Helen Paris and Leslie Hill

“We have experienced being looked through, looked past or hidden away entirely”

As a young lesbian woman in the eighties, there were no older women couples Helen Paris could look as role models. Now married to her partner of 27 years, she questions whether lesbian couples are any more visible and recognised all these decades later.

Lucy and Jem, my niece and nephew are keen thespians. At 13 and 15 they talk knowledgably about needing to be ‘triple threats’ (actors, singers and dancers). In the same conversation they chat easily about their non-binary, gay and trans friends. Despite everything their generation will have to cope with, I still feel tremendous hope for them because of how they see themselves and each other more clearly and more compassionately.

Recently I have been thinking about a very different kind of ‘triple threat’: the sexism, ageism and heterosexism of lesbian visibility or, as Monika Kehoe writes, of older lesbians being a triply invisible minority.

Lesbianism is of course historically cloaked in invisibility.  When I was young there were literally no older couples I could look to as models of enduring lesbian partnerships other than Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and they weren’t exactly relatable. The gay scene, such as it was, was completely dominated by men and no one was over 30. Most queer women in the generation above me didn’t come out until much later in their lives, if ever, and it didn’t usually go well for them. Billie Jean King lost all her sponsorship overnight; Ellen DeGeneres’s TV show was cancelled. I’d be in my 50s by the time Billie Jean married her doubles partner Ilana Kloss and sat in the Royal Box at Wimbledon between her wife and the Princess of Wales.

Living through how it was

In 1991 I was part of Belfast’s first Pride March, attended by about 100 brave marchers and followed a significantly larger number of very angry fist-waving, slur-shouting religious right protesters. From 1988 to 2003 I lived through the social tyranny of Clause 28, Thatcher’s prohibition of the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities and the prohibition of teaching the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.  In the USA I lived through DOMA (the Defence of Marriage Act) and Proposition 8, (a California ballot proposition and a State Constitutional Amendment that repealed and banned same-sex marriage) until they were both finally repealed by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Things have changed and there is much in recent years to celebrate.  2020 saw the first Lesbian Visibility week. In 2021 the first LGBTQ+ housing for retirees was opened in London by Tonic Housing. This year the gorgeous 82-year-old out and proud Miriam Margolyes graced the cover of Vogue ‘I like being gay!’ Margolyes says, ‘I wouldn’t be straight for anything!’ (July 2023)

Experiencing the invisibility

I am, though, also aware that the triple threat of lesbian visibility is alive and kicking and presents itself in the most innocuous places. Last month Leslie, my partner of 27 years, and I went to one of our favourite National Trust gardens. Long-time supporters of the NT we have Family Membership. Leslie had forgotten her card but got out her driver’s license to verify her name and address with our membership details.  The man at the desk furrowed his brow, looked at me, looked at Leslie. Behind us the queue shuffled. Finally, he narrowed his eyes, pointed a finger to his head and said, ‘it just doesn’t compute.’ I have championed the inclusive approach the NT have taken in (re)presenting histories in recent years, and the way ‘for ever, for everyone’ is in its mission statement, but standing there what came back to me were those awful words, pretended family relationship. He literally couldn’t get his head around us having a family membership. He couldn’t see us.

I witnessed something similar in the National Gallery the other week.  One of the security guards came over to a boy sitting on the bench looking at the paintings. ‘Where are your Mum and Dad?’ the guard said, already on shaky ground. The boy pointed to his parents, the two women standing right next to him. In neither of these cases was there an apology offered. In each event both women, both families were rendered invisible.

Making ourselves seen

In my novel The Invisible Women’s Club 72-year-old lesbian Janet Pimm loves her allotment plot, but longs for companionship. Meanwhile Bev Bytheway, a straight Scottish midwife struggles with Perimenopause and champions women’s health care. The book tells a story of intergenerational female friendship, community spirit and that it is never too late to find a new friend or a new love. It celebrates brave, bold, tenacious women who fight for each other and for what they believe in. It lauds the wit and wisdom of older women, their friendships, their voices and the revolutionary power of their laughter. It is also about how society renders women invisible as they age. If we’re North of 40 we have experienced those daily slights, being looked through, looked past or hidden away entirely, seated at the back of the restaurant by the toilets. In The Invisible Women’s Club I wanted to write about the stark gender bias in the way women experience ageing. I also wanted to write about older lesbians.

The first time Leslie and I got married was in 1997 in the Marin Headlands, over-looking the Golden Gate Bridge. The vows were officiated by a lesbian vicar in a kaftan, the ceremony officially recognised only by the City of San Francisco. In 2008 we had a Civil Partnership in at Marylebone Town Hall in London with friends and family. In 2011 we filed for a Domestic Partnership in the state of California, where our UK Civil Partnership was not recognised. As the lesbian news anchor Rachel Maddow observed, our civil rights seemed to fade in and out like radio stations on a long-distance drive, depending on where we were. In 2013, after the repeal of Prop 8 and DOMA, we were married in San Francisco City Hall, standing by a bust of Harvey Milk, a legal contract recognised by both State and Federal government, saving us from filing our taxes ‘married’ for California and ‘single’ for Federal.

Helen and Leslie at their San Franscisco wedding

I know a lot of our LGBTQ+ friends don’t adhere to queers getting married seeing it as heteronormative, patriarchal. And I get that. Like Margolyes I agree that gay people are lucky because we are not conventional. But for us, particularly as a bi-national couple, gay marriage is both a political act and an excuse for a good knees up. In light of the record number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills currently being introduced in the USA, (520 and counting) the single most important issue is publicly owning our visibility amongst a queer community that finally includes older trans, non-binary and cis women.

By Helen Paris

The Invisible Women’s Club by Helen Paris is published by Doubleday (£16.99). 

Photo Credit – Hugo Glendinning

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