EnglishMary McIntosh talks about the need to be ‘out’ as a lesbian during the 1960s as a young woman at Oxford and in London. She recalls the difficulty of ‘coming to terms with it’, fearing, as she did, that it would result in her having a loveless and joyless life. Despite the subsequent successes of the feminist and gay liberation movements, Mary McIntosh recognises that coming out still remains a challenge for many young people.
Difficulties surrounding coming outFor many women at the time of the Women’s Liberation Movement, as well as today, coming out as a lesbian was very difficult because lesbian desire was seldom spoken about or seen in public. Attitudes towards homosexuality for women and men in the 1960s were prejudicial. Some people considered that homosexuality was some kind of mental illness from which people could be ‘cured’ by counselling or, in extreme cases, medical intervention such as electric shock therapy.
The Gay Liberation Front and feminismMary McIntosh recalls the relief that she and many other women felt when, through the Gay Liberation Front and the Women’s Liberation Movement, she came to the realisation that she could be both a lesbian and a ‘happy person’.
Gay Liberation politics were intertwined with feminist politics, but sometimes there were clashes as a demand made by one group was seen as reductive or undermining by the other. Ultimately, however, the demands of the Gay Liberation Front and the Women’s Liberation Movement were both about actively working for oppressed groups to achieve equality through claiming their own space, defining themselves as individuals and also identifying with a group.
Why would Mary McIntosh have been concerned that, as a lesbian, she might not be a ‘happy person’?
What would your response be if one of your friends told you they were gay? Why would you react in this way? How have attitudes towards homosexuality changed?
Producer / Director: Lizzie Thynne
Editor / Research assistant: Peter Harte
The realisation came on me during, I suppose, particularly when I was a student and read Simone de Beauvoir and later during the sixties when I read The Golden Notebook, that women were just not at all the equals of men and that men saw us, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, as other. We served to define men and masculinity but we didn’t exist in our own right, according to them, and so I saw it then as quite difficult for women to define themselves. But then, in addition, there was the fact of being a lesbian which took me, I think, really a long time to come to terms with. Probably not until I was about twenty-four did I realise that it was not a bad thing to be a lesbian. Before that, if I was a lesbian it was as a form of suffering and it meant to me definitely that you couldn’t be a mother. It probably meant unhappiness and that you couldn’t ever have a rewarding relationship and it wasn’t until the sixties that I did start to have a rewarding lesbian relationship, with Elizabeth Wilson in fact as it turned out. And that was a delight and I realised then that you could be a lesbian and be a happy person. But then, I felt I had to convince other people of that as well in order to be a rounded person.
The first thing that we did in the Gay Liberation Front, certainly in the second meeting, was discussed what should be demands and each of them I remember being debated. Particularly I remember the demand for holding hands in public, our right to hold hands in public. Some people said it was vitally important and we needed that right in order to show that there was nothing wrong with being gay. We were against styles of living that were conventional at that time, home ownership. We were in favour of communes and a whole lifestyle that was much more, as I said, liberated, and the way we put that into action I think was in terms of events that would show that up to best advantage. So we had Gay Days in parks, including a kiss-in in a park where people were seen, we hoped, by the horrified British Public. Seen to be kissing together in a homosexual way. And we were against the kind of closety behaviour of the commercial gay scene, including the gateways club so we mounted various actions against the gateways club. I think it was partly men’s nod towards lesbianism that they chose the gateways club. Rosalind Delmar came along to some GLF meetings and persuaded a group of us women to go to the Skegness Conference, the national conference of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and we formed very much a group of people who all knew each other and we sat in a row and I remember people on the platform, including men on the platform, and then a row of us and a lot of other women. I think the women from Gay Liberation led basically the ejection of the Maoists. My memory is of as she was then called Mary O’Shea standing up and proclaiming that they were wrong and that we had the right to be women and be non-aligned and so forth and she was very dramatic. We basically stormed the platform. We made sure that the chief male Maoist was ejected from the hall. So from then on the conference was run as a women’s conference, very much like future Women’s Liberation conferences I think.
- Article by:
- Sisterhood and After Research Team
- Sex, love and friendship
The 1960s and 70s brought greater sexual freedom and choice for many women. Find out how the Women’s Liberation Movement allowed women to talk openly about sex in consciousness-raising groups and how gay politics overlapped with feminist politics.