Out lesbian almost 50 years. Age 69 with dodgy knee, no longer wild but still dancing. Adore singing with my LGBTI+ choir. Love women, family, old and new friends, nature, poetry. Keats nerd. Write a bit. Love my hens, my cat, talking and having fun with mates
Feminism crept up on me like my sexual orientation. By the time realisation had dawned and I was in love or lust enough or my (wounding, constipating) shame had receded enough, this essential part of me had evolved and embedded. Some feel a solid sense of themselves at an early age. Me, not so much. Today I am at peace or at least reconciled with the many ramifications of my personal and political life. At my, let us call it fabulous, age I have experienced overt and subtler forms of sexism, misogyny, homophobia and ageism. Of course, I have. I am proud to be a (cis) woman-queer-dyke-lesbian feminist, member of a multi-faceted LGBTI+ community. In my youth I was just another self-conscious kid with low self-esteem. I had feelings that bothered me some. Fears I could neither name nor escape. Shame, the creepy bastard, presented as extreme shyness. This made for a hot, heavy and deeply uncomfortable load. When I tell people this, they can find it hilarious to contemplate, hard to believe. “Shy…you?! What happened?!” I get a little buzz from that response. Like so many women and girls (not forgetting men and boys of course) I am a survivor whose history includes sexual abuse, sexual violence and mental illness.
I grew up in a fiercely female household with three sisters. My mother was a witty and glamourous matriarch. My father was a quiet and studious man who introduced me to Socialism. My first ever vote went to the lone Marxist party candidate, an earnest and now I believe, awesome woman who ran a home for single mothers in Reigate, Surrey. I feel quite proud of my awkward teenage self, making a stand in this Conservative stronghold.
My mother was my first (s)hero I guess. So many since then. She seemed to embody an innate sense of her own worth, supremacy even, in the so called battle of the sexes. She was ‘feminine’ in ways de rigueur back then, occupying a space I could never reach or comfortably inhabit. The heterosexual norm was rampant in the 50s and 60s and reigned supreme in the suburban South. I had huge, silent crushes on certain Wimbledon Ladies tennis players and although never much of a sports fan, I was decidedly on their team. At fifteen I announced my plan to join the WRAF. My pilot father told me I would never be able to take the discipline. I could be rather sullen and unbiddable then I suppose. In later years I embarked on a long nursing career. A profession not known for its lax approach to discipline, accountability and hierarchical structure. I rest my case dad.
My mother did not call herself a feminist and generally complied, given the dearth of available options, with the patriarchal dish of the day. Simultaneously, alongside many of her contemporaries, she thumbed her carefully powdered nose at the suburban status quo. The women’s movement had reached the Home Counties in the 60s and I was open to it, if it would have me. I took a few tentative steps into the realms of feminist literature. I didn’t grasp the broader concepts at first, but my interest was well and truly peaked. Hard to believe now as my out and proud self, but I kept certain magazines from view and hid my burgeoning sexuality. It felt too scary and subversive. A world away. Tucked under my bed, with the wired dental brace I hated wearing (I still have the gap between my front teeth) was Penthouse Forum. I secretly devoured publications with topics considered risqué at the time. Irresistible food for fantasy and thought. A delectable foretaste of freedom, minus the dental brace of course. Later I remember reading the first issues of Spare Rib. I tried hard to be straight and made a damned good fist of precocious heterosexuality but (trigger alert) had I not followed my truest nature I would definitely be pushing up those daisies by now.
People are extraordinary. It is possible to recover from psychic pain and trauma. Adopt a persona, get pissed, get stoned, get angry, get creative, have sex, trance out, get sad, get sick, get well, get educated, drop the ego, get help, love someone, reflect, breathe, learn self-love and so on…and one day we miraculously begin to shed the stuff that no longer serves us and we heal a bit and then a bit more. If we are lucky. Sounds easy. It isn’t. Some don’t make it. Becoming [a person, feminist, survivor] me is a messy, meandering and extraordinary trip. Dark times too, of course. I’m not through with the adventure yet.
So what does feminism mean to me. Coming to terms with who I am as a woman, a caring professional and a lesbian, learning what intersectionality is and why personal empowerment and living well until our death really matters, applying therapeutic use of self with people in struggle including those at the end of life and their loved ones.
Later years with salient personal, professional and political route markers:
1970s Brighton. I met my first great love and worked at a holiday home for people with learning disabilities with my lover. Came properly out as a lesbian to my family. I had found my true metier and commenced mental health nurse training.
1980s London. General nurse training and post at Charing Cross Hospital. I joined the Lesbian Nurses Group. These meetings comprised a bit of jargon and rhetoric trading, sharing stories, organising events, making posters. My pal and I did some drinking and clubbing after meetings too. Part lesbian feminist nurses’ group, part dating agency…ideal! I remember raising a work-related issue and being roundly scolded by the co-ordinator “Hazel, the personal and professional is political!” That was me told. My next essay title right there.
I was appalled by the stigmatising and treatment of HIV/AIDS patients on hospital wards. I began work at the centre of excellence that was London Lighthouse. The experience was profound, life changing. I was humbled and inspired by the incredible people using our services and my stunning colleagues. Truly a personal, professional and political zenith. Care quality and philosophy was cutting edge. Training and service provision aimed to address empowerment and diversity, challenging internalised/ societal/ institutional/ global oppression in all its guises. Training was extensive. We were supported to explore the deeper meaning of white privilege before it was such a triggering phrase. If being ‘woke’ is being alert, in this case, to the existence of entrenched racism, I will take that. Angry, white populists, keen on derailing socio-political progress love the whole woke jibe trope.
I pitched up at consciousness raising meetings in trendy parts of North London. Initially felt a bit alienated but shared their overarching feminist values so stayed on to learn. I worried about feeling or being an outsider then. I wouldn’t give two galloping whatsits now! In the time of section 28, marched with thousands of protesters. Critical action in response to vile newspaper headlines and our threatened rights and freedoms in Thatcher’s Britain.
On one occasion I was asked with undisguised scorn if I was making a statement [with the outfit I was wearing]. My dungarees (!) were covered in HIV/AIDS awareness, feminist, LGBTI+ and trades union badges. Sure, I was making a statement, sure we were.
1990s London. Continued in front line, management and as trustee in HIV/AIDS services. HIV and mental health clinical nurse specialist. Own counselling and supervision practice. I met the love of my life Liz in 1996. We moved to Brighton in 1997 where I managed HIV and substance misuse services for women and their children.
So what does feminism mean to me. An amalgamation of falling down, standing up, standing alone, self-reliance, feeling the strength of love from the sisterhood and the brotherhood when lonely and broken. Paying forward and giving back. Inclusivity. Honouring lives lived and personal journeys. Grief work and more healing.
In 2003 we moved to Somerset. My father and sister died in 2004 and 2008 respectively. I was in nurse management leading elderly palliative and end of life care services. My civil and life partner Liz was a strong feminist, champion for social justice in myriad, innovative ways. Liz’s last job was to lead and develop flagship services for women fleeing domestic abuse and their children. Beautiful soul Liz died in 2012. My mother died six weeks later. It took me some years to re-emerge. Cumulative loss and grief changes people. Close friends (and family) morphed into a brilliant, ramshackle bereavement tag team who beautifully held me up in the worst of days. They still do. I bloody love my friends.
So what does feminism mean to me. Divergence of opinion, accepting challenges to long held views. Reform. Openness. Solidarity. Welcoming diversity. Listening to others and avoiding assumptions about lived experience. Not tolerating indifference to suffering, challenging misogyny and hate. when safe to do so, even when difficult. Finding allies. Making mistakes. Continued learning. Not tearing other women down. Black lives matter. Young people not hurting themselves because they feel different, distressed, alone, violated, ashamed, not good enough. Celebrating our role models and each other.
Feminists are unique and don’t always follow the tribe. We passionately disagree at times and hooray for that. The issue of trans rights and gender self-identification, for instance, is painfully polarised at its extremes. Absolutely yes to continued conversation, protecting the vulnerable, freedom of speech and informed debate. A resounding no to transphobia, fearmongering and name calling on either side. Feminists have divergent views on gender, the role of biological sex, hormone blockers. The discussion in some quarters has become bitter. I sincerely hope we can reach a balance in a society purporting to be (or masquerading as) an enlightened democracy for progressive social justice. So much is at stake. We have to protect women only spaces and there will always be specific issues and concerns, risk and needs assessments to apply, stakeholder opinion to be canvassed. One policy size won’t fit all.
My view (and some of my dearest friends vehemently disagree) is that such spaces can usually welcome trans and intersex people identifying female. Too many individuals and groups know what it is like to be corralled, brutalised and other-ed. Stats on suicides and violent attacks on women and members of LGBTI+ communities tell the unconscionable, universal truth. Societal prejudice and discrimination makes for a nightmarish inner and external world. I am concerned that the conversation is again hijacked by alarmist mudslinging at the outer edges while politicians and others look on. I’m not averse to mudslinging at the real enemy but fear our damaging ‘own goals’ when pitting women against women. I hope that in all such matters as feminists we can avoid once more effectively doing the political housework for the patriarchy, the closed-minded and the haters.
The goal of parity, equality and justice for women is out there. In sight but not close enough. It is a long and ancient game. Educators, activists, parents, leaders and policy makers are striving to make a difference. Parents are bringing up girls, boys and trans youths to be proud of who they are, comfortable in their skin, resourceful. Kindness, confidence and mutual respect is being nurtured. The formula for positive cultural change is elusive. A multi-dimensional approach to misogyny and male violence is essential. People are raising kids who learn about healthy relationships. Boys are not all automatically hurtling towards a toxic masculine stereotype. Parenthood is one of the toughest (and best) gigs I understand. I am not a mum but blessed to be an auntie and great auntie. Huge respect to parents.
Young people may evolve to be happily of a feminist mind-set or broadly supportive of the principles of feminism. They are likely to encounter struggles with body image and gender stereotyping. Growing up can be fraught with anxiety, littered with pitfalls, laced with fear. Given love and basic human needs more children are growing up in environments that are anti-racist, anti-misogynist, not homophobic or transphobic. So far so good, so wonderful.
So what does feminism mean to me . Evolution, anti-oppression and transformation at its best. A lodestar and pivot in life. Sometimes lobbying and campaigning, mostly being me and not compromising held values. Knowing we are deserving of support, peace, freedom from persecution, harassment, abuse, violence and fear of same. The right to be heard, listened to, believed. Equal pay, opportunities and access. Speaking truth to power. Full and transparent range of rights associated with our body, reproduction, health, sexual orientation, gender identification, race, sexuality, lifestyle, religion and spirituality, marriage, children, our significant relationships. Self-care, recovery and survival.
Feminism is not gendered. Some of the staunchest feminists I know are trans or gender nonconforming. We are not straight, white, cis-gendered, binary. We are black, brown, persons of colour, culturally, religiously and ethnically diverse. We are women, men, prisoners, refugees, people with mental health issues and medical conditions. We are sex workers, trans, non-binary, gender queer, intersex, asexual and questioning. We are old, young, fat, thin, we have abilities and disabilities. We are of all political persuasions and none. We are working, middle and ruling class, rich, poor, homeless. We are artists and performers, we are politicians, we are LGBTI+, we identify as lesbian and have sex with men, we are straight and have sex with women, we are pansexual, we are addicts and recovering addicts, we are activists, we are closeted. We are wounded. We may be in danger. We are tired. We are surviving and we are thriving. We hate labels and jargon but we are not invisible. We matter and have a voice and a unique story. We are mums and lesbian mums, we are gay dads and straight and LGBTI+ grandparents, we are care leavers and school leavers and students.
Do feminism your way. I am touched and inspired by the energy of young feminists today. They have re-ignited a call to action on their own terms, in their own language via their own platforms. There seems to be a ground swell for radical change. Everyday sexism exists, is never benign, has to be called out and is not simply a women’s issue. We know the hashtags. Misogyny abounds and is an insidious, malevolent contagion. Stats on domestic abuse, sexual violence and the murder of women in the UK and internationally continue to be gutwrenching. Revolution begins with us. Be you. Take care. You are amazing, precious.