Blog post by: Shereen Benjamin
Yesterday I had the honour and the privilege of taking a beautiful banner, on loan from Magdalen Berns, down to the Lesbian Strength march in Leeds. I’d seen pictures of the banner previously, but it wasn’t until I saw it for real, up close, that I saw the love, the joy, the defiance, the humour, and the determination that’s been embroidered into its fabric. One of my highlights of the day was getting to meet the wonderful woman who made it as a gift for Magdalen. The banner pretty much sums up the feeling of the day for me – it was a day of lesbians coming together in friendship and sisterhood to say (and sing) out loud and proud that we intend to defend lesbian rights, and have some fun while we’re doing it.
It’s quite literally decades since I was part of a lesbian-only political march and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would women be angry and aggressive? Hopeless and bitter? Would there be in-groups and in-fighting? I needn’t have worried. The atmosphere was everything I could have hoped for, and more. As we gathered, I met women like me – second-wave feminists who’ve been busy with other struggles and other life priorities and have woken up in the past year or two to the threat to women’s and lesbians’ rights and have returned to fight the battles we thought we’d already won. And I met younger women who were able to explain to me what life’s like for lesbian women growing up in more recent times.
I was vaguely aware, as we gathered, that there was a counter-protest assembling on the other side of the road, being kept well away from us by the police. Quite honestly, it didn’t trouble me at all. I knew we were safe, and the counter-protest with its baby blue-and-pink flags was more like an annoying buzzing mosquito than a threat. I didn’t give it head space – I was too busy making new friends, swapping experiences, enjoying the slogans on everyone’s banners and generally having a good time.
On the march we chanted positive slogans – “lesbian, not queer”, “lesbians united will never be defeated” and sang a few old favourites. There were a tiny number of counter-protestors on one street corner, but most of the comments we got from local people along the way were affirming and positive. Lots of shouts of “Good for you!” as we made our way through the streets of central Leeds. There was a demo outside the town hall with lots of Labour banners. I’m not sure what it was about, and I think some of the lesbians on the march thought it was a counter-demo, but I think it’s more likely to have been Brexit-related. A few women with Labour banners briefly detached themselves from their rally to cheer us on. It was the only point at which I felt slightly conflicted – I’m a Labour Party member and I know there are lots of Labour women who are with us although too scared to speak out (yet). I didn’t want to leave the march, but part of me wishes I’d gone over to them to explain what we were doing and why, and invite them to our rally.
And what a rally! You know that a rally’s going to be good when it starts with a general sing-song (complete with songsheets handed out by the organisers) of a song called “Lesbian singalong”. The speakers appeared in age order, starting with the youngest women, in their 20s, to women who’ve been active in fighting for lesbian rights since the 1970s. A particularly poignant contribution was from a young de-transitioner who talked powerfully about the pressure put on her to change her body and her sense of herself to fit into the gendered expectations of the world around her. She ended with a message that we need to make sure our young people hear: “Liberation isn’t changing your body to fit society. Liberation is changing society to fit you.”
In between the speakers we heard brilliant songs, some written especially for the times we’re in by our talented sisters. For Women Scotland members will no doubt be glad to know that we were well represented – one FWS member spoke on the stage, and another was one of the group of three performers who kept us entertained and led the sing-songs. To misquote Monty Python, up with this sort of thing! Speaking up for women’s rights and lesbian rights, and dealing with accusations of bigotry from extreme transgender ideologists, can be hard going and often lonely. We need our collective actions to keep us going, and we need them to be creative, life-enhancing and fun. Yesterday was all those things, and I couldn’t be more grateful to the organisers, the speakers and performers, and the brave and beautiful lesbians of all ages who gathered together in strength and (because I think we should reclaim the word) pride. Lesbians united will never be defeated!
Speech by Nicole Jones in honour of Magdalen Berns:
Magdalen is someone who, when you speak to her, you leave the conversation inspired to do more. To be more. To be better. To speak clearer. To compromise less. To obfuscate less. Her channel is often spoken about as delivering hard truths, but behind the witty and brash response videos, is honest compassion. When I first met her I was struck by two things: first, her height, but also how friendly and approachable she was, for someone so obviously mighty. She dives into everything she does with unfettered enthusiasm. At 20, she began a career as a sound engineer by, if I remember the story correctly, simply walking right up to a sound engineer at a gig and asking him to teach her. She then went on to study physics at university, taught herself how to code. She is seriously cool.
She told me once about how before she started uni, she cut her hair short and made sure her style communicated she was a lesbian. She was sick of constantly coming out and didn’t want to keep explaining herself. So when she encountered this new dynamic in the student unions, in which lesbians must constantly explain, justify and defend their sexuality against accusations of transphobia, being a proud lesbian, she recognised it immediately for the homophobia that it is. She started her YouTube channel in 2016 and it currently has 30k subscribers. Her videos have help clarify to so many a topic they were previously lost on. She started the channel because she saw there was no one like her saying what she was saying on YouTube, so she wanted to carve out a space and encourage other women to speak out. Talking to her recently this is what she emphasises: the need to speak out. The need for women to work together, to stop infighting, and move forward. There is no time for apprehension. In thread once, someone told Magdalen that they were afraid to share her videos and speak out but that they were grateful that she did. Magdalen, with all her usual tact, responded: “I’m not your fucking martyr.”
This is a collective movement. The responsibility must NOT fall on the shoulders of a few individuals. It is much easier to persecute and make an example out of the individual women who dare stick their head above the parapet. Magdalen herself was permanently reprimanded by her university for her views. The more of us there are speaking out and putting our names to this, the less these tactics work. If you lose friends over this topic, they are not your friends. Dare to be disliked – you will find the opposite happens. Over the last few years, Magdalen and I have met so many amazing women we wouldn’t have if we’d allowed ourselves to be paralysed by fear. Look at how many of us are here today.
I first met Magdalen at a conference called Thinking Differently in 2016, where she asked the audience to repeat the phrase “there is no such thing as a lesbian with a penis”. She has asked we do the same today, so after me: there is no such thing as a lesbian with a penis.
Magdalen won’t be with us for much longer. Let’s honour her work by making sure it not only lives on, but sets a precedent. Today, we are marching and speaking out for lesbians. Let’s make her proud.