Over the years we’ve been together, my wife and I have become increasingly “visible” as lesbians. There’s the somewhat obvious fact that we’re a couple, which automatically makes us more identifiably gay than we were when we were single. But there’s also been the evolution of our haircuts from straight-passing, to short and choppy, our recent adoption of a cat (it’s a thing, look it up), and the fact that sizeable proportions of our wardrobes consist of dungarees and blazers.
Moulding to stereotypes isn’t, of course, the pinnacle of “lesbian visibility”. But I do think that, having grown up believing that “looking gay” was an insult, the fact that both of us now generally view that description as a compliment demonstrates some degree of self-acceptance. And acceptance – whether it be of yourself or of others – is surely what Lesbian Visibility Week (which we’re currently in, by the way) is all about.
Lesbian Visibility Day, or week, as it’s now become, has been around since 2008, the entirety of my life as an out lesbian. I’ve always viewed it as a positive thing: an opportunity to be proud of who we are and how far we’ve come, and to keep fighting to be seen equally. But this time around I’ve found it trickier to stomach. I hadn’t even realised it was this week, until I was informed via an email from Stonewall. And the next email in my inbox was from the British Transport Police, asking me to digitally sign the statement I provided after my wife and I were victims of a homophobic hate crime on a recent train journey.
The incident took place a few weeks ago. Men on the train were hurling abuse at us, and I didn’t feel as if there was much I could do about it. Rather than turning around and shouting back, I instead avoided eye contact and stayed silent, knowing that we were outnumbered and unable to defend ourselves if they decided to physically attack us.
When things escalated and they started throwing things at us, I went and told on them to the train manager like a pathetic schoolchild, rather than standing up for myself as I felt I should have been able to as a fully grown adult. And I can’t help thinking that even if CCTV can identify the men who did this to us, there will probably be other incidents like this in my life, and I will probably feel just as helpless.
It’s still undeniable that being visibly a lesbian can put me in danger. And at the moment I feel more scared than in the mood for celebrating.
As much as I don’t want to let those men and people like them “win”, I probably will think twice before I get another train home late at night, or before I next hold my wife’s hand in public. While you may be able to switch on the telly and see two men dancing together in the Strictly final, or drag queens advertising us everything from broadband to quarter pounders, it’s still not safe to be visibly gay. LGBT+ hate crimes are on the rise in this country while homophobic laws have been introduced in others, and increasing criticism of gender non-conformity has made anyone who doesn’t quite fit in with traditional gender norms a potential target.
This kind of fear is not exclusive to gay women, it’s important to add. Being a woman alone is enough to attract abuse, as is being Black, or trans, or anything else that might make someone appear visibly “different”.
I’m usually all for being “visible”. I love the fact that queer teenagers in the UK now have grown up with a whole host of out-and-proud role models on their TV screens and social media feeds – perhaps in their parents’ friendship groups, too. I love the camaraderie of a room full of proud dykes and bi women about to go out clubbing together, where a friend can yell, “Five minutes until we need to leave: start lacing your Doc Martens” and we can all laugh at ourselves. And I loved getting married – married in a church, even – surrounded by friends and family last year.
But it frustrates me how those of us in these marginalised groups are constantly having to think about how to stay safe in our day-to-day lives, just in case someone is waiting to harass us for simply being ourselves.
Soon, hopefully, I’ll be pulling on my Doc Martens and joining those who have enough energy to fight back against all of this, and against all the other terrible things going on in the world right now. But forgive me if this Lesbian Visibility Week I’m too scared and tired to be much of an activist. Just let me get home safely to my cat.
Lucy Knight is commissioning editor, books at the Guardian