Cartoonist and writer Kate Charlesworth tells Carrie Lyell about her graphic memoir, Sensible Footwear 


If you don’t recognise Kate Charlesworth’s name, you’ll definitely recognise her work. A cartoonist, illustrator and writer born in Barnsley in 1950, her work has appeared in the likes of The Guardian, New Scientist, Pink Paper (RIP) and, of course, DIVA. Her latest book, Sensible Footwear, is a graphic history of lesbian life from 1950 to present – and a bloody gorgeous one too. 

DIVA: How did the book come to be? 

Kate Charlesworth: Years ago, perhaps in the late 1990s, I had the idea of making an LGBTQI history of Britain. Everything, everyone, the whole enchilada between the covers of one book – and in pictures. I thought it was needed because so many events – in their moment, often profoundly important – are overwritten by the constant stream of news and history. The minutiae of lives and times are even more vulnerable to time’s arrow, and I wanted to make a record of at least some of our LGBTQI lives, as individuals and communities – that parallel universe invisible to the world of heteronormativity. A few years later, realising Plan A (Everything) was plainly impossible, I made Plan B (A Lot Less Work – or so I thought). I decided to use the thread of personal memoir as a linking device to the history; 1950, when I was born, to the present date. Still aiming to cover the LGBTQI spectrum, but from my very definite lesbian perspective.

It’s a fantastically detailed yet accessible record of LGBTQI history. Was it tricky deciding what to include? 

It was, and inevitably, there are omissions. My mantra had to be “you can’t include everything”. Memoir was an excellent and legitimate filter, and I hoped that my choice of icons – including Nancy Spain, Dusty, Billie-Jean King – would stand as representatives for everyone’s icons, just as the writing of one memoir implies the existence and validity of countless others.

In the prologue, you say “we need to know our history” and that in 2019, that need “seems urgent”. Can you say more about that? 

I couldn’t know, though I always hoped it would never happen, that there would be a such worldwide swing to the right. Even since beginning the book it’s ramped up appallingly; witness homophobic attacks in the UK on the rise – again. Knowing our history can alert us to potential dangers by understanding the warning signs; the knowledge of their consequences should make us very concerned – as we’ve gained so much, equally we have so much to lose.

Sensible Footwear really highlights how much has changed for LGBTQI people, but it also struck me that many of the conversations we were having in the late 80s and early 90s, particularly around education, we seem to be having again. Why do you think that is? 

There will always be a section of any division of society which is hard-wired to be be homophobic. The more equality we achieve, the more they vent their opposition, and the likes of Trump are giving them permission, were it ever needed, to voice their bigotry. LGBTQI people, being members every race, section, and creed of society, are the canaries of the world; we test the temperature of bigotry. And it feels like re-inventing the wheel. The same arguments have to be re-explained, again and again, and here organisations such as LGBT History Month play a particularly important part in education. 

Some older lesbians I’ve spoken to are frightened by the pace of change, by trans issues, and the folks who make up the “Aurora Queerialis” so wonderfully illustrated in the book. How do you feel about that?

Yes, it is challenging for lots of us older lesbians – any change can be, and it’s hardly a coincidence that this particular pace of change seems to mirror the mushroom growth of IT and social media. I think lots of us do jolly well to keep up… The existence of a spectrum of sexuality took quite some time to be recognised, and as a lesbian coming out in the pre-punk 70s, my choices were incredibly limited – basically, to a binary butch and femme, and much suspicion of anyone who seemed not to comply. Trans folk have, patently, always been present in the LGBT acronym – even when the “T” was silent – and silenced. Towards the end of the book, I’ve tried to depict a spectrum of sexualities and genders in the Aurora Queerialis, partly because my task in making this book has been to observe. We’re in a society in which so much, at present, is possible in the way human beings perceive themselves to be, how they might wish to live, and I’ve tried to document that. I’ve also tried to celebrate the creativity, diversity, strength and wit I’ve seen there. Though I do hope our stocks of gorgeous, proud, young butch dykes never goes into decline…

Kate Charlesworth

The world – and indeed our community – seems very divided at the moment. What can history teach us, do you think, about how to move forward from here? 

In the 1980s, the “Lesbian Sex Wars” was both divisive and damaging; some lesbians decreeing what other lesbians should and should not do, in bed or out of it. That’s a simplification, but it took up much valuable time and energy, caused unnecessary distress and, eventually, was subsumed by time and other priorities. Division only really seems to be truly bridged by dialogue. Northern Ireland, South Africa – still works in progress, but what extraordinary progress it has been. Bearing examples like this in mind could be helpful to us, as the shutting down of debate appears to be the most unhelpful element. “Divide and rule” might be a cliche, but it’s a real dynamic, and nobody from our community will benefit in the current climate of wider society. 

Some strips from your early life are very personal. Was it difficult to revisit difficult periods in your life and open up like that? 

In some ways it wasn’t difficult; they’ve never been parts of my life I’ve tried to repress, and most of it was an awful long time ago. It’s more, perhaps, that it was strange, sometimes moving and sometimes bittersweet. Literally beneath the text layer is the drawing, for which I “acted out” each character – think myself into my six-year-old self, or that of my 32-year-old mum, and then render the subsequent emotion and physicality in a drawing. I wanted it to “look real”, to have a layered sense of veracity – I used photographic reference a lot. Caricature doesn’t come easily to me, and I didn’t feel a “cartoon” look would suit everything in the book – so that’s how it was. One hard thing which did arise in drawing was the realisation that I’d just recorded that moment of guilt and shame, that shadow that can last a lifetime. 

We get to know your parents in the book, and learn about your relationship with them. What do you think they would make of Sensible Footwear? 

I’m afraid they would have been appalled. My mother, particularly, would have been shamed. I couldn’t have published it while she was alive.

You’ve had an incredible career, as we see in the book. What’s next?

Thank you. Well, my partner Dianne and I have been mulling over a joint comic project for some time, and I’ve other ideas I’m starting to think about – some comics based, others not. Perhaps taking ideas, images arising from Footwear into different mediums… And, maybe a little animation project with my Footwear co-star Jackie Cockle, to make us laugh. But it’s early days. I still haven’t tidied my room.

This interview originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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