Difference, persecution, acceptance and pleasure were just a handful of the varied topics covered in Homotopia’s eleventh collaboration with DIVA Magazine, Diva Debate: Forbidden Lives. Joining the spirit of celebrating LGBTI culture fostered by the festival, Forbidden Lives made an impressive and diverse attempt to showcase contemporary and historical experiences of lesbian and bisexual women.
Host and DIVA editor Jane Czyzselska led the introduction. The tone was set as she mentioned how one study had shown that up to 38% of women could be bisexual, not including lesbians; yet representation of women who are attracted to women in all walks of life remains low. However, with the full spectrum of experiences that the other panellists proceeded to share it was clear that this was a space for to talk about these identities loudly and proudly.
Thematically, the first two speakers who followed seemed to focus on defiance. Author Diana Souhami gave an eclectic account of the many lesbian and bisexual women who helped shape Modernism and early 20th century culture, bringing their lives into the public sphere. What appeared most important was Souhami’s suggestion that “silence was a way of forbidding lives”- proposals to criminalise gay women along with men in the Victorian era had been rejected for fear it would raise awareness, making their artistic achievements and legacies seem even greater.
Bringing us back into a sad modern day reality was LGBT asylum seeker activist Aderonke Apata. She explained her unfinished journey- having fought to seek asylum from her home country, Nigeria, in the UK for thirteen years. In one of the most harrowing parts of the evening, Apata went into detail about postcolonial Nigerian anti-gay laws and the continued scepticism of the British courts. That being said, she ended on a note of hope explaining the organisation she and her fiancée founded in response, African Rainbow Family, which protests for the rights of African born LGBT asylum seekers.
Both House of Lords member Baroness Barker and intersex activist Valentino Vecchietti underlined the necessity of representation with their respective talks. Barker claimed that lesbians were “the opposite of the Beatles”- everywhere but hidden. Vecchietti, meanwhile, talked about the often unknown or at least misunderstood process of being intersex (someone with sex characteristics that do not fit ‘typical’ definitions of male or female). They tied in their experience of finding out about and accepting (and trying to have others accept) their identity as an intersex lesbian with parts of their collaborative graphic story made with Aindri Chakraborty, IN — OUT: Gender through the Brexit Lens.
Finally, author Stephanie Theobald gave a reading from light-hearted memoir Sex Drive: My Orgasmic Road Trip. Detailing her experience of a workshop led by American sex educator Betty Dodson, it offered welcome home truths about women learning about their bodies.
Encompassing all manner of topics in passionate detail, Diva Debate: Forbidden Lives weighed the good and the bad in equal measure. Another figure Czyzselska quoted was that 62% of graduates tend to go back into the closet when they enter work, an obvious indicator of the stigma Forbidden Lives hoped to eradicate. Leaving the theatre, one message was unavoidably clear- through both evolution and revolution queer women are to this today working to establish a strong and accepted sense of identity.