Violence Against Lesbians – A Powerful Panel at #FiLiA2019

There aren’t enough spaces where violence against lesbians can be openly discussed. But FiLiA – Britain’s biggest feminist conference – is one of them. The Violence Against Lesbians panel took place in the Bradford Hotel on Saturday 19th October. Over a hundred women attended the session. Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes, Susan Hawthorne, Hilary McCollum, and Angela Wild made up the panel, chaired ably by Sally Jackson.

The purpose of FiLiA, as Sally opens by reminding us, is to amplify women’s voices. In particular, to amplify the voices of women who are seldom heard and often silenced. Lesbians’ voices aren’t always listened to – in mainstream society, feminist spaces, or even the LGBT community. And so, if the numbers are anything to go by, a lot of women feel a sense of relief that lesbians are a priority at FiLiA.

The night before, Consuelo read that the President of Chile had declared a state of emergency. This reminds her of life under the Pinochet regime. As a young woman, Consuelo was arrested. She thought, at first, it was because she’d been protesting along with other academics and students. It was because Consuelo was a lesbian that the police held her. She was tortured. Corrective rape was weaponized against her. Consuelo didn’t tell the police anything about the left-wing revolutionary movement that she was part of.

“They said all I needed was a good fuck from a real man, but what they will never understand is that I love you precisely because you are not a man.”

One of the remarkable things about FiLiA is that women can stand up and disclose all manner of horrors in a room full of strangers and know that the entire room has her back. Women cry as Consuelo speaks, and hold a respectful silence when she cannot.

Now, some thirty years later, Consuelo tells her own story on her own terms. She escaped to Britain after a police officer attempted to coerce Consuelo to have sex with his female lover while he watched. Here, Consuelo established Victorina Press. She has published her own memoir, along with books by 23 women and counting.

Consuelo, she tells us, means consolation. And as I listen to Consuelo recount the horrors she has been subject to, I can’t help but find consolation in the fact that survived, that Consuelo is standing before us now – a majestic woman who wears her shaved head like a crown.

Susan Hawthorne is our next speaker. Hers is a life full of colourful experiences – from volunteering at Melbourne Rape Crisis to working as an aerialist in a women’s circus. Susan has been a member of the women’s liberation movement since 1973, and written 15 books – including a manifesto on lesbian separatism.

While researching lesbian lives, Susan was told to be careful in Uganda because lesbians were tortured there. This was a pivotal moment that inspired decades of research and campaigning. When Susan looked up “lesbians tortured” on Google, trying to learn about human rights injustices, all the results were pornography.

Even Amnesty International’s research on women being tortured was “light on the L” – lesbians featured only in the appendix. Literature on torture rarely mentioned lesbians. Male-centric NGOs continue to overlook violence against lesbians, as does the state. In many countries, Susan has found, lesbians’ experiences of violence are not recorded as hate crimes.

Susan – co-founder of Spinifex Press – has devoted much of her life to raising awareness. She’s had “positive responses from lesbians, deathly silence from the rest of the world.” To paraphrase Gillian Hanscombe, “Nobody is proud of dykes… Only other dykes are proud of dykes.” And I am proud to be part of the same global community of women as Susan.

Next up is Hilary McCollum, an award-winning novelist and playwright. A woman of many talents, the focus of Hilary’s PhD is creating lesbian history through lesbian fiction. Her research considers the legacies of male violence, violence targeted against lesbians, and internalized homophobia.

In feminist discussions of male violence against women, straight women don’t always get how it affects lesbians. But – as Hilary reminds us all – lesbians experience male violence because we’re women, like all other women. The Camden Black Lesbian group used to run a survivors’ group. This was, Hilary says, an incredible space to talk with other survivors about how experiences of male violence shape yourself and your body.

To Hilary, it is crucial that we challenge the narrative that you’re a lesbian because of abuse, because you can’t get a man, or because you want to be a man. All of these assumptions live in the intersection of homophobia and misogyny.

Homophobia, Hilary describes as “an everyday colonization of the mind.” While lesbian life is improving in the UK and Northern Ireland, there’s still a long way to go – as Hilary’s interviews with lesbians make plain. Violence from friends, colleagues, parents, and partners are all significant problems.

Hilary advocates lesbian visibility as a challenge to violence against lesbians. She wonders if, without a lesbian past excavated and understood, we would ever count as fully human. The epistemic violence of lesbian erasure undermines our identity and distorts social understandings of female sexuality, as well as depriving us of the history and context of lesbian passion.

Angela Wild is our final speaker. Through her work with Get the L Out, she champions lesbian culture and women’s spaces. Angela conducted a piece of research called Lesbians at Ground Zero, interviewing lesbians to highlight the cotton ceiling phenomenon. She undertook this project because, while there’s a lot of focus on tensions between the rights of women and transgender people, little attention goes towards how this affects lesbians. Angela is here to present the study’s findings.

Before she begins, Angela clarifies that her political analysis is based on sex, not gender, and material reality, not identity. She refuses to gaslight herself or the audience through using queer language. This statement is met with a cheer.

To carry out this research, Angela produced a list of 30 questions. More than 80 lesbians responded over a course of five days. She is grateful to all the women who trusted her enough to share their stories. Angela doesn’t claim to represent all lesbians with her research. Women participated because they felt overlooked by Stonewall – which does claim to represent all lesbians.

Angela talks about the cotton ceiling, the belief that sexual access to lesbians is a barrier to be overcome. She highlights the risk of treating lesbian sexuality as a source of external validation for transwomen. 56% of the respondents reported being pressured or coerced to accept a transwoman as a sexual partner. The cotton ceiling, Angela says, is where rape culture meets compulsory heterosexuality.

98.8% of respondents said they would not be willing to consider a transwoman as a potential sexual partner. And 66% reported being intimidated by or experiencing threats from other members of the LGBT community as a consequence. Some even lost their jobs. Being targeted has led these women to experience isolation. Lesbians singled out for online abuse are less likely to participate in LGBT community offline.

Wild’s findings will prove controversial to some. And yet – as conversations surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality grow ever more heated – there is value in having clear statistics and testimonies recorded. Mainstream, male-centric LGBT organizations such as Stonewall cannot be relied upon to engage with lesbian voices – especially when they are raised in dissent.

Each panelist took the discussion about violence against lesbians in a different direction. This mosaic of women’s perspectives builds an extraordinary picture. There is the sorrow of life in a world where violence against lesbians is endemic. And there is the magic of women uniting, resisting, building our own platforms and communities.