves Samois, into the UK. The revolution was, of course, to be about equality, so how could a sexual practice based upon the eroticising of  extreme differences of power, be consistent with our revolutionary aims. We did not want to create a future, through our actions in the present which continued to eroticise women’s inequality.


We understood that the eroticising of women’s inequality was the foundation, the very bedrock of the way in which sexuality was constructed under male supremacy. We did not see sex as ‘essential’ or ‘natural’ but as a form of thinking and behaviour that is shaped by the power relationship of men to women. Women are born into inequality and only have powerlessness to eroticise. Heterosexuality embodies women’s masochism and powerlessness, in makeup and clothing, high heeled shoes for instance, having to show bottoms in skirts and not be able to climb trees etc. Men, very clearly, find women’s subordination sexy and this is the very basis of their sexual response. Pornography and men’s writings make that extremely clear. Men are trained to be initiatory and aggressive towards women sexually. Women are expected to eroticise submission and this works fairly well. Collections of erotica and women’s sexual fantasies show women eroticising men’s power. Mills and Boon novels feature big, strong men and women as swooning fans. The murder of women, rape and all forms of sexual violence against women and children  are ordinary aspects of men’s sexual sadism. We argued as lesbian feminists, and I argued in my book Anticlimax, that for women’s revolution to have any chance of success it was necessary to transform sexuality so that it featured the eroticising of equality because, as I wrote in my paper in Lesbian Ethics onSM, it was hard to fight oppression when you responded sexually to the boot that kicked you into submission.


In the early 1980s revolutionary feminist lesbians such as myself would go to conferences and set up workshops to discuss sadomasochist fantasies. Our practice was to ask women what sort of fantasies they had and make them seem funny and laugh at them. We considered that laughter was the best response and would take the power out of the fantasies, which would not be capable of creating such a sexual frisson after a roomful of women had rolled about laughing at them. In 1984 we set up the group Lesbians Against Sado-Masochism in London, and I wrote the piece, Sado-Masochism: the erotic cult of fascism which was published in the US journal Lesbian Ethics in 1986, and then became the appendix of my book The Lesbian Heresy in 1993. In the 1980s the term sado-masochism was used whereas the term BDSM is used today.


The ideology of SM

In the early 80s there was a detailed ideological defence of sado-masochism mainly created by gay male practitioners. Not surprisingly, SM was central to the sexuality of gay men, as they had ‘damaged’ masculinity and therefore eroticised powerlessness and powerful, aggressive masculinity in the way that women were expected to do. Many books and articles were written by them, and critique was thin on the ground. The forms of defence put forward were that SM was a valuable form of practice because it created a particularly powerful and pleasurable sexual response. Gay sex that did not focus on SM was called disparagingly at the time, vanilla sex i.e. colourless, or bambi, and seen as namby- pamby or niminy-piminy. SM sex was called by gay men ‘heavy-duty’, i.e. the real thing.


At that time there was a rather small underground fetish scene of het SMers. The most publicly promoted form of SM was gay sex, and indeed, as I argue in my book Unpacking Queer Politics, sm became the mainstream and accepted expression of gay male sexuality and gay male porn. The promotion of sado-masochism influenced lesbians who were part of a mixed gay scene.


SM dykes

SM dykes defended their position in slightly different ways from the gay men. Some practitioners made it clear that SM was a solution for them to the problem of having a damaged sexual response as a result of sexual abuse by men, usually their fathers or stepfathers. I can remember speaking against SM at conferences where young women would jump up from the audience and say that SM had healed them from the PTSD they suffered from sexual violence. They said that it enabled them to ‘feel’ and broke down the defensive wall they had built up to guard against sexual feeling lest it trigger the trauma of the abuse. In reply I would always say that that just created a constant cycle of abuse and offered no way out. The feminists speaking out about sexual violence from fathers within the WLM joined what were called Incest Survivors’ Groups in order to practice feminist consciousness-raising and self-help to heal from trauma. SM groups, it seemed were the new anti-feminist alternative, aimed at recycling rather than healing. Many feminists weighed in with critiques at the time, and the book Against Sadomasochism (1982) was a useful collection of pieces from very well-known feminists including Kathleen Barry, Diana Russell, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker. One defence lesbians made in the 80s of SM was that it was OK for lesbians to do it because no men were involved and women were each other’s equals. Thus they could truly consent to the practice and no inbuilt power imbalances existed. Articles and memoirs in the book showed how the practice of SM functioned within abusive relationships wherein one lesbian could punish her partner for infidelity, for instance, by humiliating her and causing pain.


Alice Walker’s piece was particularly powerful. She argued that sm was racist because it eroticised and recycled the abuses of slavery. She explained that SM dykes played out scenarios of master slave, with white mistresses and black slaves in dog collars and on their knees. This she saw as counter-revolutionary, sexist and racist in the extreme.


In the early 80s in London there was much use of Nazi imagery by SM gays and SM dykes. The swastika was an important SM symbol and both gay men and lesbians into SM wore them. It was in response to this that I wrote ‘Sadomasochism: the erotic cult of fascism’. I argued that at a time when skinhead youth were beating up black gay men, and particularly disabled gay men, in the toilets at gay clubs, it was entirely inappropriate to be promoting the eroticising of fascism.


There were some within the WLM who considered that fighting SM was an unnecessary distraction, rather an unimportant side alley for feminists. The radical feminist journal Trouble and Strife, for instance, in the early 80s put the shoutline ‘Not the sadomasochism debate’ on its cover in order to show its disdain for the issue. But SM proved not to be a minor issue, tangential to mainstream feminism. The huge expansion of the porn industry mainstreamed SM. The defence by many gay male and some lesbian practitioners made SM chic, such that it became the trendy and progressive way to do sex. The effect now is that many young heterosexual feminists I speak to say they have been involved in SM. They have mostly got out by the time I talk with them but it is clear that SM is very big now in mainstream heterosexuality. But, more importantly, the promotion of SM has so influenced everyday malestream sexuality that what were once seen as SM practices are now routinely carried out against women in heterosexuality, practices such as what is called ‘rough sex’, anal sex which leads to teenage girls having to wear butt plugs because of the damage to their bodies, or even the choking of women, for instance. None of this was ordinary practice when I was a young heterosexual woman at all.


Far from being a diversion, the SM that we combatted so valiantly in the 80s, now called BDSM, has become de rigueur in much heterosexual practice in the present. BDSM is mainstream and not looking particularly niche and revolutionary any more. However, at this time there is vanishingly little in the feminist or lesbian communities online or off of the ethics of sexuality and everyday life and relationships. Sexual practice, in particular, is hardly examined. Whereas it was politicised as crucial to women’s oppression in the WLM it has now been almost entirely reprivatized. Women do not speak of how troubled they are by SM sexual fantasies now. I see no discussion of how our sexual practice fits into the revolution we are trying to create.


Copyrights © Sheila Jeffreys / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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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