Fucking belter of a documentary about the 80s London S&M lesbian scene. Told by the legends that lived it, Rebel Dykes covers the founding of Chain Reaction, the publication of Quim, and the House of Lords abseil protest of Section 28. Yaldi!
It traces its roots to the Greenham Clapham peace camp, which was a women’s protest encampment around an army base. In an age before the internet, it had gained a reputation for being a lesbian cultural nexus. There were a lot earth mothers and hippies, ‘political lesbian’ feminist seperatists, and activists from across the board. These were marked into different zones, with the Green Zone being where the young and rowdy baby dykes went, as it was nearest the pub. There they bonded over hijinks including raiding the squaddies’ bar for booze and trashing the paint job on a stealth plane.
Many had faced family rejection and had travelled the length of the country to find other women like themselves. Many were effectively homeless, and after finding their tribe at the peace camp, took up residence in London as squatters. This whole new family formed, with an out and proud attitude. They formed a motorcycle gang, kicked about in their leathers, and celebrated butch identity unapologetically.
Club nights started, with them setting up Chain Reaction for lesbian S&M. This was pretty radical, because the queer scene was pretty divided between gay men’s culture, which had a lot of fuck-friendly establishments, bars, clubs, and cruising spots, and lesbian culture, which had gone heavy into feminist intellectual discourse to the point of dogma. The idea of women occupying a sex-positive, hedonistic and transgressive S&M space was pretty singular. As one critic from within the lesbian community put it to them, all clad in their leather and chains, “You don’t look like dykes, you look like poofs”.
The frenzy of affirmation and acceptance within the community just galvanised a whole lot of creative and expressive endeavours. You get musicians, DJs, drag kings, cabaret performers, artists, photographers, everything. You get the publication of Quim, a zine exploring lesbian sexuality, which featured photos by artist Della Grace.
And I’m looking at the photos feeling they look familiar, and it cuts to an interview with the artist themselves, and it’s Del LaGrace Volanco. And I’m like, I know them! I remember going to a thing on LGBT art, which in typical fashion was in actuality about GGGG art, and then Dr. Lucy Weir came on and talked about Del LaGrace Volcano’s stuff. So watching the documentary, I was like, that was their early work, no way!
Del’s book, Love Bites, featuring their photography of lesbian sexual expression, was banned as pornography. This was as the 80s started to edge into the 90s, and you have Del being attacked on two fronts. First by the unfortunately expected homophobia and misogyny of the mainstream culture, but also within the lesbian community, where self-appointed sex police and keepers of the feminist monolith commandments had decreed the sadomasochistic sex portrayed between women by women as anti-feminist. Queer bookshops refused to carry it.
The sex wars were raging in the late 80s and into the early 90s, where an understandable need to de-indoctrinate oneself from the internalised misogyny of heteropatriarchy got warped into gatekeeping of acceptable lesbian sex. Which I’d love to say is unbelievable, but alas, some of these relics still walk among us. The decision from on-high was that lesbians shouldn’t practice penetrative sex, because it ‘aped’ straight sex and the oppressive heteronormativity. Use of dildoes was a no-no, and S&M was beyond the pale. They were accused of re-enacting domestic abuse and rape, and of contributing to a culture of danger towards women.
I suspect these arbiters of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sex were the aforementioned ‘political lesbians’, i.e. straight women who were telling queer women how to fuck in accordance with their own ideas and philosophies. The fact that Chain Reaction was trans-inclusive and sex worker-inclusive probably didn’t do them any favours with these community gatekeepers either. You will still see the legacy of this faction in the TERFs and SWERFs today, who, like then, team up with the conservative right in society to stamp down on boundary-smashing expression within the queer community.
The late 80s and 90s were a time of increasing repression, not just in print, but in schools with section 28 forbidding any teacher “promoting” homosexuality by saying it was valid. Something that stayed in place right through til I was in secondary school, and is why our sex education was so shit. Section 28 was itself a response to the AIDS crisis, as though, if we were all silent about sexuality, a sexually-transmitted disease would just vanish. To be honest, that’s too kind an interpretation, they wanted us to die off, and be quiet about doing so.
You have these increased attempts at erasure of the queer community, especially its less respectable elements, so activism became a necessity. Lisa Power founds Stonewall, and you get the UK chapter of Act-Up. The invasion of the BBC news, and the abseiling into the House of Lords to protest Section 28. Really great to see the overlooked contribution of lesbians to the queer rights and AIDS activism movements being highlighted, because it’s very much sidelined or forgotten.
Just such a kickass film, showing how a scene spirals out into the fabric of history, in every corner of culture and politics. A movie that just leaves you going, “Fuck yeah!”