Have you ever watched a film and thought, yes, that makes sense, that speaks to me? Have you ever watched a film and really related to the people and the circumstances? Or have you watched film after film and wondered, when will I see my ideals, my values, my identity reflected back at me?
Finding yourself and understanding your identity is a key experience for everyone, something which starts in adolescence and seems to consolidate during the early years of adulthood. However, we are always learning, I feel, and many things influence the kinds of people we see ourselves as. For LGBT people, especially those who, like me, grew up in the 60s or 70s, finding their LGBT identity can be somewhat problematic. Or at least, can be a less straightforward. Unlike today, back in the day there were very few LGBT characters or storylines on TV or in films. As a teenager in the 1980s, there were very few role models for me to help understand my own identity. My research into narratives shows that ‘we are the stories we tell about ourselves’ and creating those stories often needs exposure to similar stories.
In the 1980s, I remember watching a TV adaptation of The Rainbow (DH Lawrence) and another of Oranges are not the Only Fruit (Jeanette Winterson). Neither of these painted a very positive view of being a lesbian, although there were elements of hope there for me. I was an avid reader, but there were no books for me to read. I watched the teen films that were prevalent at the time, but few had characters I could relate to. I remember watching the film Some Kind of Wonderful which had a boyish character who was called a lesbian by one of her classmates, but she was in love with her male best friend and ended up with him. There were so few books in which I could find something to relate to. I read The Well of Loneliness (Radclyffe Hall) and was so thoroughly depressed that I wondered if I would ever find happiness as a lesbian living in a world of straight people and straight stories.
And then I left home, at 19, and went ‘on the scene’. One evening, I was invited to a party with the woman I was dating. It was at a house owned by an older lesbian, a professional woman, secure in her identity and her context, and the world opened up. She had a shelf full of books about women, feminism, and lesbians. She loaned me a book (which I sadly was never able to return, as I did not have her address and fell out with the woman who had taken me to her house) which opened my eyes to a whole world of lesbian fiction. The book was I am a Woman by Ann Bannon. This was one of the books that were published as pulp fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, sensationalised with provocative covers, but many of which dealt with the real-life struggle of lesbians to find a place within the world. The book had a profound effect on me. I read and re-read it until the cover started to fall off. I started looking for more books, and found that these did exist. And I started looking for films. I found a bookshop, sadly now gone, in London. Silver Moon Books provided women’s and lesbian books and videos. There were adverts in the gay papers, and such things could be ordered through the mail.
Suddenly my world exploded. I watched some of the independent films made in the early 90s, and it was then I discovered my favourite film of all time. Claire of the Moon, Directed by Nicole Conn, tells the story of an American writer who goes on a writers’ retreat and shares a cottage with a famous lesbian writer and academic. The tension between them, set against a backdrop of powerful natural scenery, still grips and moves me, even though I have seen the film so many times I know the script by heart. I bought the book that went with it, and the soundtrack – first on tape, then later on CD. I bought the book written by the actor who played Claire, which described her own journey of self-discovery inspired by the film. And I realised that everything that I had been searching for could be and was reflected out there, somewhere, if I only had the means to find it.
It seems strange now, in these days of instant streaming, instant access to a vast catalogue of music, films and books, that once upon a time it was hard to access materials like this. Librarians would not order certain books, and you had to find out about the books in the first place. I felt as if I lived in a desert of lesbian identity, constantly searching for something to slake my thirst for knowledge, for self understanding. And it was films like this, and like Go Fish (Guinevere Turner) which helped me to start to see myself from different perspectives, and to understand the symbols of lesbian culture which were manifest in these films. Films and books which talked about lesbian life and experience opened up my knowledge of my culture and my history. I learned about butch and femme, radical sex, separatist lesbian feminism, bisexuality, and sexual health, all from videos and books. There was no other way to learn, it seemed.
Claire of the Moon deals with the classic issue of understanding self. Claire is an independent, confident, sexually aggressive woman whose self-assurance is compellingly attractive. The film shows how she is challenged by the sudden interaction and forced proximity with Dr Noel Benedict, and how at first they clash, their differences causing significant friction. “I have never seen two people more ill suited” Noel says. Claire is a night owl, a coffee drinker, with sloppy habits and a tendency to smoke too much. She is laid back and free, expressive and unselfconscious. Noel is an early riser, a workaholic, “dedicated, upright” and somewhat uptight. Their differences seem insurmountable. “You stay north, I’ll stay south” Claire says to Noel. Their differences are emphasised.  But something draws them together, some commonality. First, they each read each other’s latest book. They bond over alcohol and backgammon. And the attraction between them becomes evident. Against the dramatic scenery of the Northern Californian coastline, they find themselves drawn together only to pull apart. Noel is attracted but having been hurt by a straight woman in the past, is disinclined to see Claire’s attraction as real or substantial. She dismisses it as idle curiosity. Claire, meanwhile, seeks out sexual encounters with men to compensate for her confusion. Her inner life is represented in dream/fantasy sequences which she finds disturbing, but which reflect strongly for me aspects of my own inner life.
And still, they are drawn inexorably towards each other. In this film, you see references to lesbian and women’s culture and history, particularly in the characters on the writers’ retreat, who are almost caricatures. There is Shylo Starbright, the hippy, esoteric ‘holy-istic type’. There is the conceptual poet, Adrienne. The housewife who has escaped from the kids for the first time, and whose husband leaves her because he can’t cope on his own. And the two women who run the retreat, one of whom is a butch lesbian, the other a femme and academic. There is much more to lesbian culture than these examples, obviously, but they act as tiny symbols of a much greater history that is waiting to be discovered. There is the representation of the ‘lesbian hug’. And then there is that fundamental story line, the love and desire between two people who are attracted to each other despite their differences. That was what gave me hope, as a young woman, struggling to work out who I was, and wondering if I would ever find community, find a relationship, friends who were similar to me, or at least people who shared the same kind of journey. The cataclysm of the climax of the film is simple, and simply powerful.
I have watched that film too many times to count. I have, since, developed a fondness for lesbian fiction, of every class and genre, and can cite whole range of authors and stories that give me pleasure and open up new windows into knowledge, understanding and the wider world. I love Karin Kallmaker’s books in particular, as well as Sarah Waters. I am lucky now that such books and films are mine at the stroke of a key, and I no longer spend weeks or months just watching the same film over and over to remind myself that I am a lesbian.
I have come to realise that we are all looking for identity. We are all looking, perhaps subconsciously, for something outside of ourselves that reflects our inner life, our sense of self. We look for the stories that speak to us, or about us. We find parts of ourselves in the films we watch, the books we read. We find our history not just in the factual records of the lives of lesbians, gay men, transgender people and the vast diversity of identities that are now emerging beyond the boundaries of binaries and definitions. We find them in the books written by others about stories that are often similar to us, the stories that take us away into new worlds and new locations.

I am an author myself, now, and I know that my work is influenced by all those who came before me. As I continue to write, I always remind myself just how far I have come, and how priveleged I am to witness and share in the stories of others. We are the history others will read in the future.

More than ever, it is important to write, read, produce, watch and consume these stories. They are a testament to those who were before us, and to the world we live in now, where our diversity can no longer be eradicated. The stories exist.

And so do we.

 

by Alys Einion

Senior Lecturer in Midwifery

 

 

February 16th, 2016

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