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.

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

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pride-and-prejudice-an-lgbt-history-month-symposium-tickets-29639855606

9.00 Registration
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
10.35 Cath Elms:
10.55 Dr Catherine Fletcher: Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome
11.15 BREAK
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
12.50 LUNCH
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
14.50 BREAK
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
 

19.30

 

Optional Film Screening at Taliesin Arts Centre (must be booked in advance) Visit

http://www.taliesinartscentre.co.uk/cinema.php?id=1458

February 6th, 2017

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#equalatwork

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

 

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.

 

 

February 3rd, 2017

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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 lgbtplus@swansea.ac.uk

February 2nd, 2017

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As I walked past the main building at Cardiff University last week I noted the rainbow flag flying proudly on their main flag pole, clearly part of their commitment to LGTB+ History Month. It got me wondering about whether we might use this blog to share other ideas and possibilities that we have seen elsewhere and would like to see here is Swansea.

Let me begin with two from Birmingham:

The first is the LGBT student mentoring programme (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/internships/mentoring/lgbt.aspx ). I was very proud to be part of this scheme, almost from the beginning. The idea was to provide students at the University with mentors over a year who had experience of being LGBT in different professions. The team had drawn together, through personal contacts, alumni and the local LGBT business group, a number of volunteers who agreed to meet with students on at least two occasions over the year. We began the year with a speed mentoring evening when potential mentees and interested students gathered to learn more about the programme and to have a series of five minute sessions. The students then indicated who they would like to act as their mentor. It might be a person from a profession that interested them (media, finance, health services, education etc. etc.) or somebody who clicked during the evening. There were two or three mentoring sessions during the year, where the agenda was largely set by the student’s own questions and concerns, and a review at the end of the year. It was relatively simple to organise but the feedback from the students (and in fact the mentors) was that it was so valuable and offered a safe space to discuss issues around LGBT identity and work that is not available anywhere else.

The second example is perhaps on a larger scale, and that is the inclusive curriculum project (https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/staff/teaching-academy/documents/public/eip-nov14/McLinden.pdf ). I have booked in to a conference later in the year to learn more about the outcomes from this project, but in essence the project was designed to explore how LGBT issues could be integrated into the curricula across the University. Coming from a Department of Theology and Religion this had, perhaps ironically, always been an element of our curricula since the end of the 1990s. I taught part of a module on LGBT theologies, but more importantly, I also always taught the first year ‘Introduction to Religion’ module on which all our students, from the BA Theology, BA Islamic Studies and BA Religion and Theology, all had to attend. This gave me an opportunity to introduce queer approaches to religion, raise challenging questions on sexuality across different religious traditions, and to note just how many authors in the field are openly gay or lesbian. LGBT issues was not a ‘theme’ within that module it, along with BME, gender, disability etc. was part of the way I taught and part of what I taught. The students also came to realise, because of the examples I chose from my own life and experiences, that I was also gay. It never created any problems for me and clearly helped some of those in the lecture to approach staff in other contexts to discuss these issues further.

The inclusive curriculum project was aiming to develop that model further, across the University, and doing much more in terms of the wider structure of learning and teaching and student support. It may not appear to have any relevance for subjects in science and technology, for example, but even here I was fascinated to hear of one lecturer in Maths who made a point, again in the first year module, of choosing a variety of examples from a range of diverse mathematicians to illustrate the relevant points, and emphasising the diversity of the mathematic community. It was partly about incorporating LGBT (and other minority) theme as part of the examples chosen in a discipline, partly about using a diverse range of authors and indicating how their gender, sexuality, ethnicity etc. played into their thinking where relevant, and partly about LGBT lecturers being open and willing to engage in wider discussions. All this was designed to be approached in a safe environment, not to be pushed down student’s throats as it were, and, to use a horrible term, to ‘normalise’ discussions about LGBT people and ideas.

Others out there will probably have other examples, from alumni funded LGBT safe spaces on US campuses to identifiable ‘LGBT allies’ stickers that staff can put on their doors or notices boards. There are many ideas, not all of which we would want, or be able, to introduce here at Swansea, but it would be interesting just to see what could be going on out there.

 

Martin Stringer

PVC (Academic, Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences)

February 29th, 2016

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Nicola-Stephenson-in-Brookside

I feel pretty confident that I can tell you about every representation of lesbian relationships that I encountered during my youth.

 

I can tell you about that Brookside kiss, even though it’s not in my living memory, because I’d seen the screencap so many times (always accompanied by a word like ‘shocking’ or ‘sexy’) and it’s the only reason I knew who Anna Friel was.

 

I can tell you how much I tried to like The L Word, despite how over-sexualised and generally unrelatable it was to me.

 

I can tell you how it felt to watch Tipping the Velvet in my bedroom in secret, switching channels every so often so the next day I could talk about the programme which was on the other side.

 

I can tell you a lot about Zoe Tate in Emmerdale, from her girlfriend who abandoned her at the altar to the time she was rejected by that nice police officer and everything in between.

 

I can tell you all about all the lady couples in Bad Girls. I can list them in order of my most to least favourite, tell you which characters I wanted to be, which kisses most made me feel like coming out would be worth the risk, how it never occurred to me that all these women were criminals because I was too busy feeling like a kid in a candy shop.

 

I can tell you about the tropes. I can tell you about the girl-on-girl kisses to grab ratings and the almost inevitable disappearance of the storyline afterwards. I can tell you about madwomen and murderers: women who killed for, or even killed, the women they loved. I can tell you about bisexual women who cheated on each other with the same man. I can tell you about women who were abused and loved women and women who were abused for loving women. I can tell you about unrequited love and untimely loss.

 

I can tell you how these representations seeped into my young brain and shaped my expectations of the world.

 

I can tell you that I know that things are getting better, but that there is still a way to go.

 

By Anonymous, LGBT+ Staff Network member

February 22nd, 2016

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