‘A message of liberation has lost out to the more commercially viable demands for inclusion and recognition of ever-more niche identities’
The police officer bent down and asked 70-year-old Dr Lesley Semmens , in a serious tone: “Are you a hate group?” Putting down her coffee, the somewhat startled Dr Semmens replied, “We don’t hate anyone, we’re just lesbians drinking coffee.”
This scene unfolded in a café in Bradford, where a small group of lesbian protesters had gathered ahead of the city’s LGBT Pride march. Officers from West Yorkshire Police took action after a placard bearing the words “Lesbian = Female HomoSEXual” was spotted and reported to them. Given that lesbians are female homosexuals, one might wonder why Lesley and those with her were deemed worthy of questioning.
Bizarre as it may sound, the answer is that the definition of lesbian as “female homosexuals” might hurt the feelings of “transbians”—male “lesbians” with penises. In less enlightened times, “lesbians with penises” were known as straight, cross-dressing men. The idea of a “lesbian trapped in a man’s body” is one that any woman in a same-sex relationship will be familiar with. It is, after all, the stock response of obnoxious drunken men in bars to seeing a female couple, generally followed by a slurred “I’ll turn ya.” Today, the publicly-funded organisations that exist to advocate for LGBT people are keen to ensure that “transbians” are included at Pride marches and within the wider lesbian community. Acknowledging the existence of autogynephilia (the sexual arousal some men feel at the thought of themselves as women) is politically problematic. But expecting lesbians to accept such men in their communities and bedrooms is morally unjustifiable.
For Semmens, males who identify as transgender women can never be lesbians, a viewpoint that has led to online threats and the loss of long-term friendships. She explains: “I came out as lesbian at a time when homosexuals were considered ‘deviants’, so the bullying we’re receiving now is depressingly familiar. How a man chooses to identify is irrelevant. I fought for the right to love a partner of the same sex. No matter how ‘womanly’ a man might claim to feel, I refuse to accept males can be lesbians.”
At a time of wider political turbulence, LGBT rights have become a favoured cause for liberals to unite behind. Businesses have been quick to cash in on warm fuzzy feelings of inclusivity, and corporations from Budweiser to Barclays now routinely celebrate “Pride month”, sponsoring floats and making heartwarming videos with
The protesters at Bradford Pride are part of what has become a global phenomenon, with lesbians across the world “coming out” and breaking away from the LGBT groups who have in their eyes prioritised the “T”. In the UK alone, groups such as the Lesbian Rights Alliance, Feminists in Struggle, ReSisters, Get the L Out, Storme Sisters, and All L Breaks Loose have formed to tackle the transbian phenomenon and to raise awareness of the failure of mainstream LGBT organisations to stand up for lesbians.
Organisers of official Pride marches have been quick to condemn the actions of grassroots lesbian campaigners. This year Pride in London, Britain’s biggest LGBT+ march, have announced that they are paying for extra security to keep troublesome lesbians from attending, stating: “Groups which don’t share Pride in London’s core values, such as celebrating every part of the community, will not be authorised to take part.”
At the same time as lesbians are being pushed out of LGBT communities, ever more niche sexual identities are being embraced. Since 2014 there has been a parade of “human pups” at Pride in London: adult men of various sexual orientations who get off on pretending to be latex-clad dogs. Last year at my local march there were some painfully staged photos of local MPs awkwardly holding “Straight Ally” signs alongside a group of young women with placards demanding rights for the polyamorous. At the 2018 London Pride, where lesbian protesters were forcibly removed for waving banners bearing the words “transactivism erases lesbians”, there were male gimps simulating sex acts. That heterosexual Conservative politicians, “human pups”, gimps and 21st-century swingers are more welcome at Pride than lesbians like Semmens speaks volumes.
This leaves me wondering who exactly Pride is for. While ultimately homosexuality is defined by sexual attraction, it is not all about having sex. For many it’s also about radically reassessing the social rules that define what it is to be a man or woman; it’s about rejecting heterosexual norms. I know from my own experience that living with and loving another woman is very different from having a relationship with a man. For the first time I feel free to enjoy equality rather than the sexualised rituals of submission and domination that can characterise heterosexual sexual politics. This more radical message of liberation has lost out to the more commercially viable demands for inclusion, and recognition of ever-more niche identities; from transbians to human pups.
I used to enjoy going to Pride because it was the one time in the year where I wasn’t in a minority. A place where I wouldn’t have to deal with intrusive questions about my sex life. Where I could hold my partner’s hand without looking behind us first.
Forty years ago, women like Lesley fought the stigma of being same-sex-attracted. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people were regarded as perverts, as deviants and as a threat to children. Pride marches today don’t do much to dispel these myths. Watching the human pups and “skoliosexual non-binary femmes”, I unexpectedly find myself half-nodding in agreement with the ghost of Mary Whitehouse. Pride parades are a celebration of the colour and vibrancy of different ways of loving and living, but they are also an exhibition of porn-fuelled fetishes. LGBT advocacy groups are dominated by the demands of men who feel entitled to parade their peccadillos in public, whether that’s identifying as lesbians or dressing in latex.
The LGBT industry should remember that to exist as a lesbian is to defy expectations. Until lesbians are free to define themselves as “female homosexuals” women like Lesley Semmens will continue to protest the “shame” of Pride.