Rural lesbians and a safer world

Memories of lesbian and gay struggle and fellowship

I grew up in the rural idyll of Herefordshire & Worcestershire, having known most of my life that I was attracted to my own sex. There was little chance of my ever “coming out”, even though I went to an all-girls school, because at that time there was still huge stigma attached to being lesbian. It would have been social death at school, and I really didn’t want to cope with being ostracised while trying to complete my O-levels. The successful gaining of O-levels was directly linked to my gaining a motorbike and I wanted that nearly as much as I wanted a set of drums.

Peer pressure and hormones encouraged me to have boyfriends and although I knew it wasn’t for me, I persevered in the hope Mr Right might rock up. He almost did, but when I met the woman of my dreams all that faded into dust. She was an old school friend who’d moved to the USA and done her coming out while playing in a rock band. I had all the savvy of vegetarianism and an interest in surviving the nuclear threat, so she was impossibly cool and desirable in comparison.

We went out to Birmingham, to find signs of life. It was an eye opener for me but ennui for her. After a brief but intense fling where I finally gained escape velocity from heterosexuality, she went back to America and I went off to the feminist peace protest at Greenham Common.

Obviously, I now needed a girlfriend to cement my fledgling lesbian status and fortunately one appeared. We had very similar backgrounds and interests, and we were both seeking our first female partner. I struggled to find my feet in this new world and my parents’ aspirations for me evaporated. After some tense battles - “It’s like you’re going through puberty again!” - I was kicked out and this is how I ended up in a 25 year relationship complete with cats and eventually a civil partnership. With hindsight, I should have slowed down, but the miniscule size of my lesbian dating pool added pressure.

If only there’d been somewhere to go for advice and support… At the time there was London Gay Switchboard, or Lesbian Line (one night a week). It was impossible to get through on either number. And what could they have advised me, anyway? Go to the big city like Jimmy Somerville? Move to Greenham and hope for the best?

By the late 1980s, the HIV/AIDS crisis had arrived and was changing the complexion of gay life forever. Bizarrely, it was this situation that pushed many of us into action. With my gay male friends, we women had been talking about setting something up to help our community, and we decided we needed our own lifeline. Hereford & Worcester Lesbian & Gay Switchboard was born. As is often the case, we had more men than women in the group, but we did our best to train ourselves and learn to handle calls of all kinds and from either sex. I absolutely know what a vertical learning curve feels like.

We set up a monthly fundraiser at a local nightclub, and swiftly gained support from the local sexual health team who were desperate to promote safer sex. This was the battleground era of Section 28 (a law which that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities) and AIDS scaremongering, so looking back I realise quite how brave and determined we were. The head of the county education authority wanted our Switchboard’s service office closed down because we were in a building with many other charities and there were “vulnerable young people in wheelchairs”. The venom and gross prejudice was palpable but we held our ground and triumphed over adversity for over ten years. Our mission for the Switchboard was that we would not need to exist: we hoped the world would catch up and become a more welcoming place for us. When the calls slowed to a trickle, we knew things had changed.

We organised the first gathering of UK lesbian and gay switchboards over a weekend in Worcester and even the mighty London Switchboard turned up! A mix of rural and urban organisations were represented. I delivered a presentation on sexual health and safer sex for lesbians, which at the time was either overlooked or subject to bad advice. For example, lesbians were told we didn’t need to take tests for cervical cancer. I made the plea for better understanding of lesbian health needs as well as those of our gay brothers.

Those years hold bittersweet memories of struggle, insight, joy, fellowship and loss. They helped form the person I am today and drive me to want that perspective in my working life. SEEN offers the chance for us to recreate the best of that shared history for lesbians and gay men in the civil service, and I look forward to welcoming colleagues as we grow.

Cover image: Peter Musk on Unsplash


I am a civil servant in the Department for Work and Pensions

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