G for Gay has been used for a long time to describe sexual activities which go against conventions. In 1951, it entered the Oxford English Dictionary as a slang term for homosexual and since then has been the preferred term for gay men. Women and men involved in gay liberation in the last century developed solidarity and inclusion with LBGTQ+ gender identities.
Post lockdown, Gay Community News plopped into my letterbox as I sat alone on a hillside in Donegal, bringing with it the warm welcome in the Gay Centre when I was publishing my novel Michel-Michelle. Memories of working on Outcome, the first gay magazine in 1970’s England, spiral recognition of how much has changed since my early days in the Gay Liberation Movement in England. Disappointment worms its way into the rosy-pink glow of to-day’s social acceptance of LBGTQ+ . From dawn light to sunset, I worry about how gender identity is still polarised, fragile and fraught with contradictions in the 21st century? Is it too late to share what it means to be bisexual? Is there any point?
The ragged grey-blue light of uncertain seasons over Donegal bay shifts into the shadows of a disused pub in Lancaster where we sat on seats sticky with stale beer as we planned its transformation into a Women’s Aid refuge. I was living outside Lancaster with my male partner, who had decided to do a degree as a mature student at the University. Silverdale was a magical place on the borders of the Lake District where I learnt to identify oyster catchers in the inlet from Morecambe Bay at the end of our street. My fascination with birds and their environment took root in this idyllic, unspoiled village. We both had low cc motorbikes to supplement the bus service and lots of golden autumn walks for real ale in a country pub – a far cry from the flat in Finsbury Park in London. I chose to be unemployed in Silverdale so that I could write my analysis of Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room which explores masculinity and war. A leaflet about proposals for a Women’s Centre in Lancaster and information about a writers’ group led me to the meeting in the former pub. The women’s group was more open and friendly than my experience of feminist groups in London. Jane from the Writers’ Group with her long brown curls stirred my lesbian longings.
My research on Virginia Woolf was an independent exploration of what it means to be a man. I’d read all her novels and her feminist writing in A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Her writing eased the confusion and contradictions in my consciousness. I didn’t accept the labels and restrictions of my childhood and youth in Ulster. Women’s role was defined by procreation, caring and dependency and man’s role was provider and procreator. Good women were submissive, intuitive, and passive; men were clever, masterful and active. Those of us who didn’t fit in surrendered, escaped, or led double lives. Reading and writing helped.
The ghost of Anthony Peppiat on the website documenting dissent (www.documentingdissent.org.uk) reminds me that this split between male and female roles was just as important in his London as it was in my Ulster. He was the same age as me and when he went to live in the West Road collective in Lancaster he recorded “I had never before cooked in my life, because when I was growing up it was deemed inappropriate for a young man to cook.”
Anthony was cooking when I accepted the invitation to supper after meeting Margaret Coulson and her partner at several meetings in the former pub. When I accepted the invitation, I wasn’t consciously aware that the West Road collective was “very important in Lancaster’s LBGT history because it was a hub” for campaigns on lesbian and gay rights. While Anthony and I waited for the others to come home to supper, I discovered he was an even greater fan of Virginia Woolf than I was and this created an immediate bond which was strong enough not to label me too quickly as the unexpected heterosexual invited to supper.
I fell in love with Margaret Coulson, her mind, her study with socialist and feminist books and roll-top desk, the beauty of her body with its cloak of long hair, her post-war experience which had a decade on mine and her determination to generate change. I fell in love with the West Road Collective she had created – the cool collage of press-cuttings on the wall, the dining table around which we discussed socialist feminism, Ulster, and gay liberation. I met famous heartthrobs like Bea Campbell at the same table. At my first women’s conference in London in 1973, Bea Campbell led a workshop on sexuality which lingers still somewhere in the pit of my stomach. Before I entered the classroom, my original image of a workshop conjured up wooden or metal tools not just listening and talking but as the 70’s wore on the term workshop was integrated into conference speak. My attraction to women has always been a part of my double life as a bisexual. When I brought Margaret and later my lover Pat home to Strabane in Ulster, we could share a bed as we were “friends” while there was no chance of sharing a bed with a male lover in my mothers’ house.
I leaf through Ireland’s Gay magazine and marvel at the rainbow of wishes for Gay Pride from the suited leader of Fianna Fail, our Taoiseach and the many articles on diversity including disability and racism. Unimaginable from my experience of the 1970’s when feminists in England looked for role models in Audre Lorde, the poet or Petra Kelly of the German Greens or to America where the rejection of patriarchy led to rejection of men. Separatism became trendy among lesbians in Lancaster too. My bisexuality rebelled against the polarisation and I channelled my ambiguities into working with Antz on the first Gay Magazine in England.
Outcome was typed on an old Remington and hand-crafted with Letraset and sent off to a printer in the days before computers and internet. Working on the layout on the floor with Adrian and Anthony became a refuge for me and my confusion over sexuality between 1976 and 1979. At Anthony’s funeral a few years ago, I met up with Adrian for the first time since the 1970’s and the decades between vanished after a few minutes of gay solidarity. We laughed about how there was so much emphasis on coming out in the 1970’s and most of us found it hard to come out to our parents. On the motorway from Manchester to Lancaster, Adrian described how he and some friends prepared Gay Pride banners in the attic of his parents’ home in secret. It sparked a memory of the day I spotted someone from Strabane crossing the street in Lancaster rather than face me wearing my large yellow badge with GLAD to be GAY in red Lettering. I kept the badge for decades until I gifted it to my nephew Ian when he and Dan celebrated their civil partnership in England.
“Glad to be Gay” wasn’t just a slogan, it opened the possibility of self-expression to a young woman fresh from the dilemmas of forging an anti-sectarian identity in Northern Ireland. GAY for Good As You meant freedom to be equal not a fresh division into Us versus Them. With Adrian and Antz and the other gay men working on Outcome, I could find a place for my androgynous spirit, where home is a sense of being where we find connection as female, male, child, adult – a space where we find a sense of self which is not dominated by binary opposition of male versus female. As Virginia Woolf says, “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her.”
In the 1970’s, Gay also meant having good times. The name “Farmers’ Arms” the chosen venue of gays in Lancaster at the time made me smile as did the gay disco held in the Catholic Club. They were the best discos ever for me where I could dance alone or in a group of women to Joan Armatrading or Patti Smith or where we strutted our stuff to reggae and “I shot the sheriff but I didn’t shoot the deputy.” I didn’t invite my partner to join me for a drink in the Farmers’ Arms or go to the disco in the Catholic club. I am ashamed now when I think of the times I didn’t make it home in his first year as a mature student in Lancaster University. He accepted my bisexuality more than some radical lesbians did. Splitting up was inevitable but if I ever meet him again, I will apologise for the pain I inflicted. In the flush of liberation, I could have had more respect for a kind CIS man.
My sense of inadequacy is topped up by daily doses of war, worldwide domestic violence, rape and femicide.When the GCN rainbow flag flutters into Donegal Bay with its message of peaceful diversity among people of all ages and genders, it helps me fight off despair. I hope the next phase of the rainbow revolution will challenge the power machine which uses racism, sexism and economic inequality to undermine our common humanity.