Standing on the Shoulders of Rebel Dykes
Len Lukowski (he/him)
Shaky camcorder footage shows an earnest debate between SM dykes and radical feminists, furious punk bands, naked people oil wrestling in a dark club. Greyscale animation shows original rebel dyke Debbie Smith walking the streets of London in the ’80s, guitar slung on her back, passing feminist graffiti, dykes on motorbikes and sleazy soho lights. It is a London that is both dangerous for queers and dripping with sexual and political possibility. As Smith testifies, ‘It was a great time and a terrible time to be young and queer in London’. Rebel Dykes is a documentary that captures the greatness and terribleness of London in the late 1980s in a style that perfectly reflects the anarchic history it centres. The film is a mish mash of old video footage, animation and recreated scenes from UK queer history by way of budget-friendly workarounds (oversized masks of Thatcher, Sue Lawley, Nicholas Witchell and Ian McKellan are used to mischievously funny effect). For those of us who learned about queer culture from punk rock and cut ‘n’ paste zines the film feels like home, but regardless of familiarity with these things there’s much to be inspired by in this lovingly put together document of a history that could so easily have been lost.
Rebel Dykes pulls together the testimonies of a group of working class dykes from different backgrounds, who came together in London in the ’80s, had kinky sex, danced, DJ’d, made art, fucked each other, played in bands and changed the course of history. Many of them met at Greenham Common, a women’s anti-nuclear weapons camp. By all accounts the number one pull of Greenham for the rebel dykes was the possibility of getting laid. Not all of the film’s subjects met there — DJ Yvonne Taylor recalls her first meetings at South London Women’s Centre, ‘I’d just come out of the army. Do you think I was mentioning that to anybody?’
The subjects of the film are linked by the club night and collective Chain Reaction, a sex positive, women-only club with a leather-dyke heavy clientele, oil wrestling and cabaret involving public sex and beatings. Ooof! This was in 1987 when the so-called ‘feminist sex wars’ were raging so the dykes who put on Chain Reaction were getting heat from both outside and inside the lesbian community. The inter-community tensions came from a school of radical lesbian feminists who believed all porn and BDSM to be tools of patriarchal violence. There was even a taboo around penetration, as collective member Roz Kaveney recalls, ‘There was this joke back in the day that the authentic version of lesbian sex was holding hands in 20 passionate positions‘. At one point the subjects of the film recount an absurd but scary story of a bunch of women breaking into Chain Reaction and physically attacking the attendees in the name of ‘stopping violence against women’. It does not surprise me that many of those hell-bent on policing lesbian desire and behaviour went on to become active Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists.
Though the rebel dykes converge in the London of the ’80s and early ’90s, they split off after Chain Reaction ends its two year run. They get up to political mischief both during and after the Chain Reaction years — some abseil into the House of Lords or invade a BBC live news broadcast to protest Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of Section 28, a law which banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools, effectively censoring any mention of LGBTQ+ people in education settings. They play in bands, take photos, make erotic publications that get censored in absurd homophobic double standards. Some are still in London, some have moved to different parts of the UK and beyond. The rebel dykes are still part of the queer community and many are involved in art, music, kink and social justice.
Whilst the rebel dykes were fucking and getting whipped onstage at Chain Reaction or protesting Section 28, I was a child. But when I watch their testimonies I can’t help but see echoes of my own history reflected back at me. I was born in the 1980s and grew up in Birmingham. Section 28 was in force throughout my entire time at school and did not get revoked until I was at university. I don’t really have any idea how Section 28 affected me because I didn’t know any different. I went to a Catholic school, so perhaps the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality would have been off the table anyway, but the conditions which allowed Section 28 to flourish certainly had an effect on me. Gay was the ultimate insult and trans wasn’t talked about, aside from trans women occasionally cropping up in films and TV shows to get dehumanised.
There was no Internet or social media for marginalised communities to find each other. I rocked up to school, my little gender non-conforming self, to a daily chorus of ‘is it a boy or a girl?’, homophobia and other ritual humiliation. I would try my best to correct myself and look like a ‘normal girl’ but I could never quite crack the formula. Watching Rebel Dykes brings up a lot of emotions for me, on the one hand it’s incredible to know that life as I knew it wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all for queers at the time, that there was incredible resistance, mischief and joy going on. On the other, I feel so angry that this was kept from me, that I didn’t know. My parents were relatively liberal but not in the position to openly discuss gender and sexuality, or encourage me to feel proud of my queerness and difference. Watching the film makes me think back to my schooldays with the bitter sweet knowledge that queers I didn’t even know about, led by dykes, were fighting the violence of heteronormativity. In my fantasies I see a world where we were shown a clip of the rebel dykes invading the BBC in school assembly and encouraged to cheer them on. But of course, if that was the world I’d lived in, the action wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.
At eighteen I moved cities, not to London like the rebel dykes of the film, but to Leeds. There I had my own introduction to queer community. I got involved in a DIY feminist collective called Manifesta who put on queer and feminist gigs and club nights. More reminiscent of rebel dyke activities was Queer Mutiny Leeds, another collective of queer and trans people who squatted buildings, put on events and were generally the more ‘in your face’, radical and horny faction of things. I was both in awe of and intimidated by the Queer Mutiny crew. To my teenage eyes, they had been born in rubber fetish gear. I remember one winter when it was snowing, freezing my arse off in a squatted nunnery that had been turned into a hub of explicit queer DIY entertainment. I was reminded of such parties when watching Rebel Dykes. Del La Grace’s comment of ‘It was so bad it was good’ regarding the performances at Chain Reaction are words to live by for a lot of queer cabaret I saw then and have seen since.
A blistering soundtrack runs through Rebel Dykes of infectious, confrontational, horny punk. In my early twenties I found myself in a queer punk band that consisted of myself and a cis gay friend. Our band was named after the queer French writer, hustler and thief Jean Genet and our performances consisted of stripping to nothing but hot pants and duct-taped nipples, and shouting about queer sex over a keyboard. Generally speaking, I felt extremely insecure and unsure of myself but being in the band was a space in which I somehow stepped into myself and found the courage to express my sexuality and anger and queerness. It strikes me as no coincidence that many of the rebel dykes were musicians and artists. When you’re constantly denied a voice and given the message that you don’t belong, that anger and difference needs to come out somehow.
I eventually left Leeds to move to London in 2007. The London I arrived at was not the London of the eighties or nineties, but many of the faces in the film are ones I would see around at nights such as Bar Wotever, one of the few queer institutions from my first years in the city that remains. The city I moved to also had Trash Palace and Ghetto and First Out Cafe, where I worked for a while. I knew many people squatting in Brixton or Hackney. All of those bars and squats are now gone, just as The Bell and The Market Tavern that featured so prominently in Rebel Dykes are gone. The landscape of queer cities is eternally changing and property developers have never been our friends, but I think an important take-away from Rebel Dykes is that even in hostile conditions, queer life finds a way to bloom.
I recall the Manifesta collective receiving angry emails from a radical feminist anti-porn group due to having a discussion about porn, and particularly BDSM, during the feminist festival Ladyfest Leeds. Troubling as they were, these angry emails were a far cry from the physical and sometimes violent responses to Chain Reaction. As rebel dyke Seija Hirstio says, BDSM has now ‘become something like a normal thing . . . you see these books like 50 Shades of Grey . . . anybody does it.’ At the time I moved to London the entire queer scene seemed so focussed on kink it almost became stigmatised not to practice BDSM. A friend of mine joked recently that in the early 2000s you didn’t even have sex, someone just turned up to your house with a brick and hit you with it. Kind of an inversion of Roz Kaveney’s comments about hand-holding. The key difference is that whilst vanilla sex may not have been considered very cool on the London queer scene of 2007, no one was actually campaigning to make it illegal or attacking those who did it.
Over the years my own identity shifted from dyke to genderqueer to trans man, a trajectory that, of all the rebel dykes, is most similar to Del’s. Despite no longer identifying as a dyke, and being unsure as to whether I would have when I was younger had other avenues been known to me, dyke is an identity that sits at the heart of my queer coming of age, along with genderqueer and punk and whatever other history makes up the man I am today. These things are not easily explainable or neatly categorised and they don’t have to be, I suppose that’s the point of being queer. It felt powerful to watch the film and reconnect with my dyke past, though claiming that history is somewhat soured by the knowledge that dyke spaces have often been less than welcoming to trans women. Chain Reaction was not perfect in this respect, Del La Grace tells us that although the lesbian drama that led to Roz Kaveney withdrawing from the organising collective was not caused by her being trans, this was a factor used by some to bolster it. Despite this, Chain Reaction remains something of an anomaly in its relative acceptance and inclusion of trans women in 1980s lesbian London, one of the reasons it’s so important its history gets told.
“I don’t want to be a straight gay, which is how we used to refer to people like that in the ’80s. For me, the whole point of gay liberation, the whole point of coming out, is to come out as yourself. Whatever that is, wherever that leads you, you should be yourself. And the rebel dykes in the 80s did that at a time when there were really far too many people both inside the movement and in the general public all trying to tell us how to behave.” – Lisa Power
We all have to do certain things to survive, and the older you get the harder it is to live in the exact way you did in your twenties, but it still feels vital to me to reject many of the pervasive expectations set by cis heteronormativity. The demands that you ‘grow up’ and become a respectable person, have a conventional family set up, soften in your politics, stop being so damn angry, become a productive member of a society that is massively unequal. So much was changed by the rebel dykes and similar trailblazers, but we still live in a country where transphobia, homophobia, racism and fascism abide. We have a government who laughs at us whilst a pandemic disproportionately kills the most vulnerable, transphobia is a daily staple of a relentless culture war and every day the country finds new ways to attack migrants and people of colour. We have tools for online connection the rebel dykes did not, but these are tainted by bullying and abuse. Austerity has led to an increase in homelessness and poverty which disproportionately affects queers who are less likely to have the support networks in place cis straight people do. Vicious cuts have been made to mental health services. At the end of Rebel Dykes we see clips of people who are no longer with us — figures in the corner of an old bit of video footage or a blurry photo. Seeing this I’m reminded of the spate of deaths from suicide in the queer and trans community over the last year, how so many of those deaths could have been prevented had there been adequate care in place.
There is still so much to fight for and sometimes it feels completely overwhelming, which is why films like Rebel Dykes are so important, to see what can be achieved through community against the odds, to find solidarity in those that came before us. Despite the adversity the rebel dykes went through the spirit of the film tells us queer lives can be sexy, joyful, irreverent and fun. Rebel Dykes celebrates the creative heart of queer culture — the art, the porn, the music, the joy we can find in each other, even when our own family or society or wider community reject us. It’s a timely reminder we should never lose our sense of possibility, that no moment in queer history exists in isolation, that we can always find strength and solidarity in sharing our stories, be it theirs or mine or yours.
Len Lukowski is a queer writer and performer based in Glasgow. His writing can be found in many places including Wasafiri, The Quietus and Magma. His debut poetry pamphlet ‘The Bare Thing’ will be published in 2022 by Broken Sleep Books. He sometimes plays in punk bands.
@JurassicLen (twitter) and @leonardlukowski (instagram)
A few more queer and trans history resources Rebel Dykes fans may enjoy
Rebel Dykes: The Podcast – Collaboration with Bijou Stories featuring more interviews and stories from the rebel dykes, as well as the filmmakers and audiences.
Bad Gays – Fascinating, funny and meticulously researched gay history podcast focussing on evil and complicated queer people from history.
One from the Vaults – Morgan M. Page’s excellent podcast, bringing you ‘all the dirt, gossip and glamour from trans history’.
West Yorkshire Queer Stories – oral queer histories of West Yorkshire.
I also highly recommend the books Against Memoir (Michelle Tea), And We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan and Variations (Juliet Jacques)