There’s a kind of sadness in accepting that we still have a long way to go. Today I have been preparing lectures on equality, diversity, oppression and power, and the historical resistance to oppression. I have been reviewing information, case studies and TED talks on racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and these have raised some important issues for me relating to the history of LGBT+ identities and our own resistance to oppression. When we examine the lives and resistance of LGBT+ people, the concept of social devaluation emerges strongly, and this resonates powerfully with me when considering my life, and the lives of colleagues, friends and family.
According to Nzira and Williams (2009, p. 34), “our identity… is defined not only by ourselves but by others. When our identity is defined negatively by those in power, oppressive experiences are highly likely to result. The social process involved has been called ‘social devaluation.’” The experience of oppression is not new to many individuals, but perhaps those who are not accustomed to fighting for the legitimacy of their identities so forcefully, perhaps those people may not be so aware of the impact of social devaluation on people, on their wellbeing, on their ability to survive and to thrive in this vastly complex world. Social devaluation means that aspects of a person’s identity are viewed negatively, and that negativity is widely socially accepted because it derives from a dominant ideology. This can, commonly, be seen for example in groups of society being viewed as ‘second class’ or ‘less than.’ This in term limits opportunity for such people. It limits their voices. Our history of LGBT+ identities, for example, is complicated because history has been written by dominant forces which continue to argue against the assertions of our communities. A common argument for the lack of existence of LGBT+ people or identities in the past is the lack of ‘proof.’ For example, there is no ‘proof’ the Ladies of Llangollen had a sexual relationship – therefore it cannot be asserted that they did. This is an interesting approach. There is no proof that a whole raft of famous ‘straight’ people had sex either, yet it is assumed that there was a sexual, or heterosexual foundation to their marriages, despite there being no proof that they actually had sex. It is assumed that, because for example, they were married, that they had a sexual relationship, or at the least, a romantic relationship. The same measure is not applied to same-sex relationships of people in the past.
My response to that, of course, is ‘if it walks a like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.’ If an historical figure has a close, same-sex relationship with a person and it looks like an intimate relationship, is viewed by others and by the people themselves as an intimate relationship, then it is safe to assume it IS an intimate relationship. This is just one example of social devaluation, the undermining of same-sex relationships in the past because of a lack of legal or social legitimacy.
But the nearer past also contains other examples of how this might happen. A personal example of this is a comment made to me once by a very senior manager in a healthcare organisation, who had accused me of lying about being off sick. I had had a GP sickness letter confirming my sickness, and had followed protocol by ringing up and asking when to bring this in on the day that sickness began, the day I had secured the sick note. I was told by an administrative colleague that it was ‘fine to bring it in the day you come back’ because I lived so far from my place of work and one of the reasons I wasn’t in work was because I wasn’t well enough to drive. When I arrived back at work I was told that I would not be paid for the sick time because I hadn’t got the ‘sick note.’ Producing it and my argument, I was accused of lying (about the illness, about the phonecall to the administrative colleague) and getting a sick note in retrospect. This is what the senior manager said. “We all know you people can’t be trusted.” She was, of course, referring to the fact that I was in a lesbian relationship. This was before 2005 and so I had little legal redress for her behaviour. I argued strongly and was told that she “would let me get away with it this time”. My anger was such that I could barely articulate it, and I left the organisation some time later after systematic bullying for which there was no redress because of social devaluation. I was deemed to deserve the ostracism and outright bullying I experienced because of my deviance. I use this personal example but am surrounded by others’ examples of similar experiences, most of which I will not share in a public forum because they are their own stories, not mine to expose.
However, when we consider how far we have come, in terms of legal protections, we cannot forget that we are, many of us, still compelled to be activists for equality simply because we still see this social devaluation around us. When lesbian characters in mainstream dramas are consistently killed off, this suggests that being a lesbian ultimately leads to an early death. When gay characters are only known by and through their sexual behaviours, this devalues gay identity and limits it to sex, suggesting that this is the most important thing about being gay, which in turn undervalues the complexity of gay culture. When bisexuality is either invisible or discounted as ‘confusion’ then social devaluation comes into play, as if there is some great authority stating that every individual must define themselves according to social norms and make a ‘choice’ to be something that society has given a particular value to. When trans* people experience violence daily, and experience constant negative press in the UK media, this reinforces the false idea that they are ‘other’ and somehow deserve what they get, which is the antithesis of an inclusive, egalitarian society. When women are still judged primarily on their appearance and their willingness to starve themselves to meet social ideals of body size, and men are encouraged to denigrate and sexualise women as part of ‘male culture’. When all of these things continue, we have no choice but to resist.
Like many others, I have experienced people dismissing the fight for LGBT+ equality. “You’ve got equality now,” they say, because we have equal marriage. Yet this is far from an equal society, and far from an equal experience. We are free now to join the normative form of marriage and spend huge amounts of money on a socially validating event to celebrate and legitimise our relationships, yet it is impossible to get a gender neutral passport or a gender neutral birth certificate. And raising these questions, these legitimate, socio-legal issues, still makes people uncomfortable, just as seeing the rainbow flag and being faced with LGBT+ people in public life still makes people uncomfortable.
How can we respond to this? By asking what it is that we ascribe value to in our social lives. And who ascribes that value. Pose these questions, and start to unpick from where we derive our social value and the validation of our identities. Who owns the media that represents us in these ways? Who channels the information that we view? Who challenges the rampant sexism that is still inextricably linked to the pervasive homophobia and unconscious bias in our social worlds, the discomfort with trans* identities or non-binary gender? Do we even challenge these things ourselves? Where does our power lie in resisting the social devaluation of ourselves and our identities? Perhaps when we examine these questions we can start to see how to make the change real, and pervasive, right here where it matters the most, in our day to day reality. Or at least, we can recognise the oppression we all experience, and the multiple dimensions and intersections of inequality, and start to look to each other to bring about change, learning the lessons of the past and defining a different kind of future.
Alys Einion, February 2018.
Alys Einion February 5th, 2018
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Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule/Desert Hearts dir. Donna Deitch.
Desert of the Heart is a classic novel by Jane Rule which explores the lives of women in America in the 1960ss. Set against the backdrop of the Nevada Desert and exploring life in the 1950s when women’s lives were very much restricted, it explores the relationship between an English Professor and a young woman living on a ranch in Reno, and provides an explicit account of emergent lesbian love and its challenges. Rule evokes a vivid and detailed world in which the attraction between two women, as problematic as it is, signifies life, energy, and vitality.
The 1985 film inspired by the book, Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch, is as transgressive and thought provoking as the book, but for different reasons. It is the first lesbian film of its type which presents both the angst of lesbian life and love and a potential happy ending, unlike its predecessors such as The Killing of Sister George and The Children’s Hour. It was also the very first lesbian film I ever saw.
I was 19 years old, at my first ever ‘grown-up’ lesbian party, in a house actually owned by a lesbian couple. Everything was new. I knew nothing of how gay people could live together, and had come to my awareness of my sexuality in my own ‘desert of the heart’ with no idea of what it meant to be attracted to my own sex. I remember the room was full of women, of various ages, styles and sizes, and I was on a date with a woman I had been attracted to for months. I settled down in front of the sofa, on the floor, to watch the film, which everyone else had seen many times, and it was only during the hotel room scene that I realised they were all watching me, and my reactions, rather than the film!
The film and book are radically different in many ways, and in particular, the relationship between Cay/Ann and the stepmother Frances differs strongly. However, the narratives resonate powerfully for me and for many people I have talked to because of the issue of the close relationship between a mother and her daughter/stepdaughter and the issues with that daughter developing a close bond with another woman. This raises some interesting questions about the nature of women’s intimate and close relationships and for this reason the book is very much on my recommended reading list for friends and the film remains one of my favourites. The book in particular speaks strongly to me of the tension between family and romantic love, and in particular, the loss that many LGBT+ people have faced, having to choose between their family and their identity, when family cannot accept their gender or sexuality. To lose the support and love of your birth family is tragic, but for many it is simply a fact of their life.
In the wider context of LGBT+ history, both the book and the film are products of their time, but still relevant now. Many women did not (and still do not) identify an attraction to women until later in their lives, often after marrying and having children. This may indeed be the same for people of all genders, and it makes me reflect on the ways in which we are ‘channelled’ towards certain expectations and choices in life. Our collective history certainly shows that regardless of the social, political and legal conditions in which our lives take place, we still fight for the freedom to live and love honestly and without oppression. This is more apparent than ever in today’s changing global and political landscape. The value of works such as these lies in their ability to ground us both in the past and in the reaffirmation of our commitment to a better future, for all.
Alys Einion February 8th, 2017
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It has been an amazing weekend basking in the glory of our Award win, but here is the current line-up for our Symposium on 15 February (updated on 7 February). It is going to be a great day, with lunch provided. You can still get tickets at
|9.30||Welcome and Introduction to the Day: Kevin Child, Director of Student Services, Swansea University|
|9.40||Keynote Address: Dr Alys Einion, Associate Professor, Author and Co-Chair LGBT+ Staff Network. Pride and Prejudice: The Past, the Present, the Future?|
|Session 1:||We’re Here, We’re Queer Chair: Dr Alys Einion|
|10.15||Cath Camps and Catherine Emmett New Wave Queerness and the Academy|
|10.55||Dr Catherine Fletcher: Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome|
|Session 2:||Talking Trans* Chair: Cath Elms|
|11.30||Jenny-Anne Bishop: 12 Years of Sparkling in Swansea and Manchester|
|11.50||Glenn Miles: Vulnerability and Resilience of Transgender women in Cambodia and Thailand|
|12.10||Eve Elizabeth Moriarty: Born Naked: Drag, Gender Fluidity, Feminism and Me.|
|12.30||Dr Michele Raithby: Investigating Dignified and Inclusive Health and Social Care for Older Trans* People in Wales: The TrAC Project|
|Session 3||Ups and Downs Chair: Eve Moriarty|
|13.30||Andrew Davies (Unity Centre): We All Fall Down|
|13.50||Mark Lilly Auntie Hate: BBC Homophobia and its Evolution|
|14.10||Kirsti Bohata: Amy Dillwyn|
|14.30||Edith England and Josie Henley: The internet as a tool to reduce LGBT health inequalities: a partnership approach|
|Session 4||Making History Today Chair: Dr Alys Einion|
|15.10||Mitchell Jones (Calon): Role Models and Staff LGBT Networks|
|15.30||Neil Harris: Surveying the landscape: dystopos, eutopos and the LGBT+ language learning experience|
|15.50||Panel Discussion: Making History Today Dr Alys Einion (Chair), Cath Elms, Neil Harris, Jenny-Anne Bishop, Mark Lilly, Dr Michele Raithby.|
|16.20||Closing Address: Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Swansea University|
|16.30||Close and Invitation to the Social (at Taliesin Arts Centre): Cath Elms and Alys Einion|
Optional Film Screening at Taliesin Arts Centre (must be booked in advance) Visit
Alys Einion February 6th, 2017
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Well, this is a very easy blog post to write. Last night, I attended the Stonewall Cymru Workplace Equality Index Awards in Cardiff. It was a glittering event with many of the movers and shakers in equality in attendance. I was there with my co-chair of the Swansea University LGBT+ Staff Network, Cath Elms, and other members of the Equalities Team from Swansea University.
We were already aware that we had been awarded Highly Commended Staff Network of the Year at the National Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, which meant we could add a special banner to our emails. We had also learned we had climbed five more places in the Workplace Equality Index, which makes Swansea University one of the top employers in Wales for LGBT+ equality.
Imagine our surprise as the host announced we had won the Stonewalll Cymru staff network of the year award!
We hurried up to receive it, completely shocked, and Cath and I quickly agreed who would speak, as everyone was giving acceptance speeches, just like the Oscars. I can’t even remember what I said now, but I know I made sure to thank the Equalities Team and the Network, and to emphasise how much Cath and I do to lead the Network with, as yet, very few resources. I know I concluded with saying that this award means we can now do more.
That is how we feel about it. We are delighted to have won, and in particular, I am very glad to see my co-chair get some recognition of her work and input (and I feel happy to have that recognition too). We both put a lot of our own time and energy into this and we ask for nothing more than the feeling that we are making the world a better place. We don’t do this for the glory, we do it because it matters, but it is very nice indeed to win an award and once again put Swansea University firmly on the map as an inclusive employer and a great place to work and study.
I also feel very proud of our Network and all that we achieve together.
It was a lovely evening. We just kept smiling and grinning and congratulating each other, and other people came up to congratulate us, and it was a shining moment in what are very dark times politically. I smiled all the way home.
It is just starting to sink in what this means for us, the Network, the University, and our future goals. It is something that will help us to share our message, involve more network members and Allies, and to do more and more to push forward equality for all.
So, thank you Stonewall Cymru, you have made us very happy.
We can do more. We will do more. We will make this world a better place, one step at a time.
By Dr Alys Einion, co-chair of the Swansea University LGBT+ Staff Network
Alys Einion February 4th, 2017
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Monsieur and Me: A Reflection on the Historical Novels of Sarah Waters
Many moons ago I worked voluntarily at an excellent (sadly now closed) lesbian lifestyle magazine called Velvet. I did marketing and PR, and one of my more beloved roles was to do book and film reviews. It was through this that I first became aware of the novelist, Sarah Waters, whose titles Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Affinity have all been adapted for television or film. Tipping the Velvet, her first novel, blew my mind, because it was both a very well researched historical novel and a narrative that spoke powerfully and eloquently about the love between two women. The deep, all-encompassing and life-changing passion that Nan feels for Kitty echoed my own feelings, experiences and desires, and perhaps it was that familiarity which endeared it to so many other readers.
Historical fiction is a very popular genre and yet it was not one I usually read. But Waters had me hooked from almost the first line. Her detailed, seamless literary style combined with such a wealth of contextual, historical detail that it seemed to me that she brought the Victorian world to life. And for the first time, it made me think about the LGBT* people who lived and loved and worked, and struggled and starved, and succeeded, in some cases, at that time. It made it seem entirely normal, and reasonable, that there were women dressing as men and loving each other. That Waters published her book as a mainstream book, not as lesbian genre fiction, was another significant dimension of my reading experience and her ongoing success.
And then there was Monsieur. The novels I had read outside of the lesbian fiction genre did not deal with lesbian sex in any real way. It was alluded to, it was cleverly circumvented so that there was a sex-shaped hole in many stories (even those mainstream thrillers written by the wonderful Val McDermid), but it seemed that Sarah Waters transgressed the final taboo. Monsieur, made of leather, not only featured uncompromisingly in her book, but also in the Andrew Davies/BBC three part adaptation. Yet another aspect of lesbian identity and behaviour made manifest in the ‘normal’ world. How wonderful. How disturbing. How strange.
Although the subsequent novels take a darker turn, exploring more psychological, supernatural and psychic dimensions of the lives of women, and are less sexually explicit, there is an ongoing allusion to the nature of lesbian sexuality which, for the queer reader, evokes a sense of familiarity. Here at last are the books that speak to us on an intimate level. They whisper “you see, I know you!”
What struck me, and still does, when reading these three different, and so cleverly crafted books, is not only her representation of the times and culture in which they took place, but Waters’ willingness to explore the ambiguities of lesbian identity and sexuality alongside a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that women are not always very nice to each other. I had read other Victorian fiction and yet here was an insight from a different perspective. A woman’s perspective but not just any woman. These women were different. They challenged me. And I love to be challenged.
Researching further, I found a link to her PhD Thesis: Wolfskins and togas : lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present. Reading this opened my eyes to the nature of queer fiction throughout history, more so than my rudimentary understanding of Sappho, Wilde, Hall and others. What she has done, in this thesis and in her published fiction, is to open up a window into historical life viewed differently from the ‘malestream’ disciplines of both history and fiction, whilst adhering brilliantly to the conventional forms of the novel (and of the thesis, I might add). To see an academic, and a novelist, creating a niche for her work and achieving wide acclaim (just check her Widipedia entry to see how many awards she has won) whilst celebrating the history of queer people is both reassuring and pleasurable. As a novelist myself, I am in awe of her skill and craft, and as an avid and avowed bibliophile, I can only hope she continues to thrill us with more books in the future.
As for monsieur… if you don’t already know, then read the book! I could never describe him in any way that would come close to Sarah Waters.
Check out her work at http://www.sarahwaters.com/
By Dr Alys Einion,
Co-Chair, Swansea University Staff Network.
This blog series is coordinated by Dr Alys Einion of Swansea University and celebrates LGBT History Month 2017.
Alys Einion February 3rd, 2017
Posted In: Uncategorized
Reflections on Jane Austen, Intersectionality, and the Global Reader,
I’ve been passionately in love with Elizabeth Bennett for decades. As the primary character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice she seemed to epitomise so many things that I found admirable, including a good helping of disrespect for certain social norms and the ability to reply with a witty comeback when someone disrespects her. But as with all of Austen’s books, I also struggle with the deeply ingrained heterosexuality and gender normativity of her work. I forgive her, and the books, because they are products of their time, but I still struggle with only seeing snapshots of myself, and my queer peers, within these pages. Not that I don’t recognise some classic characters and find it easy to transpose them onto ‘lesbians I have known (and loved)’. I have known quite a few Ms Darcys, whose arrogance at their position in life, manifested in their perfect adherence to ‘dyke’ haircuts and fashion make them walk into the room like a Shane thinking they own it and every woman there. I have known a few Ms Wickhams too, and, in my turn, been burned by them.
But I, like many of my generation, I suspect, still struggle with the strictures of heterosexual culture which are so powerfully reproduced in these books, even though Jane Austen gives a clear message about the wrongness of limiting a woman’s prospects by her fortune, connections and marriageability. About 10 years ago, I read Maria Edgworth’s Belinda for the first time, and found in this a much stronger cultural critique, particularly of the ways in which women are expected to behave. Edgeworth presents us with characters who not only challenge gender norms in behaviour, but in dress, and has women dressing as men and engaging in masculine pursuits including duels, riding, shooting and flirtations with other women. This made me realise that many women of that time period were indeed fighting against the dominant cultural tropes which relegated them to decorative additions to the salon, defined them by their dowries and their ‘accomplishments’ and basically chained them to the home once they were married and had started producing children. Not only was Mary Wollstencraft advocating for women’s autonomy, liberation and respect, but writers like Edgeworth were arguing that women had equality in every aspect of life. Belinda, her main character, evidences the intellectual capacity of a philosopher, a thinker, someone with high intelligence and insight, at a time when the dominant culture proposed that women’s brains were smaller and their limitation to the home sphere was for their own good, based on their physical and cognitive limitations.
Despite being madly in love with Elizabeth Bennett, and you know love is blind, I did, in my 20s and 30s, finally realise the limitations to these books that I know and love so well. They are products not only of their time but of a classist and ethnocentric system which totally overlooks and disenfranchises any woman not of a particular social class or racial background. Austen perhaps cannot be blamed for her limitations. But her representation of lower classes, of ‘gypsies’ and of anyone other than the families of ‘gentlemen’ is at best negligent. As my understanding not only of white privilege but of the vast complexity of our intersectional world, my love affair with Austen faded somewhat. I realised that the books and literature represented most in school, in University, and in adaptations for film and television repeated these biased tropes. Despite how much I love these stories, they have to be viewed as what they are, a very limited and restricted sample of life for a very small number of people at a particular point in time. Far from just failing to represent women, lesbians or gender in sufficient complexity, they fail to represent the bulk of social life.
What can we learn from this, for considering our LGBT history? Perhaps the main lesson is to develop our awareness, to deliberately step aside and consider things from different perspectives. To reach and to read outside our comfort zones. To look for literature that represents a variety of experiences and points of view. To deliberately challenge our own position and to search for and read things that go beyond our own perspectives. To engage in intersectionality in our reading, and in our consumption of films and television. To see ourselves as what we are, singular citizens of a tiny country (I speak from a UK perspective here) whose view on the world may be skewed by our lack of perspective and our lack of exposure. And to lobby for better recognition of the vast body of literature and art that represents the true diversity of the world. This year, finally, women (and men) of colour are finally being better represented in the vastly inflated world of the film industry, and works are emerging which set out to redress the balance in many ways. Over time, I have seen wider diversity in the books winning the huge literary prizes. But we should not be just looking at prizewinners. We should be looking beyond, to seek out representations of life, sexuality, gender, personhood, which show us as global citizens and to find, consume, and if necessary, produce, those books and stories which represent our past and our present so that others can learn too. If history has failed us, we can take back our history and make visible all that has been overlooked. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to each other.
By Dr Alys Einion,
Co-Chair, Swansea University Staff Network.
This blog series is coordinated by Dr Alys Einion of Swansea University and celebrates LGBT History Month 2017. To contribute, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Alys Einion February 2nd, 2017
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As part of Holocaust Memorial Day, this blog post is a reflection on the impact of genocide on the lives of individuals. Right now, people are being killed, and entire communities destroyed, in many places in the world. And even after all these years, we still haven’t eradicated genocide in our global consciousness or addressed the impact on individuals, society and the world.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust states: “Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year. It’s a time for everyone to pause to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. On HMD we can honour the survivors of these regimes and challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today. 27 January marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.
HMD is a time when we seek to learn the lessons of the past and to recognise that genocide does not just take place on its own, it’s a steady process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented. We’re fortunate here in the UK; we are not at risk of genocide. However, discrimination has not ended, nor has the use of the language of hatred or exclusion. There is still much to do to create a safer future and HMD is an opportunity to start this process.”
So why write about Anne Frank? Everyone knows her story. And yet many see it as just that, a sad, poignant story but one about a past we never thought would come again. That is our Western-Centric and limited view of such events. Anne Frank’s work is more important now, after 73 years, than ever, because it brings alive the experience of one person who was persecuted and, yes, killed, as a result of wholesale prejudice, political tyranny and social tolerance of violence and marginalisation. Social tolerance. People just like us who allowed this to happen.
One diary. One little book covering a period of around two years. Yet it is one of the most famous books in the world. Anne didn’t know, when she wrote it, that it would make her the writer she dreamed of being.
We all have dreams, goals, desires and visions for the life we would like to live. Hers are enshrined in this diary, and signify the life she never got to live. There are thousands, or even millions, who suffered in similar ways, who continue to suffer, whose lives are cut short, whose voices were never heard. Voices silenced forever. Stories forever untold. We grieve at all the potential Anne Frank displayed in her youthful diary, and wonder at the life she might have lived. She is the symbol of all those who never get the chance to live the life they should have had.
So it is incumbent upon us, those of us who are privileged to live with greater freedoms than she had, to stand up and argue for the eradication of genocide from the face of this planet.
We must stand up against tyranny, in all its forms, and against prejudice. Stand against sexism, racism, classism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia. Stand against religious prejudice, intolerance and discrimination. Stand against ANY individual or group which seeks to limit those freedoms we have fought so hard for. We can agree to disagree and still support each other to enjoy our own freedoms.
Many of us have led comfortable lives because others stood up for our rights. Many of us have been activists driving forward equality agendas. We have won many battles, built many strong foundations, but we cannot lay down our tools just yet. The world is changing, always, consciousness growing and shrinking simultaneously, and we face new emergent threats from many sources. It starts with us, as individuals, and grows as we grow together into a unified front that will NOT tolerate hate in any form.
On this Holocaust memorial day, write a diary entry, or a blog post, or a note, or a tweet, or a Facebook post, about who you are and the freedoms you believe in. Share your story. Inspire others. As Anne Frank shows, just one story can change the world. Imagine what thousands could do?
Alys Einion January 27th, 2017
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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
Alys Einion February 16th, 2016
Posted In: Uncategorized
When people congratulate me for co-chairing the LGBT+ Staff Network and call me a queer role model, I have to be honest – I didn’t intend for this to happen, I just came out to a colleague and everything snowballed very quickly from there.
In a lot of ways, I’m not the best person to lead a Network – I’m abominably shy, awkward, no good at networking, and generally prefer to stay hidden from sight (though admittedly most of this is due to inexperience). This was a source of discomfort for me for a while – was I a rubbish role model? Was I giving a bad image of LGBT+ people, or of the network?
Then again – over the months I have come to realise two things:
Done is better than perfect
That is – it’s better to have someone trying to effect change, making mistakes along the way, and doing their best with their heart in the right place, than wait for the “perfect” leader to come along before we try to do anything. Since I became co-chair of the Network, I am proud to have achieved the following using my resourcefulness, creativity, and enthusiasm:
• Enabled the Network to become an active group that meets monthly
• Set up regular co-chair meetings to progress the our strategic LGBT+ plans
• Established a successful LGBT+ Allies Programme
• Organised LGBT History Month celebrations for 2015 and 2016
• Held awareness-raising campaigns on calendar dates previously not marked at the University, e.g. Bi Visibility Day.
• Doubled the size of the Network
• Jointly lead the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index submission, which this year resulted in us being ranked 36th top employer in the UK, and 2nd top HEI employer!
• Regularly touch base with the Network to ensure that our members are happy with the service we provide and can feedback suggested improvements (currently underway)
• Worked with Senior Management to communicate support for LGBT+ issues
• Strengthened links with the Students’ Union LGBT Officers and community LGBT+ groups in order to share best practice, support each other’s events, and share resources.
I’m sure someone in a higher level position could have achieved even more – but until someone comes along and expresses an interest in the network leadership, then I’m more than happy to do the best I can. And for an awkward young admin assistant, I think I’ve done a pretty good job.
The more role models, the better
So often, the role models we are presented with are of a similar style – a particular leadership style that is authoritative, academic, highly confident, and well-networked. I don’t (yet) identify as any of those things, but actually that’s ok. Role models are there for people to aspire to, and not everyone wants to be an authoritative, forceful leader. Some people want to be gentle, encouraging leaders, some have no desire to lead, and some at the start of their careers can’t even imagine reaching the dizzying heights of SMT because that seems so far from where they are now. Some people just want to be comfortable enough to be out at work. If I am to be a role model for anything, I hope it is for being a publicly imperfect person that is striving to be better and doing what she can within her means. I hope I illustrate that resourcefulness, courage, and a desire to make things better can lead you to achieve great things – even if you’re awful at talking to people at parties.
LGBT+ Staff Network co-chair
Cath’s previous posts:
Straight Until Proven Queer
Alys Einion February 8th, 2016
Posted In: Uncategorized
February is an interesting month. It’s the tail-end of winter, when people are thoroughly sick of the long, dark nights, the cold, the bare trees and grey skies, and are yearning for spring. The bright lights and warmth of the festive season are behind us, and we face the new year full of resolve or trepidation. That this has been designated UK LGBT history month seems to me to be perfect timing. It’s a chance to lighten the darkness a little, but still reflect and learn. Make the most of the lingering mood of introspection. It’s a chance to understand ourselves in context.
Whether you are LGBT+ or other, an ally, or someone who has never considered the history of the LGBT movement and of our identities, this is a chance to explore deeper the people, culture and events which have shaped our knowledge of ourselves and have affected our liberties and rights in the UK. It is a chance to consider ourselves in a wider global context.
The first place to start then, for this blog series, is with a brief overview of what this month means, and I hardly need to do anything other than give the official website: http://lgbthistorymonth.org.uk/
This is about honouring and recognising our history. The history of politics, political movements, literature, the arts, the law. It is the history of identity. Women living as men. Men living as women. Butch and femme, drag and drama. The changes in law, culture, and medicine. The oppressions of society, government, and medicine, pathologising us when we were no longer invisible. It is the history of survival in a world that kept on denying us. It is humbling.
But there is more. As I start this month, my first ‘history month’ as co-chair of the Swansea University LGBT+ Staff network, I find myself reflecting on what it means to me to be even sitting here writing this blog. Writing is a form of history making. Everything I do in this role, it seems, is making history, and that means that everything that others have done to simply be themselves, express themselves, or advocate for the rights of LGBT+ people have also made that history.
It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it, that what we do, day by day, is contributing to history? It causes a sudden shift of perspective, like climbing up and suddenly realising you are actually climbing down, like vertigo from looking up at a high building. And what I see here is that I am one small voice in a vast and huge chorus, all singing the same song. That chorus extends out to beyond the borders of our identities as LGBT+. It extends to all the other dimensions of identity, of self, and of community. Black, white, minority ethnic, female, male, non-binary gender, transgender, old, young, middle aged, parent, single person, coupled, married, divorced, people of faith, politically active people, working people, academics, professionals…. All of us a huge part of creating the world anew, each day.
The theme for this year’s LGBT month is Religion, Belief and Philosophy. There are many things that shape our world, and I have always felt that our beliefs, the way we make sense of the world, are fundamental to our identities. I have always wanted to make a difference in the world, always felt that I was put on this earth to make it a better place. This is one way I can do that. So as I continue with this blog series, I would like to raise key issues about belief, about religion, and about philosophy, and link to the various figures and events in history that have brought about the biggest changes in our wider world.
It was 32 years ago that I realised I liked girls. In that way. I was an introverted 13 year old, with a deep sense of spirituality and a yearning desire to be known, to be seen. There were no visible lesbians in my community, and few in the media. I had no idea about lesbian identity or history; gay was a very bad word in our house. I had no idea of the many, many people who had risked their lives to live according to their own identity. Over 30 years of my own history, and much of what I have and continue to experience is thanks to the people who have helped shape the world into a place where I can sit here and write a blog like this and not risk my career, my home, my life, or my liberty. That is why history is important. Because it is important to see where we have been, and how far we have come, honouring all those who have come before us, so that we can all feel able to continue to shape the future.
Check out the resources on the LGBT history month website, and do please follow this blog series as I explore as many issues as I can throughout this very important month. And if you would like to contribute to the blog, please get in touch at email@example.com
HAPPY LGBT HISTORY MONTH!!!!!
By Alys Einion, Co-chair of the Swansea University LGBT+ Staff network.
Alys Einion February 1st, 2016
Posted In: Uncategorized
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