Jenny Rankine hails from Adelaide in Australia but has lived in Aotearoa for more than half her life, and identifies as Pakeha. She has worked as a public servant, a print journalist, in Auckland Rape Crisis, and as an editor of Broadsheet, New Zealand’s long-running feminist magazine. She and her partner have 12 nieces and nephews, and she’s the active aunty who’s always up for another go on the roller coaster She lets out her competitive streak in the swimming pool, and relaxes by bushwalking.
I’m a lesbian.
When a woman says that, there are some predictable responses. “Why does she have to say that? I don’t go around telling people I’m straight!” Well, heterosexual people don’t need to; they can hold hands in public and have photos of their partners at work and no one looks sideways. Somehow for them to say they’re heterosexual is ordinary, but for me to give you the same information is shoving my identity in everyone’s face.
Another response is that it’s a phase and that I just haven’t found the right man. But I’m 62, been with the same partner for 26 years, and that doesn’t hold water any more. Plus it’s insulting – it assumes that the only real intimate relationship a woman can have is with a man, and that being with another woman is second best. I’ve tried both and believe me, it isn’t.
Some might picture me as butch-looking, one of those ones people with limited imagination think must want to be a man. Sorry to disappoint, short-haired but not butch; and the butch women I know definitely do not want to be men. Those readers are thinking of transgender people, a different identity altogether.
Some might assume that I hate men. Well, the women in my life who complain about men and get really angry at them are my straight friends. My lesbian friends don’t care particularly. Just because you’re not attracted to someone doesn’t mean you hate them. Mind you, I and a lot of my female friends hate some of the things that are almost always done by men, such as rape. But I also know guys who would recoil from the kind of rape that’s fashionable among young men these days – drink a woman under the table until she’s unconscious and then screw her. So no, no hatred here.
News media promote these same stereotypes about lesbians. In a 2009 gossip piece about “girl-on-girl action”, for example, the New Zealand Herald went through the same tired list. Women kissing in public is eewww – tick. It’s just a phase – tick. Women were doing it for the men watching or to get attention, not because they’re into each other – tick. It’s second best – tick.
Since we’re talking about stereotypes, lesbians are as varied as any other group – we’re Māori, Pākehā, Chinese, Muslim, Christian and atheist, we’re young and old, some of us are blind or deaf or use wheelchairs, we’re big and thin, we love lipstick and high heels and we never wear them, we’re feminists and National supporters, we’re teachers, farmers, nurses, bus drivers, mothers and grandmothers or child-free.
For about five minutes sometime in the 1980s there was such a thing as a lesbian look, but my gaydar stopped working ages ago and lots of women who come out to me these days I would never have spotted. We’re very varied; the teenager with tats next to you at the bus stop could be into women, although she’s more likely to call herself queer.
The surveys show that one in four Kiwi women is attracted to another woman at some stage in her life and one in eight has been sexual with another woman; bisexuality is much more common among women than men. So on second thoughts, the middle-aged woman in a cardi waiting at that bus stop may also have a side of her life that only another housewife knows about.
Maybe I’m maligning you and you know all this and don’t think of us in stereotypes. In that case, imagine with me a world where lesbianism is ordinary – not weird, not something to be tolerated – just as everyday as heterosexuality. We may be a minority but so are left-handers and nobody thinks they’re abnormal.
But to imagine that world, you need a bit of background about how it’s been for us. I came out in Auckland in the late 1970s, when women weren’t allowed to have a bar licence and the only lesbian venue in town – upstairs, dingy, with a pool table, disco and bar – was regularly raided by the cops. Police used to beat up the butch women in the police cells; they’d come back covered in bruises. The community was fiercely loyal and protective of each other because the world outside was so hostile. Street harassment of women who looked dykey or showed affection for another woman was routine and could also end in violence, so only the bravest of us held hands with a lover in public. If we were out at work we risked losing our jobs or never being promoted, so some women I knew hid their sexual identity all their working lives. They edited pronouns in stories about their weekends and never brought their partners to work socials.
I know women in those days who were kicked out by their families when they came out, lost custody of their kids, or were raped by men they knew to sort them out. I heard of women whose intolerant families committed them to mental hospitals to be cured of their lesbianism with shock treatment. Many of us routinely de-dyked the house (moved bedrooms and hid the lezzo books) when family members or the landlord visited. Many lesbian mothers stayed in the closet in case their children got taken away, and those kids were bullied badly at school if their classmates found out they had a gay mum. And the very rare lesbian in a movie usually lost her partner to a man and killed herself. You had to be really strong to survive as an out lesbian in those days.
BUT IT WASN’T just us who got called “bloody lezzo” at the pub. There’s a strong pattern about when heterosexual women get called lesbian. In the 1980s I used to run workshops for organisations about heterosexism – that’s the discrimination by systems and organisations on the assumption that heterosexuality is the only natural as well as the best form of human sexuality. I always asked the women in those sessions – most of whom were straight – what they had been doing when they’d been called a lesbian, and it was almost always the same three things. Either they’d been showing affection in public for another woman, whether sister, mother or friend; or they were with one or more women in public and had told a man who wanted to join them that they were fine as they were; or they had spoken up for women’s rights. So the accusation of lesbianism is routinely used to punish any woman for preferring another woman’s company to that of a man, or to keep women in their place.
So it’s in the interests of straight women to resist heterosexism too, because any stigma about us is also a straitjacket for them. If we’re not allowed to look butch and comfortable, neither are they. And none of us can afford to let an accusation of lesbianism stop us when we’re fighting against rape or for equal pay.
Back in the 1970s, we knew how allegations of lesbianism were used. Women were supposed to build our lives around a man; instead, we built our lives around women. Women were meant to be obedient and docile, but we encouraged female stroppiness, strength and independence. We knew that lesbian feminism was challenging because we didn’t need men. We said that lesbianism was a positive life for women – a partner who can talk about feelings and knows where your clitoris is! We said heterosexuality wasn’t just a sexual preference but a political institution, because as long as lesbianism wasn’t equal, heterosexuality was effectively compulsory. I used to ask women at those workshops: “What made you a heterosexual?” Most of them had never thought about it because there was no alternative – getting married and having kids was what everyone did. Our opponents said we had an agenda and they were right – we didn’t just want equal rights, a fair share of the cake. We wanted an end to compulsory heterosexuality, and a new, equal, recipe for all relationships.
We tried lots of tactics to challenge heterosexism and promote lesbianism as an equal way to live. We challenged discrimination everywhere. We put a “Lesbians Are Everywhere” banner on the statue of Queen Victoria in Wellington in 1977. Bumper stickers saying: “Lesbianism – Why settle for less?” Lesbian Liberation Weeks in Wellington and Christchurch in 1980. A Lesbian Radio programme in Wellington in 1984 that’s still going (783 AM or podcasts on accessradio.org.nz).
For a year in the mid-80s, we marched, wrote submissions, lobbied and protested nationally for the right not to be discriminated against and to decriminalise sex between consenting (not to mention enthusiastic) adult men, with an equal age of consent to heterosexuals. MP Norm Jones, who was just a teeny bit obsessed with gay male sex, told us to “Go back into the sewers where you come from.” But since the bill’s anti-discrimination provisions had been voted out, we did it all again for another year in the early 1990s to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual identity in the Human Rights Act.
We took our silver walking lesbian recruitment booths down Ponsonby Rd in Hero Parades later in the 1990s, handing out cards to women listing all the good reasons for being a lesbian. Half the cooking, no worries about birth control (yes!), you’re not the only one who cleans the toilet, lots of cuddles and hugs, ex-lovers who remain close friends, multiple orgasms, not having your domestic chores restricted by your gender, long kissing sessions that never give you stubble rash, always having spare tampons, two mums are better than one, you can do each other’s breast exams, you don’t have to reflect your partner at twice their normal size, sex that lasts for ages as well as quickies, periods are normal and not yuk, and the toilet seat is always down. (Although we did leave out synchronised PMT.)
SOME OF US RAN those heterosexism workshops with organisations, so that they could be welcoming rather than discriminatory to their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or takatapui1 patients, clients or customers. But in the 80s, very few organisations even recognised their routine assumption that every client was heterosexual. So the demand for such workshops was sparse and ad hoc.
In our campaigns for human rights we organised mass rallies, collected petition signatures day after day in busy streets, fought discrimination by businesses, and in our churches, schools, councils and workplaces. But our basic tactic was visibility. We urged each other to come out to everyone in our lives, so that all those straight people who said they’d never met a lesbian would find out that they had a lesbian or a queer cousin, workmate or neighbour. From the early 1980s, the Topp Twins’ charm and humour struck a chord, and a pair of yodelling lesbian twins became Kiwi icons. And slowly, in some places, it became a little easier to be out.
Slowly, there were more visible lesbians. In politics, Maryan Street was the first MP elected as an out lesbian, in 2005, although Marilyn Waring had been outed in Truth almost 20 years earlier. They were followed by several more, and in 2007 Jenny Rowan was the first out lesbian to be elected mayor (of Kapiti Coast), preceding a swag of out lesbian local body candidates. In the 1980s, there was a flurry of books with lesbian characters and themes; the takatapui retelling of the story of Hinemoa in Ruahine, by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, one of our gay liberation founders, is a favourite. In entertainment and the arts these days, there are so many lesbians that it would take too long to list them.
On screen, Prisoner in 1981 was one of the early TV shows with lesbian characters. The Color Purple came out in 1985 and Fried Green Tomatoes in 1991, although their lesbian relationships were downplayed. Shortland Street didn’t get its first lesbian storyline until 1994, when we also saw Heavenly Creatures. Suddenly we were popping up on movie and TV shows all over the place – and I’m not just talking about Ken and Ken.
The lesbian subtext in Xena: Warrior Princess from 1995 was not really sub and definitely not subtle, and from 1996 it wasn’t just queers watching Queer Nation, Takatāpui or Wero. Ellen DeGeneres’ character Ellen Morgan came out in 1997 amidst huge hype and rumbles about the damage it would do to her career. (The Oscars don’t seem to have noticed.)
Bound screened in 1996, Chasing Amy in 1997, Aimée & Jaguar in 1999, The Hours in 2002. We had to wait until 2005 to get our very own TV soap – The L Word – which sparked lots of dyke debate. In 2008 the only lesbian museum in the southern hemisphere – the Charlotte Museum of lesbian culture – opened its doors in Auckland’s Grey Lynn, and the next year the Topp Twins’ Untouchable Girls became the country’s most-watched documentary film.
So visibility we have, no doubt far more than some people would like. Maybe because we’re more visible, young lesbians come out at around 14 these days on average, compared to around 26 for people my age, and more school students were out in 2012 than in 2000.
But they’re not having an easy time of it. Between 2000 and 2012, young lesbians and queer female high school students were bullied and harassed by other students twice as much as their heterosexual peers, as well as hit more often, and that abuse hasn’t got any better. As a result, queer female students are diagnosed with depression twice as often and attempt suicide three times as often as straight girls, and both of these gaps have worsened over since 2000. Queer girls are also more likely to try to drown their troubles by binge drinking. A lot of lesbian and queer high school and tertiary students still feel they have to hide their sexual identity to avoid all the bullying.
Many schools pay lip-service to diversity and turn a blind eye to bullying until someone is injured. Too many high school Queer-Straight Alliance groups function without support from school leaders, depending entirely on the courage of students. And every school ball season, there’s a news item about another school that won’t let some queer student bring her girlfriend.
All the heterosexism also affects the mental health of adult lesbian and queer women, our suicide figures, and our drinking. And finally, one health sector has recognised that they’ve been providing a rotten service to their lesbian and queer clients for way too long, and that they have to do something about it if they want our health stats to improve.
In the Auckland region, mental health services now get training on how to make their services supportive of lesbians and queer people, and then get audited on how well they’re doing. Let’s hope that goes national, because the negative reactions of health workers over the years means that a lot of us don’t come out to them unless they show they won’t discriminate.
And not discriminating is not that hard. Services could simply ask whether we have a partner, rather than a husband, and then whether our partner is male or female. If it’s relevant (cervical smear, anyone?) they could ask whether we’ve always had female partners. Their forms could use inclusive terms such as relationship status, rather than marital status. Being inclusive isn’t rocket science.
Many Auckland businesses are also queuing up for a Rainbow Tick. (Rainbow is our umbrella word for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, takatapui, queer and intersex; it avoids unpronounceable letter lists like LGBTTQI.) The Rainbow Tick process tests whether the firm’s HR policies take account of sexual and gender diversity. Businesses have recognised that the pink dollar has some buying power, so they can’t be overtly nasty to us without losing customers. But don’t let that pink dollar stuff fool you – it’s much easier to be out if you’re affluent, and there are lots of poor and many homeless queers. The average lesbian income is also much lower than for gay men – more of us are parents and we don’t have equal pay, you see.
But the mental health and Rainbow Tick programmes have just started, and neither of them is national. There are large areas of health and welfare that have yet to recognise how heterosexist they are.
SO THIS IS THE point of my rant – the diversity of lesbians who are out hasn’t demolished the tired old stereotypes; visibility is good but it hasn’t chipped away at the universal assumption of heterosexuality. It’s a bit like a tank with a dent in one side. On the other side of the tank you can’t even see it.
Some of the young lesbians and queer women I know hang out in friendship groups that include gay boys and straight kids, where every sexual identity is accepted. But that’s still rare – it happens in only a few queer-friendly urban schools. Even the possibility of lesbianism as a way to live remains invisible to a lot of young women.
A world where lesbian, gay, bisexual and takatapui people are ordinary doesn’t mean we’re the same as straight people. Lots of lesbians think that our visibility has made us complacent, that we need to let our anger out again, to be outrageous instead of polite. We need to fire up some of the old guerrilla tactics, and combine them with online protest. Creative additions to the outdoor billboards and websites of companies that still discriminate. Mass emails to Statistics NZ, which has been stalling about sexual identity questions in the census for a decade. Die-ins outside government offices and on their Facebook pages to protest their inaction about queer suicide. Protests about the education system’s failure to do enough about school bullying of queer students.
This is my prediction – you’ll see a lot more outrageous queer activism until that tank blows wide open and our sexual identities are all normal. And when that happens, heterosexuality will have changed too.
1 An inclusive Māori word for same-sex partner that encompasses lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender identities.
Article | Jenny Rankine