LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Lesbian couple -
Christine Lehman and Jane Bartlett
Date of photography: 25th February 2017
Living together as wife and wife, Christine and Jane are fully accepted in their local community. Sexual attraction and romantic love between two women are as old as the hills but it is relatively recent for lesbian couples, sharing a home, to be openly accepted in our society. The image of lesbians in the media would suggest that mainstream society has been variously fascinated and threatened by women who challenge traditionally ‘feminine’ gender roles, although conventional, patriarchal, Christian society has undoubtedly always been appalled by the vision of women in love with other women. Women who reveal their lesbian identity share experiences not unlike those of ethnic minorities and thus they tend to form a similar outlook: they are unified and ‘ghettoised’ by the heterosexist discrimination to which they are exposed. In addition, unlike ethnic minorities, they also face potential rejection by their families, friends, and others as a consequence of ubiquitous homophobia. And as women, they are also subject to the same prejudices and discrimination as all heterosexual women. At this particular moment, in place and time, things are happily hugely improved, though such advances may yet be precarious - sad to say, recently published statistics indicate that in the three months following the Brexit vote, homophobic hate crimes increased by 147%.
The home of Christine Lehman (on the right) and Jane Bartlett (on the left) is every bit as stylish as they are. While their building works are not quite finished and the new plaster is still drying out, every door, every piece of furniture, every detail and every objet d’art has been considered and the overall effect executed to perfection, with eclectic elements lovingly incorporated into a flat with a very contemporary feel. One is in the home of two women, a lesbian couple, who are not only creative and design conscious but who also know exactly what they like.
Christine was born in the United States, where she started playing the violin at the age of four. She first attended the South Shore Conservatory, going on to the New England Conservatory where, up to the age of 18, she trained in violin, piano, music theory, orchestra and jazz. Most recently, she’s been playing violin in a band called The Cesarians, touring in the UK and in Europe.
Since coming to the UK, Christine has added, as it were, a second string to her bow and developed a professional career in children’s services. She now works for a local council, commissioning services for children and young people on adventure playgrounds. At work, she has also been involved with the LGBT Staff Forum - this is linked to the endeavours of a heritage project currently taking place in the borough.
Jane is a cabinetmaker and furniture designer. She has her own business and her reputation for high-quality, imaginative work is in the ascendent. She was born in the North of England and having taken her first degree in Fine Art at Stafford University (Stoke-on-Trent) she took a three-year cabinet-making course. For nearly 20 years now, she has lived and worked in London, and it was in London where she met Christine, who was over from the States. They knew immediately that they were made for each other. They have lived together in various parts of the capital until finally settling in their present home in north-east London. Christine says, smiling: “Clearly, we must be devoted to each other as we’ve sort of got married three times: the first time, we formally declared our commitment to each other by signing the London Partnerships Register, set up by Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London; then, once the relevant legislation went through, we became Civil Partners officially; and then, with my mother’s encouragement, we got married in America. I guess my mother just wanted to make sure we were serious!” Christine laughs.
It is worth noting that not all lesbian couples choose to formalise their relationships but continue to share their lives as established, cohabiting couples. For some women, especially those with strong traditional and/or religious beliefs, marriage to another woman is still out of the question. However, whereas the number of gay men forming civil partnerships was initially much higher than the number of lesbians, these numbers have more recently converged. And, since the introduction of same-sex marriage, of the total of 7,366 unions formed between same sex couples (29 March 2014 to 30 June 2015) 55% of these were between women.
Of course, it would be foolish to underestimate how much social attitudes in the UK have changed towards same sex partnerships. We only need remind ourselves that as recently as the 1990’s, the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed that half of all Britons thought same-sex relationships were wrong, with only 23% seeing them as acceptable. Of course, even today there is a considerable number of UK citizens who refuse to recognise the legitimate rights of LGBTI people, and who condemn all kinds of same-sex relationships, simply because of their belief that these are incompatible with firmly-held religious, moral or cultural codes. Interestingly, on the other hand, it is pleasing to note that despite a great deal of sometimes repugnant and highly vocal opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, in 2013, over half of British citizens supported this change in the law.
Jane comments: “We’ve had our fair share of homophobic abuse; we’ve been spat at and called names, though thankfully we’ve never been attacked physically. Going on package holidays is out of the question even now; it’s all too likely that your fellow holidaymakers will aim to make you feel uncomfortable, and sadly, it’s mostly the Brits who are responsible, rarely anyone else. In London, a lot depends on where you live. Thankfully, in our present locality, all of our neighbours make us feel welcome. It really is a joy to live here and we feel that if we were ever to hit some problem or difficulty, our neighbours would be almost certain to help us out. It is a great community.” Christine adds: “I love living in London. It is such a diverse place yet it offers anonymity too. I feel that, by and large, you can live your life the way you want to here and, certainly at the present time, that there is an all-round, general respect for others. Of course, there are exceptions and there will always be strife too but, generally, London is a convivial city to live in.”
Without doubt, sexual attraction and romantic love between one woman and another is as old as the hills but the concept of ‘lesbian’ as a recognised and distinct sexual orientation is largely a twentieth-century construct. Throughout history, homosexual women have formed romantic and sexual attachments though society has often either ignored these relationships altogether, seen them as harmless and inconsequential, or swept them under the carpet. There seems to have been a perception, largely amongst men (the makers and guardians of the law were men, after all) that because women lacked what was seen as the essential tool for sexual intercourse, viz a penis, they obviously couldn’t have sex with one another. So while male homosexuals were endlessly persecuted under one anti-sodomy law or another, women’s affairs with women, particularly between women of a certain social standing, were largely ignored and not normally subject to the draconian prosecutions inflicted on gay men. However, the medical establishment was wont to label any sexual deviation from heterosexual norms as a mental illness, with no doubt dire consequences for thousands of men, and women too.
Since the 1960’s, the battle for LGBTI rights has been continuous and intense, with many a setback on the way. The particular fight for lesbian rights has inevitably been intertwined with (and sometimes confused by) the general struggle for women’s rights, commonly labelled ‘Feminism’. Gender politics have sometimes obfuscated questions of sexuality, with some women who have sex with women refusing to identify themselves as lesbian or even as bisexual, while other women, whose sexual behaviour might seem not to imply homosexuality, have nevertheless chosen to identify themselves as lesbians - sexual identity, particularly in the context of the politics of feminism, may not necessarily mean the same as sexual orientation or sexual behaviour. Other reasons may also be at play, such as the fear of identifying a same-sex preference in a homophobic or dominantly patriarchal setting.
The image of lesbians in the media would suggest that mainstream society has been variously fascinated and threatened by women who challenge traditionally ‘feminine’ gender roles (cross-dressing female performers in the Music Hall would be an interesting example) but conventional, Christian society has undoubtedly always been appalled by the vision of women in love with other women. Women who reveal their lesbian identity share experiences not unlike those of ethnic minorities and thus they tend to form a similar outlook: as homosexuals, they are unified and ‘ghettoised’ by the heterosexist discrimination to which they are exposed. In addition, unlike ethnic minorities, they face potential rejection from their families, friends, and others as a consequence of universal homophobia. And as women, they are also subject to the same prejudices and discrimination as heterosexual women. Thus, it is unsurprising that lesbians may encounter the distinct physical and mental health consequences that flow from the discrimination, prejudice, and stress experienced by both women and ethnic minorities. Inevitably, political conditions and prevailing social attitudes will, of course, affect the formation of open lesbian relationships and families. At this particular moment, in place and time, things are happily hugely improved although such advances may be precarious - sad to say, recently published statistics indicate that in the three months following the Brexit vote, homophobic crimes increased by 147%.
As they navigate around London, Christine and Jane will certainly be noticed, particularly when they are together; they stand out because of their distinctive and stylish appearance and because they both radiate confidence and joie de vivre. But, as they mentioned themselves, they no longer feel comfortable going on package holidays, or staying at little B&B’s in the picturesque English countryside, simply because they don’t wish to provoke, and have to deal with, the hostile reactions from those who are still struggling to come to terms with human nature as it is. Christine observes: “We now mostly take city breaks in Europe and immerse ourselves in that most fabulous diversity of cultures and peoples. Almost without exception, we know we’ll be welcomed.”
But sadly, the continent of Europe is not entirely gay-friendly: exploring Russia’s historical cities would be a wonderful thing for anyone to do and lots of ordinary people there would no doubt welcome couples like Jane and Christine for themselves, except that gay and lesbian tourists can be accused of importing into Mother Russia the obnoxious perversions of the West. Indeed, gay and lesbian Russians are themselves often mercilessly persecuted. And, sadly, most in the Muslim and indeed the Hindu worlds continue to deny the existence of any possibility that a woman could have genuine emotional or sexual feelings towards another woman, thus forcing thousands of women to live double lives. In Africa too, the authorities in most countries see themselves on the moral high ground, at the forefront of some kind of virtuous campaign to make the lives of gay men and women absolute hell. Even in South Africa, where the government itself has adopted a far more enlightened stance, what is referred to as a ‘corrective rape’ has reached shocking levels, with around 10 lesbians being raped or gang raped every week, while hundreds of others live in fear of the same fate. As for the USA, the picture is wildly mixed: some states are undoubtedly in the vanguard of LGBTI rights, whereas in others, repressive legislatures and intolerant social attitudes generate very worrying statistics, with the rates of mental illness and suicide amongst young LGBTI people being a serious cause for concern.
Christine and Jane are happy in London because as individuals they have rewarding and satisfying jobs and, as a couple, they can honestly be what and who they are; this is where their home is. They say: “We feel we help to make up this diverse city of ours.” And indeed they do. It was a delight to photograph them, having been welcomed so warmly into the home they share with their two cats who, unlike their mistresses, proved to be somewhat camera shy.
Text edited: 16 March 2017
Page modified: 17th March 2019