This text, transcribed by Donovan Cleckley, comes from the LGB Alliance’s YouTube video “Allison Bailey in Conversation with Linda Bellos,” first published on May 6, 2020. Cleckley has edited the transcript for clarity.
Allison Bailey is a Black lesbian feminist, a lifelong campaigner for racial equality, lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights, and a criminal defence barrister. She is among the founders of the LGB Alliance.
Linda Bellos is a Black lesbian feminist, a lifelong Labour activist who has campaigned for equality, and a UK equality law specialist. Elected to Lambeth Borough Council in London in 1985, she led the council from 1986 to 1988. She was vice-chair of the Black Sections campaign to select African Caribbean and Asian parliamentary and local candidates within the Labour Party, treasurer of the Africa Reparations Movement (UK), co-chair of the Southwark LGBT Network (until February 2007), and an adviser to Southwark Council. From 2000 to 2003, Bellos served as co-chair of the LGBT Advisory Group to the Metropolitan Police. In 2006, she was awarded OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to diversity.
“Just as there may finally be a reckoning about racial injustice, I hope there may also one day soon be a similar reckoning about male violence, oppression and woman-hatred; including a reckoning about this moment in history when men tried to run off with women’s rights.”– Allison Bailey, “Allison Bailey: ‘I Am Suing Stonewall to Stop Them Policing Free Speech,’” FiLiA (June, 26, 2020)
“Moving away from a heterosexist world enabled me to analyze ‘gender,’ which ascribed roles to humans—with men as superior to women—and I rejected both the ideology of gender and the subordinate role of women. Rape and ‘wife’ battering were issues known to me and I now had an ideological understanding of ‘gender’ being an ideology, not a description.”– Linda Bellos, Interviewed by Meghan Murphy in “INTERVIEW: Linda Bellos on Trans Activism, Coming Out, and Being a Black Lesbian Feminist on the Left,” Feminist Current (November 13, 2018)
BAILEY: Hello. My name is Allison Bailey. Welcome to this conversation with Linda Bellos OBE. The theme for this conversation is “Visibility Blues: Black Lesbians Not Identifying Out of Our Oppression.” I am delighted and honored to have Linda here in conversation. Linda has been a political activist of equality for some fifty plus years; she is a radical lesbian feminist, a mother, a grandmother, and a retired politican who led Labour Lambeth Borough Council from 1986 to 1988. She was born and raised in London, in the 1950s, to a Polish Jewish mother and a Nigerian father. She was awarded an OBE by the Queen in the 2006 New Year’s Honors List for services to diversity. She is a proud Black woman. Linda, welcome.
BELLOS: Thank you.
BAILEY: We are just getting to the end of Lesbian Visibility Week; it was a Lesbian Visibility Week like no other. How visible are you feeling today, Linda Bellos OBE?
BELLOS: Can we drop the OBE? Were it not cold and wet, I’d be feeling being a happy dyke anywhere.
BAILEY: A happy dyke! I’m with you there. Now, I know that you were born and raised in London in the 1950s. Could I ask you to talk a little bit about what that was like?
BELLOS: Yes, and I’m glad you’re doing so. It’s important. A lot of younger women and men, Black women and men, white women and men, don’t know how dreadful Britain was in its postcolonial—well, almost postcolonial—life, especially here in London. The racism was so overt. I remember as a small child going home to my mother and saying to her: “Mummy, what’s a ‘nigger’? And my mother, as you said in terms of your introduction, was a white woman, but a white woman who had a very similar experience in being called a “Yid.” She grew up in the London of the 1920s and 1930s when fascists were on the streets, not just on the streets, but in the parts of London that she lived in. My mother insisted that I was Linda, that I was equal to anyone—and that they were, I don’t know if she used the word naughty, but she certainly indicated that she didn’t have much respect for them, in any way.
BAILEY: Who is the “them” that you’re talking about?
BELLOS: The fascists. The racists. They were fascists or racists—or both.
BAILEY: What was it like as a little brown girl at the time? We hear stories about Black children of that era really encountering overt racism. There was a shoe polish, wasn’t there, of that era—what was it called?
BELLOS: It was called “Nigger Brown.” And I think toward the early 1960s, it stopped. They stopped on television, popular culture, BBC, ITV—the racist jokes were there. That was a bit later for me; I had already become pretty radical by then. But, in my life, up to being seven, I was distressed and hurt by the words. It didn’t really matter whether I knew the specific meaning or history of the words; the words were said in such a way as to make it clear that we, because there were other Black children, smaller numbers than in the next decade, were being made to feel like we did not belong.
BAILEY: Was there any stage when you rejected your Blackness?
BELLOS: Yes. When I was a very little girl, I experienced racism, and the word “nigger” was more than a joke; it felt painful. But, when I was seven, and I don’t know when exactly, but I can still see myself standing in the playground at Crawford Road, probably in infant school then, and saying to myself that I was Black and English and Jewish, but, first of all, I was Linda. That’s what I said to myself, aged seven, and, from that point, I was able to own my own strength, own my own pride.
BAILEY: Did you ever want to be white?
BELLOS: No. I think I wanted racism to go away; I didn’t know the word “racism.” But, no, I don’t think I wanted to be white—or, maybe I did; I don’t know. The pre-seven years old, I do have remembrances of scrubbing myself in the bath to get the “black” away. Up until I owned myself, if you know what I mean.
BAILEY: I do, I do. Because it’s something that you hear from children of that generation. I grew up in the 1970s, so things had progressed for the better, although it was still quite very difficult at times. But you’re not the first Black person I’ve heard, the first person of dual heritage, say that, as a very young child, that the taunts and the abuse caused them to reject themselves.
BELLOS: It didn’t just come from children; if it had, then maybe it wouldn’t have felt quite as significant, but this was coming from strangers in the street. I remember a very strong feeling of being with my mother and my brother who was in a pram and a woman across the road accused my mother of something. She was entirely racist, and she said something like: “How could you? Our men went to war.”
BAILEY: How did it make you feel?
BELLOS: It was my mother’s reply that made me feel wonderful. She was robust; she didn’t swear, not that I would have known swearing. But one does get a sense of how people talk, as to whether they are happy or sad. My mother had endured similar stuff herself as a child in the East end of London, where she grew up. The fascists were on the streets in the 1930s. She was robust in that she didn’t swear; I think the word is rebuffed.
BAILEY: And that stuck with you. Thank you for correcting me, that the racism that you encountered, that we encountered, wasn’t just from children, children you could forgive; it was oftentimes from adults and sometimes teachers.
BELLOS: Exactly. The teachers in our schools. The teachers put all of us, all of the Black children, never mind I’m part white, as far as she was concerned, I was a “nigger” like the others. She didn’t use that word; I can’t remember how she abused us verbally, but she also put all of the Black children at the back of the class. In fact, I didn’t learn to read until I was seven, because, some months before, the optician had come into the school to test us on eyesight reading. And it became clear that I was shortsighted. I still am, actually. Once I was recommended to have glasses, I went and had my National Health Service (NHS) glasses—blasted things in pink.
BAILEY: Mine were blue. I chose the blue ones.
BELLOS: I didn’t get a choice. I got pink! Anyway, within three weeks, I could read.
BAILEY: So, you’re saying that the teaching of the Black students was so poor that they actually didn’t pick up that you couldn’t read the texts because of your eyesight?
BELLOS: That’s right. They thought it was because we were not as capable as white people. It was that teacher and one or two others in the school. It wasn’t all of them. And I don’t want to imply that all of the teachers at Crawford Road school SE5 were all racists. But some of them were. I remember Mr. Webb made a little Greek Cypriot or Turkish Cypriot boy go up and down the stairs with a placard saying “Left” or “Right.” He’d only just come to Britain, he didn’t speak English, and he was being publicly humiliated by a grown man. Now, you see, I could cry after that. How could you do that?
BAILEY: How upsetting it is for you to remember all of that.
BELLOS: It’s racism happening all over the bloody place.
BAILEY: What I wanted to do is to capture your story and also your pain about what you grew up with, because I think that there is a lack of understanding when we talk about racism as Black people in Britain, as Black lesbians within the lesbian, gay, and bisexual movement in the West. People don’t understand what we’re talking about.
When I introduced you as “Linda Bellos OBE,” (Order of the British Empire) you cringed. On the one hand, it is a tremendous achievement, a recognition of your work, but, on the other hand, it’s linked inextricably to empire. How do you feel about being awarded the OBE?
BELLOS: Well, I opened the envelope; I thought it was a tax bill, for a start. But I opened the envelope, and then it said something like “Her Majesty is minded to,” and then you have to say “Yes” or “No.” I was angry; I was furious, actually. What have I done wrong? Anyway, I phoned my partner, I phoned my brother, and I phoned my daughter, three of them, because I was going off to somewhere in the Midlands to teach. And they all said to take it, so I did. I’m not ashamed of it; it’s just the name of the thing. And, a little later, Benjamin Zephaniah, a brother, had rejected his, and I had chosen not to. I don’t know; I’m still torn, partly because I have similar concerns. All these years later, Labour could have changed the titles of these things. If they’ve got to award gongs, then at least make them inclusive. But the British Empire, which doesn’t even blasted exist according to their own history. They got rid of the Empire, so why are they giving people gongs on behalf of an institution that doesn’t exist?
BAILEY: But isn’t it more than it doesn’t exist? It’s an institution that enslaved and oppressed our forefathers. That’s the tension. Isn’t it?
BELLOS: Precisely. So, I took it, and it’s still ambivalent for me.
BAILEY: I am glad that you took it, because I understand the connotations of Empire, but that part of that recognition, that recognizes your services to British society and specifically to diversity, I’m glad that it was acknowledged. But I also share your hope that, at some point, fairly soon, someone recognizes that it is way past time for these accolades to be renamed, not forever linked to Britain’s “great” colonial past.
You were, as I understand it, the first woman of colour, the first non-white member of Spare Rib, a feminist magazine. When did Spare Rib stop coming out? I remember seeing it in the 90s. It was around until the 90s, wasn’t it?
BELLOS: It was around until the 90s. I don’t know when it stopped. I have lost touch with it; it would be fair to say. It started in the 1970s, and I saw an advertisement saying that they were looking for a finance officer. I had five years in the Inland Revenue and was pretty competent dealing with accounts and etcetera. And I had graduated as a mature student from Sussex University with a politics degree, and I needed a job; it was a part-time job.
BAILEY: You were the only face of colour there. Is that right? And we’ve talked about the overt racism that you’ve encountered as a child, as a young woman. Did you encounter racism within the feminist movement in that era, when you were at Spare Rib?
BELLOS: I have to say yes, but it was of a different nature.
BAILEY: What was the nature of it?
BELLOS: Well, it was patronizing, all kinds of assumptions about Black women—that we couldn’t speak for ourselves.
BAILEY: That we shouldn’t speak for ourselves?
BELLOS: That we couldn’t. Not that we shouldn’t. Hence, commissioning white women to write articles about the Caribbean or Nicaragua or wherever. I looked in vain for articles by Black women, not just about Black women. They had plenty about Black women. There might have been one or two that I missed. And I apologize to any Black woman who wrote and was published by Spare Rib at that time. But my overall experience, and certainly being on the inside listening to the conversations and discussions, I was increasingly furious with the assumption of superiority. They were not only racist but also classist as well, even to the white working-class women. And I increasingly felt able to comment on it.
I was busy, but I was increasingly becoming furious. And, of course, I was excluded from the weekly editorial meeting. Because I was a mere employee, not part of the collective that ran Spare Rib, I raised the issue of me being an included member of that group, rather than excluded.
BAILEY: Did there come a time when you stood up to say, to your colleagues at Spare Rib: “Look, you need to empower Black women to find their own voices.”
BELLOS: I did. I did do that. I was only there for two years. Let’s be clear. There were women who had been there before and very much after me. I did get the collective to agree that there needed to be more Black women, not merely me. I knew that I did not speak for all Black women. I tend to have a rather radical view about a range of things, and it does not mean that all Black women share my view. And so we did, eventually, have a number—two additional Black women—were recruited while I was there.
BAILEY: It’s fascinating to see, because there has been struggle. Women of colour within feminism in the West and women of colour within the lesbian, gay, and bisexual movement have had to fight for our place to be heard. And our white sisters and brothers are mostly decent, overwhelming so, but sometimes unconscious, unthinking. And, looking back, do you see that there’s been a change or improvement at all in Black women’s voices in both feminism and in the lesbian, gay, and bisexual movement?
BELLOS: Yes, I do see a change. Some of it is for the better. Some if it isn’t. The bit I find problematic now is the lack of honesty, I suppose, with which white women feel so guilty about institutional racism that they sometimes, it seems to me, wallow in it, rather than getting on and doing something about the racism in this society.
BAILEY: What do you mean, first of all? Give me some examples.
BELLOS: Well, I suppose really not arguing with Black women, because they don’t want to offend—or things of that nature. Look, I’m an equal human being; if you would argue with each other, then you should argue with me as well. Because it’s not respectful. When you’re working in intellectual circles, you want equality, you want politics. When we disagree, we should all have the right to disagree with each other.
BAILEY: For me, it’s not to say that classism isn’t a thing, because it is. But you can be in a group, as a Black woman in a group of white women, and you can say “Well, let’s talk about class,” and they say “Let’s talk about class.” But, when you say “Let’s talk about race,” and suddenly everyone is sort of frightened and terrified, like “Oh, no! Here comes the angry Black woman. We have to apologize and say we’re terribly sorry.” And what you don’t actually get is any sort of honest discussion. They’re scared. And the immediate reaction is one of guilt and shame and pushing away. You don’t get to have that discussion, that robust debate that you would have with any other species of inequality or difference. That’s the nerve-racking thing. You become the — “Is it racist?” — oracle of what is racist or what is not. I’m not a sort of “race-o-meter.” It has been a struggle. But, do you know what? For all of the pain and the heartache, we’re getting there. And, I think, we are, in our own way, doing all right. Of course, we could do better, but we are doing okay.
We bear in mind the theme of lesbian visibility or invisibility and the extent in which Black lesbians refuse to self-identify out of our oppression. You have a very powerful, difficult coming out story—harrowing, in fact, but ultimately triumphant. Could you talk a bit about that, please? You came out at 29. Is that right?
BELLOS: It was 1979, so I would have been just coming up to 29. I was married. I had gotten married in 1970. We had two children, and, when I realized I was a lesbian, I wanted John to leave. He fathered my children. I wanted him to leave our house. I had been paying the mortgage and whatever in his years as a student. He didn’t have a mortgage when he was a student, but he had been financially dependent mainly on me. I knew that. But, when it became evident to me that he wanted me to “mother” him, to care for him, to do all the things. And I wasn’t willing to do that, certainly not with sex involved. So I asked him to leave, and I think he said yes, at first. Then, I don’t know who he consulted, but he came back and said no. I just thought: I am not having major arguments in front of my children, for us to be arguing all the time, which would have been the case had I stayed and he stayed.
So, I moved out. We agreed that I would come and put the children to bed every night, because they were at school. They would see me, even though I had moved out. I could have moved to a women’s house. The difficulty was that they didn’t take boys, and there was no way I was going to take my daughter and not take my son. I still find it painful to remember. These were young women who had no idea. Anyway, it was not their fault. That’s how it was in those days.
He stopped me visiting them. And there was a period in which I did not see my children. They were little—seven and five.
BAILEY: There is something that younger viewers may not realize. But, up until the early 1990s, lesbian mothers were routinely prevented from having custody, in the ordinary order of events, as mothers of their children simply due to the fact that they were lesbian. Being a lesbian, as far as the British justice system regarded it, made you unfit to be a mother, with children taken away from women. And that can be very, very hard—impossibly hard. But, I think, for the record, for people to understand what women like you have been through, that it’s worth remembering.
BELLOS: When I finally got access to my children, because I was living in London and my children were still in Brighton, a social worker brought them up and stayed with me while I spent time with my children. Because, as a lesbian, I was assumed to be unsuitable, unfit. I think the word was “unfit.”
BAILEY: Yes, “unfit” is the word that would be seen in the newspapers and in the judgments.
BELLOS: That was not just said to me. It’s not just the blasted word. That’s how the state acted. I wasn’t alone. I was in a lesbian mother group. I cannot remember how long until we got some rights. I didn’t do huge amounts of work in that group. There were women who qualified as solicitors. Lots of things were happening in the women’s liberation movement—women as lawyers.
BAILEY: And this is where you see things make a difference. This is where it matters to have women in those positions. It matters to have lesbians in those positions. Because, gradually, cultural norms changed. It’s abhorrent to think that mothers would be deprived of their children and treated like predators simply because they were lesbian. And that fathers deployed that knowing that any ragtag man who had not been able to financially support his family, who relied on his wife to go to work, could say that she’s a lesbian and get the kids and that was the end of it.
And I’m so sorry that I’ve upset you. Are you okay?
BELLOS: I’m okay. I’m okay. The great and wonderful thing now is, of course, that my children and grandchildren. Thankfully, Hannah, my eldest grandchild, is not planning on having a child soon, but she will, I hope, make me a great-grandmother, in due course. I think ten years would do fine! She’s 25.
BAILEY: Through all of that, through all that you went through, you came out of it with a relationship with your children and grandchildren? That’s amazing.
BELLOS: And I knew I would, because I remained my children’s mother. Nothing he could say or do would alter the fact that they came out of my body and I love them. At different times, my children have come to live with me. I don’t want to dwell upon them. Let them say for themselves what they want to say, with or without me.
I was involved with the lesbian mothers group. We campaigned and fought for the rights of lesbians to be mothers.
BAILEY: And you succeeded. It’s that struggle that I want to continue talking about, just changing the topic slightly. Because the word “lesbian” is a word that increasing numbers of young women, who are same-sex attracted, are really struggling with.
I can remember, when I was a young woman living in northern California, there were a number of Black women in relationships who were in relationships with other women, who were fundamentally same-sex attracted, who said: “I can’t call myself a lesbian. That’s for white women; that’s a white word, I have no relationship to it.” And I have to say that I’ve struggled with the word “lesbian,” waiting for another word to come out, on the one hand.
On the other hand, I’ve recognized, probably like you, that any word used to describe women who are exclusively intimately, sexually, romantically attracted to other women, that word is something that we are going to have to constantly claim back from those that would wish to label us as something less than or as something offensive. And that word is “lesbian.” Maybe “dyke” is a runner-up.
It’s an act of empowerment, and it’s an act of defiance that I use it. With time, I have come to use it with pride as a Black lesbian. I don’t judge other people who want to call themselves “gay” or whatever else. But, for me, as a Black lesbian, it feels important to say that. What’s your relationship to the word “lesbian”?
BELLOS: I take exactly the same view as you. I am proud to be a lesbian. I feel a solidarity with white lesbians and Black lesbians and disabled lesbians—let’s go through the list. The word has a history. And it’s a history of struggle. And it’s a history of how we have overcome our marginalization, the silence that has been imposed upon us, the loss of our children, the loss of our jobs, being put in prison, a whole host of things. I feel proud to be in that group of heroines; that’s what we are every time we use that word. It’s noticeable how many people in the “LGBT” community don’t like lesbians.
BAILEY: No. They don’t like lesbians that haven’t got penises. I’m sorry to be facetious, because it’s very easy in the West to forget that there are women, who are same-sex attracted, who are lesbians, who will be murdered and raped. They will suffer the most extraordinary abuse at the hands of men, and at the hands of women, but predominantly at the hands of men, at the hands of males, within a patriarchal society. And so we claim “lesbian” proudly for ourselves. But not all women do, particularly younger women. There seems to be a fashion for having an outward appearance, whether it’s masculinity and femininity, define everything about ourselves. It’s like we’ve gone back to the 1950s.
When I was coming out as a young lesbian, in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, people played with their gender identity. You had “butch” lesbians who dressed in masculine clothing that didn’t tell you very much significantly, necessarily, about how they viewed themselves. Now, it’s everything. Now, if you are a female who is same-sex attracted, there is immense pressure, I fear, for you to identify as “masculine”—and, now, literally as “male.” What do you make of this?
BELLOS: Well, it makes me furious, because it is such a denial of our history. Some of these young women should know about the Gateways. I hated the blasted place. It was a women’s club, a lesbian club in Chelsea. It was so full of butch-femme. That’s what makes me kind of laugh about these young people who know nothing about their history. They have some notion that, somehow, if they put on a suit, that they’re being “radical,” as though it wasn’t done before. Oh, it’s so foolish.
BAILEY: I’m like you, I suspect. If a female wants, genuinely, to live an authentic life living as a male, then good luck to you is what I say. But what I am concerned about, with good reason, is having spoken to detransitioned lesbians who have gone through amputations of breasts, hysterectomies, and phalloplasties, in some circumstances. They have recognized that they were in turmoil about being same-sex attracted and did not know the history of lesbians, that we have assumed masculine and feminine gender identities and have played with those. And so the idea that, because someone is wearing a suit, that that person is assuming the role of “being a man,” or because a lesbian is wearing a dress, that she is being quintessentially feminine in some sort of 1950s ideal, was patently nonsense.
But, now, in all seriousness, we have this exponential increase in young women wanting to live lives as “male,” to the point that they are going through medical transition. Breasts are being amputated, beards are being grown, hysterectomies are being performed, and, increasingly, phalloplasties—phalluses are being fashioned from other parts, other body tissue. Rhona Hotchkiss whom I am very proud to work with at LGB Alliance, made this observation, and it’s something that many of us have made. If this is actually a genuine phenomenon, then why aren’t the likes of you and I, Linda, knocking down the doors of the gender clinics asking for our breasts to be removed and to grow beards? Where are the middle-aged lesbians who wish to live as “men” in these numbers? Do you know them? Have you encountered them?
BELLOS: No. Not one. It’s so shocking. It’s not funny that young women don’t know any of their history.
And this is a serious question. And I can ask you as a Black woman. If you can change your gender, then why not your race?
BAILEY: It’s a very good question. As you were talking, I was thinking about how, when you were under seven and you were trying to “scrub off” the Black. If there was a pill that little Black girls, little Black children could take, that could make themselves white, because they did not want to be oppressed anymore, then would we be celebrating that? If hordes of us said: Tomorrow morning, we’re going to identify as “white.” How far are we going to get? Do you think? But I think the time is upon us where a white male will stand in front of me and tell me that he is a Black woman and that, not only is he a Black woman, but he is more oppressed than me, by virtue of the fact that he identifies as both Black and female.
BELLOS: “Gender identity” certainly is destructive to women seeking to destroy masculinity and sexism. I want to destroy masculinity as the main notion of what a man should be. There are many men who want to destroy it, and I wish they would get on and do it. But I am saddened by the young Black women who have been swallowed up by a critique of gender. There is racism, but not “races,” in the same way that there are sexes, but I’m not sure there are “genders.”
BAILEY: I am very clear that “gender identity” is only relevant for those who are gender-dysphoric. But, as a model for understanding the sexes, sexism and oppression, it is worse than useless. My theory is that scores and scores of young women are seeking to identify out of their oppression. It’s sad that feminism, women’s rights, and women’s liberation have reached a point where so many young women are looking out onto a future living as women and are saying “No thank you.” What I suspect is that what many of them are experiencing, from what I have read and heard people say, is freedom. I want women to demand freedom, an end to male violence and oppression, as women; I don’t want them to have to identify out of womanhood. Politically, we have to be able to say that, because, at the moment, even to go near it as a discussion, can be labelled as “transphobic.” It’s like what you said: If scores of our Black children woke up and said “Why, Mummy and Daddy, I want to be white. Let me go and get that pill to be white. Let me go and bleach my skin to be white.” Would society say to Black people that we couldn’t inquire to the experts as to whether this was a manifestation of self-hatred, a manifestation of oppression?
Let’s move on to talk about marriage equality, because you, in your lifetime have gone from seeing lesbians deprived of their children and deemed “unfit” to same-sex marriage. What is your view?
BELLOS: Well, I’m not a fan of marriage. I have been and was in a civil partnership. And I was in favor of that. My partner died three years ago.
Marriage is an institution whose history is long and, in general, not helpful to women.
BAILEY: There is a plurality of views about marriage within the gay community that many heterosexuals probably don’t understand. Because, on the one hand, I want people to have equal rights of citizenship. If you can get married, then so be it. But I regret that, as a movement, we were encouraged to regard marriage equality as the pinnacle of our liberation.
BELLOS: Well, I’m not sure I agree with you. I think some people, because they had no politics, that their notion of “equality” is “let us do what the other man has done.” A good thing happened only recently: Opposite-sex couples may enter civil partnerships. It’s a good thing. Because they have a critique of marriage that is not a million miles from yours or mine.
BAILEY: So, by that, you’re saying that the heterosexual civil partnership gives women a way to have the equality of a formalized union, without having all of the patriarchal associations of marriage?
BAILEY: The LGB Alliance formed on the 22nd of October 2019, and it sent shockwaves around the world: How dare lesbians, gays, and bisexuals form an organization without the “T”? It’s not allowed. This is extraordinary. But that “It’s not allowed; you can’t do it” wasn’t just echoed by a few ragtag people; it was repeated at the highest levels of government.
Labour suffered a historical defeat in the Christmas general election. And, then, it went into a leadership contest where the three leaders—Sir Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, and Rebecca Long-Bailey—did not trip over themselves pledging to fight the rank misogyny and homophobia that is running rampant in the country. They did not pledge to stop male rapists being able to identify as women and go into women’s prisons. Instead, to my mind, they thoroughly disgraced themselves by, in various forms, pledging to pursue gender self-identification. Two of them, the two women, signed pledges to expel women who were members of LGB Alliance and Woman’s Place UK. And I want to ask you: Is there any hope for Labour?
BELLOS: Of course there is. What needs to happen is the rebuilding of the women’s liberation movement. That, in and of itself, is not enough to win an election. What we have to be is a voice that influences the political process.
BAILEY: What you are saying, if I am understanding it correctly, is that there is scope for a credible opposition to find its relevance again.
BELLOS: Yes. It may not be the Labour Party.
BAILEY: My sense is that Starmer, Nandy, and Long-Bailey, when they said these things about “trans rights” and “trans rights” being human rights and not standing up for women, I do not think they understand the degree of pain and rage that I certainly feel about what they have done. I do think that we are living in uncertain political times.
We have to demand that females, women, are not lost as a political class, that our rights are not dictated to us by any male who comes along.
The parallels with gender self-identification on that side of the Atlantic and this side of the Atlantic are clearly there. The debate that has been happening in the UK hasn’t been happening in the mainstream US. Has it?
BELLOS: It does not look as though there is a debate in the country. I know that, yes, I went to Washington last year, and I went to New York in October on the same issue. And that was really interesting. Some of the same women I met in Washington I met in New York. What was very noticeable to me was a cohort of young Black women who were present, which was, I must say, a tremendous delight for my part. Their concerns were similar to our concerns about what this does to women and girls—how it takes us back to before we had the vote.
Hopefully, we and other women will be discussing it. And I hope men do as well. I have views about what I think men should do, which is to have a movement that reviews masculinity.
BAILEY: What would you say to the young women who are same-sex attracted, whatever they want to call themselves, who are thinking that they must become male to live free lives?
BELLOS: Don’t do it, girls. That’s what I would say.
BAILEY: Linda, it’s been an absolute pleasure and a delight and a privilege talking with you. Thank you for all of your years of activism and service. You are someone who is respected by lesbians and gay men alike and by bisexuals and by women.
You’ve cringed, you’ve laughed, you’ve been self-deprecating. But, when I was a young woman, a girl in the 1980s, you were the only Black lesbian in public on TV. You were the only one. There was no one else there. And so, when I say “Thank you,” I mean it. Please accept that.
BELLOS: I do. Thank you. But my reticence is about the future and wanting power. What I want to do is to have some influence, to be in debates and discussions that are democratic. What I fear, and what I went to university to study, is how one could have some influence without it becoming corrupted by one’s ego. It’s a real problem for all politicians. The fascists want it for themselves. I’m a socialist; I want to see all of us, as human beings, have equal rights. I will argue with those I don’t agree with. That is part of my rights and part of theirs.
And so I am critical of the abuse of power. One needs some power in order to achieve what one wants, but one also has to be humble—because power can lead to pedagoguery. And so I am reticent about it.
“Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes do not change. To those women here who fear the anger of women of Color more than their own unscrutinized racist attitudes, I ask: Is our anger more threatening than the woman-hatred that tinges all the aspects of our lives? It is not the anger of other women that will destroy us, but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment. I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it becomes no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”– Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger,” (1981),
in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984)