Why I’ll Never Tire Of LGBT Activism

photographed by Stephanie Gonot
2017 was the year that bullies tried to belittle activists because on many levels they knew that we had stepped up our game, we had said "enough is enough"; trans people and women across the board refusing to be silenced, intimidated and pushed into darkened corners, to be abused by bullies, be they Harvey Weinstein or the transphobic voices who have hounded us across the internet with vicious accusations: "You had a dick once, you'll always be a danger to us." Cruel bullies seeking to destroy the brilliant, often pure energy of activism. Look at the wondrousness of 19-year-old Lily Madigan, moving into politics only to face vile attacks from bullies determined to squash youthful activist intent with cries of "She's not a real woman".
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This year, we won't fight back using your structures or your debased language of insult and accusation; no, this year we will simply call you out and name your behaviour – bullying and lies – and we will look after each other. We will self-care and remain resolute while you lower your bar and collude with the Daily Mail and try to raise money to ban us from all-women shortlists – a deplorable measure by a minority of Labour party members who feel that such shortlists should be reserved for women given the gender marker "female" at birth, and that to include trans women is an act of misogyny. A small group of people spitefully seeking to define half the population on their own terms.
Activism is tough, activism is tiring, activism isn't a thing you do during work hours, or a thing you put down at weekends, or a polite thing you can leave out of dinner conversation. Activism isn't fashion; activists tend, on the whole, to create movement behind the scenes. Social media has blurred the edges – often brilliantly, increasing platform and reach, but also negatively as it can reduce activism to battling semantics and endless streams of petitions. I am not looking back through rosy glasses, but I do think that in order to shift parameters, we need to think less about arguing in echo chambers and more about enacting real change on the ground. Stand up and stand in.
My activism kicked in at two points in my life. The first in the very late 1980s when, as part of a small queer collective, I helped to establish the first LGBT housing cooperative in London, called X-Rayz, in honour of the now departed, beautiful Poly Styrene from the punk group X-Ray Spex. At the time none of us had secure housing.
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We started small – really small – offering decent (reclaimed) short-term housing to young LGBT people who were homeless; at the time, many were kicked out of their family homes or couldn't find safe housing options. Lesbians, gay men and trans folk in the '80s still lived in fear of being found out; we were taught to hide by the constant use of bullying phrases like "I don't care what they do behind closed doors as long as they don't shove it in our faces. It was the age of Section 28 – young queers hounded by the structures of society.
Growing as an organisation, we applied for government and local funding, took on more properties, did them up and after a few years, had housing options right across east London. We fought hard to create what was most definitely a radical and political safe space. We didn't feel that then but we did know that we were at times a lifeline for people like us. One of our houses was occupied by some of the women who dreamed up and ran the dyke S&M club Chain Reaction; we housed Buddhists, artists, professional dominatrices, actors, dancers and those struggling on the dole, all of whom believed in the same fight for a collective and cooperative safe queer space. In a rather brilliant stroke a few years later, we managed to strike deals locally to exchange short-term housing for permanent new council flats; although this partially dispersed our community, our aim was always to provide safe space and we did. X-Rayz became part of the system but in doing so we won real, secure housing rights for young queers. Many people from those days – 30 years ago now – still have those flats and still have decent housing.
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It was radical but it was also incredibly pragmatic, which formed the backbone of my activism and campaigning work: Always ensure that you understand your aims and make them quantifiable, even when the outcomes are not measurable – they may be conceptual or person-centred but they can still be concrete.
My second route into activism came immediately after my HIV diagnosis.
It was the early '90s and I had almost finished year one at university. I was full of joy that my working-class, drug-addicted arse had finally made it all the way to the mythical land of BA Honours, to the grandness of a university. I made art installations about California, Hollywood and gender, and I built very tiny sheds that I painted with rainbows and hi-top trainers. Barbara Kruger and Karen Kilimnik were my inspirations.
I felt alive so naturally I did drugs and had lots of sex, safe and unsafe. I was diagnosed towards the end of the summer term, after my then-partner was rushed into hospital barely able to breathe. I knew at that precise moment that California had lost its sheen. I knew that everything would change. I started writing.
The university suggested that I leave, the doctors told me I'd die, the dentists slammed their doors and everyone told me basically to fuck off because the insurance wouldn't cover me. Hardly anyone ever wanted to kiss me.
I fought every day after that for my rights and the rights of queer HIV positive people.
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That fight is the same today – lessened, yes, but still essentially the same fight to be respected, recognised and not stigmatised. The only difference over the past 10 or so years is that now I fight as an out trans woman living with HIV, and that fight is currently as visceral and tough as any I have ever encountered. The fight against Section 28, the fight for the right for queers to engage in consensual S&M sex, the fight for queers to be out and safe at work.
This year is the year that I aim to build my campaigns around self-care, around loving ourselves and our bodies, around creating better aftercare for gender surgery, around our relationships and sex lives. I will remind myself that activism means that, even after 30 years, queers can be in safe housing because of the actions of a few people who had a punk hero and built secure housing in her name, and I will remind myself that I went on fighting all the way to the end of my degree and achieved an upper second, even when doors were being slammed in my face.
To those people, those journalists, those trade union members, those pseudo-experts intent on spreading lies and hatred, know that we see you for all that you are and are not, and if we see you, then history will too.
Queer Sex by Juno Roche is out 19th April.
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