Liberation movements for people perceived as “other” face a basic choice: should they attempt to set those in power at ease by emphasizing how they’re not really that different, or should they embrace their difference and demand their full human rights, at the risk of alienating people who might otherwise support their cause? In the case of lesbians, should they try to pass as straight and emphasize how similar they are to straight women, in everything other than their choice of sexual partners, or should they embrace their differences and the specific possibilities of all-women communities?
The answer is both—some choices are right for some people, some for others—but histories of lesbian liberation, and women’s liberation more generally, have tended to emphasize mainstream activists and organizations that adopted a “don’t frighten the straights” approach. A different side of the story is presented in Rebel Dykes, a lively documentary by Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams that presents the story of a group of women, some of whom were part of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, a series of camps (from 1981 to 2000) protesting the storage of cruise missiles at RAF Greenham Common, an Air Force station in Berkshire, England.
Thatcherite Britain was not friendly to gay and lesbian people, particularly those who refused to conform, but these women refused to be limited by their times. Instead, they embraced their differences and claimed their freedom to express who they were through a variety of ways, from dressing in leather and chains to playing in bands to organizing women-only nights at clubs to becoming political activists. One created the first dildos meant specifically for women (different shapes, no balls), and another created the first mail-order sex toy business aimed after women (the products were named after lesbians, or people she thought should be lesbians). Members of the group were also leaders in the protests against Section 28, a repressive law that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality,” showing a gift for creative action exemplified by breaking into a BBC studio and handcuffing themselves to the desk of a news reader.
Rebel Dykes is a real time capsule of a time and a culture, full of interviews and archival materials, and newly-created animations. There’s a fair amount of sexually-explicit imagery, but nothing that should bother an adult—and free expression of sexuality, including S&M and bondage, was part of what they were fighting for. Watching this film is sort of like seeing a fanzine come to life—the emphasis is on creating interesting visuals and expressing the spirit of the times rather than adhering to any predetermined standard of “quality” filmmaking.
Many of the women featured in this film lived communally in London squats, which fostered creativity, radicalism, and a whole lot of freely expressed sexual desire, in a community where the pressure to conform to middle class norms simply didn’t exist. Maggie Thatcher’s England would have preferred them to not exist, so they simply went their own way and found ways to stay true to themselves, move the arrow in the right direction on human freedom, and have a lot of fun at the same time. That’s a spirit we could use more of today—and is anyone up for a spot of spaghetti-pit wrestling? | Sarah Boslaugh
Rebel Dykes is available for home viewing through NewFest2021, which runs October 15 through October 26. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the NewFest2021 web site.