INTERVIEW: Linda Bellos on trans activism, coming out, and being a black lesbian feminist on the left

“There is a history of lesbians — and similarly, there is a history of black people — that both seem to be hidden from history, and we keep being ‘disappeared.'”

Linda Bellos

Linda Bellos is a lesbian feminist, longtime Labour activist, and UK equality law specialist. She was elected to Lambeth Borough Council in London in 1985 and was the leader of the council from 1986 to 1988. Bellos was vice-chair of the Black Sections campaign to select African Caribbean and Asian parliamentary and local candidates within the Labour Party, treasurer of the Africa Reparations Movement (UK), co-chair of the Southwark LGBT Network (until February 2007), and an adviser to Southwark Council. From 2000 to 2003, she was co-chair of the LGBT Advisory Group to the Metropolitan Police. In 2006, she was awarded OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to diversity. I interviewed her via email about her activism, experiences in the feminist movement, and the current controversy surrounding her clash with trans activists.

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Meghan Murphy: What first led you into lesbian feminist activism? What politicized you?

Linda Bellos: I realized that I had fallen in love with a woman. Initially, it caused me distress, but I spent several days analyzing my feelings and why I had not known about the possibility of women loving women or, more to the point, black women loving women. I went through a great deal of anguish and uncertainty over the following weeks and months, but at the end of that process, I recognized that I had probably been a lesbian all of my life, but had been socialized not to know this. At that time there were not many out black lesbians (or if there were, I was not aware of them).

Moving away from a heterosexist world enabled me to analyze “gender,” which ascribed roles to humans — with men as superior to women — and I rejected both the ideology of gender and the subordinate role of women. Rape and “wife” battering were issues known to me and I now had an ideological understanding of “gender” being an ideology, not a description.

MM: You were the first black woman to join the Spare Rib collective, back in 1981 — what was that experience like? What were some of the key issues the magazine was focused on then?

LB: The experience of Spare Rib was part of my growing as both a lesbian and a feminist. I was keen to see black women being an integral part of the constitution of women, as it felt as though my arguments with many — but not all  — white women were about inclusion. White working class women were largely ignored by Spare Rib, as were all black women (and by “Black,” I used the political definition of: African, Caribbean, and South Asian heritage). Social class was, to me — a long time Marxist — another central feature of what we bring to the table as human beings: our class and background.

MM: What have you seen change — either for better or for worse — in terms of what’s commonly referred to as “gay rights” activism and issues pertaining to the feminist movement? Are there things you feel we should have learned from past activism that we have not?

LB: I do not know what you mean by the word gay, I have never used it or seen myself as gay I am and remain a proud lesbian. I have seen significant improvement in one area: that of custody of our children as lesbians — this did not exist as a right until quite recently. I lost custody of my children, but thankfully I was able to retain an adequate relationship with them, as I saw them one weekend every month, for two weeks during the summer school break, and every other Christmas. When they were older, both chose to live with me for a period.

As for improvements in general, there clearly are some, but the growth of trans politics seem to me a step backwards. I do not mean that there are not humans who believe and feel that they are in the wrong “gender,” but we seem to be taking back the many gains that feminists fought for. To me it seems like [the trans rights movement] enforces gender, which assigns roles to men and to women. As a feminist, I reject these roles and believe that all human beings should be free to be the best that they can be — people don’t need to to be gendered any more than they need to to be white. By this, I mean that the social construction of roles attributed to males and females is as dangerous and damaging to those attributed to black and/or white people. These are man-made concepts, and I, for one, reject them. I think and believe that we are all different, unique human beings, in our rich diversity, and that race and gender are oppressive notions.

MM: When did you come out as a lesbian? What was that experience like?

LB: I came out in 1979 and it was a marvelous, wonderful revelation, but I lost custody of my children and developed ulcers for the first time. Becoming a lesbian felt like coming home. I was undoubtedly a feminist but I also felt that I was part of lesbian heritage. I did not become a lesbian because I was a feminist, but the other way around: I became a lesbian and then I discovered feminism, including black lesbian feminists.

I am planning to celebrate my 40 years as a Dyke next year with my children and grandchildren, as well as many ex-lovers and all of my friends will be invited.

MM: You were very involved with the Labour Party during the 80s. Did you find the party to be particularly male dominated then? What was it like being a black female politician on the left? Have things changed much, as far as you can tell?

LB: I was involved in the Labour Party and am still a member. Of course it was male dominated, and it still is. Being a black female politician on the left is probably slightly easier than being a black female politician on the right. There are clearly a larger number of female MPs in the Labour Party — black and white — today. Overall, this is good, but some of these women do not know the history of the fight to get them there. I am pleased that there are more female MPs on all sides, but I wish they recognized how little they know about feminism so that they could reflect or at least understand the demands we make for justice and equality for all. At the moment, we are not allowed to complain when our rights are taken away by men who claim to be women. The right to speak against the political attacks on us and any point we make to defend the things we have had to fight for, they call transphobic. It is either ironic or deliberate that men are determining what women may say and how we may say it in the name of being “transwomen.” (By the way, I know many transwomen who do not hold these views.)

MM: What aspects of your activism or political career you are particularly proud of?

LB: I am proud of my role as a politician in introducing Black History Month in the UK in 1987 and in challenging the BBC and other broadcasters to include Black people [in their media coverage], which I lobbied for via my campaign group, Black Media Monitoring, during the late 1990s. I also worked with the late Bernie Grant MP on Reparations for Africa in the early 1990s. I am currently working to get people to understand the social construction of both “race” and “gender.”

MM: Last year, the Beard Society invited you to speak at Peterhouse College at Cambridge, but then rescinded the invitation after you told the organizers you planned to question “some of the trans politics … which seems to assert the power of those who were previously designated male to tell lesbians, and especially lesbian feminists, what to say and what to think.” You later spoke at a meeting organized by We Need to Talk*, a group challenging proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. Why did you decide to start speaking out about gender identity and gender identity legislation last year?

LB: I was invited to speak to this college group and did not intend to confuse them on my stance — I wanted to meet with them to hear what they had to say and for them to hear me. I believe this is called “dialogue.” Imagine if, as a black woman, I refused to talk with or be the same physical space of those with whom I disagreed on racism?

The invitation came to me without my prompting — I had spoken to Cambridge colleges in the past, as well as Oxford ones, including at the Oxford Union. I happen to believe in free speech.

I had taken a long break from public speaking, and didn’t begin doing it again until 2017 because in the previous seven years I had been caring for my partner, until she died in 2015, and in the two years that followed I was grieving. I was coming out of grief when I saw images of Maria MacLachlan being attacked at Speaker’s Corner. She was attacked by two people, who appeared to be young men. This certainly outraged me, and led me to read about what had been happening in this new politics of trans.

Caroline Jones, my partner of 15 years, died from cervical cancer, which undoubtedly had an impact on my attitude to and analysis of this new trans politics (and still does).

MM: You’re currently facing private prosecution from a self-identified transwoman named Giuliana Kendal because you said you’d defend yourself from attacks by trans activists, should they attempt to harm you. What is happening with the case? What do you think about the fact someone is trying to have you charged over these comments?

LB: The case is set to be heard on November 30th this year. I am charged with “using threatening threatening or abusive words or behaviour of disorderly behaviour within hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”

What I said was that, if attacked, I would defend myself. And frankly I stick to that claim. My definition of wisdom when being attacked is that I talk my way out of it, use my fists, or run. These are matters I had to make judgements on when racists attacked me in the 1950s and 60s, and which still apply today (though at nearly 68-years-old I am not quite as fast as I used to be). The term “hate speech” was not used… It would be interesting if this person [Kendal], who until recently was a white man, and looks to be somewhat younger than I, is claiming that I have superhuman physical powers — this has been said about many black women, such as Joy Gardner, who was murdered by police and immigration officers, bound with tape which suffocated her. They, too, acted as though she were a real threat to them.

MM: What is your advice to young lesbian feminist activists today, considering what they are faced with in this climate? How can they take action? What should they focus their energy on, in terms of organizing? What might some effective organizing strategies be?

LB: I do hope young — and indeed middle-aged and old women — are free and able to come out when they are ready. If they are lesbians they should be able to be lesbians. There is a strong and proud — but often unacknowledged — heritage of lesbians. I was deeply offended earlier this year when an artist who was lesbian was said to be transgender, just because she identified as “butch.” I, like her, wear men’s suits. I do because they are better made and cheaper than the girly versions. There is a history of lesbians — and similarly, there is a history of black people — that both seem to be hidden from history, and we keep being “disappeared.”

Young lesbians should seek information from older lesbians, and we [older lesbians] should offer lessons in lesbian history. In England, [younger lesbians] should learn about the history of what was the terrible (from my perspective, as it reinforced traditional butch/femme culture) Gateways lesbian bar in Chelsea, as well as the many groups and meeting places which existed up to the mid 2000s.

Sheila Jeffreys has written some important books on this topic, but she is being boycotted by some trans extremists who would rather those of us who are proud to be women and lesbians keep quiet and go back into our proper place. We lesbians do not have to agree with each other on everything, but we should all be proud to be Dykes.

*This article originally (mistakenly) stated the meeting in question was organized by A Woman’s Place UK. In fact, the meeting was organized by We Need to Talk (about the GRA).

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Joanna

    Great and really deep interview!

  • Meghan Murphy

    The meeting referenced, though, was organized by A Woman’s Place UK https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ec0mG6B6b9M

    Regardless of which group’s politics you prefer, our job is to report accurately. Venice is wonderful and has been given much credit and support for her work, here at FC.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Whoops! My mistake. Will correct.

    (FTR, Venice’s courageous work has been featured and supported many times on FC…)

  • Jen Miller

    What a wonderful woman. And how devastating that after decades of fighting the good fight, at a time in her life when she should be able to chill a little and enjoy her achievements, she is instead being subjected to a whole new wave of abuse. One of the many things that’s disturbing about some areas of the “queer and trans” movement is its disrespect for elders, especially mature and experienced women. Perhaps cos “grumpy old women” are the least likely to let themselves get pushed around!

  • acommentator

    “We are supposed to believe that a 68 year old black woman is some kind of threat to a biological male half her age.”

    (It sounds like it reaches “hate speech” (“abusive” words . . . likely to . . . [cause] harassment”) as well as threats of violence. I don’t know how anyone can feel secure with this kind of prosecution possible, particularly anyone who is politically active.

  • Jani

    Yes, it hasn’t escaped my attention that a lot of these self described “queer” women fit the stereotype of the unpopular girl at school, a bit plain, a bit chubby, a bit socially awkward, or whatever, and then they discover a tribe and find an identity to buy into, and as you say, they aren’t sexually attracted to other women. It’s more likely to be the case that they’re too awkward or lack confidence around boys and being “queer” is just one way of saying “oh, you know, I never wanted a boyfriend anyway, even though I really do want some cute guy to fall in love with me but he only goes after the cute girls and not me”. As you say, previously they would have been the misunderstood goth kid, slamming doors and yelling “it’s not fair” at their parents. Like you, I think it’s more about having a “different” identity and a tribe to belong to. I know that a few “queer” women will be lesbians or bisexual but from what I can tell most are your straightahead angsty adolescents.

    • unfashionable

      I’m afraid the misfit girls you imagine could indeed mostly be lesbians. Except for the part about how what they “really” want is a cute guy.

      Lots of women come out as lesbian or bi as late as their 50s. Lots. I think it’s important not to underestimate how hard it still is to cop to being lesbian, and not assume that “queer”-identifying girls are really just failed straight wannabes. I mean it’s just not that hard for any girl to get sex from some teenage boy.

      I think it’s more reasonable and less harmful to assume that “queer” is a fashionable way to avoid being seen as the unfashionable man-hating deviant butch of one’s socially induced nightmares.

      • Jani

        I’m sure some queer-identified women are lesbian or bisexual, and that’s fine. I do see the eradication of lesbian as a political class in our present culture, along with the denigration of feminism (the TERF and feminazi slurs). So I understand and agree with what you are saying.

        There IS a lot of confusion in younger people, the generation who have grown up with access to every type of pornography, and that’s going to create a lot of confusing, contradictory and traumatic feelings about sex, regardless of whether the child is straight, lesbian, bisexual, gay or whatever. Porn makes sex look abusive, painful and frightening to kids, and who would want to be a straight woman if she’s restrained, slapped and gagged? When a 12 year old sees “shemale” for the first time, how the F do they make sense of that? Who can they ask? They certainly won’t want to tell their mother what they’ve seen online! So I am not surprised in the least about the current day confusion about gender and sexuality. We’ve had about 20 years of 24/7 free porn, so I think we’re seeing it’s effects in the younger generation. It’s influence on straight men has been toxic, and explains a lot of misogynistic attitudes.

        I know this is a very complicated area, but if I was 14 I’d be confused. What is a man? What is a woman? What is sex? What is gay? What is straight? What is gender? Etc etc. The “queer” identity would seem to offer some respite to some people. That’s not intended to discount the experience of coming out, but rather the complicated social landscape we are in now.

  • SkyLark Phillips

    No rational person actually believes that a 68 year old woman with no history of violence and a long record of public service is actually a physical threat to anyone. Trans activists want to make an example out of her in order to intimidate and bully women. The only way they can push their homophobic “Cotton Ceiling”, misogynistic agenda is to silence women. Women will NOT be silenced. Women have received TERF death threats for years, and as I type this a transwoman is on trial in Oakland, California for slaughtering an interracial lesbian couple and their son.

    • unfashionable

      Women will not be silenced, I agree; but we are being censored and deplatformed. Radical feminist blogs on WordPress coming down as we speak.

  • Ashley Braman

    She is a true shero to us all! Thank you so much for your work. And i hope court goes in your favor. Best of luck xoxoxo