Lesbian visibility has increased considerably since the mid-90s. Julie Bindel charts our move towards the mainstream.
How things have changed for lesbians since 1995. Why that particular year? Because that was the year when the infamous cover of Vanity Fair featured Cindy Crawford, posing like a porn star, shaving the chin of butch-lite lesbian icon and singer k.d. lang.
Lezzers had suddenly become mainstream. Since then, a number of ‘straight’ magazines and newspapers have run features on visible and powerful lesbians, and we now pop up occasionally as ordinary characters (as opposed to in films about the tragedy of lesbian lives).
So why the change? How come we now have more than one role model to choose from, and how is it that we seem to be everywhere these days, from Coronation Street to documentaries? Not by accident of course. Feminists and lesbian activists have, by being visible and raucous, demanded that women determine our own sexuality, and have, by being out and proud, enabled other women to jump out of the closet.
But the main shift in terms of how we are represented and the huge surge in our visibility is as a result of increasing numbers of lesbians working in the media. More often than not it is lesbian scriptwriters, producers and directors who introduce lesbian characters into mainstream film and television. Lisa Cholodenko, an out lesbian film director is responsible for The Kids are All Right. Eileen Gallagher and Maureen Chadwick of Shed Productions brought us splendid dyke characters in the women’s prison drama Bad Girls. Without the likes of Chadwick and Gallagher we would still be relying on grotesque character such as those in 1960s Brit film The Killing of Sister George, and old Vinegar Tits in Australian drama Prisoner Cell Block H.
The formidable Dawn Airey, Channel Five's chief executive and chair now at RTL is one of the most powerful women in the media. Phyllida Lloyd directed the film Mamma Mia! Carol Ann Duffy is the Poet Laureate. All three women are out and proud.
Clare Balding, one of the BBC’s main sports presenters, gave notorious bigot AA Gill a metaphorical slap when he called her a ‘dyke on a bike’. She made it clear with her comment, “I am happy to be described as a lesbian, as and when relevant… I just think there is a time when you say enough is enough” that she was angry on behalf of all gay people.
These women, whether they are directly responsible for lesbian content on TV or in newspapers can inspire those in the closet to come out and join them. Things are far from perfect, however. The latest study of BBC programming showed that lesbians were given only two minutes of airtime in a random selection of 39 hours of programming. There is clearly a long way to go, but how wonderful it is to be able to switch on the radio and hear Sandy Toksvig having a laugh one minute, flick on the telly and see the gorgeous Bea Campbell giving it large amongst the men on Question Time, and then open the newspaper to see a review of a play starring Fiona Shaw.
When I write in mainstream newspapers about being a lesbian I get the usual bigotry landing in my mail box, but I also get a number of touching responses from young women who are desperate for role models. The more lesbians there are working in the media, the better it will be for everyone. Straight men can and do give a voice to us on occasion, but the more newspaper editors, TV and film directors, and commentators there are who live the lezzer life, the better.