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Re-Visiting the Past

So picture it: I’m sitting watching the telly, and find myself tightly holding a cushion and biting my lip. It’s yet another drama depicting a rape scene. There do seem to be an awful lot of them, either showing women being sexually abused or laid out on the coroner’s slab. And it rings a difficult bell for me every time.

Sexual abuse is, of course, a hot topic at the moment, what with film producers, film stars, politicians and celebrities being accused left, right and centre. So, are they all totally guilty? Just a little bit guilty? Or not at all? Some people may feel that what happened to Maisie or Beryl twenty years ago, has little bearing on their life now. The ‘Get over it’ attitude. Maybe it all depends on your perspective and experience.

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Mine is based on my first sexual experiences nearly sixty years ago. These were brutal, without any tenderness or love, starting when I was 13 years old, and an older boy held me against a wall and masturbated over me. I was so naïve that I thought his shaking was due to him having a fit, until my friend told me what that stain was on my school skirt.

At 14 years old, my crush on Barry resulted in him asking to walk me home. Having sex with him for the first time was painful and thankfully quick. Then his friend appeared from nowhere. More pain.

Worse was to come before that year was out. I was gang raped by an unknown number of young men. I never knew their names. I lost count of how many of them ruthlessly abused me over and over again.

GroupI told no-one. As well as being shocked by these events, I felt dirty, ashamed, guilty. I now know that these feelings are common amongst girls and women who are raped or otherwise molested. I had also read those reports in the News of the World newspaper of court cases, where the victim was implied to be lying, a willing participant, seductive, a prostitute or a good time girl. I was terrified of being that girl on the witness stand, accused of such behaviour.

And for the next 35 years I had flashbacks, which usually happened in that time when one is almost asleep, drifting off, but then being brought back to wakefulness as the unwelcome memories pulled me back into consciousness. I would feel frightened at these times, but also incandescent with rage, plotting my revenge, awake for hours.   When I did sleep, I frequently had nightmares about being violently exploited.

I finally talked to my doctor, and she immediately diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She referred me to a counsellor, who was wonderful. I cried throughout the whole fifty minutes of that first session, telling my story through tears and snot. And never had a flash back again. Counselling works.

GriefBut that is not to say that the memories have gone. The five stages of grief, identified by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, seem to me to also apply to the experience of rape. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling.  Maybe they may also have a resonance with women and girls who have been abused. The ‘acceptance’ stage only means that we come to terms with those terrible experiences of being misused. Not that we forget it. Ever.

So, can rape and abuse ever be a subject for televised drama? Is it entertainment?  Is it exploitative? Voyeuristic? Well, yes, probably. At the same time, let us not shy away from showing the world that this is real. Or that it damages and hurts us. Show it, not as a sensationalised soft (or hard) porn for the audience to slaver over, but as a real act of violence by some men and boys.

And notice that I’ve said ‘some’ men and boys. I don’t believe that all men are capable of sexual abuse. I do believe though that some men have no sense of women being people just like them, with hearts, souls, brains and emotions. These men seem to have so internalised the attitude that females are simply there to be playthings for them, that it just doesn’t matter if they are patted on the bottom, have their breasts grabbed, have penetration forced upon them. Unless, of course, that female is their wife, girlfriend, daughter, mother.

Women and girls have rights. We are living, sentient beings. It’s time for a change of attitude, and the brave women (and men) who are currently breaking the silence deserve to be applauded. Don’t ‘Get over it’. Get even.

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OUTing the Past 2018

So picture it: A wet afternoon in August. Of course it’s wet. It’s summer in England. My options are (a) go back to bed (b) do the housework or (c) catch up with emails. Housework is never an attractive option. As Quentin Crisp observed there is a natural limit to how much dust will accumulate, so why bother? I met him when we were both working as a life models (it’s all there in my memoir ‘Rebel Without a Clue’) and this was just one of his pearls of wisdom.

Go back to bed, then? I have to admit I was tempted by the thought of a cosy duvet, a good book and a cat to cuddle. But then the cat, against character, decided to brave the elements and go into the garden to terrorise next door’s dog. It’s not the same without a cat, so the last option was to turn on the computer and scroll through the emails inviting me to go on holiday, buy life insurance, get a better erection.

I soon lost interest (having no need of a better erection) and turned to my addiction: Facebook. And there I saw a post from my friend, Jane Traies, author of an academic and fascinating study ‘The Lives of Older Lesbians’. She mentioned a national wide festival, OUTing the Past, who were requesting submissions for presentations next year.

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Now while I have a background in training adults, public speaking and presentations, this was all some time ago, and I haven’t done anything like that for a long time. But, hey, it’s like riding a bike. You never forget and never lose those skills. I have a book (you may have heard about this. It’s called ‘Rebel Without a Clue’) and includes chapters dealing with coming out in the past. Hmm.

So, what the hell … I submitted an application. And it was only accepted. Blimey. I wonder if I can learn how to use Powerpoint before 2018?

They organisers have asked for a blog to circulate to the various venues, who might want to invite me to speak. I reproduce it here. A blog within a blog, as it were.

Lesbian Clubbing in 1969

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I was 21 in 1969 and was just coming out as a lesbian, having my first passionate affair with a woman, who was a bit more experienced and ten years older than me. Although gay men could lay claim to a few visible role models, we lesbians were rather limited. There were no celebrities, soap characters or comedians that we could relate to.

I never knew that there was a club for lesbians. A place to meet other, similar, women. Then the film ‘The Killing of Sister George’ was released. It was a story about lesbians, but not a good story. It showed lesbians as sleazy, nasty, cold and a bit odd. But it did have a scene in a lesbian club. I thought that this was a figment of the writer’s imagination, never imagining that it was real place.

So, going with my lover, to the actual Gateways Club in Chelsea for the first time was a huge revelation. The women, the music, the tiny basement room with a juke box at one end and the bar at the other, the walls adorned with murals and condensation, was a heady experience. It made such an impact on me, and I remember it like yesterday.

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A new lesbian – me at 21 years old

The lesbian club scene would remain a hidden one for several more years, but that night showed me a glimmer of hope for the future, where women could love and lust for each other without hiding in a dark basement. A world of visibility.

How I got into this field of study

Having come out in the late 60s, through the unconventional route of swinging parties, I realised that I had an interesting story to tell, not least with respect to the changes for LGBT people. I could recall times when gay sex between men was illegal, when gay sex between women was invisible. I decided to write my memoirs (Rebel Without a Clue) to tell the story of my life from childhood to my early thirties. It turned out to be a tale of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but also a story of enormous social and personal change.

First Memories of LGBT activism

I remember feeling angry about the unfairness of LGBT invisibility and, for men, illegality, around 1970. I can’t recall how I found out, but in July 1972, on the nearest date to the Stonewall riots, a march was held in London. It was the first Gay Pride march in the UK, and I went to it, finding I was virtually the only woman. It tipped down with rain, and the pockets of my cagoule became filled with water, but I didn’t care. I felt part of a community, and felt that I was a small part of changing attitudes and society.

By 1982 I was a volunteer on London Lesbian Line, and by 1988 was marching against Section 28 with others, men and women. The weather was fine on that occasion.

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Marching somewhere (?) circa 1983

Early LGBT activism tended to see gay men and women separately pursuing different agendas. We tended not to mix very much. They had their clubs and we had meetings. However, when the AIDS crisis broke in the UK, I wanted to be involved, to address the awful homophobia and misinformation that was rife at the time.

I applied for, and was appointed, as one of the first paid workers for the Terrence Higgins Trust. It became more than just a job for me. It was almost a vocation, and changed me both personally and professionally. I became friends with gay men … and lost a few separatist feminist friends.

However, not all of my efforts at Terrence Higgins were for gay men. I also wrote and produced the first health education leaflet aimed at providing information about HIV and AIDS for women.

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First day at Terrence Higgins Trust 1985

The Role of Activism in my everyday life

Whilst I still believe in the power of protest, I no longer go on the marches. Age and arthritic knees have put paid to that. However, I am still passionate about equality, diversity and justice. As well as campaigning for LGBT rights, I am a campaigner for animal welfare, both domestic and wild. Most of this is done from my ‘office’ (actually a desk on the landing) on the computer, but that does not make it any less meaningful.

My work can be found at:

My book, Rebel Without a Clue – a Memoir can be bought as a paperback at Waterstones, Gays the Word, Amazon and Housmans, or from my publishers at www.troubador.co.uk   It can also be bought as an ebook from Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Google Play and Nook.

I also write a blog, which can be found at:

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Blocks, Books and Blogs

So picture it: I’m sitting at my computer in my bra and knickers, hair wet from the shower. I’m not inviting you to share an erotic fantasy, you understand, just waiting for the creative impulse to arrive, via the blank space currently in my head.

The problem with having a blog is that there must be something to write about. I did quite well in the early days of writing it, but now seem to have slowed down, the muse having quite deserted me. This is Blog number 20, which I guess ain’t bad for a year’s blogging.

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There is another blog I read sometimes, and he seems to post something every day. I don’t know how he does it. And whether I would want to do it. Or whether you would want me to do it. Between you and I, it does get a little tedious to have a daily blog. Not that I would tell him that. I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings.

Now here’s something to tell you about: I’ve started writing a sequel to my first memoir ‘Rebel Without a Clue’. My story in that book ended around 1981 and, of course, life went on after that. Maybe not as crazy, drug fuelled or sex driven, and certainly there was no more public nudity. (Am I whetting the appetite of those of you who have not yet read Rebel Without a Clue? Oh, good.)

But my life continued to be interesting, exciting, risky (albeit in different ways), so there is more to write about. There was murder, lesbian relationships, work with HIV and AIDS when it was still seen as a public danger. Forging friendships with gay men (unusual for a lesbian in those days. We tended not to mix very much.) The suicide of a best friend, the slow, painful death of another. Climbing the career ladder, then being made redundant. Then climbing it again – and being made redundant again.  Tears, laughter, pain, joy, love and anger. It’s all there in the forthcoming sequel. It’s working title is ‘Rebel With a Cause’, but that may change

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However, as any author will tell you, creative writing is 25% inspiration, and 75% perspiration. As someone said ‘I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.’ The first draft is a doddle. It flows and grows, takes on a life of it’s own and is exciting as the words form paragraphs, and the story takes shape. That’s the easy bit. Then comes the re-writes, editing, revisions, the amendments, adjustments, alterations. By the end of the umpteenth version, you are sick to death of the bleedin’ thing. And then something magical happens. It becomes a book. A thing that you can hold in your hand, smell the paper and ink, turn the pages. It is real.

So the writing has begun, and I’m getting the bare bones of it on paper. I’ve been looking at some old photos and am astonished to see the person I was then. I can barely relate to her, this young woman so full of energy, bright eyed, gamine and lovely. The pictures remind me not only of who I was, but of what I was to become. A strong, capable older woman, comfortable in her skin. Indeed, comfortable in her bra and knickers, sat at the computer.

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You know what? Writing is never going to make me rich and famous, but I enjoy it so much that I am prepared to take that risk of being ridiculed, slagged off or just ignored. Whether writing my memoirs (or any of the other projects I have in mind) or my blog, I just want to use language to fulfil a need in myself, and if it makes you, dear reader, laugh or think or get angry, then I am happy.

And here is a useful tip for those blank moments, that writer’s block – nothing works better than eating ice cream, straight from the tub. The creative juices start to flow quicker than a melting raspberry ripple scoop.

 

Soup and Soap

So picture it – I still had a week until my payday, I was up to my overdraft limit and I had £2.50 left in my purse. In my cupboard I still had pasta, rice and a couple of onions.   I figured if I could pinch some butter, rolls and tea bags from the ward, I would just have enough to get by on macaroni cheese, which would be dinner for two nights, an omelette and bread for the third night. Then chicken soup with rice for the rest of the week. So that was dinner taken care of. Now I only had to find food for breakfast and lunch.

LadybirdIt was 1972 and I was a student nurse, earning a pittance and with no financial support from my family, which some of the younger nurses could count on. It was only by ducking and diving, stealing food from work, and picking up discarded, bruised vegetables from the street in the market, that I managed to get by. Some of my meals were unusual, to say the least. Soup made from an eclectic variety of veggies featured widely.

It is shocking how little things have changed for the current generation of nurses. They are having to resort to food banks to survive. Indeed, it is shocking that we need food banks for the poor in the 21st Century.

But how many of us are aware of the need for food banks, or where a collection point might be sited or how the groceries are distributed?

One of my guilty pleasures is watching ‘EastEnders’. I’m a little embarrassed to be such a devotee because it is a ‘soap’ and because of it’s reputation for gloomy, depressing storylines. Maybe this status is deserved, but there is no doubt that it also brings difficult social issues to the attention of the public. Box

One such recent plot had Dee, a middle-aged woman, who had fallen on hard times, almost starving. She was too proud to ask for help, having to resort to taking food from bins, stealing food and just getting by.

EastEnders has also tackled issues such as homophobia, hostility and fear of AIDS, bullying, homelessness, prostitution – by choice and girls forced into working the streets. It has covered child abuse, alcoholism, euthanasia, disability. The list goes on, and while these stories are grim, they also educate. They allow the viewer to learn, to empathise, to discuss at the water cooler.

When they introduced the first ever soap HIV/AIDS story in the UK, the Easties production team approached the Terrence Higgins Trust, where I was working, to ask for consultation with the script. That task fell to me. The script only needed a few tweaks to accurately reflect the character’s experience of an HIV diagnosis.

Eastenders

They came to see us at the offices of the Trust, then in a dilapidated grotty building, where we had gradually acquired more rooms to rent as the organisation grew. One of these spaces was being used as counselling room. My colleague had decided, without telling anyone, to decorate it. That was fine, but she had chosen black for all the walls.

Now can you imagine it? Someone with HIV or AIDS coming for counselling, and entering this funereal room, lit only with a couple of uplighter? Blimey. That would cheer you up no end.

However, the EastEnders crew faithfully recreated the room, complete with black walls and the exact same lampshades.   No wonder the character, Mark Fowler, got very upset with his counsellor.

BabsBut fair play to the producers. They strove for authenticity in all aspects of the story. And they did get it right, even down to the hostility shown to Mark by the landlady of the Queen Vic pub, Peggy Mitchell. This was a particularly brave move, as Peggy (played by Barbara Windsor) was a popular character, and her attitudes reflected those of many of the public. She was heard to utter the immortal words ‘Git outta my pub’ on more than one occasion.

Over time, though, Peggy’s opinions changed. She became more sympathetic to Mark’s situation. And this, I think, had a direct bearing on the move towards acceptance by the man and woman on the street towards people with HIV and AIDS.

The quality of acting in the drama is almost always believable, often emotive and engaging. The characters are fully realised and have depth. By heck, I think I’ve met some of these people in everyday life.

And there is humour in the script, too. Think of Dot and her malapropisms and medicinal sherry, Ian and his pompous ways, Little Willy the dog, and Princess Di, another dog. And now the new family, who put the Shameless family, well, to shame.

The excellent quality of performing, storylines and characterisation is often overlooked by it’s detractors. Perhaps many of these have never actually watched it, or have only done so with their big, fat snobby hat on.

I would contend, though, that any soap that includes the issues of the day, the problems of our wonderful, but flawed society, and which is honest and ground breaking deserves accolades. It doesn’t come up with any answers, no glib solutions, but it sure as hell puts them in our living rooms three times a week.