Socialist Worker

Rebellious defiance in the face of Thatcher’s bigotry

New documentary, Rebel Dykes, remembers the exuberance—and febrile politics—of London’s underground lesbian movement, writes Nicola Field

Issue No. 2780

Rebel Dykes mixes archive footage, photography and animation

Rebel Dykes mixes archive footage, photography and animation


Six years in the making, Rebel Dykes is a hilarious tribute-on-speed to a defiant DIY London lesbian subculture.

The film is adrenalinised by sounds of Riot Grrl, Queercore and post-punk. It packs archive footage, animation and photography with present-day interviews. They feature performance artist Fisch, trans activist Roz Caveney, the “mighty” DJs Sleeze Sisters (Trill and Pom), photographer Del Grace and Britpop guitarist Debbie Smith. 

In the 1980s, working-class ­lesbians escaping provincial isolation found a politicising environment of openness, youthful exuberance and sex-positivity.

This was the era of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council. It was abolished by Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher ostensibly for supporting ­lesbian and gay rights, and the first “gay lessons” in schools. 

Being sacked, evicted, assaulted, arrested or having your children removed because of your sexuality were routine.

Nevertheless, a lesbian grapevine was being outstripped by ­experimental women-only nights at gay pubs and clubs.

Emerging from the anti-nuclear Greenham peace camp, the Rebel Dykes, with anarcho-punk style—it was possible then to live on benefits—forged a sex-positive anti-franchise.

It culminated in the Chain Reaction fetish club at the otherwise all-male Market Tavern in Vauxhall, south London. The film delivers with eye-popping footage—check the spaghetti-wrestling!—and reminiscences.

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With the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike in 1985 came a tragic detour from the crucial question “who is our enemy?” 

One former separatist recalls, “I wouldn’t even get a male kitten.”

Some accused the Rebel Dykes of flirting with fascism. Like all political movements, it was full of contradictions. 

I was a Rebel Dyke. I took drugs, wore studded wristbands and DMs. Trill and Pom clipped my hair.

I saw this community care for its vulnerable members, and learned how sexual freedom connects with opposing privatisation, the NHS cuts and war.

As veteran activist Lisa Power asserts, the campaign against Thatcher’s vicious Clause 28—which prohibited “the teaching of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” united the LGBT+ splinters. 

Alongside mass demos, rebel dykes abseiled in the House of Lords, and invaded the BBC.

Thanks to the Labour party’s betrayal, Section 28 became law. But a new class unity was born, which is not acknowledged in this film.

Activists in teaching and government unions, of all sexualities and gender identities, opposed Clause 28 tenaciously. They were able to build on the equalities policies pushed through by the National Union of Mineworkers in 1986. That work continues today.

This film, a must-see contribution to LGBT+ history which positions itself lovingly within the subculture it explores, is accompanied by an exciting educational archive at rebeldykeshistoryproject.com

Rebel Dykes is in cinemas and online on BFI Player and Bohemia Euphoria from 26 November

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