L is for lesbian – the gender identity for women who are primarily attracted to women. L is also for love. How important is gender when you love someone? Do gender inequalities make love a battleground?
Lesbian and Luchia: Luchia Fitzgerald turns up to-day on a podcast interview as I root about in my memory for feminism and gay liberation in 1970’s Manchester. Luchia’s interviews reveal there is very little recorded history of feminist activism and even less on the connections between the shared history of feminist and gay activism in Ireland and the UK. For centuries lesbians were hidden in marriage, spinsterhood, cross dressing and eccentricity and feminist activism was limited to the right to vote.
In 1928 Virginia Woolf was in court in London when the first fictional portrayal of lesbian love in Radcliffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was convicted of obscenity and copies of the novel destroyed. She wrote a letter to E.M. Forster on the effect of lesbianism as a taboo subject for novelists “Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds.” Quote taken from Maria Popova’s blog themarginalian.org. Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando was published later the same year but managed to escape censorship. For decades society condemned lesbianism as a threat to definitions of normal.
The time spiral of lockdown takes me back to 1976 when I arrive in Manchester as an active feminist. I had just secured a six-month contract on a job creation scheme. My job depended on creating training opportunities for the young unemployed in social and community settings – a form of internship on unemployment benefit. I was in a relationship with Margaret Coulson, a well-known academic and socialist. Through the informal lesbian network, I met Angie Cooper who lent me her flat while she was travelling. Luchia Fitzgerald lived in the flat below. The building was behind a large red-brick house on a tree-lined dark street in Whalley Range near a large park and not far from Moss Side – a centre for black and white community activism where Angie and Luchia had founded Moss Side Press. Luchia was a great neighbour with her engaging feisty activism for gay liberation and human rights. She was also the first person I knew who could light her farts.
Violent Man: My activism in the 1970’s meant I often went to evening meetings and had to walk home from the bus stop at Alexander Park alone in the dark. The rapist/ murderer in our area had not been caught so security was always on my mind and I bargained with the trees for protection. On one occasion I heard someone behind me. A brief glance confirmed the presence of a man on the same footpath. I told myself he was also on his way home but quickened my step just in case. Keep the element of surprise I told my feet. I cursed myself for not remembering to carry a bag that I could easily relinquish if it was only a thief. I knew better than to gamble on knocking on a door of the houses I passed as no-one would answer.. I recalled a BBC Radio 4 programme on self-defence for women where an older woman had fought off a thief by giving him a wallop with her Zimmer frame. I raised my elbows just in case.
When I took a second look over my shoulder, I saw he was getting closer. I am a fast walker and increased my pace to an even faster walk, willing myself not to run. . My only advantage was that I knew exactly where I was going but I knew it was too soon to run. For anyone who knows me, they know I have a strategy for everything and Luchia was a part of the strategy that night. I gauged the distance and stayed on the opposite side of the road to our building. When I heard his pace break into a run I braced myself and managed to throw off his arms as he tried to put them around my neck with my best self-defence gesture. He stumbled and with the element of surprise my feet too flight across the street running faster than before or since into our dark entry of the big house surrounded by trees which shielded our annexe from the street. At my breathless account, Luchia shot out of the door, followed by Alison to see if he had followed me into the darkness. She was disappointed that he was nowhere to be seen. Strategy with an element of surprise can work where there is solidarity to back it up but I was more careful after that and the story never reached the Strabane spy network.
Solidarity: Our solidarity as neighbours and activists of the same generation also had an Irish dimension. Luchia was born in Bessborough mother and baby home outside Cork City. As a teenager she was living with her grandmother. Physical and mental abuse compelled her to run away and she arrive in Manchester in 1961 where she lived on the streets. She met Angie Cooper in an underground gay bar in an area of Manchester which later became known as the Village. Angie Cooper also had Irish heritage. Together, they co-founded the Manchester branch of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), opened the city’s first women’s refuge, launched a radical queer printing press.
The loan of the flat lasted a lot longer than a few months and I was still there when I got my next job setting up Traveller projects for Save the Children in the North of England. After moving out of Manchester to Rossendale in 1980, I saw less of Luchia but our paths would cross at demonstrations. Luchia has remained politically engaged. She now fights on behalf of older LGBT+ people. The podcast leads me to the film Invisible Women which was shown in Dublin. The film is a great reminder of the threat to gender expression in Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act in the UK where local authorities were forbidden to ‘promote homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’ It shows how power behind Margaret Thatcher’s speeches against homosexuality were defeated. History eventually gave us civil partnerships and then marriage for gay couples in Ireland and the UK. Invisible Women opened New York Pride in 2019 and my heart swells with pride for the well-deserved fame and acclaim for Luchia and Angie. If I make it back to Manchester, I will get in touch.
Invisible Women, Joe Ingham, and Alice Smith