Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lesbian Lives conference

seagulls; photo by Val Phoenix
I spent a well-earned day out in sunny Brighton yesterday checking out the second day of the Lesbian Lives conference. Somehow this conference had never come to my attention before, but since I have become somewhat immersed in academia, I hear much more about such things, though this is the first gathering I have attended outside of London.

Coming to the conference on the second day meant I missed a few discussions that had clearly started the day before, or even further back. I was curious to see if there would be any points of disagreement or tension, as the build-up to the conference saw some high-profile debates over freedom of speech and inclusion of trans women at queer and feminist events. None of this was apparent at the conference, as the day passed quite uneventfully. A far cry from my last lesbian conference in 1991, when disagreements were played out on-stage and in the corridors, voices raised and positions hardened.

Aside from two keynotes, I attended two panel discussions, one on archives and the other on French feminism. It has recently come to my attention that I am woefully ignorant of the French philosophical strand of feminism represented by such thinkers as Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous and so forth. The panel I attended attempted to make connections between the writings of Monique Wittig and English-language writers, making it a bit less daunting for me. I was very pleased to hear one of the panellists making comparisons between Wittig's writing and that of Virgina Woolf's Orlando, which I have read. The funny thing is I took a class with Wittig back in 1989 when she was a visiting lecturer at my college. But, I cannot remember a thing about what she taught, just that I had one very intimidating tutorial with her, and she fixed me with a rather disdainful gaze as I attempted to ask a timidly framed question. Not a woman to be trifled with. It seems her reputation as a visionary thinker is being redeemed by the current crop of queer theorists.

The other panel was about making use of the past, which has direct relevance to my research, as I prepare to move on to the next phase and decide how and why I shall make use of institutional archives. One speaker made a distinction between how the words lesbian and queer are received in non-Western cultures, which I found interesting, as both are Western terms. Apparently, lesbian is seen as having activist associations whereas queer is not, much to my bemusement: in my experience both have activist associations. Anyway, it's interesting to hear these points when one attends conferences. I have yet to get an explanation as to why identity politics is seen as outdated, however.

Once the conference disbanded just before 5pm I took advantage of the gap before my train left to hightail it to the seaside where I drank in the sea air, watched a glorious sunset and dodged a violent hailstorm before heading back to chilly London.

Friday, February 06, 2015


Just got back from viewing of the film Pride at the unlikely venue of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, screened as part of their LGBT History Month programme. Of course, I am a good five months late seeing the film, but thought I would share my thoughts anyway.
Pride (UK 2014)

It's a tearjerker, historically inaccurate in places and underwrites the women characters, with barely a named lesbian in the mix. But, what really stuck with me was the use of the word "solidarity". I had thoughts on this word dropping out of the social vocabulary, as I was writing my dissertation recently, but left this idea out of the finished work. Certain words seem to belong to certain decades and "solidarity" seems to scream '80s-'90s to me. I well remember using it, feeling it, living it, but not recently.

Hmm, I ponder to myself. Was queer/AIDS activism the last gasp of the solidarity movement? In Pride the solidarity is meant to be between the LG (as it was in those days) community and the striking miners in South Wales in 1984. But, the community itself is not in agreement. The men talk over the women and mock their expressed desire for a women's group. And most gay men they meet in clubs are not at all interested in supporting a demographic they perceive as macho and homophobic. Solidarity is hard-won, if at all. Despite the film's feel-good ending, the miners lost and Section 28 was adopted within three years of the film's final scene.

One of the characters, Jonathan, is based on Jonathan Blake, who spoke after the screening. Now 65 and a long-term survivor of AIDS, he clearly has a history of activism, and many in the audience were keen to hear his thoughts on the changing face and focus of LGBT activism, with concerns raised about privatisation and commercialisation of events like Pride (the event, not the film), as well as HIV care. For my part, I was keen to hear more about the community the film depicts as being centred around the Gay's the Word bookshop. Sadly, this part was fictionalised: Blake says he lived in a squat in Brixton and most meetings were held in gay pubs, such as The Bell. I hold out hope that somewhere there is a solidarity movement brewing in a queer bookshop.

Sunday, February 01, 2015


How terribly excited was I a few hours ago when I took some time out for a laze and a listen to 6Music and discovered they were playing Riot Grrrl selections? And how annoyed and frustrated was I two hours later when Riot Grrrl turned out to be "Riot Grrrlz", some strange all-encompassing term for any woman who might have been in a band in the 1990s? Plus, forebears and current young 'uns.

I wouldn't mind, if only the presenter had made it clear that bands like L7 and Babes in Toyland were not actual Riot Grrrls, but were around at the same time as bands like Bikini Kill and had, in fact, formed before them. But, No. I gritted my teeth, frustrated at the lazy misnaming and associations.

It was great to hear airplay for punk and post-punk artists like The Slits and X-ray Spex who were certainly inspirations for Riot Grrrl. But, it fell apart with the last track--Hole. Courtney Love hated Riot Grrrl so much, she did a joke RG track called "Olympia". And she tried to burn Kathleen Hanna with a cigarette! How ahistorical can you get? Grrrrr!