Content warning: discussion of homophobic attitudes
The first British documentary to focus on lesbian existence as its subject matter was broadcast in January 1965 as part of ITV’s current affairs programme ‘This Week.’ This was a follow up instalment to their programme from the previous year, ‘Homosexuals.’ (Gardiner 2003, p.99) Over twenty-six minutes, reporter Bryan Magee interviewed six participants and questioned them on their sexuality, alongside a doctor who had lesbian patients, and Esme Langley of the Minorities Research Group, which produced the lesbian magazine Arena Three.
The influence of documentaries on contemporary public attitudes is important, being recognised by Arena Three at the time as key to informing and shaping public attitudes on sexuality, as well as reaching a wider group of lesbians at a time of community fragmentation. (Jennings, 2007, p.149) A particular focus for historians of queer sexuality has been how the documentary depicts the oppression lesbians faced for both their gender and sexuality. (Buckle, 2018, p.21) However, the documentary also highlights the ways in which the lesbian experience itself is gendered, and their lack of control over their representation as the documentary’s ‘gendered subjects.’ Magee constantly defines the participants through their experiences and lack of experiences with men, and throughout they are ‘othered’ and separated out from womanhood due to their sexuality.
Homosexuality in 1960s Britain was considered a societal issue, rather than an identity to be asserted. Historian Sebastian Buckle argues the topic was only mentioned in ‘whispered suspicions and innuendos’ and that many queer couples lived closeted existences. Campaigns for gay rights based on ‘identity politics,’ an individual’s self-definition through their sexuality, were not seen for another decade. (2018, p.9) Lesbian existence is regarded within the documentary as a societal issue but also as an afterthought, defined as an offshoot of male homosexuality. Magee describes it as the other ‘half of the problem’ to this, emphasising that it exists among women ‘just as among men,’ but was not criminalised. (0:31, 1:14)
The documentary does not create a space for the participants to control the narrative which is being created of their sexuality. This can be seen through the lack of ‘agency’ given to these women, meaning the absence of power that they had to articulate themselves and their sexuality on their own terms. On a positive note, the opening of the documentary does focus on the testimony of one of the participants, who discusses that that there was ‘not a typical human being or a typical lesbian.’ (0:08) This is encouraging, as it ties into dispelling the viewer’s preconceived ideas of heteronormativity, an invisible but prevalent societal idea which marginalises queer existence. (Warner, 1991, p.3) This contrasts with later documentaries such as ITV’s ‘Gay Life: Lesbians’ (1980) episode, which opens the discussion by asking the public what ‘lesbian’ meant to them.
Therefore, the opening of Magee’s documentary put the agency in the hands of those experiencing the identity. However, this was short-lived, as the questions asked were heavily catered to the straight audience, being based around male reactions to female homosexuality and male expectations of female availability. By asking participants if they have ‘any sexual feelings for men’ and ‘what felt wrong about making love to a man,’ the documentary is continuing to proffer lesbianism as simply a reaction to men. (6:34, 19:50) This relates to Monique Wittig’s (1992, p.20, p.13) theory of womanhood, which argues that women are societally defined through their ‘specific social relation to a man,’ and lesbianism’s rejection of heterosexuality feeds into a wider rejection of womanhood itself, as being a woman means being the possession of a man. Wittig (1992, p.25) also asserts that the societal norm of heterosexuality is so pervasive that lesbians can only be ‘heard if they speak in their [heterosexual] terms.’ As the documentary presents the lesbian experience as revolving around men, it is portraying their identity as based on their rejection of men and how this relates to their own womanhood, rather than their embracing of women.
The language used in the phrasing of the questions also led to the othering of lesbians. Magee’s language is polarising, and divorces lesbianism from the idea of heterosexual normalcy. Notably he asks, ‘normal people often say that they find the idea of physical sex between two women disgusting- what do you say to that?’ and ‘do you feel unnatural? Do you feel any shame or guilt?’ (7:10, 5:49) By using this language, he is placing lesbians as possessors of unnatural desire. Adrienne Rich (1980, p.649, p.652) in her theory of compulsory heterosexuality argued that by rejecting the ‘compulsory way of life,’ lesbians are viewed as ‘deviant,’ or ‘pathological,’ with their sexuality as a ‘lifestyle.’ The association of lesbianism with deviant behaviour is continued, as Magee asserts that there are lesbians living in Britain whose ‘true relationship [is] unsuspected by others,’ with this wording implying that lesbianism should evoke suspicion and fear. (7:41) The ‘pathological’ element of lesbianism is seen in the documentary’s inclusion of a doctor with lesbian patients, who argued that female homosexuality is related to ‘damage done in infancy,’ with the capacity to be reversed depending on its severity. (15:05) At this time, medical professionals were viewed as a main source of information on lesbianism, and consequently lesbians were left ‘confused or alienated,’ and seeking treatment. (Jennings, 2008, p.893) By outlining the deviancy in straying from sexual norms, the documentary places connotations of lawlessness and guilt onto lesbianism despite its legality and highlights it as a condition which can be reversed, as opposed to an identity.
Overall, the documentary is the first of its kind, and should be watched due to the way it draws attention to the unique experiences of lesbians in 1960s Britain. The lesbian experience was clearly gendered, with their sexuality meaning they were being defined through their relationships with men and divorced from womanhood itself. It highlights the clear societal attitudes towards lesbianism in this period as abnormal, and how attempts to understand the women themselves were centred around their rejection of societal norms and heterosexuality itself, placating the imagined straight viewer, rather than giving lesbians a platform to vocalise their own experience. Could it be argued that these relations to heterosexuality were simply used as reference points for the straight viewer to comprehend female homosexuality? Although this remains a possibility, the documentary is still indicative of the ‘othering’ of lesbians and outlines the heteronormative feel which can be applied to society more broadly.
‘Gay Life: Lesbians,’ (1981) British Film Institute. https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-lesbians-gay-life-1981-online (accessed 01/02/2021)
Timestamps come from ‘Lesbians,’ (1965) British Film Institute. https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-lesbians-1965-online (accessed 01/02/2021)
Buckle, Sebastian. Homosexuality on the Small Screen: Television and Gay Identity in Britain. (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)
Gardiner, Jill. From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club. (London: Pandora List, 2003)
Jennings, Rebecca. ‘The Most Uninhibited Party They’d Ever Been To, The Postwar Encounter between Psychiatry and the British Lesbian, 1945–1971’ Journal of British Studies. 47(4) (2008) pp.883-904
Jennings, Rebecca. Tomboys and Bachelor Girls: A Lesbian History of Post-War Britain, 1945-71. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)
Rich, Adrienne. ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,’ Signs. 5(4) (1980) pp. 631-660
Warner, Michael. ‘Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet.’ Social Text, No. 29 (1991), pp. 3-17 (accessed 01/02/2021)
Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)