How does the media treat gay women? This question was debated at an event held jointly by Women in Journalism and lesbian magazine Diva in November. The panel of top gay female journalists attracted a sell-out crowd. They heard what it’s like to work in the industry as a gay or bisexual woman, and what press and broadcast platforms get wrong when handling gay female subjects.
Here are some of the points raised by the panel:
Jane Czyzselska, editor of Diva magazine, explained the difficulties she has with PRs who will allow gay celebrities to appear inside Diva magazine, but not on the front cover. “They’re very happy to have their talent inside the magazine, but if we wanted to put them on the cover they would be really against that,” she said.
Alice Arnold, former BBC Radio 4 broadcaster and writer for the Daily Telegraph’s Wonder Women website, described the attention she and partner Clare Balding, sports presenter, get from the media simply for being gay. “When Clare came out there was an enormous interest in me in a way that there wouldn’t be if she was straight,” said Arnold.
“There was a picture of us once in the Daily Mail walking the dog. We had breakfast too – was that a story? I’m quite sure if that was Gabby Logan [another sports presenter] they wouldn’t have a picture of her walking the dog. They took a picture because it was Clare and I walking together.”
Julie Bindel, broadcaster and co-founder of the group Justice for Women, recalled how she was discriminated against by a television commissioner after pitching an idea for a television documentary. The series was about women choosing being “child-free” – rather than “childless”. “It looked at the issues about why women feel so desperate to have children,” said Bindel. “I talked about straight friends and lesbian friends. The commissioner absolutely loved it and I was more-or-less commissioned to do it.”
But Bindel was rejected as the front-person for the programme. “Some woman came in and said, ‘She’s the wrong face to present this documentary’,” said Bindel. “She’s a lesbian. We want a woman who grew up thinking about having children.” Bindel continued: “It was as if lesbians had dropped out form planet Zog with an entirely different genetic make-up. That was straight-forward anti-lesbianism without any question.”
Liz Carr, a disabled broadcaster, comedian and actor, talked about her experiences as a disabled lesbian. She said television shows rarely represent lesbians as real people, and certainly not people who were disabled and gay. “I never see anyone on TV that I can really relate to in terms of sexuality,” she said. “I don’t get a chance to experience homophobia because people have to get over the disablism first. I’m not seen as capable of having any kind of sex.”
Eleanor Margolis, New Statesman columnist, suggested her sexuality had helped her career. “I’ve found that my sexuality has opened doors for me in the media,” she said. “I understand I’m very privileged in that sense, but for some reason because I’m a lesbian, people are interested in what I have to say.”
Iman Qureshi, journalist and writer, said she wanted television depictions of lesbians to be more true to life. “Lesbianism is never incidental to a character or a person on TV – why not?” she asked. “We should have more of that rather than: this woman is having sex with another woman and that’s the fundamental essence of her person.”
Stephanie Theobald, journalist and novelist, suggested lesbians are still a rarity in the media. “In the mainstream media, there’s lots of gay boys working there and there’s definitely a [gay] hierarchy,” she said. “I was doing some maternity cover last year and an intern was introduced to me by one of the gay boys as a lesbian. There was a frisson around the office – people felt they were cutting edge because there was a lesbian there.”
These are just a few of the points raised at the debate. Many more have been reported since the event in the national media:
Gay women need more celesbians by Amelia Abraham
Lesbianism: sexual fluidity is a fact of life for women by Stephanie Theobald
‘Why can’t lesbians just be people?’ by Gabriella Jozwiak
The debate was also tweeted live. Follow the hashtag #WIJlesboph to see what was said.