Review: 'Rebel Dykes' Explores Queer London in the 1980s

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 17, 2021

'Rebel Dykes'
'Rebel Dykes'  (Source:Frameline)

In the opening minutes of this powerful documentary we hear a voice that says, "We were young, working-class and poor: We were dykes, NOT lesbians." It is a statement of fact, but there is a slight edge to it, which we take as a warning not to misinterpret who this group of queer women really were.

The film starts in the early 1980s, when a group of women set up a Camp outside the RAF Military Base on Greenham Common in the UK. They were ostensibly there to protest the fact that the Government was allowing the U.S. Military to store nuclear Cruise missiles there. The camp attracted headlines around the world, and ended up lasting for 19 years. However, one of the participants remarked, there was a point when the emphasis was on exploring lesbianism that actual protest

What politicized lesbians more (and, in fact, the whole LGBTQ community) happened later that decade when then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced Section 28 in Parliament. It was an obnoxious law that prohibited the "promotion of homosexuality" by local authorities. It created an atmosphere of fear for the safety of any gay person on the street, but it also coincided with the empowerment of young gay women who started a whole squatting movement in the rundown area of Brixton

They identified as queer or dykes, who outwardly, at least, seemed fierce as they tried to essential get the same facilities and bars that gay men had assumed as their right by then. They came from the world of punk, and from art schools, and the very last thing they wanted to do was recreate the discreet semi-closeted queer spaces like The Gateway, London's oldest and only lesbian bar.

A group of them wanted to create their own space where they could not just celebrate their sexuality, but be able to experiment and explore S&M fetishes. The result was "Chain Reaction," a weekly event held at the usually boys-only Market Tavern gay bar, with its blacked-out windows, which hosted mud wrestling and baby oil wrestling, and even live sex acts.

As the participants look back now reliving their memories, their faces light up, showing their sheer delight. However, their success at the time also brought opposition, and soon the bar was picketed by lesbians who self-identified as radical feminists who decried all the sexual activity. They called themselves Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), and it was obvious that they would never be able to concede that the "rebel dykes" had the right to enjoy themselves in this way.

Interestingly enough, quite a few of the WAVAW women were the same women that had been part of the Greenham Common lesbians for years.

Lisa Power, an activist and co-founder of Stonewall, made a very succinct comment (that as a gay man I would never dare to have said): Power said that at this point, there was a complete lack of humor in the lesbian community. Also, she claimed that lesbians were so far woven into mainstream society that they were no longer lesbian.

However, we can see from the documentary that back then the dykes were picked on by other lesbians who would go as far as labeling them "Nazis" if they insisted on wearing butch leather jackets

Even though the documentary ends with a "Where are They Now" section, and most of the women seemed enveloped in some form of respectability, they still come over as good-spirited and still anarchic — and funny! It's just that their fierceness has mellowed.

Kudos to filmmakers Harri Shanahan, Sian A. Williams, and Siobhan Fahey for making this fascinating record. Our queer history so needs to be told, so we can all remember the journey that others have made on out behalf.

"Rebel Dykes:" is screening at Out On Film Atlanta

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.

Out On Film 2021

This story is part of our special report titled Out On Film 2021. Want to read more? Here's the full list.