Human Rights / Labour

“Unions can only benefit from LGBT work”

Thursday, April 30, 2015
The movie Pride which tells the story of lesbians and gays supporting striking miners against the Thatcher government was shown at the 4th Pink Life QueerFest in Ankara. Nicola Field from the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners talks about how lesbians supported striking miners in 1984/85, insufficiency of equality on paper, LGBT movement’s engagement with unions and the upcoming general elections in the UK.
 
“We told the world who we really were in our own words with our own skills”
 
Before the movie Pride, shall we start with your video activism?
 
When I first came out, I got involved with the lesbian and gay video project which made the video “Framed Youth: The Revenge of the Young Perverts”, which was shown in the QueerFest. That was in 1982. We were young lesbians and gay men who were working on a project to tell the world who we really were in our own way, in our own words with our own skills. So we learnt how to use equipment, we had a professional technician who told us how to use the equipment and we used all sorts of techniques, ways of communicating to tell our story and that, in a way, was my first activity, my contact with the lesbian and gay community. It was a very very rich and exciting and creative start to my life of changing the world.
 
I had already been involved with CND, which is the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was very big at the time because there was a nuclear arms race. And I’ve been involved in various other campaings as well but this was my first sort of participation in a very committed way. It was highly political and it was where I started to have my first queer relationship so everything happened at once. It was mind-body-spirit engaged all at once. And this caused huge problems in my family because my politics was starting to become very strong which was against their views. I told them about my sexuality, they didn’t accept it. But all the time I was working on this project. There was no way that I could just keep quiet and pretend that I’d just sort of say it once and forget it. It was something that couldn’t be stopped and I started to have a relationship and it changed my daily life because I moved in with the person. I finished university, I had a scholarship for PhD but I gave up with that to do the project. I gave up everything to be part of it. After that, several of us formed a group called Converse Pictures which was a lesbian and gay video collective and we started to get money to make films about issues that affected us. At that time, you could apply for grants from lots of different local councils and things. It was a time of openness and lots of experiments taking place.
 
You know that QueerFest could not get any state or local funding...
 
I know that, that would be similar now in the UK. Although it was full of contradictions and similarities, that was a time of oppeness. You could apply for it and you would usually get it. That was a short time. We don’t have that opportunity now.
 
How did you get involved in the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners?
 
The miner strike began and Jeff, who is one of the characters in Pride, -I was working with him in Converse Pictures- said “there is this LGSM group, you must come” so I went to a meeting. It was in a room above a pub and I arrived and there was only one other woman, the rest men. So I was really scared, I was lacking confidence and I easily felt insecure. But the woman who was there, thankfully, she was very politically experienced. She was a member of the socialist workers party, which has the sister organization in Turkey. She knew that I wanted to do things, she came to my house, we got a bucket with a label on it. We went to a local lesbian and gay pub and we did a collection. I could see all you have to do is just do it. And this is what I feel. All you have to do is do it. That’s it. So we did it. And I thought “oh, I can do this again and again”.
 
And you know how important it was that we collected this money because the government had frozen the bank assests of the miners union so they were going to be starved back to work. They also stopped their state benefits. They also stopped things like funeral grants. So they couldn’t bury their dead. It was an extremely harsh situation for them and they were starving. And so they appealed to whole country to feed them.
 
“Miners were under attack and it was an attack on us all”
 
How did lesbians support miners in this process?
 
This woman Kate who was in the soclist workers party and I went to some lesbian-only clubs and I was quite nervous because at the time there was a lot of lesbian separatism and you know “men are the problem, men are the enemy, men are oppressive, men are aggressive” so I was quite nervous. Although I knew what I knew and what I felt, I was a socialist that miners are under attack. And it was an attack on us all. I also was aware that to be part of lesbian community, I had to kind of go along a bit with that separatism. So we went to this women-only clubs and we found that there was a good response because underneath a lot of the separatist ideas were experiences of being working class people coming from working class families, particualarly from the rural areas because lesbians and gay people come to the cities. For most people, there was a sense of “yes, we want to support miners, of course, and we know that it affects us.” Even if people couldn’t articulate it was something people felt connected to and we’ve been collecting and found women who said we want to do this as well but we want to do it just as women so we formed this Lesbians against Pit Closures. I and other women stayed in both groups, two groups worked together. We had a conference together, we did benefits together. And we completely worked together and those who wanted to work separately could work separately. So the film Pride, for dramatic effect, doesn’t show the truth or the real history of that. And for many years, I felt embarassed that I started up the separate group but now coming back to look at it all again openly and truthfully, I came to the idea that I did only what I could do at that time in order to collect more money, get more people involved and I did what I had to do. So that’s how I get involved in LGSM.
 
“Miliband says ‘if you are bigot, we gonna let you be a bigot’”
 
After lesbians and gays supported miners in 1984/85, the Labor Party passed the anti-discrimination law workplace in its conference. How do you interpret the change in last 30 years from today?
 
If I start with now, actually the Equality Act only came a few years ago and that’s what enshrined lesbian and gay rights in law. It’s anti-discirmination. That’s why they had to bring in gay marriage. But there is still homophobia at work. I’ve heard recently who worked in a call center who went to his manager and asked “”can you give me any tips on how I can improve because I’m not getting the sales I need?”, and the manager said “well, you do sound a bit gay”.
 
Although it is illegal to sack someone because they are gay now -and that’s very recent- employers find some ways. You know that it’s illegal to sack someone for trade union activities but it happens all the time. They can look and find all sorts of things to get at you. İf the law says you can’t be sacked for being gay or trade union activity, they find something else. A lot of union activists are disciplined and sacked for what’s called intimidatory behavior, which is making arguments about, they may have had a workplace meeting and they are accused of being aggressive with the manager because they are arguing with the manager. We need to understand that we live in a society which is not equal, it is a class society, some people own the wealth, other people make the wealth. I value all those equalities that we win but we need to turn the world on its head, people who are doing all the work and creating all the wealth to run the sociey, because at the moment a small minority of people own and run the world, and it is a system, it is not a conspiracy. We live in a world where the grim logic is that profit is the driving motive, not people’s needs. So there we are in a contradictory stiuation in the UK, we have marriage, protection at work, we have anti-discirmination policy but at the same time the leader of the Labor Party, Ed Miliband, recently said that if Labor elected in the next election, they will make it possible for religious to opt out gay marriages if they don’t want to, if it is against their beliefs. So he is pondering to the bigots. He saying “oh, if you are bigot, we gonna let you be a bigot”. This is not acceptable.
 
“You can’t let individuals rely on a piece of paper”
 
What kind of an approach did unions take against discrimination based on sexual orientation?
 
Until 1985, TUC -Trade Union Congress-failed to have enough votes to pass the lesbian and gay rigts policiy but in 1985 it was passed because NUMs backed up about what LGSM had done. But it was up to activists to say you need to appoint lesbian and gay equality officers in the regions, they need to be working in the workplaces. They need to be working with people who are suffering discrimination. You need to educate our union shop stewards; we need to educate the people who do presentations. This isn’t some sort of trendy policy on a piece of paper. This is about people’s rights, people being bullied, sacked, discriminated against, who are afraid to come out, who needs protection and who needs actively acted on, you can’t let individuals rely on a piece of paper. All the union officers need to be aware. That was a other work. That rose another layer of activists gay and lesbian officers who are grassroots oriented, who worked with community groups and organized community events. Then there has become a bureaucratization with that. LGBT officers now, they are part of bureaucracy. That means it is really up to their personal politics how far they are going to be radical to be bold, to be imaginative in a political luck, or they are perhaps building a career for themselves.
 
In Turkey, LGBT activists try to engage with trade unions but they face a strong resistance from them. What can you say about that kind of unwillingness from union’s side?
 
The whole point is the trade union work needs to include every level. Every single union officer needs to understand all the issues so that they can do the job to protect their members because their members are entitled to equal benefits of being in that union. We pay our dues. We need lawyers employed by the unions to bring the test cases so the law can be challenged and changed, that’s vital. LGBT people exist in every single ehtnic and religious group and so working hard on LGBT rights would actually bring together union members from these different groups and help them work together for a common cause and could be a very unifying process. In any case, the union would be stronger if the LGBT members, which could be between 5 to 10 percent of their membership, feeling strong, confident and proud of their union instead of afraid. Union can only benefit from LGBT work. Unions can gain so much from making this a priority, and they have to because people are being attacked, murdered, sacked, bullied and there is no excuse.
 
“The only people who are making sacrifices are working people”
 
The UK will have general elections on May 7, just a month before the Turkish general elections. As a socialist, what kind of challenges do you idenfiy befoe the elections?
 
Since this last government, since 2010, BBC is operated as the state media. Compleyely sanctioning, approving of the austerity ideology. At the beginning when the austerity was announced, commentators were brought to argue against austerty, both in humanitarian and in economic terms. They were quickly got rid off. You found that everyone gotta agree that there must be austerity. Then you would have a disccusion on how austerity would be implemented. All talked about is “yes, we must all agree that we must have austerity” and to go hand in hand with that they have used Islamophobia, racism, vicious campaign against disabled people. This ass encouraged the rise of right and it gives a green light to fascist. The UKIP and Greens, they have the same number of MPs but UKIP gets masses and masses from BBC, but nothing for green.
 
We should be working together, so we get a media platform to talk about anti-austerity. That would give people courage, because we can’t rely on the Labor Party. Labor has totally capitualited the logic or illogic of austeriy. They closed down centers for people with mental disorders, services for people with disabilities, closing down nurseries, community centers, all the things that we rely on to communicate with each other, to organzie services and also people are getting sacked. So library staff, nursery stuff, youth workers, like Provision 4, these are all being cut. So they were already in a terrible place before but now they are being swept away.
 
So austerity is a kind of code word I think, for it sounds like being careful, being self-sacrificing but the only people who are making sacrifices are working people. The ruling class are making no sacrifices. And they are talking about austeriy going until 2020 but they are removing the infrastructure of the welfare state. So youll need another social revoulution to bring back what’s lost. Austerity is a lie, it is not even about saving money, it is about shifting wealth from the poor to the rich. Britain is the 4th richest country in the world, there is no need. It is not a poor country but the wealth is in the wrong hands. We need to turn world upside down. And the people who make the wealth and do all the work need to see that everything they have in common which is the need for health, housing, education, sexual liberation, choices, personal fulfillment, peace of mind, psychological health, physical health, those things are our common interest and we need to fight for them together. We are many, they are few.
 
This interview was first published in the 141st issue of Kaos GL Magazine titled “Lesbianism”.  
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