We have a rich history that needs to be remembered


Before I went to university, I spent two years interning for a drag artist on Manchester’s LGBTQIA scene. I went into that experience eager to join my community, and to live my queer coming-of-age movie montage. 

Instead, I left it wondering how a community so famous for its inclusivity could still have problems with sexism. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I did have a coming-of-age experience – one that many queer women share.

I started reading about LGBTQIA history in the hopes of finding women who were like me. The only lesbians I had seen in the media were two-dimensional; they were either hypersexual to appeal to men, or, if they were smart and opinionated, they were also masculine. As a feminine lesbian with political opinions and an interest in fashion, I felt somehow “unqueer”. But, by delving into history, I’ve learned that queer women have always been more complex than that and that there would be no LGBTQIA community without us.

Take one of the most pivotal times in modern queer history: the AIDS crisis. I considered myself well-versed in that era, but it wasn’t until I started asking where the LGBTQIA women were during that time that I realised we had been instrumental in ending the crisis. 

When medical staff refused to treat AIDS patients, it was often queer women who cared for them, who comforted them. When patients needed blood, it was queer women’s organisations, like the Blood Sisters, who stepped up. The Blood Sisters ran blood drives and, crucially, came out to give blood themselves. When the San Diego Blood Sisters ran their first drive, almost 200 queer women came out to donate.

Little has been written about these women, and what has been written owes its existence to the fact that, as radical as they were, they also fit the gendered role of the caretaker. But women in queer history have taken on a vast array of roles. The Lesbian Avengers, founded in 1992 by lesbians who had been involved with the AIDS crisis but felt undervalued by the wider community, have received barely a footnote in history. Neither have the women who floated condoms over prison walls to protest the exclusion of prisoners’ voices from the conversation around AIDS. We should be talking about The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian-run rights group created by a working-class Filipina woman, Rosalie Bamberger, responsible for The Ladder, a newsletter to educate women about lesbianism. 

It’s not enough to add a token lesbian into a listicle about LGBTQIA historical figures. We need to start discussing queer women as a cultural and political force in themselves. 

Discovering our history gives queer women a cultural heritage that validates our role in the community and our right to be political. It also provides the wider LGBTQIA community with the knowledge that if we continue to write out queer women, we will lose something which has been vital to our survival. 

In my role as an ambassador for Just Like Us, I talk in schools about my journey. I explain that I’d never seen myself in other lesbians, so I gravitated towards the people I thought were like me; sparky and political and flamboyant. I didn’t think lesbians could be like that.

But learning about lesser-known LGBTQIA history has taught me that queer women are sparky, and political, and flamboyant. We’re also brave, and smart, and outrageous, and brilliant, and we’ve been that way throughout history. 

This LGBT+ History Month, do one thing for queer women: look for us. 

Ask where we are in the stories you read and the films you watch, and question how we’re portrayed. It won’t fix the sexism in our community overnight, but noticing the places where women are missing is the first step towards writing us back into the story. 

Deia Penn is an ambassador for Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people’s charity.

DIVA magazine celebrates 28 years in print in 2022. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQIA media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable. 


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