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No Secret Anymore: Lesbian Life Stories by Jane Traies

Recent works have attempted to address the dearth of contemporaneous Lesbian life
narratives; a void which auto-ethnographic texts attend to, but hardly satiate.
Such oral histories have been studied in contrasting contexts by Stella (Lesbian Lives
in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Post/Socialism and Gendered Sexualities), Clunis,
Freeman, Nystrom, and Fredriksen-Goldsen (Lives of Lesbian Elders: Looking Back,
Looking Forward), Taylor (Working-Class Lesbian Life: Classed Outsiders) and more
recently Traies (The Lives of Older Lesbians). And while insightful, and frequently
poignant, historical reconstructions of such women have been presented by the likes
of, among others, Brooten (Love Between Women), Velasco (Lesbians in Early
Modern Spain), Beccalossi (Female Sexual Inversion), and Faderman (Surpassing the
Love of Men) it is through the aforementioned works that the voices of our
foremothers are animated and accentuated.
Traies presented a popular talk in the Victoria and Albert Museum for LGBT History
Month where she shared some of these beautiful oral histories. It is on that which I
focus.
As a note, Traies reminded us that our shared past is not uniformly pleasant (or,
indeed, particularly pleasant at all) but she chose to focus on more jovial stories of
ordinary women, born prior to 1950 in the UK, for her presentation. One need not
look far for the disheartening and oftentimes tragic stories of Lesbian history.
Traies’ contention is that, though the LGBTQI+ umbrella is to be celebrated for its
diversity and inclusivity each identity is unique and each has a history. She wants to
reflect and project the voice of “ordinary folk”, especially those who may otherwise
never be heard. Life stories allow diversity to flourish and be heard.
Her work suffered from the hegemonic exclusion of women’s voices in general, and
Lesbian’s stories in particular. She reminds us that “public life makes recorded
history” (particularly the public life of the elite) and as such women, who were often
constrained to the private sphere, are disproportionately underrepresented.
Traies expounded some four anecdotes, each of which moved and inspired.
Her first, in many ways, revealed the power of secrecy – or at least the power of the
forces which enforce secrecy. Even beyond death, and even at a rather queer
funeral, the deceased was not ‘outed’ – her history, and her relationships, were
unspoken of. While brief, this story struck an unnerving chord: it encapsulated Traies’
message about the potential loss of history, and the need for openness,
communication, and such histories to be recorded.
Her next two life stories came from women with rather different backgrounds. Both
were born at around the same time (c. 1920). Both had early rejections from the
women in which they first felt attraction. Both married. But their experiences beyond
this were truly unique: one was a North London, middle class, Jewish woman, while
the other was a working class Midlander. One, as was common for women of the
time, “sort of drifted into marriage” because “that was what you did, then”, while the
other was more financially independent, working for the War Office during the War,
and lived in a flat with other young people (though she did – briefly – marry too). The
former had a family, and could not bring herself to leave them even when meeting

women whom she adored. The latter had a greater flexibility in her Lesbian identity
in youth, having several lesbian relationships.
Interestingly, these women had quite different experiences in later life too.
The one who may have been considered more carefree in youth was more reserved
and secretive about her history than that of the woman who had been married for
many years. The former remained in the closest, hiding her sexual orientation from
her straight friends and family. The latter remained secretive of her feelings for
women while her husband was alive. But, as it happens, upon his passing, and with
the help of a warden in her housing, she ‘came out’ to her family.
Another, younger, woman’s story was briefly detailed. Her narrative highlighted
various intersectional identities. In particular, those regarding sexuality, race,
religion, and wealth. This woman was born into an Indian family and was raised in an
African-Asian community. Her family was wealthy, meaning she was sent to a
boarding school in England. Her cultural and religious background kept her ignorant
of her sexuality. It was not until years later, when she became identified with the
Women’s Movement, that she met other lesbians and had relationships with women.
In contrast with some of the other women, she ‘identified as a lesbian more out of
political reasons’ and even questioned whether she should call herself a lesbian.
Traies impressed upon us that every story is different. There are a plethora of
overlapping intersections of identities and experiences: economic, religious, race,
educational, disability, nationality, etc.
In spite of this, and other differences, there is a sense of collective identity. Perhaps
the shared experience of sexual stigma, homophobia, and other prejudices, allows us
to hear the stories of generation’s past and feel a connectedness. However, histories
are in danger of being lost, especially within the queer community which does not
seem to have the same intergenerational story telling techniques as other
familial/community units. Traies urges us to pass the history on: the stories need to
be told. More precisely, the stories need to be heard.
In the brief Q&A portion Traies answered questions on identity and language. In
particular, she revealed the disapproval of some of her interviewees with the notion
of a bisexual identity, noting that older generations have had a (rather essentialist)
language given to them: “I am ____”.
In contrast, and since we can only be what we have words for, modern LGBT+
individuals are far less stringent with their (possibly post-structuralist) language. This
difference, however, may have been catalysed by the post-Wolfenden, postdecriminalisation, UK’s (slowly) growing acceptance of LGBT+ identities: since
identity is important when you are not allowed to have it.
Overall, Traies’ talk energised me. Encouragingly her work is to be published in both
an academic and popular format. She brought forward important reminders about
the intergenerational (and even intra-generational) differences in the experiences of
queer individuals. Finally, she calls us to not lose our history, a pertinent message for
LGBT History Month.