These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER: It’s the 29th of January and we are at the Intercom Trust in Truro to record a life story interview for the Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM. My name is Jana Funke, and I’m interviewing Sheena Harvey today. Thank you so much for doing the interview with us. We’re asking everyone first of all to choose an object. So you’ve looked at the RAMM catalogue and collections and you’ve chosen an object that kind of speaks to you or resonates with you. So the first question is, can you tell us which object you’ve chosen and describe it to us please?
PARTICIPANT: I certainly can. I’ve chosen some handcuffs, and I know they’re old figure of eight handcuffs that were used back in the 1800s. And handcuffs spoke to me about the ongoing relationship I’ve had with how I feel about the law, the government, the police, and the relationship with the queer community. So it’s been part of my life since the day I came out in my teens in Cornwall. I came out as a lesbian in the 1980s at a time when the relationship between the queer community and the police was really strained and it was a really difficult time.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. I’m really interested in hearing more about that history. So are there some elements or experiences that you’d be happy to share that speak to that object and the themes you’ve just mentioned?
PARTICIPANT: Yes, it really really would. I had a strange experience coming out in Cornwall, in that I was in my late teens and I thought I was the only lesbian in the whole county. And I found a job at a mushroom farm, which sounds very bizarre, and it really was quite bizarre [laughs]. And when I got to work at the mushroom farm, I found that 80% of the employees were lesbians. And as a 19 year old that grew up in Cornwall, that was so exciting. And rightly or wrongly, I got involved with a woman much older than myself, and found her to be quite heavily involved in supporting the miners’ strikes. And that was my introduction to political activism and the lesbian community at quite a young age. And from then on really, there have been lots and lots of incidents. But I’ve been to Greenham Common a few times, a lot of my friends lived there, I didn’t, I didn’t feel brave enough, that felt like a really brave thing to do. And there are other things like, most weekends there were a group of us that used to go to the peace chapel in St Morgan. There was an RAF base where the cruise missiles were kept in Cornwall, which seemed very strange in this quiet little county. And we used to go every weekend to the peace chapel, and would literally do candle lit vigils, we’d sit and sing, it was like old 1960s protests really. And often we’d get arrested by the police just for being there, and taken away either by the MOD police or by our police. And that link has followed me right until now really, in terms of the fight that I’m still having on behalf of young people, with transphobia, homophobia, and the 21st century issues.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, absolutely. I would love to hear a little bit more about some of those experiences and stories. In terms of being arrested, on what grounds did the police arrest you? Was it protesting, or public disobedience or something?
PARTICIPANT: It was often public disobedience. And one particular incident that stands out for me, what they used to do to us, because there were so many of us, and it was the 1980s and there was all the tensions still with CND being highly active and everything like that, we’d gather, and on public disobedience grounds usually, they’d come with a coach, and they’d take 40 odd of us away, usually to a village hall or somewhere, where they would process us and release us. But the one particular occasion, I tied a balloon to a fence, as did lots of others. It was a real… we always did really peaceful protests back then, we weren’t really into sort of violence or violent protest. And we tied balloons to the fence, and we’d all got taken away. And they treated us differently, they were rougher with us, and less pleasant. And on that occasion, we were all taken to court over it. And we appeared in court, and they were the old… I call them the old guard of the lesbian community, and they sat in court with their knitting, and they were very chilled about the whole thing. As somebody who’d never been in a court before, I found it all quite scary, but I was also quite proud of myself for taking my stand against nuclear missiles. And when we went into court, the guy before us in the dock, he’d been part of a hit and run on a young woman, and they’d identified him because part of her clothing when he’d run her over was attached to his vehicle. And he got a £53 fine, ’cause it was 1980s and that was quite a lot of money back then. When we all got prosecuted, we each got a £56 fine, and we tied a balloon to a fence. So for me, that was a real big wake-up call as to how we were looked upon. We were looked upon as some kind of threat. And actually, all we were doing was peaceful protest.
INTERVIEWER: And I think it’s so important to record and tell those stories, because there is a bit of I think misconception sometimes that lesbian women weren’t affected by the police or police violence or police oppression, because lesbianism wasn’t criminalised in the UK and other countries like Germany, whereas male homosexuality was. So I think it’s so interesting to hear your experiences in that regard.
PARTICIPANT: Yeah. I mean, the other thing, I know it wouldn’t happen now because we’ve got mobile phones to record stuff and things are very, very different, but the other thing that used to happen to us on a regular basis was driving home from the peace camp at the weekends, we’d get pulled by the police quite often and given tickets for driving too fast or having something wrong with the car. And on one occasion, we had nothing wrong with the car, so one of our headlights was hit with a baton, shattered, and then we got done with a ticket for not having a headlight. Nothing we could do about it. And that was quite shocking to me, that felt quite scary.
INTERVIEWER: So there was no way of reporting things or speaking back or… ?
PARTICIPANT: No, no. It was us against them, and because we were already in the system as being a real nuisance… And there were things like, we infiltrated – I say infiltrated because that was the language they used – we went to an air day at RNAS Culdrose, and put stickers on military vehicles. We went to look at planes and that, so it was one of those days out for the family to see what they do. And some of the missile carriers and things, we put Bread Not Bombs stickers. Which, looking back, that to me is quite funny. I had a van that I even painted Bread Not Bombs on the side. It was just something that we did. And we were put on watch lists. And I mean, what an innocuous thing to do – put a sticker on an aeroplane – and be on some kind of watch list. And that was mostly lesbians that did that. And actually some cis heterosexual women as well, but it was mostly women that did those sorts of peaceful actions.
INTERVIEWER: How did you then get together with other women? What forms of community were there or spaces where you could meet, if everything was surveilled and… ? Everything must have felt quite unsafe.
PARTICIPANT: It did, it did. But those of us that were used to getting arrested – which sounds ridiculous but we were used to getting arrested – we knew that the last Thursday of every month, we’d gather and we’d plan everything for the forthcoming month. And if there were really quick things we needed to organise, there were people in certain areas that had a landline telephone, and we’d phone them, and then they’d literally have to go and either go and visit or put notes through people’s doors to say what was happening next. So we did gather. And we shared it around. We’d usually meet at each other’s houses.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned Greenham Common as well. And were there clubs or bars or… ?
PARTICIPANT: No, nothing like that. Nothing like that at all. We literally would meet in somebody’s house and then we’d arrange to go up to Greenham. And our local CND branch would sometimes fund coaches and we’d go up and just support the women that lived there. We’d go up for the weekend and support the women, but we’d hire coaches to do that via our local CND branch. But yeah, it was all peaceful. And it was all anti-war and anti-oppression. And with some of the other stuff, we used to do the same with anti-discriminatory stuff. We always found a way, because we felt it was important enough to find a way. And my first meeting of the lesbian community at 19 was also not good in some ways, ’cause I was tied in with older people that were a bit over-influential. But that side of it, I don’t regret at all, because I think for me it was the start of… well, I’m now 58, and it was the start of me understanding our relationship with the law and how it interacts with the rest of the queer community. And that’s why the handcuffs resonated with me so much.
INTERVIEWER: Mm. I think you’ve mentioned previously in a conversation we’ve had, a lesbian club that had a knocking sign. [laughs]
PARTICIPANT: [laughs] Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: I love that story.
PARTICIPANT: There were two different places that we went to – the first club I went to, bearing in mind I’d just met my first group of lesbians, I was very very excited to go do this club. And it was a gay club, it wasn’t just lesbian, it was a gay club. And it was in Carbis Bay, which is near St Ives, and there’s nothing there, so it was, “Where is this place, what’s it like?” So we drove there for my first time. We drove into this car park, it’s in the middle of nowhere, literally, at the back of Carbis Bay. And we pulled up in this muddy, really pitch dark car park. And when we got to the door, the woman I was with, she did this very strange sequence of knocks. And nobody came to the door. And then the woman behind her lent over and did the same sequence of knocks. And it was then I realised, that was the code for being allowed in. Because it was in the 80s, and it was at a time when, as I say, the police were all over us as a gay community. And that was the only way of ensuring that if you’d had the knock passed on to you that you were allowed access to that club. Anyway, we went in and it was just bizarre, it was really bizarre. It was a country and western club. And we had to go through literally saloon style doors into a club that was done out in western style saddles and things like that. And this club let us, for a short period of time, use it on one evening of the weekend once in a while, to hold gay nights. It didn’t last long, because with the rise of HIV and AIDS crisis in the 80s, the people who went to the country and western bar the rest of the week found out and didn’t want to be using the same facilities as people who might possibly have HIV or AIDS. So that was also quite a difficult time really.
INTERVIEWER: Mm. And you said there was another club, a second club?
PARTICIPANT: Mm, there was, that was in Penzance. And you had to ring the doorbell and they’d come out and they’d look at you to see if you looked gay enough before they let you in. I don’t know what looking gay enough was supposed to look like. Myself personally, I was quite androgynous looking back then. But the more femme of my friends sometimes struggled to get in, so I’d have to go back to the door with the bouncer and say “Yeah, they are definitely lesbians” or “they’re definitely queer people, they’re with me, let them in.” So yeah, even with our own community, you had to kind of fit. And I haven’t always fitted, and I’m quite happy about that to be fair [laughs].
PARTICIPANT: Something about the androgyny in me, I think I might’ve told you on a different occasion, a friend of mine got in touch and she’d had an accident in St Ives. And she phoned her mother, who I was in a relationship with at the time, and said she’d trapped her hand in a car door hitch-hiking, and she was stuck in St Ives, and could somebody go and fetch her? So I went to fetch her. So I drove to St Ives, and I drove through St Ives, couldn’t see her, so I drove through a couple more times, and I think the third time, pulled over by the police, and it’s like “What am I doing now? I’m not actually doing anything.” Anyway, I got out of the car, and I was made to put my hands on the bonnet and all that stuff, and I was asked for my name, so I said ‘Sheena Harvey’ and the guy said “No, we want a real name.” And I was like, “But that is my real name.” “Oh, no, it isn’t,” he says. He says, “I’m Marianne Faithfull if you’re Sheena Harvey.” And I said, “What you on about?” Anyway, he’s starting to read from his little sheet, and he was basically trying to arrest me for cruising as a gay man in St Ives, because it was somewhere that the gay guys would meet each other on a weekend. And it’s like, firstly, what was the issue if… ? Once the club shut, the gay guys didn’t have anywhere to meet up, and they used to know that people’d be in St Ives on a Saturday night. And it took me a lot of convincing to get him to realise I was actually female. I mean, it’s funny now looking back, it’s really funny, but at the time, it was like “For God’s sake. I’m looking for my friend in St Ives. I don’t need somebody…” And the gay guys shouldn’t’ve been arrested for looking for each other. I shouldn’t’ve been pulled over for looking for my friend. But that was our relationship with the law back in the 80s.
INTERVIEWER: Mm. Yeah, I can see how the handcuffs again speak to that.
PARTICIPANT: Oh, total link.
PARTICIPANT: Total link.
INTERVIEWER: I’m really interested, I guess, in what you’re saying about… I mean, maybe solidarity is the word, that the forms of policing that were affecting gay men were also affecting you, and you were talking about the miners’ strike and fighting for those kinds of rights, and that you were all in these fights and struggles together.
INTERVIEWER: And that you still see this today, working with young trans and non-binary people.
PARTICIPANT: I think what happened was, when we got together as a lesbian community, particularly for things like CND, we, by our very nature, got politicised, and we became quite left wing. And I think we were pushed that way by the circumstance we were in at the time. And it made me a lifelong socialist, and I’m proud of that, and I grew up in a Conservative household. My mum was a fully paid member of the Conservative Party her whole life. I remember once taking her to a doctor’s appointment during an election campaign and my car was covered in Labour stickers. And my mum rode to the doctor’s with her face hidden behind a copy of the Daily Mail, ’cause she was too embarrassed to be in the car. But I think that relationship, it’s because of the socialism, that made us look at what was right and what was wrong. And the way that Thatcher dealt with the miners’ strike made us realise just how wrong that was. And because we were in that kind of fight mode, if you like – fight against what was wrong – we did build a solidarity, and the film ‘Pride’, if people haven’t seen it, documents the story of the miners’ strike and the lesbian community really really well. So I think it was about fighting any kind of oppression and injustice in the end. And for me personally, in terms of being a youth worker, which is my chosen profession, I’ve seen the injustice young people face too. So I think the fight became broader than just how I started out, which was fighting… being part of the peace movement. It was like, we just became anti-oppression.
PARTICIPANT: Which again, links nicely to my chosen object.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s
so important, that sense of solidarity, and thinking beyond your position in the world.
PARTICIPANT: Definitely. I think what’s quite sad, and I own this, this is my view, a lot of my lesbian friends that I grew up with – or I say grew up with, that I’ve been friends with for 30 plus years – quite a lot of them don’t support my fight for trans rights. I think there’s this disconnect between some older lesbians and supporting trans women in particular. And at the moment, that is my fight. And I work with young people, and I’m proud to work with young people, and I stand up for young people who suffer terrible transphobia. In 2022, this shouldn’t be happening. It really shouldn’t be happening. So my passion hasn’t waned, I don’t think it ever will. So that’s a fight that’s continued. And stuff like… I can’t help but feel politically, things like the policing bill, Kill The Bill protests recently, people need to have the right to gather for peaceful protest. I’m not an advocate for violence. A lot of my friends are positive about the beginning of the Stonewall riots, and I know if they hadn’t happened we wouldn’t be where we are today. But bricks being thrown isn’t my mantra. My mantra is peaceful protest – talking, communication, supporting people to change.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, which is so important. And also what you said earlier I think about fighting for trans rights, which is so important, and I’m really grateful for the work that you’re doing as well, because I think that is vital that we support each other in that sense – absolutely. I was wondering, I think earlier you were saying when you went to the mushroom farm, you were working there, that was the first time you met other lesbian women. I think with this project, because it’s a museum and it’s thinking about history, I was wondering whether you had access to any historical figures or role models or lesbian women from the past that you could have identified with or… was there any access to that history?
PARTICIPANT: There was no access to anything at all for me as a teenager. There weren’t even lesbian or gay people on television really. No, I was completely cut away from everything. I grew up in a tiny little village in Cornwall, a member of the local library, that was about it. Even there, there wouldn’t have been access to books – or I wouldn’t have known about books. So I felt really really cut off. And then I watched… I can’t even remember, I think it might’ve been when Channel 4 launched on my little black and white telly, there was something on there about London, I don’t know if it was a news article or what it was, that mentioned lesbians. And I was like… my ears pricked up and I thought “That’s it, I’m gonna get through A levels and I’m gonna head off to the Big Smoke to see if there’s anyone else like me up there because there certainly isn’t locally.” And I thought, “Well, I’ve gotta get some money if I’m gonna do that”, and that’s why I was looking for a job and I ended up in what the locals called The Funny Farm [both laugh]. I went to this mushroom farm and there were all these lesbians there, all older than me. And that’s where my exposure to literature and things came. And that wasn’t really helpful to me to be honest because I read A Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and the character in there didn’t resonate with me at all. So that was like, “Ooh.” That kind of history wouldn’t really have helped me, I don’t think. I think actually talking to people and… I was part of that older community for quite a long time, and it was probably five or six years into being part of the lesbian community that I really met my tribe, and people my age, and life began to feel as I felt it should be.
PARTICIPANT: So no, I had no access to anything really at all. [laughs] Didn’t know anybody or anything.
INTERVIEWER: It’s interesting that a newspaper article was the time when you came across the word lesbian.
PARTICIPANT: Mm, yeah, yeah. I just knew I liked women and not men, and that felt like a real problem. And I see that with trans young people today. In fact, only a week ago, I had a trans young man appear at our youth project, and they were in a dreadful state. And they’d finally admitted to themselves that they were in the wrong body. And my heart goes out to them. Feeling that for the first time, not feeling you fit in. They didn’t know anybody else. All they knew they’d learnt from the internet. Which I’m so grateful they have it, but also part of me is a little bit worried about the misinformation. This young person thinks that after coming out as being trans that everything’s going to be fixed in five minutes. And when I have to tell them it’s not, the disappointment I can really empathise with.
INTERVIEWER: I was wondering… I don’t know if there’s anything to say or you would like to say, but sometimes I think you touch on the fact that the lesbian community in and of itself was quite divided and there were different groups and movements. And there were the more kind of radical [laughs] groups and other people maybe would have not endorsed that way of being political. Is there anything that you would like to say about that? I’m really interested in that history.
PARTICIPANT: Absolutely, absolutely. Even when I was first on the gay scene – I say ‘scene’, there were two places we could go – there were certain groups of people. And I won’t name the towns just in case. But if women were from a certain town, you knew that they wouldn’t be interested in Greenham, the peace movement, politics, or anything like that, they were just interested in going out, having a night out, having a few beers and that was that. There were a group of really closeted women who didn’t like those of us that were out and proud and out strutting our stuff, because being associated with us would’ve by its very nature outed them. And as time has gone on, that’s carried on. And whereas I’ve tried to move, as things have changed, a lot of my really close friends I struggle with because they hold really… TERFs, for those that don’t know, are trans-exclusionary radical feminists, and they don’t believe, for instance, that women only spaces should accept trans women. And I find that a struggle. And these people who are really dear to me, and who I’ve fought fights with for my whole life, are now not willing to support another oppressed group of people. And that’s a struggle. So there really are different groups. And… I don’t know, I used to struggle a little bit with the ones who had no passion for anything. And I don’t know if that’s part of how I learnt about things or me as a person. But I think lesbians who have no passion about supporting anybody else from an oppressed community is a struggle for me. Gay men, as an example. Back in the 80s, some of my friends, when the AIDS epidemic was at its peak, wouldn’t go to mixed venues. And it’s like, we should be supporting those guys. We should be supporting our friends in this, not being part of the people who are persecuting them. So there’s always been different groups – always.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, you’ve mentioned twice now this gender-critical or trans-exclusionary feminist, which is so upsetting, and I’ve had friendships actually end for that reason as well, which is personally really difficult, politically really difficult. Do you have any sense of how that conflict… where we could go with this or how we could have those conversations with other lesbian women?
PARTICIPANT: I keep having them. I keep having those conversations. I’ve got another part time job, and the other job I have, there are people in that job who work with young people who don’t understand that actually having male and female groups is really difficult for some young people. So it’s conversations for me, it’s keeping having those conversations. And having them when they’re really difficult conversations to have, even. I was offered some work at a women’s project, and I couldn’t take it because trans women aren’t welcome there. I think it’s fear of masculinity, that’s what it is. And I don’t know how we combat that apart from keep talking, and keep raising those questions and keep asking those people who are resistant why they think that trans women in particular are a threat. I don’t see them as a threat. I see them as people who’ve probably been more persecuted than any of us, that suffer abuse probably on a regular basis, particularly trans women who’ve transitioned late in life and are slightly more masculine presenting. For them, life’s really really difficult. And I don’t think us as a group… ‘us’, I say as in lesbians as a group, I don’t think we should be part of that, where they’re now being persecuted. Oppression is wrong. Not accepting people for who they are is wrong.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, absolutely, and I think everything you’ve said really speaks to this so powerfully. This thing about shared oppression and how important solidarity is, and fighting these battles together, really. Which is so important. So bringing it back I think to the object again.
PARTICIPANT: Mm, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: It was so lovely to hear the story that you can get to through that object. When we look at the handcuffs – and you’ve spoken to this already, but just to go back to this idea of… do you think that this object, the handcuffs, would speak to or resonate with other LGBTQ+ people?
PARTICIPANT: Yeah, absolutely, I do. I really really do. Even young people, the young people that I work with now, they feel quite oppositional towards the police and government and stuff. And that’s about how they see life now. That’s nothing that’s come from us or me, in my work, if you like. ‘Cause I work for a charity and therefore I can’t express my politics, it wouldn’t be appropriate. But I do have discussions with young people. And young people are now fighting against what they see as oppression from the government we have at the minute. So the handcuffs are speaking to them. The handcuffs definitely speak to the gay men I know in Cornwall who have been persecuted in the past for meeting up or hooking up, and some of the practices that gay men get involved in. And trans women I know have been up to parliament have been part of protests for trans rights. So I think everybody I’ve kept connection with. And the people I haven’t kept connection with I don’t think think the same way as I do about our past and how it’s influenced our present. And I think that’s what a lot of people lose, and I think that’s why museums to me are important too, because I think our past definitely informs our future. And I think everybody in our queer community needs to think about oppression, needs to think about the law and how it’s affected LGBTQ people over the centuries, and still continues to. And I hope that anybody from the queer community – anybody from the LGBTQ community, for those that don’t like the word queer – looks at the object and understands why I’ve chosen it, and thinks about how their own lives have been impacted by oppression. And looks at what part they can play in making life simpler for the LGBTQ community going forwards. I just hope it nudges them to think. Being part of this, and reflecting on the object as, you know, an ancient pair of handcuffs, has for me been quite a journey. And I’m quite grateful I had the opportunity to think about it. So I’d be absolutely chuffed if people went away and thought about their relationship with fighting oppression any way they can.
INTERVIEWER: So building on this idea of the museum as a space where we can deal with histories, and also histories of oppression, how do you feel about being in the museum now and having your voice being part of the museum collections in a sense, and being part of the installation?
PARTICIPANT: What I think it is, we have to speak out. Those of us that are willing to speak out need to speak out, to tell people that we have had it difficult. I’m not crying about that, it’s just how it was, we lived through it, but I think we’ve still got a long way to go. And I don’t see immediately any big change coming, so I think being out there and saying what I’ve experienced a little bit, and what I’m trying to do now, I’m thinking maybe in, I don’t know, 50 years time, things’ll be very different. I wrote my dissertation in the 90s about young women’s attitudes to sexuality. It’s already really dated. It’s really funny to read it, because it’s so so dated. So I think me talking now for the museum about my relationship with this item, the handcuffs, the law, being anti-oppression, I think in 50 years time, it’ll be interesting for somebody to look at how that was then, and so I’m really happy to be a part of that.
INTERVIEWER: And in terms of other people engaging with your story – looking at the handcuffs, listening to your story and maybe engaging with the installation as a whole, thinking about LGBTQ+ history – what do you hope other people might take away from this, or learn from it?
PARTICIPANT: I think if one person goes away and thinks about… ‘cause actually choosing the item has made me look and think about why this item resonates with me… I think if anybody listening to me goes away and has a conversation with somebody about it, or has a conversation with somebody about trans rights, or has a conversation with somebody about the future and does one thing to perhaps support a person from the LGBTQ community, then that’s got to be a great thing.
INTERVIEWER: I was thinking about your work with young people as well, and building on this idea of history, when you talk to young people, do you have a sense that they have better access to role models or helpful forms of literature? You said The Well of Loneliness was not helpful to you at all. [laughs]
PARTICIPANT: No, it really wasn’t. I think what young people have, and I learn from them all the time, and they come in… we’re now back in our building, we’ve just gone through a pandemic, they’ve only just come back to meeting face to face. And they come in and they share what they’ve found on the internet, and in particular they’ve got social media heroes. And they can find what they’re looking for, whatever that is. And there are lots and lots of role models that they can look at and aspire to be like. What we offer them is a space to come together in persona and do that, ’cause a lot of these young people, I personally feel it’s very different me talking over social media. I know they can do it face to face with FaceTime, I know they share stuff on Instagram and that sort of thing, but I think actually physically being in a building talking, and having youth workers facilitate some of those conversations, they learn and I learn. And that’s really really positive. And I work with such a broad range of young people, from every aspect of the LGBTQ community. And giving them that space… and I’m learning all the time, you know. There are a terms that I didn’t know until a few years ago. Understanding young people being non-binary in particular. I know people from my past, who didn’t have the language then, who definitely would’ve identified as non-binary. So I’m so so happy that they’ve got access to role models and stuff, and they do find that in social media. But our work via the Intercom Trust, we have workers that go into schools, and something that’s happened as a result of that is some of the schools in Cornwall now have sections in their school libraries that are LGBTQ sections. I think that’s amazing.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. I agree. And it’s lovely what you say about you learning from the young people and they also learn from you, and that dialogue.
PARTICIPANT: You have to have it. And I’m happy to have those conversations with them. I talk to them about my past, in a wholly appropriate way, about how different things were in Cornwall. ‘Cause they think they have it tough. And for some of them, they really really do. And for others, they really don’t. So just having those conversations. And sharing information with each other and learning about each other, and every session, we check in with what’s going on for people. And sometimes we’re just in a space together. And those young people just knowing they’re all part of the queer community, being in a space together is enough. We don’t have to mention that we’re all queer. We don’t have to mention anything. What I do do, which makes them laugh, is that I make sure they all know that I’m a lesbian every session. And it’s kind of a standing joke with them. ‘Cause the word queer has been reclaimed by the younger generation. If I was called ‘queer’ back in the day, that would’ve been used as a really, really offensive word. Now young people will use ‘queer’ to cover everybody in our community. But the word ‘lesbian’ has kind of become a no-no. So for me, I personally am reclaiming it for me, and I make sure they all know that I identify as a lesbian [laughs].
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think that is? I mean, I would say I’m queer and I’m a lesbian woman, I use both of those terms. But why do you think that is? I mean, I’m thinking about it myself, why lesbian has kind of become… or maybe it’s never been a fashionable term, I’m not sure.
PARTICIPANT: I’m not sure either. My ex-partner of 28 years hated the word – identified as a gay woman, hates the word queer to this day. I now identify as queer, I’m happy to embrace that term. The young people just say it’s a harsh word, and I don’t know why they think it is a harsh word, but they think it’s a harsh word. And I talk to them about history, I talk to them about Lesbos, I talk to them about Sappho. We’ve done a schools history project, a history gathering a few years back, where we had 150 queer young people in one place. And we were talking about history of language and stuff like that. And I don’t know, a lot of people … I think the political amongst us, we didn’t mind lesbian, and we didn’t mind ‘dyke’, which was also used as an offensive term, but we used it to mean political lesbians back in the day. And I think the young women now just don’t like the word. They say it’s too harsh. They’d rather identify as queer. A lot of the younger younger ones also, in terms of pronouns, don’t use she/her. They use she/they. And that’s their nod to solidarity with their non-binary friends. Moving all the time. I’m happy to learn, I’m happy to move with them.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I think that’s amazing that you have this openness and this dialogue that you embrace people changing language, using different language. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t use your language, I can’t use my language, it’s just people are coming up with different ways of labelling or articulating themselves.
PARTICIPANT: Yeah, it’s change, it’s change, and I can’t think of anything worse than being one of those people who says “Ooh, back in my day.” It’s like, “Yeah, that was then. This is now. Let’s move, let’s change.” Change is good.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve asked you so many things. One thing I was just wondering, if you could say a bit more about the Well of Loneliness? Just because I’m so interested in the book and I’m interested in Radclyffe Hall, and just why you hate it? I mean, you’re not the only person who hates The Well of Loneliness.
PARTICIPANT: No, no.
INTERVIEWER: I was just interested in your… when you read it and how you felt when you read it.
PARTICIPANT: When I read it, I think I was quite shocked by the masculinity thing. Stephen. I understand that the protagonist in the book, Stephen, was because of the time. But I’ve never felt masculine. I’ve never felt masculinity is anything to do with me at all. I’ve always felt like I’m just an ordinary woman who happens to fall in love with women. And that for me was really difficult, really hard to swallow. Am I gonna have to adhere to this? This masculine presentation of myself? Which I found that that, going back to the first time in a gay bar, one of the questions I was asked at the bar was “Where do you hang your keys?” And I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Inside the front door.” And they’re like, “No, on your belt, where do you hang your keys?” And that was kind of asking me was I really butch or was I really feminine – ‘femme’ as they called it back then? Was I really butch or was I really femme? And I wasn’t either. And for quite a few years, I was quite androgynous because I didn’t know where I… I didn’t think it was OK to be feminine presenting. I would say now, over the last few decades, I’m just me. I don’t present in any particular way. I dress as I like to dress on the day I like to dress like it. I keep my hair like I like to keep it. If I wanna wear make-up, I wear it. If I don’t, I don’t. And I think the Well of Loneliness scared me with its masculinity.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I can definitely understand that. And it’s also a very sad book, in terms of, the two people who are in a relationship don’t end up together, it’s a very sad ending.
PARTICIPANT: Mm, absolutely! And that was life. When I came out to my mother, she took it so, so badly. And for the first year, we had a really torturous time. She did eventually come round, and then we had an absolutely beautiful relationship until the end of her days, so that was wonderful. But my mum was upset she knew… back in her village in Scotland in the 1930s, 40s, interestingly, these two women were called the Rainbow Sisters, and there was obviously no nod to the rainbow back then. These two women in my mum’s village, the Rainbow Sisters, had a terrible time in life, ’cause they chose to dress differently, they were quite outgoing and quite outrageously dressed, which is why they got the nickname. And they had a very sad, lonely time of it. And I think my mum envisaged that for me, instead of me having a fulfilled, happy life being out. And I’m fully out everywhere – family, friends, the whole kit and caboodle, as they say. And my mum thought it was the path to being unhappy. But it really isn’t. I mean, there’s been an awful lot to life growing up as a lesbian in Cornwall. And people get offended. I was born and bred in Cornwall. People use the excuse, “Well, you know, they’ve only got those attitudes because they’re Cornish.” That’s rubbish. I’m Cornish, 58, proudly out, proudly fighting oppression, so that’s nonsense.
INTERVIEWER: I mean, it’s interesting ’cause I think there’s still this misperception historically that there was no queer or trans life in the southwest in the past, and that even nowadays that we don’t exist in the southwest [laughs]. I think people do still think that.
PARTICIPANT: I think they do, and I think in every way – in terms of Westminster, in terms of life generally – people think once you’re past Bristol that’s kind of the end of that. And we’ve always found a way in Cornwall. My ex partner and I for a little while ran lesbian nights in a little underground club in Penzance. Lesbian barn dances were hilarious, lesbian pantomime even more so. And that was back in the 80s. And prior to that, there were places where women met up, and it’s always happened. It’s always happened. And some leading lights, if you like, in Cornwall, have been out and about in the past, maybe not so openly. But the scene always finds a way. We always find our tribe. And I say that with pride, and I always say that to our young people. When they first come here, if they haven’t got any other queer friends and they come to the project that I work in for the Intercom Trust, they turn up and I say “You’ve found your tribe.” Important.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, really important. And hopefully this project can show people that we exist and there’s such a rich history as well.
PARTICIPANT: Oh, absolutely. Definitely a rich history. I mean, some of my friends that I was doing political actions with back in the day, they’re now in their 80s. I’m still in touch with them. Some are dead and gone now. But yeah, it’s been a very very proud, rich history, and I shall continue being part of it going forward, and as I say, I’m out everywhere. So I think perhaps the handcuffs will become part of my history and not part of my future.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much.
PARTICIPANT: That’s alright.
[00:45:43] End of transcript