There’s nothing surprising about the sight of two women holding hands or kissing in public. It’s just two people in love. It might make you smile if you’re a romantic or look away if you’re not a fan of PDAs. But it wasn’t long ago that same-sex couples who wanted to show their affection in public faced extreme prejudice and persecution. Next week marks 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK. To put it in context, we had birth control pills and colour TV before we had the right to love whoever we wanted.
Before the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, homosexuality was very much treated as an offence. The punishments for engaging in “homosexual activity” were often inhumane: scientist Alan Turing was found guilty of homosexuality in 1952 and was chemically castrated. Gay women faced a different battle. Though lesbianism and bisexuality weren’t subject to the public witch hunt which occurred against gay men (women stayed extremely under the radar even though the state refused to recognise lesbianism within the law), the refusal of society to accept women being gay has meant an extra battle for recognition.
Of course, all of this is unrecognisable from today, when Pride rallies are embraced by all and everyone from politicians to TV presenters are out and proud. Even the once-conservative BBC has marked the 50-year anniversary with a season called Gay Britannia (starting 26 July), which celebrates and commemorates the unheard stories of the LGBTQ community.
In fact, popular culture has been pivotal in the seismic shift in perceptions of gay women and has helped take the lesbian experience from the fringes to the mainstream. TV’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss was broadcast on Brookside in 1994, followed by Ellen DeGeneres coming out in 1997 – both events raising awareness to a wider audience. More recently, actor Ellen Page came out in an emotional speech in 2014 and Cara Delevingne took to Instagram to post her support for National Coming Out Day (11 October, FYI).
But what has really changed? Four women spoke to Stylist about their experiences of coming out in the decades since.
Kym, 57, from London, came out when she was 14 in 1973
I first “came out” to a few school friends just to see how they would react. You had to be careful – you couldn’t just walk into school and say “I’m a lesbian” or you’d probably have had your head kicked in. I’d never heard of “coming out” – all I knew was that I liked girls instead of boys, which was all I told them. I knew the word lesbian but didn’t really know what it meant. My announcement was met with a chuckle of “No you’re not!” or “That’s perverted: stay away from me.” But the news spread like wildfire around school and when my parents found out they were unhappy.
Back then, even sex before marriage was taboo, never mind talking openly about being gay. You couldn’t just Google anything or even make a phone call without your parents breathing down your neck, so I had no way of asking questions about my emerging sexuality. My mental wellbeing suffered because trying to come out had left me feeling confused about who and what I was.
There weren’t many lesbian role models either, so I had nobody to identify with aside from straight, camp rock stars like Suzi Quatro and David Bowie. Being gay was seen as dirty and disgusting. The tabloid press were overwhelmingly negative, which gave the general public a licence to join in.
When I go to Pride now and see how much things have changed, it makes me proud to have played a part in helping create a society that no longer has a right to abuse and undermine lesbians. We shouldn’t be complacent though, homophobia is still a problem – especially outside of London. The turning point for me was in 2014 when gay marriage was legalised. It was the first time I’d felt equal in the eyes of society. That was a very important day for me.
Siobhan, 52, a TV producer from Liverpool, came out aged 18 in 1983
For me, my coming out was when I was first kissed by a female friend at a party, aged 18. It was the moment that changed everything for me. It was 1983 and I had just moved to London, leaving my strict Catholic family in Liverpool behind. I was experimenting with being punk, being a feminist, but I had never really thought about being a lesbian. It wasn’t something we spoke about at school, although I did have intense friendships with girls. I went out with that first girl for a bit, even though my parents were still unaware, but then moved on to a more serious relationship with a girl called Lisa, who I went travelling around Europe with.
I ended up living in a lesbian community in a squat in south London and by then I was fully out as a lesbian. We dressed like punks with ripped clothes and mohawks – we even charged tourists a fiver to have their photo taken with us. As the decade progressed, I came out to friends in London as a ‘Rebel Dyke’: a movement where we wore leather, short skirts and had tattoos to look different to androgynous lesbians.
Coming out to my parents two years later was unplanned. I went home for a visit and it came out during an argument when my dad said something homophobic. There were tears and door-slamming – my mum cried and asked what she had done wrong. It took my family five years to come around. Picking up the phone was hard in those days, as we didn’t have mobiles. Instead, I wrote long letters to my mum telling her who I was dating and would get long letters back. When she finally started accepting my girlfriends and came to visit me in the squat, it meant an awful lot.
Cassie, 40, a design director from Cambridgeshire, came out aged 20 in 1997
I came out as not being straight in 1997, a month into my first serious relationship with a woman I’d met at work. I was in love. I was having lunch with friends in my garden and just blurted it out. I had dated men but nobody seemed surprised. The first clue was probably when I bought Madonna’s book Sex [in 1992] and showed it to my friends, expecting them to find it as exciting as I did.
I first sensed I was different when watching Dallas aged 10 and found I fancied Pam as well as Bobby. But in my small village, I had only heard of one lesbian couple, who were friends of my mum. I was lucky that I grew up in a liberal household, so I never worried about telling my mum. But my dad was different; it took me another five years to pluck up the courage. I wrote him a letter, posted it and waited nervously for his response. He phoned almost immediately and said all that mattered to him was that I was happy. It was everything I had hoped to hear.
The situation was slowly changing for gay people back then. In 1997, Angela Eagle became one of the first openly gay female MPs and same-sex partners were given equal immigration rights. This created an inspiring backdrop to my coming out. But there was still discrimination: Save The Children dropped Sandi Toksvig as presenter for an event after she came out, and the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho was bombed in a homophobic attack in 1999. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to live a lie. Coming out feels like a set-in-stone, once-in-a-lifetime thing, but actually for people like me who don’t fix a sexual identity to myself, it’s something you are constantly doing and discovering.
Sophia, 28, head of business operations at a tech company in London, came out when she was 14 in 2004
The first time you come out can be nerve-wracking. For me, it started when my best friend asked me if I had feelings for girls as well as boys. I said I wasn’t sure, but after thinking about it I realised it was only girls I liked. When my mum came to say goodnight, I announced that I had “something to tell her”. I felt as anxious as if I had committed some terrible crime. She asked me how I knew and suggested I wait until I had some more experiences. It was awkward, but I said I was sure, otherwise I wouldn’t have mentioned it.
At school, I told people gradually. Some would ask out of genuine interest, in a slightly teasing way, while others did it to have something over me. In my class, two of the most popular girls were in a relationship when I was coming out and that helped.
I’ve only come out in one workplace – a young, open-minded group of people who I feel very comfortable with. Elsewhere, I have overheard the odd ignorant joke and sometimes felt an expectation that either I won’t progress in such a male-dominated industry (because I’m female, not straight and not white), or that I will only progress because of positive discrimination, which is hard to deal with. In reality, you still come out one way or another every day – like explaining it isn’t a “lucky man” I’m buying a Valentine’s card for. You have to make a splitsecond decision about whether to avoid it or just come out with it, which shows there is still a way to go.
Images: Splash News / Rex Features / Scope Features / Naomi Lane