In our fourth interview for Lesbian Visibility Week we spoke to Coline Lacome (she/her), Co-Chair of L’Arène des Fiertés in Nîmes, France. With thanks to Erykah G Werner for translation.
What does ‘lesbian visibility’ mean to you, and why is it important?
What Lesbian Visibility Day means to me is, first, the recognition of our existence: Whether in society or within queer communities, lesbians are very little visible. In some parts of the world, our existence is to be annihilated. Representation is limited to a minority of courageous lesbian activists who dare face a hostile society at their own risk. And in parts of the world where there is an opening of cultures and legal protection, the representation of lesbians remains highly minimized compared to that of cisgender gay men.
Second, the recognition of our history: The memory of lesbians’ contribution to LGBTQIAP+ rights remain invisible. Visibility is about sharing and recognizing our history, our capacity for front-line engagement, for support for the LGBTQIAP+ community, and the value of L in LGBTQIAP+. I am thinking of the erasure of lesbian health workers who were the only ones who agreed to treat sick gay men during the beginning of the HIV epidemic, for example. This day makes it possible to bring forward the ingratitude of cis gay men that persists to this day. The only thing they did was to put the L before the G in the LGBT acronym.
And third, the recognition of our realities: Research and data on lesbian realities remain extremely scarce. Yet violence, including violence within queer communities, stigma, and discrimination against lesbians is very real. The erasure of these realities is reflected in the ability to defend our rights. The recently published Égides report highlights the low number of lesbian organizations in the world as well as the lack of resources to support programs dedicated to the promotion of lesbian rights.
Thanks to the mobilization of lesbians, both within civil society and in the academic world, we were able to quantify our lived experiences and carry our voices to stakeholders. International lesbian organizations, such as EL*C for example, create spaces for meeting, collaboration, visibility, mentoring, mobilization, reflection, and action to support lesbians’ rights defenders living in Europe and Central Asia. It was through this organization that I discovered Alice Coffin, a figure in the struggle for lesbian rights in France and a role model.
This day is important to make both our existence and our resilience visible, and most importantly, it allows us to project ourselves into the future.
Have you, personally, experienced exclusion as a lesbian? What happened?
Yes. My most striking experiences of exclusion happened within queer organizations where: I was erased, I saw my skills and life experiences as a lesbian woman minimized, and even silenced. As a woman in a lesbian relationship, my intimacy was not respected. I was called at undue times without consideration for my personal time while on the other hand it was forbidden to disturb gays during their romantic dates.
More often, I witnessed the mistreatment of marginalized lesbians such as lesbians living with disabilities, lesbians of color, transgender, intersex, and non-binary lesbians. I have watched with horror “TERF” debates, I have also witnessed violence against bisexual people who continue to be invalidated within the queer community.
I talked about erasure earlier, in France, apart from organizations that work on queer immigration issues, lesbian refugees do not have the opportunity to enjoy the public spaces that I regularly frequent. And I support their need to create their own resistance organizations.
As an activist, I hope, one day, to live up to all the people who have experienced horrible things because they are lesbians. These lesbians all come before me.
Lesbians often feel that they are excluded at Pride events. Have you experienced this? Why do you think this happens?
I recently applied to be elected on a board position in a Pride organization. My candidacy was rejected by the acting board two years in a row without any explanation. I mention this now because it is very recent. However, the first time it happened to me, I talked to more experienced lesbian activists who confirmed, alas, that my case was not isolated. Far from it. The reason remains that lesbians are systemically excluded from decision-making positions within queer organizations. Once, I even witnessed the “lynching” of a volunteer identifying as lesbian of color after she dared to ask the organization to consider transitioning into equal and inclusive representation within leadership. However, in 2022, I remain perplexed by Pride organizations struggle to adopt equal representation on their boards of directors. The few times I’ve been able to sit on the board, I’ve learned to navigate around gay inner circles where real decisions were made over a drink in a bar, usually right after board meetings. I was never invited. I read in an article that I was not the only one to suffer from sexist exclusion.
In the city of Montpellier, most lesbians know the story behind the erasure of the first lesbian marriage in France. I am not sure that they are known nationally, and they remain absent from the “global” history of lesbians. Yet the whole world knows about the first French gay married couple who made headlines in 2013.
Although in North America, the lesbian March has become a tradition in most Prides, this is not so much the case here in France. And when we try to organize lesbians’ events, we must face the discomfort of gay cis men. In addition, few Pride organizations highlight issues that are specific to lesbians such as access to health care and its share of inappropriate curiosity or lack of adequate care.
Finally, there is the lack of events reserved only for lesbians during Pride. This stems from our systemic exclusion from Pride organizations. Therefore, the young lesbian that I was, who discovered prides, also discovered sexist spaces -bad jokes- in Pride parties and other events. As much as I was amazed to discover the local queer community, I was astounded to discover lesbophobia simultaneously.
What does your Pride do to ensure lesbians are visible and an integral part of your events?
I am the female-identified co-chair of the Réseau des Diversités Francophones, the international network of Prides and assimilated events in French-speaking territories. The functioning of the organization includes non-mixed working groups, including a lesbian working group. The working groups operate autonomously and are composed of concerned members, volunteers, concerned non-members wishing to develop an event, a project, or a dedicated training, etc. As a working group, we are considered experts on lesbian rights issues. We assume a consulting role and the power to guide the Network’s actions to make these issues visible. Combined with representations to the Council, working groups ensure the active participation of lesbians in the organization’s decision-making process.
I am also a member of the national network of queer people identified as women and non-binary people working in French diversity marches. We are committed to the challenge of making lesbians visible but not only within Pride organizations in France by:
- parity on boards of directors and the creation of a women’s committees,
- supporting and promoting local lesbian organizations,
- creating non-mixed safe spaces and Pride events.
Finally, I am co-president of the Arena of Pride, a young Pride organization in Nîmes (France), with a mandate as a signatory giving me a role of secretary. I intend to carry my values, as an activist, within this organization and our events.
What would you like to see Pride and LGBTI+ organizations around the world do to increase lesbian visibility?
As I mentioned earlier, lesbians stopped waiting for Pride organizations and other queer organizations to increase their visibility. We have an incredible ability to mobilize and all the skills to do so. This mobilization was materialized by a growth, between 2017 and 2018, of government and philanthropic funding dedicated to the promotion and protection of the rights of lesbians around the world.
I dreamed of a lesbian march and my wish was granted when, on April 26, 2021, thousands of lesbians, concerned people, and allies participated in “The Lesbian March” demanding access to Medical Assistance in Reproduction (ART) for all. This march was historical in France. I hope that there will be more of them in the country, and I hope above all that I will have the opportunity to participate in one.
That said, to increase the visibility of lesbians, it is crucial that Prides and queer organizations create spaces for lesbians’ voices to talk about issues that affect them. We still see far too many cis gay men who speak out about ART, corrective rapes, lesbophobia violence and discrimination. That’s ridiculous. We exist, our bodies exist, and as far as I know we lesbians are the experts. In addition, these men, in their good will, the erasure of lesbian diversity. On the issue of ART – a popular topic in France right now – we rarely hear about the experiences of lesbians of color (to name just one example). So why not just pass the microphone to them and let them talk about this issue?
Ultimately, I think the sexist culture of “minimizing” lesbian issues is systemic within LGBTQIAP+ organizations, including Prides: this misconception that lesbian discrimination, healthcare access, safety, physical integrity, mental health, personal and professional development are “lesser urgent” issues than that of the rest of queer communities. It is urgent and necessary that queer organizations do the deep work required to deconstruct these biases. Especially since lesbian rights violations take place every day of the year, including on April 26.
What’s your most cherished ‘lesbian moment’ at a Pride?
There are several precious moments.
When I attended my first Pride and saw that other lesbians existed, and they smiled at me. It was a moment filled with emotions. Representation is very important. Even though there were many different people around, I only saw lesbians, like me.
The second moment was when I met Marsha H. Levine, who founded InterPride in 1982. I met her in 2016, in Montpellier. That’s when I decided to get involved in queer rights advocacy. I felt small and lazy. This person, their story, and their experiences, inspired me. When I thought of all the sexist assaults she must have faced, I stopped complaining and redirected my anger into activism. I feel grateful for the legacy that all lesbians who came before me left behind so that I can be visible. This person received a medal in recognition of over 40 years of activism while I am still in the infancy of my commitment.
The third moment is the discovery of “lesbian caucuses” within International Pride networks such as InterPride in 2019. These caucuses are spaces of resting, healing, rebuild, benevolence, meet and transmit. I never miss these annual meetings that give me the strength to persevere as an agent of change and the hope to achieve these changes.
And finally, many lesbians are at the forefront of efforts to support the LGBTI+ community in Ukraine. What is your message to them?
I am delighted with this question, which calls for many others.
The United Nations is now witnessing an upsurge in global conflict and violence. Civilians continue to be the first victims of armed conflict. The UNIRC (UN Regional Information Centre for Western Europe) published an article in May 2021 reporting alarming statistics concerning civilian victims of armed conflicts during the year 2020.
I am a member of InterPride, I have followed live and read testimonials from lesbians in Ukraine. I recommend that we let them speak and not speak for them. We must make the people concerned visible.
I also recommend checking out the resources of EL*C (Eurocentralasian Lesbian* Conference), an organization that supported the LGBTQIAP+ community in Ukraine long before the war. In addition, you will find the interview with Alice Coffin giving an overview of EL*C’s humanitarian efforts both at the Polish border and in France.
Lesbians have always been at the forefront of mobilizing for the LGBTQIAP+ community. They are not waiting to be helped and they will continue to act.
I am glad that Lesbian Visibility Week exists, because we lesbians need a date in addition to March 8.
L’Arène des Fiertés takes place in Nîmes, France on 9 July 2022. Read more here.
Look out for our next Lesbian Visibility Week interview tomorrow!
Header image: Paris Pride 2021, Norbu Gyachung