DIVA digs into the history of the lesbians who gained a reputation for fixing up derelict homes
BY PHOEBE IRIS, IMAGE BY NIKOLA STOJADINOVIC
We’ve all heard the stereotype that lesbians love DIY, but did you know the history behind this idea?
Social media has made DIY more accessible than ever. A recent Tiktok trend saw queer creators boasting their “homosexual audacity” and the belief that they possess “Any and all required skills to complete whatever project (I’ve) set my mind to, despite having no previous experience.” After all, “Who needs skills when you have gay?”
But “homosexual audacity” isn’t a new phenomenon. A 2014 YouGov survey revealed that 77% of lesbians and 72% of gay men were confident in their abilities with IKEA furniture, compared to 48% of heterosexual women and 58% of heterosexual men.
Although the concept of ‘homosexual audacity’ is largely intended to be tongue-in-cheek, when we look back at the history of lesbian DIY culture, this TikTok trend may really be onto something.
First, some context:
London, 1979. Ten years after the Stonewall riots and seven years after the first UK Pride march. Between 1941 and 1992, London’s population shrank by over a fifth. To put this in perspective, East London borough Tower Hamlets shrank from over 600,000 in 1901 to 139,996 in 1981, less than a quarter of what it had been previously. Historians credit the decline to a lack of employment opportunities, poor housing and air pollution.
The mass exodus from the city left properties empty and unattended, leading to many people entering and living in these residences illegally. It is estimated that 20 – 30,000 Londoners chose to live this way during the mid-70s. Groups of women began living together in the abandoned properties, congregating in areas such as London Fields and Broadway Market, Hackney, Caledonian Road (Kings Cross), Ladbroke Grove and Vauxhall. In London Fields alone it is estimated that there were around 50 women-only households.
Communal living in the squats offered women benefits and freedoms that they may not have had in other areas of society. It was a practical solution – the free housing gave women, many of whom were on benefits or low wages, freedom from traditional expectations. They used the squats to collaborate in cultural and social enterprises; writing poetry, creating art, playing hockey and engaging in political activism.
One such activist was Lynne Harne, author of two books about lesbian mothers and the law, who lived in the squats in the 1980s.
Speaking in interviews about her time there, she said: “Childcare was shared…even our clothes were shared, so if you didn’t get there early enough, you got the worst clothes.”
Harne also pointed out that, “Even if women who moved into these squats were not lesbians at the time, they swiftly became so.”
Christine Wall, author of Sisterhood and Squatting in the 1970s: Feminism, Housing and Urban Change in Hackney, lived in a squat in the 70s. She explains how vital the lesbian community was to the squatter’s movement:
“The collective energy of young lesbian feminists underpinned the many women-only households and squatting communities which appeared in Inner London at the time.”
So, what does this have to do with DIY?
With no men around to stop them, the women took it upon themselves to learn the skills required to make their homes habitable. And they were great at it! Lesbians gained a reputation for fixing-up derelict homes, with people going out of their way to alert them about empty houses that, if left to rot, would lead to rat infestations.
This mutually beneficial arrangement contributed to women’s entry into the building industries, and by the 1980s there were directories of women in the trades. These directories included skills such as electrical and building work, plumbing, car maintenance and carpentry. The organisation Women and Manual Trades was established in 1975 to help women gain access to these industries.
In 2023, ONS figures revealed that of the 2.1 million people currently employed in construction, just 15% are women, despite a recent survey revealing 1 in 4 women would be open to working in skilled trades.
Today, as the UK faces a massive labour shortage, this author can’t help but feel they’ve overlooked an obvious solution: call in the lesbians!
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