Directed by Harri Shanahan and Siân A. Williams
Reviewed by Chael Needle
ebel RDykes is one of the best documentaries I have seen in a long time. The interviews, animation, and archival footage all come together to create a portrait of women navigating sexuality, affection and kinship in post-punk London of the 1980s. Directed by Harri Shanahan and Siân A. Williams, the film provides clarity and context, a history lesson about a largely forgotten community made vibrant and compelling from the first frame to the last.
With the help of interviewees Debbie, Roz, Fisch, Seija, Baya, Del, Lulu and producer Siobhan (Fahey), among others, the documentary takes us back in time to meet their younger selves and the wider group of “rebel dykes,” often poor, punk, working-class, as one interviewee describes them. Fighting isolation and the laws that conspired against their existence, they search out each other and build community through love, sex and friendship. They live, work and play in a grittier, less-safe-than-now London, facing dyke-bashers and white supremacists if they go out, especially at night. As interviewee Yvonne says, “It was dangerous just to be who you were in those days.”
Women forged bonds along political lines, first at the anti-nuke Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, whose different encampments at different gates attracted different groups of lesbians, and then at Chain Reaction, the first lesbian BDSM club, another space where women could come together to connect and explore and form family. To fight for who they were and who they might become, rebel dykes started clubs like this as well as DJ nights and cabarets and bands. With a DIY sensibility, they initiated Black-led spaces, kink-friendly spaces, women-centered spaces, polyamorous spaces. They started motorcycle clubs and sex toy businesses, made art, and published lesbian erotica magazines. Sex positivity was key. They gave themselves “permission to play.” They were defiant and protective of their community and their spaces. As one banner in the film read: No One Fucks Us Over.
They also responded to HIV/AIDS. Some had to raise awareness that yes, indeed, lesbians were at risk for acquiring the virus and how dental dams were important for safer sex. Many joined their gay brothers in fighting against AIDS inaction as well as against Section 28, which outlawed the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities across the U.K.
While many of the interviewees championed their own openness to and embodiment of the continuum of sexuality and gender identity, they were often critiqued (is S&M a tool of the patriarchy?) by others who sought to secure one version of lesbian sexuality and/or one version of feminism. Either fearful of obscenity laws and/or mindful of the politics of feminist erotica, LGBT and women’s bookstores refused to carry Love Bites, a photography book by Della Grace that celebrates the women who rebelled, in leather, in tutus, in the streets, between the sheets, in each other’s arms.
Rebel dykes resisted the policing of their sexual expression by the larger LGBT and feminist communities and in this sense became pioneers of radical self-definition and intersectional attentiveness that queers today may take for granted. The film is a tribute to this special tribe and a torch for anyone who wants to pick it up and carry it forward.
Check out the Rebel Dykes History Project CiC, the accompanying Impact Campaign which combines an archive, art and film to “preserve, explore and share the archive of a bunch of kick ass post punk dykes who shook up London, UK in the 1980s,” as the film’s literature describes it. A Rebel Dykes exhibit is currently running through September in London. More here: rebeldykeshistoryproject.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. He writes fiction and poetry when he is not editing. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.